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5 Tips for Playing Better Witches

A 'Pathfinder' RPG Guide

There are Powers beyond the world we know, beings who tread the spaces between the realms, and who exist in places known only to half-mad scholars. Mysterious and distant though they may be, there are those who reach out to these beings. Those who are bold or foolish enough to establish a conduit with one of these forces will find arcane power is theirs for the asking... "but at what cost?" ask those suspicious of the witch's strange knowledge and dark curses.

While it's true there are many ways to play a witch, this guide is meant to help you step outside the usual box this class falls into, and to get you thinking about what makes your witch particularly unique. To see other entries in this series, you can check out the master list at 5 Tips For Playing Better Base Classes. For more gaming articles from me, check out my Gamers archive right here on Vocal, as well as my blog Improved Initiative!

#1: What is your patron?

Speak not of the Master of The Skull Throne, for it draws his attention when you want it not.

The beings that grant witches their power are vague, and often unnamed... but surely the witch calls it something? While mechanically you know what area of influence your patron has power over, sit down and ask what your witch believes their patron is. Do they think it's a lost god? A totem spirit? The amalgamated force of a sentient plane? A lord of dreams? The personified idea of a natural force, like death, fire, entropy, or time? Any of those could work, but they're far from the only options you have.

Once you know what your witch thinks their patron is (whether that belief is accurate or not is also up to you), ask what they call them. Does their patron have a title? Does it have a true name they only use when communing with their familiar, or using powerful divination magic? Does it have a particular appearance? Or does it only reveal itself in dreams, or in vague portents, because the sight of it would drive someone mad? Or, perhaps, it cannot come to this realm, and must act expressly through its agents.

#2: What is your familiar?

"Samuel, I have a message from the Gray Lady. We have work to do, my friend."

Every witch has a familiar; they are both a companion animal and a spellbook all wrapped up in a single creep-dorable package. The familiar is the witch's line to their patron, and it is the connection their magic flows through.

Which is why you should take a moment and ask what that familiar is.

This isn't just a strictly mechanical question, either. Because while your familiar might be a cat, a goat, a rat, a fox, or something else off the acceptable animal list, your familiar should also play into your character's personal story.

For example, when you commune with your familiar, do you hear the voice of your patron? Did your familiar come after you had made a bargain with your patron, or did it show up first as a kind of representative of its master to make you a deal? Is your familiar a creature wearing the skin of an animal? And if it is, do you see occasional glimpses of the thing that lives inside of it? There are all kinds of possibilities, here.

#3: Why did it choose you?

You opened the book.

Just as witches may not know the truth of who or what their patron really is, they may not know why they were chosen by that patron to receive their power (something they have in common with warlocks in Dungeons and Dragons, as I mentioned in 5 Tips For Playing Better Warlocks). However, even if the witch doesn't know, you should.

The easiest and most straightforward example is a witch who reached out to a patron, and entreated it for power. This is textbook Faust, and it's perfectly serviceable as far as it goes if you like that setup. But it is far from the only way you can do things.

For example, say that your witch inherited their mantle from an older family member. Perhaps they inherited their familiar, as well. They may not know the details of the bargain that was struck, but their grandmother's old cat has assured them everything is fine. Perhaps it even sounds a bit like the old woman, in the witch's mind, as it slowly reveals new levels of spells, teaching the witch everything the old woman knew.

Alternatively, say someone made a bargain unthinkingly, or unknowingly. Lost in the wilderness, they swore service and fealty to whatever was listening for food or water. That was when a raven came, carrying a dead rabbit all ready to be cooked up. Then it led the lost wanderer to a pool of cool, fresh water. And after that day, the black birds always sought them out with warnings, cryptic messages, and the occasional deep-throated command to go and do their lord's bidding.

Whether it was a ritual they conducted, a strange inheritance, an unthinking word, a book they shouldn't have opened, or a crypt whose wards they broke, a witch might be made by almost anything. So ask how yours came into their power.

#4: How does this power affect you?

"I don't test urban legends anymore, that's for damn sure."

Being a witch is something that marks you, and changes you. Seeing the perspective of potent outsiders and catching glimpses of the skein of fate woven behind the world isn't something you can just shut your eyes to. But how does being a witch affect your particular character? Are they excited to learn more secrets, probing ever deeper into the bowels of the true reality? Are they constantly looking for a loophole, trying to escape the forces they've tied themselves to by living as a hermit in isolation? Do they believe they can bend their loaned power to their own whims, even if those whims don't serve the interests of their patron?

Becoming a witch can change you in small ways, as well as large ones. For instance, a witch might keep their gaze averted, or actively covered, in order to keep from casting a hex accidentally when angered. Alternatively, they might engage in strange, protective rituals to ward themselves from the threats that non-witches simply don't know about. They might feel compelled to seek out places where their connection to their patron is strong, such as a water witch living near a lake, or an entropy witch lurking in the crumbling areas of the city's ghettos. A witch might even feel bitter or cynical toward established gods, knowing that there are closer spirits who listen attentively that are all-too-happy to answer one's prayers... for a price.

#5: Who did you used to be?

When the World Was Young, and All My Bad Decisions Remained Unmade

Unless your character was born and raised by a coven (a potential backstory), chances are good they weren't always a witch. So who were they before they found themselves on this arcane path? And how did that decision change and mold who they became?

For instance, was your witch a priest whose faith broke when it was tested? When their god did not answer their prayers, did they find someone who would? Or was your witch a scholar, never able to master the traditional arts of the wizard, who sought a tutor from beyond? Now they know far more than they could have dreamed, even if they have yet to consider the wellspring from which this power flows. Your witch might have been a street urchin putting together bits and pieces of lore until they could find a way to seize power for themselves, and lift themselves out of the gutter. Or it's possible that someone in the nobility sought the forbidden for a thrill, for advantage, or just out of curiosity. Now the power of their name and line is augmented by finding a patron besides the king.

Witches command a great deal of power, but that is just one aspect of who they are. So ask what they want, how they reacted to becoming a witch, and most importantly ask how it changed them in terms of what they want, and what they're willing to do to get it.

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