By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 01 April 2020
With the majorly positive reactions to The Witcher series on Netflix, it was only a matter of time before I and others ventured back to the Continent to see what we’ve missed over the years. Thanks to the generosity of R. Talsorian Games, I was able to jump into The Witcher RPG and see just what else I’ve been missing.
Writer’s Note: A copy of this title was donated to my library by R. Talsorian Games. While the library support is appreciated, it has not influenced the rating or critiques within this review.
Inspired by the books and games by the same name, The Witcher is an RPG set in the grim fantasy land of the Continent, a land mass torn by war, wandering monsters, and those who somehow survive it.
The titular Witchers are those created to fight the inhuman monsters that plague the lands, but due to mistrust, are all but nearly wiped out. With fluctuating levels of trust in magic, a constant fear of war that is slowly marching forward, and monsters that lack predators, will you survive these dark times?
It is hard for me not to look at this book and just state how good it looks. While I originally expected scattered screenshots or art from the games, we see a good bit more filling the corners, with most two-page spreads having some form of art to break up the monotony of text. Combine this with color-coded chapters (with the colors visible when the book is closed), a sturdy construction, and an easily readable font, I think The Witcher is one of the best produced books I’ve had the pleasure to hold in my hands. Sure, I have my usual complaints (colors could be problematic for some, glossy pages are frustrating, etc), but it’s still a solid book.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the actual game itself.
From an entry perspective, this is probably one of the more welcoming grimdark games out there. The price of entry is low, as you only need 2d10 and a handful of d6s (about five would do), making this much more accessible than titles that need multiple custom dice. Additionally, the game relies on simple math, with the core mechanic being a d10 + Stat + Skill +/- Mods. Rather welcoming, considering the source material!
While characters can easily die, like most grimdark games, the tools to build a character are robust, allowing you to literally map out a character’s entire life (and the perks or hindrances thereof) and breathe life into the world.
For those new to the franchise, or for those of us coming back after so long, the book is a trove of information regarding the Continent. We have short but effective notes on countries and cultures, monsters and related folklore, weapons and armors of the various countries, and the very politics between different organizations that alter and shape the politics of the world around them. Even if you’re not a fan of the game mechanics, if you want to run a game set in the universe of The Witcher, you’d be hard pressed to find a better resource to have on hand.
Anyone who has had the (dis)pleasure of working with me knows how much I love a good and robust magic system. Vancian magic is boring to me, and I absolutely love magic that is simultaneously reliable and risky. Thankfully The Witcher delivers this with a Stamina (MP) mechanic, individual spells to learn that could be easily re-purposed for things not originally designed for, and a number of interesting spells to select from. Sure, I’d love to see even more magic (and more options for players to grow into magic), but it’s a good start and absolutely provides some technology to hack for other games.
With that in mind, I have to say I was happy to see the various options and balance provided by the game. While I would expect the titular Witchers to be broken combat beasts, they are truly not much better than a normal human with similar combat experience. In fact, the real balancing factors tend to be the various smaller-scale special abilities one can pick up: each archetype has a “signature ability” of sorts that separates them from others, and at higher levels, it branches off into three other trees for further customization.
Let’s stick with the Witcher in this example. Mechanically speaking, they get a couple minor perks (stats and special gear options) in exchange for some problems (social standing issues, stat hits, and risky lifepaths). Their signature ability gives them knowledge of monsters, which is even more vital than having the correct weapon. From there, you can branch your training off to gain more magical prowess, while a fellow Witcher could focus on their melee skills instead. Each archetype has similar options available, allowing a party with multiple of the same type being drastically different (should they survive that long, of course!).
In a further balancing act, the only difference between a Witcher, a Mage, and a Mundane character fighting a monster would be the available tools. While a Witcher will know the weakness and can prepare accordingly, or consume toxins to temporarily boost their abilities, their combat prowess isn’t that much better than the Mundane-based character. Mages, on the other hand, have magical options to potentially bypass the need for special equipment or tools, but that magic DOES come at a price, after all. While the Mundane character may lack in knowledge and power, they make up for it in other ways; Craftspeople can make the item said monster is weak against, or a Man-At-Arms can literally fight through what would kill even a Witcher. While I’m normally not big on class mechanics, the balance here is intriguing.
All in all, I rather like how the game is balanced to not overly emphasize one character type, and with the flexibility of using Fuzion DNA in the game, old hands have a number of extra tools to use, while new hands can rely on the presented optional rules to build and hack the game to fulfill their own needs. Between functional crafting rules, (mostly) open progression options, social combat mechanics, and a functional magic system, this is the book I wish I had when I first picked up Fuzion all those years ago.
Even with a popular name behind it, or possibly because of it, The Witcher RPG has a number of challenges facing it that may be a turnoff to some.
The first I would be remiss to mention is the physical vs PDF concern. While some game companies provide free PDFs with their physical books, you do not get that from R. Talsorian Games. This does make it an investment to get both print and PDF copies ($70 as of this writing) and a bit of extra legwork (purchase from both their site and DriveThruRPG). Not a deal breaker, but I know some expectations do exist.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the actual game.
As previously mentioned, The Witcher pulls heavily from the previous games by R. Talsorian Games, namely Cyberpunk 2020 and Fuzion. While this makes it familiar to old hands like myself, it carries some of the issues from those games.
For example, combat in Cyberpunk 2020 is gritty, even for a grimdark game. Many players of that title knew that your goal was to land headshots and end fights quickly, and it often became a game of “rocket tag.” Sadly, The Witcher follows suit with this; with a triple damage multiplier for a headshot (and not much of a penalty for that called shot), you can easily bypass damage resistances with a good enough roll. For example, the pregenerated Man-At-Arms can dish out, with a maximum damage roll, over 150 HP (after armor and the like). Considering Geralt of Rivia has only about 45 HP himself, it’s a bit overkill.
While this may not be terrible, it is a bit frustrating with how much time goes into making a character. Granted, this was the first time I’ve made characters in a Fuzion/Interlock game since my college days, but it still took me the better part of eight hours to make six characters, and that involved a lot of abbreviation. If I followed the full in-depth side of character creation, it’d have taken MUCH longer.
Simply put, the amount of time you’d invest into making your character could be offset by a single attack or a jerk GM. It’s one of the biggest hurdles I faced with the game when I was first introduced to it, and seeing it still persist was a bit disheartening. Of course, you may enjoy it, but for me, it wasn’t my thing.
When compared to other games, I also found things to be a bit too rigid at times. Once you make your character, you’re rather locked in place. If you aren’t a mage or Witcher, you aren’t learning magic, but if you’re a Man-At-Arms, you’ll never learn how to heal like a Doctor would. This could be due to the grimdark elements, of course, but it was a bit frustrating to me as I considered other parts of the source material.
With that in mind, the progression mechanic left something to be desired. Again, fitting for grimdark, but needing to find someone who has both a high Teaching skill and a high skill rating in the skill you want is going to be nigh-impossible. Do you want to raise your Swordfighting to 6? Well, you’ll need someone with both Teaching and Swordfighting at 6, and that’s not going to come easy.
Overall, I think most of my concerns are from the rules as written and how they pertain to the setting, which could be easily hacked (especially with access to other Fuzion-powered titles). Still, for a new GM, it could be a bit daunting, or it could be perfect. As always, your mileage will vary!
All said and done, The Witcher RPG will be leaving with four coins…I mean, buns.
While the DNA of the game has some inherent complications and challenges, there’s a great deal of potential here. With a high production quality, an approachable way to a grimdark fantasy, and a balanced playing field, I would confident suggest this game.
If you are a fan of The Witcher, enjoy grimdark fantasy, love in-depth character elements, and want to see book layout done well, then you would absolutely want to pick up a copy of The Witcher.
If you’re not a fan of grimdark, crunchy games, or The Witcher, you’ll want to give it a pass.
The Witcher RPG is published by R. Talsorian Games, and is available to purchase directly from their site for $50 (as of this writing), or as a PDF from DriveThruRPG for $19.99. If you;d like to give it a test run, then be sure to check out the free quickstart document The Witcher: Easy Mode.