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A beginner's guide to The Witcher: Where to start and what you should know

(Image credit: Netflix)

With Netflix bringing The Witcher series to our screens, it's a good time to be getting into all things Witcher-y. But there's an intimidating amount of Witcher out there—the original eight books, three main videogames and several spin-offs (what is a Gwent, anyway?). And that's not all: there are comics, audio books, and the Polish movie and TV series. Who is Geralt, and why is he in a tub? Who's Ciri? Which stories take place when?

If you want to know more about the Witcher, but don't know where to start, here's our primer. It'll get you up to speed on who and what you need to know, and what you should read and play first.

The most important characters

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

There's an extensive cast of characters across the entire Witcher series, but only a few that you really should know about going in.

  • Geralt - A monster-hunting mutant who is hated by the world he protects, except for its beautiful sorceresses who uniformly adore him. Present in: Everything. 
  • Ciri - A princess whose destiny is tied to Geralt's, and becomes his foster daughter over the course of the sage. Present in: The books, the show, and the third videogame.
  • Yennefer - A short-tempered sorceress who is the love of Geralt's life, though they're apart as often as they're together. Present in: The books, the show, and the third videogame.
  • Dandelion - A poet, bard, and dandy who is Geralt's frequent traveling companion and frequently the reason he gets into trouble. Called Jaskier in the original Polish, and in the Netflix series. Present in: Everything.
  • Triss - Another sorceress in love with Geralt, Triss helps raise Ciri and is something of a sister to her. Present in: Everything.
  • Zoltan - Several garrulous hard-drinking dwarves serve as Geralt's companions temporarily, including Zoltan Chivay, a mohawked war veteran. Present in: All three games, the novels Baptism of Fire and The Lady of the Lake.

Nations and key terms

The Witcher TV series will take place across a large fantasy world, and the books and games focus in on different countries and regions. Here's a basic map (though wars that play out over time will change the political boundaries). The insert in the right shows the territory to the south owned by the empire of Nilfgaard, while the main map shows off the Northern Kingdoms, where most of the stories take place. The islands of Skellige are off the coast to the west.

(Image credit: Jared Blando)

Nations

  • Cintra - One of the Northern Kingdoms, invaded by Nilfgaard during the first Northern War.
  • Rivia - A small Northern kingdom best known for the "of Rivia" that appears after Geralt's name. Geralt is not actually from Rivia, but took the name as an easy reference for those skeptical of witchers. Rivia formed a union with neighbor Lyria to become the kingdom of Lyria and Rivia.
  • Nilfgaard - The south is controlled by the sprawling Nilfgaard Empire, and ruled by Emhyr var Emreis, an important figure in some of the Witcher stories. The bad guys, though it's never quite that simple.
  • Skellige - Basically the Ireland of the Witcher world, an island kingdom off the coast of the Northern Kingdoms. Fearsomely independent, but allies with Cintra.

Key terms

  • Witcher - A professional monster-slayer. Witchers are put through intensive (and cruel) training from childhood and exposed to mutagens that change their bodies, making them stronger, live long lives, and have cat-like eyes. They're also sterile. There are few witchers in the world, and they're often viewed as freaks.
  • The Law of Surprise - A boon granted for a life saved. Often that boon is someone's firstborn child (think the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, and you're on the right track).
  • The Conjunction of the Spheres - A cosmic cataclysm from 1,500 years in the past that caused a merging of worlds, and is supposedly the reason why some creatures like ghouls exist in The Witcher's world. According to elves, this is also how humans arrived in the world, and when they learned to use magic.

The Witcher books 

Best for: Getting an understanding of the politics, Geralt and Yennefer's love story, watching Ciri grow up
Reading order: Here's our full guide on where to start
Highlights: It all builds to a poignant finale in The Lady of the Lake, but it'll take some reading to get there

To begin at the beginning, Andrzej Sapkowski's books about a "Wiedźmin", as witchers are called in the original Polish, are the OG source for everything that comes later. Sapkowski created Geralt and his world for a series of short stories, collected in two books called The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, then expanded from there into a saga of five novels followed by a prequel called Season of Storms.

If you're thinking the prequel might be a good place to start, think again. Season of Storms is set in the middle of the short story period of Geralt's life rather than at the absolute beginning, and it ends with an epilogue set well after them. It's a confusing place to start. You should definitely save it for last.

Whether you begin with the short stories or the saga is a matter of taste. The short stories introduce characters like Dandelion and Yennefer, and they do take place first, but these episodic adventures—many of which are essentially dark fantasy parodies of fairy tales—can be an acquired taste. If you do choose to start here, pick up The Last Wish.

(Image credit: Gollancz)

Skip ahead to the saga and you'll be missing out on some setup, but you'll also be able to jump right into a more fully developed version of the world and its characters. The novels often feature lengthy digressions told from the point of view of other characters, particularly Geralt's foster-daughter Ciri, and delve deep into the wartime politics of the setting. (Sometimes a little too deep, if you're not into multiple chapters of squabbling kings and sorcerers.) If you don't mind playing catch-up and want to see The Witcher's world at its best, start here by grabbing Blood of Elves.

If you're an audiobook listener, all of the eight Witcher books are available in versions narrated by Peter Kenny, who does an excellent job even if he does call Dandelion "Dandilly-on" for the first one and gives Ciri a Scottish accent that might take some getting used to. His northern Geralt sounds a bit like Sean Bean, which is honestly a solid choice.

The Witcher games 

Best for: The experience of living in its world, steering Geralt into being a slightly less cynical hero as he matures
Playing order: The Witcher 3, then its expansions, then The Witcher 2 if you really need more
Highlights: The Bloody Baron questline, taking a ghost to a wedding in the Hearts of Stone expansion, waking up with a tattoo in The Witcher 2
Essential mods: The best Witcher 1 mods | The best Witcher 2 mods | The best Witcher 3 mods

CD Projekt Red's videogames are responsible for popularizing the series outside Poland, and even though the Netflix series isn't based on them they're well worth a look. However, massive improvements have been made with each new game and it's not the kind of series where you need to start with the first one. The original Witcher game was a mess, and although a director's cut improved the clunky translation and there are mods to tweak its miserable combat, it's still very skippable.

The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is a definite improvement, and the way its plot branches midway through was impressive at the time, but it's still not an instant recommendation. Highlight quests—like the one where Geralt wakes up with a hangover and a tattoo and has to puzzle out the events of the night before—are spread pretty far apart, and the combat's better but that just means it's gone from miserable to mediocre. Handily, it does have plenty of mods worth trying.

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

If you want to see what the fuss is really about, The Witcher 3 is the place to be. Don't worry about what you're missing by starting with game three—although there is a scene early on where a character asks you about the events of the previous game, the plot is inspired more by the novels and in fact drops a major thread set up in Witcher 2. After two games of ignoring and sidelining central characters from the books like Ciri and Yennefer, The Witcher 3 brings them to the main stage, meaning that a grounding in the books or the TV show is more useful. 

When Geralt bumps into an NPC from the books he hasn't met in the previous games he still responds like someone who knows them would, so spending 70 hours slogging through the prior RPGs won't help you when Dijkstra shows up and Geralt reacts like they know each other. Just play along, you're not missing out.

The three RPGs aren't the end of it. There are also two spin-offs based on gwent, the minigame Geralt plays in The Witcher 3. If you play that and can't get enough of it then there's a free-to-play online version just called Gwent, and a singleplayer narrative game powered by gwent called Thronebreaker that lets you play as Queen Meve, ruler of Rivia and Lyria, during the wars that precede Geralt's games. Or you could try Condottiere, the tabletop game for two to six players gwent is rather blatantly borrowed from.

Skip The Witcher Adventure Game. It's a digital adaptation of a Witcher board game, and was not well-received.

The Polish movie and the comics 

(Image credit: Heritage Films)

Best for: If you've enjoyed the rest and still need more
Playing order: Start with the Dark Horse comics, then move on to CD Projekt Red's comics, then don't watch the movie (without devising a drinking game)
Highlights: The Curse of Crows comic is set after The Witcher 3 and makes a pleasing coda to its story

The Netflix series isn't the first attempt at bringing Geralt to the screen. In 2001 a Polish production company released a movie based on the books, and it's a mess. Richard Cobbett goes into more detail (much more detail) about exactly what's wrong with it in his Crapshoot column

To be fair, the main reason the movie is incomprehensible is that it was edited down from several episodes of a TV show that, in spite of a limited budget, actually did tell a sensible story if you watched the whole thing rather than two hours of random scenes cut from it and clumsily stitched together. Unfortunately only the movie version is available in a legit English translation, but fansubbed versions of the show are floating around.

Geralt's also had a fine run of adventures in comic books. Some were published by CD Projekt Red and take place in between the videogames, while others were published by Dark Horse and a couple of those continue Geralt's adventures where The Witcher 3 lead off. They're better than most videogame comics, and we've got a ranked list of the Witcher comics right here

Jody is that guy who will try to convince you to play some indie game you've never heard of with a name like Extreme Meatpunks Forever. He is also on a doomed quest to play every Warhammer game.