Hear ye, hear ye! A new fantasy series is about to knock thy pantaloons straight off your hindquarters! Netflix's The Witcher aims to fill the gap left by Game of Thrones; both are ambitious, both are based on popular books, and both have boobs.
But more importantly, both have ridiculously complicated backstories and worlds that are baked into the storylines and plots. To the layperson, heading into The Witcher without at least some knowledge of the universe is more intimidating than a striga during a full moon (see? already confusing), so we've put together a spoiler-free guide to The Witcher's universe so you can spend less time saying, "Whaaaaaa?" and more time saying, "Whoaaaaaaa!"
Everything that follows is general background information from the Witcher canon, which includes the books and the games. But be warned: Though The Witcher is based on the books and not the games, the series could break off on its own. But we're confident these general rules will still apply to the show.
The World: It's not the most original name, but The Witcher's universe largely takes place on a chunk of land known as The Continent. The topography is varied: deserts, mountains, swamps, forests, it's all there. Unlike Game of Thrones, which has produced authenticated maps of Westeros, Essos, and beyond, there's no consensus canonized map of The Continent, so we're all making educated guesses here about where everything is.
What we do know is that most of the action takes place between two parts of the Continent, the Northern Kingdoms and the Nilfgaardian Empire, which are both on the west coast of the Continent and frequently at war with each other. The Northern Kingdoms are made up of several independent states, while the Nilfgaardian Empire is an ever-expanding monarchy thanks to its aggressive subsuming of neighboring countries. In this world, the Nilfgaardians could be considered the "bad" guys.
The Time Period: Like Star Wars, just assume things take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It's high fantasy, so in addition to its own world, it has its own timeline. But for our purposes of placing it in a familiar setting, it's in a medieval world of castles, peasants wearing shreds of clothing, knights in shining armor, and feasts with roast pig. Technically, Earth does exist in a parallel universe, but you don't really need to be concerned about that right now.
The Races and Monsters: The vast land is inhabited by all sorts of traditional fantasy races, such as humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and others. The humans and elves don't really get along, and several human kingdoms are also inhabited by dwarves, elves, halflings, and gnomes. But right now, humans are top dog.
You can't walk through a creepy, crooked path in a haunted forest without tripping over a monster. The Continent is filled with creatures, like someone shook a D&D Monster Manual over the land and all its contents spilled out. Vampires, ghouls, basilisks, wyverns, and a whole bunch of rarer creatures that you've never heard of are all over. They stay away from human city centers, however, so most interactions with monsters come from rural farmers or explorers.
Witchers: Despite the name, witchers don't really have anything to do with the traditional sense of witches; no warts, brooms, or cauldrons. Instead, they are more warrior than sorcerer, molded from their youth in a rigorous training process that includes mental and physical schooling, the development of magical powers, and genetic modification that makes them resistant to magic, poisons, and disease via eating shit like mushrooms. They use these powers to fight the various monsters that populate the Continent, often for hire from citizens who need help getting rid of these supernatural creatures. They're in it for the money.
Among the powers they possess are enhanced strength and speed, night vision, rudimentary forms of magic (they can perform minor spells known as "signs"), increased vitality and healing, and, in Geralt's case, some pretty cool hair. Through training and transmutations, witchers age slower than humans.
A witcher's prime weapon is a sword. Actually, it's two swords. They carry a steel sword and a silver sword; the steel sword is used for run-of-the-mill enemies like humanoids, and the silver sword is used for monsters. Additionally, they'll employ the magic they do know in combat for small advantages, like a push spell which knocks enemies back to get them off their guard.
Among the locals, witchers are met with fascination and fear. With their odd cat-like eyes and fit stature, they stick out fairly easily. They're not totally human, which means many humans are bigoted toward them, while others are strangely attracted to them. It helps when they look like Henry Cavill.
Mages: Sorcerers and sorceresses aren't that unlike what you find in your standard D&D module. They practice magic, wear robes, and are really easy to stab when you get up close. They're much more powerful with magic than witchers, able to kill others instantly, create force fields, or teleport with the right incantation. Their mastery of magic also makes them age slower.
The biggest difference with mages in the Witcher universe is that they're frequently politically active, forming the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, an organization which governs magic and holds high influence over the Continent. Mages also frequently become envoys and advisors to kings, making them powerful figures.
The Law of Surprise: One of the most baffling concepts from the franchise is the Law of Surprise, which sadly is not a team of cops who jump out from behind couches. The Law of Surprise is an abstract custom that's essentially an IOU when a life is saved by another, with the item owed being whatever you're surprised to find when you get home. And we're not talking something like a fruitcake; the payment is frequently an unborn child who serves as a ward, student, or companion to the life-saver through destiny, though it can also be a pet or whatever. For some reason, it's usually a child. If a witcher saves your life, you're probably getting preggers or already are.
Picture it like this: You're walking down a path minding your own business when a gang of golems jumps you. A witcher appears, slices them all in half, and saves your life. You say, "Kind sir, how can I repay you?" He says, "Oh, I don't know, how about I enact the Law of Surprise?" When you safely make it home and discover your wife is pregnant, your kid becomes the payment for the Law of Surprise and is now bound to the witcher through destiny. Whether at that moment or at a later date, the witcher has the right to take your child on as a witcher-in-training (witchers are all sterile; new witchers are made by training normal humans). Destiny is a big concept in the Witcher universe; those who fight it are said to be punished, while those who embrace it are rewarded.
The Wild Hunt: The Wild Hunt, which is also the suffix of the third Witcher video game, is an omen of war. It appears as wights riding undead horses through the sky. If you see it, it means war is comin', so sharpen your blade and go hide in a corner. If you want to impress people at a party, it's also called the Wraiths of Mörhogg.
The Conjunction of Spheres: This is part of the Continent's history lesson. Some 1,500 years before the events of the books, the, uhhh, gods of this whole thing allowed a collision of several universes — the multiverse exists in the Witcher franchise — allowing monsters from other universes into this world. That's how these creatures came to be on the Continent.
It's also when humans came to exist in this world. Humans would later begin to take over the Continent, pushing out the native elves and dwarves because, just like the real world, humans in this world are trash. Dwarves and elves still live among humans, especially in the Northern Kingdoms, but often as second-class citizens.
Brotherhood of Sorcerers: The Brotherhood of Sorcerers is a council of powerful mages from the Northern Kingdoms, who oversee the use of magic in the world. Good magic is OK, bad magic — like necromancy and demonology — is not. Because of their influence, they're very powerful politically and use this power to do what they can to protect the status of mages and magic in this world.
Gwent: A totally radical card game not unlike Magic: The Gathering that's played across the Continent. Mentioned in the books briefly, it was blown-out into a full-fledged mini-game in The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt. Hopefully, it will at least get a shout-out in the series.
Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill): Let's start things off with the most important info: Geralt is pronounced with a hard 'G' and an emphasis on the first syllable, like Gerald or Harold, and Rivia is pronounced like Riviera, but without the 'er.'
Geralt, also known as the White Wolf, is our hunky hero, the titular witcher in the series. Played literally by Superman himself, Henry Cavill, Geralt is an intimidating figure with orange eyes, a broad frame, and his trademark long, white hair. He's the tough-but-complicated type, and his favorite thing to say is an under-the-breath "hmmph." As a witcher, Geralt is most interested in making money off killing monsters as requested by townsfolk, and he takes the job seriously. But his complexity comes from his sturdy moral compass; he's not just a killer for hire, and he'll examine all sides of a job before deciding to take or reject one. He serves only himself, which can lead to awkward scenarios when in the court of a king or queen.
Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra): Yennefer, oh Yenny! Yennefer is a determined and kind of ruthless sorceress, and in the books becomes romantically tied to Geralt as his true love (although the two have a very tumultuous, off-and-on relationship). Yennefer begins her life disfigured and hunchbacked, but as she trains to become a sorceress, she's physically changed to the specimen she's known to be. It's not a statement on beauty prevailing over all; many mages in witcher lore become more physically attractive (and often more vain) as they gain power.
Ciri (Freya Allan): Ciri — full name Cirilla — is younger than both Geralt and Yennefer, and the princess of the Northern Kingdom state Cintra. She's the granddaughter of Queen Calanthe, who raised her as her daughter after Ciri's mother died, making Ciri the heir to Cintra's throne. Because princesses who are the heirs to thrones never have an easy time in fantasy stories, Ciri is forced to run off on her own and go on quite the adventure.
Jaskier (Joey Batey): Jaskier? You might be saying, "What kind of name is that?" But know this: Jaskier is the original Polish name of the character from the books; the American translation is Dandelion, which is also in the games. We're happy he's going as Jaskier. Jaskier is a bard who is Geralt's best friend and occasional traveling companion. He writes and sings songs of Geralt's triumphs, growing his legend across the Continent. Though not a fighter, he's always up for following Geralt as he dives into danger so he can write more songs. Expect Jaskier to provide plenty of comic relief.
Triss Merigold (Anna Shaffer): Triss is a powerful sorceress who plays the third point in the love triangle between Geralt, Yennefer, and Triss. Triss is very politically active, which can sometimes put her at odds with our heroes, despite her good intentions. Despite being a powerful mage, she's actually allergic to magical potions and elixirs.
The Witcher premieres Friday, Dec. 20 on Netflix.
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