How to Play Garrus Vakarian in Thirsty Sword Lesbians

One of the benefits of the Thirsty Sword Lesbians system is that it is designed to be relatively neutral to the setting of your world. Queer romances and flirtatious combat can be done just as effectively in a fantasy world as a sci-fi one, which is demonstrated by the sheer range of options within the games various pre-made settings and adventures, some of which involve traveling with your companions across the vast expanse of space and…

Look, you read the title of this piece, you know where this is going, so here’s the deal. I just spent the last month replaying the Mass Effect series – Trilogy and Andromeda – and getting all giggly watching Garrus tango with Shepard on the Citadel and Vetra Nyx giving me a charred beyond repair “cow” steak on date night. It was fun, it was romantic, and as I finished my adventures on Meridian at around 1:00 AM one night my brain wandered towards “how exactly do I replicate these experiences in my tabletop games?”. Since I’ve been doing this run of She-Ra characters for Thirsty Sword Lesbians, I figured why not go for it and see if I could pull it off. Lo and behold, I think I did, so here we are, doing a two-parter about how to play everyone’s favorite spiky love interests in Thirsty Sword Lesbians. And what better place to start this look at how to smooch some aliens by looking at the OG Turian love interest from the Mass Effect trilogy, former C-Sec officer turned vigilante, Garrus Vakarian.

Garrus Vakarian: I’ve Seen So Many Things Go Wrong, Shepard

Note: Despite the title of the game, the creators of Thirsty Sword Lesbians have discussed that characters do not necessarily have to be thirsty, swords, or lesbians but encourages players to being open about their characters exploring matters of intimacy and identity in a way that likely pushes them towards at least questioning. Furthermore, Garrus’s background as a space-cop may run up against some of the ethos of the game, which focuses on marginalized communities who have often had poor relationships with policing. That said, I do think there is value to be had in exploring a character with that type of background in this game, but open communication with your fellow players and GM should be encouraged if you’re going to figure out how to fit it into your campaign.

Early on in the original Mass Effect, Dr. Karin Chakwas makes a comment that she “…wanted to travel the stars, tending the wounds of tough soldiers with piercing eyes and sensitive souls.” Admittedly, I was originally going to use this line to open up a piece about playing Drack in Thirsty Sword Lesbians (like I said, 1:00 AM brain wanderings), but I think it’s also an appropriate line to use when discussing Garrus, but with “complete and utter dork” thrown in there somewhere too.

And if you don’t get with him, you’re tasked with watching him as he awkwardly tries to flirt with normal people.

At his core, Garrus is a Turian who wants to do the right thing, taking down “the bad guys” who threaten the galaxy and the people he cares about. This manifests in various forms, from being the Renegade-like cop at C-Sec to his vigilantism on Omega, probably the most crime-infested place in the galaxy. For those who take a Paragon-route like myself, this story involves a heavy dose of learning to channel these feelings less towards “to stop the bad guys no matter the cost” to “saving and protecting people is the top priority” and accepting the greyness of reality (at least to the extent the game’s morality system lets you). All of this is to say that the story and romance of Garrusis one marked with a history of bloody conflict, with a man who is passionate about doing right but stumbling in his attempts to figure out how to do it and is inspired by the one and only Commander Shepard to find a better way.

Not too surprisingly, my choice of playbook for this wanna-be hero is The Bloody, available in the extended materials of Advanced Lovers and Lesbians. While perhaps necessary, violence comes with a cost, and for those who constantly throw themselves at it will pay it even if the cause is noble.The core of the book is exploring how those costs – the various scars both physical and mental – lead to those who’ve engaged in violence to build up walls around them, interfering in their desire to be close to others.

With his background in C-Sec, part of the Normandy crew, and his time as “Archangel”, Garrus has seen a lot of combat, taken a lot of scars, and has seen a lot of things go wrong. Provided you’re willing to take him as he is in Mass Effect 2 onwards (the more interesting version of him in my book anyway), this book best captures his character arc and romance. Let’s start our look at the mechanics of the book and see how it can help us get past that armor and sniper rifle of his and into his heart.

Reputation Precedes Me

The Bloody’s Extra mechanic focuses on the reputation the character has for violence and how that has scarred them in some way. You start with one question from Victory and Scars answered, and then one extra question from either column. As you play, whenever a player makes a hit on “Figure out a Person” in regards to you, they may ask you one of the unanswered questions. Once all questions from each category are answered, you gain bonuses: +1 to Daring for answering all Victory due to being seen as a protector, +1 to Spirit for answering all Scars due to seeing how much you’ll endure.

For our purposes, let’s just focus on the question best suited for getting Garrus started. Honestly, any question works if we start with Mass Effect 2 setting, but here’s my choices:

Getting a facial scar because you had a missile shot at your face is pretty legendary.
  • “One of your past achievements has become the stuff of legends. What is the legend, and how far is it from the truth?” is perfect for establishing the legend of Archangel.
  • Either “You can’t save everyone. Name someone you lost and who they were to you. Write their name down on your character sheet, in a place of prominence” or “You blame yourself for something that may not be your fault. What is it?” both work for establishing the loss of Garrus’s vigilante team as something he feels guilty over.
  • For our third one, “Conflict has left its marks on your body. What scar do you have that brings back hard memories” works well enough for setting up the damage he received during his recruitment mission, which can further reinforce the trauma of the above events.

The emphasis on Scars for my choice of the third question is a good way to reinforce Garrus’s feelings that he messes up and is not as good at being the leader and inspiring figure Shepard is. In other words, the focus on the scars and negative side of his life reinforces his somewhat inferiority complex and feeling like he is in Shepard’s shadow, creating a very particular experience as The Bloody where you feel like you haven’t quite accomplished much despite the violence you’ve been subjected to.

Playbook Moves

The Bloody starts off with the move “I’m the Juggernaut, love!” and two more moves, with two more moves gained during the course of the campaign on advancement.

Starting with “I’m the Juggernaut, love!”, when you first mark a Condition during a fight, you can upgrade your next Fight roll from a down beat (miss) to a mixed beat (7-9) or a mixed beat to an upbeat (10+). You’re also required to answer one question, with the questions focused on how does the fight make you feel, what you’re leaving open, or what reminds you of your mortality (and if against a PC you ask what does the conflict mean or what would you rather be doing). Similar to my discussion of Adora and The Devoted playbook, this move is meant to facilitate the themes of how violence impacts your character’s health. Whereas The Devoted is about sacrificing it for a cause, however, this move is a bit more in the direction of encouraging your character to reflect on their emotions in the face of violence, giving it a more existential tinge. 

The level of introspection and worry about whether you’re doing the right thing or how a life of violence makes you feel this move provides can contribute to the overall arc of the book pretty well in my view and help facilitate Garrus’s more introspective moments. A full picture of how Garrus would work in this system, though, requires us to take a look at the other moves the book offers, with my choices for your four additional moves from the book below:

  • Better Bundle Up: When you give blunt but honest advice, you roll +Spirit, with a 10+ giving you a String on them and they take +1 forward acting on your advice. A 7-9 allows them to either point out a flaw, act contrary to show why you’re wrong, or let you take a String on them. The reasoning for this is simple: Garrus, as a companion, is one of the ones that is perfectly happy to offer advice to Shepard and serve as a confidant without really softening what he thinks, so encouraging that behavior mechanically is simply a good idea
  • How’s that Milkshake Taste?: When dealing with a threat but not yet in conflict, you can take a small, harmless action to wound their pride, like throwing a drink over them. Rolling +Daring, you get to choose either 1 (on a 7-9) or 2 (10+) between them becoming flustered and retreating, losing support from their allies, or become enraged when they attack and you gain +1 to Fight against them. While his sniper tendencies do mean Garrus likes to take an enemy out before he’s seen, he has just the right kind of sense of humor and desire to really stick it to his enemies that this move feels an appropriate choice.
  • I’ve Seen Things You Wouldn’t Believe: When giving someone Emotional Support, you can share a story of something you’ve seen or done that you think will help. If it does, you can clear a condition even if you missed the roll, but it doesn’t either mark a Condition or lose a string. It’s a move meant to facilitate war stories, and between being an ex-cop and a vigilante Garrus has a lot of stories to tell (or, in the right situation, maybe some more about that “reach” and “flexibility” deal).
  • Wolf and Cub: Once per session, you declare someone or something of value to you that you want to protect. In return you get +1 forward when taking actions to fulfill that promise and can take a Condition instead of them when they’re harmed. A pretty standard “sacrificing myself for someone I love” deal that fits well with Garrus, especially in the later stages of the romance where he wants to make sure Shepard comes home.

Other Playbook Moves

Like other playbooks in the game, The Bloody gains two moves from other playbooks with advancements, and for sake of accessibility I’m going to stick to the core books for these choices.

With his time on Omega – or your campaigns equivalent – he’s had time to meet a lot of wicked people.
  • Tenacious Purpose: From “The Beast” playbook, when you commit yourself to a goal you may ask once per scene how you can advance that goal in way that violates “civilized” norms, taking +1 forward to act on the answer or marking a condition if you don’t (the reduce Feral means nothing for this book). This could be used to reflect some of the more “cowboy cop” tendencies of Garrus, which in my view aren’t exactly his best moments. Still, it is part of his character and worth having along to stir up some of that conflict.
  • Wicked Past: From “The Infamous” playbook, when hearing about a villain for the first time you may decide you know them from your past. You can give them a String on you to ask a question from Figure Out a Person and to take +1 forward against them. By bringing up villains Garrus may have met in his time at C-Sec or as Archangel, this move seems a good way to encourage further reflection on past violence and potential regrets, sending you chases after “the one who got away”, so to speak.

Conclusion

So I didn’t really mean for my 1:00 AM wandering mind thoughts to lead to this long of an article about how to play Garrus in Thirsty Sword Lesbians of all things, but hey, stuff happens, and Garrus is a fun character. The nature of his background, and I think of The Bloody in general, might not make him appropriate for every game, but his overall arc from renegade space-cowboy to confident leader with a stronger sense of justice and saving people is an interesting arc. Like I said before, I enjoy the Mass Effect series, and while it could be frustrating to have to admonish him on the value of saving people over getting bad guys, it was also touching seeing him open up about his fears of things going wrong and fun seeing him flirt awkwardly as hell with Shepard. Is his character the type of thing the makers of the game were thinking of when designing this playbook or the game in general? No, probably not, but as the makers of Mass Effect learned soon after the first game came out there’s a lot of people perfectly happy to smooch aliens, so why not figure out how he too can join in on the Thirsty Sword Lesbian fun?

Thank you all for reading this entry in my “How to Play” series. Mass Effect is created by Bioware. 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.

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