Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Something Wicked This Way Comes…

I’ve been thinking a bit about witches this morning, due in no small part to Helena Bonham Carter’s excellent turn as Bellatrix Lestrange in the Hairy Bottom films…I’ve been a fan of her neurotic character portrayals ever since Room With A View, but Bellatrix certainly has that Goth-rocker chick look that is so fetching even as it is ruthlessly malevolent. In other words, Carter makes an excellent witch.

[side note: is every British actor with some name recognition going to make an appearance in the Potter films? I mean really…about the only ones they’re missing are Ian McKellen (Gandalf) and Julian Sands (Warlock), which I suppose is understandable. I fully expect Jeremy Irons and Hellen Mirren to show up in the last installment…though of course Irons already played a wizard in that stinky Dungeons & Dragons movie, so I suppose he’s out, too. Boy THAT’s worth a post of its own!]

So, anyway, witches…where the hell are they? In D&D, I mean.

Now of course I refer to pre-D20 editions; I’m sure there are at least a half-dozen “witches” with various adjectives attached to their names (“blood witch,” “bog witch,” “sand witch,” etc.) floating around the various D20 tomes. But in earlier editions we find REFERENCES to witches without any actual witches!

To me this appears to be an over-sight…the question is was it deliberate or not? Oh sure, you might simply assume a witch is a “female magic-user” or even an “EVIL female magic-user,” but nowhere in the description of magic-users do I find any reference to witches. Moldvay’s basic set names Merlin the Magician as an example magic-user, but that guy was a wizard not a witch.

Um…at least I distinguish wizards and witches as two different things. With all due respect to Hairy Bottom fans, I grew up thinking the male witch was a “warlock” not a wizard; I owe this more to watching many, many syndicated episodes of Bewitched as a child, not D&D.

Though I DO note that the 6th level magic-user title in the Cook/Marsh expert set is Warlock/Witch (Cook and Marsh must have watched Bewitched, too). Of course, this is the only place I find where witch is mentioned as a level title for magic-user (2nd edition has none, OD&D and AD&D don’t use it, and BECMI leaves off all female level titles…apparently women had stopped playing D&D by the time Mentzer released his rule set; such a shame).

Not that it makes a lot of sense for a 6th level magic-user to be a “witch” anyway. In fairy tales and folklore (AND J.K. Rowling books!) witches are especially known for their ability to transform others and themselves (you know, princes into frogs or changing themselves into dragons). Certainly you’d think a magic-user would need to master the polymorph spell (at least one of them) prior to taking up the title of “witch.” But polymorph (self or other) is a 4th level spell…and magic-users don’t gain access to 4th level spells until the 7th level.

Hmm…this reminds me that I never did overhaul the magic-user level titles, as I did with both the cleric and the fighter. I’ll have to get back to this one day.

So, sure…one could say a “witch” in D&D (at least according to Cook/Marsh) is a 6th level magic-user. But I don’t think this is the best way to consider the class. After all, the witch is generally treated as a “monster” in the text of these early editions. Let’s look at the mentions of witches throughout D&D:

In OD&D we have no mention of the witch as a magic-user (in descriptive text or level titles); we DO see an illustration of a “beautiful witch” along with an “Amazon” (in LBB 3, I believe). Throughout most of the LBBs, these illustrations represent creatures on the monster list, though no witch is listed in LBB2, even as a suggested possible monster (at the end where they write about the possibility of robots and gelatinous cubes).

In Holmes D&D they mention that male characters with a high Charisma can escape transformation and be retained as a love slave; this is in the same paragraph where it is cited that female characters with a high charisma will be kept captive instead of be eaten by dragons (see? Dragon = Witch, i.e. monster).

In Moldvay’s Basic book we find references to Morgan Le Fay and Circe the Sorceress (classic antagonists) but no witches. I can’t help but think that if the polymorph spell had been present in the Basic set, Moldvay would have created a monster type called a “Witch” that used it. After all, Moldvay gave us the HD 2 Noble, the HD 1+1 Berserker, the HD 1 Bandit, and the ever esteemed Normal Man monsters. He seemed to have a good handle on not needing a particular type of human to equate with a particular class/level.

The Cook/Marsh Expert set DOES have polymorph, and even references a save versus polymorph (of which there is none in B/X, unlike AD&D).

AD&D…well, the Monster Manual DOES have Night Hags and Sea Hags, and I have always found “hag,” “crone,” and “witch” all to be interchangeable when it comes to fairy tales and folklore…take a look at Baba Yaga, for example. And speaking of Baba Yaga, her hut is also present in the DMG, though I don’t remember if it mentions her as being a hag (it might even refer to her as an arch-mage! I’ll have to check my DMG later…).

2nd edition AD&D of course has NO BALLS when it comes to anything that smacks of Satan, witchcraft, or El Diablo. However, the VERY interesting Return to White Plume Mountain, DOES include “the Witch Thingizzard” as a MONSTER, not a character class and is the closest thing to what I’m looking for.

In fact, I had both Night Hag and Sea Hag scheduled to go into my B/X Companion, and instead of making them knock-offs of the AD&D/BECMI versions, I may just make them knock-offs of Thingizzard and throw ‘em all under the “Crone/Hag/Witch” category (without designation of “Sea” or “Night” variety)! I think the rich, literary history of the wicked witch deserves a decent D&D monster, rather than a Vancian spell-slinger.

By the way: all apologies to the Wiccan community. I’ve known many Wiccans and self-professed Witches (who considered themselves different from the former), and all were fine upstanding folks with no Satanic human sacrifice or devil worship anywhere to be found (though the “witches” were raging alcoholics…). In the 21st century I’d guess that most folks would back away from the idea of witches as monsters so as not to offend followers of the Wiccan religion (well, except Kevin Siembieda), but for a pulpy game like D&D I think it is appropriate to have some corrupted individuals of the Brothers Grimm variety present. As I said…all apologies. I will probably NOT use the term "Crone" in my B/X Companion as I realize this is a sacred part of the life cycle in Wiccan tradition ("the wise grandma") and should not be correlated to the derogatory term “hag.”


  1. There were a few articles on Witches in old issues of Dragon magazine. And I do mean "olllllld". I have them compiled somewhere as I did some research into the Witch as a playable class, and also for some reference I used to make a very enchantment-heavy Bard in DDO (the 3.5-ish D&D MMO).

    The Bard was chosen as the main class in that game for my "Witch", as I found in those articles the ability of the witch to "fascinate" along with many charms, and such as spells. I was going to make her just a 1Bard/xWizard, but kept her pure Bard, focusing on the enchantment school or whatever it's called in 3.5...ha!

    I'll find the Dragon articles/issues for you and post it here if no one else does. You'll dig the articles, I'm sure.

  2. Okie, that didn't take long...

    Here's a post on the Trollsmyth blog where I commented in a similar fashion regarding the Witch in D&D. Trollsmyth was discussing Witches in that post. It's a very good post, you may wish to check it out.

    Here's an excerpt on the actual Dragon issues:

    Dragon #20
    Dragon #43
    Dragon #114

    I have a couple of these and at least on of the articles was in one of the "Best of Dragon" collections (IIRC) from the 80's too. I also have them on PDF, that I could snag the articles for ya, if ya want them.

    Either way, I think you'd dig these articles, as they are (mostly) from the Moldvay/Cook era, so it should line up pretty nice.

  3. Those articles in Dragon magazine provided fuel for one of the most memorable antagonists in our long running AD&D game back in high school / early university.

    I don't recall her name off hand, but I do remember raiding her demesne...chasing her through her hovel (which, like Baba Yaga's, was larger inside than it initially appeared.) and coming across some very disturbing rooms. One of the coolest aspects was the way she utilized a lot of "ordinary" objects as power foci. Black candles, a copper bowl and pestle, even a broom propped up by the fire place...

    Witches are friggin wicked cool. (pun intended.)

  4. Thanks for the posts and the links. I may actually have A witch in one of my "Best Of" Dragons at home (I'll have to check it out later).

    Trollsmyth's class is cool, though more of the Wiccan (druidic) polymorph on the spell list! I'm looking for something even OLDER school, I'm afraid. The Hansel & Gretel variety.
    : )

  5. There was a 2E Witch/Warlock kit in the Complete Wizard's Handbook.

    I've always equated Druids with Witches. And the modern Wicca movement borrows somewhat (some may say heavily) from English and French folk magic like Druidism.

    Then again I've always thought Druids should be Chaotic and Clerics / Paladins Lawful, in the vein of Poul Anderson's work (The Broken Sword, Three Hearts and Three Lions).

  6. My two cents? Political Correctness be damned!

    People will get offended by mostly everythng these days so we'd better use what terms we damn well please to refer to whatever the heck we want.

    Btw, any chance you could hook me up with any of those "raging alcoholic witches"? ;)

  7. Um...they were both male (not sure if that makes a difference to you) and both are married at this time. Sorry, Eds.