Night Witches is a roleplaying game of Soviet airwomen at war. With clear, instructive writing and design by Jason Morningstar (creator of Fiasco) and striking visual design by Brennen Reece (The Warren), the book does a great job evoking the WW2 Eastern Front milieu and lets players tell exciting stories of these underdog heroines.
Night Witches: Portraying the “Unwomanly Face of War”
Night Witches is a Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying game based on the true story of the only all-woman regiment in the Red Army that fought the Nazis during the Second World War. Being a war history buff, the unique historical narrative is what drew me to the game.
The game’s protagonists find themselves serving in a traditionally masculine space, having to defy Soviet society’s expectations of womanhood. Bucking the status quo in this time was often dangerous and could get them investigated or even locked up by the authorities. This creates one of the most interesting tensions in the game:
By night, they fight Nazis. By day, they try to survive the Red Army.
As may be obvious by now, Night Witches is written for an adult audience and deals with themes of war, death, sex and gender issues.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 with three gigantic army groups. This was Operation Barbarossa, the largest military assault in history. Millions of Red Army men became casualties or captives, and entire swathes of land, including much of the Ukraine, were lost to the attackers. It didn’t help that the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had previously purged his officer corps of anyone considered potentially disloyal, leaving his soldiers with too few competent leaders. But the vast size of the Soviet state meant that it could afford to lose ground, while slowly gearing up its military and its industries to fight back.
The women of the Soviet Union stepped up to support the war effort, working in the factories, on the supply lines, and at the front. Famed aviator Marina Raskova, known as the “Soviet Amelia Earhart,” convinced Stalin to allow women pilots to fight. Three women’s regiments were formed, but only one – the 588th Night Bomber Regiment – was made up entirely of women.
Tonight We Fly
The 588th flew obsolete biplanes and bombed German troops under the cover of darkness, often making as many as ten raids in a single night. Pilots would turn off their engines and glide to their targets before releasing their bombs. When they had no bombs, they would drop railroad ties. The disruptive raids became a bane to the German soldiers, who dubbed the hated aviators “Nachthexen” – “Night Witches.”
The men of the Red Army often looked down on the women of the 588th, and the regiment was given low priority when it came to supplies, support and respect. Nevertheless, the Night Witches fought all the way from the Ukraine to the outskirts of Berlin by the end of the war, and became the single most decorated unit in the Red Army Air Force.
Players take the roles of officers and enlisted members of the 588th, playing in anything from a two-hour game session to the full 33-mission campaign that covers the entire Second World War. Six Duty Stations are described, spanning the course of the war.
The rules are an evolution of the Apocalypse World RPG, featuring an emphasis on collaboration between the game master and the players to create the story on the fly. Many rules (Moves) are triggered by in-game actions and have to be resolved by dice rolls, the effects of which flow back into the story of the game. The Moves do not represent or simulate realism, but instead work to enforce certain narratives, especially the important gender elements and war story tropes that form the backbone of Night Witches.
Other game mechanics include Regard, representing the strength of interpersonal relationships between the player characters, and Marks, a grim countdown on a list of wartime experiences that bring a character closer to embracing death. When earned, Marks can suggest great opportunities for roleplaying and drama, but they also serve as a memento mori for players in the same way that the gradual spiral of Sanity loss does in the classic horror game Call of Cthulhu.
Between the Devil and the Deep Red State
Gamers who want even some modest mechanical detail in the air combat rules won’t find it in Night Witches; they would be better off looking at the light-but-tactical Warbirds or the upcoming Flying Circus (also a Powered by the Apocalypse game). The night bombing missions are gamed out through narration in a “Theatre of the Mind” fashion, meaning no maps or miniatures, just spoken descriptions. Players roll the dice for key Moves such as Wayfinding and Attack Run, in which they make tough decisions and take risks to battle the invading Nazis.
Then when the airwomen return to base they play through a day phase where they must perform maintenance, scrounge for supplies and plan for future missions, while being careful not to draw the attention of political officers for “reactionary behaviour,” which could mean anything from failing to perform in a mission to behaving in a way that doesn’t conform to gender norms. Night Witches is one of those roleplaying games where a player can even take on an adversarial role as the regimental snitch, tattling on her fellow pilots.
Night Witches is aimed at 3-5 people, including a game master who might be a rotating position. Because the game doesn’t encourage much hidden information between everyone at the table, the idea is that players could easily take turns as GM, from one week to another. As with other Apocalypse World games, the GM has lists of Agendas and Principles to remind them of the most important parts of running the game, while the GM Moves are provided as a handy checklist of twists and nasty surprises to pop on the players.
That said, Night Witches is not the easiest game for a new GM, as some of the explanations of gameplay seem too broad or vague, such as the all-purpose “Tempt Fate” move. It would be nice if the book could suggest some ideas for the “worse outcome, hard bargain or ugly choice” listed under this move, as not all GMs are able to improvise these outcomes quickly.
The publisher, Bully Pulpit Games (Fiasco, The Warren), has provided an excellent set of free digital resources on its website. You can download a preview of the game as well as a robust handout packet that includes full-colour playbooks (character sheets), Duty Station handouts, a squadron record sheet, Move references for players and the GM, useful lists of things that could go wrong with your biplane, and even authentic Eastern Front wartime recipes!
Perhaps the most impressive bit of support material is Night Witches: The Unwomanly Face of War, a packet that allows 4 GMs and up to 16 players to play together in one combined full-squadron convention event lasting 4 hours. Wrangling that many players is not too different from running a multi-party D&D convention event, but it’s certainly a memorable milestone if you and your friends can pull it off. The packet includes 25 pre-generated character sheets, an outline of play, maps, and other handouts.
The editing, compared with many other small-press RPGs I’ve seen, is extremely well done. The first printing, which I own, has no obvious errors, and the errata provided for the second printing indicates that the only corrections are capitalization and style fixes. The 6″x9″ form factor of the book makes it easily portable, and the ruleset isn’t the type that requires a great deal of chart-searching and table lookup. In any case, the index proves complete enough for a 174-page book.
Night Witches is illustrated by Rich Longmore (13th Age Bestiary), who provides scenes of combat and everyday life with the 588th, and Claudia Cangini (The Watch), who handles stylised portrait art of the titular Night Witches (also seen in various game handouts).
Night Witches Briefing
I prepared a video to introduce Night Witches to anyone who might be interested.
I’ll be running three demo sessions of this game throughout the day on 9 June 2018 at Roll for Initiative! | Kaijucon! Sessions start at 10am, 1:30pm and 5pm. If interested, please visit www.roleoverplaydead.com/kaijucon .
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