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.

Witch Girls and Witch Girls Adventures

I’ve added a new section to my website about a series of Witch Girls comics and a role-playing game called Witch Girls Adventures. I’ve been engaged with the community in the last few days, and have collected a bunch of my thoughts together for this section of my site. (It’s another section about a game, like my previous pages about Risus: The Anything RPG.)

I originally ran into the comics in 2003, when I was exploring a few independent and self-published titles. At that time, there were two titles in the series, and only one issue of each. The first title was Witch Girls and was about a circle of young girls who were all witches at a boarding school. (Come on, seriously, do you really need to know anything more than just that? But, to continue …) But, the two main characters were a matched pair of cute witches, but where one was nice the other was not. The interesting twist was that these two lead witches in the series were cast against type, so the nice witch, Janette, was the typically gothic looking young girl with dark hair and heavy eyeliner and dark clothes. And, the not so nice witch, Annabelle, had the appearance of a stereotypical goody-goody with masses of curly blonde hair and fancy dresses with lace. (Now that I think about it, Annabelle’s appearance and attitude is not that dissimilar to Nellie from the Little House stories and TV show, just, um, with magic.) The second title, Witch Girls Tales, was devoted to stories that were illustrated by various guest artists and didn’t quite fit into the main story of the other title.

After those first two issues, I lost track of the title and slowly forgot about them. At least until the other day, on some search engine safari or another, I ran into a few pages about a new role-playing game called Witch Girls Adventures, and had a strong sense that I’d seen the logo before. As I read the materials, I became even more convinced that I’d run into this before somewhere.

Further searching and reading brought me up to speed with the history of the original stories, and the subsequent revival in the game. But, I still wasn’t sure until I dug out, of one of the boxes my library is still in, the issues I’d picked up back in 2003 of the original titles.

The creator has several interviews online about his work trying to bring the story of Annabelle, Janette and the other Witch Girls to the public through the comics and then through a movie deal which apparently collapsed just before starting to film. There’s an interview with Malcolm Harris over at Sequential Tart where he talks about some of that history. (I noticed that one of the young actresses who was cast in the film still lists the movie on her website.)

Well, now it’s a new day. There’s a whole lot of activity again. I have to say I really respect the resilience and perseverance displayed by Malcolm Harris and his team in keeping the light alive and working to bring this to the public. Not only is there a revival for Witch Girls Tales, but that’s an adjunct to a role-playing game aimed at an essentially ignored demographic, young girls with no prior role-playing game experience. Further, there’s an additional title and even, once again, talk about a movie.

Only this time, the Witch Girls are a different circle of friends at a different school. And, the casting against type has essentially fallen by the wayside, because one of the key characters, who is closest in (bad) attitude to sweet-looking Annabelle, is portrayed visually with a look more akin to Janette this time around. There’s still an ensemble, but the core duo has apparently been narrowed down to the solo Princess Lucinda. The inversion is gone. Now there’s less rhetorical and visual distance than there was from other dark, moody girls with visual representations. (And, like when Geordi, the blind helmsman, moved to engineering, even though it resulted in better things, there’s still a loss of the original twist to be mourned.) Harris mentions in the front-matter to the Witch Girls Tales, Vol. 1, Iss. 2 [also] that the original Witch Girls are still around, and might make an appearance. Annabelle and Janette are not forgotten, by any means. So, there’s still a chance for more feminist deconstruction of the buddy film genre, with a heaping side of gender-heroic witch.

Princess Lucinda Nightbane is one of the Witch Girls at the new school, but she’s also an exiled princess. Lucinda was exiled from her home planet when her tyrannical family was overturned in a revolution, and now lives on Earth. She’s also essentially a bad girl, except that she, like Annabelle before her, is more amoral and ambiguous than simply bad. Neither character was pure evil, but rather more interesting than that. There’s room for growth and a character development arc for these characters while still having a delightfully mean streak. This is a form of vicarious revenge. It’s the kind of thrill in watching people get the kind of comeuppance they richly deserve or, you know, on occasion, just randomly end up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong witch. (A delicious concoction of 1 part schadenfreude to 1 part STFU, with a shot of green fairy on the bomb.) Princess Lucinda is really an anti-hero par excellence. I mean, really, if only you could, how often would you turn someone into a toad or, better yet, into a cigarette and smoke them to a cinder? I know! At least every freakin’ day, right?

You can get a quick idea of what I’m talking about if you gander at the preview comic available for download as a PDF at the Witch Girls Adventures website. This is basically issue zero in the six issue series that’s being worked on right now, and will be available for order and physical delivery from the comics store at the website, and it’s a great example of what might be in store as it pokes fun at the Harry Potter franchise and shows off to full effect the out of control Lucinda playing havoc with things around her.

When the six-issue series is available it will be at the main website for physical delivery and may also, as are several other game and comic materials already, be available via download in PDF format from a retailer like DriveThruRPG. Some free introductory materials are available, like the tongue-trippingly named Witch Girls Adventures Star Creation Guide, so you can get a taste for what the game is like.

Not only does Princess Lucinda live a life of her own in the comics, game and maybe soon in her own movie; but, she also engages in online discussions such as in the comments to reviews. Too bad I don’t allow comments on my blog, and it’s almost enough to make me want to turn on comments just in case … but, only almost.

The original first issues of the two comic titles, Witch Girls and Witch Girls Tales, are still available online via at least one retailer, and maybe other retailers as well. Apparently there’s five more issues in these titles, but as far as I can tell the only way to get them is to find Malcolm Harris at a convention. There’s only two boxes of the original Witch Girls left, so while hard to get now, these will become impossible to get soon; especially as the re-launch of the second title as a tie-in to the game, the game and the new Princess Lucinda title all get more and more publicity and exposure. This publicity and exposure is likely to get to some kind of fever pitch if the movie plans for Princess Lucinda pan out.

There are several supplements, a quarterly in-character magazine, and other materials in the works as well as the mentioned possibility for a movie. Yeah, it’s a freakin’ nascent empire. This could be the first intimations you’ve received of an impending epic avalanche of awesomeness that’s set to coming crashing into your world. Get ready for Witch Girls Rock (Wgrock?!), coming to a garage girl band near you!

In addition to everything else there’s going to be a story arc set in Oz, which, you know, is a little unfair. I mean, this whole thing combines so many interesting elements already and then to throw in Oz, which is another interest of mine? It’s just a little unfair and uncanny how interesting this whole thing is. There’s witches, bad attitudes, magic, comics, role-playing, storytelling, cinema, education, empowerment, and so on and on … and then to also toss in Oz?

I do have a couple issues with the materials, both in print and online, in that they could be better edited. I’ve struggled with the idea of recommending these materials, especially to a young person, because they have a number of grammatical errors and typos. And, the website additionally has HTML issues like a reliance on frames that hide deep links to content or tiny content areas that cause ugly scrollbars to appear in the middle of a page. In a therapeutic or pedagogical context this is really unfortunate because of the potential for this kind of tool as not only sandbox therapy but as a way to incorporate play into even a hardcore curriculum, especially in a home-school setting. But, if you can let that go, this is some great and fun storytelling, and it’s also overall the great kind of satisfying story of an underdog coming back for another go. This is the kind of creativity that is compelling both in itself but is moreso when you know the story of the creator. The story and the story of the story are both compelling enough to me that I’m willing to deal with these flaws. (And, I’ve been re-editing this for hours, so who am I to talk, really?) But, you know, this is what creativity looks like. Sometimes it’s not so perfectly refined and polite as all that (Annabelle will certainly be the first to tell you not to judge on appearances, but maybe not until after you’re a toad!), but it’s damned compelling anyway.

(And, yeah, it seems like it’d be something like a dream job to be part of the creative team for a cluster of sheer awesomeness like Witch Girls in general, but also to help fix that stuff and help it get the reception and response I think it deserves. But, I’ve settled for sending an obnoxious number of emails with suggested corrections already … It’s a disease. I can’t help it. But, I mean well.)

It will be interesting to see how the general public reacts to all of this. This is not fluffy bunny stuff. There’s a certain and definite edginess to these stories. There’s moral ambiguity to the characters, or at least a certain amoral will to power. These Witch Girls are being themselves, and stepping into that with powerful wills. There’s a disregard for the rules and some age inappropriate behaviour, such as smoking. Though the stories are thankfully not sexualized, at least not more than the Halloween costume circular in the paper is (there’s a time and a place for that, and it’s apparently called Anime); there’s definitely enough there to make the knee-jerkers, that don’t actually read things before condemning them, go bonkers. The boy wizard is kind of milquetoast compared to this, after all; as there seems to be nothing more particularly, viscerally threatening to the traditionalist movements than strong women with power who refuse to be labeled with scarlet letters, or moreover wear those letters proudly, reclaiming them. But, like strong medicine, it’s good for the public to keep having to confront and come to terms with such women and their stories.

I intend to post more over time about this as I hear about the development of WItch Girls and reflect more on the materials. So, this is kind of just by way of a general summary of some of the things I’ve learned so far. But, check it out. Maybe you’ll find this all as interesting and fun as I have.