The Last Wish - 3 Reasons Why Sapkowski's Witcher Is The Greatest Fantasy Setting You've Never Role-Played in
Dragons, dungeons, dungeons deep, caverns old, barbaric lands, distant galaxies, technology-dependant ages, and even a mix of all the aforementioned – you've probably rolled dice while within at least one of these.
And while each and every universe I've just listed has quite a few things going for it, I'm willing to climb the highest mountain carrying the world's largest megaphone, and yell at the top of my lungs that none of the above will ever come close to the blistering wit, thundering charisma, and unerring relevance that The Witcher seems to so easily combine into the greatest fantasy setting I've never had the pleasure of role-playing in.
Factually, I could just say that the only reason I haven't done so is that we've only had one Polish Witcher RPG come out over the years... But we're also here to debate why Redania, Kaedwen, and Mahakam will forever stand head and shoulders above Westeros, The Forgotten Realms, and even Middle Earth.
High praise? You're goddamn right!
Most of you might know of The Witcher setting from the RPG games that have come out for PCs and consoles over the past 9 years – the end of that sentence just made me feel old. But the underlying universe these are based on has been around for well over 30 years, spanning 8 books, and a host of short stories, comics, a failed TV series, standalone adventures, as well as an overarching narrative that put true grit into fantasy way before ol' GRRM regaled us in his neverending saga.
Dealing with issues like racism and blurring the lines between good and evil, and doing so mostly through the eyes of Geralt, a professional monster slayer whose job description encompasses way more than is readily apparent, here's a more in-depth look at that setting, mainly 3 reasons why a pen-and-paper RPG set within its confines would set the role-playing world ablaze.
1. Parental Guidance Advised
The first and foremost aspect of Andrej Sapkowski's work is its unapologetically mature take on not only fantasy, but life in general. It does so by distilling every major conflict alive in the world as a whole to the point of view of a singular character – Geralt. A professional monster hunter, one of the last of a dying breed, The White Wolf faces a host of hurdles, page in and page out.
The reason these hurdles are so efficient in striking a chord with audiences, drawing them in more so than empire vs empire confrontations or quests to destroy ancient baubles, is that most of them are relevant variants of issues very much alive today. These are issues that most of us may have faced or will face at one point or another: the fear of becoming obsolete, reticence in cutting a straight line between right and wrong, a desire of protecting your loved ones, providing and caring for them while also preparing them for what they may face in future days...
All of these and more are shared with the reader in a straightforward manner, no curtains, ifs, or buts – dangers hang like a specter over every choice or action, basic needs or urges are presented in no sheepish manner, greater conflicts surrounding the main character and his closest companions simmer down to a personal level, where the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. All of these situations most of us will at some point face, if in a less magically-imbued and bloody murdering style.
The most astounding thing that results from the Polish writings is that humans, and humanity in general, turn out to be the greatest monsters alive, and that sometimes beasts or foul creatures that should by all intents and purposes fall into the "bad guy" category end up having more valid reasons for their actions than the humans ever will. This, of course, is more than relevant to today's society if you know what to glean from it.
While the setting is grim with a sense of urgency and dread dogging the characters' every footstep, Geralt being thrust in the midst of a larger conflict that but brews at the start of the series then ends up going full boil by the third book, you will not be left wanting for humour. Geralt's few-harsh-yet-fair-words attitude towards things he disdains or looks down upon coupled with his sarcasm and razor-sharp wit could be an acquired taste for some, but will work wonders for all those who appreciate British humour.
Think less dead parrot sketch and more Black Knight. Performed by a blind, savvy grave digger. Under a full moon. In a cemetery beset by ghouls.
From its titular sly, dry, mutant-of-many-trades character, to its flambuoyant minstrel by the name of Dandelion – and yes, he IS that delicate but balances it out with quite the sharp tongue – to the myriad sorceresses of untold beauty and malice, its majestic kings and queens, vile bandits or heroic rebels, down to the rabble in the streets, be it beggars, whores or children going about their daily mud-puddle-bash, every last character the book puts forth is memorable in some way, no matter how small.
Not only that, but Sapkowski also manages to bring every last bit of scenery to life, complementing and enhancing the characters' actions immensely. Although he is an action-oriented writer first and foremost, with the books generally skewing away from neverending expositions and quickly going into juicy dialogue or a good fight, you are never left wanting for context.
And the dialogues – and even monologues – The Witcher series has to offer are some of the best I've come across in a long time. Blending reality and common knowledge into in-setting legendry and hearsay – turning Snow White into a highway bandit with a pack of dwarves at her back – are the norm for these books, and the possibilities for improvisation here are endless.
You are never left frowning at the direness of it all for too long before either a rugged character throws a one-liner into the mix, gives a bare-bones analogy to a complex issue that was never intented to be stripped to such a degree, or sees a djinn off by using an old saying learned from some nuns that turns out to have powers way beyond what its user initially thought…
The world of The Witcher, the Continent as it is called, oozes personality and charm wherever you look. And even places you don't!
If it wasn't already crystal-clear from the previous point, The Witcher has a bunch of stuff going on at the same time. The great war between Nilfgaard and basically every last one of the other 9 provinces means that a host of peoples and races are either gathered under the same tattered banner or fighting each other to the death. Either way, the readers are in for a treat.
You've got the Scoia'tel rebels, mostly nonhumans – elves and dwarves – fighting for their freedom against the ever-encroaching human peoples that look down upon them, their take on the nonhumans ranging from mild disconfort to outright revulsion and disgust.
The armies of Nilfgaard strike fear in the heart of all they come across on their huge, caparisoned steeds, with their winged coifs and shiny black armour, bringing death and destruction to all who would dare stand in the path of the desires of Emperor Emhyr var Emreis.
Northern alliances are feeble and always teetering on the edge of disaster, generally being spread too thin to face the oncoming deluge of Nilfgaard while also dealing with the Scoia'tel patrols and lightning attacks on supply caravans and small villages.
Dwarves as a whole usually go about their business – trading, delivering, playing rowdy card games, and generally not giving much of a toss for the conflict as a whole, wanting nothing more than to see the day and the job through with the next paycheck on their mind.
The sorcerers and their female counterparts meanwhile scheme and fight amongst themselves for power, knowledge, and even revenge, greatly destabilising an already frail climate that can rise to such heights as to put the entire Continent at risk.
In the midst of all this, you've got the lone White Wolf, trying to make ends meet, traveling from town to town, from dryad haven to dwarven caravan, from outpost to capital city, looking for work, offering his services for either gold, services, or information, employing silver and steel alongside magic and mutagenic potions to aid him in whatever quest the day begs.
And this is but a cursory view on events that are much greater than a listicle like this could ever encompass.
You've also got magical beings also trying to go about their daily lives, with humans wanting them gone on account of not managing to wrap their head around supernatural feats…
Intra-faction feuds that force even the most passive onlooker to pick a side…
Sad end-of-days stories for elves that have lived on the continent long before humans ever made their way to it, now in the twilight of their years, waiting for that last charge into battle to offer them a glorious death...
Don't get me wrong, there's also a bunch of swear words you can learn from these books, but the general feel of it cries out of something unique and far more important than any tongue-in-cheek or rowdy remark any of its characters might throw off-handedly, something that few sagas like this ever deal with – there's no dry-cut way of looking at life. There's little to no "right" choice to be made ever, under any circumstance. And anything you do now may end up having great repercussions for either you or others in ways you couldn't possibly have predicted at first.
The title of the series might as well have been "Monkey Wrench – How everything goes to crap no matter how hard you try to see things safely through. And also of raising children."
Such a setting begs with every fiber of its fictional being to be set free upon the role-playing world, allowing the input of thousands of GMs and players alike to not only stand in awe at everything it has to offer, but also enrich the already grand expanse of land that Sapkowski started putting together over 30 years ago.
A must read, a must play, a must roll!
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... thus far.
He's been dabbling in plenty of writing ventures lately, and you can find him hanging his words around the OhBe Wandering hangout page on Facebook - https://goo.gl/4be3Bj
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.