Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tommy's Take on Courtesans: Sex & Society


Courtesans is the latest title by Ian Warner of Postmortem Studios, developed from the same basic system (Beer & Crisps) that also powers Invaderz and Tough Justice.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Courtesans is availible in PDF format for $9.99 and in print for $19.23 (love Lulu's very specific pricing). Courtesans is a great lesson in context: If the game were not a historical RPG about ladies of the night (kinda), then it would just be downright tacky...but yeah, if you're buying into the concept of the game, then bust size and waist size are pretty important things here.

Your Courtesan also has to have an Origin, which can be Actresses, Professionals, Fallen Ladies, Goldenhearts and Upstarts. Each Origin provides its own advantages and disadvantages, such as Goldenhearts having an affinity for charity or Fallen Ladies being too sheltered to be aware of proper use of contraception.

Interestingly, resources are also divided into Legend, Reputation, Wealth, Influence and Scandal. They are used to perform acts of Procurement, which in turn provide more resources, etc.

The premise of the game revolves around a number of Courtesans all part of the same house, and the game provides six sample characters (one from each Origin, as an extreme example of variety). Whereas Tough Justice pitted the players on opposite sides of a trial, the Courtesans  do more backstabbing. Speaking of which, the game is largely divided into four sections: Procurement (getting admirerers), Pleasing (what comes next), Intrigue (nicer than saying "backstabbing") and Aiding (in which you actually help another lady out).

It is worthing nothing here that Pleasing entails more than just sex, as it can range from polite conversation to playing a (seemingly innocent) game to pillow talk (assuming, of course, sex occurs).

Intrigue is also very interesting, ranging from gambling (and thus taking their money) to spreading lies about them to seducing your fellow ladies!

The Aiding section is pretty normal stuff for the most part, though it does have options veering into Divine (and Infernal) intervention.

In addition to normal Courtesan activity, Courtesans can also become "kept" (which limits their partners unless they are willing to risk Scandal) or even sell their wombs when a couple can't reproduce.

Admirers are handled pretty simply: The have one stat - Pliability - and four archetypes they can belong to: Fops, Saviours, Students and Lovers. From there, the customization gets surprisingly deep, with a list of modifiers similiar to those a Courtesan has, such as Chest and Belly, and an optional rule that an Admirer will fall in love with with the Lady in question.

The GM (also known as the Landlady) actually hasa physical character in game, who is created as a normal 18 year old character and then aged 9 years. Then you add her Keeper to the mix.

once all that is done, the game is meant to be played in fairly structured sessions called Seasons, with each Courtesan taking two actions apiece for each of seven turns, all building to the Cyprian Ball, in which you make your grand entrance, dance, and then ultimately perform a sex act on your partner. Once the ball ends, so does the season.

Of course, sex runs the risk of pregnancy, and there are a number of options for how a pregnancy is handled, from the Courtesan running off, to the Admirer asking for her hand in marriage, to the Courtesan going the route of abortion...and THEN you get to childbirth itself, which can have complications ranging from the mother becoming infertile to mother and child both dying during the process.

Optional rules include vengeful spouses (complete with weapon attacks!), disabilities, misfortunes (from money troubles to developing psychoses!), drugs (and the harmful effects of the common drugs), and more.

A second appendix covers play by post games, as well as LARPS and different time periods (an optional supplement veers into different settings altogether, such as fantasy and sci-fi).

A very helpful summary of the turns and what goes into them wraps up the main game section.

The afterword (though poorly edited) details where Courtesans came from and is well worth the read (at least for me, but then, I've became quite the fan of Ian Warner's writing, and so I enjoy the insight into his thought process).

Lastly, it is worth noting that the PDF is both indexed and bookmarked.

What Works: I would say the game does a very good job at cartoonishly tackling the subject of Ladies of the Evening screwing (and screwing each other over) in historical England. Despite getting into some...interesting...territory, the writing never feels as crass and tasteless as it EASILY could have been. Far from it, in fact. As well, the sheer amount of options available for customization (of the ladies and their Admirers) is very impressive.

What Doesn't Work: A lot of the art and layout felt a step below what I've come to expect from Postmortem, and it didn't feel particularly evocative, either. The game's concept would seem to be a pretty hard sell, even moreso than Tough Justice is. Given some of the options provided, I'm at a loss that miscarriage rules were left out for simplicity's sake. Since the game never goes into straight parody, nor is it deadly serious, it is hard to say if the right tone was struck with some of the riskier source material. The afterword appears to have not been proofread.

Conclusion: This game is certainly not for kids, for starters, or for anyone feeling particularly prudish. While I think the game is well written, and I have come to expect nothing less from Postmortem in general and Mr. Warner in particular, it isn't something that particularly interests me. Tough Justice, another hard-sell type of game, captured my attention in a way that Courtesans does not, and I am sure it is due to the concept and not the execution. Still, I applaud the effort at putting something new and different out there, and I hope it finds its audience, even if that audience is not me.