Saturday, March 28, 2015

Witch Hunters, Warhammer and Otherwise

It's not pretty, but I'm afraid we have to talk about it.
Witch Hunters.
Now I'm not talking about real life witch hunting.  I'm talking about fantasy game witch hunting.
So calm down.

I can't say what fantasy game first included a Witch Hunter character or class, but I can say where I first encountered it.  It was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st edition which had an advanced career option called Witch Hunter.

In the world of Warhammer these fellows don't hunt witches, per se, but rather root out Chaos, which often means vile spellcasters.  In their extremes this would apply to all magic users, even the good ones, but then that is up to the individual writer or player.
Let's have a close up, shall we?
When I first saw that image I was instantly drawn to it.  It looked familiar to me somehow.
Looks damned familiar...
Ah yes, that was it.  It reminded me of Solomon Kane, a character I had become familiar with thanks to Marvel Comics, in his own limited series and in issues of the Conan magazine.  I liked the swashbuckling Kane far more than the naked barbarian and something about the hat really stuck with me.
Solomon Kane was not a witch hunter himself, but his never-ending battles against the forces of evil, in a setting that historically frowned upon magic as a form of evil, created a template for this type of hero.  It comes as no surprise that his iconic look would be applied to the witch hunter as well.
This guy cares little for the total lack of Puritanism in the Old World of Warhammer and resents your implications.
Thus it was when I saw the Witch Hunter expansion miniature box at a local game store I purchased it, despite not owning the base game Warhammer Quest (I would purchase that as well shortly afterwards).  I painted it up to look more like Kane with black and white, vice the buff coat shown and started using it in games with my mates on base.
He's got a pistol, he's got a sabre, he has magic amulets, he can use faith to alter the outcome of a battle and he can learn dirty tricks to kick evil right in the unholy balls.
It was a glorious character indeed, capable of fighting any evil, but committed to destroying evil casters, undead and Chaos wherever it might hide.  Which was conveniently in dungeons.  I once took out the big bad of the box set, the Minotaur, by my damn self.  Which is something I could never manage on my Bretonian Knight (which is bullshit, by the way) and managed to piss off my buddies since I got all the gold for the kill.  Ah, good times.

Within the Warhammer setting itself Witch Hunters seem to be in a nebulous position.  Sometimes portrayed heroically, sometimes portrayed as craven psychopaths, and sometimes just plain badass, such as the trilogy of novels by C.L. Werner starring Witch Hunter Mathias Thulmann.
"Overkill, you say?  Look, if there were witches in there they are not a problem now.  I call that efficient."
There is nothing about this cover that is not totally badass.
At the time of the writing of those novels the Witch Hunters were considered a sect of the Templars of Sigmar.  You can tell that superficially Werner borrowed from the historical Witchfinder General Mathew Hopkins (including giving Thulmann an assistant/torturer named very close to Hopkins own John Stearne), but Thulmann is not near as unsavory a character and is downright heroic by the end of the series.
Yet I prefer this simple red silhouette on black background cover.  I find it more menacing by far than the omnibus edition shown above.  Less fantasy, I suppose.
When Warhammer entered the MMO market with Warhammer Age of Reckoning (WAR) the Witch Hunter was one of the available classes for the Empire and my preferred class.  With no business being on a battlefield (it was a major stretch to fit them into the story and one I thought could have been done better) the class had to be given the MMO treatment with a build mechanic that allowed them to unleash "finishing" attacks that never seemed to finish shit.  The lore on it was accusations (attacks, really) and then you unleashed when you'd built up enough accusation, only it didn't have to be the same target as you'd accused, so what the hell is that about, really.  My favorite was called Absolution and supposedly involved using a flaming torch to burn the sinner up, but the UI never actually showed a torch.  Sad, really.  At least the hats were cool.
Fortunately my own imagination did not fail where the MMO did.
Part of the problem, I will admit, is the MMO problem itself, which you will know if you play them.  MMOs rely on a set of programmed routines for the hotbar such that what started as a pretty neat animation just becomes another thing to ignore as you grind away in the game.  Something like Absolution should be a rare occurrence, great for a big fight in a movie or book or an asspull to save the day.  In an MMO it just becomes part of a routine and thus not at all spectacular.  When I said I killed the Minotaur all by my damn self, understand that was an inspired bit of gameplay where I looked at the rules, at what I had available, and figured out a way to give myself something like 6 attacks in one turn by using up all my resources.  It was a heroic move and not to be repeated ad nauseam like some bloody video game.  Hell, even Mortal Kombat restricted the awesome killing to once per match at the end.
Suck it, Chaos!  Hope you like that skull, cuz it is going right up your arse.
Once the Witch Hunter had made MMO status, it pretty much became just another regular character with hundreds of them running around fighting in the war, not at all like the lore would suggest.
Looks downright happy.  Like he's saying, "It's a dirty job, but oh do I love it so."
Other games, like Deadlands, would play with the archetype as well, such as our Weird Western friend above.  I admit it, I love that picture.  The artist has really worked the hat and coat into something we instantly recognize and yet appropriate for the setting.  The virtue of these games is that they are fantasy games.  Monsters are real.  Evil is real and can be denoted by an alignment, or a description in a manual.  The characters called Witch Hunters are really evil hunters and get to face down a variety of vile things, like necromancers and undead, as well as spellcasters practicing maleficium.  Are they not similar to paladins?  They can be and indeed a paladin can be one, but to make a character or class specifically is to touch on the idea of a person fighting against evil by knowing it intimately yet resisting it through some combination of faith and skill, often with very little magical help.  Very little vice no?
Well yes.  Again, fantasy genre, which means magic is just an accepted part of the whole thing.  Solomon Kane acquired a magical staff from the African witch doctor, N'Longa (with whom the Puritan developed a lasting friendship, I might add) which was revealed to be the Staff of Solomon.  So it is not that magic of one kind or another is not employed.  Indeed another favorite of mine, Giles Redferne (played by Richard E. Grant) in the film Warlock, displays several times his knowledge of folk counter-charms for the titular Warlock's magic.  The use of minor beneficial (or at least not harmful) charms to counter true evil magic is well-established in folklore and literature.

What makes a Witch Hunter?
Expand for a better view
Observe the handy illustration above.
While any player can choose to play a character as nice or nasty, good or evil, understanding or prejudicial in judgement, the best characters are the ones that are not disruptive to the game or party and can get along with others.  We are all here to have fun.  That said, the Witch Hunter type is, like the Paladin, a character of great conviction.  There is no room for self-doubt when fighting pure evil.  Evil will seek to use any weakness or chink in the proverbial armor to gain an advantage, seducing, manipulating, and even equivocating to gain the upper hand.  Do not let a vampire get chatty.  They might try to convince you that they are just another organism feeding on prey in the natural world, or worse try to gain your sympathy for their plight, all the while they are really bloodsucking fiends of the night that must be destroyed.  Thus only characters with strong convictions and absolute confidence should take up this monster hunting role.
Guns are a plus, but not necessary.  The image of the Witch Hunter with gun and sword is so commonplace and so popular (I like it) that it would seem to be required, but really it is not.  However a good Witch Hunter type character will have an arsenal about their person consisting of trinkets mostly; items that are bane to supernatural evil, such as silver, iron, herbs, holy water, minor talismans and such.  The Witch Hunter trades supernatural power (such as Clerical spells) for knowledge and how to apply that knowledge in practical ways.  Unless the character is also a Paladin, torture is an acceptable method of fighting evil (even Solomon Kane was tempted to use it against the vile Le Loup in "Red Shadows"), including the all too human variety for which there is simply no excuse.  While you could play the character for comedy (as Frank Finlay played the Witchsmeller Pursuivant in series 1, episode 5 of The Black Adder), typically this character is played as more grim and determined, but it can still be a hell of a lot of fun.  Dry sense of humor is, however, always appreciated.  Think Batman.
"My lord, you see how the duck still possesses him!"
Play us out, Solomon.
"Unholy fiends to my back.  Devilspawn serpent before me.  The gloom of the cave oppressing but for my absolute faith in God Almighty.  Must be Wednesday."

1 comment:

  1. "What makes a Witch Hunter?" Conviction is mostly true, even if in some movies lately they may lack that (See for example The Seventh Son.). About guns: I never really understood the guns. Witches are resourceful. So should be their hunter. See for example the hunter in The Witchhunter - Red shadow. He always has a knife alright, but other than that, he uses whatever tools or circumstances are at hand.