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Reviews: Quintessential Witch
 
by Joe G. Kushner


Quintessential Witch coverThe Quintessential Witch
Written by Robert J. Schwalb
Published by Mongoose Publishing
128 b & w pages
$19.95

The Quintessential books have become a staple of the fantasy D20 system. Each book in the series covers a standard race or class from the core D&D rules. The Quintessential Witch departs from the formula of covering races and classes already in the Players Handbook by introducing a "new" core class, the Witch.

For a core class, the Witch isn't bad. It's not my idea of a witch though. For example, while these characters are similar to clerics and druids in that they are divine spellcasters, they use a "Book of Shadows" to select their spells, much like a wizard would. They don’t get a full d8 hit die like other divine spellcasters, but get a d6. Unlike divine spellcasters, they have a much more damaging variety of damaging spells. Fireball anyone? Lightning bolt? How about Prismatic Spray? That's why it's not my idea of a witch. However, in terms of competitive power among the core classes, Mongoose's Witch can hold her own.

In addition to the spells, a Witch gains a familiar as a sorcerer or wizard, bonus feats for item creation, wild shape, alter shelf, and other goodies to further flesh out the class. These abilities are more in keeping with what I think is a witch and provide abilities all the way up to 20th level, providing a solid reason for staying in the core class.

Tasting the Brew
Because the Witch is a new core class, and we have to be introduced to the core class before any added concepts, the character concepts come later in the book. For those who don't know what a character concept is, think of it as a character kit from 2nd edition: a titled idea (Envoy, Black Witch, etc) that has background ideas, adventuring reasons, role-playing notes, bonuses and penalties. These little add-ons are all right in and of themselves, but stacked with prestige classes and other bonuses, they may overbalance a character with 'kewl' abilities. The Black Witch can cast spells from the evil domain, and her familiar gains the fiendish template; in exchange, she must be evil, lose some minor abilities and spend gold to gain their book of shadows. It's an okay trade off, but some GMs may already be nodding their heads at the dreaded specter of game imbalance.

Those looking for ways to further customize their new characters will enjoy the Prestige Witch section. However, one problem I had with the section was that too many of the PrCs have some Witch requirement like being able to cast witch spells or have witch abilities. It rubs against the grain of having PrCs that most core classes can fit into. In addition, all of the PrCs here are five level. I don't have a problem with one or two five level PrCs, but all of 'em? I'd like at least one or two to be a ten level PrC.

The good news is that it hits most of the typical witch archetypes: Diabolist, a master of naming magic; gypsy matron; medium; vamp; and witch doctor. For the non-standard types, you've got the Avenger, a wronged witch who gains powers to hunt down her foes; the Caller to the Veil, powered by fiendish outsiders; the Occultist, a master of magic who seeks the unknown; the Patron of the Five Spirits, a master of elemental forces that actually compose the "god and goddess" of witches; the priestess of the Divine, a religious focused witch; and the Puppet Mistress, a master manipulator. Almost out of place, the Witch Hunter rounds things up, obviously a PrC that hunts down witches. I was a little disappointed to see the Puppet Mistress, because Mongoose covered a very similar PrC in Enchantment: Fire in the Mind.

If you're looking to take advantage of the Witch's skills, you'll enjoy the "Tricks of the Trade" section. There are several new rules for alchemy, craft, herbalist and fortune teller to add depth and atmosphere. Difficulty Classes (DCs) are listed for ideas like crafting heirlooms, ritual swords, identifying potions. Use the knowledge skill chiromancy to unveil the secrets a person has hidden about them. Another important part of this section is using Tarot cards for divination purposes. A brief definition of what the various cards do is provided, but I'd probably buy a regular deck and check the instructions there. It can only add to the atmosphere, right?

So outside of character concepts and PrCs, what can you do to customize your character? Feats, of course. Here we've got a new type of feat, the Witch Feat, as well as general feats for use by all classes. The bad news is that there are feats like Focused and Green Thumb that follow the dreaded two skills at +2. Ooo, a +2 bonus on two related skills, yeah, that's worth a feat. Other feats help add power to the class in an appropriate manner, like Tap Monolith, a high level feat that allows a witch to use monoliths to augment their abilities. Another good one is Seasonal Magic, where witches gain extra power during certain times of the year. Things like this help showcase the "natural" feel of the witch and are useful for almost any type of witch core class. Phases of the moon, solar eclipses, and other special events further augment Witch magic.

Now in most games, a class isn't just its root abilities. Each class has many functions outside it's core functions, like magic items, alchemy use, churches, and other support. Much of this subject is covered in the "Tools of the Trade" chapter. Here, we get a variety of herbs with lots of different uses for them. Many herbs have a magical potential that can be awakened by using the Augment Herb feat or by making herbalist skill checks. This section is well illustrated and includes a ton of useful goods.

The bad news is that we've seen at least two other sourcebooks with similar material with rules that encompassed a bit more than just the witch. For those wondering, I'm talking about the Atlas Games hardcover, Occult Lore and Bastion Press' Alchemy & Herbalism. Still, it's nice to have more illustrations of adder's tongue, belladonna, hemlock, elderberry and other herbs to add more visual impact and optional rules.

In addition to herbs, there are new mundane items including some weapons. How about a rapier-like witch sword? How about the horned helmet, used in various rituals, or a sundial to keep track of time for important events? Full stats are provided for the weapons, including damage, critical modifier, range and weight. This section was well done, as it provides a lot of mundane gear like the book of shadows, censers, decks, cauldrons, crystal spheres and other important "witch" items.

The section titled "A Book of Shadows" focuses on new witch spells with a further look at why witches can cast arcane and divine spells. Would you believe it's because the divine side is the female, nurturing side and the arcane are the male, destructive side? I found this a lame excuse to power up the class. We've seen numerous instances in the past where divine spellcasters, through domain spells for example, can cast arcane spells. A different take would have appealed to me more.

The spells help round out the witch and make her a unique spell caster. Unfortunately, there are no notes on which spells, if any, are for general purpose. For example, is Call the Restless Soul, a 7th level conjuration spell, a divine spell or arcane spell? It's not listed as "Witch 7" as some of the other spells are, so it's difficult to say.

The section on Rites and Ceremonies provides simple methods to add more atmosphere to the game. For example, the ritual to create items allows a witch to sacrifice experience points for gold costs (up to half the costs) and share that experience loss among those who participate in the ritual. You can also heighten spells, use ceremonies to gain unique powers briefly, and even summon demons. This was a brief section that can be meshed with other systems easily.

For those who found the mundane items unappealing, the magic item section provides new goodies for almost every category. Want new magic weapon properties? How about Witch Blight, where spell users suffer an additional 2d6 points of damage? How about the Faerie Sword, a powerful witch blade that sets the target aflame? How about the Staff of Change where you can do anything from polymorph self to reinarnate? Yeah, lots of good stuff here for the Witch and all other casters. Heck, they even get their own version of the Staff of the Magi in the form of the Witch Staff, with Mass Polymorph, Fly, Haste, and Hold Person being some of the spells castable from it.

Now at this point, you may be wondering what else the author could throw at you. How about "Places of Power"? In these areas, a witch's magic is easier to use as they can make use of ley lines and other attributes usually associated with Rifts. How about Ley Knots and Nexuses? Yeah, they're in here. The rules provided give you benefits and possible locations. There's also a sample location, all of which makes the chapter of great use to a witchly campaign. At least one that doesn't already have the rules from Occult Lore in use.

Those wondering what sort of organization a witch belongs to have the Coven to read about. This section provides the GM with tools to build his own Covens to train new characters, or to add another layer of enemies to his campaign. Players wishing to lead such an organization can take the Coven feat, which replaces Leadership for the Witch. There is a special coven listed as well, the High Secret Order. Lead by the Forgiving One, The High Secret Order is made up of witches who've mastered their craft beyond the levels of their peers. The material here includes guidelines for building covensteads and meeting places, as well as quick construction rules. In addition, there are guardians called the Cowan, a template applied to protectors of the coven who aren't actually members.

The tools to help further digest the book include a two-page index, a four-page rule summary, and a four-page character sheet. These are all quite useful for time-pressed individuals, as GMs often are.

The book is laid out in standard two-column format. There's a ton of art in the book, some of it great and done by new artists to the Mongoose stables, and some of it pretty terrible. Most depict women just standing around, looking witchy. Some are showing their breasts, which to me is pointless, but hey, Mongoose knows what they're doing as this is the eight book in the series.

Conclusions
The real problem with the book is this: it's out about a year too late for me. How many core class witches do we need? How many five level PrCs do we need? How about rules for herbs and rituals? A year ago this would've been a great rules expansion but there have been so many books on the subject (Occult Lore, Relics & Rituals 1 & 2, Herbalism and Alchemist), some of them handling different aspects much better, that the whole value of the book is undermined.

The book talks about how the Witch character class is a divine spellcaster who gains their power from the dual force of the "god and goddess." It also uses a lot of wiccan references and seems almost new age in some areas. I didn’t much like the whole god and goddess aspect, which seems like a cop out. Either go with an all natural thing, like a druid or a cleric worshipping a force, or name the god and goddess and drop the wiccan references.

If Mongoose had reduced the artwork, removed the extras, ditched the herb and rituals rules and made this a 64 page Encylopaedia Divine, it'd be a winner. However, with so much competition out there that's ranges from okay to good, this book doesn't stand out from the crowd enough. Add in the fact that some of the material seems like filler and you've got an okay product that has a lot of solid competition.

Consumers have a decision to make, as there are currently three books on the Witch. Green Ronin has the Witch’s Handbook, excellent but a little short. Citizen Games has the Way of the Witch, a book we hope to review here shortly. Mongoose has the Quintessential Witch, a fully supported character class with lots of options ranging from feats, skills, items to PrCs, ceremonies and rituals. Personally, I'd go with the GR's Witch's Handbook, shorter but with a stronger focus and better Prestige Classes, spells, art, layout, and rituals. However, those who’ve enjoyed the Quintessential series and the ideas within it, like the Character Concepts, will find this to be another strong book in the series.

REVIEWER'S NOTE: My list above doesn't include the Witch alternative class in the Dungeon Master's Guide nor the Witch from the setting The Hunt, Rise of Evil. So you've now got five witches to choose from.
 

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