Wednesday, April 15, 2015

[*World Wednesdays] Review: Night Witches by Jason Morningstar

I'd originally planned to do a review of Apocalypse World itself for my next *World Wednesday post. However, my plans to run an Apocalypse World PbP game fell through, removing the necessity of my readthrough of the rulebook. Plus, I got distracted from reading AW by the recently released Night Witches RPG. So here's a review of that instead.

During World War II, the Soviet Union had an all-female night bomber regiment (the 588th) who became known and feared by the Germans as the Nachthexen, meaning Night Witches. Their job was to harass German forces on the front lines every night for 1,100 consecutive nights. As well as having to contend with a gruelling schedule of nightly bombing runs, they also had to make do with obsolete biplanes and contend with the discrimination of their own sexist male comrades. Night Witches is a game which puts the players in the roles of airwomen in that regiment over the course of the war.

As with any Powered by the Apocalypse game, players roll two six-sided dice and add the indicated stat bonus when their PCs do something which activates one of their available moves (in Night Witches, players only start with the basic moves and unlock character-specific moves through advancement). Results of 10 or more are unqualified successes, 7-9s are partial successes, and 6 or less is a miss. Partials will give the players what they want (usually with a cost attached) and misses give the GM the opportunity to make their own 'hard move' against the PC. The GM herself never rolls dice, instead making moves from her own list of GM moves in response to the players own actions.

Unlike other PbtA games, Night Witches splits play into two phases: Day and Night. Each phase has its own list of basic moves which are available to players. Day phases deal with interpersonal drama at the airbase, as well as aircraft maintenance and resource acquisition. Much of the game's focus is on events during this phase, encouraging players to explore the lives of these airwomen between missions. The Day phases offer opportunities to add to a communal Mission Pool which can be spent during the Night phase to improve any roll, as well as allowing them to establish Regard with other characters (or even with their planes) which offers a +1 bonus when dealing with the object of that Regard. They also have the opportunity to assist in repairs to their planes if damaged, which is important if they want to survive their next mission.

Night phases deal with combat missions and the moves associated with them have some very harsh consequences, even on partial successes. Planes take damage (and two hits is all it takes to either force a landing or turn the craft into a blazing wreck), an aircrew can take enough harm to kill at least one of them outright, or another plane can be blown out of the sky as options resulting from partial successes. This is just one aspect of the game that really drives home the harsh realities of war.

Another aspect that portrays the effects of war are Marks. Every character playbook has a supply of Marks which can get checked off as options for partial successes or outright failures when making moves, or as the result of being targeted by another character's move. These represent the terrible toll that war has upon the player characters, and each Mark has a narrative effect (tell a story of home, suffer the death of a loved one, etc) which may be positive or negative, but one Mark on every playbook forces them to embrace death at the earliest opportunity and they'll have to choose it sooner or later. NPCs who are Marked are not long for the world.

In addition to dealing with the war itself, the game also looks at the state-sanctioned paranoia of Stalin's Russia. Failures or partial successes can draw unwanted attention from the NKVD (the People's Commissiriat for Internal Affairs), leading to an Informal Interview. This itself is a move which the player must roll for, which can result in them incriminating themselves or others, being asked to frame another character, or being Marked. One of the character types can also earn advances by informing on others, or can disgrace others during debriefing to add to the Mission Pool. Mechanical incentives like this make sure that the state's repression is felt by the PCs.

The slowed down rate of character advancement also gives the characters a more down-to-earth feeling. If you're very lucky, your character might survive long enough to advance to a level of heroic status among your fellow pilots, but everyone starts off quite low-powered and advancement is very rare, only happening as a result of completing certain missions, as a result of certain moves, as one of the options when taking Marks, or between duty stations if the character has fulfilled a criteria listed on their sheet.

Duty stations are how the game's progress is tracked in campaign play. Each duty station has a number of missions for the PCs to complete and will have bonuses or penalties to certain Day moves. Some missions will also have special bonuses, penalties, or requirements for completion. The regiment's time at each duty station lasts either until all missions are completed or one of the players chooses a certain advance which time skips them to the next one.  Over the course of play, the regiment will move west with the front lines to different duty stations. Players are encouraged to take turns GMing different duty stations, and the time-skip advance specifically makes the player who takes it the new GM.

Subject Matter
This is not the first game in which Jason Morningstar has explored actual historical groups, having previously released Grey Ranks (about child resistance fighters involved in the Warsaw Uprising) and they show a great deal of respect for their historical subject matter. The entire book is interspersed with quotes from actual members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, and there is an extended history and context section at the back of the book detailing the events of the war relating to the 588th and providing background on the social and political climate of the Soviet Union at that time. It also provides a bibliography for those who want to do some further reading into this chapter in WWII history.

Similar to Monsterhearts, the game encourages players to explore uncomfortable content such as gender discrimination and queer content. If your group isn't comfortable with dealing with those topics, the game text does say you can reduce the emphasis on those aspects, but I personally think that doing so would take away from the tone and thematic feel that the game is aiming for.

For myself, it's actually the wartime historical subject matter makes me somewhat uncomfortable about running the game. I'd need to feel very sure that I was playing with a group of mature players who could deal with the content with respect and sensitivity. This is a story about a real group of women, many of whom died in the line of duty, so it should be approached with a certain degree of maturity. This is the same reason I haven't yet gotten around to running Grey Ranks, though I would like to try out both games at some point.

Online Support
The rulebook itself does not contain the playbooks for creating characters. Instead, these are included in a seperate downloadable PDF available on the Bully Pulpit Games website, which also includes handouts detailing each Duty Station, rules references for players and GMs, a guide to the regiment's daily routine, example threats and questions to ask of players, and a structured guide to running the first duty station for GMs that need the extra helping hand. It's a monster load of sheets to print out, but should prove very helpful to groups in running the game for the first time (and onwards).

There's also a G+ community for discussion and queries about the game.

A brilliant and well-supported adaptation of the Powered by the Apocalypse system, well-suited to building stories which explore not only the harsh realities of war, but the struggles of these brave airwomen to do their part against a backdrop of sexism and state paranoia. The only trouble I can see is that some groups may be hesitant to tackle such serious historically-based subject matter in a roleplaying game. For those that can overcome such nervousness though, and can treat the subject matter with the respect it deserves, it promises to be a very engaging and thought-provoking game experience.

Undecim Rating: +4 (Really good, representative of excellence in the medium)

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