Why I wrote Witchburner

Why Witchburner Exists and What It Tries To Do

First, a small announcement

The Witchburner funeral edition launched Sunday evening for pre-order on Exalted Funeral (they’re handling the printer and the distribution). We did a small run of 250 copies to test the market and the printer. We’re holding back some copies to cover lost or damaged shipments, but still, the response has exceeded my expectations: preorders took more than half of the available stock in less than 24 hours.

We are half way out of Witchburner in 24 hours.

Wow.

I was expecting to announce preorders with this post, but now it looks like I’m saying: hurry, because we’ll run out soon—though, be warned, shipping abroad from the USA is quite expensive (`˃ᆺ˂) (we’ll figure this out for future releases).

Now back to regular programming

What was I aiming for with Witchburner? How and why was it written? How do I use it? How do I imagine it being used?

Other people have described what I try to do in the Witchburner adventure, and they’ve done it very well:

“However, the primary reason (imo) to read Witchburner over other fantasy intrigue material is the nature of the core investigation. The player characters are put into an ethically fraught situation (rather than immediate physical danger). How they handle it likely depends on how the players understand their relationship to the GM’s hook. Many published ‘adventures’ assume that when a character in the fiction gives the party a quest (‘Find the witch!’), it doubles as the GM saying ‘Do this, please, it’s all I have prepped.’ There’s a canned adventure with it’s own arc, and the opportunity for a hard-won, tidy ending. The players need only participate (or even, play along). Witchburner, to its credit, does not operate on this assumption.”

“If the players see the adventure (find the witch) as the thread they must follow to glory and riches, they might be disappointed (or feel misled, even betrayed). Rather, this seems to assume that players will engage with a problem critically, even laterally. Do we even want to complete this quest? Do we approach it the way we’re told to? Is something else going on here? These questions ratchet up a core tension, because the player characters aren’t just pursuing a mystery, they have to ask themselves what they really want out of this situation.”

u/moconnor8

One particular response made a light go off in my head:

“Even though I applaud this kind of design (and sandbox games generally operate under the same assumption), it’s worth noting that the module doesn’t address this at all. I’m not saying it should, but people who expect to “teach” this kind of approach to adventures (from the players’ perspective) won’t find anything. That is to say, players used to having “the quest” might feel cheated just as you said.”

u/YnasMidgard

YnasMidgard followed up with a further clarification on how a module could address this background, “A simple “What if my players don’t question the hook?” sidebar or the like somewhere in the introduction would suffice.”

This conversation reminds me of a thought that’s been rattling through my head for months.

Is it possible to capture the relationships an rpg module creates, those between the module-writer (the author), the module-referee (the DM, the director, if you will), and the module-player (the player, yea)? I’d been thinking for a while that each module or adventure or setting should “have a small essay from the author. Thoughts on how and why it was written.”

I don’t have a template or a clear theory for how to do that, so instead, I’m going to muddle through to a practical and temporary answer by writing.

Why does Witchburner exist?

Witchburner began as an intensely personal project. I wanted to write an rpg adventure that captured something of the small-town world I experienced growing up (see video below, including very enthusiastic black metal), something that would resonate with some of the first players in my Dungeons & Dragons games back in the 1990s, but also something that would finally capture the kind of creepy, scary, and possibly horrific adventure I tried so many times to run.

The genesis of Witchburner is many live games I ran, some of them successful, some of them passable, some of them utter failures.

I’ll mention one failure: a vampire conspiracy that I hid under a trade dispute over wine imports. I literally had to call a time-out 30 minutes into the session and ask the players to wipe my entire opening, because it was so terrible and stupid and incomprehensible. Kindly, they consented.

I ran other games that inadvertently became horror. A slighted wizard cast fireball in a tavern, and the scene segued into burning mothers running into the dark cradling charcoal children.

Other times, hooks I placed successfully created horror. Greedy adventurers released the undying Irshe Dalgba upon their world and saw village after village they had previously saved fall to the undying curse.

Sometimes I created horror through description. The heroes relished their slaughter of goblins, only to recoil when I switched to bullet time to describe each and every death blow in excruciating detail.

Some of the most unexpected where those where NPC inspired the players’ characters to act horribly. A paladin murdered his betrothed in cold blood on a windy moor, convinced she was a vessel of supernal evil that should be destroyed because to let her go would be worse for the world. Even I was shocked by that.

Others were more classic bait-and-switches, where a horror scenario hid under a veneer of the normal. The heroes wandered deeper and deeper into a seemingly-safe village, only to find that they were being pursued by a menace far tougher than they had assumed.

Two things are at the heart of every successful scary(-ish) game I ran.

The first is relatable characters that feel human and real. This is hard to overdo and always useful.

The second is the strange hiding beneath the normal. A detective story is the Scooby Doo gang pulling off the ghost outfit and finding Mr Smith. A horror story is the Scooby Doo gang pulling off the Mr Smith outfit and finding an unnameable thing of angles and chittering mandibles. This is easy to overdo. Show one monster too many and you have an action game.

I created Witchburner to weave all this together in a single package. The NPCs are stitched from characters and vignettes that I have encountered, in stories or in person. The ordinary world is woven from places I know intimately. Besides being a bit of a tribute, this made it easier to set the stage.

But there’s a trick.

Those who have have read Witchburner, or played it through, might have come across a twist to this simple horror formula. It is built around ambiguities:

  • can rpgs handle fictional characters with different knowledge from the referee?
  • can ‘quests’ be wrong, false, or impossible?
  • can the players actually trust the world they are playing in to be the same world for all of them?
  • and, of course, who are the real monsters, anyway?

I mean, it’s a game about mass hysteria and a society drowning itself in alcohol to deal with the trauma of a recent massive war. It says right there, on the tin, that things might get complicated and unreliable! So, the answer to all of those ambiguities is a bit of a shrug. Of course these things are ambiguous and hard to solve with simple answers.

There’s a reason for this ambiguity.

In a sandboxy game, the referees and the players always find themselves in the same boat: they don’t know what comes next, it’s their interaction that creates it. This is fun. When I run a game, I love being surprised. It’s why I use dice and tables and cards as ‘oracles’ to give random outcomes I try to improvise from.

But creating such moments of surprise for the referee, not just for the players, is really hard to do in a social adventure. How to create that tension of “unknowing” for the referee? That’s what the ‘twist’ in Witchburner is really about. It creates a complication between the knowledge of the referee and the player, while providing a very strict time and character structure to guide the referee. This way, even though the referee has different knowledge from the player, they find themselves in a game, too. A social game with unknowable outcomes.

I think this makes Witchburner surprisingly hard, but also very rewarding to run (though I might be wrong! Hey, I’m the author, don’t trust me!).

However, let’s be clear, while every play group should be honest about what kind of game they’re trying to play (in this case, a tense, intimate social adventure), they shouldn’t fret too much if the tone or the content veers wildly away. That’s part of the surprise and fun of tabletop rpgs, how what was supposed to be dark and brooding suddenly becomes hilarious camp. Don’t fight that wave, just ride it.

Ride the python. It is long. Seven miles.

And now, the small sidebar.

YnasMidgard’s Question: What If My Players Don’t Question The Hook?

What if your players accept your game at face value and don’t try to look deeper? Don’t try to peer between what the NPCs are saying, and what the referee is actually preparing?

Well, my simple advice: just roll with it and play it straight. Let them go through with the whole thing, none the wiser.

If you want to teach them about this kind of dissonance, introduce NPCs who disagree with one another. NPCs who openly lie, contradict, and accuse other NPCs.

This can be as simple as the following: Commander Apréscod gives a quest to clear out the bandits. On the way to the lair, we meet Farmer Joannes de Terre who likes the bandits and says, “Ah, at least they keep the soldiers away! Saves me from paying those dreadful imperial taxes!”

Suddenly, the dissonance is showcased.

Don’t do it all the time.

Just a bit.

Like spice to show there are cracks in the narratives of the NPCs. That the world is not lawful and chaotic, good and evil. Rather it is shades of orange and blue.

Some kind soul made a gif of the last scene of Witchburner. Praise them.

More promotional stuff

If you’re reading this post some time in early 2019, this is likely still relevant: the Witchburner funeral edition print run I did with Exalted Funeral is was available for preorder at the link. We sold more than half our tiny print run in the first 24 hours, and the rest of it within the next 60. 3.5 days and we were out. After the official product launch, the extended .pdf will be available on the regular platforms.

Meanwhile, if you like what you read here, if you like the games you design, if you like my art and want to chip in, consider supporting my patreon: art, gaming, stories. It’s a buck a post, and I have never yet managed to post twice in a month, so there you go. You’ll be most welcome.

9 comments

  • I got the pdf a long time back and I am disappointed I missed this opportunity to get a hard copy. I hope there will be another chance soon.

    • There will be, for sure. Honestly, I was nervous about printing this many (250) because I just imagined them sitting in a garage, waiting for some con … and then whoomph. Gone.

  • “Heavy on the humanity, light on the horrible”. I needed this.

    I remember, ages back, I was running a session with a true version of the haunted manor accessible by playing a specific set of notes on the grand piano. I know, I know. At least the way to the true manor was by going up into the attic, and the basement being empty. I had a room that appeared to be pitch-black (“but I have darkvision! It penetrates magical darkness!” heh) but was in fact swarming with dark insects that scuttled and crawled.

    I then had a random encounter happen with a weird blue cat that was stalking the party for a while. It had illusion powers and few hitpoints. It got practically one-shot by the fighter, so I had it die just like that.

    What a let-down for the party! Apparently they had been terrified out of their wits of this *thing* that had been following them, and it had folded. I’ve been feeling bad bout that for a while. I wish I could do it on purpose, not just by accident!

    • It’s a great story – I love it when something small and insignificant becomes a major part of the story.

      I do need a clarification – Which part would you like to do on purpose?

  • Oh, cool. That first comment was me! Enjoyed this read, it’s the topic that Witchburner has prompted me to reflect on most.

    • Oh, thank you! I hope you permit me to keep the comment up.

      It’s funny how _every single time_ it’s somebody other than me that has a better summary of what I actually write. I never really understood the woods and the trees thing, but now it becomes much clearer. Or murkier. 😉

  • “can ‘quests’ be wrong, false, or impossible?
    can the players actually trust the world they are playing in to be the same world for all of them?”

    Interesting. I wrote a review back in October that I forgot to publish (sorry!) Coming back to it I found that I had some questions over these very issues. Having written my review I went looking for you online and found this entry, bringing up one of the very issues I had.

    Congratulations on doing something new under the sun! It’s easy to be ham-fisted with orc babies, but much harder to do something with nuance. The Adventure As Theater, or whatever this is, is an interesting question. It’s a good adventure in spite of that troubling question.

    • I think they absolutely can be – but it comes to a distinction between referee (game master) and questgiver-as-NPC.

      If I was telling my players in my role as their host and game master, “I want to run a game where you are noble knights hunting an evil dragon,” and then switched it around, “ooooh, the dragon is actually good and you’re in the service of Lord Albertkerk, the Bearcubeater, that’d be a little bit rough.

      But, if I announce it as a game of noble knights hunting dread monsters, and then present the specific quest while playing the role of Lord Albertkerk, “Ah, hum, yes, you seem noble! Well-caparisoned! So shiny, yes. Shiny things are good things, you will agree. Isn’t that right, priest Albuminus? Yes? Anyhow, we have a dread dragon, ho hum. Killing the just-about-managing peasants and such. Will you slay it for us? I will give you each a sack of sapphires and your leader the hand of the spring princess. Hum. Yes?” Well, in that case the quest is presented by a character – and we all know the stories and real-life people who ask us to do unsavory things under the pretense of tradition or greed or plain deceit.

      Thank you for the nice comment, Bryce!

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