Friday, 20 December 2019

The Witcher Franchise Familiariser (updated)

In the last ten years, the Witcher series has grown from a relatively obscure (to English-speaking audiences) Polish fantasy series to a major franchise, driven by three highly successful video games and an English translation of the original books. A Netflix TV series is now on air. But what if you haven’t yet sampled the series and want to find out what’s going on? Time for a franchise familiariser course.

Five of the primary characters of The Witcher saga, from left to right: Yennefer, Ciri, Geralt, Vesemir and Triss.

The Basics

The Witcher is a series of short stories, novels and videos games set in a land known only as “The Continent”. The Continent is divided between the Northern Kingdoms, which are the primary setting for both the books and games, and the massive Empire of Nilfgaard to the south. Nilfgaard invades the Northern Kingdoms three times in an attempt to annex them, and these wars form the backdrop for many of the stories in the series.

The titular “Witcher” is a reference to Geralt of Rivia, the primary protagonist and viewpoint character of the series. However, the books move away from Geralt as the only major character and introduce other characters of equal or arguably greater importance, such as the sorceress Yennefer and Geralt’s sort-of apprentice, Ciri.

The books were written by Andrzej Sapkowski (1948-present). These comprise two collections of short stories, a five-novel series (often known The Witcher Saga) and a stand-alone prequel novel. Sapkowski has mooted returning to the world for additional books and stories.

The video games were created by Polish developer CD Projekt Red. To date, three games have been developed and released, along with some additional spin-offs. A fourth game (which will be set in the same world but not carry on the previous storyline from the game) is tentatively planned. Sapkowski advised on the games, but did not write the storyline, which was instead written by a team of writers (Marcin Blacha is the only writer credited with working on all three games).

Netflix's Witcher TV series hit screens on 20 December 2019. It is co-written and produced by West Wing, Daredevil and Defenders writer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, with Jarek Sawko and Tomek Baginski (who worked on the video games) as producers. The TV show stars Henry Cavill as Geralt, Anya Chalotra as Yennefer and Freya Allan as Ciri. The show has been renewed for a second season, expected to air in 2021.

The Canon

The Witcher canon is a slightly complicated beast due to the fact that the franchise originated as a book series written by one author, but it was the video game trilogy which boosted it into a world-famous series. The video games take the books as canon, and frequently refer to events in the novels, but Sapkowski does not accept the video games as canon himself (although he has written nothing – so far – to contradict the games). For the purposes of this guide, we will assume that the novels and video games form one canon for now.

The TV series primarily adapts the books and not the games, but occasionally has homages to events in the games.

The Witcher Short Stories by Andrzej Sapkowski (in chronological order)

The Last Wish (1993)
  • The Voice of Reason
  • The Witcher
  • A Grain of Truth
  • The Lesser Evil
  • A Question of Price
  • The Edge of the World
  • The Last Wish

Sword of Destiny (1992)
  • The Bounds of Reason
  • A Shard of Ice
  • Eternal Flame
  • A Little Sacrifice
  • The Sword of Destiny
  • Something More

Note: The Last Wish was a reprint of an earlier short story collection called The Witcher (1990), which included all of the stories in that collection plus several new ones. However, although The Last Wish supersedes The Witcher in the canon, it omits the short story “The Road With No Return” (featuring Geralt’s mother and set before his birth).

The Witcher Saga by Andrzej Sapkowski
  1. Blood of Elves (1994)
  2. Time of Contempt (1995)
  3. Baptism of Fire (1996)
  4. The Tower of Swallows (1997)
  5. Lady of the Lake (1999)

The Witcher Stand-Alone Novels by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • Season of Storms (2013)

The Witcher video game series by CD Projekt Red
  1. The Witcher (2007)
  2. The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings (2011)
  3. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015)
    • The Witcher III: Hearts of Stone (2015)
    • The Witcher III: Blood and Wine (2016)

A simplified map of the Northern Kingdoms from the first Witcher video game.


According to myth, over two and a half thousand years ago, the world was the domain of the elder races, elves and dwarves. An event known as the “Conjunction of the Spheres” took place, during which time the world intersected with one and possibly two other worlds through an astral alignment. Portals opened which allowed the inhabitants of these worlds to cross over, including (allegedly) humans and various creatures and monsters. This event also introduced magic to the world, and the creation of the first mages (among the various races) as being who cold harness magic.

In the year 760 after the Resurrection (what exactly the Resurrection is remains unclear), humans crossed the Yaruga and Pontar rivers into what are now called the Northern Kingdoms in force. They initially settled along the coastlands before moving inland, displacing some of the native elven tribes. Other humans, particularly magic-users, aligned with the elves to learn their ways of magic. 

However, as the human settlements expanded from villages to towns to small cities, so the elves found themselves rapidly outnumbered by the rapidly-growing human nations. The elves found themselves forced to assimilate – where they often faced racial prejudice and suspicion – or flee. Some elves later banded together with renegade dwarves and other nonhumans (most notably halflings) to found the Scoia’tael or “Squirrels”, a guerrilla force that resists human encroachment on their lands with violence.

Two centuries later, the mages Alzur and Cosimo Malaspina founded the witchers. Witchers are trained in the art of monster-slaying, which requires them to gain superhuman and supernatural abilities. These are bestowed upon them through the consumption of potions and alchemical substances known as mutagens. Witchers are formidable warriors, far outstripping most human, elven or dwarven opponents due to superior reactions, faster healing abilities and uncanny reflexes. As well as physical combat, they are trained in the art of identifying supernatural monsters and how to kill, neutralise or banish them. They also gain a significantly expanded lifespan, but are rendered infertile in the process. The witchers were founded due to the large number of monsters still living in the Northern Kingdoms, and soon found themselves in regular employment as they made the lands safe for human settlement.

In 1239 the southern kingdom of Nilfgaard annexed Ebbing, a nation to the north. Although still far to the south of the Northern Kingdoms, this event alerted the north to the growing threat of Nilfgaard. Over the next several decades, as the small kingdoms and cities to the north of Ebbing fell, the threat of Nilfgaard became clearer.

Shortly after this time, the witcher Geralt of Rivia became known to the world at large. Geralt was noted for his skill, intelligence and combat abilities, all of which outclassed that of the witchers in general. In particular, Geralt was noted for his skills in avoiding unnecessary bloodshed: he made his name in particular by saving the daughter of King Foltest of Temaria, who had been transformed by a curse into a striga. Geralt defeated the striga and restored the princess to normal. The Witcher short stories relate various adventures which see Geralt’s rise to fame (or infamy).

Some years later, Geralt became involved in the events precipitated by Nilfgaard’s invasion of the Northern Kingdoms. Geralt’s acquaintance with a young girl named Ciri, whom he had trained in witcher combat techniques, proved instrumental in halting the stopping the war and bringing about peace (as related in the five Witcher Saga novels). During this period Geralt met and fell in love with the sorceress Yennefer, befriended the dwarf Zoltan and the bard Dandelion and became involved in the affairs of kings. Two years after the end of the war, Geralt (who had gone missing in the meantime) reappeared at the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen suffering from amnesia, unable to recall what had happened after his “death” (this marks the beginning of the Witcher video games).


The setting for the Witcher saga is a single, large landmass known only as “The Continent”. The Continent is divided into several regions by the vast Korath Desert in the middle of the landmass. The Northern Kingdoms lie to the north-west of the desert, the Nilfgaard Empire to the south-west, Hakland to the north-east and Zerrikania to the south-east.

The Northern Kingdoms are the primary setting for the action in the story. The kingdoms are (at the outset of the saga):
  • Temeria, ruled by King Foltest from Vizima.
  • Redania, ruled by King Radovid V from Trelogor.
  • Cintra, ruled by Queen Calanthe and King Eist Tuirseach from Cintra City.
  • Kaedwen, ruled by King Henselt from Ard Carraigh.
  • Aedirn, ruled by King Demavend III from Vengerberg.
  • Kovir, more properly Kovir and Poviss, ruled by King Tankred Thyssen from Pont Vanis and Lan Exeter.
  • Lyria and Rivia, ruled by Queen Meve from Rivia and Lyria.
  • Skellige, or the Skellige Isles, ruled by Jarl Eist Tuirseach from An Skellig (and Cintra City).

Other significant locations include Kaer Morhen, the witcher stronghold, located in north-eastern Kaedwen; and the free city of Novigrad, located close to Redania and Temaria.

The Nilfgaard Empire plays a major role in the story, although its capital of Nilfgaard, the City of the Golden Tower, is located a good two thousand miles or so to the south of the Northern Kingdoms.

Provinces of the Nilfgaardian Empire include EtoliaGemmera¸ GesoMetinnaEbbingVicovaroYmlacMag TurgaNazair and Toussaint. Only Toussaint is visited in the saga, in the Blood and Wine expansion for The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.

A spectacular fan map of the entire explored Continent from DwarfChieftain on DeviantArt.


Magic is used liberally in the Witcher saga, by both mages and sorceresses (or, less kindly, “witches”), as well as Geralt himself who has access to minor magical powers (known as "signs"). However, the attitudes to magic radically shift from kingdom to kingdom. Temeria employs mages as advisors but is distrustful of unsponsored magic-users wandering the countryside. Redania is fiercely anti-mage and burns sorcerers at the stake. Nilfgaard strictly regulates them and forces them to the serve the Emperor’s will.


Geralt’s day job – when he isn’t getting involved in high-level politics and deciding the fate of nations – is hunting down monsters roaming the countryside. Monsters, for the most part, are animalistic and cannot be reasoned with, but in some cases they can be banished rather than killed. Some monsters are actually humans transmogrified by a curse: in some cases they can be cured, in others not. Monsters include alghouls, basilisks, bruxa, cockatrices, drowners, echinops, ghoul, kikimores, noonwraiths, strigas and wyverns.

Other entities of interest include godlings, intelligent and mischievous (but not evil) child-like spirits, and creatures such as the Crones, three powerful creatures inhabiting the swamps of Velen. These beings are intelligent and capable of speech and bargaining, but they are also capricious. These kinds of entities are ones that even Geralt would hesitate to engage in battle, but in many cases it is unnecessary as they bound by strict rules governing their interaction with mortals.

More troublesome are spectres, ghosts and otherworldly beings who are unnatural to this world but still intelligent and reasonable beings. Geralt can dispel or banish such entities. The most troublesome and dangerous of these creatures is the army known as the Wild Hunt, who are constantly on the lookout for beings of true power to recruit into their ranks.

Conception and Development

Andrzej Sapkowski was born in Łódź, Poland, in 1948 when it was still under Soviet occupation. He studied economics and worked as a senior sales representative for a foreign trade company. He was a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, particularly the Chronicles of Amber series by Roger Zelazny. He later became a translator of science fiction. He wrote his first short story, “The Witcher”, which introduced the character Geralt of Rivia, for Fantastyka magazine in 1986. The story was popular and led to a number of sequels, which were assembled as a short story collection, The Witcher, in 1990. This was followed by a second collection, which also worked as a prelude to the longer novel series Sapkowski was planning, called Sword of Destiny (1992). In 1993 Sapkowski reworked The Witcher with some new stories and re-released it under its definitive title, The Last Wish. The first Witcher novel proper, Blood of Elves, was published in 1994 and was followed by four sequels.

After writing a series of historical novels, Sapkowski returned to the Witcher universe for a prequel novel, Season of Storms, in 2013. He has since confirmed that he has plans to write more books in the setting.

By 2007 the Witcher books had sold over 2 million copies and was extremely popular in Poland, Ukraine and Russia, with additional sales in France and Spain (among others). Although these sales were very modest compared to the big British and American fantasy authors, they were unprecedented for a European author writing in a language that was not English.

In 2001 a 13-part Witcher television series aired in Poland. It was a critical and commercial failure.

In 2007 CD Projekt released The Witcher, a PC video game based on the books (the opening cinematic adapts the short story “The Witcher”). Based on the Aurora Engine developed by BioWare for their 2002 game Neverwinter NightsThe Witcher was a surprise success: the game launched with severe bugs (including one that resulted in cripplingly long load times) and a mixed critical reception. CD Projekt quickly fixed these problems and issued an upgraded version of the game, known as The Witcher: Enhanced Edition a few months later. The company was forced to cancel a planned, ambitious console version of the game due to problems with the company handling the port.

In 2008 CD Projekt also launched (originally Good Old Games), a service dedicated to resurrecting old games and releasing them in new editions compatible with modern game systems. 

This earned them a lot of goodwill from gamers. In 2011 CD Projekt released The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings, a much more successful game than its forebear due to its great technical achievements and console editions. In early 2015 they released The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, a massive open-world roleplaying game which attracted immediate and widespread critical acclaim. In the nearly-three-years since release, The Witcher III has been acclaimed as one of the greatest video games of all time. As of 2019, the Witcher video games have sold over 30 million copies, considerably more than the Dragon Age series, and rapidly closing in on The Elder Scrolls games (which have sold approximately 40 million).

In 2017 it was announced that Netflix had optioned the television rights for a new Witcher series. The new series has been made for an English-speaking audience and will involve both Sapkowski and several of the creative minds behind the video games as advisors. The series debuted in December 2019.

Further Reading

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Anonymous said...

Hi Adam,

I've been recommended to skip the first two games since they're not that great but I fear that missing too much of the story. So I'd like to know your thoughts on this. Are the witcher 1 and 2 worth playing or can they be easily skipped?

Also, thank you for this wonderful blog.

Adam Whitehead said...

The Witcher 1 and 2 have little to no bearing on The Witcher 3 at all, really, as The Witcher 3 is much more of a sequel to the books. However, The Witcher 3 does make more sense at least with regards to Geralt's storyline if you've played the first two.

The Witcher 2 holds up okay and is relatively short (you can finish it in 20-25 hours). The Witcher 1 is much more janky as a game but it does have several excellent quests. If you do want to play it, I strongly recommend setting it to the lowest possible difficulty level as the combat is painful.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, this has finally decided it for me. I never felt comfortable with the idea of just skipping W1 and 2. And playing W1 on the lowest possible difficulty should make it a more enjoyable experience. I have actually played it before, although it's been almost a decade,
and I do recall not liking the combat at all.