Fraser Simons, Ary Ramsey, Michael X. Heiligenstein
Falling into a tub smelling of cigarettes and gin only to be transported to a magical land would teach anyone something, right? Girl Underground puts you in the shoes of the companions of a young girl who enters just such a place. But it also has the players embody companions that act as different lenses to interrogate various themes in line with the genre. Fiction like Alice In Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Labyrinth, and Spirited Away.
Knowing little of the genre, I wasn't sure what to quite expect other than the knowledge that it attempts a lens often not seen in RPGs; especially because it aims to empower the main character as the players all take time playing with agency. As an alternate lens to the girl the companions help reinforce these goals. Pyrion, the last of his regal kind as a phoenix, was my own character and companion to Penny, the girl. My moves enabled me to contribute to the fiction with tales of the past, to help Penny be courageous, and try to circumvent obstacles despite my inability to fly—all things which enabled me to flesh out Pyrion over two sessions of the playtest. Why was he the last of his kind? Why couldn't he fly anymore?
The girl is the only one able to deal with obstacles and address challenges. She has manners she is beholden to but can be subverted, which yield new beliefs forged from these experiences and are the direct result of her agency. When a witch in a shack tells you what to do, "Young ladies must never complain about their duties." is subverted and becomes "Adults always say one thing but mean another." When you're held captive in a fantastic hall, and prince charming and a man in a peacock costume give you tea that tastes like your wildest dreams or try to regale you with never-ending tales (literally) of their own bravery, "Young ladies never make demands" changes to "I matter as much as anyone" when you tell them to stuff it and take off. There is just no time for tea. Even if it tastes like everything good in your life and you think about that tea every second of every day...Anyway~~
Throughout play, the girl and her companions encounter embodiments of the things young girls and women face in their daily lives. Societal strictures and gender performance, and a lot of things I often don't think about as a white male with a lot of privilege. All people and creatures and jerk tooth fairies speak to you, well, like a 12 year old girl. They tell you what to do and what to think. Sometimes subtly, sometimes not. And conflicts, at least in our playtest, never resulted in physical altercations. This is something I love in RPG design in general, but in this game it is particularly satisfying because subverting expectations is what the game is about.
Penny helped her companions as much as they helped her. The sheer act of discovering Pyrion was help. He was chained to the ground by villagers who feared his kin, though they were all long dead. The Ogre, Gungun, though physically powerful, was a gentle soul that was being bullied when discovered and later had to face body shame in order to get us out of multiple disastrous situations—all while being the most perceptive one of us all. Skipper, the Runaway, only free so long as she was lost, led the way in compassion despite a lot of exuberant bravado. Skipper found the sea that led to the Crystal Palace and the Queen of Nothing—as Gungun pointed out to her while we tried to evade a magical pact at the bottom of an ocean that could surely drown us at any moment, since it only parted because the Queen willed it.
I was sure that this final boss, this unjust ruler, would be maybe the only physical conflict we would have. But as we talked to the would-be-ruler it was clear that she was as much a girl as us. She, too, had wandered in the halls with the prince and the peacock and was rejected. I'm sure we would have made some slight and be similarly ejected. But Skipper took Penny's hand and ran, even taking with us the prince whose helmet revealed not a Prince Charming, but a young boy of 15, no more mature than any of us. His clothes fit for a man but the only thing the boy could think to do was tell other people stories so that he would feel good about himself. And still we saved him from a then-unknown fate but would have been the same as the queen of the ocean—who walked right into the water to be alone forever.
When Gungun told the queen that she didn't rule anything, and that the sea didn't care about her. He invited her to his home. Then it dawned on Pyrion that his kin surely died at her hand; their obsidian bones lying in this oceans floor for doing battle with a young, lonely queen. He saw his kin attacking something they didn't understand. Their bodies unable to burst into flame because they were wet with the salty sea that killed them and unable to be reborn like phoenixes do. He decided he wouldn't find any real sense of justice for the loss he suffered. He wasn't going to try and hurt and kill something sad and possibly dead, and who was a young girl who maybe didn't understand much of what she was doing. So he forgave her. Penny went home and he and his companions carried his kin's bones to be buried. And when the queen or the witch of the sea walked out from the ocean she crumbled into sand anyway.
Moment of Insight
Girl Underground can't help but express its themes in poignant ways, a byproduct of the design. I love that most moves assume some degree of success, underpinning agency. The fiction, because of the subject matter it's exploring, can then be "as hard as the MC likes." I think it is a clever subversion of the structure of Powered by the Apocalypse games. The companions all have unique and interesting lenses through which to interact with the Girl herself. I like how fast and evocative character creation is for the Girl, as well as the companions (we were the first gangster bootlegger impoverished family). The companions roll with one of the Girl's stats, keeping cognitive load light. The story was fantastic, all as a result from the move outcomes. Especially when posing questions that need answering in service to your companions, and the game's themes, in order to also succeed. Can't wait to follow the progress of the design, it was a great experience!
You can learn more about Girl Underground at https://girlunderground.org.