What is Girl Underground?
Girl Underground is an RPG being written by Lauren McManamon and Jesse Ross. I had the pleasure of playing in a game Lauren ran late in 2018 as a playtest online, and knew then it was a game I’d love to run for people. In early 2019, during Kickstarter’s zine quest initiative, Lauren and Jesse promoted the game by pledging to release it in zine form via a Kickstarter. And that zine came to me about a week ago.
Girl Underground is a tabletop roleplaying game about a curious girl and her strange companions as they travel through a wondrous world, complete a quest, and find the way back home. It lists media touchstones such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Labyrinth, The Wizard of Oz, and Spirited Away.
First off, the zine is fantastic. Yes, they plan to release the game in a more full form at some point in the future, but this release is similar to an “ashcan” or “notebook” release, in that it’s a fully playable, but a cut-down and smaller release. The zine contains exactly what you need to run the game, assuming you have some familiarity with RPGs, and Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games specifically. It has sections on safety, playing with gender in the context of the originally intended setting, and the section that takes you through the steps and timing of the game are just brilliant and should be in so many indie RPGs, I can’t even tell you. It’s the cheat sheet I want for games like this.
As far as some of the basics: The game master is called the Guide, and is there to ask lots of questions, and play all the non-player characters. There is always one main character, which is The Girl. The Girl is played, in turn, by all the other players in the game. Those players also each play a companion character, by choosing a playbook such as The Ogre, The Construct, or The Mythic. Unlike other PbtA games, there are no Stats. There is no XP and advancement as such. But there are Manners… behaviors that society has drilled into the Girl, and told her is how she should behave. And when she overcomes those Manners, she changes them to new Beliefs that she defines. And the more Beliefs she manages to have, the easier it becomes to overcome conflicts and obstacles in her quest to get home.
At Story Games Glendale this past Tuesday I pitched this game to run. We had a few new members, which included Greg and his wife, and regular Aaron. All of them were familiar with traditional RPGs and some newer indie stuff, but hadn’t played games with a shared character. I mean, really, who has? There are a few games that do, such as Bluebeard’s Bride, or Everyone Is John. But this will definitely be one strangeness that folks might have to deal with. Coming into this game with that GM attitude of “ask a ton of questions” and “let the players guide the story” is the one to have. You can’t really fail, and the game is structured and encourages that style.
I then ran this again two days later at my place with some friends, in anticipation of discussing it on Small Game Hunter (part of the Happy Jacks RPG network, where we discuss smaller indie games). The very small tweak I made when running the game was selecting only 6 Manners (instead of the recommended 8, as this seemed a bit much during the last one shot). That worked well, and it was smoother on the second run. Definitely keep it all about questions, questions, questions. I used constant questions to move the story forward, and round-robin questions and answers from the players, often in the guise of what the girl is seeing or doing. The game sings this way.
Small Game Hunter overview
Interested in our review of the game? We shower the game with much praise, and discuss not just certain elements of how it works and why we enjoyed it, but also some insights occasionally into how the game made us feel, and some of those very clever design elements. We recorded it the following Sunday on Small Game Hunter, which you can watch here on YouTube: