Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: The Witch

Dedicating an entire sourcebook to a single class is a single class it quite a task, but that's what Timothy Brannan has done with The Witch: A New Class for Basic Era Games, published by Elf Lair Games. In 122 pages he's not only created an original class for Labyrinth Lord, but done an excellent job fleshing it out mechanically, how it fits into existing fantasy role-playing and providing a healthy does of historic context. 



The book begins with an introduction where the author goes over class concepts and what exactly it means to play a witch and how they relate to more traditional spellcasters in basic era gaming. This kind of lead in gives the supplement more depth in my opinion instead of simply throwing a class at you and saying "have at it!" 

Brannan's witch doesn't wear a pointed black hat and feed poison apples to princesses. Instead he's taken the simplicity of basic era fantasy and used it as a framework. Chapter 2 offers all the detail necessary to play a witch. It provides statistics, flavor, and options for playing them as a class that ran run up to level 36, at the referee's option. It's a solid class with a strong historic flavor to it, and Brannan could have stopped there - but the fact that he didn't is what makes this book worth reviewing.

Instead of offering a simple cookie-cutter class, Brannan takes us into chapter 3 where several different traditions are offered. I'm reminded very much of the AD&D 2nd edition "kits" system. He offers six traditions and while one could play the the witch without one of these traditions, its implied and assumed that they're going to be used. Each tradition offers not only mechanical benefits, but Brannan describes what exactly it means to be in a given tradition, what their basic tenants are, how one joins and how one leaves. Admittedly, this is a lot of depth for a basic era game, and I can see why some referees would be reluctant to allow it - but I'm all about the flavor and enjoyed the tradtion system.

The Aquarian Witch is a witch who draws upon the power of the stars and the cosmos. Not in a creepy Lovecraftian way, but in a kind of historic context. They study the stars, astrology and celestial bodies to gain power. They understand fate is written in the stars and seem to draw their power from that understanding.

The Classical Witch is exactly that. Black cats. Bubbling cauldrons. The whole nine. While this could be bland, the author has a sidebar explaining different historic traditions that encourage the reader to crack a book and learn more for themselves - not greater sourcebook than the past.

The Fairie Witch draws their power by establishing and maintaining a connection to the fair folk, or the fey. This is a classic trope, but there's a subtle sense in reading it that the fair folk are not pixies, sprites and happy little brownies. They are creatures beyond mortal understanding and perception and that those in this tradition see the fey with respect and awe.

The Family Tradition is pretty darn original, but makes total sense. A character who selects this tradition has the gift "in the blood" so to speak. It's both an art and a gift handed down from mother to daughter for generations. This could easily be used to reflect a character who has a hidden family secret or a clan of gypsies who carry on an obscure magical tradtion. Easily my favorite of the traditions.

The Maleficia Tradition. The name says it all. They made a pact with less than respectable powers and now they've got dark power drawn from an evil patron of unimaginable power. While this could easily be dismissed as a "evils only" kind of tradition, Brannan offers the idea of playing a Maleficia as someone who is using the weapon of the enemy against them - which is intruging and could make for some great role-playing.

Finally we have the redheaded stepchild of the traditions - Eclectic. No so much a tradition as a mishmash of other traditions. They have penalties when interacting with other witches, but the freedom to select abilities granted to other traditions. I really life this ala carte approach. It offers a kind of blank canvas if played from early levels where the character can select abilities based on their expereinces through out the game.

We end the traditions section with a brief, but thorough overview on familiars - which are a staple of any witch character. Brannan offers good description and excellent listing of familiars both mundane and magical - with my personal favorite being the floating skull.

Next up we have a chapter of new spells and magic rules. Brannan introduces cantrips here, and while I like the idea of cantrips, they're another option to keep track of and some referees may not want to do so. I found some inconsistency in them too. The text states that cantrips can't affect living creatures, but there's one called Daze that clearly targets living creatures. 

In addition to cantrips we also have ritual magic, another staple of the traditional image of the wtich. These spells have longer casting times, require greater components as well as multipule casters. I enjoyed this section a lot, as again it really added to the flavor and depth of the class. It's not likely that a ritual would be cast during an adventure, so they lend themselves to bluebooking between adventures and that's a nice touch.

Covencraft is a kind of expanded followers and sanctuary section that goes into great detail on establishing, maintaining and running a group of witches. In addition it offers detailed overviews of example covens. to get an enterprising player or referee started. A really nice touch is an overview of the non-magical tools used by witches in their spellcasting and coventry. Special distinction is given to a witch's personal Book of Shadows and the coven's Book of Law. Again, an excellent springboard for role-playing.

This is followed up by a collection of several new monsters.The vast majority of new monsters presented here are taken from real-world mythology and continue to lend a kind of earthy that runs through the entire book. While I've not gotten a chance to use them in-play, they read as well written and can easily be usd as NPCs for the characters to interact with and not just a pile of hit points with XP as a reward after they're dead.

The magical items presented in chapter seven are flavorful and unique. Brannan introduces the concept of magic cords which can be knotted around a subject (whether the self or someone else) to achieve a magical effect. This is a nice addition to more traditional magical jewelry and very evocative of the image of a witch and how their magic works. The magic items seem reasonable for the most part, but I found the Dagger+1, Deep Sleep to be particularly powerful, and something that could be rather dangerous - still it was so fitting for the flavor of the book that I can't fault it too much for feeling a bit unbalanced.

Lastly we come to the Appendicies. Here Brannan offers rules for using the witch with the Advanced Edition Companion, rules for demi-human liches, and how some of the witch's new spells might be used by magic-users. The section on demi-humans is a bit of a contradiction to me. He offers a lot of flavorful detail on playing dwarf, elf, and halfling witches. They each have a kind of unique tradition, but intead of offering an original class for each, the reader is presented with a kind of universal "demi-human witch" template to fit all three. However, what is particularly cool is that the author discusses several "monster" races as witches, from fairies and hags along with a few others.

My final thoughts are that the witch is a solid, well-written supplement, but it might be a bit much if taken as a whole for a basic era game. That being said, it's so well-researched and evocative that its worth a purchase even if you only use the base class or a single tradition. It feels like a natural, easy fit to almost any fantasy campaign. It's available on RPGNow for $5.00 as a PDF, $20.00 for the softcover, or $25.00 for both products. If you don't mind a little extra crunch in your basic fantasy, then by all means its worth a physical purchase. Even if you don't want a few extra rules floating around it's still an absolute steal for the PDF. More than just another class variant, there's an entire culture presented in these pages that can easily be used to enrich any fantasy RPG, even if your players never take up the class.

5 comments:

  1. I am so happy you enjoyed the book! Obviously it was a labor of love for me.

    Thanks again!

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  2. Nice, seem pretty interesting and Timothy seem to have made quite a research for it. :)

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  3. I'm sure you know these, but Theorems & Thaumaturgy by Gavin Norman (http://the-city-of-iron.blogspot.com/2012/10/theorems-thaumaturgy-here-it-is.html) is nice, and I did The Basic Illusionist (http://bit.ly/1ifKmJw). Both are free downloads. Mine is considerably slimmer and focused on Swords & Wizardry though.

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  4. The Basic Illusionist is rather nice!

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  5. Great write-up and it sounds like a fascinating read.

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