How to Make a Grimdark Setting

The Witcher III

I’m a huge fan of Andrjez Sapkowski’s The Witcher novels. While most fans are familiar with the series through CD Projekt Red’s video game trilogy, the novels are an excellent grimdark series of their own. Most reviewers focus on the grim Clint Eastwood-esque protagonist, Geralt, who is a quintessential anti-hero that follows his own code of honor, but I believe it is actually The Witcher’s setting which makes the series a classic. I’m going to go over much of the world’s appeal in terms of its people, politics, war and development to show why it’s a great basis for authors to draw from when crafting their own gritty fantasy setting.

The books take place primarily in a region of Polish mythology-influenced kingdoms called the North before gradually expanding to include the territories of the Nilfgaard Empire to the south. Our first introduction to the North in The Witcher short story paints a grim picture as Geralt is nearly lynched simply for being a stranger from another kingdom entering a bar.

“There’s no room to be had, you Rivian vagabond,” rasped the pockmarked man, standing right next to the outsider. “We don’t need people like you in Wyzim. This is a decent town!”

The outsider took his tankard and moved away. He glanced at the innkeeper, who avoided his eyes. It did not even occur to him to defend the Rivian. After all, who liked Rivians?

“All Rivians are thieves,” the pockmarked man went on, his breath smelling of beer, garlic and anger. “Do you hear me, you bastard?”

Geralt ends up being forced to defend himself against the mob brought about by simple drunkenness, racism and boredom. The first impression of the Northern people are of a hateful, violent and paranoid bunch who have few redeeming qualities. Indeed, Geralt only avoids being hung by the legitimate authorities for defending himself because he’s there on business as a monster-hunter. He is in Temeria to kill or break the curse on the princess of the region, only to find out her condition is the result of the king’s own unnatural relationship with his sister.

Aside from drawing comparisons to the Lannisters in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s interesting to note that King Foltest actually turns out to be one of the more heroic monarchs of the region. Future monarchs show themselves to be cowards, murderers, oath-breakers and causally cruel. Thus, Sapkowski plays with the reader’s expectations and increases the story’s intrigue by giving a character conflicting traits – that is, possessing a great weakness as well as an unexpected virtue. In the short story The Bounds of Reason, King Niedamar, after a failed attempt to slay a dragon to fulfill the prophecy necessary to marry a nearby princess, decides to screw heroism and simply take what he wants by force.

“I don’t give a shit about the people there, as Sir Boholt would say,” Niedamir laughed. “The throne of Malleore is mine anyway, because in Caingorn I have three hundred armoured troops and fifteen hundred foot soldiers against their thousand crappy spearmen. Do they acknowledge me? They will have to. I’ll keep hanging, beheading and dismembering until they do. And their princess is a fat goose and to hell with her hand, I only need her womb. Let her bear me an heir, and then I’ll poison her anyway. Using Master Sheepbagger’s method. That’s enough chatter, Gyllenstiern. Set about carrying out my orders.”

“Indeed,” Dandelion whispered to Geralt, “he has learned a great deal.”

“A great deal,” Geralt confirmed, looking at the hillock where the golden dragon, with its triangular head lowered, was licking something grey-green sitting in the grass beside it with its forked, scarlet tongue. “But I wouldn’t like to be his subject, Dandelion.”

This unsympathetic portrayal of the North’s people from top to bottom is a consistent feature throughout the stories. It allows Geralt, a decent man if not a nice one, to be isolated from his fellow man as well as forced to be the one voice of what passes for justice. Even so, Sapkowski upends this portrayal with the arrival of Nilfgaard who causes us to want the North to survive even if they are a bunch of assholes. This is similar to how Joe Abercrombie made the Union appear likeable just by making their enemies, the Gurkish, seem so heinous.

In the short story Something More, Dandelion, Geralt’s frequent traveling companion, describes them in such horrifyingly overblown terms that their presence casts a pall over the rest of the series.

“Not this war, Geralt. After this war, no-one returns. There will be nothing to return to. Nilfgaard leaves behind it only rubble; its armies advance like lava from which no-one escapes. The roads are strewn, for miles, with gallows and pyres; the sky is cut with columns of smoke as long as the horizon. Since the beginning of the world, in fact, nothing of this sort has happened before. Since the world is our world… You must understand that the Nilfgaardians have descended from their mountains to destroy this world.”

The conflict with Nilfgaard seems to be staging one of the “gray” Northern kingdoms against the explicitly evil Nazi-like Nilfgaardians. Except, the very next book, Blood of Elves, disputes such a simplistic good-versus-evil interpretation. The Nilfgaardians have been driven back and Dandelion tells of the North’s victory but the population can’t agree on any of the details. We also get the sense not everyone is happy with the North’s victory.

“As everyone knows,” he continued, sparing neither the baron nor the wizard so much as a glance, “over a hundred thousand warriors stood on the field during the second battle of Sodden Hill, and of those at least thirty thousand were maimed or killed. Master Dandilion should be thanked for immortalising this famous, terrible battle in one of his ballads. In both the lyrics and melody of his work I heard not an exaltation but a warning. So I repeat: offer praise and everlasting renown to this poet for his ballad, which may, perhaps, prevent a tragedy as horrific as this cruel and unnecessary war from occurring in the future.”

“Indeed,” said Baron Vilibert, looking defiantly at the elf. “You have read some very interesting things into this ballad, honoured sir. An unnecessary war, you say? You’d like to avoid such a tragedy in the future, would you? Are we to understand that if the Nilfgaardians were to attack us again you would advise that we capitulate? Humbly accept the Nilfgaardian yoke?”

This is, again, similar to Joe Abercrombie’s handling of the Gurkish with sincere peace envoys sent after the fall of Dagoska (ones which Bayaz’s agents frame for murder). There are people in Nilfgaard who would be willing to be magnanimous in victory even as there are people on the North’s side who scheme and desire a second round of ruinous war.

Things become further muddled in the subsequent Second Nilfgaard War as the North is divided among those who are willing to fight for the Northern kingdoms against those allied with Nilfgaard. The majority of Nilfgaard’s allies are the Scoia’tael (elvish for “Squirrels”) who seek to redress ancient wrongs. Rather than lionize a struggle for equality, Sapkowski treats the elvish revolutionaries as terrorists murdering over slights that have brought unnecessary violence to the next generation. This type of complexity enriches the narrative as it shows the divisions of humanity, elves and dwarves into “sides” which doesn’t carry any moral authority with all of them capable of atrocity for questionable political reasoning.

One of the most tragic conversations in the game highlights how a genuinely good man can make the darkness all the bleaker by contrast. It is a plea from Yarpen the dwarf for peace between the races.

“We have to live next to each other,” Yarpen continued. “We and you, humans. Because we simply don’t have any other option. We’ve known this for two hundred years and we’ve been working towards it for over a hundred. You want to know why I entered King Henselt’s service, why I made such a decision? I can’t allow all that work to go to waste. For over a hundred years we’ve been trying to come to terms with the humans. The halflings, gnomes, us, even the elves – I’m not talking about rusalkas, nymphs and sylphs, they’ve always been savages, even when you weren’t here. Damn it all, it took a hundred years but, somehow or other, we managed to live a common life, next to each other, together. We managed to partially convince humans that we’re not so very different—”

“We’re not different at all, Yarpen.” The dwarf turned abruptly. “We’re not different at all,” repeated Ciri. “After all, you think and feel like Geralt. And like… like I do. We eat the same things, from the same pot. You help Triss and so do I. You had a grandmother and I had a grandmother… My grandmother was killed by the Nilfgaardians. In Cintra.”

“And mine by the humans,” the dwarf said with some effort. “In Brugge, during the pogrom.”

Indeed, it is war which turns the grimdark setting of The Witcher into something which is truly horrifying. While the main plot continues through the books of Geralt’s quest for his adoptive daughter, Ciri, after she’s teleported halfway across the continent, we get frequent vignettes that expose the terrible side of the conflict on both sides. Here is a pair of them from the Kaedwini (North) and Nilfgaard (south) sides.

The Kaedwini:

“The honourable gentlemen have thought up some modern idiocy. Some kind of liberation, or some such. We aren’t going to fight the enemy, but we’re heading towards our, what was it, eternal lands, to bring, you know, fraternal help. Now pay attention to what I say: you’re not to touch the folk of Aedirn, not to loot—”

“What?” said Kraska, mouth agape. “What do you mean, don’t loot? And what are we going to feed our horses on, Decurion, sir?”

“You can loot fodder for the horses, but nothing else. Don’t cut anyone up, don’t burn any cottages down, don’t destroy any crops… Shut your trap, Kraska! This isn’t a village gathering. It’s the fucking army! Carry out the orders or you hang! I said: don’t kill, don’t murder, and don’t—” Zyvik broke off and pondered. “And if you rape any women, do it on the quiet. Out of sight,” he finished a moment later.

The Nilfgaard:

“War to the castles, peace to the villages,” Coehoorn said to his commanders yesterday. “You know that principle,” he added at once. “You learned it in officer training. That principle applied until today; from tomorrow you’re to forget it. From tomorrow a different principle applies, which will now be the battle cry of the war we are waging. The battle cry and my orders run: War on everything alive. War on everything that can burn. You are to leave scorched earth behind you. From tomorrow, we take war beyond the line we will withdraw behind after signing the treaty. We are withdrawing, but there is to be nothing but scorched earth beyond that line. The kingdoms of Rivia and Aedirn are to be reduced to ashes! Remember Sodden! The time of revenge is with us!”

What’s interesting is that Sapkowski makes it clear the war is incidental to the central narrative. There is no clear good or evil nor do the heroes play any real part in its resolution. It is an event that goes on around them and they only intervene to try to help the occasional victim. By the end of the conflict, very little is resolved with the borders re-arranged a bit but nothing significant. The lack of such a resolution at the political level which may give hope for and facilitate a better future along with the number of ruined lives and missing relatives adds to the somber mood.

Notably, the Witcher-verse still has all of the tropes of the fantasy genre. As mentioned in Yarpan’s speech, there’s all the standard fantasy races of Dungeons & Dragons as well as of J.R.R. Tolkien. There are monsters in the world attacking humans, albeit less than there used to be. Magic is real as well, but it is a science restricted to the wealthy as the majority of its practitioners prefer to make themselves rich, long-lived and beautiful rather than to fight evil. Yet, none of this affects the setting’s overall depressing tone. Monsters may exist but the real evil in the Witcher-verse comes from humanity. This is especially true as the only real “villains” of the setting, Vilgefortz and Leo Bonhart, are both entirely human. They’re psychotically evil humans with no empathy as well as a capacity for inhuman cruelty. But they are human.

In conclusion, Sapkowski has created a delightfully bleak setting for his stories. It is a place which feels strongly of low fantasy with very little to admire and a flawed populace. It is also a setting which does not romanticize war or treat its actions gloriously. It is a place with old grudges, ambitions and racial tension that feels all too authentic to readers both young as well as old. The North is a somber place which has little room for idealism or anything but survival. It is thus the perfect place to think of when doing up a grimdark fantasy setting.

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CT Phipps

CT Phipps

C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He's the author of Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer's Star, Straight Outta Fangton, and The Supervillainy Saga. He is also a frequent contributor to Grimdark Magazine.