A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

#nightwitches

Without the Distance of Metaphor or Time

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 08, 2018

Tagged: pbta cartel velvetglove nightwitches apocalypseworld

One thing that falls outside the usual discussions of gaming style is the amount of distance any given group or player has towards the game in question—which I think is a shame because I think a giant part of the fun is the distance and, one way or another, I feel like the design of, say, Vampire, D&D-as-marketed-to-adults, D&D-as-marketed-to-kids, Rifts, and Dogs In the Vineyard all imply different levels of distance. Or, perhaps more accurately, the way they’re talked about implies different levels of distance.

I suspect that when a lot of people say they don’t purposefully want to inject heavy “relevant” themes into their games it’s not necessarily because they play to escape reality, but because—like me—when they play they never escape reality, and so any “theme” always remains at a distance. Injecting a theme which one was genuinely conflicted about into this style of play would be, in some way—for this kind of player—trivializing it. — Zak Smith—from a 7 year old blog post

As I mentioned in my post about Cartel, “These Apocalypse World games are at their best when they help the players navigate what might be unfamiliar territory for them.” These games also seem at their most challenging when they push into areas you don’t expect games to go. To my surprise, I found Night Witches—a game about sexism, death, hopelessness and sometimes hope during WWII—really compelling. It’s not the sort of game I normally play. More so, when I first picked it up it struck me as an odd subject to turn into a game. Acting out the lives of women in this hopeless situation seemed like it could be disrespectful.

Playing Night Witches made me rethink some of my thoughts around these “serious” games. Night Witches seems engineered to push the stories it tells in a particular direction.1 This can help keep serious matters serious. As I mentioned in my review, it’s quite likely your campaign of Night Witches will feel unrelenting and nihilistic, punctuated by brief moments of joy when you shoot down some Nazis. The gears of the game turn a certain way. The game feels respectful of the story it is helping you tell.

Velvet Glove is an Apocalypse World hack where you and your friends play a group of racialized teenage girls living in 1970s segregated small-city America—phew. (I picked it up because it sounded interesting and had a cool cover. I have fast become a fan of these overly specific Apocalypse World hacks.2) I’d say it has some thematic overlap with Night Witches. When I first saw Velvet Glove I had the same sort of knee-jerk reaction I did to Night Witches: should I be playing this game? I’ve played plenty of women in my D&D games3, but in the sorts of games I end up playing in the fact you are a playing man or a women is often immaterial. Or, at the very least, I usually play the same sort of genderless adventure person. Not that i’m adverse to playing a game where I’m asked to take on the role of a racialized women, but can I do that experience justice.

Night Witches feels like the safer game to play because we are so far removed from the experiences of a WWII Russian fighter pilot. You can invest a lot into the people you play in that game and feel safe knowing you probably won’t be called out for “doing it wrong”. There is a distance between you and the women you’re playing. Velvet Glove hits a lot closer to home. The racism and sexism it’s talking about are very much alive today. It’s likely you know people who deal with the problems Velvet Glove touches upon. As such, playing the characters in Velvet Glove feels like it could be more fraught or difficult. The challenge for game designers making these sorts of games is trying to introduce enough structure to the game that you gently nudge the emergent story in a particular direction. (It’s one way to try and understand and criticize these games.)

This subject and these games are all on my mind again because the kickstarter for Cartel is happening right now.

Velvet Glove and Cartel feel like they come from a similar headspace. They both seem to be a way to talk about how people make hard choices when put in positions where they have limited options. (And perhaps more obviously they both feature protagonists that aren’t White.) Of course, the games diverge in some obvious ways as well. The crimes and delinquency of your teenage girl gang will pale in comparison to the crimes of the cartels. It’s a totally different world. It’s easier to sympathize and empathize with the characters in Velvet Glove. Mark Diaz Truman likely wants us to feel the same way about the characters of Cartel, but for most people that will be a much bigger leap. Mark could have chosen many different topics to tell his story about Mexicans, but he settled on the drug war. (It’s interesting, complex, and exciting, after all.) He outlines both the struggle and ambition of the game he wants to make in an interview he did recently with Brie Sheldon:

Cartel issues a fundamental challenge to the gaming industry through its mere existence: it forces a mostly white audience to consider what it means to be Mexican, without the distance of metaphor or time. In many ways, my game design has been an effort to live up to that challenge, to take seriously the idea that white folks who might not have close relationships with Mexican people might sit down and play through a few days in their lives, not as a joke or a farce… but as a compelling drama.

When I saw this interview with Mark this passage caught my eye. (It’s what prompted this post.) Games can lean on the distance of time or the distance of metaphor to help make players feel comfortable playing roles that they might otherwise be uncomfortable playing. (For example, Night Witches uses time, and Monster Hearts uses metaphor.) It feels like Mark is touching on something similar to Zak’s comment above. Half the D&D games I play are filled with amoral murder machines straight out of a Jack Vance novel. These games don’t often feel edgy or complicated because you are so far removed from the characters you are playing.

You can’t mention Cartel without someone else jumping in to tell you glamourizing the Mexican cartels is despicable.4 This looks to be the most common complaint about the game. The archetypes the playbooks of the game represent aren’t distant or fantastic: they are grounded in reality.5 Mark could tell his story about the Mexican drug trade using allegory (the cartel are the dark elves or some such nonsense), or he could push his story backwards or forwards in time (Cartel: 2120). As players you might be able to avoid dwelling too much on the reality of what you’re playing. But this seems contrary to everything Mark wants to do with his game. His goal—as he notes often—is to push people to play roles that might be uncomfortable for them. He wants people playing Mexicans.

When talking about his game Mark often talks about the Wire. One of my favourite characters on that show is Bodie, a real fan favourite. The thing is, that dude shot Wallace in the first season! It’s one of the most heart breaking scenes in the show. The Wire isn’t glamourizing anything about the drug trade. I’m not sure Mark can produce the Wire of Powered by the Apocalypse World hacks—that’s a high bar to reach!—but it’s not inconceivable that you can produce something very good about violence and drugs and all that bad stuff. There is value in understanding the systems that produce the situation in Mexico today. To pretend it’s all bad people being bad is stupid and simple. There are all sorts of ways to tell that story. Mark chose to make a game.

A fellow gamer had the following to say in a discussion about this game:

“You play members of the cartel” may actually be sufficient to make some folks sick to their stomach, no matter what Mark has done to make it clear these characters aren’t good guys. That’s a legit critique.

So … I don’t think that’s a legit critique.

The fact anyone is making a game about the cartels is going to offend some people on principle. If you don’t want to play that game that seems like a totally reasonable response. I can imagine a lot of games I wouldn’t want to play. You probably can too. While I am sure Mark can convince people their understanding of his game is incorrect, no one obligated to engage with Mark to understand where he’s coming from. It’s perfectly fine to think a game is gross and leave it at that. Games aren’t for everyone and this game is likely no exception. But your distaste for a game isn’t a critique: that’s just a personal preference.

All of the games I’ve mentioned in this post could be offensive to people. Sometimes you might agree with what the person finds offensive. Other times not so much. (Some people are moaning about sex fluid elves right now when talking about 5e, after all.)

An argument can be made that no game can do this particular subject justice. And an argument can be made that this particular game isn’t doing its subject justice. But someone needs to make those arguments. My random thoughts above are one way to talk about games like these. There are probably other, better ways, as well. (I mean, what do I know? I play D&D!)

All of these games exist because people didn’t pick up and go home for fear of offending someone. This is likely true of most compelling art.

  1. I do think as players we are ultimately responsible for whether we are trivializing someones experience or not when playing a game. Jason Morningstar isn’t there to tell us off. He can only do so much. 

  2. The scene around Apocalypse World is interesting in that it seems to produce these games that can only be described as “very specific.” Not to take away from Apocalypse World—which is god damn fun—but its premise is reasonably pedestrian: it’s the end of the world, we’re all fucked! (And fucking each other.) But from that game you end up with “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a Russian fighter pilot from the all women 588th Night Bomber Regiment” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a confused queer teenage monster” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a teenage girls battling white male hegemony”. That seems like such a leap! The brain trust on Google+ had a lot of good thoughts about why this might be the case. 

  3. My random character generator generates women 50% of the time. It also spits out disabled characters 25% of the time. Don’t say I’m not doing anything for representation in the OSR. 

  4. Which is true: you shouldn’t glamourize gang violence. 

  5. In a Reddit Ask Me Anything someone showed up to ask (with much sarcasm) whether the game would include moves for disposing of bodies in acid, something the cartels do. Mark replied the game already does. Ha! 

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Review: Night Witches Review Reprise

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 12, 2017

Tagged: storygames apocalypseworld nightwitches pbta 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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