The Hardboiled GMshoe reviews: The Witcher Roleplaying Game

Introduction

The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day an armored fantasy-lookin’ fella walks into my office with white hair, cat’s eyes, a nasty scar runnin’ down his face, and a sour expression. Couldn’t really blame’im. He looked like he’d been through the wringer.

“Greetings,” he says. “I’m a Witcher.”

“A witch or what?” I says.

“A Witcher,” he says. “I’m a magical mutant who hunts monsters for pay.”

“There much money in that gig?”

“Not much,” he says, “but it’s what I was made for.”

“I can relate,” I says. “So what brings you by today?”

He pulls a book with his mug on the cover outta his bag and drops it on the desk. “I’ve a review job for you. The Witcher roleplaying game.”

I look it over. “So is this about killin’ monsters for not enough moolah?”

“It can be,” he says. “But you can play all manner of characters: A doctor, a wizard, a priest, a bard, a warrior, and more besides.”

“Sounds good,” I says. “I’ll give it a look. But tell me somethin’: Are you sure you don’t make enough money?”

“Yes, quite certain. Why?”

“Seems like someone in your line of work would make a killin’.”

WitcherTRPGCoverforMedia


Substance

Setting

Based on the novels of Andrzei Sapkowski, the video game series, and the Netflix TV series, The Witcher takes place in the Continent, a medieval fantasy setting with familiar elements like elves and dwarves. It’s a much darker take on the subject matter, however. For one thing, the place is at war between the Northern Kingdoms and the brutal expansionist Empire of Nilfgaard. For another, there aren’t any obvious “good guy” nations — while the Nilfgaardians are the aggressors, the Northern Kingdoms — the default homeland of the PCs — aren’t particularly nice places. Humans dominate, dwarves are (mostly) tolerated, and elves and mages are hated and persecuted. Some of the nonhumans have formed a resistance group known as the Scoia’tael, a second threat to the Northern Kingdoms.

The eponymous witchers are humans turned magical mutant super-soldiers, bred for the express purpose of killing monsters… for a price. Unfortunately, they were a little too good at their jobs in the sense that they basically drove the monsters to extinction. The monsters became the stuff of myths, and the Witchers themselves became the objects of fear and hatred.

Now, for whatever reason, monsters are making a comeback, and Witchers have become a rare breed.

I can see the setting appealing to fans of dark fantasy. It’s a bit too dark for me, I think — so many of the most appealing character options seem practically unplayable in a social sense. Of course, for some, that degree of difficulty would be the point.

The RPG takes place after the second video game, The Witcher: Assassin
of Kings
. Interestingly, the RPG takes into account the branching nature of the video games by presenting a series of key events and individuals and their impacts depending upon how events turn out. It’s a bit much to track in my opinion, but I like having the option.

The book includes eight of the major characters from the setting, including Geralt of Rivia, the signature witcher of the source material.

As is proper for a game involving monster-hunting, the game includes a decent-sized bestiary:

  • Bandits
  • Mages
  • Scoia’tael Archers
  • Drowners
  • Ghouls
  • Grave Hags
  • Wraiths
  • Noon Wraiths
  • Wolves & Wargs
  • Werewolves
  • Sirens
  • Griffins
  • Endrega
  • Arachasae
  • Golems
  • Fiends
  • Nekkers
  • Rock Trolls
  • Wyverns
  • Katakans
  • Cats & Dogs
  • Birds & Serpents
  • Horses & War Horses
  • Oxen & Mules
I regret the lack of dragons in this list, but perhaps they aren’t meant as foes for PCs until much later in advancement.

Note that the bestiary lacks any sort of social monster species like goblins or orcs. This makes sense, as the game is about monster hunting, not monster warfare.

Rules

At its core, The Witcher uses a fairly basic Attribute + Skill + 1d10 vs. Difficulty mechanic — a variant of R. Talsorian’s Games’ Interlock system. In cases in which the Difficulty is an opposed roll, ties go to the defender.

Character Creation

Characters have four Statistics with a range of 1-10 for normal humans that can be generated randomly or via point allocation:

  • Intelligence
  • Reflexes
  • Dexterity
  • Body (strength and endurance)
  • Speed
  • Empathy
  • Craft
  • Will
  • Luck
I always appreciate games that distinguish between full body movement and hand-eye coordination, so this system wins points from me here. I also like the inclusion of Luck, which is a minor metagame mechanic that allows players to spend points of the Statistic for bonuses to rolls on a 1-for-1 basis. I’m not quite as keen on Craft being an attribute, but given the importance the game gives crafting, I can accept it.

I’d say the skills are moderately specific. As an example, the game divides hand weapons into Melee (whips, bludgeons, and axes), Small Blades, Staff/Spear, and Swordsmanship. This feels about right for the setting.

Characters can be of the following races:
  • Witchers
  • Elves
  • Dwarves
  • Humans
Note that witchers are all former humans, so they aren’t technically a “race”. They possess enhanced senses and reflexes, are immune to diseases, and suffer from dulled emotions.

The elves and dwarves are mostly what you’ve come to expect, except perhaps that the elves aren’t unusually graceful — that would step on the witchers’ turf, I suppose. Instead, they’re natural archers and artists and are attuned to nature.

I like the fact that humans have their own perks rather than simply being the baseline race. In this case, humans are more trustworthy to other humans — an odd sort of perk, really, as I’d think the same would apply to members of other races interacting with their own kind — and possess natural ingenuity and stubbornness in the face of adversity.

The game uses a somewhat loose class system in the form of professions:
  • Bard
  • Craftsman
  • Criminal
  • Doctor
  • Mage
  • Man At Arms
  • Merchant
  • Priest
  • Witcher
Professions are classes mainly in the sense that each class has a Defining Skill that only a member of that profession can perform. For example, anyone can sing or play an instrument, but only a bard can succeed at Busking.

Furthermore, each profession has three potential career paths in the form of a skill tree, each path having three progressive skills. For example, a Criminal can follow the path of the Thief, the Gang Boss, or the Assassin.

Note that these progressions don’t always make the most sense. The Craftsman’s Defining Skill is Patch Job, which allows the character to jury rig repairs to weapons and armor, yet one of the career paths springing from this is Alchemist.

(“Witcher” is both a race and that race’s sole and exclusive profession. In other words, all witchers are witchers, and only witchers can be witchers, period.)

Finally, the game features an extensive Lifepath system used to determine the PC’s origins and life thus far. It’s a bit of a mini-game that can help determine boons and flaws, friends and enemies. (Note that Witchers get their own Lifepath.) I don’t often have the patience for this much detail in character creation, but I can see the value in it.

Combat

Combat in The Witcher involves opposed skill rolls with a number of options for both attack and defense. Of particular interest to me is the fact that combatants can make either fast or strong strikes — the former allowing two attacks with no penalty, the latter made at -3 but causing double damage.

Armor reduces damage, and that’s important, because damage is really bad in this game and is based on a number of factors. First of all, hit locations — whether targeted or randomly rolled — matter, with each location having a different damage multiplier. Next, characters have a wound threshold based upon maximum Health Points which, when exceeded, reduces Reflexes, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Willpower in half. Then here are critical wounds, which kick in when an attack beats defense by 7 (a simple critical) and increases at 10 over (complex), 13 over, (difficult), and 15 over (deadly). Each level adds bonus damage, forces a Stun save, and forces a roll on a critical wound table, one for each level. A critical wound, in turn, may lead to such ongoing conditions as bleeding or poisoned. It’s all quite appropriate for a game that sets out to be gritty, but I’m afraid it’s a bit too much for me to keep track of, personally.

Magic

Only special individuals in the world of The Witcher can wield magic, and even then, they require training. Spell casting is skill-based using the Willpower attribute. Magical characters have a Stamina attribute that functions as magic points and a Vigor Threshold that indicates how much magic the characters can channel safely. Magicians can exceed their Vigor Threshold by expending Health Points to make up the Stamina cost difference on a 5-to-1 basis.

I like this system on the whole, being biased as I am toward magic point systems. I also appreciate systems that can simulate a magician putting extra effort into a spell at a cost.

I also like games that add flavor to different varieties of magic, and The Witcher delivers here, too. The game includes magic of multiple types:
  • Mage Spells: In theory, these spring from the elements of earth, air, fire, water, or a combination of the four. In practice, I’m not clear on how this is supposed to work. Mental spells are elemental, for example? Still, there’s a good selection of spells here.
  • Priest Invocations: Supposedly powered by divine forces rather than the elements, these take the form of either druid or preacher invocations. The selection of invocations isn’t as impressive as the list of spells, and only the powerful arch-priest invocations are associated with specific deities. (And even then, it’s just one invocation per deity.)
  • Witcher Signs: Minor magic tricks that are a bit more powerful than cantrips but are less powerful than spells. (The text aptly describes signs as daggers compared to the long sword of spells.) There are only ten of these, but I’m okay with that — I get the impression that signs are just one of many arrows in a witcher’s quiver.
  • Rituals: Time- and component-consuming spells that are nevertheless easily learned and potentially more powerful than mage spells.
  • Hexes: Weak formulaic magic in the form of minor curses.
The section on hexes mentions full-blown curses as well, but they get their own chapter and are plot devices rather than tools for PCs. That’s fine by me, although given how powerful some of these curses are, lycanthropy among them, I find myself wishing that there were some mechanic for resisting them rather than just for lifting them.

Crafting

The book makes much of the fact that gear is pricey in this world, making the crafting and repair of items very appealing. It’s only appropriate, then, that the text should include extensive rules on crafting.

The result is yet another mini-game. PCs must first obtain a diagram of the item to be crafted, then obtain ingredients (some of which, like leather and steel, have to be crafted themselves), then make a crafting roll, referencing multiple tables along the way. Once again, the level of detail is a bit much for me, but the process makes sense, and I can see it working for players interested in gritty simulationism.

On a related note, there are many sorts of equipment specific to witchers, from their signature swords of silver and meteoric steel to potions they can imbibe or use on their weapons to mutagens that can permanently enhance the witcher. These appear to be extremely hard to come by with the near-extinction of witchers, which means a witcher PC initially will lack their standard monster-hunting equipment (unless I’m missing something).

Style

This full-color book features very attractive and consistent art throughout. The layout works well for the most part, although the table of contents looks like it was made by someone unaware of how tabs and leaders work.

The text is generally straightforward and conversational, although I found the prevalent slang-heavy commentary from the dwarf Rodolf Kazmer a bit tiresome. On the flip side, I feel as though the main text could use a bit more flavor. In some places, the writing becomes jarringly modern — the imagery of an over-armored warrior looking like “the Michelin Man’s mercenary brother” comes to mind, as does a reference to Scooby-Doo.

I found the organization of the chapters somewhat hard to follow here and there. No typos stood out to me, however.

Conclusion

The Witcher presents a grim, morally gray setting that borders on bleak but leaves room for heroics nonetheless. As such, I can see it appealing to fans of other dark settings like that of Warhammer. Personally, I find the hatred of nonhumans to be too unpleasant for me to really enjoy this world, but I know some players thrive on that sort of drama.

The system at its core is right up my alley but quickly grows too complex for my tastes. I think the level of detail suits the gritty setting, however.

In short, if monster-hunting in a dark, gritty setting sounds like fun to you, it would be worth checking out The Witcher.
 
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