Witchburner

By Luka Rejec
Hydra Cooperative
OSR

… It’s an intimate, tragic adventure of witch hunting in a town huddled between rivers and mountains and forests one wet and cold October.

Warning: This adventure gets up close to a line I’m uncomfortable with in adventures. You should keep that in mind as you read my skepticism’s.

This 68 page “adventure” describes the NPC’s in a small town and wraps some rules around for garnering support from the locals to burn people as witches. Some reference sheets are provided to help the DM with the social situation, and it is CERTAINLY a well-charged situation in which to throw some PC gas … but I’m having my doubts as to the “Adventure” nature of this thing, as well as playability. In the end, I’ve decided it’s an adventure, and a cute idea, and some decent NPC’s, but it doesn’t all come together.

Ye Olde town council hires the party to find the witch in their town. If you can do it in less than a month then you get the cash. There are some mini-mechanics provided on convincing the town council that the accused is a witch, and some around the town folks growing to love, or hate, the party. There are thirty main NPC’s provided, each with a quirk or secret or two, and each generally with a small group of others in the household, also with a quirk or so. There are reference sheets for tracking the love/hate thing, and mini-rules for mob justice.

It is a social adventure. Each of the thirty days in the month has some little small event, like townsperson x tells the party townsperson Y was a witch when they were younger, etc. This is also augmented by some kind of calamity, some witchsign like stillborn cattle (and generally much weirder) that whips up the locals a bit more. Too harsh with the locals and they start to fear you. Too many fear you and a mob forms to burn the party as witches, the tables turned.

It’s a decent set up. The locals are in witch fear fever. Everyone has something to hide. The mini-rules handle the extra new situations well. The calamities and rumors on each day keep the action moving. And in to all this you add a WHOLE bunch of gas in the form of the party and wait for the shit to go down. It’s all very loose, almost a framework for an adventure rather than adventure. That’s both a strength and a weakness.

There’s no actual plot, other than what naturally develops during play. That’s because there is no actual witch … the locals are just all spun up because of some coincidences. But … no one knows that. The coincidences are not explained. The locations and events precipitating things are not touched on AT ALL. So, the pumpkin that spills teeth when cut in to? Only mentioned in passing once, in as much detail as I just typed. Or the fish that turned up dead with a handprint on them? Again, no more explanation AT ALL than I just provided. It’s literally all just rumors and people with something to hide. There’s strength to that, it recognizes that all you really need is a volatile situation and adding the party can turn it in to an adventure. On the downside … well, it  feels plotless. The lack of explanation for the “bait” that starts everything is totally up to the DM. And not explicitly so, just implicitly.

It’s also the case that the party will need to frame someone to get the money … and/or save themselves from the mob. Or, they can just rob people.

The lack of the precipitating events, and of a plot, does leave things feeling a bit hollow. It’s all just fucking around. You could just as easily take People of Pembrocktonshire, or any other NPC book and say “they all live in the same village. The party is hired to find the village witch, but there isn’t one.” Same adventure, essentially.

It’s heart is in the right place. It tries to provide reference sheets, etc. The entire thing needs A LOT more cross-referencing. Every time it uses the words The Mayor it also need to put “(p39)” right after it … and do the same for all NPC’s. You gotta help the DM out … especially when things are as loosy goosy as this. People affiliations, like Councilor, Cult, Lodge could also be better noted in more locations. There’s also about a column of “background story” for each of the main NPC’s. They do a good job of communicating flavor, but are useless in play. I also think they are useless in play if you skip them … there’s no way you can hold 30 NPC’s in your head.  This seems much more aimed at people just reading the adventure rather than running it. Still, skip it and your ok.

It’s all a bit too aimless for my tastes. The secrets are not explicit, or damning, in most cases. “I can tell wwhat’s wrong with someone when I touch them.” Ok, sure. I  guess so. It needs a little more push in the PC direction and just a little more pretext at the beginning, I think. Yeah, there’s a rule on how to actually put a witch in the adventure. But, it’s just random.

Luka has done something different and I applaud that. It FEELS a lot like that movie The Witch … except for the ending of course.

And therein ends the review I wrote four months ago, when this thing first came out. I have NO idea how I didn’t post it then. In fact, I trashed it. I went through this morning to buy it and DriveThru said I owned it. A search in my Google Drive showed a doc in trashcan. Restoring it got me the review above. Fuck if I know man.

In rereading the adventure and the review I think I should add a few words. You can see me struggling with the open-ended nature of the adventure. Or, maybe, The Adventure As Theater. The Red Herring Adventure. Or maybe The Adventure As Journey Rather Than Destination. This is perhaps best exemplified in my disgust with most “it was all a dream” adventures, or adventures that, by fiat, remove consequences. “All the dead PC’s return to life. Yeah!” This adventure isn’t that, but the commonality is, I think, Theater. Let’s say the DM wings it one night because they have no adventure prepared. They make someone stare at the party when they enter the tavern. The guy follows them in and they see him stare at them some more. Nothing is actually going on, the party just catches the guy looking a bit. The party reacts, and the DM follows the natural consequences. This adventure is closer to that setup and you can see me struggling in my review. There is no witch. The phenomena is unexplained. And yet we continue to live our lives and have an adventure, placing meaning. [Life is, of course, without meaning. You can’t give it meaning. You must live it anyway, recognizing the absurdity.] This adventure gets up close to a line I’m uncomfortable with in adventures.

If you can accept the nature of the adventure then this is not a bad adventure. In fact, it’s a pretty decent adventure that could be better with a little work. It’s certainly one of the Best, if you’re not an overly-analyzing git like myself.

Also, Luka tells me that the Funeral Edition has some worksheets that make it easier to run. Luka is smart, so I suspect the new worksheets remove some of my troubles with keeping track of the mechanical systems, etc.

This is $13 at DriveThru. There’s a free version available.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/256916/Witchburner?affiliate_id=1892600

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18 Responses to Witchburner

  1. eric says:

    It was in the trash because a witch did it.

    “There is no witch”.

    That’s exactly what she wants you to believe, chum.

  2. The Middle Finger of Vecna says:

    She turned me into a newt but I got better

  3. Handy Haversack says:

    Yeah, everything about this adventure is great — except maybe it’s adaptability to most D&D campaigns? The writing, art, imagination, and characterization are all really well done. But toss it to murderhoobos . . . At any rate, it took my players about four days to frame someone, collect the reward, and get the hell out of town. They were convinced that if they didn’t hurry, they’d be framed for it instead.

    More cross-referencing would have been useful. Also, while the personalities of each major NPC are neatly summarized, their histories are presented in narrative form; a bullet-point summation would have been a useful addition.

    Because history ends up being really important to this one, I found. The town is vulnerable to this witch panic because almost everyone there is scarred by war — by invasion or service or otherwise marked by violence in a way that PCs (at least my players) shrug off. I found it a neat way to try to draw some lines between the worlds of PCs and NPCs and show how very different fortune-hunter PCs are even in a violent world. But that did leave me wanting easier ways in to each NPC’s history on the fly.

    The “Rightmaker” is a pretty interesting character since she is satisfied as long as the council is satisfied. She is a force for order (or Law), but only inasmuch as the panic ends — she doesn’t care any more than the PCs whether the “real” witch is caught, only that everyone involves is satisfied with the accused. This is how paladins now work in my world! Give her _true sight_ and _detect lie_ and all the other powers — but they are not meant to find “truth.” I’m in.

    There was a random encounter with some smugglers after a couple of days of investigating. Unfortunately for the smugglers, all role-playing and no dice rolling makes my players kill happy.

    Oh, and I also decided the witch is real. It’s just a side project of the Phaen Witch in “Praise the Fallen” as her research into entropy continues.

  4. Edgewise says:

    First of all, with this review, I’m surprised to see this product tagged with “The Best.”

    Second, it sounds like this adventure could have been greatly improved if it had given the GM options, where “there is no witch” is only one of them. The same is true with explanations for the weird goings-on. I can imagine combining this adventure with another so that the whole witch hunt is a red herring but SOMETHING is actually going on.

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      It wasn’t. And then I changed it this morning.

      It’s usually pretty easy to look at something and make a judgment. When something is hard to use and doesn’t encourage interactive play it’s pretty easy to see that. [For most people, or maybe just me because I’ve seen so much of it?] The vast majority of what I review has the same strengths or faults. This thing is different. You can see me struggling in my addendum. Luka has, with laser focus, raised an issue: the role of the red herring adventure. It is totally dedicated to that conceit and explores it quite thoroughly. I’m not sure, one way or another, that I’m comfortable with that conceit. And I mean that: I don’t know. Looking at What Ho! the comments made it clear what my problem was: the world is straight man to the party. I knew something was off in that product but didn’t know what, and I knew id seen things like that before. In this, I know what the issue is but I don’t know yet how I feel about it. Yeah, more cross-referencing, a little more support in a few areas, but that’s not enough to send an otherwise good thing down in my garbage pod. And … I don’t know if it’s good. It might be. Is this a case of Bryce Doesn’t Like Fey or Bryce Doesn’t Like Barrows? It seems like there’s an important play point in this, the role of the red herring adventure, and I’m not sure I know how to feel about that. I’m CLEARLY uncomfortable, and I’ve made references to the “it was all a dream” lack of consequences stuff. In this case its not a lack of consequences but a purposeful muddling of … Whats Right? Certainty?

      There are so many sins a DM can commit in this area. Forcing characters to do things. Hiding truths they should know. Fucking with them in uncool ways. Is this an overreaction to that, or another case of some underlying principal like World is Straight Man?

      Fuck if I know.

      • The Middle Finger of Vecna says:

        Sounds like perhaps ‘no regerts’ would have been a better tag. This review sounds like one of the weakest “The Best”s to come along yet. If something like ASE or DCO is the best then I’m not sure how Witchhunter is also the best. Maybe you need another category in between no regaerts and the best 😉

        • It’s easy to overthink these things. It didn’t sound like a ‘best’ to me either. Bryce, your opinion is greatly respected for it’s honesty and insight. It doesn’t matter what your readers prefer….it’s your thoughts we’re here for.
          Personally, they’ve served me extremely well and I’m sure granted much needed exposure to those that deserved it.

      • Ray Weidner says:

        Fair enough; the category is far less important than the text, and your ambivalence certainly comes through.

        My issue with the red herring concept as rendered here is, as I allude to, the fact that it is forced. It could have easily had exactly the same content but with a lot more options.

    • Atlictoatl says:

      There is an option in the adventure for the GM to designate a witch and helpers, if they choose to do so, with some guidelines on what the witch’s goals might be, dependent on which town faction they’re in.

  5. Malthe says:

    I think it’s an issue of trust being a vital part of the social contract of role-playing. When playing tabletop, what the GM tells you is the only available source of information about the world of play. The GM is basically a substitute for the sensory input you would base your actions on if you were actually experiencing what happens in play. If the GM tells you, “an orc comes bursting through the burning gate in front of you”, then you have to be able to rely upon that information being at least mostly accurate.
    It’s probably fine if it turns out to be a spy disguised as an orc, or if upon further inspection the gate only looks like it’s burning because of some trick of the light, but if you react by counter-charging the “orc” and the GM then tells you that actually it’s a giant or twenty orcs and now your in trouble… that’s is uncomfortable to say the least. Some amount of deliberate obfuscation is all well and good, and in fact can lead to great play experiences (“wait, for how long has he been a doppelganger?”), but the misapprehension has to be plausible. It’s plausible that Sigvaldr the Barbarian would mistake a disguised spy for an orc, less so that he would mistake a giant for an orc.

    I think the issue in Witchburner is that it comes across as a ‘gotcha’ adventure. In the context of DnD or other fantasy rpgs, it’s perfectly plausible that a witch might be tormenting a community. Especially so in the case of this adventure, given the rich amount completely unexplained, creepy-ass happenstance, that draws on real world cultural imagery concerning witches and witch-hunts. So when it turns out that actually this was all just superstitious villagers, mob mentality and unexplained happenstance, this a) really stretches the social contract between players an GM to the limit, and b) leaves you with some very unsatisfactory plot holes; like how the hell did those teeth get in that pumpkin? And if the GM handwaves the explanation, “oh, just a random but rare magical mutation of the common pumpkin”, then boy does that run the risk of feeling bad. The GM risks seeming ingenious and thereby ruining the credibility absolutely necessary for play.

    I’m not saying that Witchburner is bad for doing this. Tomb of Horrors does basically the same thing by deliberately trying to trick the players, taking advantage of their experience and expectations as DND players, and enforcing a strict regime of mistrust and paranoia. And that module is a classic for that very reason. The vital difference is that Tomb of Horrors is pretty straight-forward about the fact that you’re being played, so the mistrust is focused on the module rather than the GM (unless you’re the cruel GM who unleashes it on new unsuspecting players, expecting to be heroes like on Critical Role – in which case you’re a prick…). I think the lack of openness about the fact that the players are being played is the main problem with Witchburner. If expecting an old-school fantasy dnd-like game, which is what’s implied by the product, then Witchburner can easily play out like a cruel joke. If played it as a straight up horror game, no/low magic, set in faux New England, or even as a Warhammer scenario (where the characters and players are traditionally supposed to struggle) then I could see it working fine! But I think the GM would do well in playing up the question of whether or not there actually is a witch and making that the crux of the game.

    As is, Witchburner seems a bit like the adventure module version of performance art, trying to make a point by subverting your expectations. That can be cool if your group of players is into that kind of thing, but otherwise it’s probably better to either put in an actual witch or pick a different module.

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Yeah, I think you’ve totally latched on to it. And this also ties in with the It Was All A Dream adventures and the principal that the DM needs to communicate information so that the players can make meaningful choices. Otherwise, they all lead to Gotcha DM’ing. A paragraph up front in Witchburner that has the DM play the first two encounters straight and then lead the party more and more in to the realm of “Yup, this is all BS” can be followed up by temptation. They are gonna pay you, etc, if you continue down the path you know is wrong Then it’s party, balancing the forces in the village, IF they choose to go down this path. Thats it, and it fixes it.

  6. Adam W. says:

    Interesting discussion. I haven’t read/played this one but the thing that comes to mind is, does it support the possibility for the PCs to determine there is no witch and put the kibosh on the witch hunt? If not that seems like a missed opportunity.

  7. Handy Haversack says:

    I’ll say that my players figured out early that there was no witch — or at least set that hypothesis on equal footing with any other. They didn’t seem to feel “got” so much as pressured to find someone to blame before blame turned to them.

    The players and characters have a lot of resources to figure out what’s going on — familiars, detect magic, commune, class knowledge, all sorts of things. I wonder if it is really going to take any group long to figure out what the lack of a unifying actor behind all the straaaaaaange actually means.

    At any rate, I can see how this adventure might lead to Gotcha-ism, but probably only if you’re already that kind of DM. What I liked most about it is that it tests player ability to navigate a weird and unfamiliar space that has danger different from but equal to the kind of danger they normally face. I don’t think it’s perfect at it and could have used a little more in the toolkit (and probably also, for most games, some built-in way of getting a little dice rolling in the mix).

    And Adam W., the adventure explicitly addresses the possibility of the PCs realizing that there is no witch or that there’s no one they can identify. And it also tells you where many of these citizens keep their treasure. So “rob ’em blind and ditch” is explicitly one of the ways this can go.

    • Slick Schmoozer says:

      I don’t know if Adam’s looking for “rob ’em blind and ditch” so much as “de-escalate the situation and save some innocent lives”. Are the fears and prejudices of the NPCs described well enough that you could discern what kind of answer to give them to calm everyone down?

  8. Bigby's Affirmative Consent Lubed Fist says:

    Or maybe The Adventure As Journey Rather Than Destination.

    In the end, the real adventure was the friends we made along the way.

  9. squeen says:

    Here’s a quote from Tolkien’s forward to the 2nd printed edition of the Lord of the Rings:

    “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches: but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice…”

    Two things I’ve always liked about that: 1) The author is a honest reporter, not a moralist 2) The story grows as the logical results of choice. I think both are good tenets for D&D.

    In a political landscape that increasingly needs to influence me as a pawn in its route to personal power, I have grown less well disposed to medium-with-a-message (never bothered me as a kid, just soaked it up gleefully). I know laying blame on your neighbour and burning people who are difference is wrong. Mass hysteria is real, etc. But I lack the stomach to play that out with my players over an evening of anticipated “fun”.

    Perhaps that was not the author’s intention, and it really was just to construct a “Red Herring Adventure” so that the players experience an interesting twist—like the plot of a well-crafted movie. If the latter, I applaud the effort to bring something new to D&D. But this context…just seems a bit heavy for a night of escapist adventure and, from the review, I get the impressing it was a bit forced. If we look too closely at morality through the lens of D&D it can get a bit complicated—heck, it grew out of war-gaming.

    In the same way the DM shouldn’t be actively trying to kill the party (but its OK if he’s rooting for the monsters like a fan on the sidelines), he shouldn’t be trying too hard to obfuscate either. I think its okay if DM-as-designer constructs a scenario that is easily misconstrued, just so long as it’s not so ridiculously stacked against the players to “sucker you in” that it comes off as forced or railroad-y. Most of the fun as DM is seeing what the players do. Which party members will jump to the wrong conclusions while you play it straight-faced?

    Thanks again for a thoughtful review and some interesting comments. Discussing D&D is a great way to fill the void between playing.

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