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Saturday 9 November 2019

Freeing the Old School Renaissance

Whitehack is a retroclone, a hack, a rough cut of Dungeons & Dragons which sets out to bring a higher degree of flexibility and design than most other roleplaying games of the Old School Renaissance. It bears some mechanical similarities to The Black Hack, but there are more differences than similarities. The Black Hack focuses on dungeon delving and traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style of play with traditional elements such as the Races and Classes found in Dungeons & Dragons, but with mechanics similar to that of Numenera to support player-focused play. Whitehack can do that, but is designed to do Races, Classes, and magic of the players’ and Referee’s choice combined with a simple mechanic, and as much as this provides player and Referee alike with a huge amount of creative freedom, it also comes with a certain degree of conceptual complexity.

A character in Whitehack looks much like a Dungeons & Dragons character, but not. A character has six characteristics—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, plus a Class and Level, Armour Class, Hit Points, and so on. Value for various factors, including Hit Points, along with Attack Value—representing a character’s martial prowess, Saving Throw—rolled to avoid dangers and hazards, Slots—special abilities, and Groups—origins/links/professions, are provided by a character’s Class. Instead of traditional fantasy Classes like Fighter, Cleric, Thief, and Wizard, Whitehack has three, all with just ten Levels—Deft, Strong, and Wise. Each Class has some core abilities. Thus Deft characters can roll for double damage when attacking from a dexterously advantageous position, attune themselves to certain objects or animals to do amazing things with them; Strong characters are good in melee and get better such as being able to climb and fight huge opponents or attack with two weapons, and can even learn attack moves from opponents they kill; and Wise characters can do magic, whether that is prayers, spells, rituals, and so forth.

So far, so simple, and so far, not that interesting, but exactly what the Classes, the Slots, and the Groups represent is where Whitehack begins to get interesting. This is because it is entirely up to each player to decide what they are. So a Deft character might be a swashbuckling duellist, a wandering monk from faraway, an agile thief; a Strong character could be a mighty-thewed barbarian, a gigantic prehistoric hominid named Joe Miller, a loyal knight; and a Wise could be a wizard, a priest, a druid, or even a mad scientist. Slots are both special abilities and the number of times that a character can use a special per day, so it is possible to know more than one special ability, but be limited in the number of uses. The player of course tailors the Slots to the character, a Deft archer might know trick shots or jungle acrobat be accompanied by a loyal panther; a charismatic Strong character might boost morale or instil fear, whilst a loyal Strong character could protect others; and a Wise summoner might call things from the netherworld or a Wise steampunk tinkerer might fiddle with a Universal Engine to get any number of effects. 

Then a character has Groups. Every character starts with two of these, representing his Species—if other human, his vocation, or an affiliation with a guild or tribe or school or whatever. An affiliation might even be a strong personality trait or belief, such as Lawful, Evil, or Hesta will always guide me. Whatever the Group, it is always associated with an attribute and whenever the player has to make a check against an attribute when its associated group comes into play, it is always with a bonus. 

Thurston Smith
Level 1 Deft Hero
Hit Dice 1 Attack Value 10 
Move Value 25 Saving Throw 7 
Armour Class 3 Hit Points 5 

Strength 08 
Dexterity 15 (+1 to Initiative) [Treasure Hunter]
Constitution 13 
Intelligence 17 [The Last University]
Wisdom 07 
Charisma 14

Languages: Draconic, Underearth, Common

Special Abilities
Master of the Whip

Whilst Hit Points and weapon damage in Whitehack is rolled on six-sided dice, the roleplaying game’s mechanic uses a twenty-sided die—or two. For his hero to undertake an action, a player rolls a twenty-sided die and attempts to roll equal to or under the appropriate attribute. A roll of twenty is a fumble, but a roll equal to the value of the attribute is a critical success. The Referee can make this task easier or harder by increasing or decreasing the value of the attribute for the purposes of the task. If a character has an appropriate group next to the attribute being rolled against, then the player can make a ‘positive double roll’ and roll two twenty-sided dice with only one needing to be equal to or under the attribute for the character to succeed. (Other roleplaying games would call this ‘rolling with advantage’.) If though,  pairs are rolled on ‘positive double roll’ equal to or under the attribute then the character gains an extra bonus of some kind, but if the pairs are over the attribute, he suffers an extra detrimental effect in addition to his failure.
For example, Thurston Smith is on an archaeological expedition and is exploring a necropolis in search of the tomb of Naranda, Lord of the White Scales, an infamous White Dragon cultist. Searching a catacomb complex he comes across the sarcophagus of another potentially important cultist. The stone coffin is carved as if the occupant was wrapped in the wings of a dragon and engraved in the Draconic tongue. Thurston speaks Draconic, but the engravings are faded and the Draconic an ancient variant. To read what it says, Thurston’s player will need to make an Intelligence check. Which for Thurston will be seventeen. Thurston also has an appropriate Group attached to his Intelligence—The Last University—so his player gets to make a ‘double positive roll’. The Referee states that the condition of the engravings makes it harder to read them and levies a penalty. So now Thurston’s player much make a ‘Double Positive Roll’ against a target of fifteen. He rolls six and six—a positive, but not critical success. The Referee identifies the tomb as belonging to Oshun the Minor, another cultist, but one who was part the schism that killed Naranda, Lord of the White Scales and was said to have gone to the grave with some of his enemy’s secrets.
Whitehack uses the same mechanic for attacking in combat, but with an adjustment to how Armour Class is handled. The Armour Class scale in Whitehack is ascending, but ascends from zero, indicating no armour, then two for Cloth, three for Leather, and so on. Shields increase Armour Class by one. (A table provides a means of conversion from traditional ascending and descending Armour Class scales found in other fantasy roleplaying games.) When a character attacks an opponent wearing armour or with an Armour Class value, his player is rolling against both the character’s attribute and the opponent’s Armour Class. If the player rolls equal to or under his character’s attribute, but above the Armour Class value, then the attack is successful, but if the roll is under both the attribute and the Armour Class value, then the attack fails.
For example, Thurston, having opened up the sarcophagus of Oshun the Minor, is confronted with the corpse of the long dead priest, reanimated as an Ice Zombie. Thurston quickly draws his flintlock pistol and fires at the looming desiccated ice figure. Thurston’s attack will go first because he is using a firearm and the player will be rolling against Thurston’s Dexterity. However, the Oshun the Minor is flesh and bone hardened by ice, which gives him an Armour Class of three. Any roll of four to sixteen will mean that Thurston’s shot has hit, but a roll of seventeen or more means a miss, and a roll of three or lower means that he has hit Oshun the Minor, but the Ice Zombie’s frozen skin has stopped the ball from Thurston’s handgun.
Contests between characters or NPCs can be handled via the simple comparison of attribute rolls, but for longer contests an Auction mechanic can be used. Each participant rolls a six-sided die and keeping the result a secret, bids the value of the number rolled or less as a qualifier much like Armour Class. For example, if Thurston wanted to escape the cold clutches of Oshun the Minor, his player might roll a four on the six-sided die, and bid a three to escape, meaning that he has to roll under Thurston’s Dexterity of seventeen, but over the bid of three to succeed. If he fails, then the Referee gets to bid for Oshun the Minor to catch him… 

Having given the players the freedom to imagine and design their characters how they like just using the three Classes, Whitehack gives the Wise Class and thus spellcasters the freedom to create almost any magic that they like. The downside is that casting spells, doing prayers, performing rituals, and so on costs the caster Hit Points—and the more complex the spell and its effects, the more Hit Points it costs. Now the Wise character does get these Hit Points back faster than any other Class—though not from his own magic—and he can mitigate the Hit Point loss. This might be through the use of the right equipment or tools, ingredients, place, gestures, and so on.
For example, Darius the Spider Mage wants to sneak past some guards in a torchlit cavern. He decides to cast Move Like an Arachnid and climb up the walls and along the ceiling. The Referee states that this will cost Darius 1d6+2 in Hit Points to cast. Darius’ player says that the Spider Mage will make it appear that he has eight legs as part of the casting and rub crushed spiders into his hands and feet. For the first, the Referee agrees to reduce the cost to 1d6+1 and then to 1d6 for the second. Darius’ player rolls the die and loses three Hit Points, but successfully casts the spell...
Essentially, spellcasting in Whitehack is a negotiation between the player and the Referee, the player aiming to cast a spell closest to the desired effect, whilst losing as few Hit Points as possible, whereas the Referee is aiming to have the Wise character cast something plausible taking into account the character’s concept, Level, and Groups. This works whatever type of spell or effect the Wise character is aiming for, including the creation of artefacts, although this costs the caster permanent Hit Points rather than temporary ones. For those who like the traditional spells of Dungeons & Dragons and other retroclones, Whitehack includes a list for the players and Referee as a reference to aid them in a more traditional style of fantasy roleplaying game.

Beyond these core rules, Whitehack provides rules for corruption and then four new Classes. The first two are the Brave and the Fortunate, whilst the Dagonite and the Marionette are given as two examples of Race of Class. All four are slightly more complex Classes, the first two designed to be used as replacements should a player character die during the game, the second two to fit the campaign setting given at the end of the Whitehack. All four though, work as examples for the Referee to design her own. Whitehack also provides the Referee on advice when running the game, covering designing or adapting settings, creating adventures and constructing dungeons, and handling campaigns.

Although a full list of monsters is included in Whitehack, it is very much a list and a list a traditional monsters, and given that they are traditional monsters, they do not really anything in the way of an explanation. Instead, Whitehack focuses on building monsters, including ‘Boss’ monsters which have to be taken down stage by stage. The monsters given as an example include Mountain Orcs—stealthy cannibals who are rumoured to be lycanthropes, Rock Snails—beasts of burden whose shells are used as shelter by the travellers they carry; and Whitecloaks, a lawful religious cult dedicated to fighting and curing the corrupted and the cursed. These monsters, much like the artefacts given in Whitehack such as the Dagonite Needle Gun and the Ghost Box—a device for speaking to the undead spirits trapped within, are part of ‘The White Curse’, the campaign setting included in Whitehack.

‘The White Curse’ is a post-apocalypse fantasy setting in which the blood of an evil Witch King seeped into the ground, causing a terrible cold to spread and many of its inhabitants to suffer from a curse that turns them into the Twisted. As the Witch King works to return to the mortal world, one cult known as the Watchers attempts to stop it whilst the Witch Cult works for its master. The world is one of shattered cities buried under ice and freezing seas forcing the amphibious Dagonites to seek refuge on the land, as the Witch Cult searches the ruins for ancient artefacts and the Watchers attempt to stop them. The set-up suggests that the player character party could be part of either organisation which lends itself to some interesting roleplaying possibilities.

Whitehack comes with a scenario, ‘The Chapterhouse Murders’, set within the enclosed chapterhouse of the Whitecloaks. The player characters will need to conduct their investigations outside the chapterhouse in the gorge city of Ode and then find their way inside to continue. Much of the scenario is built around a mindmap of relationships that the Referee will need to work from, with the investigation inside the chapterhouse combining a dungeon crawl and a murder mystery, but playd out with stealth. Clues learned in ‘The Chapterhouse Murders’ will lead the player characters out of the city of Ode and after a murderous MacGuffin, the significance of which will vary according to which side the player characters are working for. ‘The White Curse’ provides impressive support for Whitehack, solid playable fantasy content with both steampunk-esque and Lovecraftian elements.

Whitehack is available in a variety of formats, but the simplest and handiest is a sixty-four page digest-sized book. All versions are illustrated, but the layout is clean and tidy and whilst it needs an edit here and there, the writing is engaging. One issue is with the organisation which puts all of the play examples together in one place and not with the rules they illustrate. This means that grasping the rules is not as immediately as easy as it should be and that is at odds with the simplicity and intent of Whitehack.

As much as many retroclones are designed to emulate particular iterations of Dungeons & Dragons and in many cases, it is claimed that they can do a variety of different types and styles of fantasy too. Now Whitehack can do the traditional fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons and the support and scenarios for traditional Dungeons & Dragons and other retroclones can be adapted to Whitehack—a matter of the Referee making the adjustment of the mechanics and numbers from the other to Whitehack, which can be done on the fly once she is used to it—what Whitehack offers is the flexibility and freedom to do more. Not just for the Referee, but the players who have the freedom to create the characters they want without the constraints of traditional fantasy. On the downside though, the freedom means a lack of options to choose from and for some players and Referees this can be paralysing. (In which case, Whitehack may not be for such players and Referees and perhaps The Black Hack would be a more suitable choice as it is more traditional in the options and fantasy it offers.)

Whitehack is a retroclone package in two parts. The first the rules, simple and easy, but unconstrained in terms of what each player wants in his character and the Referee wants in the design of her fantasy world. The second is an example setting and scenario combination showcase with enough content to get a game of Whitehack going, yet with room enough for the Referee to expand and develop as is her wont. Overall, Whitehack is a great retroclone for giving player and Referee design freedom alike—and then showcasing how it can be done.


  1. That was a fair and informative review. Good job!

  2. If Darius's vocation is Spidermage he should pay even less HP.

  3. Good overview and review! A friend recommended Whitehack 4e to me, and this has made me want to try it even more.