Thursday, November 15, 2018
The Whitehack: Read-Thru Review
I've always had a bit of a fascination for the Old School Renaissance. There's something about the uncompromising, focused play that I find alluring. While I generally disagree with the level of nostalgia and dogmatism that the movement gravitates towards I've always wanted to try one of the movement's games. And, after paying attention to the movement for years, I've decided to try out Whitehack first. The things that have drawn me to the game are its simple, flavorful, and emergent gameplay.
Whitehack's gameplay is simple. This is generally the opposite of what I go for in games, mostly because complexity can lead to a greater amount of richness in the narrative of a game. Rule-lite generally strips things down too far and forgets that, first and foremost, RPGs are games that make stories, not make sessions of shared make-believe. There needs to be systems that can trip up the players and that can complicate the narrative in ways the players do not expect. Whitehack solves this problem by making sure what systems do exist generate complications. Players are defined by Groups, which can be either races, affiliations, or vocations, not your Class, which is merely how you accomplish your goals, not what you are. These things are determined by group decision. You merely say that you are an elf knight and you get a greater chance at succeeding when doing things that pertain to those aspects. You simply say what you do and the rules give a framework to challenge you in the way that you defined.
Whitehack's simplicity lends itself to flavor. When Andy and I sat down to come up with a campaign concept I couldn't think of anything for a campaign. So Andy looked through the classes and decided he wanted to play a Deft character, someone who is a specialist in his chosen field. By the time he was done making up stuff I had a campaign idea, as he had come up with a ghost who helped him in tight spots and had a cloak he could do fun tricks with. I started asking questions about the ghost and the assassin's guild that Andy was a part of... and we just took off. None of these elements design have a whole lot of mechanical weight, yet. Whitehack runs off of group fiat, and what the group says is permanent. This means that, as time goes on, the mechanics are reinforced differently as one's understanding of the world evolves.This in turn creates more flavor that you have to circumnavigate.
All of this adds up to what Whitehack promises: emergent gameplay. The ruleset is intentionally sparse; most of the game rules can be summed up within 20 pages. You wouldn't know that the game has this element from its spartan ruleset, but this is where Groups come in. Groups are sources of your characters' expertise: affiliations ("groups" you belong to), races (I hope I don't have to explain), and vocations (which are things like woodcutter, knight, assassin, etc.). Every time you are faced with a task that you think a Group applies to you must state how it applies and then roll 2d20, taking the better of the two (the game calls his a double positive roll). You get two of these groups to assign to your stats (one Group per stat!) with and, as the game progresses, you get more. And that's the thing: you get more. As the game progresses you get more flavor and mechanical weight, which means that the game fundamentally changes with the addition of each Group. Each of these Groups fundamentally alters the setting, which alters the story, which alters your player. Most of the classes end with 5 Groups. That's 3 seismic shifts per character (except the Deft, they get 6! And their Groups aren't tied to Stats! So powerful!) It doesn't look like much, and that's the trick.
I'll be posting more as I play, but these are my initial impressions. Can't wait to write more!