Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Let's Talk About WhiteHack

First, as with so many of my other "Let's Talk About [Whatever]" posts, let me be clear: this is not a review of +Christian Mehrstam's WhiteHack RPG. Rather, it's a discussion of my impressions of the game and how it's unique and worth my time. But still, not a review. I'm not going to tell you why you should buy it, or why I did (I will say that opportunity is everything); that would make it a review. Instead, I want to talk about a few things that really make it shine and, in my view, fulfill the promise that Whitebox OD&D made that its supplements and subsequent games ultimately shortchanged us on.

The Whitebox Promise

There's this passage in Volume I: Men & Magic that goes like this:
Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as
virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a
player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and
progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign
referee.
That first sentence hits me in the sensitive parts of my heart and wants to make them sing. Subsequent supplements try to deliver on these promises by adding additional character classes and character options like spells, but to me it's always felt like the expansion of options became proscriptive. You could play a thief because you had the rules to play one. You could play a druid. But why couldn't you have played those types of character without those rules and just worked it out for yourself as the game play went along?

I know I just lost some folks there.

I know some folks think that without rules that say you can do a thing, you can't do it. That's actually the sort of unimaginative thought that leads to a proliferation of classes, spells, rules, splatbooks and, in the end, system bloat. Because of thinking like this, we need to have a thief class, but we'd also need a centaur class and a werewolf class because you're not imaginative enough to sort it out yourself.

This is part one of the Whitebox Promise.

Here's part two, from Volume III: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures: "... but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?"

Yep. That's the thing.

First, you can be anything. Second, we shouldn't tell you how to be anything.

And yet, TSR kept publishing rules and made a bunch of money doing other people's imagining for them and the game got huge and sold millions of copies and was revised a bunch of times and ultimately the Mentzer edition came out and sold the most copies of any D&D ever, so many that a copy ended up in a Grand Rapids garage sale in 1985 where my grandparents bought it for me. So yes, I get that if it wasn't for TSR blowing up the D&D box beyond the LBBs, I might never have gotten into it. This isn't about irony. And it's not about what TSR should have done, because, at least in the early days, I think they got more right than wrong.

This is about a promise undelivered upon.

The simplicity of OD&D pared with a promised open-endedness that just won't quit.

This is the promise that WhiteHack delivers upon.

Simple Descriptors, Old School Rules

I've mentioned before that I really like the implementation of common language into games as discrete rules elements based upon the interpretation of common language terms. This is one reason I was hoping to love Fate (I didn't) and its use of common language in Aspects. This is also one of the reasons that Dungeon World's Bonds work so well. WhiteHack bases its answer to the Whitebox Promise in common language descriptors (called Groups) while marrying them to a different take on old school mechanics.

I think that the use of the term "Groups" is a little confusing, but really what it means is "descriptors." A Group could be "kobold." It could be "lawful." It could be an occupation (and has to be for certain character classes). It could be a ton of different stuff, and you get the picture. Here, if you wanted to be Gary & Dave's dragon from that quote above, you'd take a "dragon" Group. It would apply to all sorts of dragon-y things. It lets you be a dragon and you can apply it to the things that not only is a dragon good at, but also the things that dragons are bad at.

All of this lies on top of an old school-style "roll low" universal mechanic that feels like an inside-out version of the "d20 System" of the 3e days (in a good way) or an amped-up version of BECMI & 2e's use of ability score checks. This universal mechanic intersects with Groups in a clever way: if your Group should apply in a positive manner, roll twice and take the better result (read here as under the relevant ability score or value but as close as possible) but if it applies in a negative manner, you take the worse (read here as either above the relevant score/value or the lower of the two if both are below).

This is a super-flexible system that I could see using for a ton of different games. I'm slightly afraid it's going to become my next go-to game.

It Ain't All Good

Seriously, where's the pdf? I understand the argument for game books as gaming artifacts. I mean, I make zines, ferchrissakes. I get that things need to be in print to really get the love they deserve. HOWEVER, these days, I want a pdf. I can put it on my phone. I always have it as long as I have my computer. I can share it with the players in my group (and I will; your DRM is pretty fucking stupid, so you might as well knock it off [that having been said, I still have DRM enabled on OBS; I should fix that]). The softcover of WhiteHack is super-cheap, so affording a purchase isn't really the thing. I want to be able to say to a group of people scattered across the country (or even globe!) and say "Hey folks, we're playing WhiteHack!" They can download those rules themselves via pdf... or they could, if it were available on pdf. Not having a pdf is a bad choice and I'm afraid it will ultimately keep WhiteHack from being anything more than a fringe game.

Also, "roll low" always feels awkward. I've gotten used to it in Warhammer & Rune Quest, but it still feels strange to me. Bigger numbers are better, right? Well, I guess they kind of are in WhiteHack; the trade off of a closer die result to the score/value tested being better kind of makes my peace with the ickyness of "roll low."

In the end, I could see WhiteHack taking over a lot of my gaming life... if only it were easier to share with my players.