2020-05-16 Witches

Very slowly I’ve been adding old monster posts from Google+ to this site... Recently I’ve been thinking about witches. In the Just Halberds campaign I’m running I use a 300 hex mini-setting generated by Hex Describe. On a whim I decided to count how many witches it placed in the area. Ten witches! And I recently added one due to a random encounter, so now there’s 11 witches in the setting.

What’s their story?

Time to daydream about witches.

Witches can cast spells. But which ones?

They are probably impossibly old, maybe immortal. They probably look shrivelled and old and yet their powers of illusion are such that they are always covered in a glamour that makes them look beautiful and young if they feel this is to their advantage.

I like the image of the three witches at the beginning of Macbeth. For some background, see The Relationship Between Macbeth and the Witches.

I love the short flicker of Thranduil’s face in The Hobbit movie where for a moment the glamour breaks down and we see that his spotless face is in fact scarred by a thousand years of battles.

I hate all the Malleus Maleficarum cruelties. So I don’t want the exploitation of women, the false accusations, the torture, the burning at the stake. Ugh! Not at my table. I hate this stuff.

I like the sexual aspects. In my games, the witches usually live in swamps and charm males of all sorts in order to get pregnant and they use language such as “stealing your child” as if the children the give birth to would have rightfully belonged elsewhere. It touches upon faith and promiscuity and fatherhood, and I like that.

Recently that happened to a friend’s player character. The kids roared with laughter and all mentions of witches, swamps, children, etc were full of innuendo. It was fun. But later, we also had a talk about certain uses of the charm spell being worse than knockout pills. They agreed and it’s decided now: charming people to force them to do stuff is evil.

I also like the Hänsel und Gretel aspect of a witch entrapping travellers and runaways, possibly enslaving or killing them. That is a terrible thing, to prey on the helpless, to be beset by a magic wielding monster when you’re most desperately in need of help.

So witches can be sexy, but also creepy and cruel, can be kind, but also evil.

And what about the children? I’m thinking about the matriarchal Asari species in Mass Effect: they have relationships with men of all species but don’t really need them. All their children are women. So now we can a bit of a Jedi or Sith vibe: witches may have a daughter in the house. They have a master-apprentice relationship.

What happens to the baby boys? Surely they exist. They are killed. Or abandoned. Or given into foster care. They grow up quickly, wild, troubled, violent. Life is hard. It provides opportunities to talk about foster care, adoption, wanting to know your parents, having been abandoned by your parents, all the stories modelled on children being abandoned and being raised by farmers, from Moses to Superman.

A bit like changelings, except that in this case the real child is not taken and raised in the realm of faerie.

The magic witches wield is first and foremost the charm, using their voice to make people do their bidding. As I said above, it’s a mind fuck, a terrible violation, but maybe if you’re under the influence for many days and then you manage to run away into the swamp it all turns into a nightmare, a memory that haunts you, half forgotten. Until you meet your son.

Witches also use glamour, a kind of personal illusion to make their bodies and their homes beautiful and enticing and harmless.

The rest varies: there’s flying, certainly, with or without a broom; there are fertility and harvest related curses, infertility, miscarriages, crop failures, it’s all there.

I’m guessing witches are forced to divide and conquer as they can’t face a mob. There’s no sleep and no fireball.

There’s probably also weirdness, things they found or grew or transformed or animated: animate object and polymorph. How else are we going to get walking huts on giant chicken legs and other such homes? How else are we going to turn sailors into swine?

That reminds me of Circe. I like her.

That’s my daydreaming for today. What are you daydreaming about?



I like the idea of witches being a sort of medieval conspiracy. Wide-reaching witch organizations has been a plot point in a few comics I’ve read recently (Hellboy and Head Lopper), and it reminds me of Dolmenwood, both the actual witches and the secretive (but more conventionally druidic) Drune. It fits with a lot of the typical traits of witches: covens, sisterhood and motherhood, secrecy, informal alliances and relationships, all stuff that’s interesting to talk about and use.

It does veer into the more uncomfortable witchhunter territory you mentioned wanting to avoid, but I also like the idea of many witches being “secret”. They may not have or even want any magic, or not much more than some simple tricks, but people who are a part of their formal or informal network might share information in return for help or just to be a part of something exciting. Which also fits with the idea of witches being manipulators and illusionists: why risk someone passing their charm save when you could ask your contacts for things to blackmail them with?

I think witches are an underused villain in RPGs. There’s a tendency to delineate between social situations and adventure situations: you go to a dungeon and kill monsters, then go to town and socialize with potential allies and patrons. But a powerful witch probably has her own lair and all sorts of monsters and minions, but also a lot of political control: people who’ve gone to her for curses or charms and don’t want to see her gone, other witches who’ll support or avenge her, and settlements who are unwilling to risk antagonizing her and having their harvest cursed (having the party deal with an angry mob that doesn’t want them fighting the witch would make for an entertaining adventure, if you ask me). You can’t just talk your way past her or just kill her - or at least, you have to be careful about how you handle either approach.

Malcolm 2020-05-23 22:51 UTC

Definitely. I try and treat the temples of evil gods this way: sure, they’re evil, but sometimes somebody in power needs those services. At the Orcus temple, you can get a previous relative raised from the dead. At the Set temple, you can hire those assassins you need once in a generation. At the Nergal temple, you pray for deliverance from the plague. So witches that are useful are definitely something I should add.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-24 09:05 UTC

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