Magic in Whitehack

Magic casting is often a make it or break it for me in a game. One of my favorite systems comes from Whitehack by Christian Mehrstan.

Whitehack is a wonderful re-imagining of old school gaming and if you haven’t tried it out I highly recommend it. I ran my players through Deep Carbon Observatory using Whitehack and we really enjoyed the simple yet rich rules available.

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Magic is referred to as miracles in Whitehack. The system is simple yet elegant, though it can take a bit to get used to and it allows each table to play slightly differently based on the individual referee’s rulings. There is a barter system that gets used in determining how much and what the effect the casting of a miracle.

Let me start with an example as that seems to be the best way to describe this process. The basic process is to describe the desired effect and then communicating about how much HP will be spent on the casting, as the miracle uses your HP pool in a similar way to absorbing a blow from an enemy.

Halfling Master: The group of goblins are readying an attack. They have formed a line and are lowering their spears as if to charge your group. What do you do?

Marty McCaster: I’d like to cast my miracle Unseen Voices. I would like to whisper in the ear of each goblin to make them all think they hear something from behind them.

Halfling Master: Whispering in the ear of each goblin would take a lot of your energy I say it would cost a standard amount of 2 HP to cast. But it is costly because there are three enemies so I’ll increase it to a total of 3 HP to cast.

Marty McCaster: I only have 4 HP… Let me see if I can lower the cost. What if I just make one bigger sound behind all of them that will get their attention?

Halfling Master: A single big sound would be easier so I’ll reduce that to a cost of 2 HP. If you have an item that you could expend to make this easier I’ll even allow you to lower it by one more.

Marty McCaster: are there any sticks on the ground? I’d like to step on one and channel that sound into the miracle. Using that instead, to throw the sound instead of producing my own sound magically!

Halfling Master: That is sufficient and as you produce this sound…

This small amount of dialog is all that is required for the casting of the miracle. And since HP is paid by the character the miracle has its effect applied to the situation. In this instance I would then possibly roll to see what effect the miracle had on the goblins. Was it enough to distract them, giving an extra round of attack? Or maybe it created enough fear in the trio to send them running for the hills. I say good luck to Marty and his crew, seemingly organized goblins groups can be dangerous to low level adventuring parties!

Whatever the result the conversation happens quickly, it is not meant to be a long drawn out process, referencing tables and charts looking up damage dice and rolling only to have your spell fizzle out, for a wasted casting and even worse a wasted turn for the wizardly character.

Lets look at how you come up with the miracles in the first place. To gain access to miracles you first pick the Wise class. This is one of the three main classes and it allows you to take two miracles (plus bonus/es based on wisdom modifier) to start the game, more can be gained throughout play through leveling, or as seen fit by the referee (come on it is old school gaming and all that so this old Halfling Master would potentially allow based on in game reasons).

The miracles take key word/s approach and work similar to Maze Rats spell creating in some ways. You can use a random table to create/inspire wording for miracles or you can create your own through the flavor of your caster. This is one of the most exciting parts of the whole process! If you want to play a druid style caster then your miracles would most likely be based around nature; grow seed, sunlight, summon spirit of nature, fog, or control weather. A blacksmith who uses miracles to imbue armor and weapons might take miracles based around the forge or fire; heat metal, enchant armor, sharpen blade, summon forge and anvil, or control flame.

Photo by Bram van Egmond on

This freedom to pick phrases is wonderfully poised to allow so many different uses of casting, and it can allow for such varied play styles. You are not limited in choosing spells (unless your referee says otherwise). There is freedom in level-less spell casting. The player and referee are forced to talk about how to world works and what is possible through the use of miracles. There is also a limit on the usefulness as well, no more spamming “0 level” spells that break the game and narrative of your world. Your ability to cast miracles is determined by your HP and creativity.

If your character has a low amount of hit points then they may only be able to cast a few measly spells per day. A higher level character will be able to cast more spells each day or they can channel all fo their energy into a couple of bigger more powerful spells.

The cost of casting is an interesting point and int he Whitehack 3rd Edition rules there is a table that helps lay out a guide for referees, found in the section for the Wise class, the magnitude table helps guide both players and referees in adjudicating the cost of a spell. The table suggests a range from 0 HP with a trivial effect all the way up to spending 2d6 HP (with an optional plus or minus 1 being applied if you choose for increased effect or use materials to assist) on a spell that uses raw power and changes the world around you in a significant way; like raising dead, felling a building, or opening an extra plainer portal.

Modifications can be made for or taking a longer amount of time to cast the spell, this might reduce the cost by a tier or more depending on the circumstances. Utilizing materials is another way to lower the cost. Increasing effect is a way in which one might up the number of HP needed. Above I mentioned that you wouldn’t be referencing tables frequently to look up whatever and this and that, and I believe that even though there is a table to help with this process, you will quickly find you no longer need the table, it is intuitive enough to keep you working through the game with very little lag time.

The limitation being that you cannot attempt a miracle casting that has a higher cost than your current HP, though there are special rules for rolling a die which can in fact kill your character if the die roll is too high and a save is then failed (which would double the damage suffered from the casting). This would be a special case and probably only come up in the most dire of situations.

This is a rather eloquent system that has not been ported to other systems nearly as much as I would like to have seen. I would love to see the system used more frequently in systems. and If i ever create my own, well you can rest assured it will most likely contain something similar to this.

There are many different versions of White hack to choose from, and the cheapest one in print is the softcover version, which i would fully support everyone picking up and adding to their collections, this is only an example of the wonderful things found in this tome. Visit the links above to find a copy that fits your budget and style (there is a hardcover landscape version that gives you journal pages in the back to create and maintain your living world or rules). Seriously with a range of roughly $10 – $40 USD, you an have a version of this that fits your budget or needs.

Until next week, oh and for those of you still reading, I made the Glatisant this month for my review of Mazes, thanks Ben for the shout out, this is actually kind of a dream come true to be recognized by you. Thanks again to everyone who reads these ramblings of mine, and I hope you get something from them that helps better your games at home!

Derek Bizier, the Halfling Master, collector of fine RPG books and zines

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