The Witcher – R. Talsorian Games
Years ago in Poland I was recommended the pride of Polish fantasy: Andrzej Sapkowski’s “Witcher” series. At the time only two books were available in English: The Last Wish and Blood of Elves. I devoured the former and enjoyed the latter, though not as much – I feel that the series works better as short stories over long-form. I’ve never actually played The Witcher video game series. I have the first game and love the soundtrack, but haven’t made the effort to delve in yet.
If you’re not familiar with the franchise, it follows “The Witcher”, Geralt of Rivia. Witchers are monster hunters – men trained and conditioned from a young age to hunt beasts that terrorize the land. They fight with silver and steel, magic and mutation (as they undergo a chemical transformation to properly become Witchers).
The land of the series is similar to late-Medieval Europe and is significantly dark fantasy. If you’re familiar with Warhammer’s “Old World” you’ll find some commonalities, only The Continent in The Witcher has fewer German puns. Throughout the tales, as Geralt battles monsters, the monstrous nature of humanity frequently reveals itself as the true evil.
Now, the team of Lisa and Cody Pondsmith have brought the world of The Witcher to tabletop roleplaying games! I believe I’ve heard of an earlier Polish version, but can’t confirm. In addition, Netflix will drop the first season of its Witcher series a few days from this post – an exciting time for fans!
As The Witcher is a licensed game with a huge franchise behind it, I feel it’s sensible to approach it as a newcomer (as best I can). I’ll present the content mostly front to back, except in a few cases when there’s something relevant from a later section.
You’re given a pretty clear idea of what you’re getting into in the introductory chapter. This is a dark fantasy game, with adult themes, and it is unlikely to end pleasantly for the characters involved. I don’t get the grimdark feeling I do off of Warhammer or Zweihander, but it has a resigned vibe, as if this is the reality the characters have to accept. Though no rules are mentioned yet you’re told you only need ten- and six-sided dice for the game.
There’s a brief history of the Continent, a map, and an introduction to the narrators of this book: Rodolf Kazmer and Brandon of Oxenfurt. The two will provide narrative commentary on game elements and the setting throughout the text. It does a good job of settingthe feel for the game.
What’s most notable is a short sidebar called “Dark Fantasy, Witcher Style.” It establishes The Witcher in the genre of dark fantasy, addressing the not-so-grimdark nature I mentioned before, and also points out that the Game Master’s Guide section is designed to teach new GMs and help facilitate games in the style of The Witcher. It’s certainly promising and I like how early that’s presented (it will be expanded on in the GM section).
The section on Recent History of the Continent presents where in the timeline the RPG is set. It takes place after the second video game, so it looks like there are spoilers for the first two. The novels will fill in the history and background of the world in a later section. It’s frustrating to read summaries of the events of licensed source material in game books, since it’s usually just telling you about a bunch of cool stuff the main characters did. I understand it’s necessary so appreciate that the writers kept it brief here. This section helps establish that the game takes place during the Third Northern War, allowing you to begin brainstorming adventures and campaign plotlines very early on. I’ll jump ahead here to mention that the Game Master’s Guide uses the storylines of the games to show how different actions will result in changes in the world and creates a lot of plot hooks out of the various outcomes.
Character sheets for the major characters of the series come just before Character Creation. Some elements might be clearer to players of the video games, as they may be more used to seeing statistics and character abilities than book readers unfamiliar with RPGs. To its credit, the book notes that there may be some confusion and that all will become clear as the book goes on. I don’t think it’s an unfair way to lay this out, given that the potential confusion is addressed.
Character creation is fun. R. Talsorian is fond of using Lifepaths to build a character’s background and abilities, which puts them in my good books, as it’s my favorite method of character generation. By the time you finish you know your character’s family history, family members, personal style, and a number of other things. These elements are rolled for randomly on a series of tables, but of course you can pick and choose if you want. When testing, I built an Elf from the Northern Realm of Redania, where elves are despised. Unconventionally he is of the Aristocracy – which may seem weird considering he’s an elf in a land that hates elves, but the book does note that can happen, and has a sidebar to address those rolls. He’s an only child whose mother died of the plague, has a notable Artisan friend and a favor owed him by another noble, and an undefined addiction. He believes that all life is valuable but also values money above all, typically wears a uniform and a shadowy cloak…it goes on. It’s very entertaining.
This section is also where one can decide to play a Witcher. Games where the license centers around a particularly unique individual have a delicate balance to walk. Players who want to have a similar character need to be balanced mechanically against those characters who are “normal.” Eden Studios handled this well in Buffy and Angel by having two tiers of character, the “non-champion” tier receiving significantly more “Drama Points” through which they could boost rolls or modify the narrative. It worked well in those games, but how about The Witcher? Actually, Witchers tend to self-balance. They may have above-normal abilities, but in-setting they aren’t well-liked and have problems relating to people. Imagine a party of “Wolverines”? You’d be hard-pressed to function in civilized society. Therefore there’s plenty of reason to have a varied group of characters in The Witcher.
Besides humans and Witchers, players can choose Elves and Dwarves as character races. They’re not altogether different from the standard fantasy elves and dwarves, but due to the Homeland section of the Lifepath, culture plays a big role in how a character develops, and both races are found in human lands. I like that it’s pointed out that while canonically all Witchers are male, groups can of course have female Witchers, because why not? It’s your table, do as you like.
The “Romance” section of the Lifepath is worth bringing up, as it does highlight why this game is described as “dark, adult fantasy”. People knowledgeable of the franchise may expect it to not be entirely PG-13, and there is a portion of this section that moves past that line. While your character may have had a notable happy, tragic, or problematic romantic history, they may have rather spent their time sleeping around with prostitutes. So if that’s not something that flies at your table, be mindful. I’m of two minds – I understand that’s part of the setting and so is expected, so I don’t blame its inclusion. It’s the sort of thing I would gloss over at my table and there’s a section in the Game Master’s Guide that addresses how to handle romance in-game.
The Witcher is a skill-based game but combines that with Professions – roles to define your character’s general abilities and purpose. They give your character a special Profession-focused skill and act as a template for your other starting Skills. They include Bard, Craftsman, Criminal, Doctor, Mage, Man at Arms, Merchant, Priest, and Witcher (both race and profession). I like the inclusion of Craftsman, as it suggests gear maintenance will be important and I quite enjoy the idea of creating things in-game. Professions have their own “Skill Trees” where they can specialize further and gain new skills with special abilities. Man at Arms, for example, has the Skill Trees “The Marksman”, for your ranged fighters, “The Bounty Hunter”, for the hunter/stalker types, and “The Reaver” for the tough, brutal fighters.
There are nine Statistics that define your character’s innate physical, mental, and social capabilities, and a few derived Statistics based on those nine. You can roll randomly for them or distribute a number of points to them based on the preferred starting power of characters. Skills are well-described, and I really like how there is a brief description of what certain levels of skill suggest about the character’s ability in them – its helpful to have that sort of benchmark when distributing skill points.
It’s not until all the previous work has been completed that the mechanics are broached in a major way. Looking back, even though elements like Skill Levels have been discussed, as well as how special skills work, things have mostly been described in building-block form – no information has been presented that wasn’t directly necessary for understanding the section. This is kind of cool as it really eases a first-time player into the game.
So how does this game play? Skill resolution involves rolling 1d10, adding your skill level and your appropriate Stat level. If it’s opposed by an opponent, they roll as well and you want the higher roll (tie goes to the defender), if it’s opposed by circumstance or environment it gets a DC (Difficulty Check) level which you need to roll over, and sometimes that DC is calculated from the Stat of an opponent. On a 1 or 10 the die “explodes” and you roll again and add the new number (if you rolled a 10) or subtract it (if you rolled a 1) – this continues with additional 1s and 10s, so it can results in some hugely successful or terrible rolls. While there will be more nuance in Combat and Spellcasting (and other subsystems), that’s essentially it.
Characters advance by raising skills with Improvement Points, or by having a teacher or studying. I like that the two latter methods are involved because they’re great downtime activities to help larger spans of time pass without characters staying static.
The Merchant and Craftsman Professions will prove as valuable as a Mage, Man at Arms, or Witcher, when it comes to gear and equipment. There’s a respectable number of weapons and armor to choose from, with a number of “Effects” among them that provide specific benefits like Armor Piercing or Long Reach, but most interestingly they all have a Reliability rating – which tells you how many times the item may be used to Block before it breaks. Armor reduces damage taken and encumbers its wearer, subtracting that number from their Reflexes and Dexterity. The penalties aren’t huge per piece (armor is divided up by location), so don’t panic, but heavier armor will add up and start to slow you down. It also subtracts from Spell Casting rolls, accounting for Mages not being heavily armored.
Magic in The Witcher is a dangerous thing. Mages draw elemental energy from the Primal Chaos and channel it through themselves into spells. Overdrawing magical energy can affect the mage’s body based on the specific element (igniting or freezing the mage for example). There’s an overview of magic in society and how it’s handled differently between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms. Most mages are trained in schools, but some “sources” have an innate capacity for it which, if left untrained, can drive them mad.
Priests draw magic from “the Gods” (if they should truly exist) and Witchers make use of more basic “Signs”. Spells are divided up into basic, intermediate, and advanced levels, with Mage Spells further divided by element. You’ll find a good array of combative and utility spells, so spellcasters have a variety of uses, not just as short-range cannons. Longer-casting spells exist in the form of Rituals and another form, Hexes, exists for those who want to curse their targets. Places of power give spellcasting benefits based on the element and location, which I enjoy – it suggests a latent magical aura about the world.
I appreciate that the Combat chapter begins with a brief discussion on the concept, illustrating the deadly nature of fighting in The Witcher and offering suggestions on how not to die too quickly. There’s very little terminology in that opening and it helps set the stage for the rules to come. It operates basically like normal skill checks, rolling 1d10 and adding Stat+Skill modifiers against an opponent’s roll. The higher roll succeeds and proceeds with damaging the target. There are a lot of clearly-presented options, so despite it being pretty gritty, non-abstract combat, one shouldn’t feel overwhelmed. Armor absorbs damage and weapons can block attacks, but they degrade over time and become less effective (remember what I said about having a Craftsman in the group?). I really like that shields are presented as weapons (as they should be) that are just better at blocking attacks. Magical Combat works similarly and the rules even include Verbal Combat – which I love. It’s a short section but it gives you rules to adjudicate the actions of very persuasive characters, meaning you don’t have to solely rely on roleplay.
The chapter on the world of The Witcher covers history, people, faiths, organizations, and locations of The Northern Kingdoms and the Nilfgaard Empire. You get interesting history that’s not too overwhelming in its detail.
Now we get to the pivotal part of the book – the GM section. Gamemasters are often few and far between but if you’re a group of newcomers who’ve decided your first major foray into RPGs will be The Witcher, will this section prepare the one among you who has decided to facilitate the game? I say yes. There is experience in the advice given. The GM is eased into their role and given guidance on everything from player types, to how to balance encounters and construct plots, to how to manage the table, game developments, and the world. The Witcher does take the philosophy that the GM has significant power in the group, which I don’t fully disagree with. If you’re coming to this game from the novels or video games, it may be easier to think of the GM as the “lead author/editor” or “computer” than it would be to collectively narrate your adventures. You can, of course, but that also takes a specific group.
I appreciate that this section addresses the themes of The Witcher. The setting is rife with darkness, bigotry among the peoples of The Continent, and the inhumanity of humans to, well, everyone. Because of the nature of the setting, the GM is advised to really communicate with their table and ensure everyone is on the same page regarding what content will appear in play. I think that’s crucial and am glad it’s brought up so early in this section.
The Bestiary contains a good wealth of monsters and foes, complete with full stats, trivia, threat levels, and my favorite part: two sections of information based on Skill levels. The first is subjective and in-character to represent common superstition and the second is more objective knowledge a Witcher would have. It’s a perfect way to present monsters in this game.
The book wraps up with a sample adventure that presents a quintessential Witcher story – a town has monster and people problems, and it’s up to the players to sort it all out as best they can. What’s best about the adventure is it presents the content in the same format and formula as used in the Game Masters campaign design section, making it another excellent example of the rules in action.
Once you’ve finished with the core rulebook, you can move on to the first mini-supplement!
The Witcher: Lords and Lands is a companion piece to the core rulebook. It contains a very comprehensive GM screen, with most every table you’re likely to need to reference, including short rules summaries related to those tables. The accompanying book has sample NPCs, new gear, introduces halflings as a new race option (much more tolerated by humans than elves and dwarves), and presents the Noble Profession.
The Noble is a nice inclusion – a social/combative Profession and a natural leader type. They can acquire an Estate, which gives the Noble player a bigger stake in the world (and maybe foreshadows more developed holding management rules?).
While I’ve enjoyed reading the books, and look forward to the Netflix series (and eventually playing the video games), I actually think The Witcher Pen & Paper Roleplaying Game interests me the most of all of these. It has an interesting (if not incredibly daring) setting, solid rules, dangerous combat, and a very fun character creation system.
If you dare to explore a world of dark fantasy, fierce monsters, and dangerous magic, you can buy The Witcher and Lords and Lands from the R. Talsorian webstore, or from the Affiliate links below and help support this site!
Lords and Lands: