She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a 2018 Dreamwork sponsored reboot of the classic 1980s He-Man spinoff series, She-Ra: Princess of Power. Headed by Noelle Stevenson, creator of the webcomics Nimona and Lumberjanes, the series has gained widespread notoriety and critical acclaim for its storytelling and incorporation of LGBT themes, among other things. One of the most important aspects of this story is the complex relationship by essentially the two leads of the show: Adora and Catra.
Having been raised in the Horde – an industrial empire looking to conquer the world of Etheria – the two of them were close, being the only person the other had while being raised by their abusive caretaker Shadow Weaver. Upon finding out the Horde’s propaganda was all lies and gaining the power of She-Ra, however, Adora abandons the Horde to join the Rebellion, leaving Catra alone to ascend the ranks and become the most dangerous and effective member of the Horde. The result is a highly complex relationship, one with the vulnerabilities and admittedly sometimes toxic aspects that put in the same nature as famous pairing such as Anthony and Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena.
In addition to that, though, both characters undergo massive emotional arcs as they learn to deal with their new circumstances and the changing nature of the war between the Rebellion and Horde. Adora learns to take on the mantle of hero without being self-sacrificing and abused by those who appear to offer her a ‘destiny’. Catra, meanwhile, rages against the world in order to avoid dealing with her real emotions, instead believing that she needs ‘strength’ and ‘power’ to avoid being hurt rather than expressing vulnerability to others.
This combination of a dynamic and messy relationship alongside intense, emotional arcs for both characters makes either of them amazing choices of inspiration for tabletop game characters. Rather than my usual choice of systems for these videos – Masks: A New Generation – I decided to use this opportunity to branch out and shill a bit for another system whose themes and overall ethos really fits for these two and instead figure out what is the best way to play Adora and Catra in Evil Hat Productions’ Thirsty Sword Lesbians.
Thirsty Sword Lesbians – Brief Description
I won’t be providing a full in-depth explanation of the system, since it is the first time talking about it in this series I do want to provide at least the basics so that even those unfamiliar with it can have a sense of what it is all about.
Thirsty Sword Lesbians is a “Powered by the Apocalypse” style system, which is something that should be pretty familiar to you if you’ve watched any of my “How to Play X in Masks” videos. Whereas Masks: A New Generation focuses on the struggle of personal identity through the metaphor of teenage superheroes, however, Thirsty Sword Lesbians is meant to be a system that focuses on exploring the stories of queer and marginalized communities in a variety of fantastical settings and encourages players to fight, flirt, or both in the pursuit of justice and liberation. As the the book says, “Anywhere swords cross and hearts race, thirsty sword lesbians are there.”
For those not familiar with PbtA systems, rather than classes and skills, character building focuses on playbooks representing archetypes and moves that represent narrative beats you can invoke in the story. There is a set of “basic moves” that all characters share, and every playbook has unique moves that push the character in a certain narrative arc. Play consists, then, of triggering these whenever it makes narrative sense in order to push the story along, with dice and labels serving to encourage improvisation.
Instead of the usual Strength, Constitution, etc. stats like you might see in Dungeons and Dragons, Thirsty Sword Lesbian relies on “labels”, specifically Daring, Grace, Heart, Wit, and Spirit, all which represent different ways how your character approaches the world and how they solve problems. Furthermore, instead of health, characters receive conditions, which represent various negative emotional states such as “Angry” or “Frightened” and will generally have a negative impact on an associated basic move to represent how that emotional state is impacting your characters behaviors and thoughts.
Finally, characters gain and use “strings”, which is a currency that represents the emotional connections between people that can be used to influence them or spent on certain moves.
I’ll explain all these concepts in more detail as they become appropriate, but the key thing to get out of it is that when figuring out how to play a character in a PbtA system, we need to figure out what their central arc is and determine which playbook fits that narrative best.
Adora: A Blend of Two Playbooks
Starting with Adora, I have to admit that after extensive thinking about it I couldn’t really pick just one playbook to work for her, and that’s a good thing! It mostly means that she’s a complex character hard to pin down into just one solid narrative, which is something that tends to make the task of exporting her or any character to a PbtA style game somewhat difficult. It is convenient, then, that the game allows you to pick up moves from other playbooks or even change to another one completely after a certain period of time. Our focus, then, is figuring out which playbook gives the best foundation for encompassing the entirety of Adora’s character arc in both the mechanics and moves the playbooks offer. To do so, I break down two books in particular: The Chosen and The Devoted.
Adora’s Destiny: The Chosen Playbook
The first of these playbooks is The Chosen, which as the playbook sheet notes is centered around special status, relationships across social strata, and dealing with crushing expectations. This playbook fits well with some of the early parts of Adora’s struggle, especially in her relationship with Light Hope and living up to name of She-Ra.
Probably the strongest argument for the Chosen playbook for Adora is that it’s extra mechanic, Destiny, is a very good representation of the weight of She-Ra on Adora and how what Light Hope tells her does not match up with what she really wants. As part of this mechanic you choose two Heroic Aspects and two Tragic Aspects. When acting in accordance with them, you check them off and take +1 forward (and mark XP if Tragic), and when all four are marked your Destiny grows nearer.
For Adora, “Heir to a Mystic Power” and “Save Your World” are probably the most fitting of the Heroic aspects due to She-Ra’s legacy aspects and the pressure the Rebellion puts on her to save the world from the Horde. For Tragic Aspects, Bitter Rival and Lose Those You Love should work to represent that being She-Ra means losing Catra and having to face her as an enemy.
Where the Chosen playbook struggles for her, though, is that most of the moves from the playbook don’t really fit Adora in my view. While the required move “The Fated Day Approaches” is perfectly fine and adds additional pressure to the Destiny Mechanic by enacting penalties for not chasing your destiny, the rest just don’t feel like things Adora would really do or aren’t worth taking in comparison to other moves. Many of them have a feeling of superiority over others, such as “Know Your Place” letting you deliver a scathing retort towards someone in order to gain potential advantage in the conversation.
The one exception, and a move I might recommend you pick up as one of the two “choose a move from another playbook” advancement all characters get, is “Guidance from Above”, which lets you petition a superior for guidance. In return, you either gain XP or clear a Condition if you do as told, or they gain a String on you if you ignore it. Adora does have a strong tendency to look towards authority figures for answers, whether it be Light Hope or Angella, and this move helps encourage that mechanically.
So in conclusion, while the Destiny mechanic is wonderful for Adora, the moves the book offers aren’t really a good fit, and if you have to end up with five of them by the time you get all advancements, well, probably not my recommended one if you’re really concerned about your move options. Instead, we’ll turn to another playbook: The Devoted.
Please, Just This Once, Stay: Adora, Self-Sacrifice, and The Devoted
In my view Adora’s desire for a “destiny” is a larger symptom of her extreme lack of self-worth, instead believing she is only worth something if she is useful to a cause, whether that be the Horde or the Rebellion. The Devoted playbook is all about that conflict between commitment to a cause against the need for self-worth and care, and it’s moves are a lot more accessible to Adora in my view.
It’s Extra Mechanic, Devotion, asks you to create a cause that your character is devoted to – so in this case “The Rebellion” – and generate three tenets you are tempted to violate. When you act contrary to your Devotion, mark a Condition, and when you Defy Disaster you can bring a subject of your Devotion with you to safety. You also gain two special moves “Last Stand” and “What’s Best For Them”.
Last Stand lets you use all the conditions you gain as a bonus when rolling Fight or Defy Disaster, encouraging you to keep stacking emotional trauma in order to fight better or defend others. What’s Best for Them” let’s you treat someone you’re Smitten with – like, say, Catra – as a subject of your Devotion. The “mark XP when you help them be romantic with someone other than you” is less useful in that sense, but it’s still a nice fit thematically.
Overall, the mechanic and most of the moves as we’ll discuss really encourage you to stack on Conditions, trading off your own mental and emotional health for the sake of others. The Devoted’s required move, “Fanatical Self-Sacrifice”, further reinforces that, letting you mark a condition to prevent someone else from taking one in exchange for XP and a weakened penalty of only -1 instead of the normal -2. However, you can only clear the condition by performing the destructive action associated with it, such as breaking something important to you to clear Angry, really selling that you’re giving up your own health for others.
Overall, compared to the Chosen I think the moves for the Devoted really fit Adora better, and as such you’re more likely to get the “Adora experience” over the course of the game as you pick up more of the Devoted’s moves. In total, you’ll get four moves from the playbook: two to start with, two to pick up as time goes on. Below I discuss my picks for the ones that fit her the most, but feel free to offer your own suggestions on what fits her best.
- “Gallant Rescue”: When you Defy Disaster – basically save someone – you can either gain a String on them or ask them a question even on a failed roll about how they feel towards your Devotion or the secret pain in your heart. This is very “She-Ra saves the day and wins people to her side” energy, so a good early pickup.
- “Power of Conviction” let’s you Entice someone using +Spirit – which the Devoted starts higher in – if you extol the virtue of your Devotion or invoke it’s authority. A superior related to your devotion gains a string on you, however, but again it really helps with selling Adora and She-Ra as symbols of the Rebellion to others.
- “Lay on Hands” allows you to heal people of physical ailments when you touch them during an Emotional Support roll. You tell them how your Devotion sustains you, and either mark XP if they validate it or gain a String on them if they criticize it. This lets you play out She-Ra’s healing ability in a way that, again, requires Adora to express devotion to the cause over her own self.
- And finally, we can’t forget her trusty steed Swiftwind, so use “Loyal Steed” to make him using “Flying and Mental Bond” as strengths and “Conspicuous” and “Stubborn” as weaknesses. After all, he’s a brightly colored talking horse who seeks the freedom of all horses and demands to be treated as the equal he is, so definitely more visible and stubborn than the average steed.
Other Move Suggestions
All playbooks can gain up to two moves during advancement. As already stated, the Chosen’s “Guidance From Above” is a good one to pick up and synergizes well with the arc of the Devotion playbook. However, the playbook “The Seeker” also offers up some good ideas, being a playbook all about having left a toxic community and learning to grow in a new one. While some of their moves rely on The Seeker’s extra mechanic, there are a few that might be worth looking at for one or both of your additional moves:
“It Wasn’t All Bad” let’s you share a story from your home culture, allowing you to potentially gain a String on the person, potentially gain +1 forward to you or a companion, and gain information from them. If you would like to play Adora as reminiscing about Horde life to connect with people, this is a good option.
“Listen and Learn” lets you ask someone what to do in an unfamiliar situation, letting you either follow their advice to gain +1 forward and Clear a Condition or gain XP if it goes poorly. This is somewhat similar to Guidance From Above, but with its focus on unfamiliar customs it’s more along “How do I survive Princess Prom?” than “How do I use She-Ra to save the world?” and let’s your Adora-inspired character be more vulnerable about how hard it is to adjust to life outside of the Horde.
One of the most difficult parts of exporting any character’s story to a tabletop game, especially a Powered by the Apocalypse style one, is that any character of real depth and complexity will often cover multiple books. The fact that we have not one but two books for Adora is a testament to both her character and the varied ways one can play her. For my personal recommendation, I ultimately side on The Devoted as being the one most likely to give you a similar arc, with its extra mechanic and moves merging together very well to encourage you to replicate Adora’s tendency towards self-sacrifice out of a belief her value is only in her ability to be useful, particularly as She-Ra. That said, it can benefit a lot from picking up elements of the Chosen as well. Regardless of which one you choose, learning that you’re worth more than what you can offer others is a hard and difficult thing to do, but fortunately you won’t have to go it alone.
Catra: Your Heart Was Never In It
When picking a book for Catra, The Infamous is likely to be a first choice for someone who has seen the full series. It’s a book that focuses on a character that has caused harm in the past and is attempting to atone for it. While that is basically her arc in the final season, I actually don’t want to focus on that as our foundation, though we’ll be pulling from it for move ideas later on. This is mostly because I want our foundational book to be one that is more comprehensive of Catra’s character overall, not just one part of her story.
So what, then, is the foundational story for Catra throughout She-Ra? Whether you think it was appropriate or not, I actually believe that Double Trouble’s speech to Catra at the end of season 4, where they argue that Catra’s heart has never really been in playing the big bad villain, gives the best argument for it. To put it quite simple, Catra is a liar: she lies to others and, more importantly, to herself. She does so out of fear of abandonment and weakness, that if she doesn’t put on the act of being the big bad villain she will once again be the vulnerable little kitten that Shadow Weaver abused and Adora – in her mind at least – abandoned for newer, better friends. Being the villain, then, was a performance, a mask worn by Catra so no one could ever hurt her again.
This inspired me, then, to choose The Trickster playbook for Catra. The playbook’s narrative focuses on hiding behind a facade of some sort and the tension between desiring closeness with others but fearing vulnerability. This, I believe, is at the heart of Catra’s story. The ideology of the Horde, Shadow Weaver’s abuse, and the perceived betrayal of Adora leaving the Horde and thereby her, push Catra to adopt the aforementioned persona. Her rage and desire for power are ultimately a mask hiding what she really wants, a mask that starts to slip in season 4 – especially after Scorpia leaves – and ultimately breaks down during Season 5. I mean, she literally gets an emotional support cat/mood ring to help better express her emotions she would otherwise be hiding.
As such, I think The Trickster playbook’s overall narrative structure fits Catra’s character arc better than The Infamous, at least if we’re talking comprehensively and not just one season’s worth of material. Anger and rage is just as much a mask that a person can wear as coldness, which is usually what people think of with this type of book. It also helps you play into her craftiness and deviousness, which is a good contrast to Adora’s more straightforwardness, because who doesn’t like a good light/dark motif?
Extra Mechanic and Moves
Let’s start with looking at the extra mechanic, “Feelings”, which is a track from 0-4 that represents the extent to which you can hide your feelings before they burst out. Anytime a connection is made between your character and another in the form strings or a Condition is marked – or cause you want to – your “feelings” increase. Upon reaching 4 you essentially have a meltdown, your feelings bursting forth and pushing you to do what you want regardless of the consequences. Avoiding this requires your character to open up to someone important or secretly performing a loving act for someone else, thereby learning somewhat healthier emotional regulation.
To encourage you to hide your feelings, your required starting move “Ew, Feelings” lets you increase your feelings by 1 to choose one of the options from Emotional Support even if you refuse to open up, which includes clearing conditions, marking XP, gaining +1 forward, or gaining insight from the GM. The move “The Mask” also allows you to roll +Wit to lie to an NPC as well as let you increase Feelings by 1 to give false answers to someone trying to “Figure You Out”. In short, you’re free to lie and deceive others who attempt to get you to open up, but at the cost of letting you feelings bubble until they explode.
And Catra, well, she is always lying about her feelings, preferring to push them down and focus on the mission or transfer her anger and hurt into crushing the Rebellion. Sure, playing Catra in this game means you are likely not playing a villain, but these moves will still help to facilitate the process of lying to yourself and others until eventually you breakdown. Using anger as that lie rather than coldness simply presents an interesting alternative to the usual archetype, but one that can still be effective and interesting while being heroic (or at least tolerate performing heroic acts so you hang out with the rest of the group).
With starting moves and advancements you can pick up to four moves from the playbook, and here are my suggestions on which best fit Catra’s personality and tendencies.
- “Center of the Web:” Lets you play out Catra’s skill at turning around people’s demands to her advantage by letting you gain strings or information whenever someone approaches you for something. Catra doesn’t do anything for free. If you’re going to interact with her, she’s going to demand something of you.
- “Deft Fingers”, well, lets you steal things, which is always fun.
- “Devious Scheme” allows you to indulge in your clever, manipulative evil overlord side of Catra by giving you bonuses when others go along with your cunning plans. Because Catra is not as physically strong or Scorpia she really relies on tricking people or misdirection to advance the Horde’s cause, to great success.
- Finally, “Knives behind the Mask” let’s you play out Catra’s tendency to rage out against those who try and expose her vulnerabilities by letting you force someone to mark a Condition if you reveal a damaging secret about them if they reveal a secret about you. Or, if you want to be nice, simply use it to blackmail them.
All of these moves really help you get into the spirit of being a devious, manipulative person, which Catra is really good at. She has knack for knowing people, though maybe not as good as Double Trouble, and at times has a very strong sense of charisma that can draw people to her until she inevitably pushes them away. It’s learning to overcome that tendency and opening up to people that you’ll have to learn to do, and I think are helped by some of my suggestions for other moves.
While I didn’t want to use the Infamous playbook as our foundation to get a broader Catra experience, if you are interested in playing out the “villain now seeking redemption” side of her story alongside her learning better emotional regulation skills, you can pull a few moves from The Infamous that I think play well with The Trickster playbook’s setup.
First, “Make It Right” triggers when you open up to those you’ve harmed, and they can choose one of the options listed based on how they react to you. While you’re risking quite a bit if they deny or lash out, there is some strong narrative potential if they choose some of the other options. This move is required for The Infamous and so I think it a good way to draw in that playbook’s mechanics to our Trickster, and its requirement that you show emotional vulnerability to invoke it melds nice with The Trickster’s overall deal. Essentially, if Catra wants to truly make amends, she has to drop her mask with those she harmed.
I’d also pick “What Makes a Home”, which reduces the penalties for conditions if every other PC has a String on you. Think of this as Catra working to become part of the Best Friend Squad and becoming a better, more well adjusted person and finding a place rather then feeling alone. And again, since gaining strings often requires emotional vulnerability, I think it works well alongside The Trickster’s mechanics, forcing you to pick between hiding your feelings or being vulnerable to gain strings.
If you don’t want to do the whole ‘villain redemption” thing, though, or just want to really indulge in some feral cat energy, then The Beast playbook has some options. “Ferocious” let’s you mark conditions to gain additional options when fighting, and “Big Dyke Energy” let’s you basically make everyone be into you and wrack up Strings if you present yourself as the biggest threat. Think Catra taking over the entirety of the Crimson Waste in a day for the energy you’re trying to invoke with that.
Overall, this setup where you merge her antagonistic self that seeks power and wears anger as a mask with her desire to reform creates a very strong foundation for dynamic character growth. It will be very messy, though, even for the standards of this game, which is why being open with your group will be very important. Catra is, after all, a very complicated character, but it’s that ‘problematic’ aspect of her that makes her a compelling one and one worth looking at when thinking on your own characters.
It’s also a setup that I think pairs very nicely with our Adora setup because you end up with a similar dynamic to the show: Adora constantly taking more and more burdens on herself because she believe she’s only worthwhile as a figure for the cause, and Catra increasingly frustrated and angry but unable to open up about her wants due to a fear of vulnerability. And once you’ve played it out yourself, well, maybe you can get a better sense of why that dynamic ended up being so important to the show overall.
The complex narratives of Adora and Catra make for some great inspiration for charcaters in tabletop games, and I really appreciate the existence of Thirsty Sword Lesbians for creating a very good environment to play out their stories with all the drama and fantasy aspects it deserves. That I had to mix and merge at least two playbooks to get the basics of each character developed – and then pull from several more for that added extra touches – is a testament to both the writing of the characters and variety of stories that the game allows. I hope the advice I’ve given here has given you some more thoughts on these characters’ stories and inspired you to think on how you’d use them to inspire your own characters as you play this game or any other one (there’s a lot of great systems out there).
Thank you all for reading this entry in my “How to Play” series. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is currently available on Netflix. Thirsty Sword Lesbians is produced by Evil Hat Productions and is now available on their website. If you have any suggestions for characters and systems you’d like me to take a look at, feel free to offer them in the comments below.