A person, not necessarily female, that has made a pact with an infernal patron to receive magical power in return for mortal allegiance and the rights to their eternal soul. The pact is mediated through the services of a familiar which may or may not resemble an animal to some degree or another. Thaumatalogically speaking the familiar is often a weak point, as harming or destroying it can break the link between the witch and their patron, leaving them helpless (or the familiar can protect itself by passing damage on to the witch). The organ grinder/monkey dynamic between witch and familiar is rarely as well explored as it should be and most familiars are happy to pretend not to be in charge most of the time.
Traditionally a witch is a social outcast, outsider or malcontent who is prepared to make what is, after all, an extremely short sighted bargain. They are usually portrayed as old, ugly and deformed (although whether that is the result of using so much left-hand path magic or not depends on the tradition) and a witch that appears not to be may be prone to glamour failure. Maybe this is because those are the sort of people most likely to be cast out of mainstream society - although witches in the higher echelons of society are not unknown; usually as arrivistes or insecure remnants of crumbling and inbred dynasties.
Because of the source of their power, witches rarely do much good about the place (indeed, arguably they cannot use their power for good, even if they were inclined to do so) and any help they do dispense is in the form of witch boons … which are often a lot more expensive than they appear to be at point of purchase. Maleficium is so much part of the witches normal trade that it is virtually a synonym for witchcraft in many circles, although much of the harm derived from witchcraft may be no more than incidental results of their selfish self advancement rather than deliberate malice.
Many witches are depicted as being granted the power of flight by their patron - usually as a spell rather than an inherent power, or sometimes through the use of a magical ointment or an enchanted item such as a broom stick. Use of cauldrons also appears thematic to witches, whether for primitive alchemy-like behaviours or as a ritual tool.
Traditionally witches are also given to shape-shifting, usually into animals that look a little odd, and using their transformed states to sneak about spying and infiltrating. Sometimes they may just be using the alternate form for improved mobility if they are crippled to some degree in their true shape.
According to some traditions witches are immune to normal weapons some or all or the time - when transformed or flying are common restrictions - and if not immune, they may at least be unkillable until their pact is complete. As against this they may be vulnerable to sacred items, holy water, sunlight or some other (often surprisingly mundane) bane which can be used to ward or harm them. Like vampires they may also be subject to unnatural compulsions or taboos, depending on the nature of their pact and the particular fads of their patron.
As stated above, a witch does not need to be female (although they are frequently portrayed as being women, this may have more to do with traditional power dynamics than thaumatology) and the term 'warlock' for a male witch is generally incorrect.
Accusations of witchcraft can also be falsely levelled at workers who are not pact-bearers - and, indeed, who may not be workers at all, but merely convenient social targets who fit the parent culture's general profile for a witch. Common targets include geeky, asocial men (who would probably be labelled as child molesters in the modern era), elderly, independent widows with land that someone else covets and (particularly in Africa) albinos. Practicing cunning men and wise women are frequent targets if they fall out of favour with their community.
Once made, such accusations are hard to disprove and often end in the death of the suspected witch - witch trials rarely follow anything approaching due process and often employ torture and/or trial by ordeal to determine guilt. Given the fear that witchcraft can engender, a community can sometimes need to be whipped into a frenzy before being prepared to tackle a witch, and at that point they are rarely prepared to accept an acquittal.
Witches may or may not be the same thing as hags - the ugly old woman look is certainly common to both, but hags are often depicted as being inhuman giants as well and/or much more powerful than common witches - commonly powers in their own right.
The Amerindian skinwalker also has aspects of the witch - especially in being a user of magic who has surrendered to dark forces in return for power and the transforming into animals that are "not quite right".
Game and Story Use
- When in doubt for ways to keep your PCs busy, have one of them charged with witchcraft.
- Alternatively, put them in the way of needing a witch's help - or the help of a worker who appears to be a witch.
- The crazy old lady/weird pervy man/deformed sinister hermit makes a good red herring for 'genre savvy' or conclusion hopping PCs.
- When dealing with a witch, remember that they may be a power in their own right, or merely a sock-puppet for their familiar.
- It is probably in the interest of an actual witch to encourage the lynching of innocent people for witchcraft - partly because it's likely to amuse them but mainly because every unnecessary death discredits the witch hunting business and makes it less likely that they themselves will be a target.
- Consider a "heroic" or antiheroic witch. The witch might offer boons only to those who deserve to pay for those boons, or be involved in a Faustian rebellion.
- Note that witchcraft has nothing to do with the new-age religion of Wicca or any historical religion on which it claims to be based, despite terminological chaos and a certain amount of cultural appropriation in both directions.