Kagematsu is a game about shame, honour and love. It tells of a wandering ronin who ends up in a Japanese village in 1572, during the Sengoku era. All the men are at war, and only children, elders and women are left. The village is hard to defend. Everyone is afraid that the village will be devastated by an outside threat. It’s the women’s job to persuade the ronin to stay and defend the village.
Kagematsu, the lone male character, has to be played by a woman. That’s a rule. The rest of the players can be women or men, but I’ve played twice, and both times they’ve been male. Both games rank among my best roleplaying experiences.
The game focuses on seduction. The women characters have two active stats, Innocence and Charm, with seven points divided among them in any way. The women are after shows of affection (called Affections, in short) from Kagematsu: a stolen glance, a kind word, an introduction, a kiss, and so on. Some Affections you can only get by Innocence (a confession of love), some by Charm (a roll in the hay), and some by either one. If you succeed at the task with a single roll of dice, you lower your Fear. That’s the third and final stat, and the only use for it is in the end, when Kagematsu fights against the total Fear score of the women.
So you want to lower your Fear by succeeding at the die roll. If the woman’s player rolls more than Kagematsu’s, she lowers her fear score.
You also want to gain Kagematsu’s love. But there’s no die roll for that. Instead, Kagematsu’s player makes a subjective evaluation on the scene, and decides whether your character receives Love or Pity. Love makes your subsequent rolls a tad easier, and Kagematsu uses the power of his most loved woman to fight the final battle. Pity, on the other hand, only has a psychological effect: it’s a different thing entirely to decide between a) giving a Love point or not giving any point at all and b) giving a Love point or a Pity point.
So as the woman’s player, you need to plan your way to Kagematsu’s favour. Probably your plan goes haywire. It seems so simple: first you make a good first impression, and then slowly get acquainted and gain his favour. But you can only try gaining each Affection once. What if you fail at making a good first impression? What if all your easier tasks fail, and it seems to you that Kagematsu hates you? How can you then get him to both touch you and love you for it? (It’s possible to gain extra dice by getting desperate. Desperations are a neat little mechanic which I won’t get into here. Basically they improve your chances at die rolls at the very real risk of gaining pity.)
It’s insanely challenging and gratifying! After the second game, one of the players uttered that the game is way more tactical than D&D4. In some games, waiting for your own turn while the others are playing can be a bit tedious, but here it’s not. You have to pay attention to what’s happening between the other women and Kagematsu, and what Kagematsu might be like, and what your next approach is going to be like.
And that’s only part of the fun. The theme and the unusual setup are sure to be provocative. I’m sure each player has her or his own thoughts about stuff, and they’re sure to differ from game to game. At my first game, this July at Ropecon, I thought a lot about representing female characters. When a woman explicitly evaluates how you play, at least I reflected intensely about how I portray women at roleplaying games on the one hand, and how I should play them on the other. Some of the game’s mechanics also emphasise the reversed gender roles: the women’s players don’t ever get to say how Kagematsu enters the scene, for example. It might not sound like much in theory, but if you’re as active at the gaming table as I am, it packs a nice psychological punch by forcing you to accept a more passive – in traditional terms, a feminine – role
The second time we played, I put a lot of my younger self to the woman I played. I made her an innocent, well-disciplined but shy 17-year old who tried to gain favour by gaining sympathy. She made a good impression on Kagematsu, who seemed to be a lot more sympathetic to her than to other characters; but in the end, Kagematsu who was quite old, couldn’t commit himself to someone much younger, to someone who reminded him of his past. It was heartbreaking! And a lot more personal, too.
The characters go through a lot in the game, and I don’t think it’s possible to stick to your initial character concept unless the dice really favour you. In the first game I had really bad luck with the dice and had to get desperate. I took Kagematsu for the Mr. Darcy type and tried lizziebenneting him. I failed miserably and loved it.
If it sounds uncomfortable, weird, and awkward, it can be! Especially the first session felt really weird and awkward. But not once did I feel threatened, or humiliated, or judged. It’s due to the players in part (thank you, Emmi and Laura), but also, I think, to the nature of the game. Kagematsu’s player doesn’t judge your attempt at being charming, but your character’s. They’re not wholly separate, but it becomes quite clear, quite soon that the character’s path isn’t necessarily the one the player wants. It’s a valuable experience to feel both vulnerable and safe at the same time.