I picked up a copy of Kevin "Mr. Toad" Barthaud's "Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne" at Indiecon last year, and I've been meaning to play it again for the longest time. Tonight I had the chance and it went really well.
These are some thoughts on the session as a whole, particularly as once again I was playing with a lot of complete newbies who did very well for themselves.
So tonight I played with my friend Laura, who used to be a complete gaming virgin until we hit her with a double whammy of Contenders and Apocalypse World at some long-ago Gaelcon and who's played occasionally with me since then. Other than myself, she was the only one with any experience. We played with three people who had never done anything like this before, and I duly warned them that they would enter into a pact with the devil tonight. How right I would turn out to be!
I've had a few sessions with people new to the hobby, and I've been thinking a lot about how to introduce them to the core ideas and mechanics. Tonight I framed it like this: "We're going to collaborate on creating a story where each one of us has a particular interest in one specific character, but that doesn't mean we only say things about that character or that we are the only one to say things about this character." That seemed to get the idea across pretty well.
(Background: I've recently had a Fiasco session that failed to take off, partly due to people (myself included) being stuck overly much in the character mindset over the director mindset. I'm sure you guys have better terms for this, but you know what I mean.)
I also decided we should do some warm-up before the actual game to get people used to playing both in summary and in-character style and to get the idea of establishing facts casually across. As a warm-up I decided to run a game poem from Marc Majcher's Book of 24 Game Poems (http://gamepoems.gizmet.com/about/
). I chose the <i>Danse</i> as it seemed most relevant, simple and thematically apropos. We had a very quick game of a revel hosted by a young lady who was anxious to debut her new piano composition in the presence of the king. Her mother was first to die and the silly girl announced it to the entire party, setting off an epic panic, with the king doing anything and everything in his power to stave off death. Hilariously enough he was super successful; everyone around him died while the plague refused to take the king. In the end, Jonathan was rolling 7 or so dice repeatedly without rolling any ones. He finally fled the mansion in a panic by himself and finally the merciful one came up.
A couple of things that were really useful in this warm-up was the newbies learning about establishing facts and embracing abuse done to your character. The king's player narrated the butler's daughter as sipping wine from his cup and the player playing the daughter immediately embraced this and played drunk. If anything people were maybe a little too willing to step out of their own characters and do damage to other characters, but this definitely played better than the Fiasco session where no one looked beyond his character's immediate needs and agendas. So great success there!
So then we came to Witch (http://www.ukroleplayers.com/witch
). I read the back cover text to the group and started going through characters. There was a brief moment of potential conflict here, as one of the newbies immediately thought the witch would be a great fit for one of the other new players, but when I pointed out that the Witch could be the hardest character to play we decided to give it to Laura.
One lesson I learned from the introductions, and this should have been blindingly obvious, is to let the experienced player go first when showing off a new thing. So this was the first time everyone had to set a scene, and they did great, but I probably should have had my scene first. I introduced Hayden as a dignified older knight in a heated conversation with his wife about why he's going off on this Witch thing. I decided to latch onto the "untested in battle" bit in his description and set him up as trying to make a name for himself that would be remembered. This set up a clear trajectory for my character, and Ham certainly imitated it by framing a scene where his mother urged him not to go "where the plague is worse" but him bringing up the money he's been promised to serve as guide. By contrast, Thorne only had a hack and slash scene showing him off as a blood thirsty killer and Br. Armond had a scene with his order forcing him to go against his will (bringing the "why do you doubt the witch" question to the forefront). Those two character struggled around the middle part of the game.
The next problem we encountered was two of the new players tending very very strongly toward internal monologue. When I repeat the word very I mean it: they had long scenes of nothing but internal monologue that added nothing new. "I'm walking along with the wagon. I'm doubting if the witch is actually guilty. I see Sir Hayden on his horse and don't really like him at all." Even after repeated prompting they fell back into this mode, which I will just claim is a failure mode. The phrase that finally got through to them was "actions and words only, please". You could see them completely shifting around their approach to framing scenes and playing their characters.
The action floundered a little in Act 1, with the Witch reaching out to Hayden for help, appealing to his reputation for fairness and implying that there was a very good reason she feared Armond. As Sir Hayden, I framed a scene with 'Sir' Thorne. I found a very good way to get new players engaged is to go straight for the buttons, so I was about as confrontational as I could, and Thorne pushed back very well. I let Thorne get the last word in that scene. This set up a rivalry between the two that turned very interesting in Act 4.
The two foreshadow scenes were similarly vague, with Eloise's character narrating a burning house at some point in the past before Act 2 and Br. Armond's player narrating a strange woman whispering secrets to him after Act 1.
Act 2 is where things started moving along a lot more briskly. We learned that Thorne and Eloise are brother and sister (and that the brother was absolutely unmovable on the question of whether or not his sister should burn). I don't remember if Laura (playing the Witch) or Fiona (playing Thorne) invented that fact, but I remember a heated conversation where both sides where throwing around newly established facts with glee. This was the moment I understood the game had come together and would probably work really well. It was also established that Br. Armond knew something terrible about Thorne and Eloise's family, something to do with their parents' demise.
I distanced myself from the developing central triangle of Thorne - Eloise - Armond quite consciously as I didn't want a tangled "everyone is connected to everyone" mess and because I also didn't want to steal their thunder at all. Instead I played my Hayden stern and laser-focused: the Witch must burn, my name must be remembered. My first step was getting closer to Ham. Out of character I understood that the priest and the brother would be easiest to manipulate, with Ham being the wildcard. If I wanted to guarantee the Witch will burn, I had to have Ham on my side. In character I recognized Ham as a toady whose loyalty was for sale to the highest bidder. I also revealed my left hand to be missing two fingers, with a nasty gangrene slowly spreading from the stumps. I had a plan to reveal the gangrene repeatedly, with it being much worse each time, as a sort of "my character is about to die" countdown, and while I often plan this kind of stuff and don't follow through, this time it worked beautifully, to the point of everyone around the table expecting it and cringing with each more gruesome description. Ham offered to make a concoction of "comfy weed" that would make it all better.
The rest of Act 2 was Eloise focused again. There was a great heated conversation between Thorne and the priest where I mentioned that the witch was mouthing along every word Thorne was saying even though she was clearly out of earshot. I threw in lots of little bits of colour like that, in this case going with the general feeling that it was okay to invent stuff like this for other characters if the player didn't veto it. People picked up on this and started doing it for each other, which was brilliant.
Half-way through the game, we had established a lot of strong connections and agendas: Thorne wants to see his sister burn at any price, Armond wants to get to the truth, Hayden wants to be remembered, Ham wants as much money as possible. We took the game-text mandated break, and boy was that a good idea.
The first time I happened across a rule-book telling me I HAD to take a break (Fiasco, I think) my reaction was "you're not the boss of me! I'll play straight through, see if I don't!" Turns out these people who write games know what they're doing. The pause was the best thing that could have happened to us. I made sure everyone spoke to each other in pairs to see if they agreed on the implied fiction between their characters ("wait, you're my brother, but you're how much older?") and I went around asking everyone about their questions. Not only did that help some people who hadn't really understood some implied established fiction ("oh, wait, did you mean you burned down that barn? Oh, that wasn't you? I see.") it also seemed to give people lots of ideas. It surely did for me.
It's surely no coincidence that the series of confession scenes comes right after the break. You're full of fresh ideas, and these flashbacks are the perfect way of putting them in. One problem we had was that a lot of people took the notion of confession scenes too literally and tried to frame actually confessions. The game text is quite clear here and I did steer it toward revealing flashbacks rather than "bless me father for I have sinned" moments.
Br. Armond's confession I found strongest. Sophie went back to frame a moment before Armond had become a priest to show herself in a secret affair with Eloise's mother. There was talk of Thorne being a troublesome young man, and if he couldn't be sent away to the crusades. Half-way through the scene Eloise's player said "wait, how much older is my brother?" and we all decided there and then that Armond was Eloise's father.
In my confession as Sir Hayden I went to the crusades, where I always arrived one day late to ever actually fight in battle. I described a temple painted red by a recent battle and in the catacombs below, Sir Thorne with what should have been a deadly wound going through a clearly satanic ritual (I described him as sawing through the neck of a goat and then tearing through the last few ligaments). In the ensuing melee he wounded me, taking off two of my fingers. I was prepared to put a curse into his mouth to explain the spreading gangrene, but Fiona quite brilliantly picked up on that and cursed me.
During all of this, the witch had furtive scenes with everyone, trying to get people to her side. Ironically enough, she succeeded only with Br. Armond, who accepted her as his daughter and swore to protect her.
In one of those scenes with Thorne we finally learned more about how horrible a person he really was: turned out he poisoned and killed his father and framed his mother as a witch. Br. Armond knew this.
In Act 4, we finally brought all stories to their logical conclusions, rather effortlessly. Br. Armond stood by his disbelief in the church's judgment, Eloise was given a key to her cage but decided not to flee, feeling outnumbered and her fate an inevitability. Thorne and Hayden connected in a most unlikely fashion where Hayden apologized for the way he'd been treating Thorne, as it had become clear to him that it was Eloise speaking through her brother's lips all this time. And in a final scene with Ham, I attempted to bribe Ham and all the other members of the party into making a big deal out of my contribution to the journey by writing a new testament and last will in which I bequeathed equal parts of my worldly belongings to my companions given the Witch burns. Jonathan, who played Ham, turned it around brilliantly on me. Referring to my gangrene, which was now spreading its blue-black tendrils up my neck, he confessed that the "comfy root" he'd given was poison all along. I duly died on the spot, even though we decided to leave my death ambiguous for now.
The Witch's introduction then was a sudden moment of absolute genius. Laura jumped back to her foreshadow scene with the burning house and cut into the house, where we saw Eloise trapped in the flames. Turns out that moment left a deep psychological scar resulting in a strange, schizophrenic girl whose erratic actions would make it very easy for her brother to also frame her as a witch.
We went to the pyre from there. Br. Armond is the first who has to read his paragraph according to the rules, and Sophie outright refused. Now at this point it was clear that three of us wanted the Witch to burn--Hayden had sent his squire to do his bidding. So we decided we outnumbered Br. Armond three to one and forced our will on him. Sophie was strangely okay with that, understanding that her character wouldn't be able to stop us by himself. This felt bad to me at first since we did just straight-up shoot down her agenda. In the end we decided the monk heading up the local monastery would take Armond's part and carried on with the burning.
The epilogue was also brilliant. I'd played before, but I never realized there was this bit where the Witch could add a negative twist to everyone's epilogue if we'd gotten the resolution wrong. We did end up burning an innocent girl. Then we all framed our ideal epilogues and Laura added a brilliant twist to each one of them:
Thorne described himself being rich and finding his ideal woman, who promptly got pregnant. Laura added that the child, and all children they would ever conceive, would be still born. The Thorne family died with 'Sir' Thorne.
Ham bought a stable for himself and his mother, but one day returned to find it in flames.
Sir Hayden died that day and made sure a bust of him was placed in a large cathedral. His name was remembered indeed, as his bust became infamous for crying bloody tears.
And Armond finally had a simple happy ending, leaving the church and finding love and happiness. The witch chose not to add a twist to Armond's epilogue.
My take-aways from this are:
1) When playing with new players, lead by example
2) It's totally cool to jump in and point out to players when they're doing things that create stagnation. How you do it is super important. Being positive is strangely effective.
3) Witch is really, really good. Montsegur, but even more streamlined.
4) Be careful of too much twisting. We did alright, but I felt there was definitely some stuff where we had to wear blinders and march through without looking at the story we'd crafted too much.
5) Warmup is a really cool idea.
6) Echoes are cool (poisoning, burning houses, the witch speaking through others)
7) The ending of Witch really soars if both outcomes (innocent/guilty) seem equally plausible. Was Eloise a disturbed girl with an evil satanic brother or did she work her dark magic through her poor, innocent brother? Both were possible.
8) I need to play a lot more games, and I need to find a stable group again.