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Review: Night Witches Review Reprise

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 12, 2017

Tagged: storygames apocalypseworld nightwitches breakoutcon breakoutcon2017

Character portraits from Night Witches

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:

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:

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.

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Review: Night Witches

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 27, 2015

Tagged: storygames apocalypseworld nightwitches

Night Witches was released to the public a few days ago. The game was produced as the result of a successful Kickstarter—like most games nowadays—and has seemingly been in the works for years now. The game caught my eye because it features artwork by Rich Longmore, the illustrator of Carcosa. $12 for a PDF of new Rich Longmore art feels like a steal. The fact there was a whole game that came with it was a nice bonus. And so it came to pass I bought my first story game.

Night Witches is a game with a very specific focus. Everyone plays Russian fighter pilots from the all women 588th Night Bomber Regiment, who the Nazis referred to as the Night Witches. I play in several D&D campaigns right now and they are all over the map when it comes to setting and tone. House rules might differentiate the games slightly, but for the most part we are all playing D&D. People in the D&D scene will add or drop rules to shift the focus of D&D slightly. Someone into dungeon crawls will focus on light and encumbrance rules. Someone interested in horror might introduce sanity rules. These sorts of tweaks seem minor when you look at a game like Night Witches. The whole game exists to support this very niche experience.

The game play in Night Witches is fairly straight forward. Play is split into two phases: days and nights. During the day you role play the action that happens on the airbase. At night you fly bombing missions and try to kill nazis. Night Witches is based upon the rules for Apocalypse World. 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.)

Night Witches seems to be first and foremost about collaborative story telling. At least, this is what it seems like coming to the game from D&D. I’m curious if all the bonuses you collect and moves you have are in fact far “gamier” than they sound on paper. There is probably a tactical element to succeeding in your air missions that is more evident in play. (Not that i’m particularly interested in that sort of thing. I like playing OD&D because there are barely any rules.)

In Night Witches characters each have 4hp (marks), and when you use them all up you are dead. The way this works sounds similar to the Grind in a Torchbearer. You get progressively more stressed and injured, culminating in your passing. Character death looks to be the likely outcome for most characters in a long running campaign. My assumptions about story games were that this sort of thing was uncommon. (In contrast to the meat-grinder D&D games I have become used to.)

There’s a lot to like about the rule book. The book is well laid out, both in terms of how it looks and how it functions. It opens with advice on where you should start reading, based on your experience with table top games and Apocalypse World games. The start of the book has all the player facing rules. The middle of the book has the rules the GM would need to run a game. There is advice on running your first session, how to teach people the game, etc. Most of the rules for the game fit on the character sheet. (Again, something that was common in 4th Edition, and apparently how all the Apocalypse World inspired games work.) I suspect it’d be easy to use the book during play.

The new artwork by Rich Longmore is fantastic. I have no regrets about picking up this book. My only gripe is that there isn’t more Longmore art. The other artist featured in this book is Claudia Cangini, who did head shot style comic portraits of women from the 588th Night Bomber Regiment.

I still haven’t played Night Witches. I’m not sure when i’ll get the chance. Hopefully sooner rather than later: it seems neat and it’s certainly different.

Update 2017-03-13: I ended up playing Night Witches twice at BreakoutCon 2017. It was really great.

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