I don’t recall exactly how it came up, but someone asked if the character we were talking to was White. They weren’t being weird: it was pertinent information. We were playing a game set in 1920s New York, most of our characters were Black, and we were worried about racism. Chris said something to the effect of, “This is Harlem. It’s the twenties. Almost everyone is Black. I’ll tell you when someone is White.”
I’ve never played a Call of Cthulhu game. Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t something I grew up on, so those sorts of games were never on my mind. But, I do love a lot of other pulp fiction, jazz music, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and other things that all felt adjacent to the setting of Chris Spivey’s game Harlem Unbound. I also love the idea of a game where everyone goes insane and dies at the end.2 I saw Chris was running a game at Breakout Con and signed right up.
In a strange inversion of my typical reviews I will write about a game I have played, but whose rulebook I haven’t read. So, maybe this is me just telling you about a game I played this one time that was fun.
The mechanics of the game were very straightforward. Chris explained them quite quickly before our session got going. Your characters have some percentile attributes, similar to those found in D&D, and some percentile skills. To accomplish tasks you roll under those stats on a d100. If a task is hard, you need to roll under half that stat or skill. There are also advantage/disadvantage mechanics similar to D&D 5e where you roll two Tens dice and pick the best or worst result. All characters have a Luck skill they can use to succeed on rolls in certain situations, but you lose some each time you do so. Finally there is the infamous SAN score for your sanity. When you encounter eldritch horrors you need to roll under your sanity. You’ll take some ‘damage’ to your fragile psyche, which will be a lot or little depending on if you fail or succeed. If you take more than 5 sanity damage at a time, you roll on a special table that tells you what terrible fate befalls you. No one hit 0 sanity—I assume you explode or some such thing. The game we were playing was “pulpier” so our characters had more hit points than your typical Call of Cthulhu character, though we didn’t look to be invincible.
Call of Cthulhu is a game about investigation. There is a mystery the players are trying to solve. In this game we were hired to find out who killed a teenage boy we were all connected to in some way. He was run over by a car in a part of town he shouldn’t have been anywhere near. His sister was a famous singer at a local Harlem nightclub. There were shoot outs, other mysterious deaths, ties to local gangland drama, the mysterious past of our benefactor, and a whole host of other leads that took us around Harlem. As the game progressed we quickly realized things were weirder than they first appeared. The game culminated in the death of the women who had hired us to find her brother’s killer, a few people having nervous break downs, and a terrible spider demon being unleashed on the world. It felt like a very on-brand game of Call of Cthulhu.
A common complaint I have read (and now witnessed) with Call of Cthulhu is that investigation is such a key part of the game, but failing rolls may stymie your progress. The solution here seems to be creating scenarios where there is such a web of relationships between all the action that players will eventually make their way to centre of the mystery, though their route may be quite roundabout. (This actually feels like it may help set up stories that are quite over the top and pulpy: the librarian is also dating the mobster who is also a cultist, etc.) I thought it was fun trying to figure out what was going on. We tracked all our leads on a sheet of paper in the middle of the table, so we wouldn’t forget avenues we might want to explore later. My understanding is in Gumshoe you always are making forward progress: that you can’t “fail” a roll and be blocked in your investigation. I can see the appeal there as well, though the Call of Cthulhu approach does appeal to the OSR part of my brain. Sometimes you just don’t succeed! I liked that there was the occasional dead end.
There are lots of essays about the racism of H.P. Lovecraft. So many that trying to find writing about cosmic horror as an analogy for racism are harder to find. But that writing must exist: it feels so on the nose. Setting a Cthulhu game in 1920s Harlem feels like something someone should have done already. You have gangs, prohibition, jazz bars, and all that excitement. You marry that with the experience of being Black in America at that time3 and I think you have something really compelling.
There is a new edition of Harlem Unbound due soon, and I’ll likely grab it when it comes out. I feel stupid for not backing the Kickstarter at the time, though that was likely the responsible thing to do. The current edition is still available as a PDF, and also includes the rules for running games using the Gumshoe system. If you’re a Call of Cthulhu fan buying this thing feels like a safe bet.
An aspect of Luke Cage that I really liked was just how aggressively Black the whole show was. The only characters who were White were those where there being white was thematically interesting: the corrupt cop and the villain Shades. It was cool to see such an inversion of your typical TV show. Mind you, that first season probably should have been several episodes shorter. I digress. Ironically, in this game I picked the White pre-gen. ↩
Chris claims this isn’t how all Call of Cthulhu games end. Sure, buddy. ↩
Last year Magpie games kickstarted their new Powered by the Apocalypse game Zombie World, a game by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman. This weekend at Breakout Con I managed to run the game for some friends—new and old. I ran Zombie World twice, both off the books “hallway” games. I mentioned to Mark Diaz Truman I was going to print and play with the PDF (which went out to Kickstarter backers a while ago) and he sent me a demo copy they had on hand.1 I hadn’t a run a game in almost two years, and I’ve never run a PbtA game before. I was nervous!
I didn’t prep for either game, and both games worked fine being played totally off the cuff. The dream! I ended up flipping over the illustrated population cards when I needed to come up with a new NPC. (I’ll try and make an online generator for spitting out zombie world NPCs in the future: that would be handy.) When things were meant to get worse, I would usually sit on the move till I had a good sense of when or where to mess with the players. I am not that familiar with how people normally run these games, what the cadence is for calling for moves versus just letting players accomplish things, etc. I found myself often asking players if they agreed with my choices, or if I was being a dick. Ha. I had fun running both games, and I learned a bit in both.
The first game was set in a prison. I had one player who was always ready to draw from the Bite deck when the need arose.2 So the group’s simple mission to search for food and some supplies turned into a series of unfortunate events that ended with my cousin bitten by a zombie, who later later turned and killed bit another player, leaving a third player to kill them both, while the forth fled away in the darkness. The two surviving players returned to the prison to find it fallen to infighting, which is where we ended things. The flow of the game felt quite natural. The pace of success and failure worked really well.
The second game was set in a hospital. Michael, who played in the first game, reprised his character. We decided he arrived at this hospital with the survivors of the prison. This game started with the group being told there might be a zombie on the loose in the floors of the hospital above them. I escalated things from there because of some failed moves. The characters were quickly on a mission to purge their hospital of zombies. I felt I got a bit more tripped up on who would draw for what in certain situations in this game.3 I hate reading rule books mid game, so just went with what I thought made the most sense, and that worked out well enough. This game ended with the players trying to flee up onto the roof while running from a swarm of zombies—no one died! After the game one of the players, Stephanie, made what felt like a really helpful suggestion that likely would have made the game flow a bit better. She thought I didn’t include enough downtime between the moments of tension or action. This would have given the players more of an opportunity to interact with one another and with the NPCs.4 If I had simply had some of the NPCs in their enclave push back against their plan it might have shifted how the game played out. In this game the players didn’t get a chance to reveal their traumas or past, nor play up their various relationships. The way I was running the games was maybe too close to how I’d have run a D&D game. I should watch some zombie films or replay Last of Us to remember that the real monsters in the zombie genre are other people!
I love the rules and structure of this game. I suspect people will hack it or remix it for other genres. I can imagine someone doing a “Grotty D&D” version, where you replace the bite deck with an ignoble death deck and call it a day.
Character creation was super fast and produced these really interesting people (eg. crotchety priest turned enforcer, a psychotic prize fighter turned xenophobic cult leader). Character creation is quick because you are just dealing out some cards. The slowest part is people talking about the relationships they might have—you deal cards between players to facilitate that. If characters die it’d take seconds to get them back in the game because you wouldn’t do that step again. Death is always on the table in this game, you are fighting zombies after all. I might declare this game to be the most OSR of all the PbtA games. It feels like its in that same headspace, anyway.5
The 2d6 dice rolls of your typical PbtA game are turned into a deck of cards: 6 Misses, 3 Edges, an Opportunity, and a Triumph. (This spread is a bit ‘tougher’ than the 2d6 distribution would yield.) The cards also work well because there are moves (like helping/hindering another player, going on point, foraging, etc) that involve drawing additional cards from that deck. You know how many cards of each type are in the deck, so can think through how helpful or not that will be. Drawing from the deck felt a bit like a ritual. There was a bit of a pause and some tension while people picked their cards and flipped them over for everyone to see.
There is a separate deck for seeing who gets bitten by a zombie. Unlike the “2d6” deck this one isn’t reshuffled. You draw a card and see if you are safe, threats escalate, or you are bitten. Players know there is one bite card. Each player that avoids it is making it more likely for the next player to draw.6 Everyone knows that card is coming, soon. A good source of tension.
I really liked Zombie World. I haven’t run a game in ages, and this felt incredibly easy to run. I took it out of my bag Friday afternoon, we made characters quickly, and just started playing. That it’s all cards really feels like it changes the whole dynamic of the game. This feels like the sort of game you could trick people into playing RPGs with. It sounds like my real copy should arrive in June, which is when I expect the game to go on sale. Keep your eyes open.
I also realize thinking back that I am trained from running a lot of old-school D&D to often treat all the social interaction as something managed by player skill. (“Yes, you were convincing, the NPC does what you want!”) In this game some of those interactions are also meant to be possible pivot points for the action. I would often have NPCs do what the players say because it sounded like a convincing plan to me. Or players would “open up” or “get in each other’s faces” without having to draw and see how that interaction gets complicated. ↩
A close contender would be the absolutely amazing The Warren. Perhaps the only thing really holding it back from claiming that title is that it’s a game about rabbits. ↩
This reminded me of the “trap” card in Kingdom Death monster. ↩
I spent this past weekend at BreakoutCon here in Toronto. I think Kate, Rob, and their posse have done an amazing job with this gaming convention. Everyone is nice, friendly, and welcoming. (A reflection of the founders themselves, no doubt.) I didn’t get to spend as much time at the convention as I would have liked, but with the time I had I got to play some games and meet some people—what else could you want?
On Friday I played it safe and signed up for two games I had some experience with: Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Apocalypse World. I began my day with Fraser Simons and his friend Yoshi. I had missed Fraser last year, so we made it a point to try and actually meet up: it worked. A beer and an overpriced meal down I was off to play LotFP.
When I saw Sarah Richardson was running a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess I quickly signed up. Her RPG Bluebeards Bride is really dark and full of horror, so I assumed she’d be a natural fit for running an LotFP game. She dubbed the adventure she ran “Blood Spattered Bride”: it was a D&D take on her Storygame. We played the former wives of Bluebeard who had escaped from his home and returned to exact our revenge. It all felt like a good grindhouse movie, bouncing between creepy and ultraviolent. She’s an excellent dungeon master. The game was a great way to start the convention.
With no delay I moved on to my next game, Apocalypse World. I was joined by my cousin Jana, Yoshi (the dude I met earlier in the day), and another guy named Matt. A really great group. My cousin is always the rogue that robs the party when he plays D&D, so was happy to discover that PvP is a big part of Apocalypse World. He was playing the brainer, and ended up with puppet string holds over most everyone in our base by the end of the game. (This came in handy when Yoshi and an NPC were fighting over control of our holding.) The game came to a pretty satisfying conclusion, but there were so many weird mysteries we didn’t get to wrap up. It was one of those games I wish we had another session to play. So shout out to our MC, Lauren!
I ended up swapping out of a second Apocalypse World game I signed up for to play a new game, Ross Rifles. The session I was a part of was run by one its creators, Daniel Kwan. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game set during the First World War. The players are all soldiers in the Canadian army. I really liked the game, and have lots more to say about—which I put in another post!
I didn’t have enough time to play a second game: I had to leave for the ballet in a few hours. Instead I spent my time loitering around and chatting with people. I had lunch with Fraser and John Wilson, who I had met the previous year. I had a beer with Catherine Ramen, who I learned is the author of the game Red Carnations on a Black Grave. I bumped into Michael, his friend, and his son, and we wandered around and I spent some money. We then found my cousin and Yoshi and all talked about Kickstarters and printing books and other RPG nonsense. I ended my con chatting with Jana and Yoshi before heading off to meet my wife to watch a ballet. It was a nice few hours.
BreakoutCon is the best. You should check it out next year if you didn’t this year. It’s likely the biggest gaming convention in Toronto: big, but not too big.
Breakout 2017 was a lot of fun. I’m glad I grabbed tickets a million years ago. (I wish I could remember how I heard about it now.) It’d been over a year since I last attended a big gaming event. The weekend was exhausting, but I got to try a bunch of games I’d likely have never played if left to my own devices. I also got to see a bunch of gamers I only know from the internet, and a few friends I don’t see nearly enough.
The organizers of Breakout are indie-gamers so that side of table top gaming was well represented. Lots of indie game designers and players are in attendance. If you want to play indie games this convention has you covered. There was also a really big contingent of people playing D&D 5e Adventurers League. My old DM from back when I was playing 4e public-play is a big part of that scene and was there as well so I got to catch up with him. If you were into boardgames there was an even bigger room full of people playing those. If you are the most hard core of old-school D&D nerds you might find the convention lacking: Kiel Chenier was the only person running anything old-school. Maybe that’ll change as the convention grows.
This was the biggest gaming convention I’ve been to. Of course, I basically go to none so maybe that’s not saying much. There were lots of people and lots of games, anyway. The old-school D&D conventions in Toronto (OSRCon and OSCon) are much more modest in their scope in comparison. This convention was big, but not overwhelming and annoying the way FanExpo has become.
I ended up playing 4 games while at the convention (2 games of Night Witches, a game of Apocalypse World, and a game of Swords Without Masters), and attended one panel. I spent the rest of my time hanging out and drinking beer. My advice to anyone attending a convention is to not go overboard with the gaming. I ended up with a few gaps in my schedule and it gave me time to relax and chat with the other people there. That’s often just as much fun as gaming.
The convention was well organized and well run. People were friendly. I had a nice time at all my games, and the people playing them were are all really welcoming. You can’t ask for much more than that.
After my Apocalypse World game I went to a panel discussion about GMing advice with Robin Laws, Matt McFarland, Anna Kreider, and a dude who wasn’t Emily Care Boss (who was sick). I enjoyed the talk, it was well done. The moderator Donald Fraser did a good job making the audience questions sound like they were all carefully chosen by him. I like when people are forced to write down their questions, thereby avoiding the risk of a crazy person rambling on.) Robin Laws is funny: I should check out his podcast. I had an hour break after the panel in which to have a beer and chat with John Willson about RPGs. While we drank Corey Ried popped by to say, “hey.” He was running the next game I would play, Swords Without Masters.
Swords Without Masters was written by Epidiah Ravachol. The only thing I knew about the game was that it was published in his zine, Worlds Without Masters. I had assumed it would be some sort of indie variation on D&D—that it was most definitely not. The game is firmly in whatever genre you would place Fiasco within. (I want to say Story Games, but that name feels meaningless: this game was also nothing like Apocalypse World.) Swords Without Masters is a story telling game. There is a loose framework of rules that exists to help give your story some direction.
Our session began with us figuring out what image best represented each of our rogues: Swords Without Masters is a game about rogues in the vein of Conan the Barbarian. I picked a classic Earl Norem Masters of the Universe painting—of course. Your character is a name and handful of narrative hooks—terse when compared to traditional RPG characters. It didn’t take long to get the game started.
We began on a battlefield surrounded by our enemies. A game of Swords Without Masters is broken up into a series of phases: Perilous, Discovery, and Rogue. We began in the Perilous Phase. As the name implies, this is when the characters face danger. The DM, called the Overplayer in this game, starts by rolling a pair of dice. Each die represents a mood, jovial or glum, so you better be able to tell them apart. The higher die’s mood wins, and the Overplayer begins narrating the hardships faced by the players keeping the mood in mind.
Corey didn’t waste time trying to front load a lot of explanation on the rules for the game. He’d tell us what we needed to know to keep playing. The game is simple to teach. In our first phase he let us know we could take control of the narrative by picking up the dice. There is a back and forth: the Overplayer narrating an escalating level of danger and destruction until the players jump in and push back. When you don’t have the dice your character can do whatever they want, but they ultimately need to be failing. Once you decide you’ve had enough of losing you can pick up and roll the dice. Your higher die becomes your tone. You tell the story of what’s going on, narrating how your character overcomes their obstacles in the style of the current tone.
I found the game challenging to play because coming up with an interesting story on the spot is tricky! (I’m both boring and unimaginative.) All of the players were initially hesitant about picking up the dice. This meant the situation we were in just got more ridiculous. By the end of the session we were more comfortable interrupting the Overplayer to take control of the action.
When you roll doubles your rogue is stymied. This means that whatever you had planned to do while in control of the narrative must fail. During this initial phase one player’s character was trapped while the other characters escaped. That’s how we chose to end the phase.
Stories need not be told linearly. We played the Discovery Phase next, travelling back to a time before the fighting when we were all imprisoned together. In this phase the rogues pass the dice around, rolling immediately, and narrating some new piece of information about themselves or the world. Whenever they do so they ask the Overplayer a loaded question about this discovery. (e.g. “Why didn’t my talisman protect me from the Titans?”) The Overplayed answers, thereby revealing more about the world and the conflict at hand. The Overplayer decides when this phase ends. When we played we usually ended things after each player had a turn sharing a discovery.
Our third phase was the Rogue’s Phase you take turns passing the dice around asking the other player how their character will accomplish some particular goal. (“How did you scale the unscalable wall?”) This phase is about highlighting how awesome your character is in the tone the dice command. You can also make demands of the Overplayer to learn more about the world and its other inhabitants.
The game continued on like this. The Overplayer decides what phases are played and in what order. During the game the players will write down the motifs they find most interesting about the story being told. There are also rules for tracking mysteries and morals based on your dice rolls. These are all called threads in the game. When you hit 9 motifs it’s time to wrap up the story. The players can now choose to reincorporate a thread into the story they are telling. Once they have done so they are no longer allowed to pick up the dice and drive the narrative. After all the players have reincorporated a thread into the story the game ends. This end game mechanic is smart: your story ends up feeling coherent because the conclusion draws from various threads raised earlier in the game. (Our game ended with us destroying the Arch-witch, though it took the sacrifice of one of the players to accomplish the goal.)
I find these narrative games very demanding. With traditional RPGs the story you tell is generally grows organically from play. (Well, at least in good games!) The scope of Swords Without Masters is so grand in comparison: I often felt stuck trying to come up with something to say or do. We were all quite over the top in how we played, but in hindsight we should have mixed in more modest and quiet questions and answers. I suspect if I had played more of these story telling games I’d have done a better job at that sort of pacing.
Having to narrate your lows as well as your highs is fun. The flipping of the tone from jovial to glum also works well. Your character sheet has a good list of words associated with each tone to help you when narrating. The loose structure helps ground what would otherwise be a bunch of people talking about how awesome their characters are—though there is definitely a lot of that going on.
I grabbed the game itself while writing this review. The rules are well written and clear. For each of the phases and rules I’ve mentioned above there are lots of examples of game play. There are also “advanced” rules that extend the game if you want something slightly more complicated.
This was a fun game to play, something I likely wouldn’t have done outside of a convention setting. (I liked having a chance to play all these different games while at Breakout Con.) This game will likely feel unsatisfying if you are looking for more objective challenges in your games than “tell a compelling story”. But, if that’s what you’re looking for this game works really well. Swords Without Masters feels different and novel.
My second day of BreakoutCon began with a game of plain old Apocalypse World. There are many games built on top of the rules for this game I often forget that underneath them all there is a game about playing horny people in the post-apocalypse. Our game was based on a one shot adventure written by Baker to introduce people to the game—his Keep on the Borderlands, I guess.1 At the start of the game we were asked if we wanted a game that was gonzo or serious. I think we were all on the fence and so ended up with something in the middle.
I wasn’t fussy at all about what class I played, so I let everyone pick their playbooks first (classes in Apocalypse World) and I picked the last one, a Skinner. My character was a hot singer whose gender was ambiguous, dressed in some haute couture whose origin and continued upkeep was unclear. You get to pick two moves when you start. I picked one that pushed my Hot stat to +3 and another move that sort of charms people who see me perform my art (singing). And then we started asking each other questions.
Apocalypse World has rules for building relationships between the characters that are great and seem like the most interesting innovation in the game. Each class has a series of questions you ask. Other players chime up to answer, granting you a history bonus with that player’s character. By the time everyone has asked their questions you have a web of interconnection between everyone at the table. Too heavy for the sorts of of OD&D games I play where I make characters in a few seconds and refuse to name them till they survive the session, but on the whole this wasn’t an onerous process at all. For games like 5e where you are likely to create characters you hope to have stick around for a while these sorts of mechanics should be stollen whole hog. (I can imagine questions for each of the classes in D&D.) This is the mechanic to steal from this game, not that 2d6 business. That’s pedestrian in comparison. Before the game had started there was already a little heat.
The set up for this one-shot involved everyone getting a letter that told them a little bit of the action and asked them to roll and see what the current deal was, a custom Apocalypse World move to start their game. These letters introduced additional backstory and adventure hooks. The hard holder failed their “love letter” roll so our game began with us trapped in our hard hold, surrounded by an enemy gang, with things looking bad for us. Also, a rival faction inside our compound split off and holed themselves up. Also, there were a bunch of spies working a against us inside the compound. Also, the mud flaps, weird fish people we were trading with, were suffering the effects of a highly contagious disease. Also, the worlds psychic maelstrom was fucking with several of the NPCs (and myself). Also, a whole other bunch of stuff was happening. I appreciate that there was lots of things for our characters to latch onto and explore, but it meant that a lot of the interpersonal adventure hooks we figured out earlier never really came into play. It was comical how zany and hectic the opening situation was. (Also, the villains name was Ambergrease, which I love.)
Unlike D&D where you usually adventure as a group, in this game all the characters were usually off doing their own thing. Everyone was running around trying to figure out how to make sure things didn’t explode. This felt a bit awkward at times: there were often long gaps between a player being called on to narrate what their character was getting up to rolling to see what was going on. We’d all listen to what the Chopper was doing, or the Angel, or the Brainer, and then wait for things to circle back to us. I personally don’t mind this: I liked being able to relax and listen to what was going on around me. There was always something going on.
The tone of the game was quite different than that of Night Witches. Failed rolls lead to more complications, but in Apocalypse World proper success would often be just that. My character began the game with a +3 Hot. This is pretty sweet, and made any actions I needed to take with my Hot stat an easy success. The starting stats in Apocalypse World (in contrast to Night Witches) produces fairly competent characters from the get go. My Skinner was amazing at being Hot. It was unlikely i’d fail if called on to roll against that stat. This encouraged me to deal with problems by using my ample hotness whenever possible. I don’t think this is that unusual: D&D and most games with stats will reinforce your character’s roles and personality by incentivizing moves that require a particular attribute. With this game those situations where we were pushed to leave our character’s comfort zone were usually more interesting, because these end up with the failures or partial successes that produce interesting plot twists. Night Witches scales everything down, and you can produce a lot of strife and conflict that’s also very quiet. With Apocalypse World to generate that same level of conflict felt like it required a whole lot of action to be going on. One thing we didn’t do in our one shot that I suspect would result in people choosing to use their less amazing stats is the rules for marking stats and advancement. The DM and the player you have the highest history with each mark one of your stats. When you roll a highlighted stat you mark experience. In this way the game can encourage you to not just use sex to get your way.
Apocalypse World looks to focused on producing narratively interesting situations. The problem solving in the game will usually require you to make one die roll, that leads to another, and another, and another. In the book they refer to this as moves snowballing. Trying to minimize how many rolls you need to make to accomplish your goals might be the approach to the game more tactically minded players take when playing. (How do I work the situation so my Skinner can seduce this person rather than threaten them with violence.) As far as I can tell you don’t give out bonuses for coming up with an amazing plan that ultimately requires you shoot someone, though perhaps the steps that lead up to you shooting someone might set things up so that you don’t need to roll to make that shot and execute them. There is a different sort of player skill at work. That said, my guess is people are playing Apocalypse World because they care more about interesting narrative than “winning”.
By the time our session was wrapping up we had maybe wrangled enough food to survive and held off the rival gang, but were likely in the midst of being overrun by infection disease and evil brain control. It was a fun game, and I’m glad I got a chance to finally play Apocalypse World.
I’ve had the book for several months now, having backed the Kickstarter. There is a lot to love about Apocalypse World even if you have zero interest in playing the game and think everything I’ve said thus far sounds dreadful. The book is worth owning for the DM advice. The book presents one of the best summations of how to run a sandbox game. (The Warren takes that advice even further) There are some OSR products I’ve seen recently that do a good job here, but I suspect many were inspired by how Apocalypse World presents its advice. The book is very practical in how it talks about running a game. The tone is conversational.2 The advice is direct. You do this and then you do this and then you do this. These are things I think other game publishers could learn from.
That said, I don’t think this is a good book to learn how Apocalypse World games work. Both Night Witches and The Warren do a better job of explaining the rules to their game (and games like them) than Apocalypse World does—in my opinion. Of course, Apocalypse World is a much heavier and more complicated game. Each playbook is quite different from the next. There are lots of moving parts in the game. (You can ignore what you find complex and the game will chug along just fine. We looked to have ignored a fair bit while playing our one shot.) The second edition book I own includes advice for hacking the game, which is likely also of interest to people who are game nerds.
Sometimes the tone is too conversational. “You are hot and you do this fucking thing you hot person.” The way the book talks to you can be annoying. It flies too close to the sun. I both write, talk, and sound annoying: there isn’t anything wrong with that. ↩
My first game at BreakoutCon was a session of Night Witches. Night Witches is an RPG written by Jason Morningstar. For those not familiar: in Night Witches you play Soviet fighter pilots in an all women bomber unit. The game was totally different than anything I usually play, and my first time playing a Powered by the Apocalypse World game. That first game was so captivating I ended up playing again the next day (continuing the action where things left off). I was positive about the game after reading it a couple years ago. Reading a game is miles away from playing a game. I feel I have much more to say about this game now.
Our session opened with a somewhat involved character creation process: we described our characters and answered pointed questions about their history as the DM narrated our travels to the front. (An example question is, “Why does the NKVD already have a file on you, and how did you get around that black mark to join the regiment?”) This added a small bit of colour to each character and helped differentiate what would otherwise be 4 generic Russian air women. My character was “the Raven”, which seems like the jerk archetype in Night Witches. When I play D&D my characters are usually generic adventure person until they starting doing something interesting. (At which point i’ll fold that stuff into their character.) I began this game with a rough sense of what the character might be like, which was useful since Night Witches is a game primarily about social interaction. Beginning the game with a blank character would have made playing difficult. When presented with conflict each player had a different approach they would take, coloured by the basic personality they had fleshed out during this in-game prep. As with D&D my character’s personality evolved through play: by the end of the second session my Raven was a full on Mean Girl.
As mentioned above, Night Witches is a Powered by the Apocalypse game (an Apocalypse World hack). Briefly, this means that the core mechanic of the game is rolling a 2d6 to perform certain actions. On a roll of 10+ you succeed: fantastic. On a roll of 7-9 you succeed, but some number of things will go wrong. Anything else is a failure: it’ll be bad. Night Witches plays with this formula a little bit, to great effect.
Night Witches is split into two phases. During the day you wander around base and interact with your comrades. At night you fly bombing missions against the Nazis. At first glance it might seem like the night missions are the important phase, but the bulk of your play will take place during the day. The night missions are a fairly structured mini-game: you roll to see if you find your targets and roll to see if you hit them. Complications in the mission might change this general structure.
The attack run move is a good example of how Night Witches rarely lets you “win”. Here are the list of complications when you make that move:
The damage to the target is not significant and it is your fault.
You fly through a storm of flak (triggers Enemy Fire).
A plane in your Section is damaged, GM’s choice.
You and your fellow airwoman are Marked.
On a 10+, normally a great success in Apocalypse World, you are required to choose 1 from that list. I can tell you from playing the game that all of those options suck. It’s easy to come back maimed or dead after a night mission.
The game does provide one way to help you succeed at night. During the day some of your moves will let you add points to the mission pool, which you can spend during the night to increase the results of your dice rolls. The consequences of failure during the night are so steep that trying to build up a mission pool is an important part of the game. This is what pushes you to act during the day. More so, getting these mission points is usually one option out of a few you pick on a successful roll. You will often sacrifice something to get them, which further drives conflict in the game.
A perfect example of how this works is the “Act Up” move. During the day you are going to be dealing with assholes: commanding officers, chauvinists, the secret police, etc. Your natural reaction as a player is likely to argue when someone starts an argument with you. In this game you are playing a women knee deep in a sexist society so it’s complicated. Whenever you act up you need to roll a 2d6 to see how things go:
Make someone do what you want.
Ensure that there are no consequences for Acting Up.
Add one to the Mission Pool.
On a 10+ you get to chose 2, on a 7-9 you get to choose 1. So, even rolling high you are faced with a tough choice: will you make a personal sacrifice to add to the mission pool? So much of the game is structured like this. As you play you end up picking up complications with each roll, success or failure. This is what ends up making the day phase interesting. You aren’t just loitering on a base with your buddies.
When I wrote about the game last one of my concerns was with how gamey it might feel.
Action is free-form until you do something that would require you making a Move. These are the pivot points in the game. Moves are specific: you eyeball someone or act out. There are a handful of moves each character can perform. The analog to characters classes in D&D are natures in Night Witches: someone has the temperament of a hawk, or an owl. Natures grant additional moves characters can learn as they level up. In this way the game feels similar to 4th Edition, with its discrete list of powers. I’m curious if this feels as stifling as I found it with 4th edition. Are players who are good at eyeballing going to constantly try and give everyone cut eye to get their way? (Maybe I just played 4e with goofy players.)
This didn’t feel like a real issue in our game. I thought the game played fairly naturally. We would all play to our characters strengths, for the most part. I was worried this would result in weird behaviour, but in play it generally meant the mechanics pushed our personalities in certain directions. The characters with high luck were brash and insubordinate, the characters with high guts were more likely to use their feminine wiles to get their way. I thought it worked well.
This game begs to played over several sessions. You develop all these relationships—friend and enemies—over the course of play. When that first game ended I really wanted to keep playing to see what would happen next. I think as a one shot the game might feel a bit unsatisfying.
As I have noted it’s a tough game. I can’t imagine how an air women from the first session would make it all the way to end of the war. Your characters have 4 harm—hit points—and when you use all 4 up you die. That’s not that hard to do. As you rest during the game you can reduce your harm. On the other hand your character also has 12 marks, which are permanent. Certain moves will ask you to mark one off. Another way to die is to pick the “Embrace Death and Face your Final Destiny” mark. After a few sessions that last mark is going to start getting harder to avoid. (My character ended the 2nd session with 4 marks.) I wonder if the game starts to feel unrelenting and nihilistic as your run a long campaign. (Perhaps that’s the point?)
Night Witches is an excellent game. It’s well thought out and put together. Of course, you have to be interested in playing a game about soviet air women or it’s likely going to disappoint no matter how well designed it is. I thought it was a neat game when I first read it, but playing it helped me appreciate that it is in fact a fun game and not just a cool art project or stunt. If you are going to play one game about Soviet women in an all women bomber unit during WWII make it this one.