Making Whitebox My Own

SW-Appr-Day-Logo

Following the successful Basic Fantasy Appreciation Day, Tenkar’s Tavern has initiated a similar day of celebration for another great retroclone, Swords & Wizardry.  I’ve previously written reviews for all 3 editions of the rules (Whitebox, Core and Complete) and I’m happy to join the ranks of over 130 bloggers(!) to participate in this event.  So having already written reviews for the rulebooks, what did I decide to write about in celebration of this retroclone?

I thought I would discuss the changes I’ve implemented in order to customize Whitebox to be closer to the ideal rule-set for me.  The changes are ongoing (both rule additions/subtractions as well as content changes such as additional classes, spells, etc.) but so far I’ve done a lot and am already happy with the results.  Of course, due to some of these changes, I can’t share the actual document as it does not follow the Swords & Wizardry license (for example as noted below I get rid of descending armor class, and the license requires providing both).

First Steps

The first thing I did was download both the PDF of the Whitebox rules as well as the RTF file.  Both are freely available on the Mythmere Games website.  I highly recommend purchasing a copy from Lulu, not only to support Matt’s and Marv’s efforts but in a small page-count, digest size Whitebox is an amazing game as it stands.

Then I opened both the PDF (for viewing/reference) and then the RTF in a word processor.  The RTF format is a nice universal format, but I went ahead and saved the file in the native format of the corresponding word processor (at the end I save a copy to PDF anyways).  For Word this would be .docx, for Pages .pages, and for LibreOffice .odt.  The RTF document looks pretty boring.  I don’t want to make it “frilly”, but a new font choice is certainly good.  I personally like Soutane, as used by Basic Fantasy RPG.  That font is available here.  You can also download Soutane Black to use for chapter/section headings as well.  I could change the page size if desired; while the PDF and Lulu printings are 6″x9″, the RTF file is set at the standard US Letter 8.5″x11″.  When changing the font, page size, etc. obviously it will move the text and charts around.  I didn’t worry about those for now, that will be the last step.  Along with font choice and page size, I could go ahead and change the file to be 2 or more columns.  I like 2-column, but as Whitebox is natively single-column and my document will also be 6″x9″ I decided to stay with single-column.

Begin the Purge

Now, with all of that out of the way it was time to start changing the content of the Whitebox document.  While I won’t be sharing this document in its current state, I did still leave the title page with the credits, as well as the license at the end of the document.

The first thing I did was delete the section on alignment.  I’ve never used it in my games, as it’s up to the players to roleplay their character’s behavior (within reason).  Monsters are almost always evil, except for the occasional wise old dragon or such.  There aren’t too many references to alignment besides in the beginning, namely for any Clerical-related text.

The RTF doesn’t include any of the artwork, so that’s a lot of work not needing to be done.  I would have honestly removed most of the images anyways, as great as some of them are.  If I ever develop my rule-set to the point where I would want to share and/or publish it, I have a pretty good idea which artist to contact.

I also deleted all of the boxed text with suggested changes, etc.  While I appreciate them, for my game I know exactly what I want, and I don’t need little asides that may confuse my players.

The next thing to go was descending armor class.  While Swords and Wizardry is old-school in feel, plenty of its rules are certainly not (along with Basic Fantasy, Castles and Crusades, etc.).  I really like Swords and Wizardry’s single save (and one of the additions is using this number for certain skill and other checks), so I can’t understand why ascending armor class wasn’t solely used as well (in contrast to Basic Fantasy, which uses ascending armor class but the traditional saves, arg!).  This is a pain to edit from the document, because I had to remove all descending armor values as well as the brackets around each and every descending armor value.

Additions

Once that’s done, I then proceeded to the next change: classes and races.  Apparently the previous editions and printings of Swords and Wizardry had race-as-class at one time, and then went separately.  I don’t mind race-as-class, but here I maintain the split (if I was using race-as-class, elves would use spells from the druid class and not magic-user).  I moved the race section in front of the class section, as to me it’s logical to pick that first.  I also don’t consider it multi-classing or such.  You simply pick your race and your class.  I also do away with restrictions or minimum stats, any race and stats can pick any class.  I used the Complete rule-set as a guide for the additional classes.

I added the thief class back in, but named as rogue.  I went with this name change because I think it goes better with the skills of back-stab and such.  Along with the rogue there is the ranger.  I thought about adding the paladin and barbarian, but they’re more variations on the fighter.  I will have to think more about them.  I also have to fine-tune the skills allowed by these classes, as I want it to be easy and not too much to notate on the character sheet.

I did not include the monk class, as I think the cleric class is quite enough on that front.  I don’t use the druid class, but some of their abilities are given to elves.  I was really on the fence on halflings but it does offer more variety so they’re still in.  I refuse to acknowledge gnomes, and I don’t have half-elves, half-orcs, etc.; in my world it’s impossible for these to exist.

One thing to keep in mind is that the additional races and classes will need to be balanced to fit into the lower power curve and level that Whitebox uses.  It may take awhile to tweak skills, level progression levels, etc.  Don’t worry about it too much now, and just simply follow/copy the existing numbers.

I like the short list of equipment in Whitebox.  I can probably think of a few additions, but those can always be added later on, or in an adventure I’ll make a note if a certain shop is selling something unique.  I removed the reference about equipment weight, as I don’t really follow encumbrance in my games.  Like alignment, common sense is the name of the game.  If the players are trying to carry too much, I’m gonna make them decide what to carry and what to leave behind.  They should be able to roleplay a solution.  (I ought to use that tough of a tone in the text, as I do believe in the old-school “the ref rules” attitude…)  I also like that the weapons all do close to 1D6 damage, with a little variation for some.  I did change the damage for the spear when used 2-handed.

Combat

For some reason I’ve never liked rolling D6 for initiative, and I’m not crazy about one die for the entire party as well.  Keeping with Whitebox’s mostly D6-or-D20 tradition, I changed initiative to having each player roll a D20.  I do keep rolling one die for all enemies though.  I thought about adding in dexterity mods for initiative, but I like relying on pure luck for initiative.  By only using ascending armor class this section is greatly simplified.  I did keep the loyalty check section for NPCs, hirelings, etc. but I don’t think it belongs in the combat section, so I moved it up to where hirelings are mentioned.  For the turning un-dead chart, I removed the example column as I don’t think it’s needed.  I did notice there’s no special note/marker/etc. to show which monsters could be affected by this, so I made a note to come up with something to add to the monster section.  Leading into the next section, I did want to note what I do for spellcasting in the game and during combat.  I don’t get caught up on magic-users and clerics having things memorized, already prayed, etc.  In Whitebox there aren’t that many spells period, and players don’t learn that many spells in total, so in my games the assumption is that if the player has learned the spell, then they have it memorized (but not prepared).  It would be interesting to introduce some variety ala Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG or such, but it would just add to many rules, confusion, etc.  The players know the spells, they prepare it and then they cast it.  If they’re forced to move, block, etc. then obviously they can’t cast until they prepare the spell again.  I make the assumption that spells require deep concentration and a lot to prepare, so players can’t prepare all of their known spells before entering a dungeon or such.

Spells

As mentioned the spell list of Whitebox is quite short, and that’s its charm.  I did miss magic missile, so it’s immediately back in.  There’s more spells I’d like to add.  I don’t have a set number in mind, but a fair variety for both the three magic-user and cleric, and for each level, is nice.  I did list the spells for each class separately rather than all in alphabetical order.  Just like the monster section, brief spell descriptions are key.

Running the Game

This section in Whitebox is very short.  While that’s the tradition in this rule-set, I think it’s far too short for newer players and refs.  Where’s the dungeon and outdoor maps, the map symbols?  Advice for awarding experience (as noted below I don’t use gold-for-XP)?  It’s also my chance to write my opinions on running a game, and since it’s my personal rule-set well I’m gonna speak up (again if I ever share/publish this then I’ll have to really work on this this section more).

Monsters

I do like the monsters that are included in Whitebox, though I obviously want more.  I’ve gotta have Gelatinous Cube, Rust Monster, and more.  And since this is a private document (for now), I’m also adding in Beholders and Mindflayers (though without using rules for psionics I’ll have to go easy on its abilities…).  Since all players and creatures use D6 for hit dice it shouldn’t be too hard to balance any new monsters for Whitebox.  I’m thankful Whitebox has such brief stat blocks.  I do have to adjust their XP values, as I have never been big on gold-as-XP.  I really like how the hit dice for dragons is determined by their age, not their color.  Sheer brilliance!  On the other hand I do not like the very brief descriptions of many of the monsters.  While most of us have read Tolkien, Howard, etc. or seen movies, I don’t like making the assumption that everyone will know what a troll looks like, for example.  So for all existing and additional monsters I have to go through and add some more “flavor” text.  There’s not too many places in a rule-set to do so (unless a campaign setting/world is included) so when the opportunity presents itself you gotta take it!

Treasure

This is the one section I didn’t really look forward to working on.  In my games I honestly don’t use gold-as-XP, so along with the monster XP re-evaluation I have to tweak magic items as well.  I’m more interested in potential advantages and disadvantages they can offer.  Cursed items could have short- and/or long-term effects on the players, something interesting!  The same for magic swords (containing the soul of a defeated dragon who wants revenge?) or rings, etc.  There’s a lot of potential here for ideas, flavor, etc.

Conclusion

This is certainly one of the longest posts I’ve ever written.  I’ve enjoyed reading all of the retroclones, but have always had various changes I’ve wanted to implement.  I believe the small but sturdy foundation of Whitebox is the best one to build on top of.  One day perhaps I’d want to share and publish my rules.  Besides changes to follow the license, the hardest thing would be to pick a name!