Girl Underground is a game about a girl’s journey of self-discovery through a whimsical fantasy land and the friends she meets along the way. It explores twisted, willowy woods filled with whisper-soft lies, or tricky fairy rings with riddling promises, all on the way to overthrow an unjust ruler and eventually find the way back home. It is inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Labyrinth, The Wizard of Oz, Spirited Away, and similar tales. Girl Underground is a game for 3-5 players (plus a GM) and is best suited for one-shots or short campaigns.
Powered by a simplified version of D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World game engine, modified to fit Girl Underground’s unique theme. Player’s familiar with the “Powered by the Apocalypse” engine will find the game uses common elements but in a simpler form and has new elements specific to Girl Underground.
- Playbooks: 7 playbooks, one for the Girl, and six for her various companions serve as “character sheets.” Each player will choose one of the companion playbooks. The Girl will be jointly played by all players, taking turns playing her.
- Moves: Moves are actions triggered by the narrative to resolve something or move the story forward. 2d6+attribute determines success or failure. A result of 6 or less leads to weirdness, danger, or a setback. Results of 7 or higher are a success, and the character gets what they want. However, if the result is a 7–9, the character also receives a complication or cost. Some Moves allow players to roll additional dice. These situations are detailed in each playbook.
- Questions: Moves will result in questions being asked and often times answered as part of an open discussion around the table.
- The Guide (GM) has their own set of Moves.
In addition to the basics outlined above, Girl Underground introduces two new core elements fundamental to the game. The first is “Manners,” representing society’s controlling and absolutist rules that girls must follow. They take the form of “Young ladies must never…” At the start of each of one-shot or campaign, players and the Guide will come up with eight Manners they want to challenge through the course of play. These are written on note cards and laid out on the table. Examples of Manners are provided in the book, but groups are encouraged to use the examples as the spark in creating their own.
Caution: Manners could bring up subject matter that can be upsetting, triggering, and unfun. Many may touch on feminine socialization, essentialism, and gender norms, and could be gaslighting. The group should openly discuss which Manners they do not want in the game and which they are interested in challenging.
The second core element is “Beliefs.” The Girl develops Beliefs about herself and the way the world works throughout her journey underground. Unlike Manners, they do not conform to a specific form when written down. Beliefs are created each time the Girl rolls the Move Refuse to Mind Your Manners. This Move challenges one of the eight Manners. Once the Move questions are resolved, the Manner’s note card is flipped over, and the new corresponding Belief is written on the reverse side. The following is an example of how the Belief system works. (p. 11)
“Sure, I’ll race you to the top of that tall tower. If you win, I’ll give you my most shiny object,” Kat tells Crow, who is guarding the Mythic’s cage. “You’d better leave the cage key behind, though. Just in case you lose it.” Since Kat is lying about racing Crow, she’d Refusing to Mind Her Manners. She rolls two six-sided dice and gets a 10.
Kat’s player describes how the boastful Crow takes off with a caw, leaving her alone with the Mythic. Kat takes the key and opens the Mythic’s cage. Kat’s player then flips over the Manner that says “Young ladies must never tell lies.” She writes “Wits are a tool to do what’s right!” on the back for her belief.
Beliefs are powerful! They show how the Girl learns, grows, and changes over the course of the game. Most importantly, they exemplify how they can overcome problems. Beliefs have a second role to play. When the Girl uses the Move Stand Strong in Your Convictions, she states what Belief applies to a situation (as part of the narrative). The Girl rolls one die for her Belief; if she’s invoking additional Beliefs as well, she’ll add an additional die for each one. Once all dice are rolled, she’ll add the two highest together to get her result. If successful (7+), she continues with her narration of how those Beliefs play into the new narrative description, resulting in the Girl achieving what she wanted to accomplish.
- The Girl: You are a 12-year-old girl. Not of this world, and you’re trying to find your way back home.
- The Beastie: You are an animal with the ability to speak. Your quick tongue offers wise guidance and disrespect to authority figures.
- The Construct: Crafted by humans and imbued with life through magical means. You may be a doll, toy soldier, or something similar, but you have a human form and behaviors.
- The Faun: Living between two worlds, you’re part human and part …? You’re a being of transformational change.
- The Mythic: Rare being of legend and fantasy. You’re the last of your kind, and it’s your duty to carry on their tradition. You have great power, and there is real wisdom in the legends of your people.
- The Ogre: A giant towering over the Girl, three or four times her size, but you are more human than beast.
- The Runaway: You ran away from home, found a door to another world, and decided to stay. Your experiences can help the Girl be brave.
As with most roleplaying games, the Guide is responsible for leading the Girl and her companions through the world. The Guide will play the roles of all the characters they meet and interact with and present challenges for them to overcome. The Guide is also there to help reinforce the themes and symbolism of the genre.
The game demands lots of creativity and improvisation, and much of this falls on the Guide’s shoulders. Anyone assuming the role of Guide needs to be prepared, but not intimidated. The players will provide much of the spark needed to fuel the creative fires of the Guide through their storytelling and responses to their Moves. Guides will need to be ready with leading questions, such as, “What about this place is truly impossibly? ” or “What unusual scents do you catch in the air?”
Guides also have eight guiding principles that should govern their involvement. These will ensure the telling of a good story. The guide’s Principles are:
- Make the world wondrous and dangerous.
- Make your characters quirky and memorable.
- Create situations where Manners are relevant.
- Create problems that play into the Girl’s beliefs.
- Lead the way through the underground.
- Reincorporate elements to reinforce themes.
- Be a fan of the Girl and her Companions.
- Show your Moves through the fiction.
The Underground is a strange, wondrous, and nonsensical place. There are 12 “Locations” provided in the book. Each provides themes, characters, troubles, props, questions, and advice on how best to use the location. While Guides need not incorporate everything that a location offers, you can use the elements in several ways. One of the most important elements to consider is the theme, and finding a theme that matches the players’ wants is of the utmost importance.
Girl Underground also provides some additional advice on running a game, including the outline of a typical game and how much time players can expect to spend in each phase. There is also an example of play focused on creating the Girl and some additional playbook advice that players may find useful.
The physical publication of Girl Underground is a saddle-stitch booklet wrapped in a simple green cardstock cover with black type and simple line art. The PDF cover differs slightly with white type. The interior pages use an off-white stock that is easy on the eyes. The layout and arrangement are nice and clean and are easy to follow. The font size is too small and makes reading the physical booklet difficult for my aging eyes. The artwork is sparse, but each piece is beautiful pencil work by Jesse Ross.
For gamers that would like to explore something different, Girl Underground might be just the thing. Not only does it hit on fantasy elements found in the fictional works that inspired it, but it also seeks to break boundaries and stereotypes by redefining the role of girls, women, and gender in both a fictional and real-world setting. Powered by a simplified version of a tried and true game engine, Girl Underground can be easily read in one sitting and have a group up and playing in no time.