Script and thumbnail below the fold!
Girl By Moonlight! The much-awaited magical-girl genre based Blades in the Dark variant from Evil Hat games, made by Andrew Gillis (and a bunch of other people, don’t forget them). You know Blades in the Dark? No? Well, there are a bunch of other videos I’ve done about the game system, even when talking about other systems. The super brisk description is that it’s a fail-forward, fiction-first open-sourceable TTRPG that’s really good at driving stories based on their genre markers and the way stories in its vibe feel, with really good systems for breaking some of the ‘rules’ of tabletop RPGs, most significantly in who determines how players do things, and whether the flow of time is linear.
And it’s not.
It’s about magical girls! What are magical girls? Well, sometimes they’re magical and sometimes they’re girls, but also they’re not necessarily either of those things, even if they are magical girls. A magical boy is still part of the magical girl genre, because genres are dumb. Magical girl shows have a super interesting long form lineage that reaches back, no jokes, to the 1960s American sitcom Bewitched, and well at least that’s what TV Tropes tells me and why would they lie? Anyway, the genre isn’t something built out of a single high concept, but rather lots of individual signifiers that show a relationship within a space, and oh boy, we’ll get to that later, because there are more magical girl shows than you think.
Girl By Moonlight stakes a claim on this front real fast, by using a genre system to describe the type of game you’re going to play. Sure, you can start with the classics of the genre, your Universes Steven and your Moons of Sailor, but there’s also a genre form for the Dark genre of Magical Girls, like… well, Puella Magica Madoka. But we’re not done there, with the addition of space-faring, mecha-based magical girl shows, where people have mecha powered by love and friendship. This is your Escaflowne style magical girl story, where your feelings can change reality. And then there’s door number four, where we get a mix of conspiracy and cybermagic. If you know Lain, or Paprika? Those kinds of magical girls.
As I write this script, Girl By Moonlight is not out. Not out out. It’s out, in that if you go to backerkit and pledge to pay, you can get a pdf of its current state, and I think it’s a good deal. It’s a really high production value project as it is right now, at least by my standards. Consider all the time I spend reading indie TTRPGs off itch for this channel where I sometimes feel the need to bully a book for having a twenty page long index or having its character creation in the back half of the book. I recommend you check it out, if you are at all interested in Blades in the Dark hacks like Brinkwood and Scum and Villainy.
That opinion, however, is the opinion of someone who has a pretty healthy bookshelf – both digital and not – of RPGs I don’t ever expect to get to the table. I have no experience with putting Girl By Moonlight on the table, and I don’t intend to grab it because it’s a different lick of paint on a game I already know I like. There are plenty of those, and two of them at the top level of production, — Band of Blades and Thirsty Sword Lesbians — completely miss me because I don’t find the flavour of the narratives they offer interesting.
No, I want Girl By Moonlight for two important reasons:
- I know a bunch of magical girls, and I hope they think it’s neat, and
- It two-for-ones a problem I have with Blades in the Dark and neatly smacks out of the park the single biggest concern I have with the philosophical footing of a story ‘about Magical Girls,’ in how it handles Trauma.
Trauma in BITD
In the base game of Blades in the Dark, trauma conditions are a byproduct of accruing too much stress. When you take Trauma, you get one from the core list:
- Cold: You’re not moved by emotional appeals or social bonds.
- Haunted: You’re often lost in reverie, reliving past horrors, seeing things.
- Obsessed: You’re enthralled by one thing: an activity, a person, an ideology.
- Paranoid: You imagine danger everywhere; you can’t trust others.
- Reckless: You have little regard for your own safety or best interests.
- Soft: You lose your edge; you become sentimental, passive, gentle.
- Unstable: Your emotional state is volatile. You can instantly rage, or fall into
- despair, act impulsively, or freeze up.
- Vicious: You seek out opportunities to hurt people, even for no good reason.
Now, these are all presented to you as trauma responses. So much so that if you play in a way that reflects your trauma, you get XP for it. These are incentivised choices for your character as responses to trauma, and uh…
What if you were already haunted?
What if you already were a Leech with schizophrenia who heard voices, but was handling it? You didn’t get XP for behaving like you had schizophrenia, but if you do get it as a trauma and it starts causing problems for you, then you suddenly get XP for acting that way.
It’s not that Blades in the Dark doesn’t have room for someone who has these conditions to start with, but the only concern it has for people with these conditions are the ways they make you worse at your job, the way they represent a ticking clock on your overall lifespan. It’s not like these conditions can’t be traumagenic, either! But when the only presence of a thing in the game rules is explicitly as a traumagenic impediment that you’re meant to play up to emphasise the lack of time you have left, it does outline that in this space, if you want those conditions not as drawbacks like that, then you probably should have the drawbacks.
On the one hand I can understand entirely how Blades in the Dark got there. It seems at first like an interesting idea, where the experiences of failure and loss in this marginalised, oppressed state leaves you all broken up and shaken. Thing is, that’s a thing that you experience when you’re someone to whom these are externalities. They’re not lived experiences, so the idea of developing a new modality of living can feel as if it’s only something imposed. And vitally, because it’s meant to represent a depletion of a resource, these traumas can never be overcome or accommodated.
That’s a bummer! It’s not something I think of as a fundamental hard problem – no advocate for the rights of people with these conditions would ever dare to advocate for the position that nobody ever gains these conditions traumagenically. It’s entirely possible for your story to be one about absorbing these punishments, suffering and then deciding to tap out of the attempts to change your situation.
That doesn’t have to bring with it these trappings, this language and framing of these things as fundamentally unrecoverable losses of self. I mean, heck: The nature of Blades in the Dark, where three strikes and you’re out, indicates that about two thirds of the rogues you deal with are going to be people who have these conditions who get to be perfectly good experts at their job.
Anyway, so, I don’t like Trauma in Blades in the Dark.
Magical Girls And Me
There’s a phenomenon in magical girl discourse, and I say phenomenon because it’s a fancier way to say ‘stupid idea.’ And I want to make it clear here, audience of mine, that I am talking primarily about and to dudes, who want to talk about Magical Girls as a genre, and specifically about the concern, the struggle of being ‘taken seriously.’
This isn’t a story for everyone.
This is a story that maps out in my life.
Let me tell you about Magical Girls, as a fixture in my life.
The first experience I had with magical girls was on free-to-air TV in the 1990s, before school, when I could watch unsupervised in a room in a school building, waiting the two hours before the other students got there. There were two duelling shows, Cheez TV and Aggro’s Cartoon Connection. In any given bracket, you had to pick between which of these kids’ TV shows were going to put up, and there were clear winners and losers depending on the time.
I didn’t realise it at the time but I was becoming a big anime fan at this point. Particularly, the dubs of Teknoman (Tekkaman Blade) and Robotech (A bunch of shows, really) were screened this way, and I loved those shows. There was continuity, they had these building stories, I really liked them. And in this space, there was this show…
Sailor Moon made me uncomfortable. I liked watching it, but also, I didn’t like how the voice acting felt. I remembered feeling a lot like there was something artificial or fake in the voices, the way they sped up talking in ways that didn’t seem right. I didn’t realise I was already noticing bad voice direction. But it was a show about cute girls and one of them was kinda dumb and I felt like I shouldn’t be watching it, because it was a show about cute girls and I liked that.
As a direct result of that – and being teased by other students who found out about me watching it, let’s not pretend I arrived at this conclusion entirely on my own – I watched Sailor Moon, but not much of it. I wasn’t here for a story about these girls who changed forms to reveal superpowers, I was busy watching much better, more interesting stuff like Transformers, and Power Rangers.
As I grew into an anime fan, as I watched more of it, I wound up watching very little Magic Girl stuff. What little stuff I saw tended to be something I avoided, and it was a thing over there. It was a show type that I didn’t engage with because they weren’t for me. They weren’t interesting. They didn’t have interesting things in them. I did watch Mahou Tsukai Tai, which is absolutely a magical girl show, but I did watch it because I was trying to impress a girl and then had a crush on a boy in it.
The genre? Nah. Didn’t do anything with it. It didn’t really exist. It was over there. It was girl stuff.
Then I watched Madoka, and I want to say I had complex feelings on it. Because I didn’t really click with it, and I missed some important details (I didn’t see the ending and openings, which added information). I think I just didn’t like it very much, but then, I think to impress a girl, I tried to spend a lot of time thinking about it. But that meant I was positioned to see Madoka become A Subject, and a subject enjoyed by and extolled by a lot of people like me.
There was this particular form of discourse you’d get where dudes would talk about something in a general sense like they were experts, they’d even deliver their opinions with the cadence of a 4chan post, and people who didn’t recognise it, who thought of these opinions as serious, considered and almost from a sort of gutter expertise. It didn’t stand out unless you were steeped in those places to realise that most of what that voice meant was that the person had already laundered The Opinion back and forth enough to see if it was Adequately Acceptable to the hivemind of Default Boys.
And they thought Madoka was great.
Because Madoka was dark.
Because Madoka was a deconstruction of the magical girls genre.
It wasn’t bad, like other magical girl shows were. It was a real magical girl show. It had guns and it was cool and it was badass and the whole thing was all about sacrifice and trauma and to be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Madoka. The yuri is extremely subtle, and without a solid grasp of time travel physics most of the narrative will go over a typical viewer’s head.
And I mean that made sense to me at the time. It’s a deconstruction, I told myself, that’s why it’s complicated, and then I said that aloud, and that seemed like a smart opinion to have. Hell if I know now, really, if I knew or thought that was true then. Because it’s not really a deconstruction if it’s just doing things other Magical Girls shows are doing, and I don’t know what other Magical Girl Shows are doing. I could tell that it was different, in some way to what I expected, and rather than examine that, or consider my expectations or my own ignorance, I asserted that this Magical Girl show was good because it was not a Magical Girl Show.
There’s a wikipedia article on the genre of Magical Girl. The most recent show in that simplified list that I’ve seen is Madoka. The next most recent magical girl show I watched was My-HIME, and if you’d asked me if My-HIME was a magical girl show I would have laughed about how it obviously wasn’t. The girls have mecha and I like that show. Utena? A magical girl show? No it’s a psychological horror story that deconstructs the idea of the handsome prince narrative. Slayers? No, Slayers is a gag fantasy anime. They’re not Magical Girl shows, despite being very much about girls who are magical.
they’re something else.
These definitional arguments are part of why I’m so dismissive of definitional arguments these days, by the way. That’s all we were doing. We were looking at media we liked and a label we didn’t like and tried to shoulder-charge our way around it so it doesn’t count as being a Magical Girl series. I tried at the time to argue that Magic Knights Rayearth didn’t count because the characters didn’t transform properly!
Point is, we could tell Madoka was different. We couldn’t tell why, but we could tell it was better, and we attributed the way that Madoka was better was the way it was serious, and that seriousness was expressed, very consistently, in that Madoka was traumatising. People acted out of trauma, trauma was inflicted, characters were trauma babies and even the ending showed that healing wasn’t possible – the only way to escape the trauma was to forget it ever happened. Isn’t that tragic and serious and, you know, good?
And this is the ‘stupid thing’ I wanted to talk about: That we legitimised interest in a show for and about girls only because of how we asserted its reliance on trauma. The concerns and interests of girls in other stories (which we also did not watch) were not important, because we did not value those stories, because, we said, they were not traumatic. Trauma gave us the edge to grip a hold of this work, and to treat it as important.
Total Eclipse Of The Arc
Girl By Moonlight doesn’t use the Trauma system.
It does use something a bit like it, but not really.
In Girl By Moonlight, instead of trauma breaking your character, you get instead a system called Eclipse. Eclipse is explicitly a phenomenon of the Magical Girl. It is a thing that happens to your magical girl characters, because they are magical girl characters, and they relate to your archetype, your place in the story.
Eclipse is there to generate the moments that fit your role in a story. Eclipse is a representation of struggling with inner turmoil under stress, it’s not explicitly linked to psychological trauma in the same way. It can be a mistaken impression, a belief formed out of seeing the wrong thing at the wrong time. In fact, the core expression of Eclipse by the rules text is that they are not about your brain doing you wrong, but rather, about responding to the way society demands you comply. Girl By Moonlight is a game in which your characters are taught to hate themselves by society.
And we live in one of those things.
Eclipse is also different from Trauma in that it presents an opportunity for someone to help grab you out of the condition. Players can spend energy and effort on keeping you from falling into Eclipse, and that has a low-key sneaky side effect of ensuring that most characters hover near the same amount of stress and the same proximity to Eclipse… which does mean you can have stories about a catastrophic sequence of failures or a story about people pulling each other back from the brink in a darkest hour.
There’s more to the game book of course! It’s not as simple as just ‘Hey, it’s Blades in the Dark with one different system!’ The way that the group share a genre sheet, not a gang sheet, that signifies that the story centres around you, and you’re not one of a group of types? That’s great! Or the way that the Eclipse system stacks, and you can be Eclipsed in Eclipse and therefore, be lost. The archetypes are great too, with every character positioned to consider themselves and their alternative identity, as a creative act and if you know me, you know I love me some ‘heroic identity as a creative expression,’ gosh dang.
Girl By Moonlight is currently available on Backerkit, I like it, and I like some of the choices it’s making in its systems. I like what it’s thinking about and I like how it’s different from Blades in the Dark, which I also like. And even if you don’t check it out and find a new favourite game, consider what kind of things you’re assuming are necessary for a story to be worth respecting.