20 November 2018
Silver for monsters, steel for men (who are also monsters)
This video game adaptation does a great job of translating the deadly combat, elaborate monster hunts and gloomy setting of The Witcher to the tabletop, but unwieldy rules make it a hard sell for most gamers.
Based on the trilogy of PC and console games rather than the original books, The Witcher Pen & Paper RPG sends players into a dark fantasy world that rivals Game of Thrones for brutality. It’s a world where the fearsome monsters of old are slowly dying off, only to be replaced by more mundane sources of evil that are somehow even worse.
This feel of struggling against the darkness is a core part of the experience and is something that truly sets The Witcher RPG apart from more conventional takes on heroic fantasy games. While you and your friends may build a neat little party of warriors and mages and set out with every intention of righting wrongs and smiting evil, you’ll soon find that charity work doesn’t pay doctor’s bills or repair torn armour.
You’re definitely going to need those services sooner or later, because the combat system is just as deadly as series fans would expect. Even the toughest characters can be badly injured with one particularly lucky blow, and if you allow a handful of drowners to get the jump on a mage or doctor you’re probably going to need some new ‘help wanted’ posters before the end of the session.
This high-stakes combat isn’t to everybody’s tastes, but it does an incredible job of making every battle, even every cut and thrust, seem important. Your party may start out their campaign by charging wildly with swords blazing, but after gathering up their severed limbs a few times they’ll realise the importance of a solid plan and abusing every possible advantage.
If you’ve played the video games, you’ll know that in The Witcher these advantages often take the form of making sure you have the right potions, blade oils and weapons to hand, and this has carried over to the tabletop version. There are detailed systems for brewing up all manner of juices using herbs and assorted lumps of fallen monsters, as well as rules for crafting new gear and upgrading weapons.
These can be fun to play around with, but if you want to make the most of them – and if you want to survive your upcoming battles you really do – there’s a lot of inventory management to handle. It can cut into the drama when your alchemist wants to put the monster hunt on pause for a moment because the subterranean lair is a good place to find some phosphorus.
This is the great strength, but also the biggest weakness, of The Witcher RPG. There are so many moving parts that it can be tough to manage and keep a flow going, but if you and your group are truly invested in the world it can be a great simulation. It can feel like a chore to track the durability of every weapon and piece of armour on your body, for example, but the realisation that you can’t head off on your next adventure without hiring a smith to repair your breastplate is exactly the kind of thing that makes it feel like The Witcher.
Even the core mechanic and skill system feel incredibly appropriate for the world. It’s simple on the surface, but as you play the game you realise that it heavily emphasises training and experience over blind luck.
Every check is made by rolling a d10, but depending on your stats and skills you might be adding anything from a +3 to a +20 to the result, even early in the game. This means that unless critical successes or failures come into play, a specialist is virtually guaranteed to do much better at their given task that someone who hasn’t trained – something that fits neatly into The Witcher RPG’s focus on careful planning and preparation.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of great ideas on display in The Witcher RPG, but this isn’t something that can act as a gentle stepping-stone from video games to the tabletop. In the great Venn diagram of tastes, it’s aimed squarely at that section where fans of simulationist RPGs and The Witcher video games overlaps – if that describes you this is well worth a play.
A blood-soaked and brutal game, combining fairly complex rules with a heavy focus on storytelling.
Designer: Cody Pondsmith, Mike Pondsmith
This review originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.