Embracing old school roots.

Hello again, and welcome back everyone. Last week we went on a bit of a different journey together, venturing into the realm of video games for the first, but not last, time. So, for this get together, I thought we’d come back to the tabletop and do out first proper game review, given what I stumbled across a few weeks ago when I was pursuing through my bookshelves. I was looking over everything for something new and a little different to bring to you guys, but still nothing quite jumped out at me or caught my eye. But then I noticed a slim, little volume tucked away in the corner, and smoothing just drew me right to it.

As I flipped through its humble amount of pages I could remember ordering it a few years ago in my search for something lighter and easier to run than what I was presently playing around with, being pleasantly surprised when it arrived and I did my first read through of the rules. It was wonderfully simple and a breath of fresh air, the game taking its inspiration from the original rules that really kind of started it all back in the 70s. The name of this little treasure is White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game, and is the epitome of what the term old school roleplaying means.

White Box, as we’ll refer to it, takes its lead from the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons as it was first published back in 1974, D&D originally coming in a small box and consisting of three white booklets, hence, White Box. With the open gaming license of Wizard’s of the Coast, the writers of this game have taken it upon themselves to pay tribute to the roleplaying of old, and they do a darn fine job of it for the most part.

Now, let me warn you up front that if you like comprehensive systems with a ton skills, abilities, and modifiers that define your character, along with rules that govern nearly every possible situation, then you’re going to be very disappointed and frustrated here. White Box is a retro style, bareboned system that relies heavily on GM ruling and common sense, I’m talking like 85 to 90% of the time, to decide what a character is and isn’t capable of. But I think a lack of strict guidelines is really one of this game’s charms, along with a lot of other things that I’ll get into, right now!

One of the original booklets for D&D.

To kick it off, I really like the look of this book, the layout is easy on the eyes and it’s well organized and takes almost no time at all to find what you want in case a rules questions does come up. The interior art is all black and whit line drawings, and you can tell that they were going for the late 70s and early 80s feel. Most of it works pretty well for what they were shooting for as I personally love that old style, but there are a few exceptions in here that just make me go meh, but all in all it’s pleasant to look at and invokes a good amount of inspiration for the theme.

The first chapter is the requisite what is roleplaying, so I’m not going to say much about it, and from there we move straight into character creation. If you’re at all familiar with D&D or D20 anything you pretty much know how this works, roll 3D6 and record the total values on down the stat line of strength, dexterity, constitution, and so forth, until you have all six accounted for. The biggest bonus you’re going to get for a high ability score is a plus one for a fifteen or higher, but depending on your class you get a bonus experience point percentage for certain higher scores. The values stay pretty much static throughout the game, but you could always let players increase one by a point or two every third or fourth level just to keep things interesting. Speaking of the aforementioned classes, they come next, and there are only four to choose from, with a couple of optional rules that come later that can tweak this a bit.

The classes that White Box has on offer are your standard selection here, those being cleric, fighter, magic-user (not wizard or sorcerer, it’s old school after all), and thief. Each has a few unique features that help set it apart from the others, but generally, a good chunk of each functions the same. Clerics get their divine spells and magic-users arcane spells of course, while the thief has a single thieving stat that governs all of their sneaky stuff and fighters can carve through one creature after the other if the hit dice are low enough for each.

A few things that should be noted about classes, they are not video game style super badasses that can step up and take on all comers. They are very much grounded in a use your head mentality to survive that players who are only familiar with contemporary types of RPGs might not be used to. Heck, the only dice type you’re going to be rolling for your hit points is a D6, and no, you do not start out with max hit points at first level. It’s entirely possible that your fighter might begin play with one hit point, while the magic guy is rocking six or even seven depending on constitution bonus. This might sound a little absurd but it can easily be handled if you so desire, which I’ll further address a bit later.

I’ve always loved the feel of this retro style and Whitebox is packed with it.

Our next chapter brings us to the races, and just like classes, there are only four, human, dwarf, elf, and halfling. There are no ability adjustments for anything, such as plus one strength and minus one intelligence, but each race does still get something to help set it off. Dwarves and elves each get low light vision and extra bonuses to their saving throw, while halflings are small and harder to hit. Elves can also choose to jump between the fighter and magic-user classes at will or use their own special advancement table that kind of turns them into a hybrid somewhere between the two.

One thing that does irk me is that level caps are present, with dwarves maxing out at level six while elves and halflings top out at eight. I’ve never liked this idea all that much and usually just throw it out and let the characters progress to whatever, but if you go that route you kind of remove the human’s sole advantage of no caps and reduce them to glorified meat shields, which I always thought is what hirelings were supposed to be used for.

We next get to combat, which is a pretty straightforward affair. Roll for initiative, roll to hit, roll for damage, done. The only thing it does get into that is a bit different is saving throws and armor class. Every class is given only a single saving that is used for everything, but can be modified by circumstance and special abilities, which I like as it’s a really easy and fast way to do things and keeps the pace going. But it does give you options for different save categories like death, poison, or spells, so if you like that idea better then by all means swap it in. Next, it gives armor class rules for both ascending and descending values, but for me, ascending is the simplest method and always the way to go. A combat round it pretty quick and easy once you get the flow of it, which is great, because I’ve played some games where a single combat lasts for an entire four-hour session, and I just can’t do it

Next, we get spells and magic, and I have to admit this section is pretty sparse. Magic is handled in the regular D&D, Vancian way, memorize spell, cast spell, forget spell. That’s fine and all, but the spell list is just kind of paltry even by old school standards. Clerics only have about six spells per level through level five, with magic-users getting only a few more through level six. One thing that could prove to be more than challenging for magic-users is that they don’t get a single offensive spell until they hit spell level three, seriously, they get sleep at first level, that’s the extent of their killiness for quite a while. It would behoove any magic-user to quickly chum up with the cleric and fighters in the party, at least until they hit fifth level and the fireballs and lighting bolts come out, then who the hell needs friends.

The book rounds out with chapters on equipment, how to run an adventure and dole out experience points and treasure, and then closes with some magic items and a generous little creature section to keep your adventurers on their toes. It’s all very well done and is easy to read and understand, which again, is a strength of this book.

So, now that we know more about White Box, let’s get into some pros and cons. For starters, there’s a whole lot I like here. Some might argue that the lack of rules for so many different situations is a detriment to the system, but I think that leaving it up to the narrative and GM discretion helps this game really speed and flow along during play, putting the emphasis on roleplaying rather number crunching and rolling dice. It’s easy to make a persuasion check and ask if the guard did what you wanted him to, but it’s a lot more fun to play out the exchange and determine success or failure that way instead, and the system encourages that very much so. But what happens when you absolutely need to know if your character can do something or not? Simple, just look at the class and use your head.

Obviously, a fighter riding into battle is going to be a lot more skilled at controlling his charging horse than a magic-user would be, perhaps adding his level to his dice roll in order to keep the steed on course while the spell guy is pretty much just hanging on for dear life and being taken along wherever the horse wants to go. On the flipside, put a dusty tomb of lore in front of the big guy with the sword and he’s just going to blankly stare at it, while the magic-user knows how to dive in and research exactly what he wants. It’s all very open and just common sense really, it just takes a bit of getting use to if you’re coming from a system with lots of guidelines or new to the whole thing. I also love how the writers of this this game say if you don’t like something then just change it or throw it out completely, and this system makes it very easy to do just that, with a few pages at the back of the book labeled house rules for just such an occasion. White Box has a lot going for it in terms of simple fun, with very little standing in your way of making your games completely your own.

It’s not all ice-cream and daisies, though, as there are some things I would change before diving into a campaign. As I mentioned earlier, I would definitely tweak the hit dice situation, probably giving the fighter a D10, the cleric and thief a D8, and keeping the magic-user at D6. I also might go with max hit points at first level, or at least half max so you’re not stuck with a single hit point and then trip and fall off your porch and kill yourself in the first five minutes of the damn game, which I’ve been the victim of before. I’d also throw in a few more spells for the clerics and magic-users to use, especially something a little harder hitting at first level for the magic-user to play with. This isn’t hard for me as I have plenty of reference material to fall back on, but if you’re new to all this, then the old interweb is your best bet for finding what you need.

One of several covers you can find.

In all, White Box is a fantastic little tomb that I like about ninety percent of and can easily change, and am indeed encourage to do so, to fit my own play style. It’s quick and easy to run on the spur of the moment with very little prep time required, and flows really nicely with few breaks in the action to look up rules if necessary. It’s also an all in one little book that doesn’t require me to carry around twenty pounds worth of gear to run, and its rules light structure is a definite plus for me. If you’re curious and want to geta taste of old school roleplaying, or just roleplaying in general for that matter, this is a perfect place to start, as its easily understood and is the perfect throwback to the roots of RPGing.  And at only about five bucks on Amazon right now, and a tad under one-hundred and fifty pages, it’s a quick read that’s well worth your money. So, what are you still reading this for, go out and get it!

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