By Timothy Kleinert, Timfire Publishing, $35 Print / $18 PDF
A group of Ronin Samurai are hired to kill O-Yanma, the Mountain Witch of mount Fuji. Each of them brings his own dark secrets and cannot fully trust the others. Will the tensions in the group destroy them, or will they unite to achieve their aim?
The Mountain Witch is a 140 page digest-sized book of mythic Japan goodness. Where most RPGs proclaim their ability to allow you to "do anything!!!", The Mountain Witch makes a feature from its very tight focus. It's a game designed to tell tales of trust and betrayal in a specific scenario, and this is does amazingly well. To work best it needs at least four players and a GM, to my mind, I played with three and though excellent, it felt lacking a certain group dynamic.
Visually the book really sets the tone wonderfully, clean modern type and layout make for an easy read. Evocative colour art is spread throughout, setting the spooky atmosphere of the eponymous witch's lair and showing characterful samurai in a variety of situations. For a small-press work, the quality of art and design puts more "professional" company's work to shame. My only slight issue with the layout are the sidebars, which seen to intrude slightly on the main text. Not currently having a downloadable character sheet also mean't I had to build my own, though that wasn't a huge deal.
Each player creates a Ronin, and during this process is randomly dealt a Dark Fate. A secret he hides from the company, that puts the mission at risk, an inevitable betrayal waiting to happen. Maybe his character really wants to kill a companion for a past slight, maybe he has a secret deal with the Witch himself? Players get free reign to add any details related to their character's fate to a scene, thus allowing them to slowly reveal their fate through game play and work the narrative to it's natural climax. The game is split into four acts (nominally introduction, build tensions, reveal fates and denouement), so players have plenty of time to do this.
The game system itself is elegantly simple. All conflict results are determined by the roll of a single six-sided dice by each side, that can be rolled over if you get a 6. Before rolling you predefine the broad stakes of what you'll get if you win. The resulting difference in dice rolls is your degree of success, which determines how much you can narrate as successful or how much damage you can do. Damage reduces your normal dice roll by -1, for a length of time dependent on how successful the hit was. You can die, but it's unlikely, and even if you do you can still spend Trust...
The core of the system is the Trust mechanic. At start of play your character's trust ratings to other characters are defined by your character's chosen zodiac animal, with some trusting others more or less. At the end of each chapter (each act may have more than one), you can choose to raise your trust of another character by one, drop it by any amount or keep it the same. How much other trust you gives you trust points that you can spend to modify rolls: If Zuri trusts Keho by 2 points, Keho can spend one of the two points to aid Zuri in a conflict, and thus add his dice to Zuri's, dramatically increasing chance of success. Keho can also spend those points to betray Zuri and modify a conflict roll down by that many points at the worst possible moment. Alternatively he can spend a point to steal Zuris narration and although he can't alter the success of the conflict he can twist it to his own agenda...
The Trust system creates a great dynamic. The characters have more chance of success in their mission if they have lots of trust to others. However when betrayal comes, and it will fates assure that, their trust will be their undoing. The system wonderfully highlights the themes of the story. All the GM has to do is push situations that put that trust into doubt, or antagonists that soak up the co-operation.
The book contains a summary of typical creatures from Japanese folklore to add to your tale, as well as an introduction to Japanese castles and a set of possible character names. So you have a really solid grounding in the feel of the setting, though it's by no means a huge bloated setting; You're expected to build the setting from the characters out, and every game will be different based on the character's back-story as built in play. Should you need more info on Japanese history and myth, there are suggested websites for more information.
The GM advice section is a mixed bag. Although it covers many of your likely questions for running this kind of game, I felt that it could have done with more solid, worked examples, particularly of the types of critical moments that say something about the characters that you should be throwing at the players. It does however make up for this with one of the most useful pieces of advice for this kind of game, if in doubt ask the players: "You see a series of heads on pikes at the witches gate, who are they?" Thus really hammering home the "build from the inside out" method of story creation the game is for.
Overall: The Mountain Witch is a great game, all my players enjoyed it and want to play again now that they're more familiar with how it works. It plays particularly well if you've got a group who are up-to-speed with Samurai drama and really take ownership of their dark fates at an early stage. Its single scenario shouldn't put you off, while it is just one basic situation, there's no reason its wonderfully theme-enhancing mechanics couldn't be used for any similar "dirty dozen" style game in any period in history (Western and WWII seeming obvious candidates).