Whitehack 3e

Posted 15 Jul 2022 to Fantasy

A versatile OSR system that allows great freedom and fun character concepts.


XP Card

Sessions GM'd: 7
Sessions as Player: 0

I Used

I used the core book only. I ran the adventure module "Woodfall" as a setting and source of locations and NPCs. This setting was focused on a settlement of witches and outcasts in a swamp, being threatened by a local greedy Duke. I did find it handy to refer to the AD&D monster manual to get some interesting monsters. I ran using Foundry as our platform, and it worked perfectly.


This game is light and elegant, and it allows players a lot of freedom to create character concepts that are wonderfully unusual. I found the rulebook a bit dense and difficult to parse in places. As with many rules light OSR games, this one leans heavily on a GM's skill with making rulings during play.


The Good

  • Low hit points. Even high level characters do not have a lot of hit points. This makes combat speedy and exciting.
  • Three classes is elegant. You can be Strong, or Deft, or Wise. The Strong have a number of combat manoeuvres and the exciting ability to temporarily gain a power or bonus from defeating an enemy. The Deft are skill-based characters who can succeed at nigh impossible tasks, and can have pets or attuned items. The Wise are spellcasters, who can also create magical items. With these three classes, you can build a wide range of character concepts. That is elegant and simple. You can also build the same character in a variety of ways. For example, you could build a bard who is a taunting swashbuckler as a Strong character. Or you could build the same character as a Deft expert swordmaster who can perform astonishing feats of swordplay. Once I'd played my first session, these possibilities dawned on me.
  • Great freedom with character concepts. Players have a lot of freedom to cut loose and create some wonderful and creative characters. Any concept that fits with your setting can be mechanically created, and we had some wonderful ideas. A cursed witch, born of a hag, who used hex magic. An alchemist who concocted explosive bombs and potions. An engineer who got magically partially transmuted into a half-construct. Great stuff!
  • Loosely defined magic. Your spellcaster character knows how to do a handful of Miracles. These can be visualised in any way. You could be a traditional mage, or a gadgeteer, or a rune scriber, or whatever. Your Miracle will be loosely defined, for example, "Winged Feet". What this actually means at your table is discovered *during play* in an emergent way. When you want to cast the spell, you describe an effect you want to achieve that is on-theme for the descriptor. For example, for Winged Feet, maybe you want to run really fast. Then the GM assigns a magnitude to the spell, which defines the base cost (in hit points) for casting. You can negotiate a bit and accept a lesser effect, or a drawback, or costly ingredient that can reduce the casting cost. This kind of magic system is quite unlike most games. It is very free form. I also found it quite intimidating at first. What if I get it wrong? What if I allow something that is too powerful? Then I relaxed into it and realised it is not a big deal, as long as everyone is having fun. After I accepted that then it became permissive and freeing.
  • Short. The entire game is about 60 pages. The rest of the book contains GM advice, a bestiary, and optional rules. This brevity is possible when you are not describing dozens of spells and a large number of classes. It's also possible when you are using dense post graduate language to explain a game of pretending to be an elf. More on this later.
  • Simple stats for monsters. Each monster basically only has 4 numbers to worry about. Hit points, attack value, damage and saving throw. Any special abilities they have are purely descriptive. You describe the spider shooting web at the PC, and ask the PC to make a saving throw. Then you simply invent, on the spot, what being trapped in a web means. This supports a very improvisational style of play. It is story based rather than tactical.
  • The Not-So-Good

  • Wording can be confusing. Apparently the phrasing used in 3e is a big improvement on 2e, but I still found it really dense. For example, I read and re-read the paragraph that describes the abilities of the Wise class. Here is a sample I picked from a random page: "There are cost guidelines based on magnitudes on the next spread and a reference table of traditional effect level correlations. But costs tend to vary a bit with time and place. The Wise may save once per day and spend 10 minutes to detect and use a local energy concentration, making a single effect of a certain type one magnitude cheaper. Check the save quality against the table on the next spread." This style of writing feels pretty overloaded to me. There were several situations where I had to read text more than once, and even Google or post questions in online forums to understand how something is supposed to work. I'd prefer a writing style that is more accessible, even if it's not as brief and adds a few more pages to the PDF.
  • Quite demanding of a GM. The game works best if you are confident in improvisational play, and are able invent game mechanics on the spot. This is a learned skill. If you have a monster who can spit a slippery slime onto the ground, you will be required to invent what that actually means for the PCs who are affected. Is their movement rate reduced? Do they suffer a penalty to AC? Do they lose their action altogether? For how long? Making these kinds of decisions can be stressful, and you are making them a lot. Every spell or ability used by both PCs and monsters will require this of you. If you are able to let go and embrace chaos, and your players trust you, then it can be freeing and fun.
  • Total freedom brings indecision and slows play. This happened a few times. This might have been due to the fact that we were inexperienced. Players can invent any spell or magical effect on the fly. This kind of total freedom can cause paralysis in players, who take a long time to figure out what they can do. Then it takes the group a while to figure out how to mechanically resolve it. If your game has a spell list, like D&D, the whole game probably moves faster. I tried to obviate this problem by never trying to screw the players, so they wouldn't feel I am their adversary or someone to be outfoxed. Spellcasting still consumes a limited resource (hit points) and so players want to make optimal choices. That does result in some careful thinking and planning, and asking hypothetical questions about whether such-and-such could work, and if so, what difficulty the GM would set it as.
  • No art. At all. I think the author actually marks it as a point of pride that the book looks like a textbook rather than a game book. It is pretty dry.


    This is a good OSR system. It is nice and brief, and yet highly versatile and able to accommodate a variety of weird and fun character concepts. The game expects the GM to be quite confident with inventing game mechanics on the fly.



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