Bathtub Review: Witchburner

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

Witchburner is a seventy-seven page module, written, illustrate and laid out by Luka Rejec. It’s an entirely system agnostic adventure, hinging on investigation and social interaction rather than exploration and combat. I’d be remiss not to mention Luka’s art; it’s varies between exceptional and functional but it’s never bad and always supports the vibe, which is key for this particular, tragic module.

I’ve written before that I’m not a fan of block prose fiction in my roleplaying modules, and Luka falls into this pit consistently here and in other modules. Here, especially in the introductory pages, my primary problem is that it interferes with my eyes finding the information it wants to figure out how the adventure gets started. I’m impatient you see, I want to know the crux immediately. The intent, I think, is to read the first two sections, “The Town”, and “The Offer” at the table, a kind of ultimate setting of vibes for what is a grim module with challenging themes. You could definitely use the prose introduction here as a campaign pitch. But I’ve already bought the book, so I’m sold on the concept – please, start with the bang.

Luka then opens with addressing the elephant in the room: There are thirty characters in the town, any of which could be the witch, all of which have clues that point to them, and if the witch is not found, in thirty days a doom will come. This is complicated, and so Luka opens with a time tracker and an attitude tracker, and a bunch of pages of rules and tables to help navigate this complex space. There are only about four pages of rules, and about ten pages of additional tables and advice, but gosh it feels like a lot as you read it. On the other hand, with the caveat of photocopying a few handouts, I definitely think that this module is playable directly from the book. It’s designed to be, with success.

In terms of getting playing, the main barrier on the end of the GM is wrapping my head around the rules, how to bring the witch to trial, thresholds and things like that. For me, that required taking some notes and underlining some parts of the book. This is because the rules are very specific to the setting, so those rules are peppered with information about the world, and they get hidden by it to a degree. This I suspect would fade into the background once you’d played a few sessions and the players were bringing witches to trial, but for me, it’s a speed bump. At the player end, there’s a very clear single hook, but no right way (in fact, only wrong ways) to pursue finding the witch. A clue-like handout is provided to help the players puzzle things out. Getting buy-in is probably as simple as reading that introductory prose and saying “yes or no?”, and no further decisions need to be made. I like that a lot, compared to other good modules which have no clear on-ramp at all.

The Calamities is a calendar of everything that goes wrong over the month that the players are investigating the witch, and hence new clues that help or hinder the players in finding the witch. These are fun and illustrative and escalate nicely. It adds significant pressure, especially to the timekeeping. I’ll remark here upon the ambience and quality of Luka’s writing. I would be tempted to read directly from the text each new scene: “Sky like bruised peaches”, “throw salt and ash into the Whitewater to spare themselves from the witches flood”, “a love potion (barely works)”. In a module that really asks a lot of vibes, the writing elevates it immensely.

The meat of the module is the People of Bridge. Thirty people, an entire page each. I automatically see this and think, no way in hell am I going to be able to run this. But I think that in reading the entries (which include things like their home, household, family, friends, secrets, caves, treasures), it might be best to visualise this town as a dungeon consisting of thirty rooms, where you don’t need intimate familiarity with each room, but where each room contains a unique puzzle. It’s good to read over the whole dungeon beforehand – you need a grasp on the geography – but that’s enough.

The problem, though, is that Luka falls back into the prose pitfall here; for the Doctor’s Husband forever, of their three quarters of a page (the other quarter being illustration), one quarter is a prose introduction. I’m not going to want to read through that, and it doesn’t appear intended to be read-aloud text. Does it add something? Yes, it does. Maybe for someone other than me, it increases the memorability of the character, but for me, it wrenches me trying to dodge the prose as a run the character. I think different formatting decisions would have helped me here; Luka uses the colour red, italics and bolding, but not to the best effect for readability. Using red instead to identify key concepts (rather than the first few words of a page) to help me pick them out at the table, would go a long way in eliminating this problem.

Spoiler alert for this paragraph and the next.

If you’re planning on playing in Witchburner, don’t read this. I’m going to talk about what is probably the most controversial and tragic aspect of the module. As intended, there is no witch. All the calamities are coincidences; the town is safe and simply suffering bad luck; no member of the community is causing them. The clues all point no-where, but the members of the community are secretive and suspicious enough it will be easy for the players to find someone to accuse. There will be no boss battle against a powerful magic-wielder. Personally I love this, and I think it’s a brave and exciting choice that lays wide open the kind of heroic self-regard that most players have for themselves and their heroes, at least if it is ever revealed or discovered. However, I could see many players feeling played for a fool or that they had wasted their time, especially considering Witchburner is not a module to be played in a one-shot. Luka includes a ‘real witch’ scenario in an appendix for exactly this reason, which ameliorates the problem, but this might not be the right adventure for your table for another reason other than the vibes don’t fit. Something to consider before bringing this to your table. Using the optional “real witch” rules still gives your players the investigation, without the melancholic bite of tragedy and failure.

Finally, to follow on with further spoilers, one of my favourite things in this book is page seventy five, which talks about what happens next. This is clearly an afterthought: The body text states that you should make it up for your table. But this appendix speaks to the authors intent: If the players do most noble thing: “The aspects of law frown as the townspeople’s faith and fear dwindle…” and disaster strikes, “Perhaps it would have been better if the citizens stayed fearful of the Avatars and fed them with fear and superstitions?”. But, if they do find and burn someone as a witch: “The earthquakes end, proving the old gods are still satisfied with the witchburners.” These endings are just so juicy, reflective of a particular perspective on superstitious faith in a world with divine magic, and honestly should have gotten pride of place in the book.

Overall, Witchburner is as close to a perfect social module as I’ve read. The rules are a lot, but digestible and fit to purpose; the detail of the characters is essential and a replacement for detail in location; the vibes are impeccable. The significant caveat is that playing it as written is unlikely to be suitable for every table, both because of the complexity of the investigation, the potentially unsatisfying or tragic (depending on your perspective) conclusion, and the heaviness and melancholy of the vibe. But, if your table is happy to give away the combat for a few sessions and dip themselves into something dark and small-town political, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

23rd May, 2023

Idle Cartulary


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