I got to play Kagematsu!
Kagematsu is a GM-less game set in Fantasy Feudal Japan. It deals with issues of gender, etiquette, romance, love and manipulation. It looks awesome and I wanted to play it something fierce!
Kagematsu takes place in Japan, 1472, in and around a small unnamed village. This period was known as the Onin no Ran, and it was a time of internal strife. Most of the village’s men have gone off to war, leaving the women, children, elderly, and infirm to fend for themselves. Now a dangerous threat casts its shadow over the village, and without a defender, its people are almost certainly doomed.
Enter Kagematsu, a wayward samurai fleeing a troubled past. Here is a defender, if only he can be swayed from his course. So it is that several young women conspire among themselves to win his affections…
I got a VOIP game going so I could try it out and was joined by three brave men willing to play women trying to seduce a man.
The mechanics are fairly simple, you can check them out here. If you’d like to listen to an Actual Play example first, you can check out the awesome AP MP3 from the Jankcast (that play is certainly what convinced me to put it on the top shelf).
We made a very stereotypical farming village with a river and a windmill and we took a look at the townswomen:
- Mitsuru: A woman past unmarriable age who is a jack-of-all-trades, left to fend for herself after her brother had taken off with their savings.
- Kimmie Kai: The 16-year old laundry girl who is sick of this town, but can’t get out, and doesn’t have any real goals in her life (I joked she was the feudal Japan version of a goth girl)
- Sumiko: The innocent 15-year old daughter of fisherman Kenji, the only man left in the town (who was crippled and couldn’t go to war). She has a younger sister Aiko who hero-worships her.
Meanwhile, our Kagematsu was a middle-aged man with poor looking clothing and an old horse. He arrived in the village slumped over his horse with an arrow between his shoulderblades.
I was hoping to tie Kagematsu in with one of the three professions of the ladies, but I could hardly say he had come to the village to have his laundry done! :) Mysteriously wounded it is!
Then we set up the scenes, which turned out to be quite easy to do. The player decides to go for a particular favor from Kagematsu, he rolls the dice for the appropriate stat (charm or innocence), while Kagematsu’s player rolls dice equal to the challenge rating of that favor. After each scene, Kagematsu’s player assigns a point of love or pity to the townswoman. Amusingly, the first rolls went badly, so Kagematsu turned into a grumpy ronin that clearly needed to warm up to the villagers!
We played 21 scenes in total, I fished most of them out of the actual play:
Mitsuru‘s scenes revolved around her many jobs around the village. We saw her gathering insects, sewing kimono, chopping wood… Lowell was playing her so charmingly I kept forgetting we needed to roll before Kagematsu could take a liking to her!
- A smile: Mitsuru is snubbed while taking care of Kagematsu’s horse – Kagematsu simply ignores her presence as samurai are wont to do, and even re-brushes his horse after she had finished caring for it.
- A compliment: She presents him with the gift of her brother’s kimono, padded to withstand the cruelty of winter, which Kagematsu politely refuses twice, and she knowlingly offers three times. Yay, courtly manners! Kagematsu compliments her hospitality and her handiwork.
- A lasting impression: She shows him her insect catching grove in the forest and Kagematsu (after an offer of shoes) escorts her back to the village.
- A er… kind word?: Mitsuru is again taking care of Kagematsu’s horse, but this time he awknowledges her and compliments her on her work.
- An introduction: Mitsuru shows him the grave of the priest that has tried to help them with the forest’s anger and perished doing so. She explains how life has been for them and asks who he is. Kagematsu explains that he has no other name to offer than the one she already knows – he is ronin. A very nice dramatic samurai scene.
- A touch: Kagematsu teaches Mitsuru how to chop wood and their hands touch when he explains how to hold the axe. She rushes out, flustered.
Kimmie Kai‘s scenes revolved around her playing hard to get, being very unmannered and trying to seduce the samurai. Kagematsu scolded her lack of manners, but clearly admired her ballsy and witty nature. Jan (not my Jan, someone else’s Jan) played her perfectly! It was really great to have a character in there that doesn’t bow and grovel.
- A stolen glance: She humbly presents him with his kimono that she had washed and mended, and manages to get Kagematsu’s attention.
- A compliment: Kiimmie plays hard to get in the tavern, but succeeds in catching Kagematsu’s attention despite (or because) of it. He approaches her in his cleaned kimono and compliments her on ‘the thing you did with the sleeves’.
- A secret told: Near the pond Kiimmie tries to uncover Kagematsu’s secrets. She shares some of her own, but when Kagematsu refuses to reciprocate she tries another approach: she strips naked and jumps in the pond. When she emerges, he is gone.
- A kind word: Later she asks if he couldn’t not appreciate the beauty of her naked body. Kagematsu sighs and they have a lovely veiled conversation about how “The lotus blossoms only three weeks in a year, and how it’s the waiting that makes the blossoming so special”. Super cute japanese courtier scene!
- A touch: Kimmie dances with Kagematsu and she stumbles into him. He flinches backwards! She scoffs at his fear, and the next round he makes sure to stumble into her, and they touch…
- A kiss: and have a drunken smooch afterwards!
Sumiko‘s scenes revolved mostly around her being a faithful and attentive daughter and a really sweet girl. Alex was playing and narrating up a storm: “I have been playing up the innocence!”
- A smile: Sumiko serves Kagematsu some fish,but he has interest in neither food or her at the moment and gruffly goes back to his business.
- A shared moment: She and her father are fishing. She steals glances at the samurai until he returns one. They lock eyes for a moment until Kagematsu bemusedly flicks his eyes to the water: she had caught a fish!
- A secret told: She shares conversation with Kagematsu after her father nods off and confides in him her young dreams of riding horses and shooting arrows. Kagematsu reciprocates and tells her of the horrors of war and how he is unable to bear them. What a lovely little scene.
- A gift: She sits at the table for Kagematsu’s celebratory meal and, discreetly, under the table, receives the gift of a quiver of arrows.
- A confession of love: Kagematsu teaches her how to shoot the bow but Kagematsu becomes very businesslike trying to honesty train her – and the romantic moment is ruined.
- A promise made: Sumiko goes into the forest herself to hunt, but comes back frightened and dishevelled, attacked by the looming threat. Seeing the threat endanger “all that is pure in the world”, Kagematsu promises to fight it.
It was a very kind courtship phase. People didn’t use a lot of desperations, so the romances stayed romantic and never swayed very far into the realm of threats and maniplation. The threat didn’t make an appearance up until the end. People zoomed back and forth into the chronology, I liked that, gave them more freedom.
As soon as Kagematsu makes the promise, a mist rises up from the forest and a huge spectral wolf shows up and walks out of the forest.
- Kimmie throws iron scraps at it
- Sumiko tries to sacrifice herself and the wolf shreds her
- Mitsuru helps Sumiko’s younger sister and father escape
Kagematsu strikes true but his katana just goes straight through the monster as it tears him in half. The entire village is destroyed and only a few villages manage to escape the carnage.
Perhaps it would have been better to use more desperations and get our fear down, because Kagematsu couldn’t beat the threat in the end. I was crushed! I so wanted to be the hero of the village!
The magistrates coming to investigate the disappearance of an entire village, months later, find a withered corpse with his daisho set, and in his kimono a love letter to his dearest Mitsuru.
In the end Alex’s innocent Sumiko was tied for love with Lowell’s more experienced Mitsuru, with Jan’s assertive Kimi close behind. I felt Sumiko was a bit too pure for a middle-aged ronin like Kagematsu, and that he would feel closer to Mitsuru.
What I love:
- I’ve never seen a game that told stories from a female perspective this well and this lovingly. These are not super sexy rocket scientists or superheroes, these are just normal women looking to get by and the entire game is about them, their lives, their ambitions and their dreams and how they deal with adversity. To me Kagematsu is just a figurehead who brings out these stories. By the end of the game, you are really rooting for these women.
- I love the scene structure – there is a lot of room to set your scenes and act them out. Shy or not-as-loud people can easily step into the spotlight because of it. Everything about the game promotes dialogue and small gentle moments over combat and action.
- The game tells a real story! So many indie games end up being a ball of crazy fun but when you take a step back and look at the story you’ve created, it is often unimpressive and very incoherent. Kagematsu creates a very nice and modest story with relatively deep characters.
- I love that the first few scenes of the game often don’t feature any talking at all. That subtle play is so samurai, and so beautiful.
- I love the mechanic of assigning love and pity to characters after scenes. I realise now it’s more of a safety feature. At least for me: all the characters were so wonderful I found it impossible not to shower them in love points. But that’s a good thing!
These really feel like teeny-tiny nags to a game I am completely smitten with, but others might put more weight on them:
- The game is intended to be played with a female player as Kagematsu, but the Kagematsu role is fairly heavy and can be intimidating to inexperienced female players. Kagematsu is in every scene and thus never gets any downtime to prepare or plan his next moves, the player is responsible for a lot of the scene framing and and generally guides the scene to it’s conclusion. Knowledge of genre convention certainly helps too. Of course, everyone can help out (it is a GM-less game after all), but I would have to see how that plays.
- When you play a scene, there is no connection whatsoever between how you play the scene, and the die roll that determines whether you succeed or fail. This isn’t really a problem. You still get a viable reward for your roleplay, namely the point of Love. But it can feel a bit weird if you have a scene with insane chemistry and fail, or a horrible scene that succeeds.
- The courtship phase is the meat of the game, but it the turn sequence can start to feel a bit static after a while. Yes, you are building a really nice story of this village and these townswomen, but you’re really only taking turns like you were playing Candyland. After a few hours, this can start to wear thin. I think on repeated plays I might start with a lower fear value to make the game (potentially) a bit shorter. I’m also very interested to see how a Play-by-Forum version might run.