Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Communism & Computers - Playing Night Witches & Save Game

For though he was master of the game, was not quite sure what to do next.  But he would think of something.
 Our block of playing Traveller at our Thursday night roleplaying sessions has come to an end.  The group had slightly mixed feelings about it, some of which I've discussed before - I think it's a game we might play again but only with some changes to the premise and rules to keep things moving - the trading rules in particular seemed to work poorly for us with Sister Superior finding the whole sub-system a boring and long-winded affair, and no-one disagreed with her all that much.

Rather than leap straight into our next campaign block we took two weeks off for one-offs. We usually take longer but since Traveller lasted longer than expected I didn't want to dawdle.  Still, I got the chance to run two games I've never ran before - both using systems that are popular on the interwebs.  Will they turn out to be all that, or will my group not be as wowed by the RPG.Net Darlings?

"No member of our generation who wasn't a Communist or a dropout in the thirties is worth a damn" Lyndon B. Johnson

First game up was Night Witches, a historical game by the makers of Fiasco and something I picked up on PDF on release a couple of months back because it sounded super cool.  A World War II game based on the real story of the Nachthexen - the Russian all-women bomber regiment who despite using ancient reserve biplanes were the terror of the Nazis.  Their story is fascinating in an of it self, making for a really easily game-able premise.

Night Witches sees players take on the role of the lady pilots who must fight for the motherland while dealing with the politics of their gender, the politics of the USSR, and the inevitable petty politics of their workplace. During the day they rest, repair and take part in soap opera shenanigans.  At night they fly.  Not all of them will survive the war, but they all have a chance to be heroes.

A natural-born Soviet airwoman, one of many pieces of art from the book.

This is one of several games I own which are Powered By The Apocalypse - that is, they use the same game system as indie hit Apocalypse World.  The game use "play-books", essentially character sheets which have all the key data on them for your character type including possible advancement options.  The core engine of all the game is quite simple - roll 2D6 and add some small modifiers, rarely beyond the range of +2 to -1.  A 10 or more is an unquestioned success, while a 6 or less is a failure.

The magic space of 7, 8 and 9 is where the game really happens, though.  These are conditional successes, half-victories and "er, almost"'s.  Players in these situations are often given a list of three options and asked to pick some - for example when you get a 7-9 on a bombing run you can choose between not seriously damaging the target, your plane being damaged or the plane's crew taking an injury.   As such while there's a strong random element to proceedings, that bad stuff that happens to you is always sort of your own idea.

A large list of miserable things that can make a Soviet woman's day bad: You can get this as part of the free downloads on the Bully Pulpit website.

These rules don't sound terribly ground-breaking, and I suppose they aren't - rather, it’s the presentation of the play-books that makes the thing work so smooth.  In Night Witches there are five broad archetype all named after birds.  Rather than a book with a host of tables, each character sheet contains all the key data including unique advancement options per archetype - so the working-class charismatic Pigeon option can form more friendships, while the quiet brooding Raven can better spy on her fellow airwomen.  There are options to buy odds and ends from other play-books and more than enough choices so two of the same archetype could evolve differently in play.

Interestingly, even the injuries and misfortunes can be different for the archetypes.  The general issue term for dramatic stuff happening to you in this game is "marked" and a list of over a dozen options is presented on each sheet - things like "watch a friend die", "betray a trust", "tell a story from home", "gain a lover" and the final option "Embrace Death".  Not all the options are, as you will note, bad - "grow and improve" is listed on a few sheets - but most of them will push the narrative and no matter how long you put it off "Embrace Death" means the Grim Reaper will come calling eventually.

The back of the Hawk character sheet, listing some of your advancement options including medals you can win.  It also lists a dozen possible Marks for this character.

Our one-off session saw a working-class Moscovite with a touch of Del Boy, an unfeminine Siberian farm lass, a good NKVD informer and an idealistic youngster band together to fight in the Caucuses.  (The full game has multiple fronts to battle in, starting with basic training and ending in Moscow - for a one-off we skipped a year into the war.)  As well as a night-time bombing raid across the ocean and the usual repairs to carry out to their planes, they also had to deal with a General arriving who had to be entertained by a dance mixer; an attempt to profit from said dance mixer by sourcing party essentials for the ladies of the regiment; a group of male airmen trying to steal their belongings because the "real soldiers" needed it.  In a slightly more NSFW angle, a creepy female political officer tried putting the moves one one of the group - saying that having a NKVD girlfriend would be an asset, while having an NKVD lassie you knocked back would be dangerous.

Unsurprisingly, the game spends some time talking about queer issues, including in the above piece of art and the example of play.

The only weakness the group felt was the actual Nazi-bombing.  This was the initial big sell of the game - you can get Raj to play anything if you tell him that he gets to punch/shoot/bomb Nazis.  (His love of the superhero game we run is almost certainly because White Knight, the Neo-Nazi super villain, is constantly provided for him to smack in the puss.)

However, the actual fighting rules are fairly minimalist and seemed to blast over fairly quickly.  It's certainly more detailed than 3:16 but I think they did feel there was a lack of any tactical choice.  Then again, in play the actual Nazi-killing ended up feeling almost the least important part of the game - the soap opera struggles of the Night Witches was where the heart of the thing lay.

Overall the game was a hit and I think I could definitely see myself running a campaign of it. The group were fairly positive - Matthew was I think less keen to play It long-term but everyone was willing to try it out again.   (Not sure how the others will feel when they learn the campaign rules suggest changing GM every time the battle locations change, though!)    Therefore, the 588th Bomber Regiment will almost certainly fly again - and next one-off block I'll look to try some of the other Powered By The Apocalypse games I own including The Regiment, The Regiment: Colonial Marines, World Wide Wrestling and of course the daddy of them all


The other one-off we ran was Save Game, which describes itself as "Wreck-It Ralph meets Lord of the Rings".  Players take on the role of crappy 8-Bit computer game characters who must rise up and defeat the Glitch, an all-encompassing computer virus attacking the land of the classic computer game characters.  Unfortunately, the better heroes have already tried and failed, leaving them corrupted by the Glitch and transformed into evil monstrosities.  Therefore your heroes must fight, defeat and rescue the equivalents of Mario, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong etc to save the day.

The fallen heroes, whom I called The Brotherhood of Smash

The game system used in this setting is FATE, a very bare-bones system that seems to have fifty bajillion setting books for it.  The core rules are very simple, with every dice roll being four dice plus a relevant skill.,  The dice rolled aren't normal d6s but special FATE or Fudge dice - a six sided dice with two pluses, two minuses and two blanks.  Each dice can be thought of, if you prefer, as a 1d3-1 (and that's exactly how Matthew treated them on his dice rolling app) but a pack of 12 dice for just over a tenner can be picked up from your friendly neighbourhood gaming shop.

The core rules and Save Game, along with many other FATE PDFs, are Pay-What-You-Want on RPGNow.com so they're free if you want to peruse them.

Save Game was…. Not a disaster but it didn't quite gel together.  Part of that was the weird dice which I think some of them found a bit off-putting - the end result is a very small pool of numbers and it felt to some of them a lot of hassle when 2D6 or 4D4 would have generated similar results.  (In contrast, they don't mind something like Dread because while the mechanics are keyed to a gimmick, the gimmick is something that simple dice can't easily duplicate.)  The mechanics are perhaps just a bit too light for us, with combat again being fairly simplistic - this may be because I was using the shorter Fate Accelerated core book rather than the three hundred page Fate Core, but I'm fairly sure Fate doesn't get hugely more complicated.

Another possible problem was my choice of setting.  Save Game has a  vague mixture of computer game pastiches, a collection of 8-Bit Expys like Magna-Monk, Sirtzendorf and The Plague Ghosts.  I ran with that, thinking that I might get too fan-wanky if I used my actual knowledge of 80s computer games and so sent the group to Pipe Town, a Mario Bros inspired area.

Unfortunately, rather than freeing the group from continuity, some of them just ended up getting more confused as they could tell they were in a parody but not entirely sure what the constituent elements were.  Mariette and Laverne, the Falzetti Sisters; criminal boss The GodTurtle; dark-skinned, yellow-suited Mayor Mango; the Yellow and Black spotted mushroom man Spawn; Exclamation Mark blocks that produce beanstalks leading to the cloud base of the Overground Resistance..... It was clearly a bit too much for some of them.

Not that making female clones of the Mario brothers is a terribly new idea.
 Which is not to say the whole thing was a disaster!  The players certainly got the right tone with their player characters, six pre-gens I created for them - Sister Superior played an ultra-violent racing game character who was permanently angry because that was his only animation, Matthew took the trippy "prehensile beard wizard" from a game and described his terrible controls, Molly played a chibi skeleton angry that he was too scary looking to get cute tie-in merchandise and Raj's ninja robot was very poorly translated from Japanese.

One of my six pre-generated characters

So, overall, it wasn't quite the full Wreck-It Ralph level of awesome, but I've played worse in my time.  It did at least give me an excuse to watch the end credits of Wreck-It Ralph again, which are totally awesome.

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