*** With sincere apologies to Fiona and Jarrett, I somehow wound up with both the final Patreon edition and the so-called “Halloween Edition” of this PDF open at the same time, and therefore lacked a credit page giving their hard work its proper due. Despite the vague notion of Fiona working on the project in that capacity, I went live while half-asleep with this outdated info. That’s my mistake, and I have now corrected the credits for their contributions. Witchburner in its final incarnation is also published by the lovely folks at Hydra Cooperative. ***
Luka Rejec is one of the most productive, consistently excellent creators in the tabletop role-playing game space. It’s not even really up for debate. Rarely can you say such a conclusive thing in a hobby full of subjective interests and preferences, but here we are. Time and time again Luka puts out unique, expressive, imaginative things, immaculately laid out, full of instantly recognizable art filled with fantasy and vision and cool takes on mechanics or theme or tone. His “day job” books win awards and accolades, but the stunning value of stuff he gives away for free or essentially pennies is an incredibly high bar for others to attempt to reach. Witchburner is one such thing, an awesome and very unique take on witchcraft and investigation, constructed before our very eyes over on his Patreon.
Reviewing Luka’s work is difficult for me in some ways, as I have a hard time being strictly objective. At the very least, I have a hard time appearing strictly objective. I happily support his Patreon. His kindness and accessibility makes it hard not to befriend him, and I am a definite fan of his work. I reviewed his design work on Frostbitten & Mutilated very highly. Luka’s output is easy to enjoy. It is never pretentious, it is always immediately useful, it is always extremely imaginative. His writing and his art both hit the right notes for me as a consumer and gamer. Luka’s writing is clear and concise. He draws inspiration from sources and subjects that interest me. Things like UVG and Witchburner are absolutely the sort of things I’d want to hunt down and buy in a store regardless of who made it. Similarly, Luka’s art is exactly what I like – unique, stylized, colorful, with influences that I find extremely inspiring myself. It continuously improves and grows.
All of this is really just to say that Luka is probably pound-for-pound my favorite creator in the industry today, for very good reason. That said, I pay him for his work just the same as everyone else out there buying books and subscribing to Patreons, and I view his work just as critically as I view anyone else’s work. I’ll do the same here. On with the show!
As is always the case, I somehow start by talking about the art and the layout. Luka’s artwork is absolutely on point for this book. It has the feel of a foreboding central European storybook that was banned by an authoritarian government for lending too much credence to the old ways. It is perfectly suited to the adventure, and successfully conveys the small, claustrophobic feeling of a small rural town with the threat of winter closing in on the horizon. Without being too reductive, it is hard not to feel like Luka’s upbringing in Europe and his travels around the world have had an important influence on his style that perfectly suits these personal projects he works on currently. He has posted on G+ from time to time about his experiences visiting family in towns as old as the hills they inhabit and it’s impossible (for me at least) to imagine a world in which that very personal, grounded experience doesn’t imbue the art he made for this project with a certain sensation of authenticity. The title page alone feels like a real, lived-in sort of vista.
For layout, Luka went very simply here. Most of the book is a two-column setup. Each piece of mechanical information critical to running the game is given its own page; the more complex sections have their own indices to guide you (such as through the numerous NPCs). Some blocks of text feel a little dense, but the book as a whole has plenty of room to breathe for the most part. Art is front-loaded, with the latter two-thirds of the book being text-heavy reference in digestible chunks very suitable for table use. I think my only real annoyance is incredibly petty – the e in the Witchburner title font is dreadful to me, and the c isn’t far behind.
What is Witchburner, exactly? Well, in Witchburner, the players take on the mantle of inquisitors seeking an end to the various mysterious and menacing plagues befalling a town full of superstitious alcoholics. Witchburner is an investigative, social role-playing module for a party of characters accepting a beleaguered mayor’s offer of cash for results in the face of scary omens of dangerous witchcraft. Mechanically, it is system-agnostic; it works with the common OSR systems and also with 5E without any issue whatsoever. You could play this with just about any system under the sun, so if you’re running GURPS these days (or something more sinister) this module will work absolutely fine; at worst you’ll have to reconfigure like five stat blocks to your system of choice and only in the event everything goes pear-shaped. The mechanics it leans on are native to Luka’s work, detailed in the module, and deal primarily with the passage of time and the attitudes of the NPC townsfolk; these impact the collection of leads upon which the players will make actionable decisions as Witchburners.
Luka provides several toolkits for tracking time and attitude, with various elements tied to these major concepts. The townsfolk use liquor to bridge camaraderie; interacting with people with or without sharing a drink changes their demeanor, but drinking of course intoxicates player characters; time is of the essence and a strict deadline is imposed, but choosing not to sleep in order to gather more clues and talk to more NPCs carries its own dangers and penalties. Lastly, the choices the players make throughout the investigation reverberate amongst the townsfolk, and should they upset too many of the villagers, they must face the justice of the mob. Luka also provides a cogent system to get answers from townsfolk, should desperate players resort to torture; this system works even if the DM chooses to fade to black on the scene to spare the table the details of the awful ordeal if the group is uncomfortable with such actions.
In addition to the social systems, Luka also of course includes stat blocks for conceivable threats should the players run afoul of people or creatures. We also get random encounter tables should the players have cause to wander the surrounding countryside. But most importantly of all, we get thirty very useful detailed townsfolk, including their secrets, their personalities, their assets and holdings, and their relationships with others in the town. We get also a list of calamitous portents which befall the town as the witchburners seek clues to the identity of the witch, and a calendar of sorts which makes maintaining a coherent atmosphere day-to-day very simple for the DM.
Witchburner is a very atmospheric game which holds a lot of cards behind the scenes that could very dramatically change how the player characters see the world and themselves. It’s an engrossing adventure where players very quickly end up more and more curious and tense. The deadline weighs heavily upon players and they end up visibly concerned as the end draws near, trying to piece together the threads of information they’ve come across in the village, seeking the answer to the identity of the witch. Players who are not usually copious note-takers will inevitably find themselves playing frantic catch up, doodling flowcharts between NPCs, trying to connect the dots. It’s not that the threads are complex, it’s just that they’re actually important (or, in the case of some, just seem that way!)
Running it to this effect is made very easy. The information is made easy to access within the approximately 55 pages of game reference material in this 66-page PDF (based on the Patreon edition). The single caveat to this is that the DM absolutely must read the book first, to get a feel for the characters and their connections in advance. Usually, I would be hesitant about such a thing just on principle, but the actual amount of prep required is essentially zero beyond very straight-forward reading for familiarity; at the table, reference is made easy by the simple layout. Worst case for prep: find an appropriate number of NPC portraits if your group is the type to need a visual reminder of a character so they can put a face to a name. It can be prepared for in the time it takes to read the NPC profiles and learn the time management gimmick, and run to great results with such limited input.
With all of that said, what do we know about Witchburner? It’s easy to prep for, enjoyable to read and look at, and easy to run. It offloads a lot of the bookkeeping to the players very easily and as a DM it is uniquely fun to watch the anxiety and pressure and fear set in on your group’s face as they struggle to assemble their notes and do so in a timely fashion before the deadline is complete. It makes for a fantastic interlude between dungeon crawls; it fleshes out your world by making any small town locally important for awhile, and is extremely easy to fit into an existing campaign. The mechanics given to us by Luka in this module are super useful to keep and reuse in other situations, and are worth the purchase all by themselves.
Rating System Changes:
Update 20 Mar 2019: A new n/10 rating system has been instituted to more clearly express my feelings. The legacy n/5 system was always supposed to represent the top half of the n/10 system as I really only review books I really enjoyed in the first place (so they’d all be 6/10 or better) but under that n/5 system, a 1/5 is actually still a very good book, but this is not clear to casual observers. For this reason, the new n/10 system is being used going forward, and is being ported backwards to old reviews. The corrected n/10 value for this review is immediately below this update text. Following that, the original review text is unaltered. A detailed post on this subject is forthcoming.
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows:
To sum up my feelings on this module: it gets an easy five fear-paralyzed marsupials out of five. It sets out to be a tense, atmospheric social adventure with a structured, open-ended investigation in the fantasy equivalent of a small, superstitious central European town. Very importantly, it achieves exactly that, and it does so with excellent artistic accompaniment in that immediately identifiable Luka Rejec style.
Witchburner is on sale at the time of this writing for 24% off. This is a good chance to add Witchburner to your collection on the cheap; mastering Rejec’s phenomenal time and social systems can pay dividends elsewhere in your gaming and add great dimension to all kinds of role-playing situations. Luka, barbaric savage that he is, doesn’t understand bribery, and refused to pay me for this plug. This is purely a gesture of goodwill to any of my readers who want to cop this module for themselves.
As always, hit me up on Twitter @dungeonspossums or below in the comments. I would be especially interested to hear from anyone else out there who has run Witchburner! Did your group also start taking very anxious notes? Did they fear the deadline and the whim of the mob? How sleep-deprived and drunk were the player characters for the majority of your Witchburner adventure? Just don’t spoil it for anyone out there who hasn’t played it for themselves!