How to Run the Mountain Witch

Tim Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch is my single favorite roleplaying game. It has tight, focused rules, and great production values. It is rather underplayed: I feel it plays best as a two or three-session game with a GM and five or six players. It’s certainly do-able as a convention one-shot but loses some of its oomph, and its out-of-printness makes it hard to come by.

There are four acts in the Mountain Witch: Introduction, Rising Tension, Dark Fates, and the Climax. Each of these acts may be split into chapters.

Something that I have taken and made my own is “chapter requirements.” In the rules, on page 122, it suggests to the GM that chapter breaks be withheld until certain milestones are achieved, but it does not define those milestones. My technique has been to clearly define those milestones, and make the players aware of them.

Milestones can be mechanical, like “someone has to spend all their trust,” narrative-mechanical “everyone has to invoke their Dark Fate narration,” or wholly narrative “the group must split up and rejoin.” I’ll mix and match based on the experience level of the group, and my own whims.

In a one-session con environment, there’s typically time to only have four chapters, each at one hour each (and it will still run a little over your typical 4 hour timeslot.)
In the Introduction, the characters are introduced, and the rules themselves are highlighted. Typically milestones are: Each Player must use Dark Fate Narration at least once and There Must be at least Three Major Conflicts. The end of the chapter features the group meeting the walls of the witch’s castle.
In the Rising Tension chapter, the threat of the Witch is built upon. This chapter features lots of encounters with the Witch’s servants, and various group split ups and rejoins. A typical milestone is going to be everyone using Dark Fate Narration at least once. End of the chapter involves finding a safe haven in the fortress.
In the Dark Fates Chapter, the Dark Fates are revealed! Each player must reveal his Dark Fate, obviously. Remember that the reveal is to the players, not the characters. The end of the chapter is just outside the Witch’s chamber.
In the Climax Chapter, everything comes to a head. Everyone’s Dark Fate must be revealed.

For two sessions, I play 6 chapters. Session one is Introduction (1 chapter), Rising Tension (2 chapters), and Reveal the Dark Fates at the end of the first session. Session two kicks off with 2 Chapters of the Dark Fates, where the fates of the players are explored in depth. Having a week to think about it, I give each player two GM-driven scenes focusing on their Dark Fate to explore and highlight its issues, one in each chapter, and then the Climax.

With a two session game, you can play around more with gimmicky milestones, especially in the Introduction chapter: everyone has to have a chance at conflict narration. Someone has to use a Betrayal. There has to be a Duel. Forcing the issue early makes the mechanic easy to remember in the climax, where rules knowledge can be key.

Another change I institute involves the rules for death. By the rules as written, player death can be invoked as a stake on any roll with player consent. My change is that before the Climax and the resolution of the character’s fate, Death is never on the line. Once a character’s fate has been resolved, all bets are off.

Finally, a brief list of bangs I have. A Bang in the Mountain Witch is a little bit different than a Bang in other games. Normally a Bang is a situation with no one clear point of action. (“Ninjas attack” is a poor narrative bang, since obviously you fight the ninjas.) In the Mountain Witch, bangs are also an opportunity for the players to invoke their Dark Fate narration. A Mountain Witch bang should encourage the players to choose between cooperation and competition, and also involve opportunities to author missing details.

A small shrine on the side of the path. It’s traditional to pray to the spirits before a journey.
A rope bride, guarded by a sentry of some sort.
A scene of battle. Someone’s been killed!
Yukki-no-Onna’s cabin.
A large mountain temple.
A bunch of samurai, sworn to the witch.
Catacombs in the fortress, and the ghost of someone known to one of the ronin.
The Witch’s chamberlain, perfectly polite and reasonable.
Villagers in distress.
Evidence of the last ronin expedition to try to kill the witch.
A demon offering to make a deal with the ronin.
Secret communications from the witch.
And my favorite, a simple peach tree. There’s one fewer peach than the number of ronin.

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6 thoughts on “How to Run the Mountain Witch

  1. Simon C says:

    That’s some good stuff! I’ve run the game a few times, and the chapter requirements you suggest are an excellent idea that I wish I’d heard earlier.

    Love the bangs too. Here are a couple I’ve used:

    A mountainside tea-house, the hostess’ husband works for the Witch.
    A blind old man with a message for one of the Ronin

  2. oberonthefool says:

    You should run this for Games Day, just to give people a chance to have their minds blown. It is an absolute damn shame that this game is out of print, it is not only an enduring icon of the small press/indie movement, but a hella well designed and consistently rewarding game.

  3. oberonthefool says:

    Good, but decidedly not the same as being on shelves in stores. I’m pretty sure the publisher still has the proofs and could print more at the drop of a dime from Tim. Has anyone even heard from him in recent years? It’s like he just went off the grid. I’m sure he has his reasons, but free money is a silly thing to give up, especially when it brings joy to others.

  4. […] Willow Palecek provides suggestions for a stronger GMing approach to structuring chapters: […]

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