Kagematsu: romance and privilege in old Japan

At the fabulous Fabricated Realities convention, I played Danielle Lewon’s Kagematsu, which gave me a new perspective romance and gender politics. It messed with my expectations of how a courtship should proceed, and exposed some of my unconscious cultural assumptions.

In this game a female player portrays Kagematsu the wandering ronin, and the male players play peasant women who must entice and woo Kagematsu to convince him to save their village from a dire peril. The women take turns attempting to elicit gestures of affection from Kagematsu, from a stolen glance to a kiss to a roll in the hay to a confession of love, culminating in the promise to aid the village. Whether or not the woman gains the gesture, Kagematsu’s player secretly awards her Love or Pity based onpersonal judgment. Only if Love is high enough will Kagematsu have a chance of defeating the threat.

Our Kagematsu, played by Grace, was a somber scholar who’d come to town to study scrolls on fighting Shadows—the very threat that plagued the village! Daniel played Lady Moonlight, a sweet girl who longed for a life of adventure and leapt at the chance to learn Shadow-boxing from the stoic warrior. Tori played Lady Sparrow, Moonlight’s mother and the town innkeeper, who saw Kagematsu pragmatically as a way to provide for her struggling family. Harry played Lady Cherry Blossom, the village laundress and a lonely soul in need of love. I played Lady Lily, a pariah who got pregnant out of wedlock, then had a miscarriage.

Grace’s Kagematsu was not interested in romance, period. He wasn’t much of a people person at all, actually. By the rules, he would still show affection if a woman won it with a die roll, but gaining Love rather than Pity was a difficult task. It turned out he had a fair amount of Love for Moonlight and Cherry Blossom, though he seldom showed it. As the Shadows closed in on the town, Cherry Blossom committed suicide, never knowing she was Kagematsu’s true love.

For myself, I found it nigh-impossible to gain the ronin’s love. Early on, holding my head high in the face of townsfolk’s persecution earned Lily some respect, but as she sought time alone with Kagematsu and poured out her whole sad story of disgrace and betrayal, the ronin was…indifferent. The most he could manage was a brusque “I’m sorry your life is so hard” before excusing himself and returning to his studies. In the end Lily had less Love from Kagematsu than anyone.

I found this extremely frustrating. I was approaching Kagematsu as a romance game, though a cutthroat one, and thought I had a surefire way to secure the lovin’ for myself, with a heartwrenching sob story. But Grace didn’t play it like a romance game. She played it as a fight-the-shadows game, with Kagematsu trying to focus on serious matters while a bunch of silly women ran around throwing themselves at him. Ultimately he showed the most overt affection to the woman who showed interest in shadow-fighting instead of romance.

This was my second time playing Kagematsu. I remembered that in the first game I played, Kagematsu’s player also ran him as kind of serious and indifferent to matters of the heart. And I found myself wishing I could play a game with a hot-blooded, charming, amorous Kagematsu. And that’s when I realized: it’s not up to me. In fact, it will never be up to me. With Kagematsu’s gender-swapping rules, I will never have a say in what kind of man, what kind of lover, Kagematsu is. It will always be a woman’s job to decide what Kagematsu is like, and what his standards are for courtship. It will always be my job to suck it up and live with that, and strive to make a future for myself as best I can within those restrictions.

Which is exactly the condition of an unmarried woman in the culture that Kagematsu depicts. Kagematsu is not a romance game, per se. Kagematsu is a game about people in the lowest societal position and the most desperate circumstances possible, and what they do to get by. I’m not playing to fulfill some idle romantic dream, I’m playing to save my village from death and misery. I, playing a woman, am using sex and love as my only assets to achieve my goal in a life or death situation. I, playing a woman, will not have my happy ending unless a man (played by a woman) decides to grant it to me.

This is a powerful, powerful statement. The frustration I was feeling was a feature, not a bug. It was a creative friction that made me supremely uncomfortable in all the right ways. It was a challenge to my comfortable male privilege which, even in 21st-century America, is heavily catered to in matters of romantic fantasy. The straight white male is the default audience for so many stories, and nowhere is that more true than in gaming. In video games, when Bioware bucked that trend with multiple gender and sexual orientation options for romance in Dragon Age 2, it was so unusual that it provoked a knee-jerk response (which Bioware thankfully dismissed). And in roleplaying, whenever romance enters a game, it’s typically been in the service of straight male fantasy, conforming to straight male notions of what’s sexy, and straight male ideas of how a romance should proceed.

Kagematsu turned that on its head by making a woman the arbiter of what a male character finds attractive, and letting a bunch of men jump through those hoops just to survive. It was fun, but frustrating. And it told me a lot about myself and my assumptions.

This was a great example of the Unwelcome which Vincent Baker says is the job of game rules to deliver. By supplanting normal social interactions (or at least my personal expectations about how that interaction would proceed), Kagematsu gave me a much richer experience than I could have gotten by playing out a mere romantic fantasy.



4 Responses to “Kagematsu: romance and privilege in old Japan”

  1. July 4, 2011 at 7:59 am

    Very thought-provoking, Joel. Yet another twist on why I might want to get this to a table. Seems like this game is very re-playable, playing with different women as Kagematsu. It will be interesting to see what different Kagematsus want from their suitors.

    It’s cool how rich and re-playable I find these small, seemingly narrow rpgs. In addition to playing Kagematsu finally, I look forward to my third play of Montsegur, my sixth play of Love in the time of Seið, etc.

  2. 2 oberonthefool
    July 4, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I hope to get some more Kagematsu in at GenCon this year. I’ve played twice and it was great both times. Thanks for this excellent breakdown.

  3. July 5, 2011 at 6:43 am

    Hi Joel,

    I found this to be truly fascinating. Most of the games that I have been in (as a townswoman and Kagematsu) there was a much stronger element of romance. I have not heard of many that play so serious, but I have to say I love what your Kagematsu did and I love your frustration! One of the best aspects of the game is the female player having complete control over who her character is and how she can distribute love and pity. I hope you play again with a romantic Kagematsu, I’d like to hear how that affects your opinion of the game.

    -Danielle Lewon

  4. 4 Joel
    July 5, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Thanks, Danielle! I want to clarify that the game wasn’t “serious” in the sense of the mood at the table being somber. We had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs (though we hit our serious notes too). Kagematsu often came off as hilariously awkward. He really just wanted to study scrolls and discuss with the monks how to defeat the shadows, and everywhere he went he practically tripped over all these women trying to talk about feeeeelings! Grace clearly decided from the start what Kagematsu was all about, and didn’t waver from that one bit. When I successfully elicited “a kind word” with my sob story, the best he could muster was a strained ‘I’m sorry your life is so hard.”

    My key to enjoying the game was not taking my frustration personally, and instead viewing it as useful creative friction that was telling me something about myself and my fellow players. I do hope I get to play with an amorous Kagematsu sometime, but the knowledge that I don’t get to decide that and there’s no guarantee makes for some pretty exciting uncertainty.

    Thanks for the amazing game!

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