Now that I am nine sessions into running my Deep Carbon Observatory game I feel that I should share my opinions of the Whitehack rules I am running it with. Put simply, I’m loving it! It’s a lightweight OSR system with an ethos of figuring out the details of both character and setting organically during play. I have never run another game which can so easily surprise me, it’s very satisfying to sit down to my own session without any real idea what to expect and yet confident that the system will handle it.
I honestly think that with that bit of extra exposure Whitehack would have become one of the most talked about OSR games. It is a shame that the it is only available via print on demand through Lulu. Print on demand is great, and it is always better to have a nice hard copy of your rules but with no PDF option Whitehack has lost all those impulse purchases from gamers who just want something different to read or who heard something cool about the game and want to read the full rules right now. Even attention from the people who buy anything interesting in a Bundle of Holding or Deal of the Day is lost. Anyway…
Whitehack is built on the base of Sword & Wizardry Whitebox, and as such the core of Whitehack will be familiar to most roleplayers; chose a class, six stats generated with 3d6, d20s to hit, don’t run out of HPs. In subtle but important ways though, Whitehack tweaks all of it.
For example, every time you roll a d20 to pass a test you will be trying to roll equal to or less than an appropriate score on your character sheet, but also over the difficulty. Trying to hit something? Roll your Attack Value or less but also higher than your target’s Armour Class. Trying to climb a wall? Roll your Dexterity or less but also over the difficulty of the climb. This base mechanic runs through everything, pretty much eliminating the usual bonus&penalty maths while also making the whole game far more consistent than any other OSR game I have read.
Then you have the character classes. Gone are the typical Fighter/Mage/Thief options, here you choose between the Strong, the Deft and the Wise, which may sound similar but they aren’t. The Strong are combat focused and are able to steal the abilities of their defeated foes. The Deft are masters in one or two areas, maybe archery or history, stealth or singing or maybe just sticking knives into people. The Wise have a selection of miracles which they can use to cast any spell their players can imagine. Further detail is added to all player characters with Groups which detail species, affiliations and expertise, adding colour and, where appropriate, advantage dice.
The unique abilities of the Deft and the Wise are where Whitehack really starts pushing the boundaries. Once or twice a session Deft characters can use the focus of their mastery to perform feats of incredible skill, without any risk of failure. Or, instead of guaranteeing a success at a task which is deemed possible, the player can attempt to do something which really should be impossible, but only if they can pass a standard test. So a Deft archer attuned to his bow could use it to shoot an apple off someone’s head, knowing that he can’t fail, or he could roll to try to shoot an arrow into the elbow joint of a knight’s suit of armour, paralysing his sword arm without harming him. Or he could shoot another arrow out of the air, or shoot a flying dragon in the one spot where it isn’t armoured.
The miracles of the Wise go beyond simply bending reality to outright breaking it. During character generation you name your miracles and that’s all; later on in play you figure out what these miracles can do through negotiation with your GM. You could have the miracles Friend of Storms, Animal Command, Demon Summoning, Necromancy, Pyromancer or Divine Touch. Or anything else you want! When you want to use one, you tell the GM the effect you want to achieve and your GM tells you what the HP cost for that effect is, if you are happy with the cost you pay the HP and cast the spell and you can write that down and do the same again whenever you like. This way the magic in your campaign builds and is defined as you play.
The other particularly cool thing about Miracles is way spending HP to cast your spells effects your game. Even at low levels you can give your players some pretty powerful abilities to use because using them is so costly. Your players will self-regulate how much magic they use because they don’t want to be too vulnerable. Even at high levels, casting big spells is risky. It makes playing a mage very interesting because you are always weighing up the pros and cons of your many options instead of just hanging around waiting for the right time to cast Sleep or Fireball. The HP cost also balances the combat and magic sides of the party because now everyone is spending the same resource which keeps the party in sync as they all need similar rest between bouts of adventuring.
It’s an excellent game and I think everything I’ve listed here is in the just first twenty pages. On top of that you also get combat manoeuvres, boss fights, monsters, magic items, corruption rules, some excellent to-the-point GMing advice, a setting outline and two adventures. If you are at all interested you should grab yourself a copy from Lulu.com.
At the time of writing the softback version is £6.81 and if it is still working the NIGEL35 code will get you 35% off.