The Witch is Dead RPG Review

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After a successful run at "Honey Heist," we decided to do another similar (and even more popular) RP system from the same author: The Witch is Dead. In the Witch is Dead, roleplayers take on the role of magical animals. After the murder of their master, they are tasked with finding the eyes of her killer (the Witch Hunter) and bringing them back to her, to concoct a spell and make it so that the witch will live again. The Witch is Dead is an interesting system, because by all means, players report either having a horrible time with it or a great time with it. I can probably shine some light on why.

Not a Game for All Players

The Witch is Dead was a learning moment for me. Having DMed for well over two decades, I usually know how to deal with recalcitrant players, but both Honey Heist and The Witch is Dead brought out the worst in even the best ones. "Can I be a cat instead of a bear?" asked one player during Honey Heist. "No, it's about bears." "Yeah, but, I'm gonna be a cat." "NO!"

Storytelling-based systems are designed to make the game more open-ended, and for whatever reason, that angers a lot of people. Once players realize that they're expected to be creative outside of the confines of ordinary boxes, they react in three ways: they either get on board, get angry, or get quiet. Unfortunately, the latter two are way more common than the former. 

In The Witch is Dead a player immediately noticed the danger system and insisted on rolling eight times in a row to bring his danger up, saying the game was "stupid" and they should be able to do it if they wanted to. They got angry that their magical ability "open locks" wasn't working for them, even as I gave indication after indication that it was a particularly difficult lock for a reason (the key was hidden somewhere in the room). That player stopped playing halfway through the game entirely, angrily checking his phone.

And that's not to say that fun things didn't happen throughout the game. The dog marauded through the village, accidentally slaughtering his way through a group of children. The spider's danger level led to him losing legs repeatedly, which he stitched back together with the legs of others he found. The owl's entreaties into finding news with his owl brethren led to a small forest glade, in which the rats were drunk and plentiful (that's news to an owl). All of it was wrapped around a witch who had been selling homeopathic remedies throughout the village, contesting with a rival. Interesting things were happening, but the players couldn't get past the fact that they hated it.

An example is when they found a locked door. Instead of the spider now using his unlock skill, the owl insisted "I throw up the key. I swallowed it at some point. I throw it up. That's what I do. I know I did this, so that's what I do." The dog discovered that the hare was actually the Witch Hunter's son, then refused to mention it to the hare -- not because he wouldn't, but because the player personally had stopped caring. The hare simply up and left about three quarters of the way through the game, leaving the other players apathetic. 

By the twist of the game (which had the twist that "a rival witch set her up") all the remaining players threw up their hands and stated they don't care, and "if they could just stop playing this f***ing game." The game had only lasted two hours. 

The Difference Between a Good Game and a Bad Game

The Witch is Dead is not effectively different from the two other games I've run recently: Motherf***in' Crab Truckers and Honey Heist. If anything, there was more meat to this one. The difference was that each of them had an advocate. In Crab Truckers, Sai was instantly on board with the game and was able to craft it into something interesting and compelling on his side, even if it completely derailed the story. In Honey Heist, James was able to work with me creatively without trying to be intentionally disruptive. When anything interesting happened to him (even if it was negative), he was on board. There was no "Wait, but," it was "OK, so..."

And that's important. Because if you have a whole group of people who genuinely don't want to play a game, they are going to find any reason they possibly can to hate that game. And as a gamemaster, you're going to invariably take that personally when it isn't personal. It isn't even the fault of the system, though the system does have a few faults. The process of DMing a game is the process of telling a story with your players. If the players don't want to tell a story, they won't. 

And, as a Social Aside...

Early on I noticed that the players were not naturally deferring to me as a gamemaster. Every decision I made was questioned or met with "that doesn't make any sense" or a flat out "no." I asked a player to roll for his character and he insisted that he choose his character, going so far as to tear up his first, random character sheet. I've never, in a game, had so many players simply say "no" to me as a gamemaster, continuing on with what they wanted to do. 

It's not a coincidence that the advocates I mentioned above were both male. Having an advocate at the table who is male helps me keep control of an all male table. An advocate doesn't necessarily agree with you or do what you want them to do -- Sai consistently plays as disruptively as possible. An advocate simply plays within the confines of the game and leads by example.

Whether it's perceived as fair or not, or whether it's perceived as being histrionic or paranoid or not, I have found in my experience that it's far easier to keep an all male table focused if at least one of them is actively helping. This issue seems to dissolve entirely when playing with mixed tables. 

Part of this is undoubtedly on my own social conditioning, as it's far more common for women to give a "soft no" than a "hard no." If a player comes out with something truly ridiculous, I might ask leading questions: "Why would he have a key to a cell that he had never seen before?" These types of responses are perceived by me as a hard pass, but perceived by others as a maybe. 

So, What's Wrong With the System?

It should be noted that this was a system that was requested. All of these systems have been explicitly requested. So you would think that players would be on board, but the truth of the matter is they often can't figure out whether they're going to like something until they're placed into it. 

There are a few things that make the system more frustrating than others. One is the limitation on speaking; animals can only speak to other animals of the same type. This automatically cut off the spider and the owl, who had difficulty finding motivations. Because of this, the party split early on, which made it difficult to manage group interactions.

A few of the setup rolls are inexplicably bad. Finding the town "abandoned" makes the entire game incredibly difficult to run. A lot of the player skills are more useful than others; make flame, for instance, has a huge amount of utility compared to making a book read itself outloud. (Or, to be more specific, some of these skills require a lot more creativity than others, making it much harder for players to use them.)

A high danger level means that players can get very badly injured or even die early on in the game. Rather than introduce a level of intrigue to the game, it simply made the players hesitant to take any interesting actions at all towards the beginning, and by the end they had already become "trained" to avoid their magic, which could have gotten them out of multiple situations.

The system has to be very roll heavy by its very nature, as it's pure improvisation. The DM's roll is almost solely to react to the player's actions in this, which means the players themselves need to be extraordinarily self-motivated. Overall, it's simply an extremely collaborative system that has a few major flaws that makes it extremely polarizing. It would be a blast to play in the right group, but it does require some modifications.