This is a review of The Witcher tabletop RPG from a roleplayer who is well aware of The Witcher computer game but who has never played it.
As a result of reading, re-reading the 330+ pages of the tabletop game and playing through some scenes and melees I am now even more tempted by the computer game. I am not tempted to run The Witcher as a tabletop game, though, and this is my usual method of introducing a new RPG to my group. Why not? This game is intimidatingly complex. It’s not complicated but has very many parts and accompanying rules, and none of them seems trivial.
I would want my first acquaintance of The Witcher as a tabletop RPG to be as a player in a game with a GM who has at least a year experience of the rules. I fear anything else risks turning what should be the delightfully dark fantasy world into a farce of page flipping and rules referencing.
The Witcher is both a simulationist and an RNG RPG. I understand the extra push towards simulationist for this game; as believable physics is often a big part of computer games. By RNG, random, I mean there are a lot of tables and a lot of chances for fate to throw you a curveball. Some gamers adore this.
Combat in The Witcher RPG
Let’s take combat as an excellent example of the unique blend of simulation and random. First work out the initiative, including any initiative overrides (like fast draws), the line of sight, vision cone and facing. Your vision cone is what you can see (easy to do on a computer game) and is determined by factors like whether your character is wearing a helmet.
There’s a one-in-five chance, with each strike, that you will score either a critical hit or a fumble. Both critical hits and fumbles explode. That’s to say if you keep on rolling the magic number you keep on adding (or subtracting) to the roll.
With each strike, before you find out whether you’ve fumbled or not, you need to determine whether you’re doing non-lethal or lethal damage and which of the four possible damage types you might be doing in that category.
If you land your hit, then you need to determine hit location (different from humanoids or monsters, of course) unless you called a location in advance and factored in the modifier.
Hit location is essential not just for the damage modifier it determines but because armour is also locational (which is why you might want to wear that helmet after all and reduce your vision cone).
The Witcher tabletop RPG has rules for layering armour. You can effectively wear up to three layers of armour. That’s not only useful in such a deadly world but helpful in a world where armour deteriorates with each damaging hit. Don’t worry, weapons have a Reliability rating too, so the logistics aren’t stacked against armour, but it does mean you have a lot to track.
Critical Wounds are different from Critical Hits. If you beat your rival’s defence by 7 or more, then you do a critical wound. The more you beat your opponent by the higher the category of the critical wound. Each category has a table.
Thoughtfully, in the critical wound effects, you will also find the various healing stages. In The Witcher RPG healing is a slow and multipart system. It is not the case that once health is recovered the character is back to normal, no. They’ll need to stabilise, be treated and given time to rest.
Of course, if you miss badly enough, then you’ll need to check the fumble table to see what else happens to you.
That’s the basic combat. That doesn’t reflect the horrible truth in The Witcher that most monsters are resistant to weapons in the first place. Nor does it cover all the various oils and effects Witchers and other classes can enhance their blades with to make them more deadly.
Nor does the above summary include anything for the more advanced ‘In Depth Combat’ section where you will find rules for Pommel strikes, Dual Wielding, Shield Strikes and the effect the lightening level might have on combat.
Adventures in the Witcher RPG
Crucially, The Witcher RPG’s attention to detail isn’t exclusively about combat either. As I’ve alluded to rest and recovery is essential and so is crafting. The game lives in a world where a throwing knife is frightfully expensive and has the authors remind us there’s a real risk of getting injured trying to earn money to buy the throwing knife in the first place.
I think the detailed and deadly approach The Witcher takes to gear becomes very important. It means that even a fundamental desire to get better armour becomes a quest. It’s a scenario in its own right. Non-combat characters like merchants and craftsmen who can get their hands on equipment are beneficial! Classes like Bards who can summon up money from crowds are also a significant blessing.
Another area in which the mechanical complexity of the Witcher RPG lends its hand to non-linear, sandbox, gaming is the appropriate focus on hexes and curses. I assume these were a big part of the computer game. It seems unlikely you can go long in a Witcher game, especially up against mages or unnatural foes, without being cursed or hexed. There’s no simple dispell magic to counter this, not really, and each one is necessarily a quest to resolve. Given how challenging it is to acquire a new throwing knife or upgrade your armour the search to a solution to the hex I think the characters would be correctly apprehensive about what now lays ahead of them.
I think other fantasy RPGs should learn from The Witcher. Hexes and curses shouldn’t be footnotes in the system (if they appear at all). They’re an iconic part of fantasy literature and should be a front-and-centre mechanism for GMs.
One of the reasons why curses and hexes are not a footnote in The Witcher is because magic isn’t either. This may be a dark fantasy, rather than high fantasy, but magic is not uncommon.
There are various tiers; from the quick and straightforward Witcher signs, to priest invocations, mage spells and rituals. In fact, most of the population in the Witcher has the potential to do magic if only a simple feat. In contrast, the percentage of people powerful enough to become mages is tiny.
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I suspect it’s worth working out which aspect of the Witcher’s system you want to master first and then tracing back to the profession (class) to assign your character. You can select from; bard, craftsman, criminal, doctor, mage, a man at arms, merchant, priest or witcher. Only the titular Witcher profession has a chapter all to itself.
Lastly, you should prepare to die. One piece of advice from Pondsmith & Pondsmith that I disagree with is to have your character’s sibling replace them after death. Different gaming groups will have their feelings about this but I think is threatens disbelief and cheapens character death if there’s a conveyer belt of sibling clones ready to place a character, especially by the third or fourth time!
Given the RND nature of this game, you can roll to see how many siblings you have and who they are. My first test character was a Northern with eight brothers and sisters. The first one of those I detailed through random rolls was a younger twin sister who was romantic and wanted me dead.
The World of The Witcher
I’ve not played the game or read the books but from the tabletop The Witcher my takeaway of the world is as follows.
Monsters are returning to the world and humankind is busy tearing itself apart with wars to be in any condition to do much about it.
Humankind itself is one of the invading monsters. The continent’s first inhabitants were dwarves and gnomes, but a magical convergence of planes occurred and let into the world monsters and new races. It took humanity a while to become established, but it has done so with the usual racist and enthusiastic aggression you can expect.
It was the rise of the Witchers that put the monsters in check in the first place. Witchers begin as young children tucked away in tortuous training and rituals and, if they survive, leave as mutants fighters. These silver weapon-wielding warriors fought the monsters back into the shadows at which point humanity turned on them. No longer believing in monsters, worried about the Witchers’ fierce powers, Man tore down the Witcher Schools. That was a generation back, but Witchers are naturally very long-lived, and so there is still a bunch of them active today.
The computer game changes the world.
One of the significant problems I think Pondsmith & Pondsmith has expertly dealt with is the fact that the Witcher CRPG has variable endings. Players in the game change the world. So how can you write up a defacto world for the tabletop RPG?
The solution is to write up the world at one point in time and provide guides on how to adjust it depending on the outcome of significant computer game events. If you want to craft this Witcher RPG so that it matches your computer game outcome you can.
The tabletop has information on the Northern Kingdoms; Redania, Kaedwen, Aedirn, Temeria, Skellige, Kovir & Poviss, The Hengefor’s League, Lyria & Rivia, Cidaris and Verden. It has THe Elderlands; both Mahakam and Dol Blathanna. There’s The Empire of Nilfgaard; Nilfgaard, Etolia, Vicovaro, Gemmera, Ebbing, Maecht, Mettina, Gheso, Nazair, Mag Turga, Angren and Cintra. We go beyond the borders to Zerrikania, Ofier and the Farth North.
There’s a rundown of the powerful alliances in the game and novels with the Witchers, Mages, The Havekar, The Scoia’tael, the Mage Hunters and the Crescent Moon. There are also religions with Melitele, the Eternal Fire, Freya and the Great Sun.
The Witcher is not a dungeon crawl game – characters wouldn’t survive – so knowledge of the greater world is a big part of the experience.
You’ll get to know a dwarf called Rodolf Kazmer very well. Whole sections in this book are written in-character by Kazmer; even the equipment section.
Games Mastering in the Witcher RPG
As I said at the start of this review, I don’t feel confident enough to run a game of The Witcher – and I’ve run both simulationist and RNG RPGs before. Perhaps the authors sensed this would be an issue as there a twenty or so page ‘Game Master Guide’ in the book.
This section helps GMs balance encounters (party size plus two for the usual number of monsters in a melee, for example) as well as tonal reminders. This isn’t Lord of the Rings. The Witcher is a very different fantasy world.
This section is written in the first person with one of the Pondsmithes using “I” and drawing on their own experiences. Whether it’s Cody Pondsmith or Lisa Pondsmith – they are married to a min-maxer. Perhaps that’s why they conceded that min-maxers aren’t evil, just annoying, before going on to discuss ways to deal with them.
It’s this section that discusses why relic items are excluded from the game’s otherwise comprehensive crafting system. The short answer is; game balance.
This section also has the other piece of controversial advice that I raised an eyebrow at (the first being the use of siblings to replace fallen characters) which is that it is okay for the GM to have a character in the game. By this, I think, they mean a stalwart NPC that hangs around in the group.
I recognise the role of such an NPC, and there is good advice here on what not to do; such as avoid this character always being right or stealing the thunder of the PCs. However, I would suggest the minute the character begins to feel like “The GM’s PC” and not just an NPC that an invisible line has been crossed.
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The Witcher RPG reminds me why Geek Native stopped rating games on a scale of 1 to 10. Games are more complicated than that. What is a delight for one GM or group might be a challenge for another. I feel the Witcher is precisely that; a delight and a challenge.
Let’s a lot I loved about this game (oh! the gorgeous art!) but at the same time the urge to take it to my regular gaming session and say “We must do this!” isn’t there.
What I want is an eight-day week with a three-day weekend. In this magical new day, one devoted to tabletop RPGs, I want to find a GM with (somehow) a bucket of experience running the Witcher and for them to introduce me with practiced skill to the world. Failing that I hope to find a particularly good actual-play Twitch stream to watch and become familiar with the detailed rule set through that.
Should you buy it? If you know you like detailed RPGs then download The Witcher straight away.