the wonder of role-playing games: reviews, solo rpgs, old-school & narrative games

02 Oct 2015

[Let's Study: Whitehack 2nd Edition] Part 3 - Combat & Magic

Go to part 1 After studying character creation and basic game mechanics we can now take a look at combat and magic.
This is still part of chapter 2 titled “The Game”.
I’ll try to hit a certain level of detail so you know how to game works, but I won’t post everything here (buy the book, please).


For initiative, this game doesn’t use group initiative. However, the Referee can group his monsters together if she likes. In case of a tie, missiles go before melee, before lighter weapons, before heavier weapons.
If you don’t do anything in one round, you can act very fast in all following rounds. If you like, you can wait and act on a lower initiative slot. There are basic rules for surprise which is generally a Referee’s decision. Combat takes place in rounds. You can make an attack, a move action and perform some minor action (i.e. draw a weapon). That reminds me of later D&D editions (3e & following/D&D SRD). The attack roll is slightly different from what you would expect. The reason is that the basic “roll high under” mechanic applies. Every character has an Attack Value (AV, which centers around 10 for starter characters) instead of a basic attack bonus or to-hit bonus. Armor Class is ascending but different from other D&D games. An unarmored person has an AC value of 0, Chain Mail is 4 and the best armor (Full Plate) is 6.
To attack, you need to roll higher than the opponent’s AC but lower or equal than your AV.
Remember, that Strong characters get bonuses on AV if they have a high Strength score.
For example, you are a Strong character level 1 (base AV 11) with a STR of 13 (that’s +1 AV) and you attack an opponent with leather armor (AC 2) and a shield (AC +1), you need to roll higher than 3 (the opponent’s total AC) but lower or equal than 12 (your AV).
Crits do double damage and then there are some additional subtle rules which I don’t want to repeat here. But that’s the basic mechanic.
Melee attacks work as described in a 5 ft. radius (except if you’ve got a reach weapon).
Range attacks are similar, but there are some adjustments due to range. Every weapon has a range value and each increment that you exceed that value adds a penalty of -1 AV. There are also rules for firing into melee and area attacks. The attack roll can be modified by different circumstances, for example, Combat Advantage, Conditions or Special Combat Options.
Combat Advantage (CA) is applicable if you’re in a favorable position (i.e. flanking, higher ground). CA is especially interesting for combat oriented Deft characters as they have a special rule where they can even do more damage.
Conditions are things like cover, invisibility or increased speed but also dazed, stunned or blinded. The rules covering this are a bit vague and come down to the Referee’s judgment. She can use CA, bonuses or penalties to AC, initiative or AV or more.
Then there are also Special Combat Options like Charge, Fight Defensively etc. These are different from the Strong melee special options as everyone can use them. Furthermore, there are rules for Free Attacks. I always call them Attacks of Opportunity (from 3e) as they are basically the same. If you are within melee range and cast a spell, take something from your backpack or retreat from combat (without disengaging carefully), the opponent gets one free attack per round. (Strong characters can make a number of free attacks per level.) Using magic in combat is not an easy feat. Usually, it’s time-consuming to perform a miracle and you are vulnerable to free attacks. Additionally, you need to concentrate, so if you take damage, you need to save or the miracle fizzles. There are more detailed rules for magic later. Damage & Death: At HP 0 you are knocked out, with negative HP you must save or die.
However, Whitehack has a unique rule: characters can save vs. damage once per battle. In the case of success, you may reduce the damage. But a failure means you take full damage and are knocked out for two rounds. If you go down to negative HP, you’re automatically dead (without save vs. death). Still, it makes characters a bit more sturdy than in other old school D&D games. Another innovation is the so-called Ghost Form. Characters can continue play as a ghost. Their influence on the world is restricted, but it’s a way to continue the adventure without having to roll up a new character. Moreover, the Referee might allow the party to seek means of Resurrection but it’s advised to make this an adventure with great risks. There is another small section about Poison & Drugs but it’s also very freeform like the rest of the game. Healing: natural healing is a bit better than in WhiteBox or similar games but it’s still slow. 48 hours of rest restore your health completely.
There are rules for binding wounds and also ways to heal if you’re down to negative HP.
I like that there is a rule for choosing a permanent disadvantage (a scar, a limp etc.) when you don’t find a healer. This is noted next to an attribute and can invoke negative double rolls.


Magic is the most open to interpretation in Whitehack. In contrast to traditional D&D games, there are no defined spells for Magic-Users/Clerics. As you already know, to work miracles you’ll need to choose the Wise class. Because the class description is pretty open-ended (you can be an alchemist, a cleric, a wizard, a runecarver, an artificer, an apothecary or something different), magic doesn’t have to be actual magic. Basically, the system works as per case agreement between player and Referee. The player’s character has miracle wordings (i.e. “Frog Familiar”) and says what he wants to achieve. The Referee decides if this is plausible and then assigns a hit point cost. The cost depends on the wording, on how powerful the miracle is and other criteria (i.e. desired effect: number of targets, long durations etc., potential drawbacks: casting time, ingredients, side effects etc.). Additionally, the character’s vocation is also very important. If a miracle is within the realm of the vocation, it should be cheaper than if it goes against its principles. (If you have a healing vocation, it should be more difficult to work harmful miracles, right?).
The cost lies between 1 HP and 2d6+2 HP. All costs that include a die may also include a save, so powerful miracles don’t automatically succeed. The character is not allowed to try a miracle which would put him to negative HP.
As you can see, it can be very dangerous to cast spells/work miracles, especially for low-level characters. Also keep in mind, that hit point loss from miracles can only be healed naturally. Likewise, there are rules for using scrolls, potions, wands etc., cursed items and creating your own magic items.
Scrolls etc. can be used by “non-magic users”. That makes a Deft or Strong Scholar feasible in Whitehack. Reading scrolls requires a successful trained Intelligence check. The magic effect can draw power from the user. Potions can be swallowed by everyone, too.
Some magic items may require a trained Wisdom roll to activate their abilities.
It’s interesting how creating magic items works.You need to have a specific vocation like Scribe Scroll or Apothecary and then you pay hit points for the item. For more powerful items (i.e. many charges), you may pay permanent HP and make a save.
The book also includes example magic artifacts in a later chapter for the Referee.

Gameplay Examples

Chapter 2 concludes with several examples. That’s pretty useful as Whitehack comes with some original ideas like the character groups and the auction mechanic.
I also found the examples about miracles insightful.

Some final thoughts

Combat follows D&D principles but is still a bit different due to the adherence of the “roll high under” mechanic. That can be a bit confusing at first.
The classic games use a different attack roll than Whitehack. For example, in WhiteBox with ascending armor class, it’s generally a d20 roll which is compared to a table to see if you’ve hit the armor, class. If you roll equal or higher than the number on the table, you’ve succeeded. This is in contrast to task rolls (roll under attribute).
In my opinion, Whitehack’s solution is quite elegant. Yet it requires converting typical armor class tables as it uses its own AC system. The game comes with a conversion table so that’s not a big deal, but it needs to be said.
There are some strange effects if your Attack Value/attribute score raises above 20, but that’s a rare case anyway.
Other than that, the game works smoothly and is adequately familiar to D&D folks. It comes with some unique rules (save vs. damage, ghost form) that make characters a bit more stalwart. Still, combat is deadly, especially on lower levels. Characters are not necessarily larger than life heroes but normal adventurers. That’s within the spirit of old school D&D but might be a bit bewildering for those of us who have grown up with D&D 3e or 4e.
Additionally, “newfangled” mechanics like luck points/bennies or a similar meta-gaming currency are missing. Thus, you will need to live with a bad roll or a fumbled death save. While I personally don’t consider this as a drawback, I had some playtesters who would have liked to have more influence on this subject. Concerning magic my experience during gameplay was that Wise characters were not stronger than other classes. Although miracles can be powerful the player must always carefully weigh the potential benefit against the HP cost.
I really like the open magic system as it allows me to create any kind of “spell user” that I like. The game is very flexible in this instance. By choosing miracle wordings during character creation, the system is front-loaded in this regard. Basically, you decide your miracle wording at the beginning of play and throughout the campaign it will get clearer on how the miracle works and how much HP it costs. Thus, it’s not entirely freeform because precedents will decide how magic works.
However, the unrestricted manner at the beginning of play can make it difficult for some players as they don’t know what to choose and the Referee is confronted with blank stares. That’s why you still have the option to choose traditional spells (see below).
Additionally, I like that there is basically no per-day limit on spells or the need to prepare spells for balancing issues because the HP cost is already very limiting.
In some ways, the system reminds me of Sword & Sorcery games where it’s also very difficult to use magic. The Referee’s judgment on HP cost also shows the old adage of the powerful Dungeon Master in old school games. Thus, it will come down to the Referee how well the magic system works (how powerful are miracles etc.?). There are guidelines but in the end, every campaign (world) will be different.
Still, there is some additional advice in the Referee chapter. The author included a table with traditional magic spells, divided per level. You can use these as a precept on how to set different costs. For example, a character who wants to use something like “Charm Monster” will need to pay more HP than someone who uses “Bless”. The first spell is considered level 7 and the second one is only level 3.
Moreover, there are some further alternatives suggested if you want to tweak the magic system.
Plugging in alternative spells or magic systems should be possible due to the freeform nature of the game. For example, you can easily use the non-Vancian system Wonder & Wickedness by B. Strejcek (necropraxis). Perhaps one could rig Dungeon Crawl Classic’s (aff) magic system into Whitehack, too. (I’m not too familiar with it, unfortunately, so I’m not 100% sure.) All in all, the rules are very well written. Some people might not like the open magic system as they think it’s too “wishy-washy”, but I like the freedom of choice. There are guidelines for magic, it’s not simply “come up with something on your own and we’ll see”.
The combat and magic mechanics show the highest departure from classic D&D mechanisms, but they still stay within compatibility range. Go to part 4

Links: Whitehack 2nd edition Buy the game at lulu Wonder & Wickedness Dungeon Crawl Classic (aff)