The Witcher Roleplaying Game (The Witcher RPG) (Patreon Request)
This RPG clocks in at 336 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, 4 pages character sheet, 4 pages of index, 2 pages of author comments (which are actually fun to read!), leaving us with 320 pages devoted to the game, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a hardcover in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. I have consulted both the hardcover, and the pdf (v.1.2) for the purposes of this review. It was also requested to be released in time for the new Netflix series by one of my patreon supporters, so here we go!
Okay, so before we take a closer look at the mechanics, let us make a few things clear: The timeline of the RPG is set right before the Witcher 3, which makes sense, as it means that the political landscape is at its most volatile; the book btw. does have a detailed “checklist” kind of thing for important decisions that influence the metaplot, so that’s a definite plus. As you can glean from the game artworks, the RPG tends to be closer to the videogames than the books, though, if you’re like me and enjoy them, you’ll be happy to hear that, if you’re like me and prefer certain monsters to be susceptible to meteorite steel, rather than silver, the RPG has you covered.
Speaking of videogames: This is a pretty important notion from the get-go: You don’t play Geralt of Riva; you are not the legendary witcher; you can be a witcher, but you’re no lone wolf; you play as a group. As such, not everybody will be a witcher. This might sound odd, but it is important: This is a team-based RPG, not a solo-player experience, and as such, classes like the Craftsman or Bard are very much important, if perhaps slightly less “sexy” at first glance than the witcher, particularly considering that witchers are REALLY unpopular everywhere. The witcher should, as a general notion, pretty much never do the talking.
Which brings me to a second important note: This is NOT D&D or Pathfinder. This is NOT about high-fantasy. And since you don’t play Geralt or similar superstars of the Witcher world, the focus of the stories told will focus on grittier themes, with politics coming second; combat is NOT the main focus of this game, even though it does have an engine that can allow for pretty tactical altercations.
These two observations are entwined: Witchers are combat monsters, but without Geralt’s improved reputation (bear in mind, he *does* have renown far and wise and *is* treated better than his fellows – now picture what less-famous witchers go through!), lone witchers will definitely need help succeeding at their tasks. It is very much possible to play this game without a witcher in the party, and do things other than monster-killing. In short: You have to distance yourself from this idea of the lone witcher than can do everything; in these ways, the RPG hearkens closer to the books, which rather often face Geralt not only with human adversaries that can best him, but also see him rely more often on others – simply courtesy of the genre.
To clarify my position regarding the Witcher franchise: I am a HUGE Witcher fanboy. I have devoured all the books, and Witcher 3 is my favorite video game ever. (Even though I preferred Witcher 2’s more brutal, difficult and skill-based combat, and wish the quality of the DLC bosses had been implemented in the main game as well.) If you need to know, I think that “Deathmarch” is definitely the way to go when experiencing Witcher 3. But I digress. To summarize: This is a game for a group, and it very much is built in a way that emphasizes that; it is not high fantasy, and your adventures should reflect that. The latter point is pretty crucial, considering ho prevalent high fantasy as a RPG-genre is. Okay, are you intrigued? As a huge fan of dark fantasy whose games tend to gravitate in that direction, this theme is right up my alley.
While we’re on the topic of the videogames: The book begins with a recap of the history of the world of The Witcher, including an in-character summary by Rodolf Kazmer (called, hilariously, “Rodolk” in a bookmark); he and Brandon of Oxenfurt are two of the characters that add their own takes as in-character narrators and lighten up the reading experience. And before you ask: Yes, a series of iconic characters are fully statted: Geralt, Yennefer, Dandelion, Zoltan, Triss, Vernon, Iorveth and Letho get full stats as iconic characters – before the game explains its rules. Regarding sequence of presentation, I think that starting off with the world’s history and assumptions of the genre vs. high fantasy, as the game does, was a smart call; however, that out of the way, I think explaining the basics would have been smart. Also, I really hate it when NPC stats are clearly presented in sections that players read – the stats of these NPCs should be in the bestiary in the back.
As far as complexity is concerned, The Witcher RPG is not as complex as Pathfinder, but it is significantly more complex than the more rules-lite old-school systems; as a whole, I’d consider it to be mid-tier in complexity, somewhere adjacent to 5e or DCC, with a less granular magic system, but a more tactical combat engine.
So, what about the mechanics? The Witcher uses two dice – d10s and d6s, with d10s rarely used as d%, but that’s all you need to run the game – I’ll return to that in the combat section. The game uses a heavily-modified iteration of the Interlock system.
Character creation is a 7-step process, and begins with picking your race, with rules for elves, humans, dwarves and witcher provided. However, this section is prefaced with social standing – depending on the territory you’re in, you can be equal, tolerated, feared, or hated, with “feared” being special in that it can be paired with “hated.” A quick glance at the table shows you that the North is actually the least equal land out there; humans are hated in Dol Blathanna and tolerated in Mahakam, Elves are hated in the North, and dwarves are actually equal everywhere, except in the North, where they are only tolerated. Witchers? They are both hated AND feared in both the North and Nildgaard, and only tolerated in Skellige and the non-human realms. Mages are only treated as equals in Dol Blathanna…so yeah, the fact that this is the FIRST thing you see, should give you a good idea how important this factor is.
As for races, these generally have 3 perks (with Witchers being an exception) that are positive; Witchers have a stunted Empathy statistic (the game’s nomenclature for the equivalent of ability scores), capping at 6, minimum 1. These perks generally provide skill bonuses of +1 to +2; dwarves are thick-skinned, with a kind of natural armor of 2 SP (SP = stopping power). While you create the character, skills cap at 6, with a maximum cap of 10 – however, the choices made regarding races do actually allow you to go beyond these caps. Here is a bit of an issue: The game does not state how this works in the context of leveling up: If you, for example, are an aen seidhe, an elf, you gain +2 to Archery. Let’s say, you have an Archery of 7, so 5 +2 race perk. If you now want to increase that by 1, does this cost improvement points equal to the increase to 6, or is the cost required 8? Is the perk bonus added after improvement, or before? I assume the former is true, but the book does not explicitly state this.
This different focus also can be seen by the emphasis on the social context – depending on your race, your lifepath is of serious importance, and after you determine your country of origin (which is contingent on race) and your homeland (which nets you skill boosts), you also have to determine the state of your family, and what may have happened to them – there are tables for this, and it matters, big time. Same goes for determining your status in the society, and your most influential friend. Each of these tables provides a column for the Northern Realms, Nilfgaard, and elderland – so no, skelligers will have to use the northern table. Since death in the Witcher RPG is permanent, the module suggests using the (mostly) large families of particularly humans as good ways of introducing backup characters. For every 10 years of your life, you roll for life events – 1-4 = fortune or misfortune, 5-7 the forming of allies and enemies, and 8-10 deals with romance. Fortunes can have mechanical repercussions, or provide potent roleplaying boons (like a tamed wild animal, etc., a favor with a mage, etc.), while the bad things can include anxiety attacks, being feared or cursed, etc. I was slightly disappointed by the romance-section not having at least a small table for the (very rare!9 happy love affair, but more importantly, why is there no table for whores and debauchery?
Indeed, this may be one of the most puzzling oversights of the system – there are no carousing rules in the RPG, when that is obviously an important component of the narrative fabric of the franchise. That being said, the RPG also has a generator for determining your personal style.
After this, you choose the equivalent of the class – in this RPG, this is called the profession – obviously, if you’re a witcher, this choice is already fixed – witcher doubles as both profession and race. Each of the professions has a defining signature skill, a skill package, and a list of gear to choose from. If you’re playing a magical character, you also get a Vigor rating. The professions are bard, craftsman, criminal, doctor, mage, man at arms, merchant, priest, and witcher. Class-wise, there is one glaring oversight that has been relegated to the mini-expansion for the game that accompanies the GM-screen: The default game has no noble-rules, and makes mages the default courtly folks. That…bothered me more than it should have.
Having chosen this profession, we have to get to the statistics: There are 9 of those, and the game lets you choose the power-level of your characters via point-buy, providing suggestions ranging from average characters to legends. The game also explains what stat-levels mean. The statistics are Intelligence (INT), Reflexes (REF), Dexterity (DEX), Body (BODY), Speed (SPD), Empathy (EMP), Craft (CRA), Will (WILL), Luck (LUCK). Luck is special – before making a skill roll, you can expend any number of luck points, adding +1 per point added. These points refresh at the start of each session.
From these, you derive further statistics: Vigor is a threshold – it’s the total cost in Stamina (STA) of all the spells you can cast/maintain in a given round; exceed that, and you take damage. Stun is a save number – rolling under this number, divided by 10. Nonlethal damage lowers this number. Run is SPD x3; Leap is a tactical movement, and is the Run value divided by 5 – it’s also how far you jump.
HP, STA, REC (how much HP you regain per bed rest), and Stun are determined by adding BODY + WILL, and dividing this by 2, then correlating the value with a table. Body also influences melee damage bonus and hand to hand damage caused.
Now, the most meaty part is the skills: The first 11 skills are taken from the profession’s skill package and you get to split 44 skill points between them; you must put at least 1 point in each of these skills. Beyond this, you get Intelligence + Reflex Pick Up Skills that you have picked up at one point. Some skills are harder to pick up, and have a cost of (2) noted – these require 2 skill points per level. To upgrade, so upgrading Alchemy from 7 to 8 would cost 14 points. It should be noted that archery, crossbows, spears,. Etc. – all are skills. You roll a d10, add the skill’s statistic and the skill, and try to get ABOVE the DC. Meeting the DC does not suffice. Sample DCs are provided, and modifier examples based on circumstances are provided. The attentive reader will notice that this makes characters pretty reliably competent in what they do – this is not a bug, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always considered the “5% of something going horribly wrong”-angle to be a bit weird. However, if you *want* that type of D&Dish uncertainty, or simply are used to it, you might at first be taken aback by the fact that you sometimes won’t actually have to roll, and that luck isn’t as important. (Funnily enough, the example given for opposed skills illustrates this rather well – so yeah, definitely a feature and not a bug!)
Character advancement is handled via I.P. (Improvement Points) – these are used to learn new skills, improve old ones, and Teaching and book-learning are actually efficient! Raising statistics is btw. costly – 10 times the level of the statistic. Okay, is that the CURRENT level of the statistic, or is that the level of the statistic to which you want to raise it? The book should have specified that. IP is awarded not for monster slaying – but for doing something impressive, something out of the box, for participating often and efficiently, etc. – nice!
Well, Before, I mentioned the signature skills of professions, right? Well, each of these skills has a base ability, and three specialization branches, which present different focuses. These sport progressively better, unique ability, and within each specialization, must be attained in order. The difference between the different specializations is pretty damn pronounced – The surgeon treat of the doctor’s healing hands focuses on diagnosis, analysis, etc., while the anatomist can inflict bleeding wounds, halve wound healing speed with particularly nasty wounds and learn to execute even crippling wounds! These specializations btw. might have different statistics associated with them – for the Criminal, thieves can e.g. memorize locks and tumbler positions, which is based on INT, while an assassin’s eye gouge attack is based on DEX. Man at Arms can become marksmen, reavers or bounty hunters – in essence, these skill trees could be thought of as archetypes or class kits. These are NOT mutually exclusive, though!
After that, it’s just equipment that needs to be sorted out: Witcher knows 4 damage types (Slashing, Piercing, Bludgeoning, and Elemental), and well-crafted weapons have an optional bonus to hit, denoted by WA (Weapon Accuracy), they also have an availability, and a Reliability rating – this is the number of times you can block before the weapon breaks. Each weapon also notes its ability to be concealed, weight, and cost. Finally, weapons note how many slots for runes they have. These are weird – why does a dagger have none, but a stiletto has one?
Combat is lethal: Damage for swords ranges from 2d6+2 to 6d6, and there are descriptions provided for them all, with descriptors like long reach, ability to focus magic, etc. included. So yeah, gear is important, and good gear is great – however, you need to be careful and regularly maintain it – Craftsmen will be very popular. Armor, as noted before, stops damage, and can theoretically be layered, though this is not an advisable strategy; important: The Witcher differentiates between head, torso and leg armor. Kits, services and the like are covered as well.
Initiative is 1d10 + REF, with ties going to the players. You can improve this via fast draws, +3 to initiative, -3 to atk for the first round, and you MUST attack – so no aiming etc. Combat knows regular wounds, and critical wounds – the latter are potentially deadly, crippling, and will make you really congratulate yourself for sticking at least relatively close to a doctor or mage. Combat assumes 3-second rounds, and you can make fast or slow attacks (ranged weapons are limited), and STA may be spent for an additional attack or defensive action. Since attack rolls are executed with d10s, and so are defensive actions, skills are pretty important. Humanoid and monster damage locations are included, and cover types get their own SP-values.
You can use your action to make 2 fast or one strong attack, cast magic, initiate verbal combat, run (SPDx3), you can actively dodge, you can aim, take a Recovery Action to replenish STA (or HP out of combat), or Aim. Attacks that damage you also deteriorate your armor, and damage explodes – both in a positive and negative way. 1s mean you reroll, and subtract the rerolled number from yours; 10s mean that you get to roll again, and add the result of the reroll. Subsequent 1s and 10s do btw. stack. Critical wounds are incurred by beating the Defense of the target by 7 (simple), 10 (complex), 13 (difficult) or 15 (deadly), and in addition to the specific effects from their own tables, these inflict bonus damage. Yep, not only can damage explode, the nuanced critical wounds system makes serious injuries…well…serious. My one complaint here, is that we’re pretty much left with only humanoid-centric tables; no guidance is provided for creatures with a different anatomy. On the plus side, the game does differentiate between stabilizing and treating wounds.
The game knows a wound threshold, which is contingent on the Max Health – when your HP goes below it, you halve your REF, DEX, INT and WILL. Rules for various critical hits and prosthetics are provided as well – kudos: The book mentions Götz von Berlichingen as an example of a prosthetic-wearing badass. (And yes, the “Ö” is correct here – the book calling the fellow “Gotz” is not), and magical combat follows the same paradigm. The book also comes with optional Adrenaline rules, which nets you adrenaline dice when you score critical hits. As noted before, social interaction is supplemented by a verbal combat engine – the engine is solid, but I’d have preferred it to be a bit more detailed, have more things that can be done with adrenaline.
Mage spells have, as noted before, a Stamina cost, a range, a duration, and are grouped in three categories – novice, journeyman and master spells, and they use the classic 4 elements; Druids and preachers have the same 3-class division for their spells, but there are also arch priest invocations, which are only rarely taught and usually the purview of powerful individuals and/or saints. Rituals follow the same guiding principle, but also require components and DCs to meet to successfully cast them – artifact compression, golem crafting etc. fall under this category. There obviously are the signs, and Hexes are formulaic short-term curses; curses are plot devices. In case you were wondering: novice, journeyman/master determines the I.P. required to learn the magic; this takes time and checks versus a Learning DC.
Crafting is easily one of my favorite aspects herein – you need to ascertain you have the diagram, the ingredients, and then can craft the item – this engine covers basic crafting materials, hides and animal parts, alchemical treatments and components, etc. You pay half the item’s price in Investment cost, listed conveniently in the diagrams. These are btw. once more classified as novice, journeyman and master…but here, we also have grandmaster diagrams. Scavenging and repair is pretty darn important if you want to survive in The Witcher, so yeah – elegant, granular, like this one. Alchemy follows a similar angle, with the 9 basic components (Vitriol, Rebis, Aether, Quebrith, Hydragenum, Vermilion, Sol, Caelum, Fulgur) and items/monster parts noted – one look at the vitriol table, for example, nets you the knowledge that they can be found in nekker teeth, barley or troll hide. The game does not only faithfully render the whole crafting/alchemy component, it also emphasizes something I haven’t seen done this well: The loot-game aspect is strong (considering the differences in e.g. sword-damage output), but MAINTAINING the gear is actually not that simple. I love that – it adds grit and a survival aspect to the game. Spending all your gold on a single sword is a BAD idea – what help will it be once it falls apart because you can’t afford to maintain it? Big kudos there.
After this, the book provides an overview of the regions of the world of the witcher, and then proceeds to provide salient GM-advice, which includes advice on encounter scaling, rewards, tables for random possessions, how to handle min-maxers in a non-adversarial manner, as well as campaign advice.
Really annoying: All rules for witchers show up THEN. Not where all the PC information is, oh now – after the GM advice. This is, organization-wise, really, really annoying. That being said, the Hunt-engine should probably be in the GM-section, while the witcher gear section should be in the player part of the supplement. After this somewhat misplaced section, we get runes for magic runes and rune-based item enhancement (which should imho be in the equipment section), and in the same chapter, we have unique magic items, the relics…which are well-placed in the more GM-centric part of the book. After this, we have a short bestiary that includes stats for bandits, commoner knowledge/superstitions, academic and/or witcher knowledge, etc. – vulnerabilities are noted. This section is pretty comprehensive, though the only vampire included, as one of the most potent creatures herein, is the katakana. Cats, horses etc. also get stats.
Finally, there is a brief introductory scenario – “To all a Good Night.” This scaenario deals with vanishing children, has a political angle, and formally, features both read-aloud text, and the adventure establishes themes, difficulty, etc. rather well. The module comes with not necessarily good-looking, but plentiful maps of the entire town – manor, tavern, standard homes, etc. – all covered, and all presented in a player-friendly manner. Kudos.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. While I noticed a few guffaws, the book is fully functional as presented. Layout adheres to a 2-column full-color standard, with each chapter featuring a differently-colored border, and information in sidebars. Artworks are taken mostly from concept art from the video-games: Fans of Gwent will recognize them. The artworks are high quality, though the endrega-artwork is oddly pixilated in my copy. The hardcover is a sturdy book and withstood the rigors of life with me well so far. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Cody and Lisa Pondsmith deliver a surprisingly cool licensed RPG here – licensed RPGs are often not that interesting, but this book not only manages to depict the world of the Witcher in a faithful manner, but does so well. The systems, particularly the alchemy and crafting components, show a dedication to things different from slaying things that is super-refreshing to see. The focus to tell different fantasy stories than in default fantasy games? Great. That being said, as you could see above, there are a couple of instances, where the rules could be a tad clearer.
Same goes for the layout and how it presents information and the sequence of information – sidebars somethings are fluff-commentary, sometimes crucial rules, etc. These should be visually more distinct from each other – I don’t know, scrolls, different colors…something. That’d also liven up the comparably muted aesthetics of the book.
The main achievement of the game, though, is that it plays differently from the big fantasy games – neither 5e, nor PFRPG, nor the OSR-games, nor GURPS or WFRPG/Zweihänder, etc. play anything remotely like this game – The Witcher feels like a breath of fresh air in many ways in many of its components.
There is a lot to love about The Witcher; you can try it for FREE via the Demo dubbed “Easy Mode”, and if you’re looking for a change of pace, this certainly delivers. As per the writing of this review, I am hoping that we’ll get a full-blown campaign-book and/or further adventures and monsters – a monster/NPC book with further beasts and stats for Impera brigade etc. would be greatly appreciated – the game’s most significant obstacle right now is that it can’t lean on a wealth of adventures that teach adventure-crafting for the game, when the group-focus (in opposition to the videogame’s single-player experience) as well as the themes diverging from high fantasy could see some less experienced GMs struggle.
As a whole, there is a lot about this game that I love, but there also are more components of it than I’d like to see that could use minimal finetuning. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars.
You can get this RPG here on OBS!
You can get the hardcover here on R. Talsorian Games’ store!
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