The Witcher RPG is out

I was just wondering what has happened to the Witcher RPG and whether it is still in production. And it turns out to have finally been released after huge delays last friday.

The first print run was sold at GenCon and there’s probably a proper print release very soon. Meanwhile the pdf is already available for 22€ and runs at a total of 336 pages. According to the content table, the book is 158 pages of rules, 32 pages of setting information, 26 pages of GM information, and 48 pages of creatures and enemies, with the rest being a couple of other things.

Still have to properly read it, but I hope that even with 51 pages of character creation and 30 pages of combat rules it’s still actually playable.

Is The Witcher Romantic Fantasy?

Working on a new setting that draws heavily from The Witcher and considering starting a new campaign in the forseeable future, I was remembered of how Joseph and Trollsmyth defined Romantic Fantasy and it’s application in RPGs.

And all of them really lines up very well with The Witcher. It’s not actually wrong to describe Geralt’s story as him trying to save the last true heir to the throne of Cintra from being murdered in a struggle between ruthless monarchs. But it’s much better described as the story of an aging warrior who stops at nothing to rescue an orphan girl he has taken in his care from impossibly more powerful foes. And despite being the protagonist, he’s not doing it alone but is always a part of a greater circle of friends.

I think it’s actually one of the best examples around for what Joseph is talking about.

Friendship is Magic.

In related news, I just learned that the Witcher RPG by Talsorian Games is still being worked on, and from what scraps of information have been released recently, it appears to be very far in the development process, already dealing with the layout of the book. It was announced well over two years ago with barely anything heard since then, so I don’t know how soon we can expect it, but it’s nice to see that it hasn’t completely faded off the world.

My favorite style of fiction I never knew I had

Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.

Neo-Noir.

What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalogue, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)

Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.

Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?

Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.

And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.

After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.

Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.)

It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.

Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.

Update: Some more that I totally forgot and didn’t think about: Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.

Game Review: The Witcher

The_Witcher_EU_boxI was very much intrigued by The Witcher the very first time I heard about it, back around 2005 or so. “Dark Fantasy” had not really been a huge thing back then and the concept sounded like a fresh new approach to the genre that to me was mostly defined by The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. The game was released in 2007 and I played it the first time not very long after that. However, I never actually finished it. And greatly enjoying the books now and wanting to play the second game again, it seemed the appropriate thing to give this game another go.

Background

The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy books written by Andrzej Sapkowski during the 90s. Basically it started out as taking themes and archetypes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with some elements of Polish folklore and turning them into serious modern tales of violence and prejudice. It’s a bit similar to what Neon Genesis Evangelion did in Japan with it’s own take of children controling giant robots to fight city annihilating monsters to save the earth. Though usually there’s also a good amount of small meta-jokes here and there that really go a long way in keeping the books from drifting into grimdark territory. The main hero is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. When the world was still full of monsters that threatened the survival of human civilization everywhere, the Witchers were created to be superhuman monster slayers, highly trained in swordfighting and the basics of magic and turned into alchemical mutants through various potions that give them immunity to disease, resistance to poison, accelerated healing, hightened senses, and so on. But as the world has become more and more pacified many people doubt that these dangerous freaks are still necessary and there are only very few of them left and even fewer new ones being trained. But as monsters are starting to go extinct, it becomes very clear that this won’t make the world any more safer or peaceful as people are really one of the biggest source of violence and missery. While the last book in the series was published in 1999 and has been translated into over a dozen languages, the English translation has always been very late and the final three books are only being released in English right now, with the last one coming in 2017. The game takes place 5 years after the last book, which of course kind of spoils the ending of the series, but given the popularity of the games it’s pretty much like “I am your father!” and “Aeris dies” now. However, given the themes and moods of the series, I am really not feeling like this makes reading the books any less fun or exciting. The game does a very good job of remaining very brief on what exactly happened during the books and don’t really tell you anything about what was going on at the final showdown. Still, feel yourself warned when I go deeper into the story later in this review, where I will mention how the transition from the books to the game takes place.

witcher3Gameplay

The Witcher is in many ways a “classic western RPG” with lots of similarities to various Dungeons & Dragons games, The Elder Scrolls, or Dragon Age. However, because you’re playing a fixed character and there is a pretty clear main story, it’s in many ways much closer to the Mass Effect games. I think the closest comparison would probably be the Gothic series that was developed and released in the early 2000s, but to my knowledge didn’t get very popular outside of Germany. (It was a huge hit here, though.)

Geralt is very well known for the signature weapons of a witcher. A steel sword and a silver sword. Steel is the weapon of choice to kill people and animals but does relatively little damage to supernatural creatures. The silver sword is much better suited to that, but is more blunt in comparion and not ass effective against regular enemies as the steel sword. Though, how Geralt himself puts it “both are for monsters”. Since Geralt is a swordsman through and through, fighting with a sword and no shield is the primary, and effectively only form of combat. You can pick up daggers, axes, and clubs from enemies, but your skill with these doesn’t ever improve while you can become a total beast with your swords. There are three modes of fighting. A strong mode for big and heavily armored enemies, a fast mode that deals the most damage to small and fast enemies, and a group mode in which you lash out against every enemy around you. The group mode deals the least damage per strike, but since you’re hitting lots of enemies at the same time its perfect any time you are dealing with three or more enemies at once. While this is a neat idea in theory, there is very little strategy involved. Usually you can see immediately if the enemy takes more damage from strong or fast mode attacks and all you do is press the button to select the right mode for the current enemy. There is never really a question which mode might work best, it’s always obvious so there isn’t really any choice or tactics involved. The main tactical element of combat is deciding where to stand, which enemy to aim at, and when to move to a new position to avoid getting swarmed by to many opponents at once. But that’s also what you do in Baldur’s Gate or the first Dragon Age and while the animations of Geralt’s awesome fencing style look amazing at first, the novelty of it quickly runs out. Combat is serviceable, but not a particular highlight of the game. The second game went the right way with getting ride of modes and giving you a strong attack button and a fast attack button instead. Continue reading “Game Review: The Witcher”

Book Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves is the third book of the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, by Andrzej Sapkowski. Unlike the two previous books that were collections of stories, this one is the first novel, but they all can really be seen as a single series following a common storyline. In The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, continuity consisted mostly of regular characters that would travel alongside Geralt for a while and there were several references to previous story. In this book the plot begins to become concrete. Geralt and his friends stop wandering around wherever the road and coincidence take them and start pursuing a common goal. Now they have a purpose.

Blood_of_Elves_UKRight from the start it is made clear that this story is revolving around Ciri, a girl whose story began in The Last Wish and who first appeared in person in The Sword of Destiny. The one who is going to be Geralt’s Destiny, even though nobody knows what this is going to mean. But the circumstances of her childhood and previous encounters with Geralt are too strange for anyone to dismiss as coincidence. War is brewing in the Northern Kingdoms. The mighty empire of Nilfgaard has already conquered all the lands in the south and already devastated and occupied Cintra and nobody believes that they are going to stop. To make matters worse, the Nilfgaardians have open support within the Northern Kingdoms in the form of the Scoia’tael, radical young elves and dwarves who are hoping for autonomy as provinces of the empire instead of opression under the feudal lords and kings. Maybe they are impatient or under direct order of the emperor, but many have already begun striking at the human lords and their subjects wherever they can, causing chaos and destruction and forcing others of their kind to pick a side. All nonhumans become suspect and the situation in the towns is only going to get worse for them. In these dark times Ciri is having regular terrifying visions she can neither make any sense of nor remember, and out of ideas the witchers turn to their friends among the sorceresses for help. Meanwhile a mysterious assassin appears in the Northern Kingdoms, looking for both Ciri and Geralt.

Continue reading “Book Review: Blood of Elves”

Book Review: The Sword of Destiny

The Sword of Destiny is the second collection of stories of the witcher Geralt of Rivia by Andrzej Sapkowski that predate the novels. The events of the stories are only losely connected, but there are frequent nods to previous stories that establish some degree of chronological order, that appears to cover a couple of weeks or months, several years after the stories from The Last Wish. This is quite similar to how Fritz Leiber often connected his Lankhmar stories. Unlike the previous book, this one does not have an overarching “meta-story” in which the other stories are inserted as kind of flashbacks. I thought it was a pretty clever device (and I believe added long after the individual stories were originally written), would have been fun to see something similar done with this one as well.

I am having a bit of a hard time reviewing this book in my usual format, because frankly my main impressions pretty much comes down to “The Last Wish was much better”. Giving away my final opinion of the book right here at the start, I don’t think it’s a bad book. But not as great as The Last Wish, that comes before it in the series, or Blood of Elves, which comes after it and I have been putting on a break after being about two thirds through it to read this one first. And having read the entire thing as a whole, I think it’s really worth reading for fans of the first book who want to continue with the series. But more on that later.

The Last Wish
The Last Wish

The Sword of Destiny consists of six stories, which in a similar fashion to the first book all have titles that sound corny and pretentious at first, but have a real meaning that only becomes apparent after you completed them. You can’t get any more cliched with a fantasy book title than “The Sword of Destiny”, but though the term comes up several times there isn’t any actual magic blade to be found anywhere. The Witcher is not that kind of fantasy. Overall, the book is a lot more introperspective than the other two books I’ve read so far, which I think is a major reason why it felt so odd, especially at first. For stories about a monster hunter in a brutal world, the Witcher always has remarkably few and often quite subdued action scenes, but here even more so than usual. Very little is done and the center of the book is really Geralts inner life. Which particularly in the first two stories is not very well done. Geralt is gloomy, talks almost nothing, and I can’t help to think of the word “moody” or maybe even “moping”. He’s always there, but all the talking and acting is done by other characters while the main hero stays in the background with a bleak mood. In the third story he seems to have gotten over it and from then on I enjoyed the book a lot more. But even then I never felt like “Fuck, yeah! Geralt is badass!” However, Dandelion appears in half the stories and he’s always having a blast. Continue reading “Book Review: The Sword of Destiny”

Witcher RPG in 2016?

So apparently there’s a Witcher RPG in production to be released at some point next year. It’s being done by R.Talsorian Games and will be using the Fuzion system the company has been using for many other games. I am not familiar with it, but having taken a look at the basic mechanics and looked up popular oppinions about Cyberpunk v3, Artesia, and Bubblegum Crisis I am really not impressed. Consensus about games using the Fuzion system seem almost universally to be that they are greatly done books but all suffering from a pretty bad system. Well, most people to whom a Witcher RPG will appeal will already be very familiar with the setting so wonderful presentation won’t be much consolation.

Looks like another case of “Great License stuck with a bad system” this year, after Conan and John Carter. If I’ll decide to run a Witcher game, I’d simply use Fantasy Age. That thing seems to be almost tailor made for that setting and is so much simpler and lighter.

Nonhuman characters in Sword & Sorcery

When talking about Sword & Sorcery and the essential traits and themes of the genre, there is almost always at least someone making the claim that the absence of nonhuman character is outright essential and that a work can not be Sword & Sorcery if it has any nonhumans that are not monsters. Yesterday someone made the commendable effort to provide a reason and supporting evidence why nonhumans are not a thing in the genre, by stating that there are pretty much no works of Sword & Sorcery which have nonhumans as counter evidence. Now obviously that gets us to a True Scottsmen argument. If your definition of Sword & Sorcery includes “no nonhumans”, then of course there are no works that have them. You could also say that Sword & Sorcery doesn’t have guns. But Salomon Kane has guns and I haven’t seen anyone claiming that he isn’t Sword & Sorcery. Guns are just uncommon, but not conflicting with essential traits of the genre.

However, I want to argue that there are in fact many works that have all the relevant traits of Sword & Sorcery and also nonhumans, and in which the inclusion of nonhumans doesn’t in any way conflict with with those essential elements and themes.

  • Atlantis: The Second Age (rpg)
  • Bound by Flame (videogame)
  • Dark Sun (rpg setting)
  • Dragon Age II
  • The first three Drizzt novels.
  • Elric
  • Primeval Thule (rpg setting)
  • Rune Soldier (anime)
  • The Witcher

I admit, most of these are fairly recent. But just because something is not found in the oldest works doesn’t automatically make it incompatible with a genre. It still walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks as a duck.

Setting up conflicts in worldbuilding

While I am revising my Ancient Lands setting, I’ve set down to once more give some deep thoughts to the underlying conflicts of the world. I make no secret about my oppinion that the Mass Effect series has the best worldbuilding I’ve ever seen anywhere. Not because there is a lot of lore on the locations and a long detailed history. In fact, there is barely anything in that regard, at least if you don’t read up on it in the ingame codex. Perhaps there is some, but I didn’t read any of it and I still think the worldbuilding is superb. The Mass Effect galaxy is incredible because it has lots of factions that are tightly interconnected with each other, forming a complex web of conflicts and alliances in which absolutely everyone is included in some way. And these groups are friends or enemies with each other not simply because the writers say so, but because they share a common past which can be sufficiently explained in three or four sentences but gives them good reason to feel what they feel, and in a way that perhaps doesn’t make you approve of, but at least understand their views. The same company that made the Mass Effect games also made the Dragon Age series at the same time, and while I am not as much a fan of that setting, it also excels at having lots of conflicts that affect everyone in some way and in which each side has some good points.

This made me realize that conflicts are really what makes a fictional setting tick. Cultures, landscapes, religion, and magic are all nice, but to get your audience invested in what is going on in the world and its people, underlying conflicts probably define the world more than anything else. This applies both to settings for roleplaying games, in which you usually want to give the players the option to chose the side their characters are taking, and to episodic fiction in which different parts and aspects of the world are explored in each story arc. So I’ve been looking at all the other fantasy and sci-fi worlds I think have great worldbuilding with interesting conflicts and dynamics between factions. From Star Wars to the Witcher, and from Halo to Forgotten Realms. And I made an important discovery when it comes to creating conflicts: Even if you have a conflict in which both sides have a point and you could easily get into the mind of a character of either group, the conflicts still always started because someone was a giant dick!

Back to Mass Effect, lots of nice sidestories with difficult moral descisions involve the alien Krogans and the human Cerberus group. In many cases you can sympathize with them, perhaps even support them, and actually very much like individual characters of these groups, even though many people consider them evil and villains. But the thing is that in the past their leaders made some descisions and ordered some actions that were really total dick moves. No questions about that; those things were wrong and they got what they deserved. But those past wrongs were not commited by the specific people you’re dealing with right now. These people can be really nice guys and they might not have done anything wrong. But for some reason or another, they are now part of this group that has a long and violent conflict with some other groups. The source of the conflict lies in the past, but it established some facts that still matter a lot right now. And I think that’s really the key when setting up some underlying conflicts for a setting rich with ambigous characters and descisions. Creating a conflict in which neither side is truly bad is really difficult, if not outright impossible. But that does not have to prevent the existence of conflicts in which neither side is truly bad now. If you want to set up a conflict that lasts for generations and affects whole peoples, make the conflict start with one terrible person making a really unfair descision. Doesn’t really matter if it’s too much black and white, because that person likely is long dead or may not appear in the story at all. What does matter is the people who are on opposing sides right now, and being sufficiently removed from the original source of the conflict, they can easily be as ambigous as you want. In Halo 2, some of the alien enemies quit the Covenant and start a civil war against their former masters, which put them on the same side as the humans. But that doesn’t change the fact that they had been the officers in charge of the Covenant army that had been leading a war of annihilation against humanity for the last 30 years. They hardly could be called friends by any stretch, but from that part in the story they have to work together and fight their common enemy, whether they like it or not. There still is great hostility between them and from a worldbuilding perspective you can still regard them as two opposing sides in conflict with each other. You can sympathize with characters on both sides, but also have no trouble at all understanding accepting that they won’t be nice to each other and getting into fights.

So this is my appeal and my advice: Conflicts neither have to be black and white, nor fairly balanced. You can have very good underlying conflicts built into a setting, which started out with one side being the villain, but by now has developed into a state of regular agression from both sides.