Friday, November 23, 2012

Playing Mountain Witch 11-21-12

I recently played a game of Mountain Witch which I would like to tell everyone about ! It was so amazing I must share!

Stole this Amazon. Yeah, that's how I roll.
Obviously, I can only relate my account of events. It would be interesting to know what the other players were experiencing; there were certainly some bits I missed by leaving the room. I’m going to try to switch back and forth between what segments of the fiction which emerged and an account of the actual play.

We had Josh as GM and (if you don’t know Mountain Witch) the rest of us played ronin hired to take on the dangerous task of killing the powerful and god-like Mountain Witch. A fantastic wealth was promised to us if we could do this task. 

Justin playing Kagome (Dog, Yellow), who was a female samurai whose lord had been defeated in battle and who planned to kill herself after getting the money to completing some final task. Important to the game later, Kagome could smell fear itself and she had the preternatural skill to shoot anything she could smell. Alice played gray-haired Miyoko (Tiger, Silver) who was an older samurai who had become ronin after he made a reckless tactical mistake that led to his lord’s son dying in a rout, and hoped to reprove his loyalty with the reward money. Miyoko had a thousand shuriken hidden on his body and the ability to browbeat those who disagreed with him. Colin played Shigeru (Dragon/Green), a strong warrior who had willingly left his lord’s service, intent on raising funds for his own army and banner men, thus becoming his own lord. He had his armor and warhorse with him, which he rarely dismounted, meaning he often spoke down to the rest of us. Peter played Honzo (Red, Monkey), a man with plain features and red armor, who had been thrown out of his lord’s service due to an overheard insult. Honzo was a sneak, able to go where he liked without notice. I played Goro (Blue, Rat), a cynical man with sharp features who rumors say killed his wife and his lord after discovering them in a delicate situation. Blue tattoos covered his skin and he the ability to speak to birds and had a loyal crow who perched on his shoulder, Tsuba.

Note I only discussed a few of the powers, those I remember that became important to the fiction. Character creation was very good, we did powers like ala Settlers of Cataan town placement, where started at one end and then curled back around in opposite order (and then back again), so that there was some free equality in how powers were decided. It was probably unnecessary though, cause I think we each had very different ideas of what ronin powers should be.

An interesting thing which has happened is that there’s already been considerable drift in what I can remember from the game. Was Honzo shorter than the rest of us? Peter is somewhat short and as the game went on, he deliberately stooped in his chair, becoming even shorter. But I’m pretty certain Honzo started off at average height. I don’t remember if Colin described Shigeru as a giant, but that’s what he was by the end in my mind: a towering man of incredible strength. None of this was stated *I think*, and so I worry that means many of the things I say here may very much be not even have been part of the spoken narrative, but speaking with Peter suggests I was not the only one who saw these same shifts in our characters. Peter speaks of how Kagome became sterner and more like steel, how Miyoko became desperate and tired, more ferocious in his mission, how Goro (me) became more cryptic, solemn and quiet. I saw all of these things too in play, but I don’t think they were actually stated. Some of these shifts in appearance and personality (like my character’s) contrasted pretty strongly with the original characterization in act 1.

The first scene in Act 1 started with Honzo looking over at us and saying “Shall we go?” and starting our way into the forest at the base of the mountain. Soon we were in an encounter with wolves, which turned violent thanks to Kagome. Honzo and Goro stayed out of the fight, which ended quickly. Shortly after, a servant girl named Kono appeared from the forest, pleading with Shigeru to not kill the Mountain Witch. She claimed that both of them had once been in the Witch’s employ, but he refused to deal with her. Further on, the ronin had to cross a bridge in the forest and had to deal with the ghost of a warrior who had once followed Miyoko, but was browbeat by both Miyoko and Honzo to let them cross. Goro crossed on his own, leaping across the river. Kagome did not trust Goro and tried to follow, only to almost drown. Tsuba told Goro that Goro had to save Kagome, although Goro was angry that Kagome did not trust him. Still, he reluctantly had Tsuba drop a rope in the river to pull her in. 

All of the above had been framed by Josh, who then passed it on to one of us to frame, based on our dark fate. I volunteered and narrated us coming across a man holding his daughter, who was dead of mysterious cause. Kagome identified correctly that she was poisoned, having committed suicide in the same way as her mother. The father was distraught, and tried to kill himself with the poison to find answers to his daughter’s death. Miyoko considered this dishonorable and took the poison with her. Honzo, as he did repeatedly later in the game, claimed all of this was an illusion, trickery from the witch.

Next, we entered a place which Honzo later called the Vale of Dead Flesh, where we were attached by the restless dead, only to be saved by a magic word from Honzo. He claimed he knew this word because he had, in fact, been up the mountain to the Witch before but refused to explain how or why. The rest of the ronin presumed the word could only come from the Witch. We then came to a withered holy tree, tended by a spirit disguised a priest. Only Kagome considered herself worthy to go near the holy place, and it turned out the priest held a message for Miyoko. Kagome broke the sealed message open, to discover that it was from Ai, the former charge of Miyoko.  She was headstrong, and she was going up the mountain to face the Mountain Witch before us (maybe to save Miyoko from facing the Witch?). Following this, (Peter framing) we found a burial mound at a crossroads, which caused Honzo to freak out. Kagome shot it with her rifle and a severed child’s hand tumbled out of the mound. Goro recognized the hand and freaked out, but the hand vanished mysteriously in the ensuing chaos. 

At this point no one trusted anything: both Shigeru and Honzo appeared to be (at least former) servants of the Witch and Goro regularly whispered things to Tsuba in bird-tongue who would then fly away and return some time later. Miyoko and Kagome were fast relying on each other as the only two trustworthy members of the ronin. Shigeru constantly tried to deflect suspicion on himself by questioning the motives of Honzo and Goro. Goro was adamant that his goal was to kill the witch and Honzo was equally adamant that his goal was to complete ‘the Mission’. 

Kagome did not trust either Goro or Honzo. As the group crested a hill, she whispered to herself that she had smelled no fear yet on one of the men she travelled with, and that her mission would be to kill the Witch, but also to make this man feel fear and kill him.

We camped (end of Act 1), taking turns at watch. There was a scene I wasn’t in the room for, where I think the Witch invaded the dreams of Miyoko and/or Kagome, and there was something involving the bottle of poison (??).  Later in the night, during Goro’s watch, which Kagome forced him to share with her, Kagome saw him conversing again with his crow, who flew off, up the mountain.
Trust point change time! It was clear Kagome didn’t trust Goro, and I reciprocated by dropping trust points with Kagome down to one. I increased Goro’s trust for Honzo, but I was the only one, and Miyoko. Overall, much trust was lost for both Honzo and Goro.

In the morning (now Act 2), the warriors were greeted by a friendly 40 foot tall rock giant, who claimed he was the chancellor of the Witch. No one trusted him. He gave the ronin a bundle of food and passed on a message from the Witch, who politely suggested they should give up their mission. He also deposited a bundle of gold, a gift for the true servant of the Witch among the group. Only Shigeru touched either of these bundles, taking some food while the others were leaving. Goro told the chancellor to tell the Witch that nothing would turn Goro from his task. As the ronin walked off, Tsuba flew back, snatching a note hidden among the Chancellor’s gold. The crow gave it to Goro who read it and tried to throw it away in a sudden fit. Shigeru grabbed the note with his spear and read it: it was “Kikuya”, the name of Goro’s dead wife… and a name which Miyoko had heard Kagome utter in her sleep last night. Tensions between Goro and Kagome almost peaked, but Kagome won the staring match. Goro came away only knowing she knew… something about his wife.

We came to a crossroads, where we could travel either by tunnels or by the precipice road, and Kono appeared to plead with Shigeru again and declaring her love for him, asking him to think of the things the Witch had done for both her and Shigeru. Shigeru (or someone) threatened to kill her if she did not leave. Taking the precipice road, the ronin were faced with ice demons and their fierce winds, who tried to shove them off the mountain. Goro sliced the wave with his sword, but Tsuba was grabbed by the wind and flung off far down the mountain (I narrated this). Both Honzo and Shigeru lost their footing and nearly died, but Honzo used another magic word and Shigeru called on the Witch to honor their deal. Having survived, the ronin quickly made it to an inviting cave where Honzo and Shigeru might have been interrogated if the cave wasn’t already occupied (I framed). An old man sat by a campfire and offered to tell samurai a tale as they tended to their wounds and dried out by the fire. He told of an emperor in a far off land, who realized he was disliked, so he made himself so hated that his people stormed the palace and killed him, but he had last laugh because- at which point in the story, Goro sliced off the old man’s head and covered Shigeru and Kagome with blood.

The ronin exploded into distrust, with Shigeru trying to deflect suspicion on himself by instead trying to claim that Goro and Honzo must be spies of the witch. Honzo’s sanity was clearly slipping and Peter was fantastic, stooping to look smaller and smaller, grinning and mumbling constantly about how they had to complete the Mission. The nearly violent dynamic between Colin as Shigeru (who grew somehow to be a giant samurai full of arrogance and bluster) versus the impish and unwell Honzo was probably the most memorable part of the game. It was clear Honzo had been up the mountains many times and Goro seemed to withdrawl emotionally following killing the old man, becoming ever more solemn and cryptic, only being adamant that they must kill the Witch. Honzo seemed to have almost become a risk but his clear experience with the mountain path was too valuable to force him from the group. Goro asked Honzo if he was the ‘next one’ but Honzo had no idea what Goro was talking about.

Miyoko seemed the most sane of the ronin, but not for long. Travelling on, they found a scabbard for a woman’s sword, which Miyoko remembered giving to Ai. It was clear that a struggle had occurred here but there was not trace of Miyoko’s former student. He became obsessed with moving on to the palace and making sure Ai did not die like the men who Miyoko had once led to their doom. As they entered the volcano, they snuck past several trolls, preparing a mortal for dinner. Honzo recognized the man as his former lord but was completely indifferent to this emotionally, stating that it was clearly another illusion. 

The ronin made their way down to the Witch’s stronghold, to the bridge which marked the edge of his demesne. There, Kikuya’s ghost appeared and warned her sister, Kagome, to not trust Him, and she seemed to not notice Goro’s presence at all. Goro went into emotional trauma again, begging Kikuya for answers: was she having an affair with his lord? Had their deaths been righteous or not? Did she forgive him for what had happened to their daughter? No response and the ghost left having given its message to Kagome. Suddenly, as if a spell was broken, Goro could see that Kagome was nearly identical to his dead wife. He begged Kagome to forgive him, that he had thought Kikuya was keeping something from him, that he was sorry that he had killed Kikuya.

 Kagome informed him that he hadn’t killed Kikuya… Kagome WAS Kikuya! The two sisters had switched their names when Goro had become arranged as ‘Kagome’s husband-to-be, so that Kikuya was spared the harsh life of a woman samurai. Goro was in tears, as ‘Kagome’ told him that they would kill the witch, but then she would kill him for the death of her sister. Goro, suddenly angry, told Kagome that the only thing that mattered was that the witch must die.

Trust points continued to evaporate and cluster although I can’t remember all the details. Goro trusted Honzo and Shigeru highly (4 and 3) to kill the witch, but both of them could not trust him nor each other. Miyoko continued to trust Goro somewhat (2) and Kagome (who had been saved repeatedly now by Goro, but also intended to kill him) gave Goro a single trust point. Goro trust Miyoko also to kill the witch, but could not trust Kagome, knowing that Kagome meant to kill him. Miyoko and Kagome continued to be bound tightly in trust. I think trust evaporated for Honzo completely except for Goro’s trust, and the same for Shigeru.

At the start of act three, Tsuba reappeared, landing on Goro’s shoulder, where he told Goro that the shadow puppet was ready. Goro nodded. The ronin entered a great plain before the Witch’s mighty fortress, only to face an army of several thousand vicious Oni. In the face of great and violent death, the ronin ran, with Shigeru taking lead and pulling a note from his armor with a map of the fortress on it. The oni pursued with no mercy. Miyoko tripped and Kagome tried to help him, only for Goro to grab both of them from behind and pull them up. He told Kagome he had no intention of letting the real Kikuya die also. At a shear cliff wall, Shigeru uttered a magic word which opened a secret entrance to the Witch’s library and then sealed it after the other ronin stepped through, saving everyone from death. Goro wondered where the note had come from, and the crow whispered that he’d given the note to Shigeru. (In play we knew it came from the Witch, and there was some confusion when I said that the crow had told me this. I think some thought I was making a joke. I was not.) Shigeru explained he had once worked for the Witch but he was now completely devoted to killing the witch.
In the library, Honzo began leading the ronin through hallway after maze-like hallway, searching for the book of souls. Shigeru and Goro separated from the others, with Kagome following Goro refusing to let him be alone and contact the Witch. She was now convinced that Goro was the servant of the witch. Miyoko stayed with Honzo, who Kagome and Miyoko agreed was much more dangerous than Shigeru.

 (Colin narrating) Shigeru, by himself, wandered to an isolated section, where he pulled out a hand mirror. The hideous visage of the Witch formed there, and told Shigeru that he had done well, having brought the ronin to the stronghold so that the Witch might absorb their souls. Shigeru thanked his lord and saw a vision of the vast wealth and mighty kingdom he would rule as his reward. Shigeru added that he wanted his love (Kono?) by his side. In play, there was an odd bit here where several of us rechecked our Dark Fate cards. I had some pretty complex narrative plans in particular, and I felt somewhat impatient to have my own dark conference with the Witch to clarify what I’d been hinting at all game-long. It wasn’t going to happen though, not with Kagome around. I just had to take solace in the fact that I knew my Dark Fate gave me the end-all-be-all narrative control over the elements of my own Dark Fate and that I’d be able to tie my outlook in eventually.

Honzo found the tome of souls (he knew exactly where it was already, having been there before). It was a giant book, bound by chains and lightning. It could kill any mortal who touched it. Honzo was unharmed as he leafed through it, because he had no soul and proceeded to look for the entry that would tell him where his soul was. It was in the Witch’s throneroom. Miyoko requested desperately if they could go to the dungeon, where perhaps Ai was being kept, but Honzo informed him that he had looked up Ai in the tome and she was also in the throne room. 

Meanwhile, Goro revealed all to Kagome: He had killed her sister and his lord in a moment of passion, believing that they were cheating behind his back, and that then he had run in cowardice. In absentia, Goro was punished by his lord’s family by his daughter with Kikuya being executed. His sin knew no end, but he could make it right. He asked Kagome to trust him: if the Witch died, ‘Kikuya’ would be returned to this world. Kagome said she would help in killing the Witch, but Goro would die soon after if there was any treachery. Goro conceded to this. Shigeru, Miyoko and Honzo reappeared, at which Goro tried to sneak away. It was almost too easy for Kagome to shoot Goro through a bookcase, leaving him wounded and unable to get away. He was not, would not, be out of Kagome’s sight again.
It was at this point that Josh said he knew what all our dark fates were. He was mostly wrong. I don’t think any of us knew who the others fates were.

We made our way through the palace until we got to the hall of crystals, the anteroom to the throne room. (Alice narrating) Miyoko glanced in one crystal and suddenly was back as the master samurai, teaching tender Ai the art of the blade. His soul began to leak out into the crystal and Kagome grabbed him, trying to tear his gaze from the crystal, only for her own eyes to fall on one. (Justin narrating) Kagome saw an image of her and her sisters as happy innocent children, but she pushed this to the back of her mind and saved Miyoko. (Colin narrating) Shigeru looked and could only see his anger and jealously, how he had seen the riches of the lords and how wanted them, particularly the love they received. He would lead the rest of us to our deaths and take all of the wives of his former lords as his own. (Peter narrating) Honzo walked through unimpeded, for he had no soul.
(I narrating) Goro looked at the crystal and saw first himself, as a samurai. He had led his lord’s men to victory, and there was a grand celebration. Then he looked over and saw his wife and his lord talking quietly. Goro’s heart darkened at that moment. He always knew his wife held something from him, had some secret she would not tell him. Was it that she did not love him, maybe loved another? Then the vision changed, now it was later, after Goro had killed his wife and lord in anger and killed his daughter in cowardice. It was now the throne room of the god-like Mountain Witch, with the mighty monster of ice and fire that was the Witch sitting on his throne. A ruined man was dragged in by Oni, “We found this one trying to commit suicide in the forest below!” they cried. Let me die, Goro pleaded. The Mountain Witch laughed and offered to undo Goro’s sins. The Witch told Goro of the Emperor’s tale, this time including the ending: that the hated emperor had arranged for a double and so it was not the Emperor that was killed. Instead, the hated Emperor had abandoned his life as a disliked ruler and escaped to die at an old age, as a happy and fat peasant. The Witch wanted to do the same: he no longer wished to be hunted and hated but instead to leave his power and trapping behind. So, here was the plan: the Witch had selected several powerful ronin and Goro’s task was to lead them up the mountain. They all had their reasons to hate and despise the Witch and he would give them even more, except one, who he had groomed to be the Witch’s replacement, to become the next Witch. All Goro had to do was help the Witch fake his own death and destruction.

Finally, the visions faded and now it was a reflection of Goro, but the thing on his should was not his crow, was not Tsuba, it had never been. It was the Witch. The Witch had been with the ronin as Goro’s crow the entire journey. The thing that sat on the throne in the next room was the shadow-doll, ready to be slaughtered. 

We entered the throne room (no one shifted Trust), and saw the giant Witch-Shadow-doll of ice and fire sitting on the throne. Ai was trapped in a block of ice, forced to dance for his enjoyment. Miyoko stepped forward and battle commenced, with Honzo immediately running off to look for his soul among the witch’s treasures. Shigeru went after him (I think?), because he needed all of our souls to be absorbed into the Witch (or was it the shadow puppet? was the witch lying to someone? there was still doubt here for us at the table about who knew the truth of the situation). I cannot remember what Kagome was doing during this portion, but I know that Miyoko and Goro fought the ‘Witch’, with Goro eventually distracting it while getting burned by fire. The distraction worked long enough for Miyoko to kill the god monster, filling throne room with a rolling cloud of steam and melted ice. The crow cawed and Goro dropped his blade. The bird took off down a distant hallway, past piles of treasure and wealth. Goro followed, followed by Kagome, readying her rifle.

Miyoko strode forward and dug Ai out of the melting ice, making sure she was okay. Shigeru, full of rage and fury that the Witch was dead, attacked Miyoko and the two dueled as Ai watched helplessly. It ended with Miyoko’s shuriken in Shigeru’s eye, his blood seeping out into the melted water that had once formed the ice-body of the Witch/shadowdoll.

Far off in a distance section of the throne room, Honzo found the pot with his name on it, opened it and… it was empty. Suddenly he remembered, very briefly: he had no soul. He never had! He was just a creation of the Witch’s, given memories as a toy, a plaything, an eternal traveler who would forever gather ronin and then shepherd them up the mountain to the stronghold, while he looked for his soul. And then… poof, Honzo simply stopped existing.

Meanwhile, the crow landed on a giant clay pot, next to two other giant pots. The bird cawed several instructions to Goro and then flew off to freedom, out a window, supposedly to a new life where it was no longer the Witch. Goro smashed the pots open: within one was his former lord, within the second was ‘Kikuya’/the real Kagome, and the third held their daughter. Each pot was also full of rice vinegar, and as each spilled out, they coughed and began to breathe. The witch had kept his promise: this was Kikuya and the others truly returned to life. The samurai known as Kagome ran forward to cradle her sister. Goro begged for forgiveness… he no longer needed her to return to give him answers, he knew now, thanks to Kagome, what secret she had been keeping. 

But even in this moment of happiness, some sins cannot be fully undone, some things cannot return to how they were. ‘Kagome’ would not take her revenge, she would not kill Goro. But she did force Goro to leave, to turn his back and never come near her sister or niece ever again. His reward and other riches for killing the Witch would be split between his wife and his lord, now returned to life, to make up for his crime. 

Our epilogues are great, and I’m gonna do a bit of curating here in the order I report them. This is not the order we narrated them.

Miyoko returned to his former lord and begged forgiveness, giving his lord his money, and finishing Ai’s training.  Kagome, once she had made sure that her sister and niece were well taken care of and that Goro would never come back, killed herself, following her fallen lord into the afterlife. Goro left and never picked up a weapon again, living a lonely life as a monk, but knowing some peace in that his sin was undone and his family lived once more.  At night though, he would hear a crow and wonder if perhaps he had replaced one crime with another. 

In the throne room below, the water the shadow puppet was made of began to freeze again, reforming, only now Shigeru’s soul was pulled out his dying body, his blood intermingling, his flesh changing. He became the new Mountain Witch, with all the power and riches he had ever wanted, all the maidens and wives he could ever desire, but trapped in a body of ice and fire with no escape and no way to love another.

Tsuba, i.e. the crow, i.e. the Witch, flew around the stronghold several times after the ronin left, then flew into a tiny room at the top of a tower. Kono sat there and the crow landed on her shoulder. “Again, again!” she cried. “Let’s do it again!”

Then, at the base of the mountain, we see an average looking man with plain features, wearing red armor. He glances over a group of ronin he is with. “Shall we go?” he says to them.

With the game over, we revealed all of our dark fates. As may be apparent, none except Honzo’s and Kagome’s had been absolutely clear up until then: Honzo had the other mission, Kagome was revenge, Shigeru was Love, Miyoko was Loyalty and Goro was Unholy Pact. From what I understand, Josh’s guesses were mostly off. Somehow, and this wasn’t intentional, most people had become convinced my dark fate was love.

So, some thoughts.

So, my biggest takeaway, the one that hit me after playing it was how cohesive the story was at the end. Normally, improv and sharing narration is great but… in my experience, someone always bends a little to silliness somewhere or we all forget some plot thread and stuff is left unanswered at the end. I don’t play a terrible lot of narrativist games, but this is just something I’d accepted a side-product of allowing shared narration. I didn’t really get that this time. I don’t know exactly why, maybe it’s cause narration with respect to our dark fates was inviolate. Maybe other players felt differently, but I look back on what I just wrote here and its just freakin’ incredible how cohesive and amazing all of it was.
So, I think I’d laid enough clues that my little spiel in the crystal room wasn’t a crazy sudden plot punch from the right, but at the same time Kagome hadn’t given me many options to reveal this narrative twist. (Just how should an Unholy Pact-man expose his status to the players and not the characters when one character was watching him like a hawk?) To be honest, I had been laying the foundation for this twist since Act 1. I’d be interested to know how much of a shocker this was from the other players. All I know is that I knew that I considered this my narrative claim as I had the Unholy Pact as my dark fate: this was the deal the Witch had made with Goro. I think that having the Dark Fate as your own thing that no one could mess with was really awesome because it let me.

Now, here’s a thing… I could only explain Colin’s narration as Shigeru being kind of set-up by the Witch (and, let’s be honest, the things the Witch was promising Shigeru fit rather well with an interpretation that Shigeru was to become the replacement Witch). I was really trying hard to make it so it didn’t de-protagonize him and that just seemed the best option. Becoming the Mountain Witch is pretty awesome, well, to me at least.

The way it worked out, I was very glad that it had been unable to get exposed until right before we entered the throne room and it worked out wonderfully, but that sort of 20 ton thermonuclear plot bomb so close to the climax could have gone so very badly in many other games. I also wouldn’t do a twist where the Witch’s unholy pact was to get killed again, but I think this one time it really worked out well.

Most of us had not played Mountain Witch before; I don’t know really if anyone had played it before other than Josh. I hadn’t, I had just wanted to (and to read it… speaking of which, Kleinart, I can’t wait to buy the next edition now.). Josh, Peter and I were fairly familiar with narrativist story games. Colin and Alice were new to these types of games. I do not know Justin’s background. We made pretty good use of the rules. There was A LOT of fishing (AKA the Mountain Witch trick, i.e. the GM asking leading questions). So much fishing! Fishing was probably more common than Josh actually just making statements of narration. And it all worked out pretty great. In terms of the mechanics on the sheet, we didn’t make a lot of use of some of them. Betrayal came up, but only once or twice. We never(?) stole narration from each other, I think. There was a lot of aiding throughout the game.

So, anyway. That session was freaking incredible.