So, 'Night Witches' is published by Bully Pulpit Games, and is based on the Apocalypse World system. Or so they say; I have no experience of it, but although it's a big thick book, the rules seemed short, simple and intuitive, with most of the book taken up with how to implement them and a wealth of background information and colour.
The Night Witches are more properly known as the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, and were an all-female unit. Their job was night-harassment bombing; short range missions designed to disrupt the Germans, with each plane flying multiple missions every night. They fought from mid-1942 util May 1945, and in that time flew over 23,000 sorties. Their pilots ranged in ages from their teens to their mid-twenties. Of the 260 personnel who served, 23 of them were awarded the accolade Hero of the Soviet Union.
Their exploits were all the more remarkable because they flew an obsolete biplane, the Polikarpov PO-2, originally designed as a crop-duster in 1928.
They flew without radios, because of the weight, and without parachutes, because of weight and the fact that their attacks were at such low altitude that parachutes were of little use anyway. Bomb-runs were made at low-level, with the engine off, each plane in a flight attacking whilst the other two distracted the German defences. And all at night.
The RPG builds all of this into a tense game where the characters work their way through the war, flying night-mission after night-mission, whilst trying to stay alive, stay sane and remain human in the days in-between. As well as the enemy and the limitations of their aircraft, they must contend with the mistrust of their own side; those who believe that women can't be combat-soldiers and, of course, the dreaded NKVD, always ready to root out treason and counter-revolutionary thoughts and deeds.
Characters progress through six Duty Stations, each representing a theatre or campaign in which the regiment fought. The first covers their training, and the final station covers their involvement in the final battle for Berlin.
The nature of the setup makes it easy for players to drop in or out from session to session, and it's also designed such that each player can take turns being the GM, giving everyone a chance to bring their own style to the game, and also to play a character.
I found a nice introductory document in the game's free downloads, which does a wonderful job of walking players, and the GM, through the first Duty Station, whilst building the characters and learning the rules. So this afternoon I played through it with my wife, Catherine and daughter, Maya. I was a GM, but the initial stages can be run cooperatively, so all three of us designed and explored our characters, before life on the airbase started properly. At that point my character moved offstage, and I ran the game for the other two.
Another download consists of a series of 36 character portraits, by illustrator Claudia Cangini. we started by choosing one each, as well as a name, and went from there.
This is Catherine's character, Junior Lieutenant Dominika Yavlova. She's a hard-faced, no-nonsense pilot whose main claim to fame seems to be that she once spent a night getting drunk with heroic Soviet aviator Marina Raskova. Trained on crop-dusters on a farm near Novgorod, she enlisted to give the Germans the kicking they deserved.
Maya's character is the youthful Junior Lieutenant Natalaya Fyodorova. People say she looks younger than her 18 years, and they'd be right if only they knew it; she lied about her age and is in fact only 16. Not a great one for rules.
Finally I fleshed out the beginnings of Sergeant Galina Cherenchikova, a quiet, withdrawn widow from Kiev. There's a few mysteries surrounding Galina; her flying experience may not be all she claims it is, her husband disappeared several years ago, with his body never having been found and she keeps a sharp kitchen-knife lovingly wrapped in oilskin in her footlocker.
The duty station was Engels Airdrome, where training for several units takes place. We assembled, travelled to the airfield, received rations and uniforms (or partial uniforms), and were introduced to the basics of new lives and our aircraft by various senior officers in the unit. Once established I moved Galina into the background, whilst Dominika and Natalya moved centre-stage.
There was already a certain tension with the all-male 218th Bomber Regiment, who were also training at Engels, and who simply regarded the 588th as a bunch of girls flying sewing machines. In setting about to supplement their meagre uniforms, Dominika and Natalya managed to inflame the situation almost from the start. After suffering name-calling and harassment from the men, Natalya decided to steal the boots of one of their sergeants, which she did successfully. Unfortunately whilst not recognised she was spotted, and the 588th were blamed for the theft. Dominika went one better. She planned to slip into their stores and liberate some warmer flying clothes. Hanging around in order to get a feel for the routine of the place she attracted the attention of one of the flight-crews, Junior Lieutenent Sergei Yurlov and his sidekick, the boorish Sergeant Yartsev. An argument ensued which quickly escalated into an all-out fist-fight between the two Lieutenants. It was quickly broken up, but Dominika came off worse, being thoroughly beaten up, despite giving a good account of herself. And, yes, she started it. She received a thorough dressing-down, and confinement to barracks for an extended period, but escaped harsher penalties because the higher officers knew of the tensions with the male unit. Even so, relationships were now strained between the two regiments.
With Natalya sporting boots of dubious origin, and Dominika some cuts and bruises they were assigned to their unit, Section C of the 3rd Squadron. By dint of her earlier enlistment date, the youthful rebel Natalya was assigned the role of provisional Section Leader. The unit of six was fleshed out by NPCs: chain-smoking ex-factory-worker Junior Lieutenant Nina Biryukova and three Sergeants, enthusiastic literature student Kira Annikova, maternal gossip Kotinka Avilova and spindly, bespectacled soldier, Eudoxia Voloshina. Natalya assigned them as pilots and navigators to their three planes, and they headed out on their first proper training mission; a simple mock bombing run.
I'd like to say there's a big story here, but there isn't. With Dominika leading the attack, the section passed its first test with no problems whatsoever (something helped by me forgetting a rule about attack resolution which should have made things slightly harder for them*).
Back at the base they were informed that their next test would be a night-bombing exercise with live bombs. They'd have to navigate to the target in the darkness as well. And they'd be under the watchful eye of Soviet heroine Marina Raskova.
Before the test, Dominika set about trying to repair relationships with the 218th Regiment, or at least Lieutenant Yurlov. There was an ulterior motive to this; they had warm flight-jackets in the 218th and she reckoned that if she played her cards right she could score a couple. And talking of playing cards right, Natalya set about organising a regular (and almost certainly illicit) gambling ring, based around poker**. Natalya is nothing if not precocious. She sounded out interested parties and found a quiet venue, but also discovered that 1st Squadron was running a game too, something which will cause issues further down the line. Dominika got her jackets, but only on the promise of helping the 218th find out who stole the boots of one of their sergeants. Later on Yurlov's sergeant tried to make a pass at her, but she managed to arrange an accident that actually looked like an accident, and put him out of the running temporarily.
The regiment was inspected by Major Raskova before their next exercise. I had expected at least one player to arrange some way of meeting her, and getting noticed (such patronage would be worth having) but neither took the well-dangled bait I offered.
The Section's next exercise involved night-flying and live bombs. Natalya was lead navigator, and nearly got the unit lost, salvaging the situation at the last minute. Even so, her aircraft clipped a tree on the approach, causing some serious damage to the undercarriage. Dominika led the attack, but pulled out without dropping her bombs, immediately turning for home. Natalya seized the initiative, and took her plane into the attack, scoring a direct hit, and paving the way for the third aircraft as well. She and her pilot even managed a safe landing in their damaged plane.
The debriefing was tense. Despite the damaged plane, Natalya came out OK, owing to her text-book bomb-run, but Dominika came under scrutiny for aborting her attack. She claimed the bombs didn't release due to a malfunction (which was borne out by an investigation of the plane), but was criticised for not sending her navigator out to at least try and release them manually. Her failure lead to an informal interview with the unit's assistant NKVD officer, who decided that she was telling the truth, but used the incident as leverage to get Dominika to frame an officer of the 218th for her. You've guessed it - Lt. Yurlov.
At this point we called time on the game. They have one training exercise left - a proper attack on German positions. Before then, Natalya has plans to start her gambling enterprise, whilst Dominika is now stuck informing both for and against Lt. Yurlov. And all this whilst trying to get their planes and crews ready for an attack on an enemy that shoots back.
I was surprised how easy the game was to run. I wouldn't say our role-playing was slick, or remained in character the whole time, but with a basic setting and a few prompts the game has begun to deliver a world where characters are teetering on the brink of disaster much of the time (even if they are mostly ones of their own making). It's only a matter of time before incidents which are currently just annoyances will lead to tragedy instead. High point of the session for me was Catherine exchanging insults with Lt Yurlov, until she decided to just punch him in the face, and hang the consequences.
*Actually the rules I missed is fairly critical, since it causes even a successful attack run to have at least one detrimental effect on a crew or plane. These cause complications after the mission, on top of the ones caused by day to day life on the base. I will remember to apply it to future missions.
**I have no idea if poker was even played in Soviet Russia in the 1940s. We'll assume that *some* card game filled the role, and just call it poker.