More thoughts about Witch Girls

Witch Girls Adventures [also] is edgy. This isn’t Disney we’re talking about after all. There’s complexity here. This is like the difference between real folktales and digested, denatured and dumbed-down children’s bedtime stories. One of the stories I’ve heard about the original Looney Toons was that the creators worked to entertain themselves not focusing on what they thought was appropriate for kids only, which ended up producing works that contained many layers of humor. So far, the nature of Witch Girls offers the possibility for the richness and textured storytelling which can appeal to a wider audience.

Witch Girls combines so many interesting things, it’s truly a geeky paradise. It’s a series of comics, a roleplaying game, and a desert topping. I’m filled with creative envy at the potential of this world of ideas and look forward to finding out more. This is like a book that can’t be put down, and after reaching the end one wants more. Some of the best art leaves something to the imagination, leaves some space for the viewer to fill in their own ideas and thoughts and creativity; effectively becoming part of the art itself.

There’s something incredibly compelling about these ideas and the opportunity to engage them, but I’m also noticing the persistence the creator Malcolm Harris has in bringing this vision into the world in spite of setbacks. Witch Girls is an underdog. This cannot have been an easy road for Harris. There’s been fits and starts, through the original comic and a movie deal that fell through to the present with another comic and another potential movie deal. There must be a bit of déjà vu in how things are coming together again, but Harris keeps on trying to bring to the world this imaginative place where many stories will be told.

Witch girls is empowering. Witch Girls mostly features young female characters who are witches, which makes sense; especially given the intended audience, and, you know, the name of the thing itself. But, it also makes sense for an overall philosophy of empowerment. Hopefully, the series and the game will continue to feature young women with powers rescuing themselves, without the help of, or even better in spite of, the males that might appear from time to time. On the other hand, it’s also important not to completely demonize males or simply to exchange roles in a power dynamic of gender imbalance. You know, a little of that for inversion of the cultural narrative about gender roles and exploration of what it means to have power is great, but I hope to see from at least some characters in the ensemble and in the stories a voice that speaks to a vision for synergistic co-existence, not just between genders but across any divide whether race, ability, social class, planet of origin, or what have you. I’m not asking for political correctness, but rather the recognition that all beings deserve to be treated well and to have the chance to become themselves and part of the group, not in conformity but in the radical notion that in diversity and difference is strength. (You know, the old Vulcan philosophy of IDIC!)

Also, while there is a wonderful and commendable variety of race and culture in the core ensemble of witches, I note that there’s not much variation for the body types to the girls in the comics. (Which is odd, especially given one of the promotional tag lines for the game is, “In the world of Witch Girls, power comes in all shapes and sizes.”) Although, after writing that sentence, I went back to the materials to check and did see some apparent variations in at least height. There’s racial and social diversity, to be sure and to be commended; but, the body type of all these girls seems to be a bit skewed toward the future-perfect model. Perhaps this is simply the appearance of their intended youth, but even in children of that age it seems like there should be more variety of body type.

The inclusion of a character speaking an actual alternate human language, not some invented language, is a welcome one. The character of Rosa uses a few words in Spanish in her dialog, and more rarely but still on occasion speaks an entire sentence, with appropriate diacriticals and orthography. This is in contrast to a typical comic conceit is to display foreign languages as English surrounded by angle brackets, and note that the speech was translated. there’s less opportunity, perhaps, in a comic to display multilingual dialog than say on TV with subtitles, as in the refreshingly cool Japanese-language scenes with Hiro and Ando on the show Heroes, where there’s screen space; so the use of an actual second language in any form is nice to see. (And, as cool as invented alien languages are, as cool as using Esperanto as the language of dinosaurs is, it’s more useful and interesting pedagogically to use a human language that players might actually encounter in their daily lives.) (Okay, okay, so I admit I still want to see at least a little bit of Latin and Greek, too … it is about magic, after all!) (Of course, then again, I just had a total nergasm thinking about a game that uses Irish or even Proto-Indo-European roots as a language of magic …)

Witch Girls is an opportunity for young women to learn about themselves in an environment of infinite possibilities. This is an opportunity to discover a rich interior life through the social engagement of collective storytelling. Each young woman has the freedom of opportunity to develop notions of themselves as an individual by testing out scenarios and behaviours in a social learning environment. The individual grows by engaging others, and the group grows by empowering individual growth. Discovering the self is a magical act, and may be the most important and creative result of this kind of storytelling.

At this general time in Western culture there are a number of similar sources for stories about witches and female heroes (or, “Sheroes“), so on that level Witch Girls is timely, but, given the long-standing themes of witches, also timeless. W.I.T.C.H., Sabrina, even Buffy and a host of anime witches such as Kiki are all a testament to this. These are the stories about young women with power to influence their world, to change their world. There’s a lot of movement in the last couple of decades or so toward offering these kinds of stories of strong women. Witch Girls seems poised to take part in that continuing revolution in relevancy for half the population; and, for a population greatly ignored by and that generally ignores the comic and role-playing media in which Witch Girls appears.

Princess Lucinda is a Darth Vader for a new age. I’ve heard that Lucas said about Darth Vader, kids like Darth Vader because he’s an example of having power over their own circumstances. The reversal of the good witch, bad witch trope in the original Witch Girls comics is still there, but it’s not as obvious as when cute, blond Annabelle was evil and cute, and when raven-hair Janette was the soft and caring sort. Now, Lucinda is the raven-haired, amoral Witch. But, she’s got agency. She’s got purpose and power. She’s self-willed and her amorality comes from following her own nature as best she can; and, I expect that as a character she’ll generally tend toward more and more awareness that her power never requires interfering with anyone that doesn’t interfere with her own story. But, part of that balance will also come from the characters around her, her friends and even her own antagonists.

This is real storytelling, and the power of young people, women especially, in our culture, telling their own tales can’t be under estimated. It’s empowering and important.

If you gander at the luscious illustration and visual style of the Princess Lucinda materials, examples of which are online such as the preview comic or the various examples of art from the forthcoming first issue of the six-issue series; you will find high quality work. However, some of the visual idiom of the various comics is a bit shallow. The styling of dialog in the comics, both visually and textually does not take advantage of the full range of the established visual language, including a very sparse use of appropriate sound effects, bold, italic and so on. This seems especially missed where these offer clues to the emotion and emphasis behind the speech of the characters. These are stories aimed at young women, after all, who are already culturally predisposed toward and highly capable in understanding emotional states. (For those interested, an interesting primer on the richness of this visual language can be found online.)

As much as I suggest using more of that traditional visual language, I also recognize that the mode of sequential storytelling can be confusing to some people, especially those not previously familiar with how to read that visual language. For example, even after years of exposure, though by no means extensive, I still find that occasionally I am not able to determine which panel is next in some stories with without re-reading a page, so it’s possible that using a more limited, and simple visual language is useful to the particular audience intended for these stories. However, since the visual language is pretty standard, and one Malcolm Harris’ purposes, as stated in several forum posts, for the overall RPG is to introduce to a new audience what it means to engage in a roleplaying game; why not also introduce the rich visual language for the comics as well? Perhaps a useful primer, like the website I linked to above, could be created as an introduction for the perplexed, which would include clues about how to read which panel is next. Some manga titles do this by having a section in the beginning that offers a primer, but maybe this can be a separate document that’s available instead of needing space in every issue or title.This primer would then form a style guide for all the products, and could be given to those working on future products as the standard language their audience would be familiar with from previous works. The drawback of that loss of freedom to explore the visual ordering of panels is that part of the fun of the visual language is the frisson created when a norm changes, like the way that Shakespeare will break meter when a character is upset, or in a novel the writer might change their language to change the sense of immediacy or mood. Having access to a complex visual style can be useful to the storyteller, and being exposed to that is to develop that literacy. And there’s a lot of media and language literacy in the world today, so let’s not underestimate what young people are capable of if given the chance.

I’ve mentioned before that Witch Girls needs work through copy editing if it is going to appeal to an educational market. Really, it’s a gem in the rough right now; and as compelling as the materials are I would hesitate to recommend them without a caveat about the editing. These materials could be excellent tools for great home-school use or in any environment where lessons from a curriculum can be woven into the puzzles and stories of the storytelling.

Witch Girls is fun. One lessons for me in playing with Peter Suber’s Nomic, a game in which to goal is to modify the rules of the game, is that the only core rule for all games is that the players agree to all the rules. RPGs like Amber [also], Toon, Ghostbusters, Paranoia [also] or Risus [also] are in line with how I see Witch Girls Adventures: it’s about the fun of social storytelling. Where rules would get in the way, or a specific rule change would be more fun; the house rules over the rules. The rules are meant to enable social storytelling, not impose control over a player’s imagination. For example, Toon explicitly offers players a chance to explain away anything, if they do it well enough it becomes part of the story. If the players can imagine it, then there’s a way to do it; after all, in Witch Girls we’re all Witches aren’t we? What’s the point of magic if not to enable the imagination to soar, and to discover one’s self and one’s friends through the process of shared adventure?

There are also storytelling games that aren’t roleplaying. Narrative games like Nanofictionary and Once upon a time. These might offer insights into storytelling in a game, or tools to help spark creativity within a Witch Girls Adventures. Here I recall the way that the Tarokka deck from TSR’s Ravenloft game setting was used to enhance storytelling.

The focus of the rules here is to create a structure that enables compelling storytelling. It’s a structure intended to enable freedom.

Because of the storytelling focus, bringing in ideas learned from other games that enhances the ability for the players to tell their own stories seems ideal. for example, from playing paranoia, ghostbusters and risus, (I detect a pattern here! In fact, how big a wad of quatloos would it take to get S. John Ross to write something, anything, for Witch Girls?) I learned how much fun it is to weave in real life activity into a game. For example, if there’s a potion that must be imbibed, try having a jar of pickle juice on hand or where possible use real-life puzzles, like origami or knot tying, as a mechanism for solving in-game puzzles. For another example, what if, in order to research and in-game spell, the players needed to write their own rhymed couplets or between session actually do some online or library research or if between sessions the players had some kind of scavenger hunt to complete which would then solve an in-game puzzle?

And, the best stories are those where characters have lives and motivations that create opportunity for drama, so one thing to do is have each player have some secret motivation or goal in an episode, maybe even at blatantly cross-purposes from others. this gives the overall story and play richness and depth, develops interesting tension and excitement, and moreover is an opportunity for brilliant problem solving and conflict resolution.

Witch Girls has value for your money. Harris has done a great deal of work to make sure there’s value in his products. For example, instead of a typical 22 pages, he’s worked to provide comics with 44 (for each issue of Princess Lucinda) or 48 (for Witch Girls Tales Vol 2, Iss 1) pages of content. Unlike say, a TV show like Lost or a comic series like Sabrina: The Teen-Age Witch, you’re not being strung along from issue to issue with only minimal story. Each product in the entire series is meant to give the reader real value.

In true comic tradition, there’s also alternate covers for the core rules. But, going a step further, the comic material inside is actually also different between the two editions. Generally, the “nice” edition is the one that’s available in the stores I’ve checked online. The “naughty” edition appears, at least currently, to only be available directly from the source.

There’s quite a few supplements and expansions on the way, as well as the comic and a quarterly magazine written in-character, so articles are about the game from within and further not only enhances the storytelling but offers a real outlet for players who may feel creatively compelled to write articles, stories or ideas to share with others. This is the beginning of a real community of practice.

This community is enhanced by the way that new social media is being embraced. There’s a facebook page for the game, a twitter identity, several websites and an in-character blog for Princess Lucinda. The ground for engaging in this world is fertile for anyone wishing to join in growing the story together.