By Jason Morningstar and Bully Pulpit Games
You’re in a military airfield which has been carved out of a literal field and the runway consists of an old country road. Your supplies are low, you’re surrounded on three sides by German forces and you’re fitted out in old Po-2 World War I bombers which are made of wood, canvas and held together at times by willpower alone. Tonight, you’ll be covering the retreat of some of our men across the Ukranian countryside. You have no lights, no guns, just bombs and anything you’ve found which will suffice once you’ve run out. Oh, and you’ll be doing this 15-20 times tonight. And the men will be the ones who claim the glory after this operation.
Welcome to the Night Witches. Get ready to fly.
Night Witches is a game in the Powered by the Apocalypse style, set in World War II and about the all-female Russian bomber squadron named Nachthexen or ‘Night Witches’ by the Germans. They owned the hell out of that name while harassment-bombing Nazi forces all night, every night. What I wrote in the opening paragraph? That would be expected of them. This game deals with the players being women in the 588th bomber squadron, the titular Night Witches, dealing with tension from German soldiers, from men on their own side and the investigations of the NKVD. They build friendships and rivalries with each other and the planes themselves. During the day they fix machines and themselves. At night they engage with a different ruleset, finding their way to a mission site, bombing it and trying to get away safely. It’s incredibly tense.
Characters pick a nature and a role. Natures are what bird each character relates to: Hawk, Owl, Pigeon, Raven or Sparrow. They each have their own special moves and Marks (narrative hit points). Your role is the kind of pilot you are out of: Adventurer, Dreamer, Leader, Misanthrope, Protector or Zealot. Natures stay the same, but roles can change with each duty station you go through. They reward you for certain actions (e.g. walking away from a wrecked plane or turning in a comrade to NKVD) and make one of the general moves either better or slightly less punishing.
Like all PbtA games, the stats and the moves tell you what’s important. In this case the stats you can pick to begin with are Guts, Luck and Skill. All good piloty-sounding traits to have. Then there’s Medals, which start low and you gain the longer you last in the war. Get too good and you’ll either have to get moved somewhere you’ll be less helpful or stick around and start to get damaged. You also have Regard, which gives you essential bonuses when interacting with someone you love, hate or have some other kind of relationship with. This can be a plane too, which is great until they go down. Finally, you have Marks. As I said earlier, they’re like narrative hit points. Some moves will have you check one off when you fail a move, some when you succeed. They could be something cool like taking an advancement (unlocking something cool and new), getting a not-deserved medal, starting an affair, watching a loved one die. Oh, I said cool, didn’t I? Yeah, those run out quickly and in convention games you’re encouraged to cross a bunch off before you begin. These will dwindle away, cutting down your options until your left with your character’s death as the only remaining option.
Bully Pulpit’s books have a consistent crisp, clear layout to them; spacious and with bold full-page images evocative of the pilots and the setting. There’s a lot of historical information while is parcelled out as you need it, rather than bombarding you with it up front. Instead, Night Witches starts out with some notices about the types of issues covered in these games; adult, historical, gender-based and queer content will all be touched on. I couldn’t find any reference to specific safety tools like the X Card, but there are more than enough sections of the book to prime the GM and players on the subject matter involved in the game. This is good, because it is brutal once you start playing.
Each PbtA game has Moves, which are the actions you’ll be doing in the kinds of story the game tells. In this case, they’re divided into Day Phase and Night Phase. There’s an interesting flow to this and the book even breaks down the average day the Night Witches had historically to help with ideas. During the day you scrounge for resources, repair the planes and deal with the social issues around the base. Maybe you’re covering up an affair, scouting out of the perimeter to tear apart a farming plane for resources, trying to make friends with the locals or drive off the persistent soldier from the 217th who isn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer. At night whoever’s the highest ranking officer picks a mission from the current duty station’s selection and pairs people up in planes. There’s a pilot and a navigator, each with specific rolls they’ll have to do which are almost always going to hurt. Day Phase moves can generate ‘Mission’ tokens which modify rolls, as does regard for your comrade or plane. If you do things right, you might just make it through the night, if not you may end up in a burning heap behind enemy lines.
The Night Witches ran 15-20 missions a night, but normally you’ll only roll for one, representing the one interesting bombing run. This could be taking out an enemy munitions depot, startling Germans in a nearby camp, dropping propaganda, covering fleeing allies and more. The duty stations in Night Witches are a set selection of six which the Night Witches really worked in through the war. They have several missions to pick which can modify the rolls or force the witches to take enemy fire in order to even reach their target.
It all sounds quite formal in the structure, but it’s not. It’s a mess filled with side missions, distractions, gossip, scandal and if you’re not too careful, an ‘informal interview’ with the NKVD.
There are some great resources online for Night Witches.
The Supplementary Material document is essential. It has the moves and character sheets, but it also has a sheet for the Duty Stations. These are amazing. They have a day side which the players draw an airfield map on, then a night side with all the missions. There are GM pages with the principles and GM moves covering all sorts of different threats. There’s also a list of Russian names, which I found really useful.
The Nachthexen Cards come in either physical or PDF format. I went for the PDF and printed them onto card at home. There are portraits which I found really useful for not only reminding the players that they were playing women, but also who the supporting characters were. And later on, the character graveyard, the reminder of the cost of failure. There are also plane cards to hand out to people when they’re on a mission and Articles 58 & 133, just in case players are at risk of breaching them and bringing the NKVD’s wrath.
Outside of that, there are some interesting videos of people flying Po-2’s which are worth watching to see what the pilots have to deal with and a YouTube series about the Night Witches, which I found helpful if a little dry.
I’ve run one season of Night Witches, which comprised of three of the six duty stations and a little under ten sessions including character creation. We had one character fatality and a few NPCs who died early on. I realised in the first session that the group were fine with letting nameless NPCs killed as a cost of bad rolls, so I corrected that action pretty quickly. I took four of the character image cards, named then and had the group help me create the NPCs who were the rest of their squad. From there, things became a lot more harrowing whenever the player characters and their squadmates were in the sky.
Engles Aerodrome had some challenges from the all-male 217th and it felt incredibly uncomfortable the first time I had to bring the gender of the characters into it. Some guys from the 217th were stealing items from the Night Witches and when one of the group went to a male officer about it, he said that they were just boys being boys. It was so easy and horrible to write off that quickly. The intimidation from some of the officers, whether it was just being dickish guys or scary higher-ups. One of the best NPCs for instilling terror was Olga Barsokova>>> from the NKVD. She laughed once and it was not for a good reason. Lee’s character pursued a relationship with the NKVD deputy, Sveta, who was so painfully sweet that one day I will need to have her do something terrible and live through it.
In Trud Gornyaka, Svetlana (Lee’s character) and Sveta were spending some time together under the guide of looking for supplies. Another NPC, a pilot called Dasha, was with them. They heard a farmhouse up the road had some supplies in it and was abandoned. When it wasn’t, Dasha pulled a rifle at whoever was pointing a gun at them from the house. Svetlana couldn’t talk down the pair and Dasha ended up shooting an old lady. Svetlana instantly blamed the shot on Germans who weren’t there, Dasha failed to stop the old lady from bleeding out and was pressured into keeping the story straight. This got worse later on, when Dasha couldn’t keep composed during the debrief and Svetlana tried to talk her down. Dasha explained that she knew Svetlana and Sveta were an item so she was safe from NKVD repercussions. That’s when Lee went full Mean Girl on Dasha about the whole thing, resulting in her suicide in the woods later.
Our other loss was when Anya and Kezia were leading a flight against some gun emplacements. The group were cocky, having had one really good mission that night and some Mission Pool left over. They went too close, with their wingwomen hanging back a little. The plane caught fire, lost a wing, flipped over and crashed in a field near the German base. Kezia pulled Anya from the wreckage where part of the plane had impaled her leg. Rules-wise, Anya was on three harm, which is the most you can take without dying. But the plane was wrecked as well, and Anya had a relationship with it. The Swan had served her well, been lost and what she’d taken from it was added to the plane which was now on fire. If anything or anyone you have regard for dies, you take more harm. That would be enough to kill her. Kezia dragged Anya to an abandoned hut where they lied low for a short time, but it became clear that Anya’s injuries were too much. Anja revealed that she was Russian, but raised in Germany. She asked to be dumped near a German-controlled village where she would spread some misinformation to direct their nemesis; a German soldier they’d nicknamed Yellowtail. He fell for the ruse and Anya died a natural-born Soviet airwoman.
These are both pretty rough stories and the game is an emotionally draining one. It’s gruelling, but really good. The systems in place keep the play going and the human moments in between the missions can be charming as much as they can be horrible. The Svetas finding an old farm to ‘play house’ in and imagine running off together after the war. Kezia’s flirting with a farmer in order to get him to fix the airfield’s fences. The awful attempt to hunt some goats. These characters were very human and I can’t wait to experience the last half of the campaign. We just… need a little time with a lighter game first.
I’m not a World War II fanatic, unlike the rest of the men in my family. Even so, this was an enthralling game and a fantastic experience. I’d definitely recommend Night Witches. It handles gender, camaraderie and the horrible cost of war incredibly. It’s the closest I’ve come to an HBO-ish experience in an RPG.