Friday, January 29, 2010

What Should an OSR Witch Do or Be?

So Eldritch Witchery is on the (far) horizon and it has been getting me thinking.
What should an Old-School Witch do?

One of the strengths of the older games, and maybe something we have gotten away from in newer game design, is trying to do more with less.  The older games had four classes (give or take) and these represented roles of the characters, it was then up to the player to detail and refine those roles and characters.

Lets look at the class "Magic User" for a bit.  Magic User does not automatically mean "Wizard".  It took me a while to get that  (I blame 2nd Ed).  We lost this distinction in later versions of the game and even in popular thought during the "golden age".  But really Magic User should really mean anyone that uses magic, whether you call them Wizard, Wu-Jen, Sorcerer, Illusionist, Mystic, Necromancer or even Witch is up to the player (but not Cleric or Priest...).  For most people this is fine.  Others want more definition to the role.
In Spellcraft & Swordplay we already now have a Necromancer.  One could argue there is a bit of "divine" magic that a Necromancer must channel to do his job.  He is still a "magic user" just a very specific one.  Same was seen in AD&D 1st Ed with the Illusionist, but that was a separate class.  Druid, Ranger, Paladin and Assassin are the same way for their respective roles.  It is is easy to see why it happens and even why it needs to happen.  So accepting there are general roles and then some specific roles where can we go with a concept like a witch?

The witch then, as a class, should be something special.  When I write for Buffy, WitchCraft or even Witch Girls Adventures, the witch is the defacto magic using class, but in a world where magic is largely unknown.  In D&D and it's clones the Wizard is the main class.  The role of the witch then should be to provide that air of mystery and "otherness" that the wizard and other magic-users no longer supply*.
*The caveat here being "in many games", there is nothing saying you can't have mysterious wizards in your game.

When I did the witch for 2nd Ed AD&D, she was basically a type of divine spell caster with access to various arcane spells and occult powers.  In 3rd Ed/d20 I flipped that to make her an arcane spell caster with access to divine spells and occult powers.  The same seems mostly true for all the other d20/3.x witches I have seen over the years.  IF (that's a big if) I were to do a witch for 4th Ed then I would up the occult power angle with access to "divine" and "arcane" powers.

Looking to games like Spellcraft & Swordplay, Basic Fantasy RPG or Labyrinth Lord I think I want to keep the arcane power base, to make her mostly similar to the current "Magic Users" in those games, but continue to shuffle to spell list to offer some differences. Add things like some minor healing spells (at later levels than the Cleric gets them), and certainly increase her ability to make potions and other minor magics.  Someone has to be stocking all those dungeons with potions and Amulets of Protection.  To aid that air of mystery she should have some powers that wizards/magic-users don't have.  Something that when she uses them the other characters need to be thinking "how did she do that?"

One thing I don't want though is class bloat.  That seems too much against the Old-School thought.  I have an edition of D&D with 100s of classes.  Actually I have more than one edition.  But an OSR game should be tight. Add what is needed and no more than that.

So what is a witch in an old-school game?
She is an arcane spell caster. So she learns her magic from other agents, be they familiars sent by powers unknown, the powers themselves or handed down mother to daughter.  She also gains certain divine magics due her ties with the natural world. This puts her at odds with more traditional wizards, who see her as little more than a hedge wizard, and clerics, who see her as a heretic to their beliefs.  Witches also gain a set of occult powers, magical effects she can use like spells, but come without study or practice.  Witches learn in Traditions (how their magic is taught to them) and form Covens, groups of other, like minded witches.

The prime ability for magic-users is Intelligence.  For clerics it is Wisdom.  Witches have been called "the craft of the wise" and I have been using Wisdom as their prime ability for years.  But I think a strong case can be made for Charisma here. This is the section on charisma from Spellcraft & Swordplay:
Charisma is a combination of a character’s personal magnetism, presence, and appearance. The higher the charisma, the more impressive the character is. Whether this manifests as an ominous intimidation or an ethereal beauty is up to the player in question.
If the witch is dealing with other-worldly agents to learn her magic, then only the most successful ones are the ones with the personality to hold their own.  I think charisma then is the way to go here.  Plus if we have three magic using classes now (magic-user, cleric and now witch) then it makes sense that each one uses a different mental stat for their magic workings.  I would say though witches still need a high wisdom in order to be successful.  Of course this leads to the all witches are therefore good looking clichĂ© seen all too often in games and stories.  Not that I have anything at all against a sexy witch (far from it), but Baba Yaga is also a witch and mentioned in the OD&D books.  Obviously then Baba Yaga has a very high charisma, but in the terrifying and intimidation sense, not in the hot witch sense.

Why do witches go on adventures?
In the pulps and related fictions that had an influence on the fathers of role-playing games, witches occurred fairly frequently.  But they were often the means of the quest, not on it.  The heroes went to the the witch, or she was the one sending them on the quest or the reason they were questing.  In games terms that puts them in the NPC category fairly squarely.    A witch though might want to go on adventures for the same reasons that wizards and other magic users do; to learn more magic.  Or maybe she is on a quest of her patron power.  Or she is on a pilgrimage to a sacred site.  In truth any reason why a wizard or cleric would adventure is a good reason for a witch.  And let's not forget the most tried and true reasons, to become a hero or at the very least kill things and take their stuff.

Do witches belong in D&D?  Well that would depend on your own games I think.  But given all the attempts over the years, from the earliest Dragon magazines to Paizo's latest playtest, I think there is certainly a desire to include her by many.

Here is hoping that Eldritch Witchery lives up to all of that!


BlUsKrEEm said...

I'm glad you put a lot of thought into this. I can't wait to see what Witchery your up to. S&S is one of my fave systems.

Aaron E. Steele said...

I agree with Cha.

AValon Hill's Magic Realm, of which I am a big fan, gives Witches access to grey (natural world) and black (infernal) magic.

I really like the approach in MR. You may want to check out MR on the web, there are several sites that give a nice summary of that magic system. I also have a couple of posts on my blog.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Avalon Hill's Magic Realm. Sounds like something I should find!

Thanks for the tip!

Kersus said...

Great stuff! I cross posted this here:

S&S is truly a great system yearning for more material (not development, but options, adventures, and yes, a Witch!).

Unknown said...

3e had a good take on witches. CHA-linked, w/a non-damage-based, manipulative spell list.

1e's NPC version, which you obviously have seen since you use the Dragon mag pic of them on your page header, was good, albeit powerful. In some ways better than 3e's, but a lot more powerful and very leaned towards opposition of the PCs.