Great American Witch RPG: Witches vs the patriarchy

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations series. In each edition, we’ll tell you about something from the world of culture that we think you should check out. This week, in honor of Halloween, we’re summoning five recommendations involving witches.

I have a friend who recently started playing Dungeons & Dragons. She likes making up a story with her friends, and she likes getting lost in the world of the game. What she doesn’t like is that she’s playing an all-powerful sorcerer — who is nevertheless limited by the rules that D&D imposes upon her. If she’s truly an all-powerful sorcerer, shouldn’t she be able to do whatever she wants?

Well, the new tabletop role-playing game The Great American Witch will let her do whatever she wants, limited only by her own imagination. It’s a game where fictional witches possess awe-inspiring power but have to navigate a world full of supernatural and much more mundane horrors. It’s the perfect game to try out on Halloween, especially if you want to tell a compelling, kinda creepy story about witches living right under the noses of polite society right here in the US of A.

Unlike D&D, it has far fewer rules and requires far fewer specialized dice. All you’ll need are three six-sided dice and somebody ready to guide the story as game master. It’s also incredibly easy to play over video-conferencing software. In fact, I’ve been doing just that for several months now, in a recently concluded series of games led by the game’s designer, Christopher Grey. I played a trans woman who can talk to ghosts because I’m nothing if not imaginative. (No, I can’t actually talk to ghosts.) (Yet.)

Grey, who has been nominated for several top RPG design awards for his previous games, built The Great American Witch atop the scaffolding of 2019’s The Great American Novel, which aimed to provide players with a more literary experience than the typical RPG adventure.

The mechanics of both games can be a bit confusing for neophyte game masters: Individual games are split into “chapters” and who has “narrative control” — the players versus the game master — differs based on what type of chapter you’re in. In a “menace” chapter, the enemies are at hand, and the game master has substantial narrative control; in a “montage” chapter, each player narrates a short scene that reveals what their character is up to, and the game master has almost no narrative control. That can be a lot for a game master to keep track of.

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But if you’re a neophyte player, then The Great American Witch is a great gateway RPG. All you have to know how to do is roll dice. Like The Great American Novel, The Great American Witch is built for campaigns, which span several gameplay sessions and will let newbie RPG players learn what can be so addictive about the hobby. But the game also allows for quick one-off stories if you just want to get up to some witchy shenanigans.

The process of focusing The Great American Novel to make it just about witches has helped sharpen an already-strong game experience. Perhaps appropriately, The Great American Witch also has literary roots, as it’s heavily inspired by the novels of author Kathleen Kaufman, whose stories about powerful witches living at society’s fringes informed the game’s core ideas. (Kaufman also consulted on the game.)

In a game of The Great American Witch, you and your fellow players (a group of two to six is recommended, but you could play with more people) could form a coven somewhere in America. Said coven could exist anywhere within the country and at any point in time within the country’s history. But the center of the game is about using magic to tear down rotting structures that have hurt many people. Though you can play a witch of any gender, all the witches in the game share a goal: to dismantle the white supremacist patriarchy, brick by brick.

The Great American Witch sounds far headier than it feels when you’re actually playing. Most of the time, you’re thinking of cool spells to try out. The game provides you with nine different suggested spells, but a little lateral thinking will help you figure out how to expand those spells in many more directions. In my game, for instance, my character had a spell that allowed her to help lost spirits move on to the next life. Eventually, she turned it into an informal portal system that let her escape tricky situations and pop back up where she was needed most.

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Different types of covens have different focuses. In my campaign, my fellow players and I created a “Coven of the Hearth,” which meant we were devoted to taking care of other witches who had no place to go in the community we lived in (in this case, present-day Salem, Indiana, a faded Rust Belt town wheezing out a few last breaths). But you can also play as a coven dedicated to influencing world governments, to educating young witches just coming into their power, or to dealing with the threat of supernatural forces.

Individual witches within your coven can subscribe to various “crafts,” attributed to various goddesses from antiquity. I played as someone from the Craft of Hekate, named after the Greek goddess of witchcraft and ghosts. I could talk to the dead, which frequently came in handy (as it did when I needed to turn afterlife gateways into an ad hoc portal system). And eventually, I could do things like flit around the afterlife and recruit the dead into a war against some evil witches.

The Great American Witch does, to my mind, present some potential issues with cultural appropriation and sensitivity. Grey has made a great effort to incorporate witchcraft traditions from around the world, and he’s hired sensitivity readers to make sure the material in each playbook is as well-researched and factual as it can be while still offering some cool, fun stuff to do.

But the fact that some crafts in the game draw from folk magic traditions that arose in specific response to structural racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression — voodoo, magical beliefs among indigenous peoples, etc. — might be offensive to some players. I would rather play a game that acknowledges a diversity of magical traditions and asks players to engage with it than play a game that doesn’t, but your mileage may vary. (The Great American Witch also takes pains to differentiate this fictional witchcraft from the actual practice of witchcraft in our reality.)

With that said, there are more than enough magical crafts within The Great American Witch to play any number of characters within one’s own rough cultural background. And the types of stories the game allows players to tell are so varied that you and your friends could get as darkly political or as frothy and silly as you want.

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The Great American Witch has serious intentions but lots of flexibility, which makes it my very favorite sort of RPG — one that lets you tell grand stories about impossible situations that, nevertheless, reflect concerns we might have here in the real world. My character ended a recent campaign not just having saved the world from a potentially apocalyptic threat but also having come out to her disapproving dad as trans and convinced him to accept her. Not bad for one campaign. I’d love to see what she could do in another.

The Great American Witch is available in PDF form on DriveThruRPG.com.


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