The Night Witches
A role-playing game about the all-female 588th Bomber Regiment of the Red Army, which saw action on the Eastern Front of WW2. It’s a PbtA game, and closer to the original core of Apocalypse World than, say, Blades in the Dark. (For example, Night Witches actually has Moves, and uses Apocalypse World language such as “hold” and “forward”.)
Before playing it, I was a little uncertain how the game would work out—would I be able to generate enough engaging but thematically appropriate hooks? Would the players be able to stay true to the setting? How exactly do I use the Agenda, Principles, and Threats to structure the game? I have read that Apocalypse World explains how to GM effectively unusually clearly; I can only hope it is more clear than The Night Witches! On the other hand, I did find very useful advice online on easing oneself into the game and the logistics of running it.
I played Night Witches for the first time in late September 2019, with myself as GM and five players (J, A, R, G, and D). We had a large room with big whiteboards that we put to good use, writing down the names and ranks of all PCs and NPCs, the composition of the air sections, and the surrounding locations (Polish town, lake, German HQ, etc). I used The Unwomanly Face of War supplement to provide pregenerated characters for all players, to get started quickly. It was a blast!
Couple details I remember:
The Section lost one of their planes at the end of the night’s bombing (in a failed landing of a previously damaged aircraft). But only one of the Section members was seriously injured, and they wanted to return to the air. Lt Godevskaya (played by G) approached the greenest of the regiment’s sections, scaring them with stories of what lies beyond the birch forest surrounding the base (A had earlier established that some vague dread was rumored to roam there). She succeeded with consequences: she got one of the section members to injure herself to avoid flying that night, but the plane they got was poor (013, with a “Cursed” personality!) and the regimental Politruk became suspcious. Near the end of the game, these suspicions would catch up with Godevskaya, who would be sent to the Gulag following an Informal Interview.
In the course of the game, Lt Yegorova (played by A) took a Mark to “receive a medal you did not deserve”: she was exclusively credited for the Witches’ first, bracing but successful mission. At the very end of the game, Yegorova took another Mark; A made that her final one, and declared that Yegorova continued to push herself throughout the war, trying to live up to her unearned decoration, until one day she pushed too far. I thought it was a very neat way to close the game.
I enjoyed the way the game tied together and layered (“plaid”?) contributions from the different players. For example, R suggested early on that his character (Jr Lt Malinovskaya) had a friend in the town of Zambrów, an Anrzej Sienkiewicz. Later, G suggested that they were romantically involved, by saying that a rumor has been circulating the airbase that the regimental map chest had been locked because some lieutenant was writing love letters on stolen maps… And finally, on the very first mission, R took a Mark, and decided that Andrzej had indeed been his lover—but was now dead, though they did not yet know it!
On the whole, this was one of my best role-playing experiences. There were few rules, but so much happened in the two and a half hours we played! I also felt like the web of relationships within the airbase thickened satisfyingly as the game progressed. My only concern is that some players may have received less spotlight than they would have liked, since we were a fairly large group. On the other hand, people seemed to have had enough time to come up with very interesting contributions when they did speak.
Before playing I was concerned that I would struggle with producing enough thematically appropriate hooks, but the game basically played itself: the duty station creation and problems from the first night’s bombing run kept the Section busy throughout the following day. There always was something interesting to follow up on.
The specificity of the game’s setting is a stregth. It feels very solid, real, and that’s satisfying (and difficult to achieve in a less constrained one-shot game).