Deconstructing the Witch Hunter

This is one that I wanted to write last month, but got distracted by writing 7,000 words on Class Design, oh, and let’s not forget I was busy designing a Full Class and writing a Free Adventure. Back then, it was relevant with the whole #DnDiesel thing going on. However, I’m kind of glad I waited, since I was actually able to go out and see The Last Witch Hunter in order to give myself context for the class.

What is said context? Basically nothing. The movie has very little to do with the actual class, as Kaulder (Diesel’s character in the film) is really more of a Fighter than anything else, and doesn’t exhibit…any of the powers the actual class possesses. Well, I guess he lights his sword on fire. But it is by no means through the same mechanic as the class. The class actually feels more heavily inspired by the Grey Wardens of Dragon Age fame, in that it’s more focused around the slayage of fey, fiends and undead rather than witches. It’s also similar to the Witchers of the series by the same name.

First, though, let’s talk about the movie. Because the movie does deserve to be talked about.

I am of the opinion that The Last Witch Hunter is the most perfect D&D movie to date. This might be confusing to some people. After all, it takes place in the modern day, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t exactly have a traveling “adventuring party.”

The thing is, you’re looking at it from the wrong angle. You’re trying to reconcile the surface of the film with D&D. And while the movie does have witches and swords and magic and whatnot, it doesn’t feature some of the hallmarks of the game.

Take a step back, though, and it all becomes clear.

The Last Witch Hunter is a one-on-one D&D game between the DM, a 16 year old boy who believes he has crafted the greatest story of all time around his one player, probably his best friend. This player is playing the most badass Mary Sue of ever. He knows all the things, can manipulate magic even though he’s not a mage, and has enough… “charisma” …to talk anyone into helping him along his journey. He meets a beautiful, punk-rock witch NPC who’s totally into him. But they don’t ever do the sex, or even kiss, because that would be awkward at the gaming table.  He meets a host of strange characters who have one defining trait (the blind warlock with moths everywhere for some reason, the witch who uses illusions to turn burn victims into supermodels, etc.), and there’s even a heel-turn from a “good” NPC at the end with the most flimsy excuse possible. And, of course, the final battle with the main villain is extremely underwhelming and contrived.

Charisma
That, my friends, is what 18 charisma looks like.

Oh, and the bad guy for most of the movie goes by the name “Belial.” And the movie takes this 100% seriously.

My point is that, if you have a sense of humor about D&D, and the people who play it, then this movie is amazing. It is perfectly written to reflect a bad D&D campaign written by a teenager who thinks they’re the most epic storyteller of all time. And believe me, I’ve been there. My first major villain was a half-elven dark knight named “Killian Darkleaf.” Oh, and he was secretly the brother of one of the PCs.

For no reason.

The Witch Hunter Class

Download the class HERE.

First things first, HUGE props to Matthew Mercer, who designed this class. TL;DR version? It’s awesome, and Mercer has great design chops. He’s also the Voice of Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil 4 (and beyond. But mostly 4, because it’s RE4) and DMs for the D&D show Critical Role.

Matt-Cover-2-copy
Wish I could look this pretty when I DM.

As I said before, this class actually seems to have little to do with the movie itself. The general theme is that of a secret society of monster hunters who take weird and dark energies into themselves in order to wield them against those that threaten the peace of the world. Effectively, they’re Witchers or Grey Wardens. Mutant monster hunters born out of a dark ritual and alchemy that would leave anyone else a drooling mess, if not dead.

Though the theme is more specific, this actually reflects a lot of what I wanted to do with my ranger. These are wanderers who are as feared as they are necessary—untrusted as they are untrustworthy of others. They’re strange and confusing and do things that are unacceptable in common society.

Basic Statistics

1d8 hit points is the first indication that this class is not nearly as big and beefy a Vin Diesel himself. Light and medium armor enforces this idea (notably, the Witch Hunter also doesn’t get shield proficiency). You’ll see more justification for this later, but this class is a glass cannon. It hits hard, but can’t really get hit back. D8 hit dice is the median die size. D6 is for dedicated arcanists, d10 (or d12) is for martial classes, and d8 is for everything in-between. This puts the witch hunter in interesting company. Not only does it share hit dice with the Rogue, but also the monk, warlock, cleric and druid. And thematically, that makes a lot of sense. The witch hunter isn’t just a warrior. It’s got a bit of warlock and rogue in it. Thematically, it’s totally a shadowy, self-loathing monk. Overall, it’s interesting to see an ostensibly martial character (judging by its extra attack) get the d8 hit die.

The rest of the statistics are about what you’d expect. They reinforce the dark, studied warrior vibe.

Hunter’s Bane

This ability is chock-full of flavor and thematic fulfillment. If only it was…well, better. It’s effectively Favored Enemy, but specifically directed at Fey, Fiends, and Undead. At 6th level, it improves, but not much. I would like to see something a bit more here.

Blood Rite

This is the core feature of the witch hunter, and I love it. You sacrifice max hit points in order to give yourself a bonus to attack and damage rolls. (+1 to attacks + elemental damage). It improves at a good rate, increasing damage at 5th, 9th, 13th, and 18th level, and giving additional damage types at 6th, 9th, and 13th level. Overall, it’s a really strong core feature that ties the rest of the class to this idea of being a mystical warrior who must sacrifice a piece of themselves for their power.

Witch Hunter Order

You get to choose between Order of the Ghostslayer, Profane Soul, or Mutant. I’ll get to them later.

Rune of Binding

I’ve noticed some backlash against this feature, as it doesn’t really fit into the rest of the class, thematically. And that’s fair. It talks about learning forgotten magics, but that isn’t really part of the core aspect of the Witch Hunter. They’re dark warriors who gain power through sacrifice, and the rune of binding really doesn’t jive with that.

Mechanically, I think it’s fine. In fact, it’s pretty damn cool. Being able to cast Hold Person on any creature as a bonus action is pretty wicked (and probably a little too powerful for level 6, which is supposed to be a cooldown level).

For my home games, I’d probably re-skin this feature into something semi-psychic, and connect it to the Hunter’s Bane. Ingesting the magical, poisonous bane has changed your very being, and you can now establish a connection with other creatures in order to hold their actions. Perhaps give them a limited form of telepathy at level 1 with the initial bane in order to make this an evolving feature.

I also worry that this feature might be a bit overpowered against solo bosses, but playtesting will bear this out.

77a4f0982b05d8a3fe2ea1d843f52efe
The real question: Why do Witch Hunters not get a bonus for wearing silly hats?
Dark Velocity

And we come to level 11. The big feature that really ties the class together and proves your mastery. And it’s pretty disappointing. Really? The Mobility feat in 3.5? No, seriously. All opportunity attacks have disadvantage against you. Disadvantage amounts to a -4 on the attack roll, which equates to a +4 to AC, which is the MOBILITY FEAT FROM 3.5. And, on top of that, opportunity attacks are much rarer in 5e than in previous editions.

Sure, if you’re playing a switch-hitter, it can be a good feature to dart in and out of range. Except that the witch hunter doesn’t gain any bonus to its speed. It would have been better off gaining the ability to disengage as a bonus action. Which, I’d remind you, the rogue can do at 2nd level. This is supposed to be the capstone to your first arc in a class, and it just comes up lacking.

Hardened Soul

I like hardened soul. Some people have been saying that it’s a little under-powered for 14th level, but I think with the peak-and-valley progression of 5e, it’s a nice feature to begin the build-up toward the final capstone.

Enduring Form

Magical effects should not be able to age you if this feature is coming in at 17th level. This is a problem with the druid, as well, where it gains a feature at an exceptionally high level that effectively amounts to a ribbon (a feature with no mechanical value on any pillar). It’s a super cool feature, thematically, but I don’t see a lot of use coming out of it. And hell, why not give advantage on death saves (the normal kind) and saves against death effects. If you’re supposed to be this being who has spent their lives living close to the black, then I feel like it should rub off on them in some kind of tangible way that can get a player excited.

Sanguine Mastery

Perfect for 20th level. I see no need to change this feature.

Subclasses

Like I said, there are three subclasses. The Ghostslayer feels like the “champion” of the three; fairly standard, and the most “good guy” option available. The Profane Soul is an effective way of creating a 5e Hexblade without going down a specific warlock path. And finally, the Mutant is just…just awesome. I’ll get to why later.

Order of the Ghostslayer

Ghostslayers begin with Cleansing Rite, which…makes your blood sacrifice a holy offering, I guess. You gain bonus radiant damage when using Blood Rite equal to your Wisdom modifier. A neat way to boost the damage, and effective (I personally saw this one in action when I ran Night of Samhain for my group). Ghostslayers hit really, really hard.

Stubborn Vitality is up next. I don’t know how effective the ability damage thing is, since I don’t think I’ve actually seen a monster with ability damage yet (feel free to prove me wrong in the comments). However, halving the reduced Max HP thing is pretty cool. In a campaign where Witch Hunters would be prominent, you’re probably also going to encounter a lot of undead nasties who have life draining powers. This feels like a little victory in those instances, where you as a player get to say “ACTUALLY, it only reduces my Max HP by X, not Y.” I would personally like to see this feature improve at a higher level, making you immune to life drain effects.

Hallowed Rune is a nice boost to a nice power. Ignoring immunity can be a really big deal, but I think this feature does it right. Thinking back to my complaints re: Dark Velocity, I would not have a problem with this feature coming in at level 11, and Dark Velocity taking a back seat at level 10.

Gravesight is pretty crazy powerful. Seeing through magical darkness is a big deal, and seeing into the ethereal plane…is interesting. I don’t know how that would affect a game, really. Unless you’re fighting phasing enemies or high-level monks, I don’t see a lot of mechanical benefits to this feature. Thematically, though, it intrigues me. The ethereal plane is something that doesn’t get a lot of definition in D&D, and I wonder how constantly seeing into that ghostly realm would affect a character. Are you constantly seeing ghosts and spirits too weak to manifest? I’m sure that eventually you’d get used to the idea, but I imagine that it would be almost crippling at first. I’d like to see that role-played out.

Supernal Riposte is effectively the payoff to Dark Velocity, and it’s…okay, I guess. However, I think that combining it with Gravesight makes level 15 a little too powerful. The idea is that you goad your enemies into attacking, and you get a free attack in return. This probably equates to one extra attack per round, and a lot of weird positioning. And I’m pretty sure you don’t need that last sentence about it interrupting your movement. I get that it’s trying to take into account that you’re technically attacking while an enemy is out of your reach, but I don’t think it needs to be clarified. I’m also not a fan of the fact that Dark Velocity doesn’t get a real payoff unless you choose this particular order.

Voracious Strike is the final ghostslayer power, and it’s a little under-powered for 18th level. Declaring that you want to vampire an enemy with your attack BEFORE you hit makes the feature weaker than basically every other comparable attack power. Besides that, this is the first self-heal that the Witch Hunter has received, and it’s 18 levels in. And it only works on one of your attacks each round. Give it the buff it deserves, is all I’m saying.

Order of the Profane Soul

As I said, this is the Hexblade option, and it’s pretty basic. It has a slowed Warlock spell progression, gaining 11 spells and 3 cantrips, with up to 3 spells per rest at 17th level. Effectively the Warlock version of the Eldritch Knight/Arcane Trickster progression.

Lethal Focus is nicely paired with spellcasting at 3rd level, making your weapon your arcane focus so that you don’t have to carry around a crystal or wand in your off-hand. Though if you wanted to, it’s not really a problem, as the Witch Hunter doesn’t get shield proficiency.

Mystic Frenzy is just War Magic under another name. This means that a witch hunter can sacrifice his second attack each round to gain advantage by casting True Strike every round. Neat.

Diabolic Channel is the class feature that shows up in almost every version of the spellsword archetype. Duskblades in 3.5 had Arcane Channeling. The Magus in Pathfinder has Spellstrike. It’s the “I put my spell INTO my sword” attack. I’m not a fan of the Wisdom Modifier limit, as you’re still only getting one attack per round with this feature, and most compatible spells would have the advantage of being at range anyway, so you’re probably putting yourself in harm’s way.

Arcane Impulse is effectively an Arcane Riposte, which I like. Cast a spell at a foe if they miss you with an attack. I also like that it doesn’t specify weapon attack, meaning that you can cast a spell at a foe if they miss you with their own spell. Harry potter wizard duels, man.

Insidious Boon is a neat little damage boost. It feels underwhelming for 18th level, but not necessarily underpowered. I think it’s just me wanting a little more pizazz than “Wisdom modifier on spell damage.”

Order of the Mutant

WOO! Deep secret? The Alchemist in Pathfinder was my favorite class. Still is, in fact. And seeing mutagens in this class puts a HUGE smile on my face. And no, I don’t care that it was probably inspired by the Witcher. It’s all alchemist in my mind.

FNVSuper_mutant
More like Order of the Super Mutant…eh? Eh?

First up, your formula selection is sufficiently wide, and the ability to replace old ones as you increase in level is really helpful. In terms of the actual formulas, I love them. I like that the idea of sacrifice carries over into this archetype, as well. Every formula gives you a super cool benefit, but also has a detrimental side effect, so you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it to use them at the time. I think making them fatal to anyone but you is a bit much, and can lead to some unintended consequences (Witch Hunters dumping mutagens into a dragon’s mouth in order to instantly kill it). Maybe just give a creature the Poisoned condition.

Giving up to three active mutagens at once by 15th level is pretty awesome, and makes this a really customizable option, since you effectively get to choose your own class features.

Robust Physiology fits in perfectly. I think it should be clarified, however, as to what it gives you immunity toward. As it stands, I don’t know if it means “poisons,” like those crafted by assassins, “poison damage” like the damage you take from a Radscorpion’s stinger, or the “poisoned” condition, which gives you disadvantage on lots of things. If it’s immunity to all three, then awesome. Just want to be clear.

Strange Metabolism is really awesome, allowing you to ignore one of your mutagen’s side effects. I see myself using it on the Wariness mutagen a LOT.

Exalted Fortitude caps it off, giving you +2 Constitution, up to 22. Love it. Perfect for this order.

I have basically nothing bad to say about this subclass. It’s all wonderful.

Conclusion

Dammit. I keep telling myself to keep these things under 3,000 words. Oh well.

I really like the Witch Hunter. As I said before, it’s a glass cannon, which is something we haven’t seen much of in 5e, and puts it close to the rogue in a way I wouldn’t expect. The document states that it’s in version 4.2. I would assume that this means that it’s gone through at least 4 MAJOR revisions as Mr. Mercer developed it, and I can see it. The class has a lot of polish, and I’m not just talking about the production value of the document. Anyone can get production value if they have the money for it. Not anyone can design a unique and interesting class, however.

One of the things I wanted to know, going into this class, was whether it justified its own existence. Could you get the flavor and mechanical diversity of this class by making it a subclass for something else? All in all, I would say No. This class is interesting enough, with enough unique mechanics and a clear enough vision that it totally justifies itself.

However, I do think that it needs another pass with the editor’s pen. I would switch Dark Velocity with the level 10 Order Feature, and give the class features themselves another go-over. Hunter’s Bane needs a small boost (as I said, the short-range telepathy thing would be a good place to start), and Rune of Binding needs to be re-tooled for flavor. A few other touch-ups, and I think the class is ready for prime-time.

Well done, Matthew Mercer. The more I learn about your capabilities, the more of an inspiration you become.

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3 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Witch Hunter

Add yours

  1. I love reading your recommendations for changes, and this one didn’t disappoint. I’ve considered making this a class option for my Ravenloft campaign and I’d like your input. Considering that it’s been almost a year now since you’ve done this review, would you stand by the changes you offered? If so, do you have any clearly defined examples, namely the one you proposed for Hunter’s Bane/Rune of Binding. I’d like to see what you had in mind. And for Dark Velocity, would you leave it as is mechanically, or definitely make it a bonus disengage?

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