Hello, dear readers of my blog! This series will be something slightly different from my usual format where I post a complete review. Instead, I’m taking a page out of Philgamer’s Let’s Study Series 1. I will look at the neo-OSR game Whitehack 2nd version in detail, dedicating one or more blog posts to each chapter. Although the product fits on 64 pages, it is tightly written, so there is lots to talk about.
2 years ago I reviewed the 1st version of the game which is sadly not available anymore. I was pretty enamored with this version of old school D&D because it was not a straight retro-clone but a game which embraces some more freeform and narrative elements. In 2015, the author, Christian Mehrstam, released the updated second edition of the game.
Again, this is only available as a paperback from lulu, there is no digital version/PDF. That’s a bit unfortunate because shipping costs can be a pain. I recommend looking out for coupons and also bulking up with other purchases. (Here are my recommendations.)
The Booklet Version costs USD $10.00 (10,80 €) and is available here.
The Standard Hardcover Version costs USD $20.00 (16,67 €) and is available here.
The Notebook Hardcover Version costs USD $25.00 (21,54 €) and is available here. Check the FAQ for details about the Notebook version.
(All US prices are excl. VAT and shipping, Euro prices are excl. shipping.)
Disclaimer: I already bought the 1st edition and the Standard & Notebook versions of the 2nd edition and was gushing about this game at G+. Christian Mehrstam was kind enough to give me a booklet version and a faulty pink version (which is very pretty) for writing this review.
Introduction and Chapter 1
After the Table of Contents, there is one page with conversion notes for the 1st edition of the game.
The introduction is fairly short:
What is Whitehack?
In the words of the author, it’s a complete fantasy old-school RPG. Christian Mehrstam doesn’t explain what an RPG is but if you’re new to the hobby, he recommends you start with the game and setting rules instead of the character creation.
It’s of interest that the game has its roots in Swords & Wizardry Whitebox and thus uses the OGL and many parts of the game are still similar to WhiteBox.
Let’s continue to character creation.
Character creation is one of the gems of this book. That was already the case with the 1st edition and it hasn’t changed.
The book includes some pre-generated characters from the setting White Curse.
Whitehack (WH) uses d20 and d6. It utilizes the positive and negative double roll: sometimes, when you are in an advantageous situation, you might roll 2d20 and take the best result. Likewise, sometimes you need to roll 2d20 and take the worst result.
D&D 5e also uses this mechanic, but it’s certainly not new. WH’s first edition already had it in 2013 and simon Washbourne’s Barbarians of Lemuria also uses this with d6s since 2004.
The game has the classic D&D attributes Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Kicking it old school, we roll 3d6 for each. It doesn’t state that they need to be rolled in order but doesn’t say the opposite either, so I normally go for 3d6 in order.
Although you’re free to house rule this (4d6?) and make rules for “hopeless characters”, there are no rules for this in the game.
Rolling high might give you some benefits, i.e., rolling 13 or higher on your Dex will give you +1 on initiative, with a 16+ you’ll get a bonus of +2.
As WH is based on Swords & Wizardry, you have a unified Saving Throw. I actually like that, as it makes the game more streamlined.
There are 3 classes: The Deft, the Strong and the Wise. This maps loosely to Thief/Fighter/Magic-User. The book also has some rare classes which are discussed later.
Each class has its own XP table. Maximum level is level 10 which the Deft will reach first with 384.000 XP, Strong second with 512.000 XP and Wise last with 640.000 XP. The tables are very reminiscent of WhiteBox with only slight changes to HD (Hit Dice).
The game uses descriptive groups for mechanical benefits: species, vocations, and affiliations. They are broad definitions of abilities, memberships, training etc. The groups are written next to an attribute and when it’s applicable in play, you may roll a positive double roll. For example, if you have the vocation “Street Urchin” next to your Dexterity and you want to steal something or sneak around, you roll 2d20 and take the best result.
At the beginning of play, every character has two groups. When you gain a new level, you may also gain a new group.
If you have an attribute below 5, you gain another affiliation group.
Species groups define your character’s classification. If you don’t have a species group, you’re the default. In the included setting, White Curse, it’s humans. Species groups are noted after two attributes, however, they can also be used negatively (like a Fate compel).
Vocations are your calling, your job.
Affiliations determine where you belong to, your connections and your information network. If you want to include alignment in your game, you can realize that with affiliation groups. Otherwise, there is no alignment in WH.
Each class also has Slots for special abilities.
What is the Deft?
Deft characters are the skill monkeys of the game. Their vocation is not noted next to an attribute, instead it’s a catch-all and is thus much more versatile.
They can also switch their combat advantage (attack from an advantageous situation with bonuses to damage and attack roll) to do double damage if their vocation is suitable (i.e. an assassin attacking from the shadows).
Deft characters are limited in their armor and weapon choice. While they are basically allowed to use everything, they get a penalty with some gear.
The Deft uses his slots to attune himself to objects or animals. If you want to have a pet wolf, you could use one slot for it. Or a ranger could attune to his bow etc.
A beginning character has one active slot and one passive/inactive slot. You can change your slot, but it requires some game-time to switch.
What is the Strong?
These are your typical martial characters, the archetypical fighter or barbarian.
Strong characters are very good in scuffles as they are allowed to attack a second enemy per round if their first attack has reduced an enemy to zero or negative hit points.
Strong characters have special combat slots. There are eight options available which include things like parrying, pushing opponents in other squares, attacking with a one-handed melee and one-handed ranged weapon in one round, giving tactical aid and more.
Furthermore, the second edition included the option to hold a single power from an enemy if you delivered the killing blow. For example, killing a dragon might bestow you with a “Dragon Sense” ability where you can smell gold. Those special abilities can be used a number of times equal to your level.
Additionally, Strong characters benefit from a high attribute in Strength and get bonuses on attack rolls. They can wear any weapons and armor.
What is the Wise?
Wise characters are both the clerics and the magic-user in classic D&D. Spellcasting is “working miracles”. A Wise can be a wizard, priest, druid, mad scientist, alchemist etc.
Spell casting is a bit more freeform in WH than in other games. The Wise has slots for miracles and each of them is described with some flavorful or straightforward text like “Patrok, Demon of Passage”, “Fist of the God” or “Telekinesis”.
Spell casting is explained later in the game in detail, but it basically works as per situation agreement between the player and the Referee and costs hit points. You can lower the cost by making it harder to cast (rare ingredients, extra casting time, using drugs) or including other drawbacks.
Each Wise slot has two miracles, one active and one inactive. Switching costs 1 day of study. Wise characters benefit from a high Wisdom score.
The healing rate is higher than for other classes but hit points lost due to magic can’t be recovered via medicine or healing spells, only through natural healing.
Wise characters suffer penalties when they wear shields or armor heavier than leather and certain weapons.
Let’s not forget equipment. The costs for gear are the same as in Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. A starter character rolls 3d6 and multiplies it by 10 to get his allowance.
Armor class is different and needs some conversion from other old school games. Unarmored characters have AC 0. The better your armor, the higher your AC. Full plate is AC 6. There is a conversion chart in the combat chapter of the game.
There is also a small section dealing with languages. Bonus languages may come from affiliation groups (Thieves’ Cant) or from a high Intelligence score.
Let’s make a character
A Scroll Scribe would be cool. It should be a Wise character so he can work miracles. So, my rolls for 3d6 are: STR 7 DEX 11 CON 9 INT 10 WIS 14 CHA 8
A very good roll for a Wise. I have HD 1+1, so I roll a d6 and add 1: 1 (ouch!), so that means I have 2 HP. That’s not much and I won’t cast a lot, it’s too dangerous.
I have AV (Attack Value) 10 and a ST (Saving Throw) of 6.
I have one slot for miracles but because I have a WIS of 14, I get an additional inactive slot.
Miracles: “Scroll of the Nimble Mink”, (“Scroll of Lesser Demon Banishing”, “Scroll of Frog Summoning”)
Now for the groups: one is for Scroll Scribe, next to WIS, and one is for an affiliation group “Order of Rune Wards and Scribe Scrolls”.
For my game, the setting could have something like demons plaguing the world and using scrolls and runes helps them to keep at bay. I’m putting the affiliation group next to INT so I’ll know with which demons I have to deal.
I need some equipment, and roll 3d6 (=10), multiply that by 10 and get 100 gold coins.
Leather armor costs 15 gp and gives me AC 2. Let’s play it safe with 2 HP and chose a ranged weapon, i.e. a Crossbow, one of the few two-handed weapons I can wield without penalties. That’s 30 gp.
A Quarterstaff has reach but only does 1d6-1 damage, so I’m going to opt for a normal sword as a melee weapon, 10 gp does 1d6+1 damage.
Here’s the complete character:
Losann, level 1 Wise Scribe Scroll
STR 7, DEX 11, CON 9, INT 10 (Order of Rune Wards and Scribe Scrolls), WIS 14 (Scribe Scroll), CHA 8
ST 6, HP 2, AC 2, MV 30, AV 10
Miracles: “Scroll of the Nimble Mink”, (“Scroll of Lesser Demon Banishing”, “Scroll of Frog Summoning”)
Sword 1d6+1, Crossbow 1d6+1, Leather, 45 gp
Another excellent example is from Norbert G. Matausch from Analogkonsole (in German, though). He created a Muscle Wizard.
Character creation is fun and it’s pretty freeform which has its advantages. It’s clearly old school in its roots and starting characters can be pretty squishy (1 HP is possible).
This can be a frustration for players, so if you don’t like the mortality rate of low-level PCs, you could house rule it (i.e. max. HP at first level). There are some fail-safes so that you don’t die as fast as in S&W WhiteBox but it’s still a deadly game.
I like the freedom I have with combining classes and descriptions/groups. I can make a Strong Paladin (more the martial type) or a Wise Paladin (more the magic healer). I can mix and match and make a Wise Ranger (he can do miracles!) or a Deft Wizard (a scholarly type who can’t do magic on his own but who is able to read from scrolls etc.).
Furthermore, as a player I have some control over the game world when choosing groups as I can easily introduce new affiliation groups or new species. In this regard, the game can help with world-building and offers something unique compared to most other OSR games and D&D clones.
I like the three classes, they all have their merit. Even the Fighter/Strong is mechanically interesting with his melee options, the ability to steal a monster power and the chance to attack a second enemy.
Using different XP tables for the classes doesn’t make that much sense to me. This is not vanilla D&D where the fighter is boring but strong at low-levels and the magic-user useless at first and then a powerhouse later. Because the Wise will always have to pay with his HP for miracles, the system is fairly balanced and there is not a great need to adjust leveling with high XP requirements for the Wise. In the same manner, the Deft isn’t that weak in comparison to the Strong that he’ll need an XP boost. Deft characters are real damage dealers if they have an applicable vocation. The author included some sample characters and a list of names suitable for the implied setting White Curse. That’s pretty neat. I have used them for my playtest and although character creation is fast, I’m glad to have some pregens available.
The thing which slows the process down a bit is having to pick equipment, so I’m in favor of making equipment packs as a house rule.
- I really like Philgamer’s approach though I sometimes have the feeling that the series suffers from him only reading the gaming books and not actually playing them. (That’s a problem that I have, too. Some of my reviews are “reading reviews”.) I’m missing qualified criticism in some parts. ↩