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Witchbound: a playtest

A few weeks ago, I noticed an interesting game concept getting knocked around on twitter. The story pitch revolved around the first witch to gain magic power in generations. The art was whimsical and bright, and when combined with the plot description, I got the sense that I was looking at a lighthearted adventure.

What really stood out was the genre. I asked the developer (Dark Doll Games) for a little more information and they said it was a solo TTRPG. Upon further prodding, I found that the game wasn’t a journaling game or a dungeon building game. Witchbound is something different. It’s something special.

What’s it about?

The game developer invited me to give the game a playtest. It’s still in production, so they’re ironing out the kinks and details. At this point, my curiosity could’ve contended with that of any black cat, so I eagerly accepted. I met with Thatcher Cohen, the writer and head of Dark Dolls Games, on discord. He broke down the nature of the game in more detail.

The story opens on an island founded by witches, yet there hasn’t been a witch born in generations. Still, the magical legacy can be felt throughout the island in its shops and in the book’s artwork. Because your character’s parents are busy being famous adventurers, they end up staying with their kindly grandmother on this quaint little island.

Little does anyone suspect that magic still lives within the island…

The Playthrough

Cohen ran me through the tutorial portion of the game. He explained how the mechanics worked and ran the game for me. Typically, the player would just read the prompts straight out of the book, making this a solo, GM-less game. This being a play test, however, Cohen read the prompts and let me ask questions. He wanted to look for week points in the descriptions that would lead to misunderstandings.

As I ran through the tutorial, I found the whole system exceptionally easy to understand and play. It was incredibly intuitive, yet still engaging. As soon as I understood how the game worked, I wanted to explore. Which is exactly what you want from a story focused adventure game. You want to forget the rules are there because they become second nature. Then you can focus on the tale unraveling before you.

The Mechanics

This system is truly unique. The closest game genre to match Witchbound would have to be gamebooks.  There are major similarities to books like Loan Wolf, but it does not strictly fall into this category. We’re really getting something new and unique with this game.

Unlike other gamebooks, in Witchbound you move through an isometric map. Each map has numbers decoratively illustrated near points of interest. As a player, each of your actions has a numerical value. You then combine the number of the action you wish to take with the number near a point of interest. In the back of the book, a huge catalog of actions, conversations, and encounters corresponds to the numbers you can produce with your actions.

For example, you might see a number near a decorative bottle; lets say it’s 12.  And why don’t we assign 3 to the touch action? If you want to pic up the bottle, you combine 3 and 12. You then turn to the back of the book and fined 312 in the list of actions. There you might find something like, “You pick up the bottle, and when you do a cloud of smoke pours out and a genie appears.”

Everything you do in the book uses this system in some way. You’ll see a few variations when dealing with NPCs or challenges. For instance, when trying to perform an action that has a chance of failure, you use 6 sided dice to determine the outcome of your attempt, but you still find a numerical value and turn to the catalog in the back to see what happens.

Examples of the gamebook genre would be Loan Wolf, Choose Your Own Adventure, and the Fighting Fantasy books. These books look like a novel at first glance, but as you progress through the story, you find prompts and options. For instance, in the choose your own adventure book, a fork in the road may be described. Then you’ll be asked, “Decide, adventurer! Left or right? If you turn right, turn to page 566. If you turn left, turn to page 138.”

The Journey Begins

The adventure begins by waking up in the morning and putting on your pants!

Remember, this is a tutorial. The first scene accomplishes two things. It introduces you to the most basic aspects of the mechanics and sets the tone. I want to emphasize tone here. Witchbound offers a lighthearted and charming adventure. You’re not on a bloody mission for revenge. You’re not going to contend with wicked NPCs, and you can’t shoot your grandmother in the face with your slingshot…

During the playthrough, Cohen mentioned another play-tester once tried shooting the grandmother with a slingshot. The game mechanics have specific requirements for combat, so you can’t just run up to little old ladies and shoot them in the face. For that, I am very grateful.

This game gives off an old school J-RPG vibe. Think Zelda or the older Final Fantasy games from the 90s. After waking up, you go downstairs and talk to your grandmother. She gives you your first mission; buy flowers from the local florist. Once leaving your grandmother’s bakery/home, you enter a map with several small side quests. Along with a cast of NPCs, you find a town square filled with objects waiting to excite your curiosity.

Each NPC and side quest shows you new and different ways to interact with the world. It also sets the stage for future plot hooks. Cohen explained that completing one mission, finding a witch-hat for a little girl, could lead to a different scenario playing out than if you ignored the mission. Perhaps the girl’s mother doesn’t want her getting caught up in all that “witchy business” and will be mad at you for encouraging her daughter’s obsession. Of course, the consequences of your decisions may not play out for quite some time.

The Dungeon

After completing the side quests and returning to the bakery, your grandmother gives you a key and tells you that there are noises coming from the basement. Probably rodents eating her supplies. Of course, this leads you to your first combat encounter. You find yourself squaring off against little puffs of fur with teeth. I somehow managed to capture one; a feat I’m still quite proud of.

After a little more exploration, you discover a secret room behind a wall. Yep, we get a dungeon! It’s small and only has a few points of interest, but, again, this is a tutorial. This gets you ready for bigger and better adventures while settling you in to the pace of the game. You find a secret door and…

Well, I don’t want to spoil anyone. The tutorial ended shortly after the mini dungeon crawl, and I was hooked. I really wanted to know what happened next. I was left on a cliffhanger, and I can’t wait for the game to come out.

My Take

I loved the choose your own adventure books as a kid. My local library had a huge collection of those interactive gamified novels, and I couldn’t get enough of them. Like so many TTRPGs, they force you to use your imagination while delivering an immersive plot and world to explore.

Is Witchbound the next choose your own adventure? Will it be the next Loan Wolf, or Fighting Fantasy book?

Honestly, I would not say that, no.

That’s thinking too small.

Witchbound will be bigger and more relevant than simply carrying on the torch of the forbearers within an established genre. Those books tried something new and became legends, and that’s what I expect for Dark Doll Games. I bring up those classic trail blazers because they make the best comparison, but Witchbound is new and innovative. It’s unique, immersive, and (most importantly) fun!

One day people will be comparing other games to Witchbound, not comparing Witchbound to other games. In this innovative map and story book, I see the new trail blazer. There will be forums dedicated to unlocking easter eggs, discussing the best path through maps, and diving into NPCs backstories. I also see fans writing and illustrating their own books using the principles and techniques pioneered by Dark Doll.

My only real piece of advice I could give to Cohen would be to brand the genre. Name the type of book you’re writing, because people will want to see more of it.

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If you’re interested in seeing this pioneer come to life, check out Dark Doll Games. I highly recommend keeping an eye on this one.

Dark Doll Games

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