The Independents: Night Witches

Welcome back to The Independents, your source for reviews of out-of-the-box tabletop roleplaying games. The small outfits, the crazy geniuses, the little projects, the ‘Indie’ creators who are simply out to make a name for themselves and a game people can enjoy. Here at The Independents we aim to highlight some of these games, for a change of pace and a new (and great) experience!

On the Eastern Front of World War II the Russians and the forces of Nazi Germany laid waste to one another in one of the deadliest military campaigns in human history. Having begun the war ravaged by the internecine slaughter of the Great Purge, and having been savaged by the initial German offensives, the Russians were forced to draw from reserves and establish new units. Among them was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. The aviators of the 588th were tasked with  perilous night harassment missions using outdated biplanes, and would go on to fly for 1,100 nights of combat from 1942 until the end of the war.

And every single one of them was a woman.

To each other, they were sisters. To the Red Army Air Force, an infuriating challenge to the ideals of soldiering and womanhood. To the Germans that they fought against, however, they were simply the Nachthexen – the Night Witches.

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Night Witches from Bully Pulpit Games follows the 588th and her pilots as they fly through the night skies of World War II, navigate the treacherous social constructs of Stalinist Russia, and try to survive with mind and body intact until Nazi Germany falls. It is a game Powered by the Apocalypse, using a modified version of the Apocalypse World system by Vincent Baker, with tweaks and additions having been made to better fit the setting.

Before we go any farther into Night Witches, it would be wise to go over the basic mechanics of Apocalypse World, especially as it is quite likely that more Powered by the Apocalypse games will feature on The Independents. Whenever a character wishes to do something, they roll 2d6 and, if applicable, add a relevant stat. If their total is a 10 or more they succeed. If their total is a 7-9 they still succeed, but with some sort of compromise, setback, or consequence. If the total is a 6 or lower they fail, and their fate is completely in the hands of the GM. In place of what other systems would call classes each character is given a ‘playbook’ which grants them access to ‘Moves’, actions which involve rolling the dice to influence the narrative in some way. Playbook Moves are, depending on the game, often in addition to universal Moves that every character has access to.

The GM sets the stage and plays NPCs like any other game, but rolls no dice. Rather, an AW-GM simply interprets the results of the player’s dice where necessary, and ends every bit of narrative with the core question of the system: “What do you do?”

Night Witches is a game that is grounded in reality. It is a game about a group of women who actually existed, some of whom still live today, and it is steeped in the  history of mankind’s worst conflict. The effort that Bully Pulpit put into their research is obvious and admirable, as the book is littered with dates, facts, and quotes from the era. It is also a game focused on the women themselves, particularly their struggles in dealing with the sexism and discrimination endemic to a military narrative dominated by masculine viewpoints. Their gender is not an inconsequential aspect of the game, but a central one. Homosexuality is also addressed; deviation from the norm was literally illegal at the time, and yet the ranks of the 588th were, for many of them, the first time lesbian women could meet and explore their sexuality. The book does allow that the sexism and discrimination of the time might be distressing for some players, and in that case allow for those aspects to take a lesser role in the name of player enjoyment.

The cycle of a session of Night Witches is, on the cover of things, a simple one. The pilots start during the day, grabbing what sleep they can while also taking part in activities such as scrounging for supplies, repairing their machines, and building social connections. During this time they can add to the Mission Pool in a variety of ways, building up points that can be added to later rolls. As night begins to fall the highest ranking pilot picks a mission from a list, the pilots are briefed, and they take off. While the real Night Witches would fly multiple missions in a single night, this brutal pace is abstracted into a single run. Flying in two-woman Po-2 planes the lead navigator for the mission leads the bombers to their target, and the attack runs commence while planes not actively attacking try to cover those who are. Success means a blow struck against the Germans, a safe flight home, and perhaps even medals and promotions! Failure could mean shame, death, or the dire attention of state security. The characters debrief, and a new day dawns.

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I say that the cycle is simple ‘on the cover of things’ because of the way the system works. Roll 10 or more on critical rolls and everything goes smoothly: the planes are kept in good repair, the squadron is well supplied, and the attack runs are made quickly and efficiently with zero casualties. Roll a 7-9 and start having to make compromises and hard choices or roll 6 or lower and fail outright and Moves can begin to snowball as characters desperately try to salvage the situation. The give and take of the 7-9 result can be extremely interesting, sometimes even forcing players to decide between mission success and grievous injury or death. Apocalypse World was a good choice of system to work with here, definitely conveying the risks and potential chaos of a life at war.

As the campaign (both of the RPG and the war) go on the pilots will acquire Regard, Advances, and Marks. Regard represents an emotional attachment to a person, item, or place. Any action which has to do with something your character has a Regard for, whether the Regard is negative or positive, gains a +1 on the roll. This could be something like love for a pilot you are covering, or hatred of the rickety old plane you are forced to fly, Advances are as close as Night Witches get to something like leveling up. After certain missions or when your role’s condition is filled, your pilot gains an Advance. That Advance can be spent to gain Regard, increase a stat while also increasing your military rank, be awarded a medal, learn a new Move, or actually move up the story by moving to the next stage of the war. Each playbook has a certain number of Advance slots available, and when you run out you risk your pilot gradually burning out under the pressure of the war. Finally, Marks represent the effects of the war on your pilot’s life and psyche. Bad rolls and tough choices can lead to your pilot being Marked, and when that happens you choose a Mark and work it into the story. Every playbook has some unique Marks, adding to the diversity of the story. Marks are not always bad, but there’s a limited number of them, and if you receive too many then the only one left to choose will be death.

 Night Witches is intended for 3-5 players, and can be played both as a campaign that follows the 588th from training to VE Day and as a one-shot focused on a single duty station and the missions there. What is particularly curious is that the Advance that moves the story forward, Moving West, also makes the one who takes it the new GM. Everyone at the table, then, has a character and has a chance to run the show; when the GM changes the new one lets their character fade into the background of the regiment for a time, while the former GM brings their character to the fore. With six Duty Stations and a maximum of five people it is possible that, if they want to, every player will spend some time at the head of the table.

At the moment the book, clocking in at about 174 pages with some impressive art, can be found at Indie Press Revolution for $25 with the PDF being available there and at Drive Thru RPG for $12. A free preview of the PDF is offered, while the handouts for playbooks and Duty Stations are also available free of charge. All of the assorted links can be found at Bully Pulpit Games.

Looking for a game that will take a look at the best and worst humanity has to offer? Want to take up the roles and burdens of the women of the 588th, who fought not just the hardest of airborne battles but the sexism and paranoia of their own country? Looking for a game that will push your character to her limits and force you to make hard choices? Then start your engine and take flight with the Night Witches.

Tonight we fly!

Originally Posted 4/8/15 on the Mad Adventurers Society!

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