Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Witches in Early D&D

A witch (one assumes) from the "Witchcraft Supplement in Dragon Magazine #5 (March, 1977)
Witches have a curious history in early Dungeons & Dragons (here, I'm defining "early" as 1974-early 1980). They were never statted or described as a monster or class in any of the rulebooks. However, there were two illustrations of them in Monsters & Treasure (in that 1974 booklet, no other monster or class had more than one illustration, and there weren't that many illustrations anyway), there were three fairly long and detailed Dragon magazine articles about them in the space of just two years, and the "Holmes" edition of D&D implied that witches were soon to be a character sub-class.

But, of course, in AD&D at least, there ended up being no witches. Alas, witches were the most prominent monster or class that, for whatever reason, never quite made it.

Here's a breakdown (by quarter) of appearances of witches in early D&D:

01-03/74 - Dungeons & Dragons (3LBBs): two witch illustrations; charisma example; broom of flying (1)
01-03/75 - Greyhawk (Supp. 1): no witches
07-09/75 - Blackmoor (Supp. 2): no witches
04-06/76 - Eldritch Wizardry (Supp. 3): no witches (2)
07-09/76 - Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes: Tounelea (Finnish) (3)
10-12/76 - The Dragon #3: "Ladies in D&D" - witches as high-level female Magic-Users (4)
01-03/77 - The Dragon #5: "Witchcraft Supplement" for witch NPCs (5)
07-09/77 - Dungeons & Dragons (Holmes): witches presented as an upcoming sub-class; charisma example; broom of flying (6)
10-12/77 - AD&D Monster Manual: no witches
04-06/78 - AD&D Players Handbook: no witches
10-12/78 - The Dragon #20: "Another Look at Witches" player-class supplement (7)
07-09/79 - AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide: no witches but there was a broom.
01-03/80 - AD&D Deities & Demigods: "witch of the fens" (Arthurian), Snow Witches (Nehwon) (8)

1. There were two illustrations of witches in the three little brown books:
Men & Magic, p. 17.
Men and Magic, p. 27. I think I've seen her somewhere before...
In addition, a witch featured in perhaps the most memorable description for how ability scores might be used beyond their explicit effects:
In addition the charisma score is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover (Men & Magic, p. 11).
And finally, a Broom of Flying was included as one of the original 29 miscellaneous magic items:
Broom of Flying: This device allows the owner to fly at Dragon speed (24"/turn). The user must know the "Word of Command" to make it function. The Broom of Flying will come up to 24" when its owner summons it with the command word. It will carry two persons but its speed is reduced by one-quarter (Monsters & Treasure, p. 37).
And that broom even made it into the list of long range flying speeds - being able to cover 200 miles in a day (though I assume only 150 miles with two riders):
The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, p. 16.
However, out of the 77 monsters that appeared in the monster tables and subsequent descriptions, and the 75 that would be suggested as "Other Monsters," appear on the Encounter Tables or rear their heads above water in the Naval Combat section, Witches were not among them.

2. Eldritch Wizardry would feature much "occult" material, including a full catalog of diverse demons and a cover drawing of a naked woman being sacrificed on a stone slab. But there were no witches.

3. A brief mention of a witch would occur in the Finnish Gods and Heroes section of Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes:
Armor Class: 9, Move: 9"Hit Points: 30, Magical Spell Ability: As 11th Level WizardressFighter Ability: As a Wizardress
This was an evil witch type that was opposed to Vinanamoinen (p. 39).
4. In an early Dragon article, "Notes on Women and Magic," also called "Ladies in D&D" in the Contents, Witches made an appearance as high-level female Magic-Users. There was some good stuff in the article, I think. Unfortunately it was drowned out by the outrageously sexist slant of the piece, which was widely derided and mocked (by both women and men) at the time (see Jon Peterson's The First Female Gamers).

5. In another early Dragon "Witchcraft Supplement," a robust non-player-character witch class was sketched out. It included good witches, bad witches and new and unique witchlike spells and magical items. Interestingly, it was authored by someone who has never been identified. It's actually a fantastic piece, and I cribbed some ideas from it (in a hopefully appropriate way) for a handful of Witch spells in Seven Voyages of Zylarthen.

6. In the "Holmes Basic" edition of Dungeons & Dragons, intended to be a cleaned-up version of D&D that would serve as an introduction to the forthcoming AD&D, the witch keeping a "charismatic male" as a lover example was given again, and the broom of flying would make another appearance (this time as one of only ten miscellaneous magic items). Most intriguingly, however, a witch player-class seems to be promised for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons:
There are a number of other character types which are detailed in ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. There are sub-classes of the four basic classes. They are: paladins and rangers (fighting men), illusionists and witches (magic-users), monks and druids (clerics), and assassins (thieves) (p. 7.).
Note that except for the witch, this gets things exactly right. That seems to hint that a witch class was originally planned for AD&D but then dropped. However, a few years ago Zenopus Archives showed that the passage in Holmes' original draft did not include reference to a witch class. Gary Gygax would later claim that the later insertion of "witch" into the final text must have been Holmes trying to force the issue (Gygax didn't know then that the reference didn't come from Holmes) or a "joke" by someone at TSR: "I never had a PC class of that sort in mind for the game," he said on Enworld in 2005.

7. In Dragon #20, a shorter article put forth both original material and some bits cribbed from the earlier treatment in Dragon #5 to set forth a witch player-class.

8. And finally, witches made two minor appearances in Deities and Demi-Gods, TSR's AD&D reworking of their earlier Gods, Dem-Gods and Heroes: In the entry for Arthurian Heroes we learn that Sir Garlon (the invisible knight) was
given the power of invisibility by a witch of the fens for the promise to only use the power for evil (p. 19).
We also learn about Snow Witches in the Newhon Mythos of Fritz Leiber:
Many of the northern tribes have a group of women that have a measure of magical power. These women, after some preparation and working together, can control all forms of cold and ice spells. They also possess, among the strongest members, a limited telepathy when in direct eye contact with a human. Given a group of 5 women and 24 hours of time, limited weather control (chilling) is possible; this effect has a range of 5 miles (p. 96).

There were a few non-rulebook accessories published in the late 1970's - 11 modules and the Monster and Treasure Assortments, among them. But as far as I know, no witches appeared in any of these products.

If anyone has any other early D&D "witch appearances" to add, that would be welcome.

The witch was the most "OD&Dish" creature to have never officially existed. That's the main reason I included her in Zylarthen. She just seemed to fit the OD&D vibe so well.

As a player-class, a witch might have been more problematic, being fraught with potential controversial associations involving sexism, reverse-sexism and connections with the occult. I have no idea whether these considerations played a part in the poor witch's failure to emerge.

UPDATE (Noon, 11/15/17): The last paragraph of my piece was an attempt to end things on sort of a neutral but suspenseful note. But I actually don't believe that "political" considerations had anything to do with the witch's official absence. In the mid- to late-1970's the "Satanic Panic" hadn't started yet (D&D was still a niche hobby product that was still largely under the radar).

It's possible that "sexism" considerations might have played an oblique roll in why the witch wasn't considered as a player-class. After all, having an entire subclass limited only to females might seem a bit odd. And, of course, there was always the magic-user. Just learn how to cackle, paint your conical hat black and put a brim on it, and you're off.

But the absence of witches as NPCs or monsters is still puzzling to me. Note that there were many female monsters with creepy spells or powers - groaning spirits, lamias, nagas, night hags, etc. - in the AD&D Monster Manual. I think in the end it was just a sort of random whim of Gygax. Or perhaps he felt that a witch was too potentially complex to be a listed monster but too similar to a magic-user to be a class of its own. And then there were those Dragon articles...


  1. Not sure how representative this is, but among the people I knew qho began with the Little Brown Books, myself included, most of us took the incomplete/non-entry for the Witch just like many of the other little breadcrumbs and teasers scattered through everything and knocked together our own house-ruled version. That's the same way we handled Tharks, and the excised Barsoomian stuff, and some of the other bits like Robots, for example. There was something about the incompleteness of those early books that spurred a lot of creativity. It invited participation and made coming up with one's own version of things part of the game. But hey, that's my personal take on it.

    1. Yes, that sounds great! It must have been a fantastic time to play!

      I started a few years later (1978), when Gygax was starting on his kick of "if you want to give an extra hit die to centaurs (or whatever), that's fine, but then you just wouldn't be playing AD&D..." And I bought that whole line at the time.

      It was only when I went back to D&D a few years ago, that I began to appreciate the value of the early more open-ended approach. And now, of course, I'm an OD&D man.

  2. Excellent read! Everyone knows about the Dragon #114 witch, but these early ones had so much charm...pardon the pun.

    1. Everyone except me.

      I only played D&D as a kid/student from 1977 until 1982, I think, so my Dragon reading stopped before #114. Then when I came back to the hobby a few years ago, I focused more on OD&D. I tend to think of the explosion of stuff in the 80's as containing much good but also much bad. You have to sort of wade through it.

  3. There is a pretty well-developed Witch class in the JG supplement Witch-Court Marshes.

    1. Cool. I didn't think I had that but it turns to that I did. I will look through it.

    2. I am not a huge fan of that particular version. It has some neat things about it, but there were others I liked more.

  4. Are you not considering the night hag and the sea hag of AD&D?

    1. Yes. But I think that supports my point on how odd the omission is.

    2. I don't see it that way. In AD&D, witches (hags) were monsters, not members of the magic-user class.

  5. Dragon #43 in November 1980 contained a couple of articles on witches, one of which was also written by the Dragon #114 author, as well as a version from Tom Moldvay. All three are worth checking out!


  6. Witches were in OD&D as the female version of a warlock, the level title for 8th level magic-users.

  7. I would have thought that nature-type witches would be druids, and evil-type witches would be anti-clerics.

  8. Stephen Colbert has said he played a witch, so the rules must have been cobbled together from those Dragon articles unless he was using homebrew rules from a fanzine? Hey Stephen, care to enlighten us?