A Look at Whitehack (Part 2)
This is the next part of my Whitehack review. Go to part 1.
Basic game concept
Where will give you an overview about the game mechanics
You get XP for killing monsters, treasure and completing quests. Monster HP values are given.
Whitehack uses a unified Saving Throw. You need to roll equal or higher than your ST value.
As the game has no skills, tasks are resolved by rolling under the appropriate attribute. The GM can give you a bonus or a penalty on your roll to reflect on the difficulty of the task.
If one of your group applies to the task roll you may roll a positive double roll. The book goes into detail when groups give bonuses and how to use your groups for trained rolls.
Contests are simple versus rolls. First, you need to succeed in your task roll (remember, roll under), then the highest roll wins. It’s a bit counter-intuitive.
Auctions are a way to handle conflict: it’s more than a contest but less than combat. It is good for dramatic situations where you want to instill a sense of danger or suspense without revolving to a full-blown combat or if combat rules don’t fit (i.e. social situations).
You bid a certain number, at least 1, and wage that you can roll higher than that number but lower than your attribute. Your opponent can bid higher or can let your bid stand. The whole scene needs to be role-played out. The one with the highest bid needs to make the skill roll. If he succeeds he has won the Auction, if not, the other party wins.
Here is an example by Christian Mehrstam himself:
Let us say that the characters are trying to board a ship and rescue a prisoner before the ship leaves shore. The villain captain deploys some of his people to stop the characters on the shore, while the other crew members make ready for departure. I’d run the fight on the shore as an auction, but I’d run the consecutive fight with the captain and his best fighters using the regular combat rules.
For the auction, I’d make one group of enemies for each player character, and decide on an approximate attribute for each group, using 10 as a base value (see p. 19). A group of eight goblin minions facing Kalynna (Paladin, back cover) might get 18, while the group of three human sailors facing Howl (Kobold Assassin, back cover) might get 13. If these minions have some special equipment, skills, advantage/disadvantage etc., I’d adjust those values a bit. But I never plan this ahead, and don’t use more than a few seconds for this decision. I don’t tell the numbers to the players.
Next, I tell the players what is happening. Like "Kalynna, as the ship is starting to take off, eight goblin thugs spread out in a semi-circle, looking to overwhelm you on the shore. They’re armed with scimitars and knives, and one of them has a crossbow. No armor. What’s your plan?" Then I listen to Kalynna’s player. If she says she’s just gonna try and get past super fast without trying to defeat all of them, I’d let her use Dexterity. If she says she’s going to use Kalynna’s weapon skill and strength to kill them, I’d let her use her total attack bonus + 10 as a stand in "combat attribute." If she says she’s gonna rely mainly on her superior armor, letting this battle take its time, I’d let her use her AAC. Based on what she says, I’d also decide on what’s at stake. Like: "Each loser in this auction is gonna take 1d6 damage," or maybe "if you lose, you will still defeat the goblins, but you will be too late and you will take d6-2 damage."
Once this is done (about 30 seconds), me and Kalynna’s player play out the auction using the regular auction rules, role-playing each bet: Me: "I bet 2. The goblins rush you!" Kalynna: "5. I charge their flank!" Me: "7. The crossbow goblin fires at you." Kalynna: "9. I raise my shield crash into them." Me: "10. Two of them manage to get up behind you." Kalynna: "No more bids. I stand and fight." Me: "[I roll to get above 10 but under 18.] Crap. 9. You win. [I roll damage for each goblin.] All die but two, who run away wounded. Wanna describe it?" Kalynna: "Sure. Their knifes are too weak to penetrate my armor, so I take out the scimitar fighters first. The sand is black with goblin blood, and I laugh as I let the remaining knife-fighters encircle me …"
When you write this down like I’ve done above, it takes a lot words. But in reality, this scene would take maybe 2–3 minutes with zero planning, and the descriptions for each bid would likely be longer than what I've written above. There would still be some tactical choice involved in choosing strategy for the player characters and in placing the bids, but also room for free descriptions of cool scenes.
Combat is D20SRD-derived which means that it is very familiar to anyone who has played DnD 3e (like me). You determine initiative, then the one with the highest score begins. Initiative is handled individually, not party-wise.
You get a small action (like drawing your weapon), a move action and an attack action every round.
As the game uses descending armor class you need to compare the opponent’s AC to a small table. To hit armor class 0 (Thac0) you need to meet or exceed a 19 with your roll (don’t forget to include your to-hit-bonus).
There are free attacks which are basically what was called “Attack of opportunity” back in the day. Another familiar wording is combat advantage: it grants you a +2 bonus to hit and damage if you are in an advantageous position.
Furthermore, there are some suggestions for combat options like Push, Feint or others.
If situational circumstances apply (cover, or conditions like dazed or stunned) the GM is asked to give bonuses or penalties to AC, damage, move, initiative or to-hit.
Dying is handled nicely. Player characters can either make a Saving Throw to avoid death or they can make a constitution roll. That mitigates some of the deadliness of the system especially in lower levels.
Characters heal one HP every evening and morning naturally, 48 hours of rest will heal you completely. Besides magical healing (or potions) you are allowed to bind 1d6-3 HP worth of wounds after a battle if you succeed in a trained skill roll of first aid. Another option is to take a scar or permanent injury. This will be noted next to one of your attributes and will result in a negative double roll with certain task rolls.
Magic is different which I like a lot. I am not a fan of spell lists. At character creation Wise characters get slots for magic as you might recall. You need to choose a wording for your miracle slot, like “Tendrils of Death”. If you decide to use your miracle you need to tell the GM what you want to achieve. After you have told him your desired effect, the GM will tell you the cost in Hit Points. There are several factors which come into play for determining the cost: magnitude of the desired effect, target and character levels, number of targets and so forth.
But other than that the miracle just takes place!
In combat you need at least one round of concentration before the miracle fires off. Adjacent foes can make a free attack against you. If you take damage while concentrating you must make a Saving Throw. Failure means that you concentration is broken.
The author also gives guidelines for using magical items like scrolls and potions, cursed items and how to create magic items.
And that’s it for the game mechanics.
Game Experience for the Player - my verdict
As already stated in part 1 of my review the character creation is a bliss and surely the strongest part of the game. I really like the versatility of choices. Some more examples on how the author envisions groups (species, vocations and affiliations) would have been good though.
The task roll system works and I think the idea of the positive and negative double roll is a great addition to this game. This is another thing which makes Whitehack stand out from other OSR games.
If you like logic behind the combat mechanics from DnD 3e you will be happy with Christian Mehrstam’s solution. For me, it works well. But you can house-rule it fairly easily if it doesn’t sit right with you.
I’m a bit torn on the Auction mechanic. Although it is a good idea it can slow down play as it is a mini-game within the game. Tactical choices from a player’s point of view do exist because you can gamble on a good roll. But the GM always has an advantage because he knows the stand-in-attribute of the monsters and the fitting attribute of the players. The players only know their own values.
In the play test some of my players didn’t really like the mechanic and would have preferred a simple opposed roll.
The main drawback of the game is that it is missing a unified task resolution. Task rolls are “roll under” (your attribute), attack rolls are “roll over” while using the table because of the ascending armor class, Saving Throws are also “roll over”.
Especially opposed task rolls with a positive or negative double roll can get confusing because you need to roll under your attribute to succeed but then the higher of the two rolls wins.
I think the game would have benefited from a single mechanic. Mind you, it’s not something which really breaks the system. I would have liked a streamlined version instead of staying true to the original.
Game Experience for the Game Master
The GM would need to read more than the first part of the book: the second part deals with running the game, monsters, magic artifacts, an example setting (see review part 1) and two adventures. It’s quite amazing how the author could fit in all the content into 32 pages. However, it comes at the cost of details.
The advice on running the game is solid and helpful. Nonetheless, I would suggest that a novice GM looks into other resources to get more than the basics. I liked how the author addressed “hacking the notion of normal” where he talks about changing some aspects of a game to make it more interesting, i.e. how death works.
His approach to adventure design (dividing it into phases of prelude - preparation - traveling/exploring - climax - possible consequences) is consistent with the two given adventures.
These are more or less minimalist as the rest of the book but they give you a good overview about how Christian Mehrstam has envisioned the setting and some rules aspects. For example, in the adventure Pale Orc there is a race which should be played as an auction.
The book contains more than 80 pregenerated monsters which is really helpful. Monsters have Armor Class, Hit Dice, a Move rate and Special Abilities. Hit Dice both tell you how many dice the GM rolls for determining the HP and the to-hit bonus for a monster attack.
The free form nature of Whitehack shows in the category Special. The category covers miracle powers and descriptions for monster abilities, i.e. “Acid Strike” or “Invisibility”.
For me, Whitehack has a nice solution for a small stat block with enough distinction to make an interesting monster. Here is an example for a complete stat block:
Gnoll, HD 2, AC 5, Move 25, Special: Pack runner
Furthermore, a table for Monster XP is provided. There is no morale system.
Monsters save against 19 minus HD, their stand-in attribute is 10, raised or lowered as appropriate. The system has room for interpretation but I think this is ok for an OSR game where I expect rulings.
The monster chapter has enough meat to be helpful but expects you to be familiar with standard fantasy monsters. There is no explanation of how these monsters look, live or behave.
To sum up, I was satisfied with the content for the GM.
What about Game X?
While reading and playtesting the game I was reminded of mechanics of other games I came across.
The character creation is a bit similar to Numenera: there are three core classes which can be diversified by giving “descriptors”. Whitehack is more open-ended though.
Players told me that the positive/negative double roll is the same as in DnD Next. My argument is that I have seen the mechanic before, for example in Free Universal RPG.
Christian Mehrstam told me that he is not familiar with neither Numenera nor DnD Next:
The basis of a groups system is there in most RPGs that combine class and "race" (a word I do not use in Whitehack). But Whitehack splits regular classes into class and vocation groups, giving the game much more flexibility when it comes to what kind of character you can create (imagine a Deft Wizard, for instance). Adding species and affiliation groups to that makes my game a good tool that can be used to tackle settings that are notoriously hard to play without the original rules due to special factions, special kinds of creatures, kinds of magic etc. etc.
Whitehack is an interesting addition to the OSR genre. It has some fresh ideas but stays well within the realm of old-school role-playing.
The character creation is simply brilliant. The game mechanics have some nice twists but could be further streamlined. I am missing some more examples to clarify things.
I am disappointed that there is no electronic version. Buying the game from lulu is not really cheap if you’re from Continental Europe and I like electronic versions for a quick look-up. The physical book gives you lots of material on just 32 pages: a great package. A must-buy for OSR gamers with an affinity for new-school mechanics and rules-lite lovers.
German customers can buy the game at Sphärenmeister Spiele,too. Funnily, I think this is partly my fault because I mentioned the game in the German roleplaying community so people asked the shop-owner about it.