Review: Witcher RPG

In recent years, the Witcher Saga has moved from the sidelines of popular culture to smack in the forefront of nerdom. 

The origins of the series are Polish. The first short story, Wiedźmin (which translates as “The Witcher”), was published in 1986 for the magazine Fantastyka‘s short story contest. From there, author Andrzej Sapkowski wrote numerous additional short stories, which were collected in two anthologies (The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny), published in the early 90s in Poland and translated into English in 2007 and 2015 respectively. These stories led to a series of five novels, published between 1994 and 1999 and followed by a stand-alone novel in 2013. This series was translated into English and published in North America between 2008 and 2017 (with the 2013 novel being translated in 2018). 

Yes, this does mean the second anthology, which directly led into the novels, was published in English seven years after said novels.

From this literary foundation, video game company CD Projek Red decided to make video games in the world, set after the events of the novels. The Witcher was released in 2007 with sequels released in 2011 and 2015. 

The overwhelming success of the third game, The Wild Hunt is likely what led to small RPG publisher R. Talsorian Games licencing the franchise and releasing a role-playing game in 2018. 

What It Is

The Witcher RPG is a 335-page book available in hardcover and PDF, although at the time of writing physical copies are almost sold out. The book is full colour with slightly textured page backgrounds and simple headers. It features a lot of full colour art, but much of this seems pulled from the novels and video games—the lion’s share likely from Gwent cards; the characters and details like their clothing match their appearance in Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

The game makes use of its own roleplaying system rather than borrowing an existing system. It makes use of both 10-sided dice and 6-sided dice, with the d10s being used for most action resolution (skill checks) and the d6s being damage dice. No d20s required. (Although I do wonder why it went with 1d10 rather than 2d6 and just requiring the one die.)

The book uses a standard class/ profession & species/ race method of character creation. There are 4 races (Witchers, Elves, Dwarves, and Humans) and 9 professions (Bards, Craftsmen, Criminals, Doctors, Mages, Men At Arms, Merchants. Priests, & Witchers). These professions are mostly packages of known skills and some gear. Each profession also has a “signature skill”, along with a simple skill tree of three paths of three skills that characters can specialize in.  

Character creation also features an extended Lifepath system where you randomly determine your background, including the number of your siblings and their fate. 

The book includes a fairly expansive description of the world. 30-pages is spent detailing the nations and regions of the setting (aka the Continent). This includes both religions and organizations. The default era of the game is between The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and Witcher 3. (Witcher 1 is set five years the end of the novels, with Witcher 2 following immediately after and 3 being six months after that.) Despite the default era, enough information is present to loosely play in earlier eras; if one is familiar with the setting based on the novels or even the TV series, there’s enough information here to adventure a generation or two before “the present.”

Following the gazetteer is 24-pages on gamemastering. This is mostly full of fairly introductory GMing advice such as avoiding “invisible walls” and a reminder that the GM’s relationship with the players is not adversarial. This isn’t going to teach remotely new GMs anything new, but is an adequate introduction for anyone new to gaming that finds this book.

The book ends with 20 monsters plus some additional animals (all from the Witcher 3) and a short 12-page adventure. 

The Good

The writers did their research, and it shows. This is especially true for the setting, both its history as well as its regions. The Witcher books throw out a lot of proper nouns, and this is a fairly easy-to-read guide of locations and small kingdoms. It’s almost useful as a non-gaming reference to figure out locations and places when reading the books or when early in one of the video games.

Most roleplaying games assume large parties of mixed skill sets. While the Witcher RPG does assume some access to a Doctor and a Craftsman, you don’t need a “balanced” party. While there’s no accommodations for “imbalanced” parties, it also doesn’t assume you have a specific party compositions. It might work really well with a smaller group of 1 to 3 players, such as a Witcher and a Bard (like Geralt and Dandelion/ Jaskier) or a wandering crew including a Man at Arms, a Mage, and a Criminal. 

In part this is because the game is not just a combat simulator, but also includes rules for verbal combat and a variety of tasks between battles. The system employs opposed and countering skill checks, which means there’s decent opportunities for conflict that mechanically function like physical combat but don’t require literally stabbing people. 

Similarly, the book really tries to work in all the subsystems of Witcher 3. This includes crafting, damaged equipment, and alchemy. A lot of character advancement in the game comes down to having access to crafting and enchanting, as there are fewer magic items. However, what few magic items (read: Relics) are in the game are all given a fairly lengthy backstory, which is written in-character. I quite like that level of detail and focus on story.

The book includes lots of sidebars; because of the way the book is laid out, there’s room for sidebars on the outer edge of every page (a formatting style that can be very effective when done properly). These give additional details on the tone of the game while also providing variation rules, gameplay suggestions, bits of lore, or rule clarifications. These sidebars also include optional rules for when the lore of the books differs from the lore of the video games (which is the default). Such as some monsters being vulnerable to meteoric iron rather than silver. 

Reputation is a big part of the game. Status is a key part of the Witcher universe, as is people’s opinions and biases. Witchers are unpopular and feared and there is a lot of bigotry. Plus characters can develop reputations for good or ill. The game reflects this. 

The Bad

Despite gnomes and halflings being a part of both the books and the video games, neither is in this game. Similarly, the monsters are all the more generic foes in the game. There’s none of the unique critters that drive a full hunt, like a botchling or hym, but also no striga or dopplers. Nor are there really rules for making unique hunts or modifying monsters (although, in fairness, there is a little advice in the Curses section). 

Dopplers in particular would also have been a fun idea for a hybrid Profession/ races, like Witchers.

Characters are meant to experience a number of random events in their life, which are rolled. But not all life events are equal, with some being better for your character concept and others being worse. Players can be seriously penalized and hindered for a random roll during character creation. It’s one thing to have a roleplaying flaw or cosmetic penalty, or to choose a mechanical flaw, and it’s another to have a roll permanently reduce one of your Statistics. 

Because of the varied types of character, the game will likely be tricky to run, and building adventures that involve all the diverse Professions might be tricky (let alone adequately challenging them all). You don’t want everyone to play a Witcher, but if someone plays a Craftsman or Merchant they might end up sitting out of a hunt-focused session. Or the reverse, where you have a city-focused adventure, where the Bard, Merchant, and Criminal can get involved in all manner of shenanigans, but the combat-focused Man at Arms and Witcher are just bored. Or worse: become disruptive and get into plot-derailing trouble.

Because the skill packages are locked-in for many professions, it’s hard to build a hybrid character, or play against type. Such as a former Doctor that became a Criminal (or vice versa) or a Bard that has some magic. It can be done, but you need the right Abilities and some system mastery. It’s also harder to differentiate characters, who will be very similar in build. 

The rule system is unremarkable. It’s not bad but doesn’t particularly innovate. In fact… it feels almost retro. This is a system that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1990s, alongside some 3rd edition GURPs and 2nd Edition D&D. It lacks any roleplaying or story manipulation mechanics, and despite hunts being a big part of the game there’s no Gumshoe-esque investigation mechanics. There’s not even Sanity mechanics, let alone the emotional roleplaying, which was highlighted so well in the recently released Alien RPG.  

In the Witcher, you have nine base Statistics that can be used to make checks, which are augmented by skills for seven of your Statistics. There are 51 skills in total, plus the extra class skills. You add your points in an ability to a relevant skill plus a d10 roll. Statistics range from 1-2 (Inept) to 13+ (superheroic), with DCs ranging from 10 to 30. A starting character might be rocking a 12 to a 16 in a decent skill, so they can ace an Easy check automatically and have good odds and an Average DC check. Meanwhile, Geralt, the eponymous witcher, has a Dex of 10 and a swordsmanship of 11, so their average result on a sword attack is a 26.5. He’s practically invincible against a starting character. 

It’s also a finicky system. It’s the kind of game where after every hit you determine hit location while also tracking damage to your weapons and armour over a combat.  There are several pages of modifiers in the combat chapter. Charts of attack modifiers, fumble results, critical damage, and special effects. You’ll be consulting a lot of tables. 

Combat is comprised of opposed skill checks. You attack and your opponent tries to dodge, block (which damages their weapon/ shield), or parry. On a success you determine where you hit, which alters the total damage. Then reduce damage based on your armour—which are resistant to certain types of damage—and reduce the damage a second time as your armour takes some of the hit (damaging the armour). Then lose health. It’s a lengthy process for each attack. But it does mean you can have a fight with lots of blocking and dodging and several hard hits without a character being injured while also having an unlucky ambush that rips a character apart. 

The Ugly

The layout of the book is—and I say this not trying to be mean—amatuer hour. It’s what an RPG book would look like if you took a simple no-frills book template that came with your publishing software and made as few modifications as possible. 

There’s not even any bookmarks on the PDF! This stunned me when I first noticed that, as turning headers into bookmarks is literally just a checkbox in InDesign. While I don’t expect hyperlinked cross-referencing or indexing in every product, bookmarking is a minimal requirement for a multi-hundred-page core rulebook.

Edit: I need to add a correction/ retraction here. Bookmarks ARE in the product. I neglected to check if there was an updated copy of the product and relied on my existing download, which was apparently fifteen-odd months out of date. This was an unprofessional mistake and I apologise.

The book has a simple two-columns layout, with the aforementioned sidebars. But the sidebars aren’t in boxes, coloured differently, or even separated by a dividing line: they’re just to the side with headers that are centered rather than left justified. So at a glance the pages just look like they have three columns. But despite the relatively narrow columns, the tabs/ indentations are huge. 

This weak layout is doubly apparent in the character sheet, which is just a wall of boxes. There’s no graphic design to the character sheet at all. 

The above details paired with the recycled art really make it seem like an unofficial product released by a dedicated fan, rather than being an officially licenced product. 

There’s also inconsistent editing. In the introduction to character creation, pick-up skills has a hyphen, but when these skills are described it doesn’t. So when trying to quickly look-up that section, my keyword search came blank. Similarly, in the combat section on Page 151 the sidebar on your actions includes the reference “see Combat Resolution”, a subheading that doesn’t exist. Tyops happne but those were some key sections of the book and really needed extra attention to detail.

Making referencing the rules harder, neither of the above are in the index, which is also pretty lacklustre and barebones. And also features the abysmally large tabs.

The Awesome

GMing section does touch on consent and making sure players are okay with the topics being presented at the table. This is a highly useful reminder given the game is dark and gritty and horrible things can happen.

There’s little in-character bits of dialogue in the sidebars. This sets the tone of the setting and gives a little extra personality to the book while also providing some lore in a less dry fashion. 

Throughout the text, keywords are called out with bold and coloured formatting. This includes conditions and certain effects. This easily catches the eye and draws attention to the key mechanic inside the paragraphs. Always useful in a rules reference product. 

The game’s alchemy system is both complicated and fiddly but rather interesting. There are nine key ingredients that can be harvested from a variety of sources, and each are given a unique coloured icon. The recipe for each craftable item requires some combination of these shared ingredients. It’s probably more complicated than I need, but if you’re playing a craftsman and alchemy is your thing the subsystem keeps gameplay interesting. It’s abstract without just reducing all alchemy to a single pool of common resources or having a lengthy list of unique components. 

Final Thoughts

At a quick, casual glance the Witcher RPG looks good. Gorgeous art and a clean layout. But once you look closer or hit the rules the game begins to seem clunky and dated, potentially slow and fiddly with a surprising amount of imbalance and almost retro design. The more you look past the art and actually at the book, the uglier the product seems. The layout is clunky and boxy, simply lacking the extra detail and care one expects of a professional roleplaying game product from the late 2010s. 

Frankly, I’ve seen better looking products on the DMsGuild or given away on /r/unearthedarcana done by literal amateurs; there are unofficial products done by fans for fun that simply have more care put into their design. 

Prior to writing this review I was unfamiliar with R. Talsorian Games, and assumed they were a newcomer to the industry, building a catalogue of products by updating older games—I was familiar with the names Cyberpunk 2020, Teenagers from Outerspace, and others but had never played them or looked at who published them. But having paused to do some extra research/ fact-checking at the end of my review, I was a little surprised to find out R. Talsorian Games has been publishing games since 1985. 

Which, honestly, explains the Witcher RPG. It’s not a retro roleplaying game designed like it was being published in the early 1990s. It’s a game designed by a publisher as if the RPG industry hasn’t changed or evolved since the 1990s. It’s an old school RPG that just happens to have been published in modern times with an art budget borrowed from a AAA video game studio. 

I’m not sure how to evaluate the game with that new information. Should I praise R. Talsorian Games for sticking to their tried and tested design? Or should I condemn them for not keeping with the times and modern standards?

At the end of the day: does the layout affect the quality of the gameplay at the table? No, that is a merely cosmetic issue. And is this a usable game that will provide a framework for entertaining game sessions? Probably. That’s much harder to evaluate. The game system is still quite fiddly, but a few cheat sheets or a GM screen can mitigate that, and if you want that level of detail it’s a big plus. Furthermore, with only a single combat encounter likely in each session, you almost want that to be detailed and complex. And while you can end up penalized with bad life events during character creation, that’s a theoretical problem. 

A skilled GM should be able to design adventures that engage a party of mixed roles. Especially if you have a small number of players. The game might work best if you have two or three players and one gamemaster rather than the expected table for four to six players. It would work very nicely as a game about a Witcher and their Criminal sidekick or a Mage and their Man-at-Arms bodyguard. This game might work very well as an “alternate game” played when you’re missing half a regular gaming group but still want to get together with friends and roll dice. 

That said… with the Witcher TV series having caused a surge of Witcher-related attention and print copies of this game becoming harder and harder to find, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for R. Talsorian Games to do a revised edition instead of a straight reprint, tightening the rules and overhauling the layout. Perhaps even expanding the content in a few places, such as additional skill trees or monsters. 

C’mon doppler race/profession!

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My disposable income, which is necessary to buy RPG products, is entirely dependent on my sales.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including The Blood Hunter Expanded. Others include my bundle of my Ravenloft books, the Tactician a level 1 to 20 class, Rod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (Now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

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