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Author Topic: The Witcher RPG  (Read 1635 times)

Spike

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The Witcher RPG
« on: May 01, 2020, 12:34:29 am »
By Pondsmith & Pondsmith

It seems I must begin my newest bout of Reviews with a Disclaimer, so here it is: I have never read the Witcher novels, played any of the games, nor have I seen the TV show, except for a single exerpted fight scene on Youtube, analyzed for HEMA accuracy or some such.   I bought this book out of my enduring love of Cyberpunk 2020, which not even Doll-Art could break.




On with the Actual Review:

It is axiomatic that to adapt a work of fiction from one medium to another is fundamentally transformative.  Each type of Adaptation imposes certain conditions upon the works. To turn a novel into a movie is to condense and simplify, to turn a movie into a television series is to expand and elaborate.   Failure to heed these conditions is predicative of failure, ipso facto.  An entire academic textbook could be written, much less a humble internet essay, on the various means and ways of such transformations and their successes, failures and even exceptions, but alas, this is a review of The Witcher, and not the place for such unexpurgated nonsense.

And on the topic of transformative works, The Witcher RPG fails on a shockingly basic level, given its pedigree.

This is, by my count, the FOURTH iteration of the Witcher Saga, the third adaptation of the saga of Geralt of Rivia.  It comes, of course, from R.Talsorian, built on a proven, if not perfect, game engine, and with a lineage to one of the single most popular video game adaptations in recent memory, and certainly of the Witcher itself.  

When adapting a work of fiction, be it a Video Game, a Novel, or a Movie into an RPG the nature of the Transformation is by necessity, expansive.  Even in the most limited of state, that is attempting to only recreate those elements (characters, sets, events) that occurred in the original work, players will never be content to simply relive the exact scenes as they played out, but will attempt to act as they feel best within those confines... and that isn't even discussing the role radomizers, most commonly dice, play in outcomes.... imagine if you will an iteration of Aliens RPG where you can only play hte movie characters, in the scenes in which we see them on film, where for example Pvt Hudson rolls a Critical Success dodging the Aliens pulling him through the floor. How could you reasonably call youself a 'game' if this didn't fundamentally alter ALL of the scenes which follow?

The most enduring and successful adaptations inevitably expand upon the lore, upon what is seen, because it is the very nature of Gaming, at a table and with a human GM possessing agency and imagination, which allows you to immerse yourself in an entire world devoid of the hidden walls of limits imposed by, oh... coding time (try leaving the province of Skyrim...), or the tight confines of scripted storytelling and 'plot armor'.  Star Wars is almost an ideal example, not only in just how much the world is expanded, but how much of that expansion comes from previous transformative adaption (that is the Extended Universe novels), and even with near half a dozen iterations has yet to produce a true failure.  

The problem with the Witcher RPG is a simple one: It fails to be an adaptation at all. It is, to be put bluntly, a crude attempt to put the experience... the whole experience... of playing the Witcher 3, the vidya gaem, into a table top format.  Oh, not completely, not entirely, but it is there, taking up whole chapters, ravaging whole sectors of the RPG experience in an attempt to be something it is not, and could never be.  

I could talk about minor issues that plague the book.  It is beautiful, by the way, full of excellent and characterful artworks, but they pale before the monumental failure of concept that plagues this book. I could mention the two POV characters that narrate much of the book, and how distracting and even tedious and awful they are, and how this reflects upon giving game writers their own private version of a GMPC (as the two characters are avatars of Cody and Lisa Pondsmith, itself a testament how nepotism does not imply greatness...)... but honestly, almost every real criticism eventually comes back to the original creative concept: Play the Witcher 3. With Friends.  And Dice.

Sigh.

Let us discuss the principle failure in order from least to greatest.

The book practically opens with character sheets for the main characters of the Witcher Saga.  This might be chalked up to being a minor etiquette failure, but in general it is a good idea to not emphasize established, powerful, NPCs... by whose standards the Player Characters will never, ever, meet.  The Rules will not allow you to make Geralt of Rivia... though to be fair perhaps with enough XP you might be in his general league.  I can think of NO other game which put, front and center... right square at the beginning of the book, before Character Creation even, powerful, established NPCs from the setting. Even those cases where I can think of games that proffered powerful characters, important to the setting, somewhere in the book, they were generally speaking 'rules legal', and comparable to the characters made by players.  

More: each also comes with a long written history establishing just how influential they are on the setting, how much history, and how much cool stuff they've done, even the more minor characters are vastly more influential and important (and competent) than your peon character. Peasant.  

Related, there is an entire chapter devoted... not to laying out the setting of The Witcher for you to engage in, but rather in how to adapt the setting based on various potential endings of (I assume) the choices you could make in The Witcher 3.  By itself this isn't 'all bad'.  I can see the wisdom of the 'old ways' of presenting a setting as a fixed entity based on a 'canon playthrough', trusting GMs that prefer other options to have the ability to alter the setting to suit their own choices, but I can see the potential in laying out this sort 'chose your own setting' as a possibility. The problem is that The Witcher never really gives me a sense of the world itself, but rather relies far to heavily on pre-existing knowledge of the setting. Oh, I'm not saying that setting information is absent... far from it... but its so scattershot and disorganized that I have real sense that I'm supposed to supplement this information with experiences in the world from other media (specifically, again, The Witcher 3, which Cody Pondsmith admits to liking enough to have played through... twice. I weep at my hundreds of hours in Mass Effect, Cody... I do.).

This particular failure galls me more than it should, compared to what I know is coming. The Setting of The Witcher is essentially a Bottle Culture, largely self contained in the areas of familiarity and interest to the main character (Geralt of Rivia, in case you forgot). As such that area is remarkably well detailed, complete with a reasonably long, if not necessarily well detailed, history.  This works just fine for Vidya Gaems and somewhat less so for Novels, but it works. But an RPG needs to do more than merely address that there is a larger world out there, it needs to make it possible to peel back the curtains and SEE the rest of the world. This is that Expansion I spoke so much about earlier, which makes this particular medium (RPGs, specifically Tabletop RPGS) unique.  Maybe the World of The Witcher simply isn't good enough to sustain that sort of expansion, but Pondsmith and Pondsmith don't even try.   Also, on a personal note: I'm not terribly fond of the worldbuilding I see, but as I expect people interested in The Witcher RPG won't have my specific issues, I'll merely make note and move on...

We first start to see real issues in the equipment chapter, and I'll note that this is not the only game I've seen recently to make this mistake of importing Vidya Gaem equipment into an RPG setting. Instead of providing us a list of various weapons and armors and miscellany as EVERY OTHER RPG EVER has done, The Witcher gives us One Sword, then the Improved Higher Level (but different) sword, and then the More Improved Even Higher Level Sword, followed at at last by the Most Improved Highest Level Sword.  Note that there isn't a logical progression to these things either. This isn't like getting a mithral longsword to improve over your iron longsword... no, this is literally different types of swords. Let me consult the text...  So, for swords the progression is: Iron Long Sword, Arming Sword, Gleddyf, Hunter's Falchion, Krigsverd, Esboda, Kord, Vicovarian Blade, Torrwr.   What are some of these swords? Well... from what I can tell the Kord may be a Cutlass, but honestly, this bleeds a bit into my previous point about failing to deliver on the World. Instead of practical descriptions of the weapons, we get colorful folksy crap from Cody Pondsmith's GMPC telling us that this sword is quenched in blood, that sword is good for chopping wood.... this one is being smuggled, and the Torrwr is probably a two handed blade of some sort, because people are using it to chop horses in half. Obviously the Pondsmiths have never considered that some/many players will not simply fire up their copy of Witcher 3, consult their inventory and/or codex and simply SEE what a goddamn Vicovarian Blade is supposed to look like, rather than smugly smirking that, yes, their PC in their table-top game has finally got ahold of one, because wasn't it just awsome when they got one in their vidya gaem?

This isn't real world fine gradiants about technique and style and local culture, this is about upgrading your sword (if that's your thing...) to the next highest damage dice.  I, for one, realize that a Falchion is not considered by anyone in the real world to be an 'upgrade' from an Arming Sword, or that in any meaningful way would a soldier trade his Arming Sword for, if I'm interpreting the color right, some sort of rapier in the form of the Esboda.  This is, again, Vidya Gaem logic, and it colors every single element of the design from this point forward*.   **

Where the game really begins to break down is in Crafting.  That seems like a really odd thing to say, given how little attention to crafting generally there is in any RPG, but in the case of the Witcher it practically informs some quarter of the book by volume, an ranges from merely immersion breaking failures in abstraction and adaption to actual mind-bending 'wtf' color coded charts of near pure insanity... and since alongside XP for upping those skills makes the second and only other leg on the ladder of character growth (at least in rules... luckily R.Talsorian has no real history of rule making for emergent play properties, though the Lifepath and its history of turning your fumbling virgin into a literal manwhore in his past, has returned.).

Crafting, in an RPG, is fundamentally an abstraction, as are more things you do in RPGs.  Your character is not literally slaving over a hot forge swinging a hammer at a chunk of metal and turning out a sword every eight hours, you are simply rolling dice and buying, usually abstracted, materials at some fraction of the cost of the finished product (sometimes that fraction is 1, but its still a fraction, technically).  The GM is, normally, not concerning themselves with the availability of iron, or the legality of importing catoblepas ivory, or demanding a host of vaguely unrelated crafting skills (carving vs forging, fitting of the handle, sheath making, etc...), but assumes that your generic Blacksmithing skill covers everything you need to make a whole and complete sword.  

Crafting, in a Vidya Gaem, is fundamentally an abstraction.  Typically this is a sort of mini-game, designed to engage players interested in doing things other than grinding out kills for gold and Xp. It is meant to be fun and engaging in and of itself, involving gathering of resources, learning specific recepies for "the good stuff' and so on.  Since programmers have much better things to do than actually code real world mineral veins and mining, and buying raw materials for 'godslaying sword of awsome' isn't really a fun minigame, this abstraction is usually very far removed from the real world tedium of actual crafting.  For any number of reasons, including the coding elements, but also for 'balance' in a game world where there might literally be thousands (millions in World of Warcraft at its height) interested in owning Godslaying Swords of Awsome, there are often absurd, but necessary, restrictions on crafting... such as not being able to teach others the pattern, or in many cases even trading or selling the finished product of your labor. You made the Godslaying Sword, you use it.  

There are significant differences in approach due to the nature of programming vs descriptive imagination, the relative populations of Player Characters, and even the visual vs imaginative aspects of the mediums in question, as well as the resolution methods. In a Vidya Gaem killing two hundred and thirty Dark Dwarves to 'farm' enough Black Iron to craft the Hammer of Blackstone, might be a fun afternoon with your friends, with each fight taking a few minutes at most. In a tabletop, even a reasonably fast one, it might represent several weeks of grinding, grueling dice rolling sessions that feel more like work than a fun experience (though again: Friends and snacks, where you virtually ignore what is going on 'in the game' because it is tedious and boring, in favor of what is going on with your friends...).

For some reason, The Witcher RPG seems to prefer the Vidya Gaem Abstract for Crafting, embracing almost every single element, I assume lifted entirely from the Witcher 3, though I recognized it immediately as Vidya Gaem crafting. Your Player Character literally has to get a Diagram, which is consumed in the crafting (well, for the Relics at least... you can apparently memorize INT (1-10) diagrams, apparently learning to craft a slightly different type of sword is as arduous as learning to craft the orginal...), along with absurd (from a Tabletop RPG/real world analog) ingredients. For example an Arming Sword requires Timber (x2), Steel (x3) and Hardened Leather (x2).

This is annoying, if survivable. Despite the volume it takes in the book, I imagine most GMs could just as easily scrap it entirely and call for a skill check, a nominal amount of money for 'Steel x3' or what have you, and move on.

Where it gets weird is Alchemy, which not only includes Normal Alchemy, but all the Witcher Only Alchemy, which honestly is a problem that is baked into the cake, so to speak.  Here Pondsmith and Pondsmith decided to start replacing, apparently at random, the usual list of ingredients with brightly colored abstract art to represent various alchemical 'super-substances' which are derived from a host of relatively mundane substances.  While this is VERY VERY VERY (add at least three more to get my actual mood...) annoying, it would be... acceptable-ish, except that the Witcher Alchemy is several chapters away from the basic alchemy, and doesn't have any reminder or note that a Purple Circle with a < in it is Vitriol, meaning that you'll be either learning a new, if small, abstract visual language to play this game, or you'll be constantly searching for that Alchemy intro to understand what fucking components you need to craft shit is.  And yes, I expect almost everyone is going to want to play a Witcher, and yes, they ALL apparently perform alchemy on a regular.

I should point out that depending on how you count it there are at least three distinct Vidya Gaem Crafting systems in this book, the last being for 'relics', which are basically magic items. Oh yes, you don't find the sword of the atlantean kings in The Witcher, you Make It.    I'm not even going to waste time ranting at this layer cake of stupidity, mostly because its redundant at this point.



I'll be blunt and to the point. The Witcher Setting isn't really for me, and I've tried to avoid making this review about the failures of the setting.  Rules wise you are getting a fantasy version of R.Talsorian's classic interlock system, very modestly updated. The Magic rules seem functional enough, and again are probably so heavily influenced by the video games that any problems they have structurally would eventually devolve back into the problem of adaption.  

But if you are a Fan of the Witcher Setting, I still think this game isn't for you.  This game is meant for a vanishingly small audience of fans who really, really dug one specific video game and really, really, REALLY want to try to recreate that experience sitting around a table with their friends, presumably in some post apocalyptic world where computers and internet gas are things of the past.  In some regards this feels like an over-budgeted Vanity Project, where no one could tell the "celebrity" designer that his ideas were bad ones... yes, that is a allusion to the Star Wars prequels. No, I DID have to tell you, because if I hadn't written it myself, even I wouldn't have gotten that too subtle reference.

For me, perhaps the most interesting thing to be lifted from this, and the reason I even bought the book, was the possibility of bringing in a decent magic system to Interlock.  Its not that I couldn't design one myself (or that I'm entirely happy with what I've seen), but that I'm a lazy git who didn't want to do it myself in the first place.













* This is more true of the review than the actual book. The actual next chapter is, in fact, the World of The Witcher, which SORT OF expands to the "entire" continent (in truth one of the biggest setting elements appears to be the conquering nation of Nilfgaard, and I'll point out that the laughably named The Continent map cuts off at some point midway through the lands of Nilfgaard, never mind what lies east of all this nonsense (which is, I should point out, land... and presumably occupied land. With cultures and peoples and all that....)

** I am aware that an essay, at least, could be written regarding upgrading armors dating back to D&D, and the role of magic equipment. I'm going to sadly leave out the wall-of-text digression on armor and tell you to 'wait for it' regarding magic weapons. Don't wait too hard, though. You'll probably be disappointed. In me, or in the game, maybe both.

EDIT: Just realized there was a prior review up. Having read that, I think it's safe to say that the approach to the reviews is wildly different, and I encourage you to read the other one as well if you are curious about this product...
« Last Edit: May 01, 2020, 12:54:20 am by Spike »
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strcondex18cha3

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The Witcher RPG
« Reply #1 on: June 02, 2020, 06:30:35 am »
Ouch!

Thanks for the warning.

Spike

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The Witcher RPG
« Reply #2 on: June 02, 2020, 08:21:22 am »
:hattip:  Its what I do.
For you the day you found a minor error in a Post by Spike and forced him to admit it, it was the greatest day of your internet life.  For me it was... Tuesday.

For the curious: Apparently, in person, I sound exactly like the Youtube Character The Nostalgia Critic.   I have no words.

Mah Book

BrokenCounsel

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« Reply #3 on: June 02, 2020, 01:00:15 pm »
Good review. Accurate too.

I bought the game. I tried to make a character. I tried to find what a fucking 'kord' is meant to be (not mentioned once in the useless fucking index). I read the fucking god awful 'in character' bits  by Cody Pondsmsith. I put the book back in the shrinkwrap, and sold it on ebay.

It's not a well designed game and the 'in character' folksy bits by Cody P in particular come across as smug and irritating. And I'm a fan of the Witcher books. Never played the computer games. But if I have to have played the video games to understand half of how the game works, then the RPG's failed on a fundamental level.

VisionStorm

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« Reply #4 on: June 02, 2020, 09:51:07 pm »
Quote from: strcondex18cha3;1132040
Ouch!

Thanks for the warning.


Second this, and very entertaining review! I literally LOL'ed a few times. :D

Spike

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« Reply #5 on: June 03, 2020, 03:24:21 am »
I'm pleased you found it funny.  I kinda think it was snobbishly pretentious psuedo-intellectual claptrap myself.    Also, and weirdly, I've reread the damn thing several times.
For you the day you found a minor error in a Post by Spike and forced him to admit it, it was the greatest day of your internet life.  For me it was... Tuesday.

For the curious: Apparently, in person, I sound exactly like the Youtube Character The Nostalgia Critic.   I have no words.

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