Designing a 5th Edition compatible witch class with four unique subclasses.
Grocknard waited warily. He and is warriors were a formidable sight; armed and astride their stamping warhorses. The frail old woman in front of him, however, seemed unimpressed. Her expression — shadowed by an oversize, almost comical, pointed hat — was one of bored irritation. Finally, she brushed back the hem of her black cloak with the bristles of her birch besom1 and turned a withering gaze up at him. Her left eyebrow arched up questioningly.
“We seek Tabatha the Witch,” Grocknard answered — disturbed by the subservient note that had crept into his voice. “We were told she lives in this cottage?”
What makes a Witch?
From Eastern Europe’s Baba Yaga to Disney’s Ursula, witches fill the nooks of traditional folklore and popular culture. They come armed with brooms and a variety of occult powers. Aided by black cats or troops of flying monkeys, they are often (though not always) associated with dark magic. Some have the ability to take animal form. Others can turn their enemies into newts (although they do get better). A handful possess the ability to control fire. And, a select few can even manipulate the web of fate itself. Clearly, witches are formidable spellcasters!
However, much of this witchery overlaps with existing DnD classes. We might think of witches simply as warlocks with dark patrons. Or they might just be shapeshifting druids in pointy hats. Indeed, wizards from the Schools of Conjuration, Divination and Enchantment all seem like solid candidates for reskinning as witches. And, if none of these seem like quite the right fit, multi-classing is also an option…
Nevertheless, here is my take on a dedicated witch class.
Arguably, the witch archetype has quite a bit of variation. After all, Macbeth’s three witches, Rowlings’ Prof. McGonagall and Spacek’s Carrie are worlds apart! Luckily, these differences can be accounted for with subclasses (I’ll call them covens of course). Even so, every witch should have a handful of traits in common with others of her class.
First off, every official DnD spellcaster has a specific spell casting ability. Wizards and Artificers use intelligence, Clerics, Druids are wisdom based. Everyone else relies on charisma to cast spells. Inspired by the witches in Lawrence Watt-Evens’ With A Single Spell, who draw on their own body’s reserves to power their magic, I considered choosing constitution. However, this would allow witch players to focus on a single ability score for both offence (spells) and defence (hit points). Thematically, wisdom and charisma are both good options. But, in the end I settled on intelligence for the witch class’s spellcasting ability.
I built the witch spell list with an average number of spells per level.2 But, which spells are witch spells?
Transformational spells are classic choices for witches. They seem to be always turning people into frogs or toads or amphibians of some kind!
Witches also seem to have an overdeveloped sense of vengeance. So, anything that resembles a curse definitely makes the cut.
Their reputation are as masters of the black arts implies that they are able to summon and banish fiends. However, spells relating to the undead are outside their bailiwick.3
I imagine that witches are able to do some minor healing, but they are not be able to to raise the dead.
Finally, despite their reputed affinity for fire, I have steered clear of both elementals and high level fire spells.4 I don’t see witches as battle mages, per say — their power is a subtler sort.
The final spell list has a very distinctive flavour. It’s perhaps a touch heavy on concentration spells, but overall I am quite satisfied.
Because I created this class for my own games,5 I was free to include any spell I wanted. However, as a result, many of the spells I chose were not covered by the OGL.6 Since I am posting7 the class online, I created a number of custom alternatives for the offending spells.
It should go without saying that witches don’t wear armour. And, it is equally obvious that their offensive choices should be limited. I’ve included clubs, daggers, quarterstaffs, blowguns and, just for the heck of it, nets. Also, brooms! — I love the image of old Tabatha laying down the law with the business end of her sweeper.
As for tool proficiencies, alchemists supplies and the herbalism kit were easy choices; as were the healer’s and poisoner’s kits. And, in honour of Snow White’s stepmother, the disguise kit also made the cut. It’s a long list, but tool proficiencies are basically window dressing in 5th Edition, so I can afford to be generous — players can choose any two.
Players who choose the witch class are granted the two skill proficiencies. Arcana, nature, religion, medicine, animal handling, and history are all on offer. The first three are obvious choices, though the last three require some explanation. Medicine makes the list because witches are sometimes depicted as healers. And, I imagine their animal handling skills are a byproduct of their close association with animal familiars. Finally, I think some witches might just have lived long enough to have witnessed history first hand!
I wanted to give the witch class a unique pair of saving throws. Since, all DnD spellcasters’ spellcasting abilities and saving throws overlap, intelligence is a given. And, since the witch spell list is heavy weighted with concentrations spells, I thought constitution would make a useful second choice.
Whether ancient crones of literature or little anime girls, witches aren’t exactly paragons of physical fitness. The humble d6 will have to suffice for their hit dice.
So far, so good. But, there’s no pointing taking the time to create a new class if it doesn’t have at least one or two features that truly set it apart. So, in addition to the slew of spells and proficiencies listed above, the witch class includes two unique witch traits: cursing enemies and riding brooms.
I had three points of inspiration for curses.
First, I have always enjoyed the Battle Master archetype’s maneuvers. As a player, it feels great to have a chance to do a little something extra on your turn. And, I wanted to give witch players that same feeling. As with maneuvers, players chose from a list of curses; starting with one curse and adding more as their character levels up. However, instead of superiority dice, witches can use each curse they know once per long rest.
Second, I didn’t want curses to deal straight damage. Instead, I wanted to give my witches access to 5th Edition’s extensive list of conditions. Essentially, each curse inflicts a different condition on the victim. However, since 5E’s conditions are very powerful, I nerfed them a little. For instance, the target of a witch’s curse can stave off the effect with a saving throw. Additionally, curses end very quickly.
Third, I wanted to take advantage of one of the least used parts of 5E’s action economy: reactions. Traditionally, curses are a witch’s revenge. Witches don’t go around cursing innocents; they curse people who have slighted them. In the context of DnD, if a creature hits with an attack, a witch can use her reaction to curse the attacker. Area effects don’t count; the attacker has to target (and hit) the witch specifically.
Arguably, a black figure astride a broom, silhouetted against a full moon, is the most iconic image in all of witchdom. However, flying is problematic for DnD; too much power makes Jack a dull, dull, boy (just ask Superman). Consequently, 1st level witches won’t be hopping on any broomsticks.
Nevertheless, it would be a shame not to include this quintessential witch ability. Moreover, some DnD characters can fly. For instance, some sorcerer subclasses grant flight at the 14th level. And, as early as 5th level, wizards can cast the Fly spell. So, from the 6th level and on, witches can ride a broom. However, just to keep things interesting, there are a few provisos…
- Riding a broom is tiring. A witch can fly for 10 minutes at a time. And, she can only do so once per rest!
- Riding a broom requires concentration, as per a concentration spell. So, if a witch takes damage and fails her concentration saving throw, she will fall from the sky!
- Riding a broom is a solo activity. Nothing bigger than a cat can come along for the ride!
In order to balance these limitations on flying, I added a handful of features to help witches avoid getting knocked out of the air.
For instance, from 5th level on, witches can use intelligence instead of dexterity to calculate their AC.8 Essentially, this is a permanent ulta-low-level shield spell that makes even frail old witches difficult to hit.9
Moreover, at 11th level, witches have advantage when rolling to maintain concentration. This is a nice perk for a class with a spell list that favours concentration spells.
And, by 17th level, witches don’t provoke opportunity attacks while riding a broom.
Obviously, these features don’t eliminate the risks of flying, but taken together, they should keep witches in the air a little longer.
Arguably, a class’s highest level features are also its least important. As a player, I certainly don’t want my character’s most interesting abilities locked up at levels she is unlikely to reach.
With this in mind, the witch’s 18th and 20th level features are fairly straightforward spellcasting boosts. Firstly, a few spells that can be cast without using a spell slot. And, secondly, the ability to reliably to cast a spell and a cantrip every round.
Curses and brooms are hardly the be-all and end-all of witchery, of course. But, I didn’t want to empty the kitchen sink! So, the remainder of a witch’s abilities will be determined by her chosen coven. The witch class has four coven subclasses, each with a different focus.
- The Scorcher’s Coven is the home of fire-witches.
- Mediums and telepaths fill the ranks of the Seer’s Coven.
- Animagi join the Shaper’s Coven.
- The Summoner’s Coven lays claim to witches who conjurer spirits.
Finished Witch Class
Having explored its design process, you may want to take a look at the finished Witch Class.
- Witch Class PDF — A definitive witch class for 5th Edition (play-tested to 13th level).
- How to Play a Witch: D&D 5e Character Concepts — A thought provoking look at using the existing D&D classes as witches, by Opal (of Flutes & Opal fame).
- Class Struggles: What Should a 5e Witch Be? — A systematic exploration of the existing 5th Edition classes with an eye to playing them as witches, by Timothy S. Brannan (an expert on RPG witches).
- The besom is a traditional broom made with twig bristles.
- At least it was the average number before Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything was released.
- I’ll make an exception for ghosts.
- Rest assured, I’ll be sure to add Fireball to the fire-witch’s coven spells.
- So far, two covens (Shaper & Scorcher) have been play tested to 10th level.
- D&D’s Systems Reference Document (SRD) and accompanying Open Game Licence (OGL) provide guidelines for publishing Dungeons & Dragons material that has been copyrighted by Wizards of the Coast.
- Publishing is a rather grandiose term for posing to a blog but it does qualify.
- Assuming they are unarmored.
- Admittedly, this feature undercuts my argument against choosing constitution as the witch classes’ spellcasting ability.