It’s long been a staple that religious classes in Pathfinder, like in D&D before it, come with certain “strings” attached, insofar as role-playing is concerned. Unlike other characters, who don’t necessarily have any particular individual or organization that they need to have an affiliation with (other PCs notwithstanding), divine spellcasters are expected to have a relationship not only with their church, but also with their deity.
This can be somewhat tricky, since good role-playing will often necessitate knowing something about the church and the deity before the campaign even begins. Of course, that’s usually not too big a deal, since most published deities have at least some supporting material written, and even home-brew pantheons will have information supplied by the GM. To put it another way, these “strings” are expected and the requisite information is provided.
That’s a quid pro quo that goes entirely out the window where Pathfinder’s witch class is concerned.
Whereas divine spellcasters have a god (or god-like figure of similar status), the witch has a patron. Clearly the patron isn’t meant to (necessarily) be a god, since otherwise the game wouldn’t bother differentiating the two. But what exactly is a witch’s patron then? Let’s examine what the Advanced Player’s Guide says on the subject:
This patron is a vague and mysterious force, granting the witch power for reasons that she might not entirely understand. While these forces need not be named, they typically hold influence over one of the following forces.
Its actual name is up to the GM and the witch to decide.
Oh that’s helpful.
While I can see the reasoning behind taking a hands-off stance on this particular subject (so as to better allow enterprising GMs to define the nature of the patrons on their own), this isn’t very helpful in terms of suggesting ideas or providing inspiration for those GMs who want some help.
As such, we’re going to go over several possibilities regarding possible witch patrons here, giving names to those “unnameable” entities that grant a witch her spells. But before we do, let’s try and get a better sense of how these patrons work, by looking at their most tangible impact on the witch.
The most direct impact that a patron has on a witch is felt via the witch’s familiar. Once again, let’s examine what the APG has on these creatures:
At 1st level, a witch forms a close bond with a familiar, a creature that teaches her magic and helps to guide her along her path. Familiars also aid a witch by granting her skill bonuses, additional spells, and help with some types of magic.
By forging strange bonds with unnameable beings, witches gain the service of a mystical advisor, a familiar to both serve her and reveal to her secrets unknown to most mortals. A familiar is an animal chosen by a witch to aid her in her spellcasting and grant her special powers.
Okay, so there is some expository material there. First, the actual familiar is chosen by the witch herself. This is interesting, as it’s the familiar that “teaches her magic,” “helps to guide her along her path,” and “reveal to her secrets unknown to most mortals.”
In the face of it, there’s something of a dichotomy here. The text makes it clear that the witch is the pupil, while the familiar is the teacher; at the same time, however, the fact that the witch chooses the familiar seems to indicate that it’s an ordinary animal until she selects it; since it teaches her magic, she’s obviously not imbuing it with power on her own. So what turns this ordinary animal that she chooses into her future mentor?
The best way to answer this question is, to my mind, by bringing the mysterious patron back into the equation. In this manner, while the witch may select the actual animal, it’s the patron that imbues the familiar with its intelligence, magical powers, and (most importantly) its ability to instruct the witch in spell preparation.
This, therefore, brings up an interesting question as to where the familiar’s real loyalties lie. After all, the witch may have invoked the patron to make the animal into a familiar, but the one who actually did so was the patron itself. Given that, it’s likely that the familiar’s lessons are in line with what the patron wants them to be – whether because the patron wrote the familiar’s personality type when it imbued it with intelligence, or because it can control the familiar by threatening to withdraw its powers from it.
This, by extension, makes the familiar the patron’s proxy to the witch – the familiar makes sure that she develops and grows the way the patron wants her to, otherwise the lessons, and the new spells to prepare, go away (of course, not all of the witch’s power has the familiar as a mystic middle man; their hex powers, for example, are gained directly from their patron).
This is a marked contrast to a wizard’s (or an arcane-blooded sorcerer’s) familiar, which they imbue with magic and intelligence themselves – the witch’s familiar wants her to grow, but only insofar as it’s in line with her patron’s agenda.
The other direct hand that patron’s take in regards to a witch’s development is in their “patron spells.” Let’s look at these a little closer.
The patron spells in the APG are somewhat akin to clerical domains in that they’re a set of spells grouped by a common theme, which the witch selects to help customize her spells prepared. On the surface, this isn’t too big a deal, but there’s more here than is immediately apparent.
The list of patron spell packages is actually the closest thing we have to an actual list of patrons. The same way a god’s clerical domains reflect their portfolio, these patron spell lists serve to define their patrons.
The problem is that these lists are, unto themselves, much too prosaic. Simply having your patron be “wisdom” isn’t very helpful at all. Imagine if your deity had no information listed except their domains…it’s kind of like that in terms of fleshing out your magical sponsor. In fact, patrons are even worse since there aren’t even any groups of patron spell packages to select from; just a big list that the witch picks one from.
There’s also some ambiguity as to who actually selects the patron spell package, from an in-game standpoint. Is the witch actually selecting her patron spells? Or does her patron choose which of these spells she actively receives? I’d recommend the latter interpretation, as it makes more sense in terms of the patron being the one to imbue the witch with her powers (particularly her spells, which are sent through the familiar). The witch’s player picking the patron spells is a metagame decision, much like a sorcerer picking their bloodline, that isn’t reflected as an in-character conscious choice.
With all of that said, this brings us back around to our original question: who are the witch patrons? Or at least, what are some good choices for witch patrons? Let’s discuss some of the criteria that a patron should have.
One of the most important standards for witch patrons is that they be unique entities. This is key for pretty much the same reason that creatures that grant divine spells need to be unique entities (“unique” here doesn’t mean that they need to be singular in nature, but rather that they can’t be some sort of generic creature) – because otherwise there’d be problems with them popping up everywhere (e.g. if every creature with 20 HD or more can grant spells, then every creature with Hit Dice that high would be doing so…including 20th-level PCs!). There is no good “one size fits all” approach for what sorts of creatures can grant spells.
Likewise, all witch patrons should be beings of considerable power. While there are some possible exceptions (e.g. Spirits), most beings need to have power themselves before they can grant it to others. Even if that power is limited somehow, it still needs to be present so that it can be transferred to the witch and her familiar.
Finally, consider giving each of the following patrons certain “groups” of patron spell themes, much in the same way that deities have several domains. This helps to further flesh out the various patrons as having a distinct set of goals and agenda all their own.
Given that, the following make good options for witch patrons:
Baba Yaga: Perhaps the original witch (in theme, if not class), Baba Yaga makes an excellent witch patron. Her strong slant towards arcane spellcasting, while being definitively not a god herself, makes her a good choice for something that can send arcane powers but not divine ones. She’s also inscrutable enough to make her agenda mysterious, giving the GM a lot of leeway in what exactly she wants her witch to accomplish. Patron spells: Deception, Shadow, Trickery, Wisdom.
The Gods: As the gods (and similar powers, such as archdevils and demon lords) grant divine spells to their worshippers directly, why couldn’t they also grant arcane spells as well? Of course, this requires some in-game explanation for why they only do so through a familiar, and why they don’t grant other sorts of arcane spellcasters their spells. Perhaps they can only do so because of the particular nature of arcane magic, or perhaps gods who do this are skirting some divine law, and so need to hide their activities and identity by remaining more aloof than they would with their divine servants. Patron spells: varies by god.
The Great Dragons: Fafnheir. Jormugandr. Nidhogg. These, and others like them, are dragons so mighty that they constitute major threats to the entire world, or even to the gods, all without being gods themselves. Witches who serve these beings will likely find themselves advancing agendas to bring about the end of the world or some similar apocalypse, during which their master can wreak unimaginable havoc. Patron spells: varies by dragon (e.g. Nidhogg: Endurance, Plague, Shadow, Strength).
Monsters of Legend: Similar to the Great Dragons, some monsters have a singular exemplar – perhaps their progenitor – that is far beyond their lesser brethren. The Rainbow Serpent, for example, might be the first couatl, now working to subtly encourage new generations of witches to take up the fight against evil and protect the good people of the world. The plots of such monsters of legend will be as diverse as these creatures themselves are. Patron spells: varies by creature (e.g. The Rainbow Serpent: Agility, Animals, Transformation, Wisdom).
Spirits: Not all witch patrons need to be singular entities. On their own, the spirits are weak, but many of them together can grant great powers. Perhaps one of them (or all of them) possess the familiar, allowing for a witch patron who’s always present! In this way, for example, a witch’s ancestors might empower her to defend their tribe from threats, or the Great Mountain might make its will known. Spirits offer a great deal of variety in what kind of patrons they can be. Patron spells: varies by spirits (e.g. Ancestral Spirits: Animals, Elements, Endurance, Strength).
The Titans: From the Greeks to the Scarred Lands to the original hekatonkheires still trapped between the planes, many pantheons have had to battle these ancient super-giants in order to secure their current supremacy; but in all cases, the titans still exist, locked away in the far corners of the universe, waiting for a time when they can return to reclaim all of Creation for their own. Those witches who dedicate themselves to them will find themselves seeking the keys to unlock their masters’ ancient prisons. Patron spells: varies by titan (e.g. Oceanus: Deception, Endurance, Trickery, Water).
Of course, these are just some possible witch patrons; there are myriad other possibilities for what’s granting a witch’s spells. Perhaps your witch’s patron is a sentient artifact. Or it might be the sentient manifestation of an abstract force or concept (e.g. Winter). Or it might be something else altogether.
Whatever the nature of your witch’s patron though, having it more clearly defined lets you role-play one of your witch’s most important aspects better. Witch patrons should be about patronage, not patronizing.