Each spring I do a little housekeeping with my gamebooks, both physical and digital. This year as I was organizing my “Powered by the Apocalypse” (PbtA) PDFs I realized that I was woefully behind in writing reviews for many of these games. Time to change that! First up, Night Witches, one of the many PbtA games I backed on Kickstarter several years ago.
Night Witches is a historical roleplaying game wherein you play young Russian women who answered the call of the motherland during her darkest hours in World War II. The women, your characters, are the famed Night Witches of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. The regiment was comprised of approximately 200 young women who flew for 1,100 consecutive nights harassing German forces, tirelessly flying outdated airplanes, oftentimes barely held together. These brave women dropped scores of bombs during each flight; when they ran out of bombs then improvised by dropping railroad ties on enemy positions. This is the world of Night Witches.
Night Witches is less a game about war and more a game about the interpersonal relationships that form between squadmates; as you read on, keep that in mind. The author sums it up best as “Although the characters fly and fight an extraordinary amount, we abstract that into the most harrowing moments. The really interesting stuff happens on the ground, in the tight spaces between pure hell.” (p.2)
Night Witches is powered by D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World game engine, modified to fit the theme, tone, the tenor of Night Witches. If you’re unfamiliar with the PbtA system, there are so many variants and derivatives. It’s impossible to point to an all-inclusive system primer, so I will do my best to give you a short and sweet primer as it relates to Night Witches.
- Playbooks – Archetype (Nature) character sheets with a set of questions that help define each character
- Roles – Social obligations airwomen naturally fall into
- Rank – Each airwoman has a military rank
- Regard – Represents feelings between two women, can be positive or negative; similar to bonds in other PbtA games
- Marks – Represent the effects of war and death on character
- Harm – Three levels of harm and it need not be physical
- Advances – In short, experience earned through specific in-game actions
- Mission Pool – a communal resource that gives bonuses to dice rolls
- GMs do NOT roll dice
- GM’s work from four core lists: Agendas, Principles, Moves, Threats
The dice mechanic employed in Night Witches is a simple 2d6+attribute modifier to determine the level of success or failure of a Move. On a 10+ you’re successful. On a 7-9 you are partially successful but there will be a drawback or complication. Lastly, rolling a 6 or less means you have failed to accomplish the task in the way you had intended; the GM will now be able to impose direct or indirect complications into the narrative.
Moves are actions that are triggered by the narrative; they’re typically triggered to resolve something or to move the story forward. There are several types of Moves in Night Witches: Common Moves (Day and Night), Special Moves, and Character Moves. I’m not going to breakdown all the Moves, but readers should take away the following: Common Moves are accessible to all characters, Special Moves have very specific conditions to trigger, and Character Moves are specific to each Playbook.
Before we move on to the game structure and play itself, let’s talk a little about social and gender issues that will be part of this game. As previously mentioned, you will play women and only women. It is historically accurate that the women of the 588th lived and died in close quarters. As a result, they formed bonds that were socially progressive (and forbidden) for their time. Some of the Moves take into account these types of romantic relationships which leads to the topic of queer sexuality. While the game designer encourages you to embrace it, it may not be to your liking. As an intrinsic part of the game narrative it is something that cannot be avoided, so treat it with sensitivity. What you can remove without ruining the game experience is the brutal treatment of homosexuality from the State’s perspective, as represented by the NKVD officers.
A Night Witches game Setup is a collaborative process. Players select their playbooks while the GM walks them through the process of filling in the blanks. The GM then will ask an array of questions to help frame these women; who they have left behind, why they fight, and other similar questions. Each character has a role to play within the squad and an associated military rank. That does mean there will have to be a pecking order, as in, someone will have to be in charge. Welcome to the military!
The gameplay itself is termed “The Conversation”. This is where the narrative is explored. Players explain how their characters are interacting with one another, the scene, or the challenges presented to them. When they attempt to something that triggers a Move, dice are rolled. Once the result is determined, the Move is consulted which provides narrative options for the player to weave into the story; questions they can ask, or other similar things. Conversely, if they roll is a 6 or less, the GM can impose their own Moves. By doing so, it brings about new challenges and hardship that they must now overcome as long as it’s within the boundaries of the narrative and propels the story forward.
Games are played through a sequence of scenes, both day and night, that make up the lives of these airwomen. Historically, these brave women worked hard, played hard, and died fast. To that end, there are both day and night scenes that need to be played out. Each represents a fundamentally different aspect in the life of these women and their mission-at-large. Day scenes are more involved and socially-centric, whereas night scenes represent the bombing runs they made. Night scenes are abstracted to the harrowing parts, a few Moves are made, and collaboratively telling of the narrative. As I mentioned before, this is less a game about war and more a game about interpersonal relationships. Those relationships don’t happen in the sky during bombing runs.
The game is best played as an episodic campaign over the course of many sessions but can be easily played as one-shots with little modification. As an airwoman in the 588th, you will be assigned a specific duty station at the start of the campaign game. As specific milestones are met by anyone in your playgroup, the entire regiment moves west with the front line to the next duty station; think of these as chapters in a novel. Here, more scenes are played out as missions are undertaken, relationships are built/broken, heroes made/martyred, and so on.
The author includes a nice array of historical details throughout the book. He further dedicates an entire chapter, History & Context, highlighting women in the Soviet Union, the Purge, Queers in the Soviet Union, and the role of women in the fight against the Third Reich. He also provides a month by month historical timeline as margin notes that give additional context. Overall, a well thought out and presented historical chapter.
There is also an optional deck of cards for use with Night Witches. The Nachthexen Cards provide both players and GMs with visuals aides of things such as character portraits, planes, and medals. There are also advancements cards that will assists GMs with running one-shots beyond the starting duty station.
Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to play Night Witches a few times; each time with a different group of players. While each of the games was a one-shot using the first duty station which is essentially a “training” location for new airwomen, each game took on a different tone because of the group dynamics. I found day scenes to be very interesting. As a cis-hetero male, I was a little uncomfortable at the times, but I took the author’s advice and embraced the concepts of the game rolled with it. By doing so, I feel that it led to a better overall game experience for all the players in each game. As one female player is quoted as saying “time to turn the tables and see how we live.”
Each game allowed us to also explore the stressors of war that these airwomen experienced. In one game we mangled one of our planes on landing after missing our target. We then had a lot of explaining to do to, not only to our superior officer but also to an NKVD officer who suspected us of deliberate sabotage. On top of those stressors, we had one pissed off mechanic who insisted we help her get that plane back to airworthy condition. Unfortunately, this required one of our characters to head to the male’s camp and to put herself in a sexually submissive situation in order to obtain the necessary parts.
In closing, is Night Witches a game for everyone? No, it is not. But I think many gamers that have an interest in history and are not opposed to the queer concepts that are intrinsic to the game will find it much to their liking. It offers us not just a window, but rather a doorway into the lives of the famed Night Witches. It allows us to explore and examine the complexities of their lives in a way that is both respectful and meaningful.
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