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29 Sep 2015

[Let's Study: Whitehack 2nd edition] Part 2 - Game Mechanics

Read part 1 here This is the second part of my walkthrough of Whitehack 2nd edition. The first chapter was about character creation, now we get to know how the game mechanics work.
I don’t want these blog posts get too long, so today we’ll handle the basic mechanics and save combat and magic for later.

General stuff

Here are some basics about role-playing games: the Referee will present the world, but you decide how your character reacts.
The author stresses that there are situations that the rules don’t cover. The Referee and the player will negotiate. You are asked to collaborate on game world creation and creating a shared narrative.

Experience Points

In old school tradition, you get experience points (XP) for killing monsters and getting loot. 1 gp (gold piece) equals 1 XP and the Referee is responsible for deciding monster XP. Furthermore, you gain XP for completing quests, for example reaching specific goals. Quest XP should be about half of total XP gained at low levels.
Regrettably, there are no guidelines on carousing or similar as a justification for using money as XP.
Personally, I’m not a great fan of tracking XP although it’s an old tradition. And I dislike coming up with monster XP. At least the game has a table with base XP entries: a HD <1 monster only gives 15 XP but a HD 17 monster already grants 3.400 XP.
As already said in my post about character creation I don’t see the necessity for different XP requirements for the classes. In my games, I would use a system where I decide when the characters level up or some kind of milestone system.
The Quest XP idea goes into the right direction for me, as it encourages completing the mission instead just trying to survive.
However, here is what the author had to say to my first post:

I’ll contribute with a comment about the different XP tables. I believe the utility/sense of them is easier to spot at higher levels and especially in combination with the rare classes. For example, a Species as Class character built on the concept of a Strong Insectoid Guard might have a host of mechanical advantages (access to have mind, built-in chitin armor, four arms etc. etc.) that would make it clearly over-powered without a different XP-curve. Similarly, the rare Fortunate class would be unable to pay the XP needed to use its class ability (i.e. retainers that can be “leveled up”) and still be viable characters compared to a Strong or Wise character if all classes had the same XP curve. There are similar considerations between the other classes.

How does Whitehack work basically?

As this is generally a D&D-variant, everything centers around a d20.
Remember that there is the positive double roll and the negative double roll: roll two d20 and take the best or the worst. The 1st edition of Whitehack used the Swords & Wizardry mechanic: Saving Throws were roll-equal-or-over, task rolls where roll-equal-or-under and attack rolls were roll-equal-or-over with descending AC. While this is in the spirit of the original D&D I was not a great fan because I like streamlined mechanics and it’s easier to teach to new people. Fortunately, the 2nd edition has cleaned up the nuts and bolts of the system: everything is now “roll high under”. That means you need to roll equal or below a difficulty number but try to roll as high as you can within this margin. There is only one Saving Throw value (not 5 like in OD&D and not 3 like in D&D 3e) thanks to the S&W WhiteBox’s heritage. This varies by class. A 1st level Deft character has an ST of 7, the Strong has 5 and the Wise has 6.
So if you are allowed a Saving Throw to escape a trap, a hazard or a hostile miracle, your roll needs to be equal or under your ST value.
If you have resistance, you roll a positive double roll, if you’re vulnerable, you roll a negative double roll. If you do a task roll, the Referee decides the appropriate attribute. As you can see, there is no skill system like in later editions of D&D, this again shows the 0e roots of Whitehack.
The Referee can use the face value of the (successful) roll as an indicator on how well you’ve done. Rolling your attribute score is a crit but rolling a 20 is a fumble. Some circumstances can make a task harder or easier and the Referee can give you bonuses or penalities, mostly a +2 or -2 on your attribute. There are some instances when a task would require training, experience or special knowledge. In this case, you need to check your Groups. If the group is written somewhere on your character sheet, you roll a normal d20. If it’s next to the relevant attribute, you roll a positive double roll. If you don’t have a predisposition for the task, you roll a negative double roll.
This idea is pretty neat as it allows for some clever use of your Groups, ties into your character concept and uses the freeform Groups for mechanical benefits.
Species can be important here, too. Let’s say you play a character with the species group “Goblin” next to your Charisma score. If you try to charm someone, that might give you a negative double roll! Another example (from the book): lock-picking. If you are a Deft character with the vocation Thief and you have lockpicks you’ll get a positive double roll (the vocation group of the Deft works for all attributes). That’s the same case if you are a Wise Thief or a Strong Thief with the group written next to Dexterity (and you have lockpicks). But if your group is written next to another attribute, it won’t help. There is also a rule for rolling pairs. In practice, this rule doesn’t come into play very often. The sequence is this: successful positive pair > crit > normal success > failure > fumble > failed negative pair. Whitehack also has an entirely new mechanic called an auction. This is used for longer contests like a chase.
The rules are a bit abstract but are supposed to be role-played so the auction gets more dynamic. Every participant rolls a hidden d6. Then you make a bid. The goal is to roll higher than the bid but roll lower or equal than your attribute plus the secret d6.
For example, in a race, you can say that you try to evade the carts of the merchants (Dexterity score plus the result of your d6).
So, first you roll your hidden d6, then you bid. You either have to bid higher or you settle on a 1-bid just to stay in the contest. The highest bid goes first and tries to make a successful roll. If he succeeds, he has won the conflict, otherwise the second highest bidder makes his roll.
The mechanic is a bit hard to grasp but can be fun if people really explain what they’re doing instead of just sticking to the die rolls. The math is not intuitive but because you don’t know your opponents attribute scores and their hidden die roll, it’s a bit of a gamble.
There is, fortunately, a lengthy example of an auction in the book. The book also goes into detail for time and movement rates. The movement differs from WhiteBox. For example, an unencumbered human can move 12 ft/turn (10 min.) in WhiteBox and 120 ft/turn in Whitehack. This is for dungeon crawling. WH also has a table for combat movement. The normal movement rate for humans is 30 ft/round (or 6 grid squares).

Some observations

The rules changes from the first edition are well executed. The 2nd edition moves away from S&W WhiteBox in favor of a unified mechanic. It’s still very old school but slightly different from other D&D variants.
The skill roll system works nicely with the character Groups. The positive double roll and negative double roll rule is simple and intuitive (and familiar if you know D&D 5e).
Some people like the auction mechanic and others don’t. As I like abstract rules for conflict situations I welcome it. However, it can be hard to grasp the first time. In forums and communities, you can see that many people don’t get it at first. Yet it’s a tool and if you don’t like it you can get rid of auctions without hurting the game. Go to part 3

Links: Whitehack 2nd edition Buy the game at lulu 1st edition review