“Night Witches” is an Incredible Game About Women, War, Trauma, and Screwing Your Friends
Junior Lieutenant Oksana Boykova lay on her cot in the infirmary at the Buchholz Airfield. Until recently, it was a major airbase for the Luftwaffe. Now, it housed the 588th Night Bombers Regiment of the Red Army Airforce. Boykova had flown many dangerous mission with the 588th, as a pilot and Section Leader, and then as a navigator. But tonight she was recovering. A mission near embattled Berlin had resulted in a shattered windshield which had wounded her face, possibly even damaging her eye.
She listened in the waning dusk light as her comrades took off in their rickety Po-2 bombers: biplanes about twenty years out of date with engines that reminded one of a sewing machine motor. Having been on a night schedule since she started flying for the Soviet Air Force in 1942, she lay awake in the darkness next to Daz, a mechanic-turned-pilot who had broken her arm on the same mission over Berlin. They waited all night to hear the sound of the engines as her comrades returned.
The sound never came. It wasn’t until days later, when three of her friends returned bearing the body of the fourth that she found out what had happened, that the planes had been too badly damaged to make it back to Buchholz. That everyone was okay, except for Lyuba, who had taken a one-in-a-million shot from a machine gun and bled out in the cockpit. They grieved as the airbase erupted in celebration. While the women were coming back to base, the war had ended.
Night Witches, developed by Jason Morningstar and published by Bully Pulpit Games, is a game about the eastern front of the Second World War. Players play as the women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Red Army Air Force. The 588th was an all-female regiment of harassment bombers. In actual history, about 80 women flew with the 588th, making about 25,000 sorties between 1942 and the end of the war. They flew outdated planes, had no parachutes or radios, and were stuck between Nazis who wanted to pick them out of the sky on one side, and a patriarchal bureaucracy that wanted them to fail on the other. In all, nearly half of the women (about 32) died in combat.
The name “Night Witches” comes from a designation the German troops gave them, a reference to the way they would seem to come from no where, drop bombs, and leave just as mysteriously. According to the women themselves, this is because they would often turn off their engines and glide over the target silently before releasing bombs.
During a session of Night Witches, play alternates between Day and Night. Night is when the missions happen. Players are briefed and assigned to certain roles, a mission is selected, and moves are made that help determine what happens next. Day is what happens in between, when characters manage repairs, personal drama, relationships back home, and interviews with the NKVD.
Night Witches is a Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) game, and it maintains a handful of those familiar structures. Rolls consist of 2d6 plus stats. A 6- is a miss, a 7–9 is a mixed success, and a 10+ is a success. Characters are created from Playbooks (called “Natures” here) which are more about defining the character’s personality than anything else. Characters have moves that allow them to use stats and which carry consequences for failure. There are different sets of moves for Night and Day. At Night, players have access to different moves depending on where in the plane they are sitting.
The game breaks with the PBTA model in some key ways. I already mentioned the way that Natures are more about characterization than anything else. This is because in Night Witches, everyone is flying in a bomber. You can tweak to be a better pilot or a better navigator, but all characters are capable of both. Adding to natures is a character’s “role,” which is something that can change from session to session. The role is something like “Dreamer” or “Zealot” or “Adventurer” and rewards players with advances for playing in a certain way. It can also affect certain moves. For example, if someone with a “Leader” role leads an attack run and is successful, all further attack runs get a +1 forward for that mission.
Characters can take harm, as in other PBTA games. In this one, 1 harm represents stress, 2 harm is a minor injury, 3 harm is an injury requiring hospitalization, and 4 harm is death. But a more dramatic way for players to get taken out is by using the Mark system. Occasionally a consequence for a move will require a character to take a Mark. Marks represent the accumulated stress of combat on a character. These often come as a consequence for taking enemy fire or for an imperfect bombing run. They range in effect, from allowing you to be promoted or take a lover, to giving the player a chance to pause the action and tell a story of the character’s home life. Some more intense Marks are things like “Witness the death of a comrade.” But one Mark, usually the last one chosen, is always “Embrace Death.” When you have no other option, that’s the Mark you must take. From that moment, the character is headed for their doom, which may come immediately, or during an appropriately dramatic moment. We lost two characters this way.
The Mark system and the roles mechanic highlight interesting ways that characters can interfere with one another. Someone with the Zealot role can gain an advance by calling out another character publicly, something which might get them in hot water with the NKVD. When you take a Mark during a mission, the other player in your plane usually has to take one as well. One of my players had a move that allowed them to reassign a Mark they would receive to another player. Over the course of one session, this allowed them to sentence another character to death: the unlucky Lyuba.
Night Witches can be played as a one shot, but it works best in a campaign. In addition to the Day and Night cycle, the campaign moves through six Duty Stations which follow the 588th through the historical course of the war. The game book and the Duty Station sheets do a great job of setting these things in their proper context as the women move from training to the Battle of the Caucuses to Poland and eventually to Berlin. Missions, based on real sorties the regiment experienced, are laid out for the GM. This serves two important purposes. The first is that it allows the GM to focus on the characters and not on having to dream up historically accurate missions for each session. You pick one and let it go. The second is that Night Witches has a fluid GM system. When a character dies or is wounded or is sent off to do something else for a while, that player can take over as GM and the GM can roll up a new recruit.
That the missions and Duty Stations are predetermined means that anyone can slip in and take over without missing a beat. The missions also allow for some flexibility when it comes to time. Some missions are more interesting than others, and some carry bigger rewards, for example, advancing all who participate. My group’s play sessions are on the shorter side, about three hours, which means I couldn’t always get through a full six missions. However, I could choose the ones that advanced both the characters and the plot. Some missions are also more challenging than others, so it’s nice to be able to alternate between say, bombing a fortified city and dropping propaganda leaflets on retreating German troops.
Mostly though, this structure allowed me to focus on making big moments happen, especially because the missions themselves are so compelling. In one particularly dramatic moment, the airbase was hastily evacuated after being overrun by Nazi troops. One character, Marina, had taken the Mark “witness the death of a comrade,” and during the fight to take back the airfield, it was activated. The players were running air support for Partisans coordinating with NKVD Senior Officer Barsukova. A much-loved NPC had gone missing during the evacuation, but Marina saw her from the air, fighting alongside the Partisans, wielding a stolen German gun from horseback. When the dust cleared, the players found the corpse of the horse, and Marina found the NPC, Galya, bleeding out in her cot from a stomach wound. This was supposed to be the comrade who died, but another player used a move to spare her life. What they got was Barsukova, Marina’s mentor, personally driving Galya to a nearby city to be treated at a military hospital. However, Barsukova’s meddling in guerilla warfare caught up to her, and a band of Nazi-allied partisans ambushed and killed her on the way back. All of this arose naturally from the moves used during one specific Day and Night cycle.
There are a couple of drawbacks to the game, mostly related to the setting. While I do feel like the book does a good job of providing historical context and direction on where to find more information, my players felt a little out of their depth in creating historical characters for this time and place. While I was able to guide them either by giving advice or by directing them to other places, the reality was that I came into the game with a lot of historical knowledge of the eastern front and of the Soviet Union, which they mostly lacked. In play, this wasn’t a big deal, as players mostly had to inhabit a world I had illustrated, but they often expressed that they felt a little intimidated about taking over the GM role.
I chose to include elements like Partisans, making Galya a Crimean Tatar, and striking a tonal balance between optimism about a Socialist future and cynicism born from recent trauma. Another GM may have chosen a completely different set of priorities and inclusions. This means that although there is a fluid-GM system, it’s most likely that GM duties would default to whoever is most knowledgeable or enthusiastic about the setting. On the flip side of that, because I’m a huge nerd, I wanted to pack in every detail whether it served the plot or not. I restrained myself, but I also found myself thankful that no one else knew as much as I did about this topic for fear that some historical inaccuracy would be noted.
This is a general pitfall of roleplaying in a historical setting. Those who aren’t as knowledgeable might feel intimidated by the setting, while those who are knowledgeable might nitpick or overstuff the game to show off. The specific danger here is separating our feelings about the Soviet Union during the Cold War from the pre-Cold War setting. The temptation to talk in a Boris and Natasha accent or frame the Soviet Union in a way that does not match the particular vibe of the Great Patriotic War can be too great. It’s hard to figure out how much historical context is too much in a session zero. Ultimately, the game isn’t about the history, it’s about the characters. But striking that balance is a little harder than in, say, a game where you play sci-fi space pilots.
In all, I rank Night Witches alongside Ten Candles or Alas Vegas as a “Very Special Game.” You wouldn’t want to play these all the time, but when they work, they create some of the greatest TTRPG experiences I’ve ever had. These are games that evoke big feelings and big investment in plot and characters. They create the kind of moments you tell your partner about as soon as the session ends. But like the others, it requires a certain level of buy-in and focus.
Night Witches is about women at war. It provides ways for characters to help or hurt each other. It deals with real-world trauma and real historical events. Sexism, homophobia, and nationalism are themes in this game. So are love, loss, friendship, and self-serving betrayal. With some groups, it possible for this game to have very heavy emotional moments and themes, and safety is a key concern. My game contained very sparing but still direct references to the holocaust, as I thought it would be irresponsible to obscure that detail. Some groups may not want to engage with that level of trauma in-game. Since everything from the map of the airfield to the GM duties is collaborative, it’s important for players to be on the same page about tone and content. This is a game for people who trust each other, even if they are playing characters who don’t.
Beyond that, I can’t recommend it enough. If you are looking for a unique and exciting TTRPG experience, Night Witches is perfect. We played digitally, but as people are getting vaccinated and can play in person again, this is a game that can only get better being played in a room together, passing around the vodka and sunflower seeds, and standing up to receive your medals. Give this one a try.