The Short Version: Whitehack is an easily overlooked gem often mistaken for another old-school D&D derivative. While it has many familiar features from a classic dungeon crawling ruleset it’s true strengths are found in it’s ability to adapt to other environments with ease.
I would go as far to say that using Whitehack to recreate a D&D experience is a misuse of the system as a whole. While it is not a generic game it’s unique approach to Freedom of Concept allows it to be used in many settings or genres with little to no alterations.
Whitehack expects an environment where players are able to help establish setting details, and thus it is a poor choice for firmly established settings with clear boundaries. Likewise it’s focus on the social experience of roleplaying – the group memory, the thrill of bluffing, negotiating interesting outcomes – makes the game a poor choice for groups of unfamiliar faces.
It is particularly accessible for those new to tabletop roleplaying, and I highly recommend Whitehack for groups that love having a wide variety of character concepts while retaining the best elements of old-school gaming philosophy. If you decide to get a printed copy consider getting the landscape format, as I personally find landscape books easier to manage at the table.
- The Physical Book
- OS Aren’t
- Freedom of Concept
- Negative Space as Game Design
- The Paradoxical Limitations of Conceptual Freedom
- Final Thoughts
The Physical Book
As someone who played second edition I was quick to purchase my physical copy of Whitehack shortly after it’s release. The same hardcover version I own can be currently acquired for $30 at Lulu.com and the book is a fairly standard print-on-demand construction.
One of the very first things I discovered was the rather… lively book jacket which immediately launched itself free from my book with all the excitement of an over wound spring finding it’s escape. While I attempted to flatten out the jacket, it seemed rather intent on resembling a coiled up scroll and eventually I just accepted that my copy would live without it’s jacket. Thankfully a book jacket has no impact on the book itself and all ~160 pages seem content to remain in the confines of the book’s interior.
The paper is unremarkable, but the typography is immaculate. In a world of endless advertising most tabletop roleplaying games attempt to capture your attention with strange fonts and exciting art. Whitehack has the aesthetic sensibilities of a business card, which may sound boring at first but conveys a sense of confidence and maturity.
Intentionally or not – Whitehack’s design understands that you (the player) are purchasing a game with the intention of playing it. The game is contained within the text and anything that might distract you from the text distracts you from the game itself.
While I don’t personally eat meat – I’ve often heard people say that a good steak doesn’t need sauce. I find this to be a suitable analogy. All textual formatting is done with precision. The use of bold text for example is restrained and consequently effective at pointing you toward something with a clarity of intent not often seen in other tabletop games.
The end result is that Whitehack is an exceptionally playable game. Not because of the rules persay, but because the book does not distract you from the game it contains. I would go as far to say that Whitehack is a strong argument for having little to no artwork in a TTRPG manual… at least not the copy you are referencing at the table.
The OSR is full of games imitating early versions of D&D, and at a glance it would be easy to assume this is another derivative of B/X with houserules and revisions. (There is also the issue of people assuming it has a direct relation to The Black Hack, which is an entirely separate game.)
Whitehack balances on the razor-edge periphery of old-school gaming. One common definition of OSR is simply “Can I easily use it to run The Keep On The Borderlands?” and yes you could in theory use Whitehack to play B/X or OD&D content… but that would be entirely missing the point.
Whitehack is not old-school D&D with a new coat of paint. Whitehack is more like an organism that devoured it’s host from the inside – an entirely new creature nourished by and born from the corpse of it’s former host. What is familiar in Whitehack is not so much it’s D&D origins, but rather the quilt-like menagerie of clever houserules scattered across a thousand online discussions of old-school gaming to which Whitehack might better claim as it’s pedigree.
This is why I say (perhaps controversially) that you should NOT use this game if you want to recreate the experience of playing old-school D&D. If you are a veteran of old-school gaming I would above all else encourage you to set aside whatever assumptions you might have from D&D inspired games, and come into this as if it were an entirely new experience.
Would I personally categorize Whitehack as an OSR game?
Would I ever use it to run an old-school D&D adventure?
Because when I visit a foreign restaurant with dishes I’ve never tried before – the last thing I want to do is order the french fries and chicken nuggets from the kid’s menu. This is not to disparage old-school D&D, but rather to emphasize my interest in seeing what else Whitehack is able to do.
Freedom of Concept
Whitehack is often described as an open-ended game, but I personally feel this is a poor choice of words. Rather I would describe Whitehack as a game rooted in the Freedom of Concept. This is firmly established in the Character Creation process.
Whitehack does not use vocations as the basis for character class. The three standard Whitehack classes are adjectives – Strong, Deft, and Wise. You choose a vocation to add onto this to give the adjective it’s context. You can choose something obvious like a Strong Warrior or a Wise Priest, but you are not limited to such things. You can be a Deft Gardener or Wise Houndmaster or just about anything else because you have Freedom of Concept.
The line between class and concept has always been debated in the TTRPG community. In my experience the OSR community generally leans towards a reductivist approach – that (to use a very common example) a Samurai is simply a fighter with a katana, and a Barbarian is just a fighter in a loincloth, and so on.
Opponents often point to classes lacking mechanical support for variant playstyles – if a Barbarian is just a fighter with an axe wearing a loincloth the player only experiences the concept through self enforced limitations. That is to say – they receive no benefit to portraying their theme, and will only be punished by a system that considered heavy armor to be the objectively better choice in almost all situations.
Whitehack transcends the traditional arguments entirely. The Samurai is just not a Fighter wielding a Katana, nor are they a unique class with special abilities. Whitehack states that a Samurai is a Samurai, and this is a result of how the game is MECHANICALLY rooted in Freedom of Concept.
So you’re a Samurai. Are you a Strong Samurai standing courageously against danger? Are you a Deft Samurai known for your mastery of dueling techniques? Are you a Wise Samurai able to call upon the spirit of your sword?
After making that choice, you get to write your vocation (Samurai) next to an attribute. This determines which contextual aspect of being a Samurai is most important to you. If you want your Strong Samurai to be a great leader on the battlefield, you might choose Charisma. If you want your Deft Samurai to easily determine what dojo your opponent trained at, you might choose Intelligence. Perhaps you imagine your Wise Samurai wandering from one village to he next, so you choose Constitution to reflect those long nights on the road.
These decisions are not simple flavour – they have actual mechanical weight. The Strong Samurai is not simply a Strong character with a Katana. If a Strong Con-Artist was to pick up a Katana, they would not suddenly become a Samurai…
Negative Space as Game Design
Whitehack has roughly eighty pages of core rules, and yet the game is much larger. It is able to accomplish far more than it’s actual text because it is fundamentally written with human psychology in mind. The nuance is difficult to put into words – but essentially the book is written with the insight that readers will be thinking about and trying to understand the game. Whitehack is a game that wants you to think for yourself – and so instead of holding your hand for the entire journey it hands you traveling supplies and expertly predicts where you will end up.
If a player has a character concept, the rules do not need to explain what that concept is. If you want to play a wizard, you already know what a wizard is. Whitehack does not need to tell you that wizards wear pointed hats and cast magic spells. This alone cuts a substantial amount of text we might see in other TTRPG manuals.
Our psychological framework for concepts is not simply knowledge of what something is, but also perhaps more importantly what it is not. Giving the players Freedom of Concept also establishes the limits of who or what they are. Knowing what the character Is NOT provides powerful natural boundaries that prevent the game from devolving into ‘anything goes’ chaos. Whenever things are established – other possibilities are closed off. Whitehack snatches those easily overlooked mental boundaries and enshrines them with the weight of hard fact.
This is best shown by the magic system available to Wise characters. Players simply write the name of their spell (known as Miracles in Whitehack) and that’s that. When you cast your spell you describe what you want it to do – and you possibly suffer damage proportional to the strength of the effect you are trying to create. It seems on the surface to be the very definition of an open ended game mechanic, but that isn’t really true…
Your character’s concept created limitations by establishing what it is not. The name of the spell establishes a specific theme or idea that the desired effect must relate to. Finally the game context transforms the theoretical nature of the spell into an established fact through endlessly created precedence.
“[…] the point of miracles is not that your character should be able to do anything she likes. Your character has contours and an identity, and each miracle wording is a part pr an extension of who she is. From a game point of view, it is also important that the possibilities of the Wise are limited through the use of the triangulation of wording, vocation, and effect, so that it becomes a challenge to solve in-game problems with magic.”– Subtext written below the section on creating miracle wording.
The Paradoxical Limitations of Conceptual Freedom
Roughly two years ago I made the decision to give away most of my OSR rulebooks. To put it bluntly I had too many games based on Basic D&D. I sat down with my books with the intention of choosing one particular system I would keep, one particular system I would use as my default system for any old-school D&D or adjacent content I might want to run. Whitehack was my choice.
Several months ago I sat down intending to run a campaign using the Veins of the Earth setting by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess. It depicts an alien environment far below the surface of the earth where starvation is a constant state of being. A place where light is currency, and the mind breaks from the twisting and endless caverns from which there is no respite.
It is not exclusively a horror setting, but I treat it as such. Horror is one of my favorite genres as a GM, and in particular I enjoy creating a sense of literal or metaphorical claustrophobia in my players as they find themselves backing into a corner with no chance of escape. When I write that type of campaign the point is not to overcome the horror, but to explore how the characters experience or deal with the horror as it unfolds.
Sitting down with my copy of Whitehack and Veins of the Earth, I realized I made a terrible mistake.
“Whitehack is for those who like to balance Referee power and player freedom…”– From the “Running The Game” chapter.
Whitehack’s approach to Freedom of Concept fundamentally alters the relationship players have with the setting of the game. The mechanics expect you to be creating precedence through your actions as opposed to following the precedence established by a setting independent of the players.
“When a player wants to use one of her character’s groups, ask her how the group suits the situation. Let the explanation rest in the collective memory of the group (don’t take notes) and serve as a precedent.”– Also from “Running The Game”
My style of horror requires the setting to be a fixed insurmountable wall. Freedom of Concept requires the setting to be flexible. It is difficult to make players feel trapped when they do not know the hard limits of their own abilities!
To run a game or setting with strict boundaries or established lore is to push against the Freedom of Concept that sets Whitehack apart from other similar games. I have much more to say about the subject, but it goes beyond the scope of this review/essay.
Needless to say this applies far beyond the horror genre. I would not advise someone to use Whitehack as a system for (to use a random example) a Lord of the Rings campaign set in Middle Earth… At least not if you wish to keep things confined to Tolkien’s vision of the setting.
Tabletop RPGs are (normally) a social hobby shared with a group. Some games have an introspective quality that allows you to play them as a solo activity even if the game itself was not designed as a solo experience. Whitehack is a brutally extroverted game. It is not simply a game that allows shared creative input – it is a game that DEMANDS it.
The brilliance of it’s writing rests upon the assumption a web of shared social experience is being woven at the table, and without the social interplay the game simply falls apart. The negative space Whitehack occupies exists between the people sitting at the table and without that social context much of the game is lost.
I feel that this hyper-social aspect requires a group of good friends to function – more so than the typical RPG game. Groups of strangers or simply people who haven’t fully acclimated to each other’s company may struggle to find the necessary equilibrium it requires – particularly since the boundaries of the collective imagination do not form until the group develops insight into each other’s interests. Solo playing is far outside the intended function of the rules and should not be attempted.
My personal favorite memory of Whitehack was running a pirate-fantasy adventure using the 2nd edition rules. Players included a strong admiral with a stoic disposition, a wise brewer with magical grog, and a deft stowaway searching for a lost family heirloom. There were swashbuckling battles, cursed gold, conspiratorial privateers, and even a formal ball where the admiral danced with the governor’s daughter. It was an absolute blast – and part of it’s success was due to the inherent freedom instilled into the setting. The boundaries of the sea were not set in stone, and an uncharted island could always introduce something entirely new into the experience. This sort of campaign is an ideal setup for running Whitehack in my opinion.