Years ago, I used to write game reviews for a now-defunct site called Robot Lasers. This was one of those reviews.
IN COMES THE WANDERING RONIN
Kagematsu is a game about romance and desperation set in feudal Japan. Kagematsu is a wandering ronin who comes upon a town which is threatened by someone or something as decided by the players. The women of this town attempt to win Kagematsu's love so that he will vanquish the threat and save the town. The most interesting thing about Kagematsu is not it’s subject matter, but rather the highly gendered lens through which that subject matter is viewed.
There isn’t much to say about the game’s mechanics, and there is a lot to say about the game’s process, so let’s get this out of the way. The mechanics are clear, coherent, and simple. They do exactly what they mean to and nothing more. Even the slightest glance at the meaning of their implementation shows thematic insight (such as Charm vs. Innocence – as you lose Innocence you gain Charm, which is a statement about gender and sexuality). Townswomen will attempt to win affection from Kagematsu through either their Innocence or their Charm by making an Affection Roll.If they fail, they can try and pressure Kagematsu by committing an act of Desperation. Following the scene Kagematsu will add either a point of Love or a point of Pity, at his discretion, to his overall impression of the Townswomen.
In addition to winning whatever act of affection the Townswoman was seeking, a successful Affection Roll will reduce the Townswoman's Fear, which may in turn make it more likely that Kagematsu will defeat the threat, should a confrontation take place.
The killer app of Kagematsu is that the text asks a woman player to take the role of Kagematsu and everybody else to take the role of a Townswoman. The Kagematsu Player is “Scene Manager” and has the first and final say on scene framing, but can also delegate a portion of scene framing ability to the other players if they choose. Kagematsu can even frame the Townswomen into scenes, saying what they are doing and where they are doing it. On the flip side, the Townswomen may never speak for Kagematsu. Even if the Kagematsu player allows a Townswoman Player to set the scene, it is still up to the Kagematsu to enter that scene how he will. Finally, my reading of the texts suggests that it is not in the spirit of the game for Townswomen Players to offer suggestions on scene ideas until the Kagematsu Player asks for their input.
However, the Townswomen decide which affection they are going for, which is resolved by a die roll. Which means that Kagematsu has no say over that – only how it comes to pass (if it does) and what he thinks of it after.
PLAYING WITHIN AND AGAINST CONSTRAINTS
There are a number of observations one can take from those data points.
First of all, it is a very gendered statement. Kagematsu has all the narrative power, and the Townswomen just have to fit it however they can. However, Kagematsu also has the responsibility to frame scenes. Let me tell you, Kagematsu is looking at framing probably forty to fifty scenes. Half that would be exhausting. Which means, that despite the asymmetry of power distribution between the genders here, it actually sucks - in one way or another - for everybody. This is a play critique of gender inequality and how, by performing this form of oppression as a culture (which we certainly do) we do harm to the whole of our culture.
Second, it is also interesting to note that for all of his narrative power, Kagematsu does not have control over his fate. It’s dice rolls all the way down for him, and his success or failures are blind to his input. He may color his actions, but ultimately he will be ushered through his destiny with no choice and no voice. Even the Townswomen get to choose whether or not they die, but not Kagematsu.
The Townswomen, however, ultimately succeed not based on the die rolls, but based on Kagematsu’s Love for them, which is completely independant of the Townswomen’s success at the die rolls (though Desperate actions may inspire more Pity than Love).
In fact, winning an Affection Roll has two mechanical effects, lowering Fear (which helps Kagematsu, not the Townswomen) and Acts of Desperation (which, if used to win a roll, are somewhat more likely to each Pity instead of Love for the Townswomen, and actually work against her), and neither directly help the Townswomen. The only way a success on a die roll helps a Townswoman is if the fiction described afterwards changes the tone of the scene so that the Kagematsu Player chooses Love over Pity. But, since Kagematsu gets to say how that transpires, Kagematsu would be leading the conversation in which he convinces himself that he loves this woman. So I am going to maintain that the outcome of die rolls has only a small effect on the overall success for a Townswoman.
Which means that the Townswoman finds her success in her fictional actions and the actual roleplay by the player. Which means that her actions in game do have a direct impact on her success. For not having any voice in other parts of the game process, the Townswomen have the only voice here! This “judgement mechanic” that weds the fiction to the eventual outcome is super slick. That it is also used in the inverse of the rest of the mechanics to complete this gendered statement is quite remarkable.
THE LEGEND IS PASSED DOWN
I have only one gripe about this game – for a one shot, it takes quite a while to play through to it’s natural conclusion. if you hunker down for a full play, expect six-ish hours. This is one of the rare cases where I think deliberately limiting play to four hours actually improved play. We effectively added a rule that at 9:25 Kagematsu abandons the town. This really encouraged the players to frame strong scenes and play right to the point. It was very tight and had more energy that the full “natural” play I was in a few nights later. It’s not exactly to the spirit of the game, but it did focus our play to a very beneficial end.
I would highly recommend this game. There is a reason Kagematsu has a legacy of influence in the story game world. This one is definitely staying in my bag as a go to game from here on out! As long as the players remain conscious of the deliberate division of player responsibilities then you are likely to have a wonderful game. This was quite possibly the best one-shot game I played in the last several years.