Game: The Witch’s Handbook
Publisher: Green Ronin
Review Dated: 9th, November 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 7
Average Score: 7.00
The Witch’s Handbook is the current offering from Green Ronin‘s Master Class series. This time round we see a Witch class as a core class and then a couple of prestige classes as well as new feats and spells.
But forget those. Skip to the middle of the book and start reading through the clean and smooth ritual magic rules. In just a short space of easy to understand rule suggestions the book gives you an alternative to the quick-fire casting of standard “melee magic”. A ritual increases the casting time and the ingredient costs but allow you to enhance the spells in some simple but effective ways. The best feature of the handbook’s ritual rules is that they’re genuinely worthwhile to the players, the bonuses are tangible but the bonuses are not over-powered and shouldn’t alarm the GM. In fact, the way the ritual magic stacks into circle magic, places of power and times of power it makes the whole concept a mouth-watering plot generator for the GM. Circle magic – well, think witch’s coven – is a form of ritual which uses more than just one caster. The rules for circle magic extend the ritual magic rules. Circle magic is more effective if you can find other spell casters of your type (arcane, divine, other clerics of your deity, other witches…) and so again there are all these reasons for the players to get involved in interesting plots and discussions with NPCs. If you’re desperately trying to mature your players away from killing things and looting the corpse then this could just be what you’re looking for.
The rules for places of power and times of power are even more tempting for the flavour hungry GM and players. A place of power could be a Druid Grove (so that’s why they hang around there), Standing Stones, the tower where a powerful mage died, etc. The effect of casting magic in such places is noticeable again while using the ritual magic rules in that they further increase the bonus levels used to enhance the ritual spells. It’s a smashing idea but I wish they’d found more page space to list a few more examples of places of power. Times of power involve a rather more comprehensive set of rules but they’re just as elegant. The cycle of the moon is one example of a time of power. Under these rules different schools of magic receive bonus levels to their ritual magic effectiveness if cast under the right moon. The new moon is time of darkness and mystery and so the schools Conjuration and Enchantment receive their bonus. The schools that should benefit from waning or new moon after a slight disadvantage in that under another set of rules in the Witch’s Hanbook could mean that the new moon is the worst time for a witch to be casting her spells and the waning moon is pretty bad time too. It’s Necromancy and Abjuration that suffer the worry of being associated with the waning moon but they also benefit from the full moon – and I can’t decide whether that’s a typo or not. The text for the full moon says that it’s a time when good or neutral witches celebrate completion, attainment of goals and the fulfilment of promises. Does that sound like necromancy and abjuration to you? There’s more to times of power; there are special times in the year like Samhain or the Solstices that might also boost the effectiveness of ritual magic.
Honestly, it’s worth buying the book just for these extra magic rules. It’s not comic book magic stuff (fireballs and colour sprays) but a style that lends itself much more nicely to a more gritty and real feel to the magic.
What? Oh right! The rest of the book, yes, there’s that too.
The witch core class works for me. It’s a wisdom based arcane spell thrower. She has less spells available at each level than rival arcane casters do but she doesn’t need to prepare them ahead of time and this gives her an impressive flexibility. I’m not one of these people who throw weird and wonderful formulae at each and every attempt at a witch core class to prove that it’s not sufficiently different enough from Druids, Wizards or Sorcerers but if I was I’d probably be able to niggle away at it. This witch works for me though; it’s not heavy on the class abilities but when they do kick in they’re worth the wait and entirely appropriate to the class. A familiar is available at first level and then later on (much later on) the witch picks up the “A thousand faces” ability and then “Timeless body”. Timeless body sprang to mind while I was flicking through the new witch spells at the back of the book and stumbled into the Restore Youth spell. You’ll need to flick to the back of the book and the spells to find the Witch class spell list too.
The prestige classes work by visiting the stereotypical visions of witches and doing something decent with them. The Infernal Witch (10 levels) is your evil seductress and with abilities like Undetectable Alignment she’s an insidious villain that’s not automatically defeated by plot annoying spells like Detect Evil. She gets a fiendish familiar with an evil alignment though. Doh!
The Shaper (10 levels) is that witch class that deals with, as you might guess, changing the shapes of things. The introductory text here says that some people speculate that the word “witch” itself comes from a root meaning “to shape” and so that helps explain where the class has come from. Again there are some tempting class abilities that seem to make this prestige class especially tempting. What about “Detect Shapechangers” as a first level ability?
A classic evil witch is the Witch Hag (10 levels) and it’s the sort of brave prestige class that I particularly like. As the Witch Hag progresses up levels she draws closer and closer to the hag transformation when she becomes a full hag (sea hag, annis, green hag), earns all the hag’s special abilities and keeps all her current spells and ability scores. Now, that’s scary!
The Witch Priest / Priestess (10 levels) is perhaps a tempting prestige class for non-witches since it offers up “A thousand faces” and “Timeless body”. There’s an arcane spell casting ability as a requirement though.
You certainly don’t need to be a spell caster to qualify as a Witch’s Champion (10 levels) though. This is a nice angle for a prestige class. It certainly is prestigious and that’s an aspect of the concept all too often forgotten by games designers and the class acts as the “power up” players except a prestige class to be.
All these prestige classes end with a hefty dose of examples. Low level, medium level and high level stat blocks provide a cheap and easy way to quickly provide a suitable NPCs for those times when the players have done something unexpected.
There’s a collection of bits and pieces between chapter one and two. There’s some notes on how witch covens might work, on apprenticeships, rites of passage and even something on witches in Freeport.
The second chapter is one skills and feats. There’s just enough extra in the skills section to make it worthwhile; suggested DCs for heal checks in order to identify disease and poisons, the fortune-telling profession, a little bit on finding and preparing herbs and use of sense motive. The list of feats is just as sure to be any new d20 supplement as the new use for skills are. The feat are actually pretty good, there’s not too much in the way of “Advanced” or “Improved” style feats and the simple inclusion of “Lunar Magic” (where a spell caster’s ability ebbs and flows with the changing of the moon) can change the whole flavour of your campaign. I rather like the Lunar Magic feat.
The chapter “Tools of the Craft” is more interesting than cynical reviews might first expect. The ritual item list is terse but sufficient; the inclusion of athame and boline – the ritual dagger and components for ritual magic is nice. The alchemical preparation list reminds us of that side of the fantasy witchcraft to with its examples of contraceptive care, dye, hair growth formula and tooth care too. Magical potions come hot on the tails of the alchemical list. There’s more than just a token collection here, there are about 30 suggested potions. Memory boosting potions, lust inducing potions, lycanthropy causing potions or even the true seeing unguent which can be rubbed into the eyes in order to benefit from the true seeing spell are a couple of examples. There’s a collection of magical wands, cauldrons, jewellery and cursed items too.
It’s a somewhat back to front review of the handbook I know but just sometimes the secondary content in a supplement is more tempting than the headline offering. The witch rules in the Witch’s Handbook are pretty good, they get the thumbs up but the ritual magic rules are better and get two thumbs up.