Myrmideon Press, 1996
What you get/need
Concept - 3In Witchcraft, players take on the roles of the Gifted, modern day people with mystical abilities who organize into Covenants and who must use their powers secretly and carefully, lest they face ridicule and destruction. Also inhabiting the world of Witchcraft are vampyres, ghosts, the typical "Horrors From Beyond"-type monsters, and other supernatural predators. This is an interesting setting concept, as it was the first time I played it, when it was called "Mage: the Ascension." This isn't an utterly fair comparison, however, for there are a number of subtle differences. For example, the Gifted aren't pitted against each other to as much an extent as WoD mages (the Covenants versus the Dark Covenants is about as divided as it gets), and the resident Technocracy-type organization (known here as the Combine) is actually more of an Illuminati-type secret society, populated by Mundanes (normal people, duh). There are also the servants of the alien, shocking, reality-warping Mad Gods (Call of Cthulhu, anyone?), who must be dealt with when the players aren't fighting vampyres, the Restless Dead, and Satanists. (Interestingly enough, unlike CoC, players in Witchcraft are often able to do something other than say "Well, that was interesting. Oh, boy, a new character sheet.") And then there is the upcoming Reckoning, which will probably remind players of Vampire's Gehenna or Werewolf's Apocalypse, even if it is slightly different in nature (for example, this is not the first Reckoning...other, lesser Reckonings occurred during times such as the extinction of the Dinosaurs and the Black Death).
In short, many gamers are not this discriminating, and WoD players (especially Mage players) will find the setting awfully familiar.
Character Creation - 4
Like the setting, Witchcraft's character creation system is serviceable, if unimpressive. It's another point system, with characters divided into Attributes, Skills, Qualities/Drawbacks (advantages/disadvantages), and, of course, Powers. Each character gets a certain number of non-transferable points for each category. By taking Drawbacks, players can get points to spend on anything else, not just Qualities. How many points a character gets depends on what type of character he is: choices are Gifted, Lesser Gifted, Mundane, and Bast. The Gifted, obviously, are the center of the game, and get the most points for powers, but are woefully lacking in the other areas (attributes range from 1-6, with 2 being average and 5 being the effective Mundane limit; Gifted Ones will barely have 3's in their Attributes without sacrificing some other vital quality). Mundanes get no powers, but are practically the cream of humanity in everything else (an average Mundane PC, before the inevitable min-maxing that comes of point systems, will have a 5 in one attribute and 4's in the rest, and seven or eight skills at a level described as "extremely competent"). A compromise between the two is the Lesser Gifted, who get more skill and attribute points than a Gifted One, but nowhere near as many powers. And then there are the Bast, feline shapeshifters who have served as allies and familiars of the Gifted since ancient times. They get points identical to the Gifted, except that they can also get Bast powers, and only High Bast (a Quality that must be bought with points) can actually assume human form, and even then only through the expenditure of Essence (which is a severe limitation). Essence, used to power/enhance most of Witchcraft's mystical abilities, is another thing that will seem familiar to Mage players, by the way.
One irritating point in the character creation system is that the rules don't elaborate on exactly how Drawback points can be spent, other than the vague suggestion that it's on a one-for-one basis. This means that no one who's paying attention is going to spend a Drawback point on a skill when that same point will buy another level of an attribute (effectively raising all the skills based on that attribute). This is an easy thing for munchkins and rules lawyers to notice, and it really should have been given more thought.
Playability - 5
Playability is where Witchcraft shines. Unlike the various World of Darkness games, the game mechanics here seem to be well-thought out. Task resolution is simple--a relevant attribute is paired to a relevant skill (or, when only an attribute is relevant, the attribute is simply doubled) and added to a d10 roll. If the result is 9 or more, the task succeeds. The more it exceeds 9, the better the success (and the success chart is easy to remember). Difficulty modifiers can add or subtract from the player's roll, and the modifiers are easily assessed (unlike in the WoD games, where the Storyteller is often left to guess whether a task complication should be implemented as a reduction to the player's dice pool, or as an increase in the target number for the roll). Combat and damage, the weak points of many systems, are also handled fairly smoothly. Instead of rolling handfuls of dice for damage (which is one of the worst aspects of the Storyteller engine, and still occasionally appears in such otherwise well-designed games as Fading Suns), one die is simply rolled and multiplied, with the number of sides on the die and the multiplier dependent on the weapon. Likewise with armor. An average roll for each die is provided, in the event that players want to cut down on the dice rolling.
The only major gripe I had with the system is that it can be tedious figuring the dice and multipliers for new weapons and armor. The multipliers for melee weapons are always some function of Strength, the type of die can be determined by comparing it to already existing weapons, but for armor and ranged weapons, these comforts don't exist. For those determined to add more types of guns or armor, I would suggest reading protection/damage levels as a range of results (for example, 1d8 x 4 becomes 4-32), estimating the range for the new armor or weapon, and comparing it to already existing ones.
Writing - 4
This first thing readers invariably notice about the Witchcraft book is that it seems to have been deliberately designed to infuriate the religious right, even more so than Kult (not that I count this as a bad thing at all). Not only is the name of the game "Witchcraft" (which is still the accepted Christian Nazi^H^H^H^H Coalition term for Satanism), but each and every page save for the copyright page, the table of contents, and the ad in the back features a pentagram. Even the character sheets. The pentagram measures a good 2.75 inches across when it isn't blocked by text boxes or other illustrations, so it's very noticeable. Those game-bashers who actually bother to read the book will probably be appalled at the game's mockery of their rituals and values--specifically, the game mentions such terms as "prayer" and "divine inspiration" (which is also a mystical power in this game) in the same breath as "coven," "magic," and "necromancy" (Necromancy, another category of mystical ability, concerns death-related powers that are inherently evil only if the user is). Obviously aware of this potential "problem" with the game, the author went to the trouble of writing the usual disclaimer, pointing out (rather elegantly, IMHO) that Wicca (the correct term for "witchcraft") practices are not related to Satanism, and similar points.
I can't help but to wonder why he bothered with the disclaimer. The few people who are still ignorant enough to believe that role-playing games are evil are not going to be swayed by any disclaimer any game designer cares to write. Judging from the disclaimer, the author is probably aware of this ("Finally, anybody who has problems distinguishing fantasy from reality and who thinks this or any other games depict actual occult practices should stay away from this and similar books. He should also stay away from television, books of all kinds, and most forms of mass media; in fact, he should not leave his home; you never know if a soft drink commercial will prompt him to jump off a tall building"). Still, while I don't understand why he felt the disclaimer necessary, I have to applaud his enthusiasm.
As far as the actual writing of the book goes, it is for the most part well-written, though some of the in-text stories aren't as evocative of the setting I pictured from reading the back cover as I would have liked. Still, this is a matter of taste. One point in favor of Witchcraft is that, though it lacks an index (only a minor flaw, since most of the things people will tend to look up in indexes are on the reference charts in the back anyway), it is concise and to the point, a magnitude more so than Mage: the Ascension. As a result of this, most people will not only get most of the system and setting (which is still reasonably complex, if not utterly original) down the day they buy it, but there is a reasonable chance they will come away with some idea of what the hell a Witchcraft adventure is supposed to look like. In fact, people who thought Mage: the Ascension was a promising idea, but was too convoluted and too full of metaphysical crap (and too much forced into the WoD mold) will probably love this game.
Unfortunately, Witchcraft's writing is marred by numerous typos and grammar errors. While I realize that this problem isn't unique to Witchcraft, nor is it, in this case, particularly severe, it is just another reminder that it's probably too much to ask for game companies to have at least one person proofread anything before it goes to the printers.
The other major flaw in Witchcraft's writing is..well, the setting itself. As you have probably noticed by now, Witchcraft wouldn't have suffered from a more original conception. This is a shame, because some of you Palladium and GURPS fans may recognize the author, C. J. Carella, who has written a number of books for both systems, including GURPS Voodoo: the Shadow War. I bring this up because Voodoo was another idea of modern-day mysticism and monsters that managed to be interesting and original. There were a number of concepts in Voodoo's setting that could have been easily included in Witchcraft without stretching anything. As is, Witchcraft is a competently done reconception of familiar ideas. Take it or leave it.
Highs - decent system, concise; will horrify Bible-thumpers
Lows - White Wolf purists will criticize it as being a knock-off of Mage: the Ascension
Final Call - Well executed, but nothing you probably haven't seen before. Still, I like it.