I presented several titles to play or try with the Spelens Hus group, and this is the one that received the most votes. I sometimes forget how well-established the voting practice is here in Sweden, especially for small project-oriented groups and workplaces. Once that vote hits the discussion, wham, that’s settled, sometimes unsettling in how thoroughly everyone moves on.
Briefly, The Mountain Witch is a multi-session but relatively short-term game with a distinct ending point. It concerns a group of ronin who have been hired to ascend Fujiyama (Mount Fuji) to slay the being who dwells at its peak, O-Yanma (the Mountain Witch). The logistic sequence of traversing the mountain and eventually confronting the Witch is not absolutely destined to occur, but its structure is in place as long as it can occur. Therefore,”can we get there, can we do it” is not a difficult task or even an strategic challenge.
What happens is what becomes of the individual ronin along the way: who they are revealed to be, what they want to gain, and what they may strive to become. The core mechanic is simple: fighting alone gets you injured and likely killed; fighting in groups gives you a somewhat good chance a lot of the time, but no more; aiding one another via trust triumphs. But trust is also the doorway to betrayal, and no one involved is “just” here to do the obvious job.
I came up with a clever tagline for the YouTube video captions, something like “A gathering of scum to do a hero’s job, or maybe it’s the other way around.” Surprisingly good if I say so myself, and now my permanently installed summary when preparing to play it.
Playing and posting about this game brings up a lot of hobby history for me. It may represent the cresting of the “first Forge,” from 2001 through 2005, across a whole range of variables which I might manage to articulate in a presentation for Seminar.
Enthusing about the game itself is easy. I can bullet down a bunch of true things without rehearsing or drafting them:
- It’s another example of peak design from someone who happened upon the Forge rather than founding it or defining it.
- (I think) It’s the first example of a role-playing game which does not distinguish among player-characters: not by play-function role, by socio-ethnic types, nor even by any specific abilities or qualities.
- Playing this game turns friends and acquaintances into stronger friends.
- It provides the essential example of “the fruitful void,” in terms of the thing for which there is no game mechanic, and which is not once mentioned in the text.
- It provides one of the best and most insightful statements for RPG design: “All conflict is a form of combat.”
- It provides well-organized distribution of backstory authority with a formal but not laborious means of getting that content into (and from) play.
- It firmly distinguishes between a character’s life/death state vs. a player’s ability to participate. Put simply, if your guy dies (and the damage/killing rules are savage), you keep playing with almost all the same mechanics, and some of them more powerful than they were before.
- It’s one of the early examples of good “scorching” by me throughout its design, when I’d learned the lesson not to intrude upon what the designer wants to do.
- It demonstrates celebration of a genre based on a faraway culture without lapsing into orientalism or other forms of objectification.
There’s also some negative history, as it was embroiled in one of the signature toxic moments which led me radically to alter (some say “ruin”) the Forge in 2006, and to announce its eventual, then unscheduled closure some day.
Well, no game text guarantees anything, so don’t expect insta-awesome fireworks in a box. But let’s see what Spelens Hus (including new participant Nathan) does with it.
Lead image is by Cornel Vlad; click the image to see the source page.