That’s right, the Wonk is back in the building! Today we’re getting super wonky. While my last foray into RPG theory was an examination of an old universal theory, GNS, today I’m going to be looking at a narrower component of games, and a particular dichotomy which, after some examination, I realized shapes the core of how I want to play and run games, as well as what game systems I enjoy. I’m talking about narrative, but I’m not talking about whether a game is “narrative” or not. Rather, I’m going to talk about the two types of narrative which are generated in the course of playing an RPG: Prescriptive and Emergent narrative.
Ho ho ho, holy hell that’s a lot of views! As we enter into the twilight of 2018 and as all of you are home with your families, it’s time once again to reflect on what the year has brought us. My year on the home front has been a difficult one (for reasons I need not get into here), but what we’ve been doing at Cannibal Halfling Gaming has been a continual bright spot for me no matter what else was going on.
Way back when, at the genesis of this site, I wrote a “Novice’s Guide to Powered by the Apocalypse”, a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) 101, if you will. This article covered the basic mechanics and underlying assumptions of games written with the PbtA framework, and covered a few of the more popular games that were out at the time. Now, nearly two years later, PbtA is still growing, and has attracted many players to its fiction-forward, high-stakes style of gameplay. I’ve also run and played more PbtA games myself, and have noticed some really interesting elements that people have trouble engaging, take for granted, or even fight against. This 201 course to PbtA games should provide advice and information about getting the most out of the full range of PbtA games and campaigns.
Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series was thrust into the spotlight through the work of CD Projekt Red, a Polish game development studio now best known for its games based on the fantasy series. The Witcher RPG, new this year, was the result of an intriguing IP flowchart that connects it to some of the biggest hype in both the video gaming and tabletop gaming space. R. Talsorian Games, publisher of The Witcher RPG, is the company founded by Mike Pondsmith, designer of Cyberpunk 2020. When CD Projekt Red optioned Cyberpunk 2020 for a video game (Cyberpunk 2077), another Talsorian developer, Mike’s son Cody, built out a proposal for a tabletop version of The Witcher and presented it to CD Projekt Red leadership. They accepted, and the resulting game is the one I read and review for you here.
The Witcher RPG is exciting not only because it brings a popular fantasy property onto the gaming table, but also because it is the first original publication out of R. Talsorian in 13 years. As a result, The Witcher RPG is important both because it tells us if the design chops in R. Talsorian are as vital as they were in the 80s and 90s, and it tells us what future games are going to look like. While The Witcher RPG is using the venerable Fuzion ruleset which traces its lineage all the way back to Cyberpunk 2020 itself, a number of updates and design considerations make it clear that even if R. Talsorian and the Pondsmiths like their old-school, they know how to make a game flow and play well.
The Witcher RPG is a lore-heavy, setting-heavy book on gaming in the world of The Witcher. Fortunately for everyone involved, this doesn’t make it a game about Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher from the books and games, nor does this make it a game where everyone plays Witchers. A number of classes are provided which give a fair breadth of different play styles, including mages and men-at-arms as well as merchants and craftsmen. Witchers are a playable option, but as the NPC stat cards toward the beginning of the book show, not all Witchers are as potent as Geralt. Every race represented in the games and novels are present here, and as befits the culture implied therein, there is a nice expansion of Cyberpunk’s reputation mechanic to include the generally racist attitudes towards elves, dwarves, and witchers.
After race and class there is a lifepath system which at a high level is similar to the one in Cyberpunk. The options have been beefed up quite a bit, though, and also include a lot of neat upbringing detail appropriate to The Continent. If you can’t decide whether your merchant is from Novigrad or Velen, that is baked into the lifepath quite nicely.
Mechanically, the system will be familiar to anyone who’s played Cyberpunk or Mekton: all rolls are a d10 plus stat plus skill. There are still nine stats like in Cyberpunk, though they’ve been changed a bit (Movement Allowance, Attractiveness, Cool, and Tech are gone, replaced by Dexterity, Speed, Will, and Craft). The skill list, in contrast, has contracted dramatically from the Cyberpunk days, which is a good thing. The most significant way that skills have changed is a revision to special abilities. In Cyberpunk 2020, special abilities were skills that only certain classes could get, and generally conferred the equivalent of unique class features. That is still true in The Witcher, but special abilities are no longer mere skills. Now, each class has a special ability which, when advanced, opens up additional abilities which either enhance the core special ability or are new abilities unto themselves. This ends up making the classes feel more like D&D classes in terms of how they’re written, but because of how much disparity there is compared to D&D, I think it works nicely here.
Magic is a broadly spell-based system, with a number of differing types of magical abilities. Mages can cast spells, Witchers can use the relatively simple Signs, and craftsmen can create magical potions. The alchemy system is interesting, using a number of Essences which can be extracted from different items. The crafting system broadly is built up the same way, using a number of ingredients which can be purchased or looted.
Combat is once again lifted from Cyberpunk, with a couple key differences. First, the wound track is gone, replaced with a more basic HP system (though with both wounds and stun damage). Second, a critical wound system akin to that from Warhammer has been added; when you exceed your target’s defense roll by more than 7, you deal a critical wound which confers an extra effect and is more difficult to heal. Beyond those two details, the mechanics will be familiar: opposed rolls for melee, target numbers for ranged, roll a d10. Even SP for armor is still there, and the infamous armor layering rules are still in effect.
The Witcher RPG is clearly an update of an existing system, though the update does many things well. There are also admittedly some missteps where either something really needed to be changed and wasn’t, or one of the new changes didn’t land quite right.
What I liked
To start, mechanically this game kept all the elements of the old system that I really liked. The combat is simple but wicked, lifepath is neat and evocative, and the classes are broad and not all combat-based. Certain design flaws in the Interlock/Fuzion system were addressed directly: advancement is significantly improved from Cyberpunk, both in terms of pace and options. Giving out improvement points isn’t particularly interesting, but that’s true for most games which aren’t called Burning Wheel. Additionally, the change in special abilities not only works better for making classes feel distinct but also moves away from some of the more broken special abilities in Cyberpunk. The addition of a social combat mechanic was needed and deserved. As one final mechanic worth recognition, the two-tiered difficulty system in the bestiary and complementary encounter building advice are excellent. The system is significantly less granular than challenge rating in D&D (nine categories rather than over twenty) but provides much more information thanks to the supporting material.
Beyond the rules, the lore in this book is excellent. Lots of information about the world, characters that people will likely know, and great adventure hooks which are much broader than what is brought to the table by Geralt and his friends. The GM’s section is very good, directly addressing topics like in-game romance and adversarial GMing in a blunt but helpful way. There’s also a section which has an overview of every important decision point in the Witcher video games, something which is invaluable if you or your group have played the games and have their own ‘headcanon’ to account for.
What I didn’t like
The book is not without its hiccups, both in design and formatting. The biggest issue, present throughout the book, is clarity. Every once in a while, this is from the writing…the new special ability tracks, which I greatly enjoy rules-wise, don’t have clear framing mechanics. I had to read the section four different times to figure out what it costs to advance these abilities, and I’m still unsure. More frequently, clarity issues are from implied omissions…things that the writer thought were obvious that the reader will not find obvious. An example of this is the bestiary. Each flavor section of the bestiary has a knowledge check DC in the title. This is a really neat flourish, but…two sentences at the beginning just saying why those DCs are there would have really helped. I did get it from context, but not immediately…and I’ve been gaming for nearly two decades. This also happened with item tables…many column headings needed more explanation as to what they were. The worst offenders, clarity-wise, are the sidebars. Do not put rules in the sidebars which aren’t mentioned elsewhere…just don’t do it. Finding that a rule I needed to know was stuck in a sidebar was profoundly annoying, because if I hadn’t been reading more carefully I would have missed it. And this occurred frequently throughout the book…after reading a section and feeling like I had missed something, I would find it in a sidebar. Leave the sidebars for flavor, suggestions, and tips and tricks…not core rules.
I generally had fewer problems with the actual rules of the game than with the layout, but there were a couple issues I saw. The crafting rules, which by and large are excellent, contain two issues. First, the price of items in the crafting rules and the price of the same item in the earlier inventory section were different. I don’t know if this was an error or if there’s a reason for it, but either way, clarity is needed. Second, and this is more philosophical, the crafting ingredients are lifted from the game very closely. Tracking half a dozen ingredients in a video game is trivial. In a tabletop game…less so. When you consider that every monster is supposed to drop something, it looks like engaging with the crafting system is going to require a lot of bookkeeping. It’s likely that having an ingredient-based treasure system solves more problems than it creates when it comes to power creep, so I will reserve judgment on how playable the crafting system is until I play it. As a final note, while I understand why The Witcher (and Fuzion in general, I believe) abandoned Cyberpunk’s wound track mechanic, I wish they didn’t. Characters are still pretty squishy with their static HP pools, but the stun/shock saves added to the danger of combat in a palpable way. If there was a way to keep that granularity without requiring five or six dice rolls to resolve each hit, I’m sure they would have done it.
The Witcher RPG is both a solid dark fantasy title and a return to form for R. Talsorian after a long hiatus. Grimmer than D&D but likely a bit more magical and fanciful than WFRP, The Witcher should attract fans of the genre, fans of the video games, and fans of R. Talsorian’s earlier work. If you’re looking to run from the Nilfgaardian army or just want to play fantasy Cyberpunk, The Witcher RPG should be where you look.
The Witcher RPG is available from DriveThruRPG. This review was written based on the print version of the game, and doesn’t take into account any errata from more recent PDF iterations.
Surprise, it’s not the normal Level One Wonk this time, though I am gladly ripping off his format. At the start of the month, nominations for the ENnie awards were released. The nominations present a wonderful resource for GMs and gamers, and similarly for game reviewers. It had turned out that a number of nominations were games that we had written about in the past, but there were plenty more for us to study as well. In particular, there was one category that interested me: Best Free Game. Occasionally, players and GMs run on tight finances but still require their gaming fix. SRDs are plenty helpful, but sometimes you want to try something a bit different. A number of these games are more demos or skins for games that stop early than full, completely ready out of the box systems, but it is enough to get started, and to see if you enjoy the product enough to buy the full version . . . or creative players and GMs might be able to push it beyond expectations. These are only cursory reviews, and if something interests you, I fully recommend checking them out. They are, after all, free.
Time Travel is a daunting mechanic for any GM to attempt to incorporate in their game. While using time travel as a platform for historical settings and conflicts can be fun, eventually your players are going to ask “wait, what happens if we show Beethoven a recording of his Fifth Symphony before he writes it?” or, even more problematic, “can I go kill my grandfather?” These are questions which, for the sake of the integrity of the concept, can’t be left completely unanswered (though you can probably tell the player trying to kill his own grandfather to drop it before something bad happens). The good thing is that time travel as a game concept leans heavily on improv, and does so in a way that can be very helpful with developing your improv muscles in a fun, non-game breaking way. That’s because with time travel, you can come up with whatever consequences you want…the players already have the mechanism to fix it.
It’s the genre that started it all, and it has set the baseline for what people think of when they hear the term “role-playing game”. It’s a literary genre of astonishing breadth, that still seems to get people thinking about elves and wizards. So why is fantasy role-playing such a different animal than fantasy in general? And what sort of games are hiding in the wings around the 500 pound Gygaxian elephant in the room? Today, the Level One Wonk is going to look around what fantasy role-playing is, how it’s related to fantasy literature, and what that all means when it comes time to sit down and roll dice.
Ah, GURPS. One of the most comprehensive toolkits on the RPG market, GURPS and its plethora of supplements offer the ability to play in almost any genre at almost any complexity level. The tradeoff here is that when you open the GURPS Basic Set for the first time, you are dazzled and overwhelmed by a vast range of options to select, dials to adjust, and levers to pull. Coming from a game like D&D, a GM starting with GURPS isn’t going to know where to, ahem, start. Steve Jackson Games realized that, and recruited two GURPS veterans to write How To Be A GURPS GM. While this slim volume is thin on generalizable GMing advice (with admittedly good reason), it does exactly what it says on the tin, and provides some guidance on how to actually make GURPS do what you want it to do.
Theories are tools for understanding and explaining any number of different subjects. As role-playing games began to increase in subject matter breadth, there immediately followed an attempt to explain what different games do, and what games do best. Unsurprisingly, attempts to “explain” the range of games on the market were typically incomplete and sometimes dreadfully inaccurate. Despite this, some theories stuck around, usually because they were punchy and easy to remember, and were “close enough” to work as a shorthand. Today, the Level One Wonk is going to look a bit at game design theory, and use one of the most popular theories as a springboard to discussion about RPG Theory as a whole and what it’s trying to accomplish. As George Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” That is the best way to understand many RPG Theories, including the GNS Model.
Style Over Substance. Attitude is Everything. Take it to the Edge. Break the Rules. I’m the Level One Wonk, and today we’re going to the hairy edge, the space between real and digital where high tech and low life mix into a dark future where it’s always raining and everyone wears their mirrorshades at night. That’s right, choombas, we’re going Cyberpunk.