Review: The Mountain Witch
What is the Mountain Witch? In the authors words, itís ďa self-contained role-playing adventure that combines elements of Japanese mythology, horror, and film noir in a tale of trust, betrayal, and confronting oneís fate.Ē Itís Seven Samurai meets Resevoir Dogs.
In the Mountain Witch, the players each take the role of a ronin hired to climb mount Fuji and kill O-Yanma, the Mountain Witch. The ronin have never met before, and each one has a shady past and a hidden agenda. Who can you trust? What awaits you in the Witchís fortress? Who will make it out alive? These are the essential questions of the Mountain Witch.
The core mechanics are simple and designed to play fast. Each participant rolls a d6, and whoever gets higher wins the conflict, and gets to narrate the results of their success. The margin of success is important, and can color how great your victory is, and can do damage to the enemy, which lowers all their die rolls by one for a certain amount of time.
What really makes the mechanics shine is the Trust element. Each player has Trust given to them by the other players, which they can spend to aid or hinder them. With Trust one can add your die roll to another playerís roll, or if you are fighting against a player who trusts you, you can spend it to add extra points to help you betray your ally! Over the course of the game, the players will reevaluate how much they trust each other, and change their Trust points accordingly.
Itís interesting to note that the NPCs donít get any sort of trust points of skill bonuses. Multiple player characters, working together and using trust, can easily defeat any enemy, at least mechanically. The hard part is getting the characters to work together!
The majority of character creation is simple, but fleshes out the characters in very interesting ways. The most important part is the Dark Fate, which is a key element in the game, but for character creation itís basically a randomly-drawn dark secret. Character creation asks the players why their characters are ronin, and why they need the money. Between these questions and the Dark Fate, a character concept can be generated very quickly.
The Dark Fates are what makes the Mountain Witch tick. Every player has one, and they serve as a complication. Your Dark Fate is your characterís essential conflict, and your story. They are all very broad, demanding and leaving room for customization, and each one is designed to drive a great big wedge into the middle of the party-dynamic. Some are more obvious than others (with the ďRevengeĒ Dark Fate, your character is specifically out to enact revenge on one of the other PCs. With the ďWorst FearĒ Dark Fate, you have some sort of terrible fear that may get in the way of your mission.)
Whatís really keen about the Dark Fates is that at the start of the game, only you know what your Dark Fate is. Not the other players, and not even the GM. The duty to bring your Dark Fate into the game falls completely on your own shoulders. However, players get the ability to narrate things about their Fate into the game. For example, the GM might say that the ronin meet an elderly monk tending the shrine on the mountain. One of the players could say, ďI recognize him. His name is Bokkai. He asks me how my village is doing and I tell him I donít want to talk about it.Ē Early on the game this is used primarily to foreshadow oneís Dark Fate, establish detail about the characters, and have player-driven story elements.
One of the great things I found out about this is that I didnít need to have fully fleshed out NPCs: introduce someone to talk to, and the players will give them a name and basic details to suit their own needs. Maybe I had written down that the monkís name was actually Yojiro and that he had never met any of the ronin, but the fact that the player wanted him to be something else makes this NPC someone that the player is engaged and invested in. When those details get reused in future scenes, the players sit up and take notice.
The narrative of the Mountain Witch is divided up into several parts, the Scene, Chapter, and Act. Scenes are basically conflicts or extended-conflicts. Chapters are bigger chunks in the story. At the end of each Chapter, the characters reevaluate their trust, so this is when the trust points go up and down. Also, each Chapter has specific narrative goals. Acts form the narrative structure of the game. In the first Act, the characters are made and introduced, and if the players havenít played the Mountain Witch before, they rules are introduced and the focus is on getting them down. In the second Act, the focus is on foreshadowing the Dark Fates. In the third Act the Dark Fates must be revealed, but not resolved. In the fourth Act, the Dark Fates are resolved and the Witch is confronted.
The Act-structure plays together with the Dark Fates really well. Consider a player with the above-mentioned ďRevengeĒ Dark Fate. Whatís to stop them from just stabbing their enemy in the first scene of the game? They canít even announce their vendetta until the third act, but they donít have to do so to the characters, just the players. Soliloquies while separated from the group are just fine. However, revealing the Dark Fate is the start of that Fateís story, not the end. The resolution of the Fates (and the confrontation of the Witch) is the climax of the game.
One failing of the game is that these Act-goals, as well as other concepts, are not very well defined. For example, players are supposed to foreshadow their Dark Fates in the second Act, and the GM is supposed to push them to do so, but how to do this is never really defined. Throughout the book in general, many of the core concepts have unclear explanations. There are clarifications available online, but reading the book can be a puzzling experience.
I highly enjoy the rules of the Mountain Witch. While they are very light, they have a surprising amount of depth and are just about perfect for the themes of the game. On the downside, having core concepts not being in the core book (such as that Dark Fates are hidden from the GM, which the author has clarified online) isnít good.
The Mountain Witch is a game that knows exactly what the theme is, and how to get it. The rules all play into the core themes; there isnít any chaff. The Mountain Witch does only one thing, but it does it really well.
The book is loaded with a huge amount of setting resources, including monsters out of Japanese mythology, an intricate section on how Japanese castles are laid out, basic information on Japanese culture for us barbarians, a recommended viewing list, sidebars full of advice, and footnotes that cross-reference pages and have URLs for internet sites that explain some of the game concepts. (Not stuff like Dark Fates, but things like Stakes. The Mountain Witch is an independent game, so thereís a lot of links to specific pages on the Forge.)
The Mountain Witch is designed for short-term play, of two or three sessions, and pushes the participants towards a climax. Itís not suitable for campaign play, so if thatís what youíre looking for, youíre out of luck. However, itís not just an Ďadventure.í There is an overarching story, but itís so broad and customizable that each game will be different. There is replay value to be had.
The Dark Fate cards themselves are on black and white cardboard, and are sturdy enough to deal out, although you probably donít want to spill anything on them. The book is very keen looking, with a mixture of black and white kanji and some very good color illustrations by Don Flores.
There are enough sample paragraphs and cultural resources here to really convey the Eastern feel of the game and pick up what play is supposed to be about. If you donít like games set in Asian cultures, you probably wonít enjoy the Mountain Witch. If you enjoy Samurai or Wuxia gaming, or a good blood opera, youíll probably like the Mountain Witch a lot.