The tagline for the Witcher tabletop roleplaying game (from R. Talsorian Games) is that “the world doesn’t need a hero … it needs a professional” – it seeks to distinguish the gritty, imperfect protagonists of the Witcher from the sort of protagonists one is more likely to play in a traditional fantasy roleplaying game. Similarly, the mechanics of The Witcher differentiate it from many other modern fantasy roleplaying games as well, with an emphasis on things like crafting and tracking equipment usage that are only infrequently this pertinent in other games.
Based on the wildly successful video game series by the same name (OK, there are a lot of references to the books as well, but admit it, you all played the video game first), in the Witcher roleplaying game, the player characters will be a witcher and their companions (in the game world, there are no known female witchers; but since you’re free to make your witcher PC a female, this review will still use gender-neutral pronouns when referring to witchers). You aren’t technically required to have a witcher in the party, but the game is really designed around the notion that you will (parties without witchers will have a much, much harder time with any sort of monster). Plus, since your character in the video games is always a witcher, it seems more likely that there would be an argument with multiple players wanting to be a witcher than no one being a witcher. Character options aside from being a witcher are pretty varied, including bard, craftsman, criminal (sorry, no “rogues” here), doctor, mage, man-at-arms, merchant, and priest.
The Witcher roleplaying game is set between the events of the second and third Witcher video games (a few months before The Witcher 3 starts). This means that the Third Northern War is in full swing, and should be expected to have an impact (often direct, but at least indirect) on the course of a campaign.
The Basic Mechanic
Characters have statistics (stats) and skills. Ratings in both stats and skills normally range from 1-10, with skills at character creation capped at 6 (although racial modifiers can push them above the normal limits). The basic roll is stat + skill + 1d10. Easy tasks are a 10, while difficult tasks are a 20 (with a couple of steps in between).
Character Creation and Advancement
Character creation starts out with picking race, which is a fraught choice in The Witcher, because basically most everybody’s a racist. There’s even a chart of which parts of the world you’ll be hated and/or feared the most in. The options are dwarf, elf, human, and witcher (which is both your race and your profession).
Technically the next step is lifepath, although if you’re like me then really you’ve already done step three and picked a profession. You can do this randomly, and the book suggest that you give it a try, but I maintain my general position in opposition to random character creation (especially since, while many of the tables have no mechanical effects, there are some entries with mechanical benefits), so I know that I would take the option to pick what I needed to fit the character concept. The life path is fairly detailed, including tables for personal style, past romances, life events, acquaintances, parents, siblings, family status, and so forth.
As mentioned above, there are nine professions (including witcher). Each profession has ten normal skills that are ‘class’ skills and one ‘defining skill’ only available to that class. For example, the Bard can busk to raise funds, the Craftsman can perform field repairs, and the Doctor can heal critical wounds. Defining skills work differently from other skills in that they not only can be improved numerically, but also have additional functions that can be unlocked as character advancements. For spellcasters, the profession also provides the sort of spells/rituals/hexes known, and a pool of vigor, which is used to power spellcasting.
There are, likewise, nine Stats. These can be rolled randomly (1d10 for each Stat, but re-rolling anything less than a 3; so an average of 6.5). Or a point buy can be used. Given my previously-referenced opposition to random character creation, you can probably guess which method I’d prefer. Oddly, even the most stingy point buy method will on average produce higher values than rolling the dice, so if you’re planning an adventure with Skilled or Heroic characters, rather than Average ones, the point-buy method is a must.
The nine Stats are Intelligence, Reflexes, Dexterity, Body, Speed, Empathy, Craft, Will, and Luck. Luck functions different from the other Stats, providing a pool of points that can be used to enhance other rolls. In addition to these core Stats, there are then derived Stats for running speed, bonus melee damage, health points, stamina, recovery, and hand-to-hand damage.
There are 50 different skills available (plus the defining skills), but the primary fixed pool of points can only be spent on their class skills (and the defining skill). If evenly spread, this would amount to about a 4 in every skill; if the maximum 6 ranks is desired then 7 skills can be maxed out. As one might expect with so many skills, they are relatively granular. For example, there are 7 different offensive combat skills (brawling, archery, and a variety of melee weapons) and 10 different purely social skills (from etiquette to grooming to disguise and more). Some skills require double cost to purchase. These are most often a skill tied to a profession’s “power” focus – various types of spellcasting, crafting, alchemy, and traps.
Character advancement requires improvement points, which are, broadly speaking, gained in two ways. Regardless, however, improvement points are always specific to a skill (or, less commonly, a Stat). First, they are gained as usual for experience points – each player gains improvement points at the end of a session, and those improvement points can be assigned to any skill used that session. Second, characters can take in-game actions – such as practicing or receiving training – that will generate improvement points for the particular skill.
Other Mechanics of Note
Gear often won’t receive much of a discussion in a review of a fantasy roleplaying game core book. In the Witcher, however, it is worth emphasizing how detailed the gear system is. First, everything breaks – weapons and armor have a reliability stat, and their remaining functionality needs to be tracked. Second, a sword is not just a sword – different swords from different locales (with different styles, materials, and manufacturing processes) have different stats. Third, armor is divvied up by location. You don’t just have “plate armor” or “leather armor.” You have a Nilfgaardian Helm, a Lyrian Leather Jacket, a Hindarsfjall Heavy Cuirass, and a Skellige Raider Shield. On top of that, you can apply enhancements (such as chain mail reinforcement) to different pieces of armor.
Not only is there all that gear, there are rules for crafting it – and for crafting alchemical potions. Much like one might expect from a video game, crafting an item requires a diagram/formula and the right components before you can attempt the craft. So, yes, you can now forage for components in your tabletop roleplaying game as well.
Combat in the witcher involves offensive and defensive rolls, so both sides typically participate in each attack. This can be pretty straightforward for a melee weapons – pick either a strong strike or a fast strike, and swing. If you find yourself unarmed, there is some variance between different types of punches and kicks – but that’s generally non-lethal damage. Other options include standbys such as charging, disarming, tripping, feinting, etc.
All of that different armor comes into effect because the Witcher uses hit locations. They might be random, or the result of a called shot, but hitting someone in the leg does a lot less damage than hitting them in the head. Armor serves as damage reduction, which means that helmet is a big, big deal (the armor’s DR is applied before the damage is multiplied for a head shot). Indeed, you can even layer armor for some additional protection.
Damage is slow to heal. Critical wounds are even slower. It is possible for a character to be killed, permanently maimed, or simply have a long-term penalty that can eventually be removed by a skilled doctor.
In addition to the standard physical combat described above, the Witcher has rules for verbal “combat,” covering aggressive actions like intimidations, to more “friendly” efforts to persuade or seduce.
There are four different kinds of magic in the Witcher (not counting alchemical formulae). Some of these are class-specific – only mages use spells, only priests use invocations, and only witchers use signs. Other are shared – both mages and priests can use hexes (curses that are often cast unintentionally) and rituals (potentially powerful, but time-consuming). There is a relatively narrow list of options for most of these, but mages have 40 different novice spells to choose room.
Gazetteer – For those who want a quick primer on the world of The Witcher, the book contains about 30 pages on that subject, with most of that space being taken up by 1 or 2 countries per page. There are also a few pages on how the world might have changed based on choices made in the video games, so you can sculpt your Witcher tabletop game to match your Witcher video game experience. Beyond those 30 pages, those who want to run into characters from the video games will find full-page stat blocks/write-ups for Geralt, Yennefer, Dandelion, Zoltan, Triss, Vernon, Iorveth, and Letho.
GM Guide – The Witcher often has a distinctively casual writing style (including some first-person content), and that is most on display in the 20-page GM chapter. The content is pretty distinctive, and specific, too. This isn’t a chapter of generalized, high-level advice on being a GM. It’s mostly a chapter on avoiding specific pitfalls. Remember that you aren’t the players’ enemy. Use in-game methods to encourage the characters to stay on the right path, instead of forcing them. Don’t turn the game into a showcase for your special NPC that’s hanging out with the party. Be willing to fudge things to keep players and important NPCs alive, but don’t let the players know you’re doing it. Handling min-maxers. There’s some Witcher-specific suggestions as well – handling “romance,” keeping the fantasy low, non-monster evils (including racism), and the absence of neat and obviously “right” solutions – plus the nitty-gritty of designing encounters and handing out ‘loot.’
Bestiary – You can’t have any sort of RPG without adversaries, and you can’t have a fantasy RPG without monsters, so the Witcher brings you 45 pages of such content. Except for the routine creatures (e.g., a snake), each entry gets a full two-page spread. The left page is mostly taken up with art, but also includes the foes’ Stats. The right page has most of the rest of the mechanical information, plus a write-up about the foe (along with the skill and DC needed to know the information in the write-up … although the skill is Witcher-only for anything that’s a monster, which is most of the entries).
I think that, ultimately, how much you’ll like The Witcher will come down to two factors. The first, and most obvious, is whether you’re a fan of the video games – which you probably are if you’re bothering to read this review. That’s the initial hook. The second factor is how appealing you find the more ‘realistic’ or video-game-like tracking that many other RPGs (even fantasy RPGs) forego, such as wear and tear on equipment, crafting (including foraging and schematics), specific injuries, and extended healing times. If you’re interested in that, then The Witcher will really tickle your fancy from both a thematics and a mechanical direction. If that isn’t your cup of tea, then for you The Witcher will probably be best experienced as a one-shot, where things like the need to repair weapons and armor won’t come into play.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.