A Look at Whitehack (Part 1)

As a newer gamer I have a curious interest into the OSR gaming scene. I love reading new systems and the OSR crowd is very productive. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that you can get many games for a small price (or free). Another gaming niche of mine is lightweight games. There can be some overlap between those two interests. Many older games tend to be a bit simpler than your crunchy D20-based modern game.

Whitehack by Christian Mehrstam, fuses these two aspects into a small little OSR gem. This post will be part 1 where I focus on layout, setting and character creation.

While reading it please bear in mind that my main experience with the first rpg ever was edition 3.5. Thus, I’m not really familiar with earlier works which OSR tries to replicate in one way or the other.

Whitehack started out on one of these versions: Sword & Wizardry White Box, the OGL retro clone of D&D’s first installment from 1974. However, it also features some new game mechanics and is a complete game in its own right.

Layout

The game comes in a saddle-stitched booklet with 32 pages. Lightweight, I got you! The front page is a character sheet and the back contains 8 sample characters. Interesting idea.
The author has packed a lot of content into this small book. The layout is minimalist, text is written in two columns, no artwork. I really like the clean and neat look of the game. And while the available space is used to its maximum the book doesn’t feel too cramped.
I’d rather have no art than bad art so Mehrstam’s way works for me. He’s very consistent with his no-frills approach.

Setting

The game is written for fantasy and can be used with many published settings without problems. The game master’s section provides help for adapting a setting to Whitehack and how to come up with your own. With the example campaign in this book you can start playing right away. (Yes, you can squeeze a campaign idea with two adventures into 32 pages!)

White Curse is a gritty fantasy setting. An evil Witch King demanded that people began to worship him. He was slain by revolters. His blood seeped into the land and twisted everything it touched. A great cold, called the White Curse, was the result. The Witch King’s spirit now controls the cursed land.
Players have the option to either play the Watchers or the Witch Cult. The Watchers are a secret society who wants to get rid of the Witch King. They are basically the good guys. On the contrary, the Witch Cult worships the evil spirit and wants to bring him back from the afterlife.
The campaigns starts three hundred years after the death of the villain. The land is warped and holds great danger for the lone traveller. Communities are full of intrigue and greed. Interestingly, the dwarfs have developed some technology like blackpowder weapons and Hox Gas machinery. This reminds me a bit of Deadlands‘ ghost rock because Hox Gas is a fused with undead souls.
The book gives you some info about one of the bigger cities. You can use Ode as a starting point. It is ruled by a corrupt council, sports several thieving guilds and has (secret) headquarters for both the Watchers and the Witch Cult.
In White Curse people worship several gods. There are knightly orders which try to enforce their god’s will. Three gods are mentioned in the book.
There is a Shadow Realm which is called “The Black”: a world in between, filled with horrible entities.

All in all, the setting material gives you enough ideas to create an interesting campaign. But it is painted in broad strokes so you will have to do some work yourself. I like the grim tone and I think everyone can find his/her niche in this fantasy world. Want to play a character who is attuned to the wild? Elf is the way to go. Want to play a gadgeteer? Make a dwarf with the vocation gadgeteer or alchemist. Want to play a paladin? Take one of the knightly orders, choose a god or the Witch King, and there you go.

And now, we delve into the

Core Mechanic

Because Whitehack is based on D&D 0e it mainly relies on a D20 roll. What does it make differently? There is the positive or negative double roll: You roll two d20s but only keep the best or the worst, respectively.
The basic task roll is an attribute test where you need to roll under or equal to your attribute score. Additionally, you will utilize the D20 when making a Saving Throw. Characters have a unified Saving Throw value. Your roll must meet the ST value or exceed it.

D6s are used for character creation and for rolling damage.

I will highlight combat and other mechanics in my next post. This section was meant to provide you with basic information so you can understand the following segment:

Character Generation

There are 8 available sample characters which the players can copy to their character sheet and use with no modification.
Alternatively, you can make your own character.

Attributes

Roll 3d6 for each attribute: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. Characteristics are straight-forward and nothing new for the experienced gamer. The higher you roll the better because you can get bonuses. For example, a 13 in Dexterity allots a +1 initiative bonus.

Classes

There are three classes: The Deft, the Strong and the Wise. I will give a brief overview about the classes but won’t cover all details.

The Deft is a class for skill monkeys and nimble characters like thieves, rangers, assassins or monks. You must choose a vocation (it’s like a career or what classes would be in other games, see below). This will result in a positive double roll for tasks related to your vocation. You can gain combat advantage if your vocation is applicable to the situation, i.e. if you are an assassin and strike from behind. You get slots for attuning yourself to objects or animals. For example, as a ranger you can be attuned to your pet wolf. The referee and the player decide on how this affects the situation.
You can have an equal number of inactive slots.
Deft characters get penalties for wearing a shield or armor heavier than studded leather.

The Strong is a melee combat fighter who relies on strength. Typical examples might be warriors, knights or barbarians. If you drop down an enemy to zero hit points you are allowed to use your momentum to attack an adjacent enemy. Furthermore, Strong characters can use their slots to learn different combat options. There are ten options available but you can only use one option per round. You can wear any armor and use any weapon. You get bonuses if your STR score is very high. Additionally, you can make as many attacks of opportunity (free attacks) as your level.

The Wise covers magical and clerical character concepts like druid, wizard, priest or mad scientist. You are able to perform miracles. This is the magic system of Whitehack. Miracles can be spells, prayers, summonings, experiments and so forth as long as they are paired to a vocation (see below).
You get slots for miracles and can have an equal number of inactive miracles.
Wearing shields or armor heavier than leather results in a penalty. Wise characters are generally not good at handling two handed weapons.

Hit Points

Hit Points are determined by rolling a certain number of Hit Dice (HD). There is one unified Saving Throw. As you level up, you gain HD, Hit Bonus for attacks (BHB = Basic Hit Bonus), your Saving Throw gets better and at some levels you can raise your attributes. However, the most interesting aspects of leveling up is that you will gain more slots for your class and more groups.
What are Groups?

Groups

Groups give you mechanical benefits but they are also broad defining aspects of your characters. These are free-form and show that Whitehack derives from the classic D&D scheme. There is no defined list, instead you or the GM are free to come up with your own. Some groups may be defined by your setting, i.e. your species group. All groups are tied to a a specific attribute. You get to roll a positive double roll if the group applies to the task at hand. A starting character belongs to two groups, leveling up will give you access to more groups.
Interestingly, your character will get an additional (affililation) group for each attribute with a score of 5 or less. I like that idea because it makes weaker characters more interesting.

Generally, there are 3 groups:

Species

If you have no species group, your character will most likely be human. Otherwise, this is the chance to get all fancy-schmancy. You must choose your species group at chargen, no surprise here. The author mentions typical fantasy species but doesn’t provide details. However, you can derive some ideas from the sample characters at the end of the book.
Every species group is tied to two attributes. Some are used positively but others can be a drawback. For instance, the exemplary dwarf is related to the attributes Strength and Charisma, meaning he gets to roll a positive double roll for feats related to Strength but will suffer a penalty for tests related to Charisma (negative double roll).

Vocations

This is where it gets interesting. In other games, this would be classes. So a vocation might be something like wizard, thief, barbarian or a more mundane profession like librarian. You can only have one vocation.
Actually, the author mentions that vocations are not occupations but I don’t really see the difference here. We can agree that vocations give your character background skills and knowledge.

Affilitions

Where does your character stand in your game world? Affiliations can give you an idea. Affiliation groups can be guilds, churches, tribes etc. They can provide special knowledge or resources but also enemies and problems.
Whitehack doesn’t use a morale system per se but if you want to you can apply the standard Good, Lawful, Evil to the affiliation groups.

Gold & Equipment

Your starting gold is rolled randomly. One gold piece is 10 silver piece or 100 copper pieces. I like the easy conversion. Whitehack has a table with gear, weapons and armor where you can find guidelines for equipment cost. It features the typical adventurerer gear like backpacks, waterskins, grappling hooks and so forth.
The weapon table has axes, daggers, bows etc. but also muskets and pistols if you like them in your game. Weapon damage centers around 1d6. Some weapons have special qualities to make them more interesting, for example a flail will ignore shield AC.
Armor is calculated with the descending AC system. The armor table has entries for shield, cloth, leather, studded leather, chainmal, splint mail and full plate.

To summarize: a solid and short section which will give you enough to play the game. The GM will need to make up prices for lodging and other services as these are not provided. The player will find enough choices of weapons and armor and if you want to get fancy it will be easy enough to add a trapping.

Languages

Your characters will speak a common language and can get additional languages from either a group or high intelligence.

Summary of Character Creation

Character creation is a a gem. The broad nature of groups makes it easy to customize your character. Mixing groups with classes gives you many possibilities for an interesting character. Taking the Wise class doesn’t limit you to the classic wizard à la Tolkien’s Gandalf. You can team it up with a battle oriented vocation, like for example Gladiator. Make her a dwarf, too, so she’ll get a STR bonus and there you have your magic wielding battle mage (or paladin?). She won’t be as melee oriented as a Strong character but she can create her own magic.

The Fighter which is traditionally a weak class in the original version does see some love here. Ok, you don’t really have a Fighter but the Strong class which encompasses more. That said melee characters ARE interesting because they have unique combat options. Some of them remind me of the Leader in 4e. I.e. melee option 4 allows you to bestow a +4 to-hit bonus to an ally. The game doesn’t limit your vanilla Fighter to things like parrying, pushing or protecting another character.

In my opinion, there is enough niche protection involved in Whitehack. The three classes are all distinctive and interesting.

I would have liked to see more examples of the group system. You can extrapolate some of it from the sample characters at the back of the book but it would have been nice if it was spelled out more clearly.

To put it in a nutshell, a very good first impression. More to come soon.


Link:
Whitehack