When Girl by Moonlight landed in my inbox, I knew it was something special. A tabletop role-playing game using the Blades in the Dark system based on the Magical Girl genre in the year of Barbie 2023? I was so ready. The game takes inspiration from classic shojo manga and shows like Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Card Captor Sakura, and The Vision of Escaflowne as well as more modern iterations of the genre like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Stephen Universe, and Star vs. The Forces of Evil.
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So let’s get down to it. This is a standalone game, around 250 pages, which includes seven playbooks for character creation, four genre-focused “Series Playsets” that helps determine story themes and game direction. Also included in the playsets are jumpstart adventures to help get your campaign started. Plus, the art. The art! Truly incredible.
I was very excited to get a chance to talk to Andrew Gillis—the author and game designer behind Girl by Moonlight, which is being published through Evil Hat Games. It’s currently crowdfunding and smashed through its funding goal in an hour! All the extras now being funded are glitter on top of a very sparkly cake. So what does Gillis have to say about his new game?
Linda Codega, io9: There’s a lot of Magical Girls out there — what makes this genre so special, not just to you as a designer, but to people all over the world?
Andrew Gillis: The magical girl genre gives us an opportunity to look outside the dominant (read: masculine) mode of storytelling in our culture. It’s not just about identity, though, it’s about different ways of seeing the world, and approaches to changing it.
Magical girl stories are also stories of hope, which feels very important to hold on to in cynical times. Every genre is a set of expectations, and an opportunity to subvert them. I use the genre very expansively in the game, and offer up a variety of takes on what it could mean, and be about. So I think it’s a very fruitful space in which to tell stories, and a chance for me to offer something unexpected in [tabletop role-playing games].
io9: How do you balance social roleplay with combat mechanics?
Gillis: In Girl by Moonlight the action of the story you tell is grounded in emotion. So whether it’s a quiet moment that two characters share in downtime, or the climactic confrontation with the series’ adversary, the inner world of the characters matters. The game gives equal mechanical weight to my character directly confronting a big scary monster that was once the captain of the track team, as it does to me appealing to the fragile human heart that still beats inside it. It was very important to enable non-violent, compassionate approaches to the threats facing the protagonists. I wanted to challenge the idea that our first and best tool should be violence, which is so common in games, and in media more generally.
io9: What was your favorite design challenge you had to crack during the creation of this game?
Gillis: The game has four distinct ‘series playsets’ that offer different situations, adversaries, and themes with which to play your own series of Girl by Moonlight. I wanted to build these playsets such that elements from each were inter-operable. The base rules of the game apply in each, with some small additional elements or variations that are unique to each playset. It required that I keep all four in mind when working on the core rules of the game, which is a lot of possible interactions to account for. Figuring out what needed to live within a series, and what was core to the game generally, really helped me understand the design better, in the end. Just as hacking Blades in the Dark helped me understand how that game worked, I ended up learning about my own game in the course of, essentially, making hacks of it internally.
io9: What kind of metaphors can be woven throughout this game and the characters that people create?
Gillis: First and foremost, the game is about transformation, and struggling against a hostile world, so it is always going to be a metaphor for trans experience. It has a lot of my own experience of that tied up in it. Each of the seven character types, and the four series playsets, have their own palette of metaphor, though.
So there’s a very broad range of ideas and stories that players can pick and choose from. So you might play the Time Traveller, who has come back in time to prevent a terrible fate befalling a friend, but that’s really you exploring how someone might think they know what’s best for another. You might play the Harmony, a character who is the living embodiment of a relationship, and use that to think about queer romance, and how there’s room in your heart for more than just one person. Something I’ve tried to emphasize in the game is giving players a chance to take the concepts I provide, and interpret and transform them into something that suits their needs. The game offers structure, and support, but also plenty of room for players to express themselves.
io9: If you had to choose a magical girl catchphrase, what would it be?
Gillis: “Hope is not a plan!”
Even though hope is essential to changing the world, hope is not enough on its own. You need to get organized, and work with your friends to make that change happen. I often feel overwhelmed by the struggles of my life, nevermind the bigger problems that shape the world we live in. Having a plan lets me break it all down into pieces I can understand, and actually make progress on. Believing in something is a great start, but if you never do anything with it, it doesn’t mean much. Hope is not a plan.
So I guess I would be the rival magical girl, who pushes another character to turn their dreams into reality. I don’t mind if I create a bit of friction, if it gets things moving. Even if they resent me now, they’ll thank me later.
Girl by Moonlight is crowdfunding on Backerkit until June 22.
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