Night Witches: Wrap-up and Mini-Review

Yesterday we brought our Night Witches campaign to a close, as the war ended in Europe with Germany’s surrender. Here is a quick look back at the campaign, followed by my review of the game itself.

Campaign Highlights

  • The 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation RegimentAmazingly, four of the seven original characters made it out alive (Maryam, Elena, Vera, and Oksana, played by Edmund, Steve, Alan, and Sophie.) For a while now Elena had been close to taking her last mark — “Embrace death and find your final destiny” — so we were all trying to keep her from meeting the bad premonitions she’d been having!
  • Of the others, two players had to drop so their characters (Yulia and Valentina, played by Christine and April) were technically still alive.
  • One new character (Anya, played by Adi) had appeared after the earlier tragic death of an airwoman (Sveta, also played by Adi).

Most of us took a turn at being game-master for one duty station or another, which gave us a chance to learn GMing tricks from each other. I really liked that, and I know I will use some of these techniques with other games.

The most marking events in the campaign, the dramatic fulcrum, were Elena forced by circumstances to kill a German prisoner to save him from a worse fate, followed by Sveta abandoning hope and dying in a subsequent mission. We had tragic loves, stormy friendships, splendid bravery, and wistful secrets.

We all stamped our mark on the squadron: Maryam was our fearless leader, fiercely protective of her airwomen; Elena was the career communist, slowly losing both faith and ambition; Vera was the cheerful pragmatist who always had a trick up her sleeve; Yulia was the sweet young recruit painfully hardened by war; Sveta was the tough-minded survivor who lost her zest for life after one too many tragedies; Oksana was the secret romantic who always tried to have her sisters’ backs; Valentina was the wild rebel; and Anya was the gutsy late-addition to the squadron, trying to make her place without being pushed around.

Mini-Review: Night Witches

Hardcover book and card deck, Night Witches RPGThe role-playing game Night Witches was written by Jason Morningstar and released by Bully Pulpit Games in January 2015 after a successful Kickstarter funding campaign ($48,806 pledged, well surpassing the $5,000 goal.) The game is Powered by the Apocalypse.

The Good

Night Witches brings its own refinements to the basic structure introduced by Apocalypse World. For example, the general moves are divided between those taking place during the day and largely involving caring for the regiment, your own squadron, the airwomen and the planes; and moves used during the night missions to accomplish mission objectives and survive encounters with the enemy. Several day moves allow the players, if they so wish, to accumulate “mission points” which can be used one-for-one to add to rolls on night moves.

These general moves are well designed to daisy-chain and create story material. Combined with the handouts supplied by the publisher for duty stations, missions, Witch-y things that can happen, period history, lists of names, etc., these make the GM’s game preparation very easy. No need to plan for complex story arcs, just sow some seeds and the story will happen. Like all PbtA games, it does require that everyone be willing and able to improvise in response to other players’ choices and any triggered moves.

Night Witches book and card deckThe setting is fantastic, of course. The game’s focus on the experiences of women in one of the most brutal theatres of this exceedingly brutal war is new, refreshing, and challenges a lot of role-playing tropes. The fact that it is also historical, documented, real makes it resonate all the more. If you want to expand from the useful notes on the period provided in the book and handouts, there is a wealth of material available (free or inexpensive), including patriotic music and amazing Soviet and German maps of the era.

Finally, I also got the optional card deck that supplements the book with character portraits, play aids for flight missions, medals, and quick-start character background elements. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for visual aids and this one combines art by Claudia Cangini (portraits) and Rich Longmore (plane schematics) with vintage Soviet playing card deck backs!

The Bad

Like most other PbtA games, Night Witches‘ character creation process centres around playbooks, essentially templates with a menu of options each character can choose from. There are only five playbooks or “Natures” to pick from: Owl, Raven, Hawk, Pigeon, and Sparrow. You are encouraged to include as many as you can in the game, but you can have more than one player using the same Nature. You can never go back and change a character’s Nature, however. Each has its own special moves.

After picking your Nature, you choose one of six Roles (Adventurer, Misanthrope, Leader, Zealot, Dreamer, and Protector) which will also give you access to a special move. Roles can change throughout a character’s life.

Unfortunately, the Natures did not feel intuitive for anyone in our group and the special moves granted by Natures and Roles were not as fitting as they might have been.Most of us ended up picking very few advancements from the special moves available to use, preferring to get promotions, improve stats, or forge and change bonds. I believe every character still in play at the end had used their one opportunity to go get a special move from a different playbook, reinforcing the sense we got that playbooks did not hang together in a satisfying way.

In some other PbtA games, such as Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, or Masks, the playbooks correspond to easily-grasped archetypes and the special moves fit well with them so that you have little trouble figuring out “what my character would do.” Then again, the game that started it all, Apocalypse World, contains playbooks and associated moves that I found difficult to understand (e.g., the Battle Babe that doesn’t actually, y’know, battle), so as they say: your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, if there is ever a second editions I would recommend revising the Natures, Roles, and associated moves.

Overall Assessment

Hero of the Soviet Union medalThis is a memorable game that has produced intense episodes in our campaign as well as in one-off convention games. I have never had a boring session. It’s easy enough for a GM to pick up and run, provided you familiarize yourself with the PbtA style. (For example, a GM has to realize that she never needs to roll dice in these games — the players do all the dice rolling.) Five of us took our turn at the helm during the campaign, including two that had never game-mastered a PbtA game, and everybody did a bang-up job.

This is not the kind of game book that provides extensive setting material (for example, most GURPS sourcebooks); it offers well thought-out summaries and sketches, just enough for the reader to understand the situation without getting mired in detail. (Naturally, our group of geeks immediately turned to historical sources and went down the rabbit hole of research!) For my style of GMing, the amount of material was just right.

Yes, there are wrinkles around the playbooks, but they are not show-stoppers. Perhaps fan-made playbooks will appear and add the finishing touch to this already amazing game.

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2 thoughts on “Night Witches: Wrap-up and Mini-Review

  1. We were bizarrely lucky/unlucky in this campaign. In the air we could do no wrong. We never missed the target and seldom had to push our luck to do it, and the vast majority of the time we suffered little more than damaged aircraft and a few scrapes. On the ground, however, our rolls were often atrocious.

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