Tuesday, June 11, 2013

[Actual Play] The Mountain Witch: Twin Fates Converging, Part 2

From left to right: Misaki (Anna), Kishi Michiko (Heather),
Uchida Kenji (me); and in the background,
the Mountain Witch himself, O-Yanma.
Drawing by Anna Jigoulina

The Cast
Kishi Michiko (played by Heather): Michiko became a ronin after her master and she set off on a mission of dubious morality, and she chose to leave her master's service. It is uncertain whether Michiko killed her master or not. She needs the money offered for killing the Mountain Witch in order to provide a comfortable life for her family, now that she is no longer supported by her master.
Uchida Kenji (played by me): Kenji was born as a ronin, and is less of a samurai than a warrior monk, having been taken in by an order known as the Hikarimusha. The Hikarimusha maintain the balance between the world of men and the world of the supernatural. Unfortunately, they were betrayed by one of their own and to Kenji's knowledge the order has been wiped out save for himself. He needs the money from the mission to rebuild the temple of the Hikarimusha and restore his order.

Misaki (played by Anna): Misaki is a ronin-born whose village was destroyed. She joined a previous ronin company who were sent to kill the Mountain Witch, in order to earn enough money to rebuild the village.

Session 2

Following on from last week's session, O-Yanma thanks Michiko for delivering her brother to him, and honours the bargain they made by restoring her brother's soul to him, releasing Isamu from his thrall. Kenji ignores this, deciding instead to try and dissuade his brother from going through with ritual he knows his brother is planning. He then falls to his knees in pain as another crack of thunder sounds from the storm above. O-Yanma scoffs at his brother's warning, chiding him for his short-sightedness. In performing the ritual, he will 'transcend the wheel' and attain enlightenment, which O-Yanma claims is what the Hikarimusha teaches. Kenji tells his brother that this isn't the way, that this brute force approach will not lead where he intends. Despite Kenji's protests, O-Yanma orders his brother to be taken and placed inside the empty cage to one side of the pit. Kenji puts up a brave fight despite having been relieved of his sword, sending many of O-Yanma's followers plummeting to their doom in the fires of the pit, but he is eventually worn down and dragged into the cage.

As O-Yanma performs the ritual aided by his wife Yuki-Onna - using both his sword Arashiken (Storm Blade) and Kenji's sword Kazeken as foci for the ritual - the other prisoner, Misaki, manages to escape using a hairpin taken from one of the guards Kenji disabled to pick the lock on her door. She gets out of the cage just in time, as both cages are struck by lightning from above and the sound of a thunderclap resounds within the room, stunning everyone. Dazed and confused, O-Yanma regains his senses and sees Misaki out of her cage and screams with rage, 'No! You've ruined everything! Kill them! Kill them all!'

Unable to defend himself inside the cage, Kenji is run through by one of the guards and falls to the floor, seeming mortally wounded. With the aid of Misaki and Isamu, Michiko gets hold of Arashiken - the Mountain Witch and Kenji's Kazeken are gone - fights her way to Kenji's cage and gets him out, and they drag him off to safety.

Mirculously, Kenji's wound heals and he revives, though he sustains a nasty bump to the head when Michiko drops him in surprise. As Kenji recovers, Michiko's brother reveals that their mutual friend, Sakura, came with him on their journey to kill the Mountain Witch. Knowing this, Michiko decides to remain with Kenji in hopes of finding Sakura in the Witch's castle. Misaki also joins them, determined to follow the Mountain Witch's trail.

Kenji uses O-Yanma's sword, Arashiken, as a divining rod in order to track down his brother, who is bonded to the blade. There is a brief moment in which Kenji seems a lot more like his brother, lust for power plain on his face. During this moment Misaki watches with a strange longing in her eyes. Kenji manages to retain his self-control, and follows the direction indicated by the sword, leading the company to the main keep of Yamajiro. Entering the building, they make their way up the steps to the tower, the keep seeming strangely empty.

They soon find that no matter how long they climb the steps, they seem to be making no progress. Kenji calls out to his brother to dispense with the tricks and show himself, but O-Yanma merely replies that there are no 'tricks' in this place. He then asks Michiko why she continues to pursue him, as her purpose here is fulfilled. She explains that her friend Sakura is still in his captivity, and he tells her he can return Sakura to her as he returned her brother, if she will only hand Kenji over to him. Before Michiko has time to consider this, Kenji hands Arashiken to her, and then goes into a meditative trance. A breeze blows through from the other side of the wall beside them on the staircase, and Kenji touches the wall with his hand to find it passes through as if through water. He moves through the wall and disappears, but when Michiko and Misaki attempt to follow, they find the wall is made of solid stone. Wherever Kenji has gone, he is on his own now.

Kenji finds himself in a stairwell almost identical to the one he just left, but finds he is able to progress upwards. He comes to a room where he finds his former mentor, Hamada-sensei, sitting with a tea set prepared. Kenji cautiously sits down to tea with Hamada-sensei, who tries to persuade him to see that his brother's way is the right one, but Kenji shakes his head. He reminds Hamada-sensei that it was he that taught him they should acheive oneness with the wheel through meditation and following the path of enlightenment, not try to transcend it and attain enlightment by brute force as O-Yanma is attempting to do with his magics. He must speak with O-Yanma, and try to dissuade him from his plans. Hamada seems to show signs of doubt, but he regretfully tells Kenji that O-Yanma will not be swayed. If they meet, there will be no avoiding a confrontation, and either one or both of them will have to die. Kenji is pained by this, saying that he hopes to avoid such a confrontation, but he will do what must be done. He bids Hamada-sensei farewell, and continues through the room to another staircase.

Meanwhile, seeing no other way forward, Michiko, Isamu and Misaki carry on up the stairs, finding the air growing chilly and the walls and floors covered in frost as they reach the top. They come to a room to find someone in the middle of the room. To Michiko and Isamu, this person appears to be their friend Sakura. But to Misaki, it appears to be O-Yanma, standing before them with his hands clasped behind him. 'Sakura' pleads to her friends to free her from her bonds, while 'O-Yanma' speaks seductively to Misaki, attempting to convince her to betray the others. Misaki, seeming to the others to be speaking to a point in the air above 'Sakura', tries to convince 'O-Yanma' to give up his lust for power. When Isamu attempts to free 'Sakura' by cutting the ropes binding her with a knife, Misaki sees this as an attack on 'O-Yanma' and tries to interfere. She is held back by Michiko while Isamu cuts the bonds. It is while questioning Misaki to find out what's gotten into her that Michiko realises they are seeing different people. At this point, O-Yanma/Sakura's features melt away to reveal the face of O-Yanma's wife, the Yuki-Onna.

Kenji finds the shrine maiden bearing the symbol of eternity, who had been appearing in between the flashes of lightning previously, tied up and unguarded. He glances around the room suspiciously, expecting a trap, but none reveals itself. O-Yanma's voice calls from the air, "This is the one you came for, is it not, brother? By all means, take her away, save her, thwart my plans."
Kenji is unnerved by O-Yanma allowing him to free her so easily, but nonetheless unties her and proceeds to escort her back down the stairs and out of the keep.

While Kenji and the shrine maiden make their escape, Michiko and the others face the Yuki-Onna. As they attempt to fight her, Michiko finds Arashiken trying to corrupt her with bloodlust, but she is able to direct that bloodlust towards Yuki-Onna and resist its attempts to send her into a berserker rage, destroying everything and everyone in her path. She runs Yuki-Onna through with the blade, and she screams in agony as she dies. From somewhere in the keep above, O-Yanma also screams upon feeling the loss of his wife.

In the courtyard outside the keep, Kenji and the shrine maiden emerge from the keep just in time for Kenji to hear the screams from above. He turns back towards the keep, realising the others are still inside and at the Mountain Witch's mercy. He finds somewhere for the shrine maiden to hide nearby and tells her to wait for him, then he charges back inside the keep to find the others and help them escape. As he does, he hears his brother scream from above: 'Mausmuo! Take all the souls in this building!'

Thunderous footsteps start approaching from somewhere off in the distance, shaking the ground. Kenji looks out one of the windows to see the towering form of the oni they encountered in the cave on their way to Yamajiro. The demon is growing in size as it approaches.
Kenji shouts to his brother: 'Yanma, you fool! You doom yourself!'
To which O-Yanma replies: 'I DOOM THE WORLD!'
Kenji, suddenly realising the true gravity of the situation, makes haste climbing the stairs to try and reach his brother. Along the way he meets up with Michiko, explaining what is happening. Michiko says that they should try and get out, but Kenji says they can't. They have to stop the demon from harvesting O-Yanma's soul at any cost, because the kind of power it would gain from his brother's soul would make it unstoppable.

Misaki, meanwhile, has found O-Yanma's lair and is trying to console him, and bring him back from the madness his grief has brought upon him. O-Yanma is beyond her ability to reason with him though, and then Kenji arrives with Michiko, demanding he call off the demon. O-Yanma refuses, saying that he could not if he wanted to now. Kenji sorrowfully replies that there is still one way to end this, and retrieves Kazeken from the room, taking Arashiken from Michiko and throwing it to O-Yanma. The two of them settle into a duelling stance, as O-Yanma agrees that it is time they settled the matter once and for all.

Misaki steps between them, pleading for Kenji not to kill O-Yanma. Kenji replies that he does not wish to kill him, but neither is he willing to let his soul be taken by the oni. He asks her if she would rather let the oni have his soul? Misaki is uncertain, and while she worries over what to do, O-Yanma and Kenji charge one another. Misaki tries to defend O-Yanma, cutting Kenji across the face as he charges past her, but fails to prevent the two brothers from clashing. They stop on opposite sides of the room, and O-Yanma falls to the floor, blood soaking his kimono from a gash in the side.

Kenji, grief-stricken over having to kill his brother, drops his sword to the ground and turns to face Misaki, who is at O-Yanma's side, staring at him with hatred. He throws his arms wide and pleads for her to finish it. Neither his brother's soul, or his own, can be allowed to fall into the oni's possession. Both of them must die. Misaki charges for him with her sword, and Michiko tries to step in the way, but is too late. Kenji is run through on Misaki's blade, and falls to the floor opposite his brother. As both brothers breath their last, O-Yanma tells Misaki it is okay. He can see clearly now, this was the right thing to do. Kenji similarly tells Michiko that it is okay, this was the way it always had to end. Michiko asks why, but Kenji merely smiles and then dies.

The demon breaks through the keep walls and lunges for Kenji and O-Yanma's heads with its hands to try and harvest their souls, but too late, and as it fades from the world - its connection to the world having been O-Yanma - it screams: 'NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!'

Sometime later, we see Misaki's village being restored thanks to the reward for killing the witch, though Misaki is distracted and filled with longing for her lost love, but we see a young man about her age working on rebuilding the village beside her, and is implied she may yet find happiness. Michiko is there too, helping to build a new home for her family. Isamu and Sakura are seen together, happily in love with one another. In a field not far away, two grave markers have been set side by side: Uchida Kenji and Uchida Yanma. Tending the field, with a new temple of the Hikarimusha being built behind him, are Kenji's former mentor Hamada-sensei and a few others in robes which now bear a symbol which combines that of Kenji and O-Yanma into one, fitted together in harmony, implying that a balance of some kind has been restored to the world.


Post-game Reflection
I think I speak for all the players and Mike, our GM, when I say this was an awesome mini-campaign. There were certainly elements of The Mountain Witch which we didn't make as much use of as we probably could have, owing to our unfamiliarity with this style of play. I'm referring to the Dark Fate Narration here. The idea behind the Mountain Witch is that each of the ronin PCs who have been hired to kill O-Yanma have their own secret Dark Fates - these are distributed randomly during character creation - and that give them their own secret agendas to pursue. The cool thing about this is that players have free reign to introduce plot elements related to their own character's Dark Fate. So a player can add facts, NPCs, events or scenes which are tied to their Fate, with the sole caveat that they avoid deprotagonising the other PCs. While we did manage to narrate a few elements of our own into the story based on our Dark Fates, we did require a bit of prompting to do so. I think of the three of us, I was most active in using Dark Fate Narration, which may explain why a big part of the story wound up revolving around Kenji and his ties to O-Yanma. I admit to feeling a little guilty about that, but we wound up with a great story and people had fun, so what the heck.

The Dark Fates were:
Worst Fear (Kenji): I decided Kenji knew and had been very close to the Mountain Witch at some point, and so his worst fear was having to fight his best friend or, as turned out to be the case, his brother.
True Motives (Michiko): This turned out to represent Michiko knowing that her brother had went to face the Mountain Witch and been taken captive, and having made a deal with O-Yanma for her brother's freedom.
Desperately In Love (Anna): Anna's character joined us in the second session, so we weren't sure how well her late introduction would work, and the Desperately In Love dark fate didn't really have time to develop, so it seemed to come out of nowhere (we just put it down to Stockholm Syndrome, I think). But it turned out to add a great bit of extra tension to the final showdown, with Misaki trying to save the Mountain Witch and my character trying (albeit reluctantly to kill him), with Michiko caught between the two of us.

The other interesting thing about the Mountain Witch is the Trust mechanic. Each of us started with a certain amount of Trust points invested in the other characters (based on Zodiac signs chosen as part of character creation), which the players' of those characters could then spend to aid us in a conflict. Aiding another character is really powerful in this game, because usually you're only rolling a single d6 for conflict resolution. But if someone spends one of the Trust points you've invested in them, they can roll their d6 and add the result to your roll. On the flip side though, this Trust can also be spent by the other player to 'betray' you, giving them a +1 to opposed rolls against you for each Trust point spent, and you can't use the Trust they've invested in you against them for that roll.

The Trust mechanic really came into play for us in the final scene, both when my character was dueling O-Yanma, and Anna's was trying to stop me, so she spent the Trust I'd given her to try and interfere. Then, when my character opened himself up to her attack later in the scene, I spent the Trust that Heather's character had in me to stop her from interfering. There was one aspect of the Trust mechanic that didn't really get used, and that's Stealing Narration Rights. Usually, in a conflict, the winner gets to narrate the outcome, but you can spend a point of Trust from another player to steal their narration rights and narrate the outcome yourself. I didn't use this personally, because it felt like more of a Player vs. Player thing than PC vs. PC, and I don't like that so much when it comes to roleplaying. Maybe there's a good reason for it that I'm not seeing, but spending a point of Trust to tell another player, 'Ha! You win the fight, but only because the wall your opponent is standing on collapses, sending him plummeting to his doom!' just seems like Player vs. Player dickery to me, but your mileage may vary. If you have a different perspective on it, please share it in the comments, I'd be interested to hear other peoples' takes on it.

But yeah, really enjoyed this game, and I'd be interested to see what its replay value is like. Theoretically, you could run this game multiple times with some or all of the same players but different characters and Dark Fates, and have different story each time. You'd also get to know what to do with Dark Fates and the Trust mechanic a bit better with repeated play, so the game might run more smoothly in a second or even third scenario.

Anyway, there's a chance we might do another game of the Mountain Witch when our G+ Hangouts Actual Play group gets together, this time with me in the GM seat, I think. Little intimidated about that prospect, as Mike has said this was a tricky game to run as GM, but we'll see how it works out. :)

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