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Friday, 31 July 2020

Which Witch VI

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 second 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 sillytake upon the Witch. The fifth entry, The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Traditionis written for use with Old School Essentials: Classic FantasyNecrotic 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. It focuses on believers in ‘The Old Ways’, of ancient gods and practices with a strong belief in the supernatural and a strong connection to the natural world and the cycle of its passing seasons.

The Warlock is part of the series of books published by The Other Side exploring the place and role of the witch in the Old School Renaissance, but is in many ways different to those explorations. What it is not, is the presentation of the ‘male’ counterpoint to the witch, since that is not what a warlock is. Nor is it the exploration of an archetypal figure from history and its adaptation to gaming. Instead, it presents a wholly different Class, very much more of fantasy figure, somewhere between the Cleric, the Magic-User, and the Witch. In some cases hated figure—hated because they are believed to have dealings with the infernal, hated because they are believed to be evil, and hated because they steal spells. There is truth in all of that, but there is much more to this figure, as detailed in The Warlock, a companion to The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition and also written for use with Old School Essentials: Classic Fantasy.

As a Class, the Warlock is a spell-caster who like the Witch has a patron. Now whilst the Witch worships her patron and her relationship with her patron is more divine in nature, the Warlock has more of an equal relationship with his Patron or is the student to the Patron’s teacher. A witch will typically worship a goddess and whilst a warlock may have a deity as a patron, he may also have a lost god, a demon, a devil, a dragon, a lord of the fae, or even with the cosmos, death, or chaos itself. The magic and spells of the Witch are primarily divine in nature, but for the Warlock, they are arcane in nature. The fundamental difference between the spell-casting Classes is that Clerics pray for their power and spells, Magic-Users study for their powers and spells, and the Warlock takes it.

In mechanical terms, the Warlock starts with the ability to unleash an Arcane Blast at will and a familiar. Unlike the Witch, this familiar is not a spirit in animal guise, but an actual spirit, so immaterial and unable to attack or be attacked. The Warlock player is free to describe what form the familiar takes, though ideally it should be something associated with his Patron. So if a Warlock’s Patron is the cosmos, it could be miniature star; death itself or a god of death, a floating skull; the devil, a miniature imp; and so on. Fundamental to the Warlock is the Pact he enters with his Patron. The Warlock presents four types of Pacts. These are Chaos, Cosmic, Death, and Dragon. There is some flexibility in how a Pact can be interpreted, so a Cosmic Pact could be with the stars, something beyond the stars, celestial beings, or something chthonic.

Not only will the Warlock learn his spells from his Patron, he will gain Invocations, spell-like powers that enable to do great magical deeds, but without the need for the study that that the Magic-User would require or the need for the Cleric to pray. Arcane Blast is an Invocation, but The Warlock lists some fifty or so further Invocations. They include a mix of those which can be selected by any Warlock and then those tied to a particular Patron. So, Armour of Shadows, which lets a Warlock cast Mage Armour at-will, and Eldritch Sight, which allows him to cast Detect Magic just as freely, are both general Invocations. Whereas Claws of the Ghoul is a Third Level Invocation which gives a Warlock clawed unarmed attacks and a chance to paralyse an opponent and requires a Death Pact, whilst Form of the Dragon requires a Dragon Pact and allows a Warlock to change into a dragon-like creature once per day.

Liang Yun
Second Level Warlock
Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Pact: Draconic (Green Dragons: Dziban)

STR 12 (Open Doors 2-in-6)
INT 14 (+1 Language, Literate)
WIS 10 
DEX 17 (+2 AC, Missile, +1 Initiative)
CON 13 (+1 Hit Points)
CHR 15 (+1 NPC reaction, Max. 5 Retainers, Loyalty 8)

Armour Class: 13 (Leather)
Hit Points: 7
Weapons: Dagger, Staff
THAC0 20

Languages: Draconic, Mandarin

Arcane Blast, Claws of the Dragon

Spells: (Cantrips) – Aura Reading, Guiding Star, Message, Object Reading(First Level) – Read MagicSpirit Servant, Taint

Familiar: Mingyu

In terms of spells, The Warlock lists almost eighty. A very few, like Augury, will be familiar, but most feel new and different. For example, Wailing Lament causes the target to wail and sob uncontrollably for an hour, Moon Touched is a plea to the Moon to silver and make magical a weapon which will now glow faintly of moonlight, and Poisonous Stare with which a Warlock can poison a target, forcing them to lose both Hit Points and Constitution! Now none of the spells are keyed to a particular Pact, which would perhaps have made designing or creating a particular type or themed Warlock easier by both Game Master or player. This then is perhaps a missed opportunity, so a player or Game Master creating a Warlock will need to pick and choose with care what spells suit their Warlock.

In addition to the Warlock’s own spells, the Class has two other types of spells. First, the Class can learn Magic-User spells—something which annoys Magic-Users and gives the Warlock the reputation for stealing spells. Second, The Warlock also adds Cantrips, or Zero-Level spells. Some thirteen of the spells in the supplement are Cantrips. For example, Aura Reading enables a Warlock to read the auras of those around them, determining their Alignment, health, magical nature (or not), and whether or not they have been cursed; Guiding Star enables a Warlock to guide himself in complete darkness or if blind; and Quick Sleeping makes a willing victim fall asleep. Lastly, the spells are listed by the other spellcasting Classes for Old School Essentials—Clerics, Druids, Illusionists, and Magic-Users—so that the contents of The Warlock can be used with the wider rules.

Unlike other titles devoted to the Witch by The Other Side, The Warlock does not include any new monsters, or monsters at all. It does however, add twenty or magical items. A few are keyed to particular Pacts, such as the Astrolabe of Fate, which grants a Warlock with a Cosmic Pact or an astrologer a +1 bonus to a single roll three times a day, but most are simply valued by Warlocks. A Dragontooth Charm provides a +1 saving throw versus the dragon breath of one type of dragon; a Hat of Spell Storing is valued by Illusionists, Magic-Users, and Warlocks for its capacity to store multiple levels of spells; and the Witch Whistle summons an army of rats, giant rats, or even wererats, depending on the songs known. Some are quite fun, such as the Rod of the Fire Mountain Warlock, which increases the die type of fire type spells and is surely a nod to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure book, whilst every Warlock will want to obtain the Staff of the Warlock, the equivalent of the Magic-User’s Staff of Wizardry.

Lastly, where the Witch Class has the Coven, a gathering of witches, typically to worship their patron goddess, the Warlock Class has the Lodge. These are secret orders where Warlocks can meet and study, typically belong to one type of Pact, or allied Pacts. The Warlock details four such lodges, of which only the one is not essentially ‘evil’. This is problematic, for although the Warlock as a Class can create his own Lodge, the lack of wider examples means a lack of choice, a lack of roleplaying opportunities, and a lack of something for the Player Character Warlock to aspire to.

Physically, The Warlock comes as a digest-sized book as opposed to the standard size for the other titles in the series. This is intentional, since it keeps it keeps it the same size as the rest of the Old School Essentials line. The book is generally well written and the artwork is decent, but some elements could have been better organised. In particular the Invocations are listed alphabetically and not by Pact type or Level, so it makes choosing them that little bit more of an effort. Further, an appendix lists both spells and cantrips alphabetically and by Level and gives page numbers, but for the Invocation there is just a simple alphabetical listing.

The Class presented in The Warlock may be slightly too powerful in comparison to other Classes for Old School Essentials because the Warlock has a lot of powers that he can freely use, whereas all of the other spellcasting Classes have to work at their magic and so their players have to work at playing their magic. Further, although there are a lot of ideas and options in The Warlock, they could have been better organised and better developed to give a player a wider choice in how he builds and plays his Warlock character. Work around these issues though and The Warlock present a Class which looks to be fantastic and fun to play.

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