Game Review: Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne

I choke and suffer on the smoke long before I feel the flames. Then the heat rises in waves of agony that makes the face of my murderers shimmer in a haze. They each do nothing. My last breath catches and fails. My scream is a guttering flame. Though it means my death.
           - Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne

Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne is a game where players take on the rolls of those escorting a young woman who has confessed to the sin of witchcraft to the holy isle of Lindisfarne where she is to be burned in absolution. The characters will decide whether to believe she is innocent and spare her, or guilty and burn her. Should they decide wrongly, their own fates will become as dark and twisted as the road they travel. 

I picked up Witch right before Christmas because I had heard about it on the Gauntlet and it sounded right up my alley. I used to practice WitchCraft and had studied the witch trials extensively for a project in school. It was an incredible amount of data to collect, but somehow most of it was still stuck in my head. So when a game was designed around the horrors of the witch trials surfaced, I knew I had to play it.

Despite my better judgement, I decided I would also run the game at a public meetup with a bunch of strangers I had never met let alone gamed with before. Now, this means it probably should've gone horribly awry. Yet it didn't. Most players came to the table ready to commit to what this game was about. We had an even gender split as well, and if the player who was sick would have been healthy, then it would have been 4 women to 2 men. I thought this was interesting, because it meant my game attracted the most women. A game about burning a woman.

The game itself doesn't allow for a lot of wiggle room. It's honed in on exactly it wants to do: It wants to give a group of people an ethical and moral decision. These people travel together, while framing scenes in each location, and eventually come to a decision about the fate of the witch. This is very heavily a story game. There are no real mechanics besides "frame some scenes, play them, read these things out loud." It ensures that each player is control of a specific type of character, and reads specific parts of the game. 

Mechanically, when conflict arises, you play it out until you need to decide the outcome. Then you discuss what should happen, and that happens. If you can't decide, you toss it to the table and they vote. There are no notes on what happens in a tie. Fortunately, it never came up at our game. Everyone narrated, and while I tended to facilitate a little more than the game suggested, it made sense, because I was playing the witch.

Character creation takes a few minutes. People pick which of the six characters they want to play and then answer the questions on their sheets. They talk about their characters. Then all the characters except the witch, Elouise, introduce their character in a poignant vignette that describes who they are at the core. The witch doesn't get this scene until the scene before she burns. This tends to show you how far she's fallen, how many awful things have been done to her, and what it means to be the witch.

After this, there's a map you follow to your ultimate destination of Lindisfarne. Each character takes a turn to frame a scene within each map location. There are tones to each location to give you an idea of what the scene should kind of feel like, and really random scene cues on the bottom of each character sheet. My players and I struggled with the scene cues, but using them did give a certain grimness to the feel of each scene. Things like "Unholy mutterings from a corpse in a hanging cage" or "A mangy dog, with a human hand in its mouth." 

At the last location, Elouise is gagged and bound (thus ensuring she can't speak or do anything unless another character frees her) and the rest of the characters read text unless they decide they're not going to burn her, and then it turns into freeform play from there. There are epilogue scenes, which can be coloured by the witch if she was wrongfully burned or released. 

Play is smooth. Once you get the rhythm of what you're doing, it goes really well. I was advised to inform everyone on the consequences of getting the burning wrong, which made players engage with the witch more, as they were trying hard to figure out if she should be burned. It lead to really interesting scenes between everyone, and really intense arguments in character. I loved all of this. So much did I love it. 

The game itself really follows a tight narration so that you can't really escape from the grimdark feel of the setting or what's happening. The language it uses to set the scenes is incredibly evocative and always paints the bleakness of the age. It ties in the fear of the supernatural in medieval Europe with the holy wars of the Crusades and presents a picture of what it meant to live in those times and believe in true evil.

I loved playing the game. I played the witch, mostly because I felt the witch was more of an npc than an actual character, especially with how she is discussed in the game book. They game refers to the characters a lot, and then adds on talking about Elouise, not in the same breath that it refers to all the other characters. Even in the text, Elouise is treated as different, and honestly, less important than the dramatic ethical struggle the other characters are in for.

Elouise knows if she's guilty or not. The player chooses innocent or guilty, folds up the paper, and places it in the middle of the table before play begins. Once play ends, the truth is revealed. As I was playing Elouise, I found I was taking on the role of facilitator and gm a bit more than other people, possibly because I was the one who knew the truth and could paint the world around that. 

Within the rules, the game also makes space for asking players to push harder, to make the scene better, or to back off because it's making them uncomfortable all with one mechanic called Raise the Alarm. I'm not a fan of the fact that their version of an x-card is also the same thing for saying that the narration isn't strong enough or that you don't like something story-wise that's happening. This game is heavily based on horrible things that happened, by and large, mostly to women. That, and the movie Season of the Witch.

Without getting into the problematic content of the game, it's a game I want to play again, a few more times. It's a game I find fascinating and it's beautifully simplistic. It takes a few minutes to do one read through and then you're ready to go. Print a few things, cut out the character sheets, and start playing. No dice. One token. All done. I do recommend a tone conversation before you play this game and clearly stating the intent of the game before you get going. 

Now. For the part that concerns me. It's clear the designers saw Season of the Witch with Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman, and then gamified it. Whether they stopped to figure out how to make the game a little less sexist or not isn't clear, but as a woman playing the woman in this game, it struck me very clearly that this was a game with some big issues popping up in it.

All of the characters other than the witch are men. All of them. The game is about, and is talked about in the game itself, as a journey for men to decide whether to murder a woman who may or may not be guilty of witchcraft and it's up to these men folk to destroy her because she's a witch or to liberate her because she's not a witch. Elouise is, by and large, a plot device. No one would have to play her. She could easily be done by other players as an npc or as a facilitator/gm role. She isn't the important part of this game. And the rules really demonstrate that by the way they talk about the game.

"While exploring the characters' pasts and motivations we will decide the ultimate fate of a young woman who has confessed to witchcraft. Is she truly guilty of witchcraft or is she just an innocent victim of a Church desperate to give the people justice? Even if she is guilty, will the characters truly condemn her to death? How will the characters' own secrets and agendas influence the final decision?"

This is the text that talks about what this game is doing and what this game is about. It's a tiny game with minimal text, so there's not a lot to go on but the few paragraphs that don't talk about how to play the game specifically. Although Elouise is technically a character, she is treated as Other and as the plot device to the other, more important, male characters. Her struggle, which there isn't one of other than to hopefully confuse and convince the menfolk enough that they don't burn her, isn't the focus of the story. The focus of the story is what's happening, often internally, to the men.

If you've seen the movie, which ... well, you do you, you'll know that in it, the witch is legit a witch. Well. She's a demon. And it results in this big fight scene and everyone dies but the baby knight. The movie revolves around the men as well, dealing with their pasts and using what happens around the witch to talk about their pasts and their issues that are brought to the table. The game emulates this so heavily I'm not sure the designers necessarily stopped to consider how this would look. In the game itself, one of the instructions on playing Elouise is this: "Don't shy away from using love or sympathy. You are a young woman in a cage, after all."

Several women players of mine made off handed remarks about how the game emulated a time when feminism hadn't happened, about the hundreds of thousands of women who were killed in the witch trials, and how the game didn't really address that so much as it addressed how the men felt about that. Now keep in mind, these were women I had never met before. I hadn't made any feminist jokes or wise cracks. They didn't know me from anyone else, but felt like they needed to say something about this game. 

That being said, everyone at the table dove in and said they had a good time. And I would, as I've said, play it again. It does a great job of doing what it wants to do. Could it be a bit more inclusive and a bit more about having a conversation that doesn't revolve almost purely around men? Yes. It could. I don't think there's anything wrong with having stories about men. I think stories about men are important. I don't think stories around men need to use the murdering of a young woman to be their plot hook, necessarily. 

Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne promises a shit tonne of bleed and it delivers it. You'll be forced to decide whether you murder a woman and what that means to you and how you feel. There will be really horrible moments and intense moments and sad moments. You'll be asked to deal with some serious questions about morality, ethics, and power. It's worth the journey and the ending, regardless of outcome, is satisfying. It's a beautiful full story in one go with pretty much no preparation. Be prepared to be a victim, if you are to play the witch, and be prepared to challenge each other's ideas of what it means to be the ones who are responsible for another's life.

Price: $20.35 for Print and PDF
Players: 6
GM Work: Minimal. Read the game, which is small.
Materials: Printed materials, one token.
Feel: Grimdark, horrific, medieval
Rating: 4/5 - It does everything I want, but fails to address that the description of this game is "a bunch of men decide the fate of a woman and how it will impact the men"