It is an undeniable truth that the Witch gets a lot of bad press. Not necessarily within the roleplaying hobby, but from without, for the Witch is seen as a figure of evil, often—though not necessarily—a female figure of evil, and a figure to be feared and persecuted. Much of this stems from the historical witch-hunts of the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeen, and eighteenth centuries, along with the associated imagery, that is, the crone with the broom, pointy hat, black cat, cauldron, and more. When a Witch does appear in roleplaying, whether it is a historical or a fantasy setting, it is typically as the villain, as the perpetrator of some vile crime or mystery for the player characters to solve and stop. Publisher The Other Side has published a number of supplements written not only as a counter to the clichés of the witch figure, but to bring the Witch as a character Class to roleplaying after being disappointed at the lack of the Witch in the Player’s Handbook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. Each of these supplements draws upon more historical interpretations of the Witch—sometimes to counter the clichés, sometimes to enforce them—and presents her as a playable character Class. Each book is published under the label of ‘Basic Era Games’, and whilst the exact Retroclone each book is written to be used with may vary, essentially, they are all compatible. Which means that the Game Master can mix and match traditions, have player characters from matching traditions, and so on.
The first book in the series, Daughters of Darkness: The Mara Witch for Basic Era Games is designed for use with Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord and presents the Witch as dedicated to the Mara Tradition, that of the Dark Mother—Lilith, the First Woman, the First Witch, and the Mother of Demons. The next book in the series is The Children of the Gods: The Classical Witch for Basic Era Games, which was written for use with Dreamscape Design’s Blueholme Rules, the retroclone based on the 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set designed by J. Eric Holmes, and which focused on not so much as ‘Evil’ or Chaotic witches, but upon the Classical traditions of Egypt, Greece, Phoenicia, Rome, and Sumeria. Again, Cult of Diana: The Amazon Witch for Basic Era Games, the next and third entry in the line presents a different take upon the Witch, whilst the fourth, The Basic Witch: The Pumpkin Spice Witch Tradition, presents another different and very modern—if slightly silly—take upon the Witch. The fifth entry again draws upon another tradition.
The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition is written for use with Old School Essentials: Classic Fantasy, Necrotic Gnome’s interpretation and redesign of the 1981 revision of Basic Dungeons & Dragons by Tom Moldvay and its accompanying Expert Set by Dave Cook and Steve Marsh. Like the other titles in the series, it starts by presenting the same version of the Witch Class as in Daughters of Darkness: The Mara Witch for Basic Era Games, The Children of the Gods: The Classical Witch for Basic Era Games, Cult of Diana: The Amazon Witch for Basic Era Games, and The Basic Witch: The Pumpkin Spice Witch Tradition. What this means is that from one book to the next, this Class is going to serve as a template for the rest of the other supplements devoted to the Witch from The Other Side. So the Witch is a spellcaster capable of casting Witch spells and Witch rituals—a mixture of arcane and divine spells, has Occult Powers including herbal healing, many are reluctant to cast ‘black’ or evil magic, many are of Lawful Alignment, and have answered the Call of their Goddess (or other patron).
The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition focuses on believers in ‘The Old Ways’, of ancient gods and practices. Primary community-based with a strong belief in the supernatural and a strong connection to the natural world and the cycle of its passing seasons, they see themselves as the guardians of the growth and husbandry of food, and much of their lives revolve around the sowing, care, and harvesting of seeds and plants. Their treatment is not of one tradition, but many, all of them drawn from real world traditions. Real-world inspirations for this tradition include Asatru, the pagan beliefs of the Norse and northern Germanic peoples; the Druidic-like beliefs of the Celts of Ireland and Scotland; the Hellenic tradition of the lands settled by the Greeks. Notably, unlike other traditions, this is not a literate tradition, but instead memorise their spells and rituals.
As with other Traditions, the Witch Class of the Pagan Tradition has a familiar, such as a cat, frog, hedgehog, or stoat, and knows how to use herbs to create healing balms. However, it differs in a number of ways. For example, this Witch Class gains ‘Herbal Healing’—this the brewing of balms, options, and philters above and beyond the use of healing balms; is ‘Of the Land’ and can hide herself and one or more companions in rural areas, typically either to hide from hunters or when actually hunting; and with ‘Alter Visage’ can use the spell, Alter Self, to change her appearance to anyone of that she has seen before—even if only once.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the addition of ‘Cowans’, or essentially boon companions with a strong bond with the Witch, that is, more than a trusted retainer. A Cowan is a Pagan Witch’s protector and can be Fighters, Barbarians, Rangers, Thieves, and Assassins, but cannot be other spellcasting Classes like the Bard, Cleric, Druid, Illusionist, Magic-User, or Paladin. They can also be simple NPCs without a Class, but more importantly, they can be other Player Characters, allowing for instant relationships and roleplaying links. Of course, this limits the Player Character Cowan’s options in terms of Class.
Becoming a Cowan costs actual Experience Points—fifty for an ordinary NPC, a hundred for the Thief type, and two hundred for all Fighter types. Where exactly the ordinary NPC gains these Experience Points is another matter and it is not quite clear if the characters becoming the Cowan is expending the Experience Points, the Witch is expending the Experience Points, or both. In return, both Cowan and Witch gain a number of small benefits. A Cowan can learn Zero-Level Rituals and participate in Ritual spells of higher Level too, gains better healing from his Witch’s healing—spells and balms, and has a bonus to saves versus spells cast by other Witches. Both Witch and Cowan also share Saving Throws, so that both can use the best between the two. In return, the Cowan is the Pagan Witch’s protector, which again sets up a roleplaying relationship and possible story hooks.
Beyond this, some of what a Pagan Witch does will depend upon the type of coven she belongs to. The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition offers two options. The first is Bándrui, who worship the Great Mother Goddess and whose covens consist of Pagan Witches, Green Witches, and Druids, a Pagan Witch of this tradition gaining the Druid’s Animal Shape abilities. The other is Followers of Aradia, who believe her to be the first witch, and are granted the Light spell as a daily ability. Both tend to be Lawful or Neutral in Alignment, but like other Pagan traditions, may practice live, including human sacrifice where necessary, typically as fertility rites. Just the two covens given here is disappointing and perhaps The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition could have included one or two more options to provide a player with greater choice.
The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition also discusses life as a Pagan Witch. This is not her life as an adventuring Witch, but the classic village wise woman, midwife, and healer of old. It covers the typical tasks she undertakes, such as childbirth and antenatal care, the cleansing—or smudging—of homes to free them of evil spirits, divination, healing, and so on, as well as the monies the Witch can charge and the Experience Points she can gain. Here then is how a non-adventuring NPC Witch gains her Experience Points to expend on those Cowans! It also gives more for an NPC Witch to do and thus more for the Game Master to build her portrayal of an NPC Witch around. Included as well, are notes on the seasons and places of power, all of which will have an effect on a Witch’s powers throughout the year.
Second Level Pagan Witch
Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Coven: Followers of Aradia
STR 09 (Open Doors 5-in-6)
INT 13 (+1 Language, Literate)
WIS 17 (+2 to Save versus Magic)
CON 16 (+2 Hit Points)
CHR 16 (+1 NPC reaction, Max. 7 Retainers, Loyalty 10)
Armour Class: 7 (Leather)
Hit Points: 11
Weapons: Dagger, Staff
Healing balms (1d4+1/three times per day), Light (daily)
Spells: (First Level) – Mending, Toad
Familiar: Weasel (+1 to Dexterity checks)
The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition includes some one hundred spells, almost thirty monsters, some forty magical items, and a quartet of NPCs. As in previous books in the series, there are relatively few spells which can be used to inflict direct damage like the Magic-User’s Burning Hands. There are spells which can inflict harm, for example, Toad—which curses the victim of the spell to turn into a filthy toad, or Loosen Bowels or Blindness/Deafness. Many of the spells reflect the often helpful, useful type of magic used by the Pagan Witch. So spells such as the familiar Mending, Locate Object, and Light are joined by spells such as Salving Rest—which grants the subject a good night’s rest as he continues to take a god night’s rest, and Create Corn Dolly—in fact the Witch creates a poppet she can send out to spy on others. Various others, like Toad, take the form of curses and the like. As in the previous books in the series, the various spells are joined by various rituals spells. There is something quite endearing in the Cake and Tea Ritual which is used by fellow Witches to begin and then cement friendships, which is then continued with Bonds of Hospitality which discourages participants from attacking each other. Other rituals are more obviously powerful, but the supplement adds further rituals which are Zero Level. These can be participated in by anyone, most notably a Witch’s Cowans. These are Bless Fertility, Ensure a Successful Hunt, Merry Greetings, and Summon a Witch, and all four would work well with other Witch traditions.
In terms of monsters and magic, The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition shares a lot in common with the previous The Basic Witch: The Pumpkin Spice Witch Tradition. Although the monsters are new, from Amphiptere, Bánánach, and Brownie to Wind Wraith, Woodnose,and Bog Zombie, as in The Basic Witch: The Pumpkin Spice Witch Tradition they feel as if they should be mostly encountered singularly rather than in droves or packs. That said, the monsters have more the feel of the countryside, whether rural or beyond into the wilds. The inclusion of the Killer Rabbit may be a bit silly though... Which of course fits the Pagan Witch tradition rather than the Pumpkin Spice Tradition. The magic items include brooms and cauldrons as well as magical instruments, rings, staves, and swords, some of which are familiar, such as the Broom of Flying and Cauldron of Plenty, but others like the Witch’s Gown, which provides various degrees of protection as well as being able to change its appearance once per day. Rounding the supplement are four unique NPC Witches, drawn from both myth and history, the latter including a suspected poisoner.
Physically, The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition continues the series’ improvement in the style and layout over the books before it. The artwork is much better and much better handled, and includes some pieces by Larry Elmore. The spells are also back to being listed by Level, so much easier to find.
The similarities between the two supplements—The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition and The Basic Witch: The Pumpkin Spice Witch Tradition—are not surprising since the traditions of the latter do draw upon the former. What The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition presents though is a rougher, wilder take upon the witch, one that feels more of a cliché because it draws upon more traditional depictions of the witch. This means that it has its darker aspects, not necessarily evil, but certainly darker. This is leavened by the role of the Pagan Witch as healer, midwife, and wise woman. If there is a disappointing feature of the book, it is that just two covens are not really enough options to choose from for the players, especially as it points to so many worldwide examples. Perhaps not as fully rounded as it could have been, The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition still presents plenty to to bring to a campaign.