Thursday, June 6, 2024

Review: Girl by Moonlight

A game about courage, companionship, introspection, and lots of warm fuzzy feels

In case the evocative title or the gorgeous cover didn't make it obvious, the TTRPG Girl by Moonlight (based on the Blades in the Dark system) lets you roleplay heroic adventures as a costumed superhero with sparkling magical powers. One would typically call this a magical girl setting, although the term is not meant to be literal:

This text uses 'magical girl' as a shorthand, but your magical girls need not be girls, necessarily. Rather they are people whose identities put them at the margins. They must conceal their true selves, conforming to the world's suffocating expectations even as they work in secret to transform them.

The chaos of teenage emotions is baked into the mechanics: along with the power of Transcendence,  which lets the player character transform into the best version of herself, there's also Eclipse, a condition during which she's vulnerable to her own insecurities. As explained in the introduction to the rulebook, the most important villain for a magical girl is not a specific evil individual, but the pressure of social conformity. This is where the allegory for queer marginalization is made explicit, and where the game director can (and, indeed, is encouraged to) milk all the drama inherent to secret identities. Accordingly, the player characters' most important superpower isn't a ray of burning light, but friendship. Even the Monster of the Week has a heart in need of healing.

As a game focused more on narrative devices than on crunchy math, it offers four playable scenarios, corresponding to four flavors of heroic fantasy:

  • At the Brink of the Abyss is about bright optimism—the text namedrops Sailor Moon for comparison.
  • Beneath a Rotting Sky is about the futile fight against a painful destiny in the mold of Madoka Magica.
  • On a Sea of Stars is a space opera with giant robots and endless angst.
  • In a Maze of Dreams is a surreal dystopia set in the collective hallucination of cyberspace.

Each of these scenarios comes with a list of theme-appropriate superpowers, its own chain of missions, and instructions for the game director to give the setting its distinct flavor.

Campaign preparation is a process of consensus between the game director and the players, from the worldbuilding to the stakes to the choice of tone. Players don't start creating their character concepts until after completion of these steps, in order to ensure that characters will have a firm grounding in the setting of the story and in their shared ties. Also, each player contributes their own secondary characters to flesh out the setting.

To keep the action flowing, the rulebook advises to "start in season two," that is, skip the origin stories and assume the superheroes already know one another. There are 7 PC archetypes, each of which occupies a specific position in the social dynamic of the superhero team: the Enigma (e.g. Zorro), the Guardian (e.g. Optimus Prime), the Harmony (e.g. Captain Planet), the Outsider (e.g. Wolverine), the Stranger (e.g. Entrapta), the Time Traveller (e.g. Sailor Pluto), and the Unlikely Hero (e.g. Madoka). To add depth to these roles, each PC has Promises, which summarize their general feelings about other members of the superhero team and guide how they'll behave toward them during play.

The format of a game session is divided in four phases: Obligation (following the superheroes' mundane lives in their civilian identities), Downtime (exploring who these characters are when they aren't within view of adult authorities), Mission (it's morphin' time!), and Fallout (dealing with the aftermath). This sequence follows a standard narrative arc of escalating tension followed by dénouement, which is the same structure of a superhero TV episode. And just like superhero shows, several game sessions are grouped in a season, with a large-scale plot and a big, dramatic finale.

"Player Agenda" is a fundamentally important section of the rulebook. It describes the designers' recommended style of play, one based on collaborative narration, emotional openness,  normalization of queer perspectives, radical empathy, unattachment to fixed plot points, and rejection of grim nihilism.

PCs' effect on the fictional world is systematized through nine predefined actions: Confess, Forgive, Perceive, Express, Defy, Empathize, Conceal, Flow, Analyze. Often, more than one possible action will seem appropriate to the situation; even if a character has equal scores in two different actions, which would seem to make the choice indifferent, which one is used in the moment will color the story with a distinct emotion and will reflect the character's identity in a particular way. This is a great implementation of the general storytelling principle that character is revealed through choices.

The game uses 6-sided dice to resolve actions, rolling as many dice as the character has points in an attribute, and adjudicating success according to the single highest result (although rolling more than one 6 adds benefits to the success). The difficulty of the task is then determined by negotiation between the director and the player, depending on the PC's degree of control over the situation (there's a scale for that) and how much can be achieved with the selected action (there's another scale). There are ways (including multiple forms of teamwork and boosted morale from intimate bonds) to increase the chances of success, sometimes at the cost of extenuating effort or a future misfortune. An interesting part of these rules is that the game director announces the consequences of a failed attempt before the player  even rolls the dice. This part of the game system has the function of systematizing dramatic stakes—for both limb and heart.

That's all fine and dandy, but the main event of the show is, of course, the transformation into a superhero. In Girl by Moonlight, this is called Transcendence, and it's very explicitly a symbolic representation of the moment a character embraces the full self that ordinary society would prefer to keep suppressed. In mechanical terms, this unlocks better chances of success in action rolls against the supernatural, as well as access to specialized abilities depending on the genre of the story. This state lasts for a fixed number of actions, at the end of which the PC returns to normal. Each PC can use Transcendence only once during the Mission phase of the episode.

The rules give players considerable power to steer the plot, including ways to directly facilitate other players' success despite not being themselves present in the scene, or to avoid negative consequences for their characters, or even to insert a narrative flashback where preparations were made for a specific bad scenario. This dynamic requires a strong trust between director and characters, who are expected to work in consensus to maintain the intended tone of the story. It may sound counterintuitive for superheroes to have so many ways to de-escalate or obviate direct combat, but that's the essence of the magical girl genre. Although this is an adventure game, PC actions are heavily oriented toward interpersonal connection. Yes, you're fighting evil by moonlight, but the whole reason for doing so is the people you care about. Magical girls wear their hearts on their sleeves.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.