Actual Play – Crash that plane into my heart (6/27/2014)

night_witchesGM: Adam Koebel
Players: Julie Southworth, Morgan Stinson, Morgan Ellis, Karen Twelves, Sean Nittner
System: Night Witches

Wow, Night Witches has changed a ton since last time I saw it. (here and here). The most notable change is that the GM role is now held by one person per duty station (no more switching GMs between day and night). Otherwise though, the game feels much more fully developed both in terms of mechanics, and the tools for depicting the setting.

What struck me immediately was that nobody was honest with one another, we all had too much at stake to tell the truth. Beliefs, feelings, opinions, religious views, all of it – off the table. So instead we used our patriotism (or facsimile there of) as a weapon against one another and as shield against our detractors (which was pretty much everyone).

Talking about the game afterwards, it came up that playing Night Witches is like playing Orange is the New Black by day. And thinking about it now, it’s like Russian roulette by night. Devilishly genius Mr. Morningstar.

 Game Description

From Adam’s post on the Go Play NW forums:

“We’re playing Soviet women in an all-female night bomber regiment during World War Two. We’ll be pilots, navigators, mechanics and political officers.

Our mission is to harass the German army, which has invaded our country. The war is brutal and horrific.

We fly obsolete biplanes and drop bombs or, when we don’t have bombs, railroad ties on the Germans. Things are desperate. It is incredibly dangerous. We fly in darkness, sometimes a dozen missions each night.

The Soviet army wishes we didn’t exist and nobody expects us to succeed. We are going to succeed anyway.”

It was that last sentiment, the defiance and perseverance of the 588th that made the game so much fun to play. Without that I think it would have just been a depressing dramatization of people being horrible to one another.

Night Bombers

Junior Lieutenant M. “Masha” Gerasimova (Julie) the Raven came from an aristocratic family where she was always overlooked for not being prettier. Did she enlist in the 588 to prove herself, or just to get away from her families expectations? We learned later that she was an idealist quick to call our her fellow comrades for less than exemplary behavior.

Sergeant Elizaveta “Liza” Vorapayeva (Sean) the Pigeon had lost much of her family and hated the krauts. She was from Bratsk and secretly a devout member of the Russian Orthodoxy. She had all sorts of anger issues around authority figures that we’re mixed up in sexual aggression. She hated Katya, her section leader, but was sleeping with her just the same, bucked enough orders that she never got promoted (and probably should have been executed for insubordination), but had several medals for her valor.

Junior Lieutenant Svetlana “Sevta” Fomenkova (Karen) the Owl was a prodigal child of the 588. Except for an ugly scar on her cheek she was pretty, devoted, skilled, and followed regulations perfectly.  She wrote letters to the editor documenting every failing of “the people” in the air base. None of those letters were ever sent.

Senior Lieutenant Yekaterina “Katya” Trushina (Morgan Stinson) the Hawk was a shameless opportunist. She was our section commander and very connected with the aristocracy. She had secret meetings with the Major and thought of her self as much better than all of us. She reached for the stars and we never found out whether she would take them or be burned by their heat.

Lieutenant Hanna Ruttman (Morgan Ellis) the Sparrow was a child that bounced from orphanage to orphanage until she finally wound up in the worst of them all, the 588. She was tougher than most of us. What we thought was gruel, she was happy to eat as sustenance. She had done thing, seen things. She knew about planes and how the worked. She had dreams, bad premonitions, most of them came true.

Day time is the worst

Rather than go through all the issues chronologically here were the highlights of the troubles we faced.

Damaged plane

Last night to get through the breech Sveta and Masha took heavy fire. They made it back but their plane was un-flyable.

Hanna knew a mechanic that could fix the plane, but he needed work order from Major Kiril Popo to get it on the list (it had been due for repair for months and was never going to get attention without an order to do so. Sveta, Masha, and Hanna all worked to go through the official channels to get the work order approved. When Hanna spoke with the Major himself, he made it very clear that she should go through her section leader Katya, who would take it to to the squadron leader Senior Lt. Khadzhiyeva, who would take it to her regimental commander Major Bershanskaya, who would bring it to him. Yeah, that was totally going to happen in time for the work order to be signed, passed back down that chain of command, and in the hands of the mechanic in time to make the plan fly-worthy by night time. Totally.

Meanwhile Liza just wanted a plane in the air. She fucked Katya and convinced her during sex to “make it happen”. Katya scrounged up a work order, forged the Mayor’s signature and sent Liza and Hanna back to the mechanic with papers in hand. There was a bit of confusion as the mechanic had also offered to do the work if Hanna set him up with Liza. So when it turned out Hanna had a work order and Liza was just walking with her, not coming as an offering, he was most unhappy.

Health and Safety in the air base

After arriving injured from flak fire, Sveta sought medical attention, so that she would be fit and healthy to fly again that night. The line to the medical tent though was impossibly long. Being clever she found the most wounded soldier in line and tried to escort him to the front of the line, where she would also, coincidentally, get treatment herself.  It should have worked, it seemed like a good plan. The man didn’t want to move though. He didn’t want to cause trouble. And another woman Lt. Aleksandra asked what she was trying to do. When she saw that Sveta was part of the 588, she got even more incensed “Get to the back of the line”.

Seveta bullied her way in, extolled the importance of  being a good pilot in the service of Russia. She said that we wouldn’t win the war without pilots to fly the planes. That shut Aleksandra up but made an enemy of her for sure. Then Sveta let Masha cut in front of her so they could both be treated.

Afterwards, she went to her bunk and wrote a very angry letter to the editor about the health and safety standards that an air base should adhere to. Another letter she would never send.

Boot licking with the best of them

Katya wanted only one thing, to advance in the ranks and have power of those below her. Following the first law of the 48 Laws of Power, Katya was happy to lick boots, or int this case massage feet to get there.

After the debriefing in the morning, Katya followed the Politruk and the Major back to their tent in order to weasel her way into their good graces, or rather to displace the Politruk (political commissar) and put herself in the Major’s favor. Neither of them were going to make this easy, but she could tell that the deputy had some leverage on the major. If she could figure it out, she could take it for herself.

She was then dismissed to attend to her soldiers.

Picking fights for no good reason

When Liza went to the mess tent after debriefing for breakfast, she overheard men from the 218 bragging about their amazing mission the night before. It was clear immediately that they were taking credit for the mission her section flew! She protected, first hinting that he misread the call numbers on the plane, and them openly that he was a liar.

When he realized who she was, even that she was a she (Liza was wearing fatigues and had a blunt enough face she could pass for man some times), he laughed in her face, and told her it was understandable that she was jealous. She should have called him out right there, thrown a punch or called him a liar outright, but instead she tried to goad him into making the first move.

She flung some of her porridge at his face, and then pretended to blame it on being a clumsy woman. It might have worked, he might have been incensed, if not for the fact that Mayor Kiril Popov happened to be standing right behind him! Liza fell in line and apologized to the pilot, lying and saying that he had completed the mission that she flew. She was so angry, but this wasn’t the right fight to pick.

Outside she was kicking the mud in anger when Hanna, her trusted navigator came with news about the repairs (and what was needed to get them done). Hanna tried to calm her down, asked what happened and Liza first berated the men, but then, in the confidence of her co-pilot and she hoped friend, told her that she was angry that it was Masha and Sveta that flew into the breach, because she had been too much of a coward to follow them. Flying straight into gunfire would be suicidal, but had she been a better pilot, more valorous, she would have done it.

Night time is the worst

Our mission was to bomb the hell out of the Germans that had taken one of our air bases (one that we use to be stationed at) and were using it to attack us. We took it back. We bombed the hell out of it took it back! Some casualties of doing so:

The lone pilot Jr. Ltd. Zoya Perfinova had lost her entire section the night before. She sat in our our briefing but Katya gave her no orders, and paired her with nobody else. Without a navigator to guide her she followed our section (C) to the destination but without a wingman to watch over her, she was gunned down by the Germans. We lost of of our own. Hannah saw it happen and took it hard. Liza blamed Katya for leaving Zoya to fend for herself.

Because Sveta was still hurting from the mission last night, and because she had challenged Katya’s authority, Masha was piloting (instead of navigating) and had to put their wheels down. She came in to sharp and crashed. The plan engine tore right through the hull and landed in her lap. The wooden frame cracked and impaled Sveta, who was unconscious and bleeding as her plane began to smolder from the head of the engine. Soon it would ignite.

Masha got herself out but no others wanted to help her with Sveta. Other pilots were doing their jobs. Mechanics were yelling at her for damaging the plane, and the Politruk reprimanded her for wasting time when she should be getting back in the air and completing the mission, even though her legs were burned from the engine.

Liza did a piss poor job landing her plane, setting it way off course and got the attention of the Politruk for clearing landing it so poorly that she must have intended to put the base in danger! When Liza and Hanna walked back onto the air strip the Politruk stood in front of them expecting some sort of response. Hanna stopped to explain herself, but Liza just pushed past. She saw that one of her section was in danger ignored her superior and then pulled her unconscious comrade from the plane and carried her to the medical tent. I got to feel like a hero and know I was going to pay for it in the morning. Awesome!  Hanna was escorted to a room for questioning. She entered, sat down and then the door was closed and locked behind her!

Masha still did not want to fly but when Katya landed she ordered her back into the sky. Good comrade!

Day time is the worst

In the morning both Hanna and Liza were interrogated for their misconduct. Hanna got off by throwing Liza under the bus. Liza got off by seducing the Politruk and after some violent sex throwing Katya under the bus and agreeing to spy on her for “Sveta” (the Deupty Politruk).

She earned the Order of the Red star for her bravery and was promoted to Junior Lieutenant!

Quotes from the game:

“You just crashed that plane right into my heart.”

“The 588th – Like summer camp with guns!”

Thoughts on this game

Adam did a fantastic job of putting pressure on us from the start. It felt like we never had enough time to get everything done that needed to be and that there was no possible way we could get ourselves in the air and fly another mission, but some how we did. Flying barely repaired planes and bringing those back barely in tact, and then getting in trouble for not doing a better job was all kind of awesome.

The hipocracy Adam presented was fantastic. After our night mission, when Masha was injured from having an engine land in her lap and burn her legs, the Deputy Politruk told her to get back in a plane and keep flying missions, questioning her patriotism if she didn’t fly despite her injuries. Not two scenes later the same deputy berated Liza for flying when she wasn’t fit to do so and endangering the lives of her comrades. Oh, how two-faced and awful she was!

That said, what I’d love to see, presumably in a longer game, is the cracks under the surface of these characters, where the NPCs were nuanced and had their own faults, weaknesses, and even redeeming qualities. We saw just a bit of that with Major Kiril Popov when Hannah inadvertently put him on the defensive by saying that Katya (who had been having secret meetings with him to report news from the home front) wanted to see him. Watching what the Major would have done with that loose end would have been really interesting.

“Nobody expects us to succeed. We are going to succeed anyway.” – I mention this above but I’m going to reiterate it here because it’s so important. Without hope of something better, and the chance (even if a slim one) to succeed, this game would quickly turn into torture porn. I love seeing character suffer, but it’s got to be for a reason. So, if you’re running this game, do what Adam did and make sure the 588 can do something awesome at night, even  if  (especially if) they then have to defend it in the morning!

I seriously gravitate towards angry women who have had something taken away from them (family, rights, property, status, etc) and are now ready to pick a fight with anyone that challenges them. It’s fine, I’m not against the archetype, but it’s getting somewhat stale for me. Merrowyn from our Kingmaker Pathfinder campaign, Vonk the Sculptor from Olive Garden Apocalypse World, Kalkara my PFS character modeled after Aeryn Su from Farscape, etc.

When I do play women that don’t have a chip on their shoulder it is usually because it’s a pre-generated character (Karolina in The Mines of Agnocost who wants to protect her allies, Emily from The Harvesters who didn’t want to anger her abusive boyfriend, or the very young, very lost woman I played in Last Train out of Warsaw). With most of those characters I felt a little bit at a loss, like I wasn’t playing them to their full potential. I like causing problems and dealing with the repercussions and I didn’t know how to get in trouble with those characters. Or when I did (like in the Harvesters) I didn’t know what to do except apologize over and over to the other characters for my mistake.

I think my favorites though are Karolina once she decided to save the dwarves of Free Town, Fornax who wanted to rescue her sister, and Grip that was trying to make her gang leader listen to reason and keep the gang together. The characters all had a real purpose in the fiction that they could push for. It wasn’t a distant ideal or a personal crisis to resolve, it was an external problem that they were capable of addressing even though in most cases (2 of 3 from this sample group) they fail.

Morgan Ellis pointed out that during the night there aren’t necessarily moves for every player to make. In our mission Katya rolled Wingman, Sveta rolled Wayfind, Masha rolled Wheels Down, and Liza rolled both Wheel’s Down and Attack Run.  I’m not sure if the assignments were different, if that would have worked out, or if it plays better with four players instead of five, but Morgan noted that Hanna didn’t actually take any action during the Night.


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