There are two approaches we can take to Lew Pulsipher's controversial Necromancer class from White Dwarf 35 (1982). One is a root-and-branch revision of the class, trying to salvage its core characteristics and present them without the one-note schlock and misogyny. The other is to treat it simply as a type of Cleric. I'm going to look at both options.
Lew's Necromancer was in terrible taste (or, to use modern terminology, it was "problematic") but it was also flawed as a character class because it was overly-directive. I'd like a Necromancer to be an anti-hero instead of an outright villain. A player should be able, if they choose, to play a Necromancer as someone who hunts down and captures or euthanises the Undead. You could be trying to bring your lover back from the dead or cure them of vampirism. You could be seeking dark wisdom. The point is that Necromancy should come at a terrible cost but the player should be able to choose the ultimate goal and it shouldn't automatically be an evil one.
The Necromancer for White Box
Necromancers are students of the death and undeath: they seek to master death and transcend it, but at great cost. Some are merely ghoulish zealots for the powers of Death but others are dark mystics seeking to understand mysteries of death and others might have a personal agenda, such as breaking the curse of undeath.
Necromancers are usually Human but at the Referee's discretion Half-Orcs can advance as Necromancers up to 6th level or Dark Elves up to 8th. Necromancers must be Neutral or Chaotic. Their Prime Attribute is Wisdom, representing strength of will and they add +05% to earned XP if this is 15+.
Armour & Weapon Restrictions
Necromancers can wear leather armour and carry shields. They can use one-handed weapons in combat (not bows). They can use magic items available to anyone, but also cloaks of protection, magic gauntlets and magic horns. They can use any items for Magic-Users or Clerics that summon or control Undead.
Necromancers advance slower than Clerics but faster than Fighters. Their Hit Dice are only slightly better then Magic-Users. Their To Hit Bonuses start well (better than Clerics) but then plateau and end up like Magic-Users. They have terrible Saving Throws. This is a class that is fairly robust at lower levels but gets overtaken by other classes later on, which is why they rely on Undead muscle.
Necromancers can compel Undead to do their bidding. This is done in the same way as a Cleric turning undead (Table 4, White Box p13). Compulsion can only be attempted once for a group of Undead monsters. If successful the group serves the Necromancer, although more intelligent Undead may do so with complaint and without enthusiasm.
A 'D' result means the creatures are automatically compelled to serve the Necromancer.
Compulsion normally means that the Undead allow the Necromancer (and companions) to pass in safety. If they are intelligent, the Necromancer can demand a piece of information from them which they must offer truthfully (although it may be cryptic in phrasing). If there are other enemies present, the Undead can be compelled to fight them. However, Undead cannot be Compelled to leave their graves or lairs and accompany the Necromancer.
This power is similar to Chaotic Clerics Turning Undead (White Box p13) except that it is a bit more circumscribed but can be effective at lower levels (the Necromancer doesn't need a 'D' result). The Referee should give intelligent Undead credit to mislead or obstruct the Necromancer in some way. However, since this is their signature power, if the Necromancer succeeds in the roll, the Undead should obey them. Reward players who make clear and achievable demands of Undead monsters then leave them to their cursed existence. If players try to extract more favours or information, allow the Undead to summon help, escape or create other sorts of trouble.
The Necromancer is immune to the special powers (paralysis, level drain, charm, etc) of Undead that she could turn on a 10+ result. For example, a third level Necromancer cannot be paralysed by Ghouls and an eighth level Necromancer cannot be drained or charmed by weaker Vampires.
This is a significant power, although it doesn't do much until the Necromancer reaches third level (most 1-2 HD Undead monsters don't have special abilities). At higher levels it opens the possibility for Necromancers to be effective vampire-hunters or mummy-slayers, since they are immune to effects like level draining, charm, fear and disease.
The Necromancer has an extra stat – Necromancy (check his last column in the advancement table). This is a pool of points and the Necromancer may spend his Necromancy points to summon and control the dead and the Undead.
Speak With Dead: The Necromancer can spend Necromancy points to speak with a dead person’s spirit, asking one question per point spent. The Necromancy must be at the dead person’s grave or corpse or else possess an item important to the dead person in life. A particular person’s spirit can only be summoned once.
Raising Undead: The Necromancer spends Necromancy points equal to the Undead’s Hit Dice (rounded up). There must be corpses to raise the Undead out of and the Undead’s total Hit Dice cannot exceed the Necromancer’s level (so a third level Necromancer could spend 1 point to raise 6 Skeletons or 3 points to raise a single Wight). If the Necromancer achieves a 'D' result on the Cleric Turning Undead table, twice as many Undead monsters are raised (so a fifth level Necromancer could spend 1 Necromancy point to raise 20 Skeletons or 10 Zombies). The Undead are automatically considered Compelled to obey but will not leave the vicinity of the corpses they rose from.
Rule Undead: The Necromancer permanently spends Necromancy points equal to the Undead’s Hit Dice. This causes Undead who have been successfully Compelled to fall under the Necromancer’s Rule. They will leave their lair or grave and follow the Necromancer as a henchman so long as their Hit Dice do not exceed the Necromancer’s level (so a 4th level Necromancer could spend 4 permanent points to rule a single Wraith or two Ghouls). If the Necromancer achieves a 'D' result for on the Cleric Turning Undead table then twice as many Undead may be Ruled per point spent. Necromancy points spent on ruling Undead are not recovered even if the Undead are destroyed.
This uses the point-based system that Szymon Piecha introduced for Paladins in Expanded Lore. With 2 Necromancy points, a first level Necromancer can ask a couple of questions of the dead or raise up a few Skeletons or a couple of Zombies. Higher level Necromancers will be tempted to Rule over useful Undead like Wraiths or Vampires but of course they permanently lose the Necromancy points they invest in creating Undead henchmen.
Necromancy points spent on Speaking with the Dead or Raising the Undead can be recovered through a Ghastly Ritual that the player decides upon. This ritual restores all spent Necromancy points (except those invested permanently in Ruling Undead) but at a cost:
This is how you get those Necromancy points back, but you need to choose your Ghastly Ritual carefully because it defines your character's progress. If you choose Antisocial Rituals you will strip away Charisma; Unhygienic Rituals strip away Constitution. Life Drain might seem like a better option if you have a lot of Hit Points but it will weaken you in the long run. Higher level Necromancers might find it easier to sacrifice magic items. "Victim" is here for Necromancers determined to be that guy, but at least you get to choose your victim type to reflect your character concept. It could be murderers or abusers or people who (according to some views) deserve a grisly end. It doesn't have to be virginal young women.
Necromancers save at +2 vs Death or the powers of Undead (but not Demons).
Establish a Mausoleum
At 9th level, the Necromancer gains the title 'Lord of Life and Death' (or something equally camp) and can build a Mausoleum, which is a sort of temple-laboratory dedicated to exploring death. He will attract a group of strange and/or desperate servitors – including Clerics of dark cults, junior Necromancers and enterprising Undead - who will serve him in pursuit of their own sinister agendas.
Necromancers gain no Trauma from the appearance of Undead, from searching through corpses or bones, from the deaths of companions or from being alone in dark or dangerous places. However, Necromancy is traumatic for adventuring companions, who gain Trauma just from having Undead servants accompany the party.
If a Necromancer turns up at the start of an adventure with Ruled Undead sidekicks, companions gain 1 Trauma per type of Undead she has with her. If she Rules and recruits more Undead during the adventure, companions gain more Trauma each time she does it. Other Necromancers and Clerics do not gain Trauma from seeing Undead.
This is where you customise your Necromancer (and remember Humans get a free Feat at first level). If you sink a lot of Necromancy into Ruling Undead and you want it back, then Soul Putrefaction restores all the points but you develop an insanity. If you're trying to bring back your lover or friend, you can Raise them as Undead with Resurrectionist then making them mortal again with Vivamort, but the Necromancy expenditure will be pretty steep. Greater Ritual gives you some flexibility in how you reclaim your Necromancy points: at higher levels, you might want to swap over to sacrificing minor magic items. Army of the Dead and Damnation let you follow the Undead Super-Villain route while Deathsight helps with dungeon exploring.
Necromancers as White Box Clerics
Rather than giving Necromancers a class of their own, you can treat them as Clerics serving a god or goddess of death and undeath (Hecate, Hades, Hel, Arawn, Morrigan, Mictlantecuhtli, Anubis, Sutekh, keep going). As Clerics, they wear armour and turn Undead normally until they get a 'D' result whereupon they can control Undead instead of repelling them - and can control a number of Undead equal to their level at any given time.
If you use Expanded Lore, then the God's Weapon ability lets a Necromantic Cleric use some horrid blade but you could substitute it for a Necromancy power that lets them command Undead on a successful roll to turn them and allows a 'D' result to mean that the Undead only count as having half their Hit Dice for purposes of calculating how many the Necromantic Cleric can dominate.
Some of Lew Pulsipher's Necromancer abilities can be converted into spells that are only available to Necromantic Clerics:
Speak With Dead
Spell Level: C1
Duration: 1-6 questions
The caster can asks 1d6 questions of a corpse, which it will answer truthfully if it knew the answer when it was alive.
Spell Level: C2
The caster can raise dead bodies as 2d4 Skeletons or 1d4 Zombies under her control. The Undead will serve until destroyed or turned by another Cleric or the party leave the dungeon/complete the adventure. (Optional) Using this spell causes adventuring companions who are not Clerics to gain 1 Trauma.
Create Skull Guard
Spell Level: C3
The caster can transform 1d6 skulls into Skullguard Undead monsters that will guard the area where they are raised (and patrol up to 60ft distance).
Spell Level: C4
Duration: 1 hour
The caster creates a bell inscribed with a person's name. When it is rung, the person's spirit appears. The caster can ask questions or seek advice. The dead person is not under the caster's control but must be negotiated with and might have requests of their own in exchange for their wisdom or information. After the summoning, the bell shatters on a roll of 1-4 on a d6 and the spirit canmnot be summoned again.
Spell Level: C5
Range: 240ft radius of caster
Duration: 1 day
The caster can animate a huge number of corpses from a graveyard or a battlefield, creating 100-600 (10d6 multiplied by 10) Zombies who will obey his commands until sunrise. (Optional) Witnesses to this guesome event will gain 2 Trauma if they are not Necromancers or Clerics.
Necromantic Clerics can create Skullguards using a 3rd level spell. The Necromancer character class can Raise Skullguards from ordinary skulls but they count as 4HD creatures (4 Necromancy points to Raise them and a fourth level Necromancer is required to Raise just one Skullguard but an eighth level Necromancer will raise 4 with a 'D' result).
The evil that men do lives after them;
It's time to look at the Necromancer class that vexed the correspondents on White Dwarf's letters page in 1982-3. And yes, one of those writers was me! But before I get into the idea of a villainous - if not psychopathic - character class, we need a bit of context.
In the early years of D&D, the big debate was "Evil Character" - meaning, evil PCs, of course. Original D&D only featured three alignments (Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic) that lacked clear moral flavour, but Gary Gygax soon added a Good/Evil axis which he inserted into Basic D&D (against Eric Holmes' wishes, seemingly) and made central to AD&D's whole cosmology.
Early alignment chart from the Holmes Basic Set (1977) and Gygax's weird map of the Outer Planes, with gods living in different realms based on alignment (Lawful Good in the Seven Heavens, Chaotic Evil in the Abyss) - the sort of thing that only longstanding custom can render un-mysterious
It was the arrival of the AD&D Assassin sub-class that made an implicit problem explicit. The OD&D Assassins were neutral (James Bond-style spies or ninjas) but the AD&D Assassin was the first explicitly Evil official character class.
Of course, the traditional dungeon adventures of the time didn't offer a wide range of moral options. You could steal from your party members. You could kill your party members. A lot of debate went on about whether PCs should torture and kill monster prisoners. Gygax advised stripping away levels of experience from Good-aligned characters who did such things. Consequently, players adopted Evil-aligned characters to afford themselves more latitude of action. Evil-aligned campaigns flourished, where all the characters were villains and sociopaths. Sickening trails of rape and murder were enacted as (mostly adolescent) players tested the limits of the game and their friends' gag reflexes.
You can see traces of this confusion of taste, morality and teenage hormones in the early issues of White Dwarf. There are erotic art and miniature sculpts that later vanished from the magazine.
The inside cover of White Dwarf 8 (1978) invited us to enjoy Atlantean miniatures of doubtful dungeon relevance - but such attention to detail...!
The fantasy comic strips featured sexual interludes that would make a Warhammer 40K player blush.
Lugubrious warrior Kalgar gets some action in David Lloyd's serial, also from WD #8.
Then there was the Black Priest in White Dwarf 22. This was an Evil-aligned character class from the pen of Lew Pulsipher. It was introduced with a piece of full-page art depicting a human sacrifice through dismemberment of a nude woman and it's so squalid I can't bring myself to reproduce it here. This was 1980.
The '80s brought a mood of moral rearmament. Maybe it was Margaret Thatcher. Maybe it was Mary Whitehouse. Maybe the leading lights of the hobby just grew up and got girlfriends. For whatever reason, the dismembered nudes faded from the pages of White Dwarf, although there was never any shortage of chainmail hotties on the covers.
What Armour Class is that, one wonders?
The focus of RPGs shifted from playing deranged serial killers to carrying out focused missions in coherent settings. During 1981, Lew's Introduction to D&D series and Roger Musson's Dungeon Architect series promoted a much more respectable view of the things people get up to in RPGs. Penelope Hill's Summoner (#27) and Phil Master's Demonist (#47 and blogs passim) were tasteful affairs compared to the macabre Black Priest.
But in 1982, Lew Pulsipher was back, with "an evil new AD&D character class": the Necromancer from White Dwarf 35.
Click the cover for a peek at White Dwarf 35
It's not clear whether this is intended to be a valid class for PCs or a purely NPC villain class. The description implies the latter:
A necromancer is a loner. He prefers to surround himself with the dead (and undead), not with life. He rarely subordinates himself to anyone, preferring to rule his own 'kingdom of the dead'.
With every level the Necromancer attains, he loses a point of Charisma. When it hits zero, he can no longer live in society with other humans.
This helps represent the growing suspicion of acquaintances and general reaction of people as he becomes imbued with Death. When discovered he must flee (unless he can defeat the aroused town) and begin his lone existence.
This definitely places a Necromancer character outside the purview of players. Or does it? A PC Necromancer with 10-11 Charisma will have reached 'Name Level' before becoming ostracised - the point in their career where most PCs decamp to a fortress of their own to party with their henchmen and stop visiting the local trading store in person. Tenth level Necromancers get to build a 'Temple of Death' out of - wait for it - literally tons of human bones!
The Temple of Death must be constructed of human bones - the more the better (and bigger) - bonded by a mixture of human blood and various thickeners.
Also from 1982!!!
Why embark on such a gruesome career? Let's pretend the Necromancer is an actual PC-option and view it as a character class.
There are the usual prerequisites: above average Intelligence, high Constitution and - get this! - a Wisdom of no more than 12! I suppose there's a sort of implied moral judgement here that was lacking in the Black Priest: necromancy is not an equally valid wisdom-path, but rather the thing philosophical cretins get into because they can't grasp real spirituality.
Necromancers advance in XP, fight and save as Clerics, including d8 Hit Dice. They can use all armour and weapons.
The main power of a Necromancer is undead-wrangling. They can speak with all types of undead and Turn Undead like a Cleric, but they make the undead friendly instead of frightening them away. They can try a second time to 'turn' already-friendly undead and if they succeed these monsters are dominated indefinitely and join the Necromancer's entourage. The Necromancer loses control if the undead wander too far away or get turned by somebody else.
Necromancers get a bunch of powers as well that work rather like spells.
Necromancers gain these abilities at a similar rate to Magic-User spells, but they cannot seek out new ones (except by going up in levels) and don't need spell books. Once selected, they can use their ability once a day.
But you weren't paying attention, were you? You were reading Unholy Strength of the Eternally Damned and thinking, What is that??? You perform it on a minion who drinks the blood of a human sacrifice and has a chance of getting 18/00 Strength (50% usually but higher for females, virgins and pregnant mothers!). Boinnng!!! - you're Lawful Evil now and damned into the bargain.
A lot of these powers manufacture, summon or control undead through a telepathic bond. There are some novelties, like manufacturing flying skulls to guard your lair. Later on, you're raising a Zombie Army of 1-1,000 (great if you roll 1,000 but embarrassing if you roll 1), summoning the angel of death and building your own actual 'Frankenstein'!
A couple of other abilities stand out. When your Necromancer dies, he can curse his killer - and then return from the dead as an undead version of himself and he turns into a Lich at 15th level!
When writing these summaries I normally alternate my masculine and feminine pronouns. With the Necromancer, I don't bother. The text doesn't specify that they are all male, but it seems to be assumed, as we shall see.
If turning ugly and creeping off to live in your bone temple doesn't bother you, the Necromancer has one major limitation. Regular living sacrifices. You need to do these to heal, because Necromancers can't regain Hit Points in normal ways (i.e, resting, cure spells) and extra sacrifices are part of the job description.
A necromancer must sacrifice periodically to his god of death. If he fails to do so faithfully he loses all spell-like abilities
Now I see why there isn't a drawing of a nude, dismembered woman: Lew turned it into a table this time.
Sheesh. Picking out one detail of this for special condemnation seems rather to miss the point, but you can't help but shudder at the emphasis on harming women in all of this.
Needless to say, White Dwarf readers took up their green biros to write in with praise or detraction. I was one of them, gushing over this horrid confection as only a pompous 16-year-old can:
I had a lot more to say about whips and the damage output of crossbows, but let's draw a veil over that. Leave it to Don Turnbull to strike a note of sanity:
But Don was shouted down by further letters, including a self-defense from Lew arguing that, since many gamers play characters that are amoral bastards anyway, there can be nothing wrong with providing a character class that channels them into crass and misogynistic murder-fantasies. No, that wasn't quite what he said.
Actually, that kinda was what he said...
Phew! You can still catch some heat from those old letters-page exchanges. They reflect, of course, the same positions we find on social media today: untrammeled free-expression on one side versus censorious concerns over taste and decency on the other. What's missing from the '80s version is anyone noticing, much less caring about, the issue of the representation of women. The past is another country, my friends.
As you can tell, I've gone through an about-turn on this. The moral nastiness of the Necromancer is pretty clear to me now, as much as I was blind to it as a teenager. The point about Lew's creation is that it serves up evil as titillation, a sort of character-class-porn. It doesn't explore evil or necromancy or the metaphysics of death or undeath. It just concocts a Grand Guignol parody of a class and says, 'Here, be as monstrous as you can! Everything is permitted!'
Several correspondents compared the Necromancer to the AD&D Assassin, but that misses the point. The Assassin can be played in a variety of ways. Maybe she only takes out contracts on rapists or maybe she uses her skills to strike down the oppressive rulers who enslave her people. Maybe he has an honour code or a devotion to the craft of the perfect kill. But there's nothing to do with the Necromancer because the class does it all for you: assemble an undead horde, sacrifice female virgins, turn into a Lich. There's no other flight path. It's the opposite of player choice and autonomy.
Nonetheless, I can't leave matters there. I've been going through the old White Dwarf character classes and revising and re-thinking them. Some, like Phil Masters' Demonist, just needed tweaking into a less ponderous format for perky, up-and-at-'em, White Box. Others, like Brian Asbury's Houri, needed a bit of de-toxifying first. With those classes, I was re-connecting with my teenage self, who had loved them and incorporated them into his D&D campaign. I don't want to reconnect with the adolescent mentality that was so easily enamoured of the Necromancer. If anything, I want to redeem it.
There is a role for a 'redeemed' Necromancer. The class does serve a purpose in campaigns above and beyond what Chaotic Clerics get up to. It's intriguing to play an anti-hero, a Faust-figure, someone doomed and invested in their own damnation. There has to be something positive about it though. Aristotle says that men do not become tyrants in order to keep warm: to adapt him, they don't become Necromancers just for a quiet life. Necromancy needs to be a journey, rather than just a dissolution; a mission, not just an act of self-corruption. And those sacrifices have to go...
If I had a hammer I'd hammer in the morning
It's Hammer go Hammer
It was 1990 and by then I was at the ragged end of my interest in AD&D: new games like Pendragon and Vampire were waiting to seduce me away from dungeons. I ran my last ever D&D campaign, which ended badly with everyone falling out. One fond memory I do have from that time is my brother playing a War Smith named Chynoweth. His character was very put-upon by his domineering uncle who owned ther forge where he worked. I suppose that was the start of my interest in PCs having families and communities, which explains why I turned so eagerly to Pendragon and Vampire, now that I think about it.
The War Smith appeared in White Dwarf 28, which came out at the very end of 1981, a year which perhaps marked the last gasp of OD&D and its replacement by a 'completed' AD&D. Why? Well, this issue reviews the Fiend Folio compilation of AD&D monsters. That book gave us the Githyanki, Slaadi and the Drow but it was really the final hurrah of old school weirdness: the Disenchanter, the Eye of Fear & Flame, the Adherer (looks like a mummy, made of glue!) and the frickin' FLUMPHS!
No, the future could be seen instead in things like White Dwarf's new character class, floated by Roger E. Moore. To call Moore's output prolific is a bit like saying Adele can belt out a tune: it barely does justice. A couple of years after this he would join TSR and ended up as editor of Dragon for a decade, eventually becoming creative director of AD&D. So work like this was his calling card.
Click on the cover for a peek at White Dwarf 28
Described as "a subclass of the fighter, with special manufacturing and spell capabilities," the War-Smith sounds more intriguing than it turns out to be. Moore is comprehensive in his grasp of D&D rules and brings the same sort of nuanced approach you find in Phil Master's Demonist, but Phil knows when to cut loose and summon Slaadi death squads. Moore's stuff is always oddly pedestrian and cautious.
War smiths are the makers of armour, shields, and weapons of war, as well as locks, tools, and other useful items. They worship the gods who oversee inventiveness and craftsmanship, and hold holy the creative power of fire as represented by the forge. The hammer is their symbol of power and skill...
There's a lot of potential here: a mastery over not just arms and armour, but locks and tools. A divine mandate for craft and creativity. The holiness of fire. The symbolic hammer. You could really do something with this.
Roger introduces War Smiths who can be humans, dwarves or gnomes, but no elves, which is odd, given the Tolkien influences on D&D.
War Smiths need four pre-requisite Attributes, including a whopping Constitution; and Strength, Wisdom and Constitution all have to be 16+ for that +10% experience bonus. When you factor in the class' increased XP requirements (2,250 to get to second level), your War Smith is going to lumber up the levels.
What do you get for this? Well, the Dungeon Masters Guide (pp30-34) introduces costs and times for hireling armourers and weapon smiths and, basically, your War Smith gets to do that stuff: make (normal) armour, shields and weapons. Gnomes are twice as fast and Dwarves three times as fast. There you go. Get to work.
There is some elaboration. At 6th level, War Smiths make artifacts good enough to be the raw material for magical enchantment and at 10th level (tenth!!!) their weapons and armour are +1 equivalent or +2 at 15th level. It's a long wait to make this stuff (at the same sort of level at which Demonists are summoning those Slaadi Death Squads, let us note!).
A nice touch is that, at 2nd level, War Smiths can make locks and confer penalties on the chance of a thief picking their locks. They get to pick locks themselves, as a thief one level lower.
Similarly, at 5th level, they have a chance of identifying magic armour and weapons, but it's a laughable 05%. going up to 10% at 6th level and increasing by +05% each level afterwards. Roger notes that a 23rd level War Smith (23rd!!!) maxes out at a 95% chance of correctly identifying, say, a flaming sword.
You can see why Roger E. Moore ended up running the D&D product line. He shares Gary Gygax's parsimonious approach and hatred of power-creep.
Then the War Smith gets clerical-style spells at 5th level, a bit earlier than Druidic and Magic-User spells kick in for Rangers. Most of the spells are fire-related: protection from fire, creating fire, heating metal, making weapons burst into flames. The spells are economically culled from the clerical, druidic and magic-user lists and culminate in big blasters like wall of fire and flame strike.
There is a set of escalating armour spells that confer automatic AC (AC6 for Armour I, rising to AC0 for Armour IV which you get at 11th level). This could be nice for the thieves and magic-users in the party, especially as they last half an hour per level, so you get mileage out of them.
Armour Extension, available when you hit 15th level, doubles the duration of an armour spell, effectively making them last indefinitely - but only on yourself. I'm not sure why a 15th level War Smith would forego actually wearing armour and rely on a spell instead.
Finally, and as you would expect, War Smiths are good with hammers. With these weapons, they enjoy +1 to hit and damage per 4 levels of experience. That stacks pretty nicely.
Roger's new class takes a 'leave-everything-as-you-find-it' approach. War Smiths essentially do what specialist hirelings do, except for free. Their powers and spells don't alter in-game tactics much. Everything they can do another class does better, or else they can do it only when they reach a level at which it no longer really matters. But nonetheless, they're cool and they get to make things and I think there ought to be a role for characters like that. So I'm drawn to Roger's War Smith idea, even as I find his execution to be uninspired.
The War Smith for White Box
White Box only takes characters up to 10th level, so the whole dizzying ascent into the level-twenties that AD&D offers has to be condensed. The White Box aesthetic is to give characters their core skill set right at first level rather than letting new abilities 'ping in' at higher levels. I'm opposed to creating bespoke spell sets for new classes - but of course the War Smith could be treated simply as a type of Cleric, which I'll look at later. I love the Feats system that Szymon Piecha introduced in Expanded Lore: it's a great way to build in power progressions as options, rather than the restrictive pathways mapped out by AD&D character classes.
Expanded Lore is a fantastic resource for White Box
War Smiths can be Humans, Dwarves, Elves and Gnomes, with non-humans limited to 6th level as usual. Any alignment is possible.
Weapons & Armour Restrictions
War Smiths can wear any armour and use any weapons and shields. They can use magic items available to Fighters but also braziers of controlling fire elementals and a manual of the iron golem.
The War Smith has an extra stat – Craft (check his last column in the advancement table). He may spend his Craft points to manufacture equipment. The work lasts 1 day per Craft point used.
Craft Armour: The Craft points you invest in a suit of armour must equal its AC bonus (i.e. 2 for leather, 4 four chain and 6 for plate and 1 for a shield or helmet).
Craft Weapons: The Craft points you invest in a weapon equals 1 per damage step the weapon inflicts: 1 for 1d6-1, 2 for 1d6 and 3 for 1d6+1.
Craft Tools: Crowbars, grappling hooks, lanterns, oil (!), spikes and thieves tools cost 1 Craft per 5gp cost
Craft points are regained when the item works as it was designed to. If the War Smith sells items, she recovers the Craft points at the end of the month. If the War Smith provides items for herself or adventuring companions, the Craft points are recovered at the end of an adventure in which they are used.
Optional: Racial Crafting Specialisms
I'm tempted to add Halfling Victualers - or Food Smiths! - who can make leather armour, rations, herbs and drink in the time Gnomes make tools. They are limited to 4th level though.
I'm tempted to add Halfling Victualers - or Food Smiths! - who can make leather armour, rations, herbs and drink in the time Gnomes make tools. They are limited to 4th level though.
The War Smith receives +1 To Hit and damage when fighting with a hammer of any size. The hammer is treated as magical for purposes of damage undead, fey and demons.
Saving Throws & Trauma
War Smiths save at +2 vs Paralysation and attacks based on fire. If you use the Death & Dismemberment rules, War Smiths can sacrifice a shield, helm or parry weapon to negate all Injuries from an attack. They do not gain Trauma from taking fire damage past 0 HP or experimenting with magical weapons/armour/shields/helms.
It might not sound like much, but War Smiths will really value these two powers and settle into a happy cycle of sacrificing arms and armour to avert Injuries then manufacturing new ones.
And yes, I did complain about the 'point pool' used for Paladins in the new version of Expanded Lore. But I'm treating Szymon's document as 'canon' and, although I don't much like the idea of 'Pride points' for Pa;adins, I think Craft points for War Smiths work pretty well.
Establish Sacred Forge
At 9th level, the War Smith gains the title 'Master Artificer' and can build a Forge, which is a sort of temple-workshop dedicated to furthering their craft. He will attract a group of soldiers and apprentices who will benefit from his skill and powerful rulers (and perhaps monsters) become his customers..
War Smith Feats
Many of these Feats allow a War Smith to make +1 arms or armour. This equipment gets its bonus from its superior construction but is not considered magical for purposes of hitting enchanted creatures.
If you are already an Armourer (see below) you could make +1 leather armour for 4 Craft points. Arcane Forge lets you invest the points permanently to make enchanted (rather than just very good) +1 armour and investing 8 Craft points gives it an unusual feature (say, ethereality). You never get those Craft points back. That armour was you life's work. Treasure it. However, Dwarves only have to invest 4 Craft points, because their investment gets doubled for making armour.
Optionally, Halfling Victualers can use this to make Potions (rolled randomly) by investing 1 permanent Craft.
Players might approach a NPC War Smith and offer to buy superior arms and armour. Alternatively, PC War Smiths might want to enrich themselves by selling this stuff. Assume the cost is equal to the base cost of the item multiplied by the number of Craft points invested in it and the level of the War Smith. So going to a 5th level War Smith for +1 chain mail will cost you 30gp (for the mail) times 8 (for the Craft invested) times 5 (his level) = 1200gp. Actual magical weapons are never for sale and PCs are hardly likely to sell them.
War Smiths advance slightly more slowly than Fighters and punch slightly weaker - but their Holy Hammer more than compensates for them in combat. They save like Clerics but their Hit Dice progression is somewhere between Fighters and Clerics. I suppose they are sub-Fighters, being just a smidgin inferior to Fighters across the board (except with hammers!).
A first level War Smith with 2 Craft points can make leather armour or a sword or perhaps a couple of daggers or shields. If they are an Elf, they could make two swords for 1 Craft each. This isn't a big deal until Feats appear at third level (remember, Humans gain a Feat at first level too). A third level War Smith with 6 Craft points can make plate mail armour but if they take the Armourer Feat then they can make +1 armour. Making +1 plate mail will cost 12 Craft, so that's out of reach (although a Dwarf could do it). Making +1 leather armour costs 4 Craft, so that's possible and the War Smith gets the Craft back (and keeps the +1 armour) at the end of the adventure.
If you pick up Arcane Forge at 5th level, you now have 10 Craft and you could manufacture that genuine enchanted +1 leather armour. Maybe it turns out to be Armour of Etherealness (although +1 leather, not +3 plate as would be more typical). Amazing! But those Craft points are gone forever. You poured your soul into that armour. See why it's not for sale?
Since Dwarves and other non-humans are capped at 6th level, they'll not have more than 12 Craft points to play with. That's enough for Dwarves to make that +1 magical plate mail and blow all their Craft on it. Elves could manufacture 3 magical +1 swords in their working life. Gnomes could make a dozen sets of +1 magical arrows.
This War Smith gets to do the things I wanted it to do: make cool stuff! White Box is a bit more generous than AD&D with its treasures, so by the time War Smiths can make powerful magic items, they might not need to.
War Smiths as White Box Clerics
An alternative approach is to treat the War Smith as a Cleric devoted to a god or goddess of forging and craft.
This type of Clerical War Smith advances as a normal Cleric and gets access to normal Clerical spells. If using Expanded Lore, the God's Weapon ability applies to the Clerical War Smith's hammer.
Instead of turning Undead, give Clerical War Smiths the skill to craft items using this table. The player rolls before an adventure (or each month) to see what they have made and can make on attempt at each category of items, rolling 3d6 just like a Cleric turning Undead.
F means the Clerical War Smith creates these items automatically and can do so during an adventure from raw materials to hand if they can work for a turn.
Here's an example. If Chynoweth is third level, then before an adventure he rolls to create a shield (4+, almost a certainty), a helmet (7+, highly likely), 4d6 arrows (10+, a fifty-fifty thing), a weapon that inflicts 1d6-1 damage (13+, if he succeeds he might decide it is a short sword), 1d6 flasks of oil (15+, unlikely) and a suit of leather armour (17+, very unlikely). Let's say he ends up with a helmet and shield, 13 arrows and a short sword. He can keep them, sell them or give them to adventuring companions or hirelings. If he sells them, he should get XP for their gold value.
Clerical War Smith spells
Some of Roger E. Moore's original War Smith spells can be included for White Box, like these, which are only available for Clerical War Smiths. I've added a couple of my own.
Spell Level: C1
Duration: Until extinguished
The caster can create a small fire (covering an area about a foot in diameter) that will burn fiercely for 1d6 rounds and then go out. However, anything it sets fire to will continue burning normally.
Spell Level: C2
Duration: 2 hours
The target of this spell becomes immune to normal fire and saves at +2 vs magical fire.
Spell Level: C3
Range: 1 hammer
Duration: 1 hour
A hammer busts into flames, burning like a torch. It receives +1 To Hit and inflicts an extra 1d6-1 fire damage. The Cleric can handle the firehammer and so can anyone the Cleric personally gives it to. If the hammer is dropped or thrown the spell expires at the start of the next round.
Spell Level: C4
Cast this before rolling to manufacture an item. If you manufacture it successfully, it is superior quality (+1 To Hit and damage) but not magical. This spell slot is used up and is not recovered until the end of the adventure (or the next month).
Spell Level: C5
Cast this before rolling to manufacture an item. If you manufacture it successful, it is magical (+1 To Hit and damage) and it will have a Minor Ability or Unusual Feature. These spell slots are used up forever.
Spell slots are shown on the Cleric Advancement table (White Box, p12). A sixth level cleric gets 1 spell slot for 4th level spells and could use it to cast superior crafting, but would not then be able to learn any other 4th level spells until the end of the adventure.
An eighth level Cleric has 2 4th and 2 5th level spell slots. If she uses enchanted crafting to make a magical weapon, one of those 5th level spell slots is gone forever. When she reaches tenth level, she will return to having 2 spell slots instead of gaining a third. As with the standard War Smith, making magical items is a labour of love and takes something from the creator that is never recovered.
Demons run when a good man goes to war
It is 1983 and we are well into the era of 1st ed. AD&D. The prolific Phil Masters publishes his Demonist subclass in White Dwarf 47. I'm so impressed I show it to my players and of course my old pal Andrew wants his Machiavellian Magic-User to go split-class as a Demonist. This he does and embarks on his epic descent into villainy that comes to define my teenage D&D campaign. Good times.
Click the cover for a peek at White Dwarf 47
After oddballs like Houris and Detectives in previous years, the Demonist subclass is the product of AD&D in its prime. More than that, it's the creation of Phil Master's nuanced imagination, so it looks ahead to innovations in 2nd ed. AD&D. All of which makes it tricky to retro-convert into White Box but I owe it to my 16-year-old self to try.
Let's look at Phil's creation first and identify its distinctive qualities.
Phil describes the Demonist as an "extra-planar specialist" which refers to the AD&D cosmology, the Outer Planes of gods, angels, devils and demons and the Inner Planes of the Elementals.
Demonists call on demons and devils as servants and allies and can command many other beings from the Outer and Elemental Planes. Their studies give them skill in inter-dimensional travel and their mastery of arcane lore bestows them with many informational spells... As 'lay priests' Demonists have some power over Undead.
There's a lot packed into this. Demonists are Clerics, really, with a focus on summoning/binding demons and elementals rather than dutifully serving some god. Phil rather cleverly gives Demonists clerical-style spells up to 3rd level (pray for the ones you want from the list) but the 4th+ level spells are Magic-User style and consist of a narrower range that must be recorded in a spell book.
Demonists are restricted to daggers, scimitars and swords and restricted from using poison or flaming oil. They are limited to studded leather armour. All of this feels a bit arbitrary, but that's AD&D for you. I think Phil is trying to conjure up the lightly-armoured, robe-wearing cultist rather than the lumbering plated demon-knight, but, like a lot of AD&D subclasses, this ends up imposing a singular interpretation on players rather than setting out an inspirational template for players to do what they like with.
It wouldn't be AD&D without equally arbitrary racial limitations and attribute pre-requisites. Demonists can be human, elven or half-elven (why not half-orcs who literally worship demons? "Unclear!") and the demi-humans can multi-class as Fighter/Demonists (which seems a bit redundant) or Demonist/Assassins (which sounds awesome!). Intelligence & Wisdom are the favoured attributes, as you'd expect with this sort of arcane-cleric.
Demonists have a cool holy symbol which is a weapon that acts as their 'Focus' for doing magic. They have a 'Dedication' spell to turn a weapon into a Focus and if they dedicate a magical weapon then their spells are harder to resist. Nice! This lends itself to an anti-Demonist tactic of destroying their Focus-weapon or casting dispel magic on it.
The spells start off as a rather restricted Clerical list - but Demonists get two at 1st level and race up the spell-levels a bit faster than normal Clerics, to reflect and (I suppose) compensate for their extreme specialisation.
The main spell-perk is augury as a first level spell, giving those good-idea/bad-idea answers to the mad stuff your party is considering. This is probably the first level Demonist's main contribution to an adventuring group. That, and turning undead, which Demonists do as a Cleric of half their level (rounded up, i.e. they match regular Clerics at first level then fall woefully behind).
Second level spells introduce a lot of utility/detection spells, plus taste-of-things-to-come petition (you bargain with a demon and this spell alerts it to fulfill its side) and dust warriors (creating Skeletons in the style of Jason & the Argonauts by sowing teeth!).
A good example of Phil Master's craftsmanship, granting Demonists animate dead as a 2nd rather than 3rd level spell, but with a lot of preparation and unreliable outcomes
Third level spells include speak with dead and the rather jolly spirit call which invokes some extra-dimensional goons who can help with lifting and shifting. And that's where your Clerical-style spells end, you're 4th level and you're going to have to wait until you're 7th level before the good stuff appears.
The fourth level spells are like Magic-User spells - you only have a limited selection and you're hungry for scrolls and robbing other people's spell books. All the exorcist-invoker Magic-User stuff becomes available along with a few arcane versions of Clerical spells: cacodemon, contact other plane, spiritwrack, astral spell, conjure elemental, commune, gate. The bespoke stuff includes contract (sign on the dotted line...) and call foe, which summons an entity's cosmic nemesis to deal with it for you ("Tiamat, I'd like you to meet Bahamut!").
That's it really. Like most of Phil's stuff, it's incredibly thoughtful about the way it works within the existing rules and spell lists. It's nuanced, flavourful and the opposite of power-creep. In other words, it's the high-water mark of AD&D homebrewing and about as far from crazy OD&D overkill as you can imagine.
It's also going to be a bit disappointing for anyone thinking they can dice up a Demonist and immediately start summoning things. Phil makes you work for your glory so that, by the time you're trapping efreeti in pentagrams at 9th level, you really appreciate the road you've travelled to get there. Then, at 13th level, you get the 7th level spells and Phil shows his other side: summon army lets you invoke a demon horde, slaadi death squads, githyanki war-parties, the Army Of The Dead...
Demonists for White Box
This takes a bit of thought. Phil's softly-softly approach doesn't really fit with the White Box/OSR aesthetic, which is about strapping on your broadsword and kicking bottoms as soon as possible. His subtle, inter-related spells don't jive with the straight-down-the-line White Box approach.
My personal aesthetic comes into play as well. I don't want to create a sub-class built around bespoke spell lists. As I've explained before, I'll give Druids a pass, but otherwise I'd rather design the class to do what it does without spells - or else just make Demonists a Magic-User who only uses certain types of spells.
Demonists are usually Human but at the Referee's discretion Half-Orcs can advance as Demonists up to 6th level and Elves up to 8th level. Demonists must be Neutral or Chaotic. Their Prime Attribute is Wisdom, representing strength of will.
Weapons & Armour Restrictions
Demonists can wear leather armour and carry shields. They can use one-handed weapons in combat (not bows).
Demonists can bind spirits to their will. This is done in the same way as a Cleric turning undead. Binding can only be attempted once for a group of otherworldly monsters. If successful the group serves the Demonist, although more intelligent creatures may do so with complaint and without enthusiasm.
Demonists can only have one group of each monster type bound at any time. If the Demonist tries to bind a new monster of that type, the old group is immediately freed from control - whether the Demonist succeeds in the new Binding attempt or not.
The Demonist can spend 1d6 turns creating an invoking circle for a particular creature, then roll on the Binding Table (above) to summon it into the circle. The attempt costs the Demonist 1HP of blood per Hit Die of the creatures being summoned and the Demonist can only invoke a maximum number of Hit Dice equal to her level. The player rolls on the table above: if successful, the creature appears in the circle, on a failure nothing happens.
Hit Points sacrificed this way are healed normally if the invoking fails, but if the invoking succeeds the Hit Points are irrecoverable until the invoked beings depart this world or are destroyed.
The invoked beings need to be Bound to the Demonist's will. There is one attempt to do this. If this fails, the creature remains hostile to the Demonist but cannot leave the circle or use magic powers (but watch out for Demons with Psionics!). Most unbound demons or elementals will return to their own world, but some will remain in the circle, purely to deprive the invoker of the Hit Points she sacrificed to get them there. Unintelligent monsters must be fought and destroyed to get rid of them. Of course, the Demonist could release an uncontrolled being in the hope that it is helpful, but Reaction Tests with invoked creatures are at -2.
Don't award XP for destroying invoked creatures - but do award XP for making good (i.e. worthy, dramatic, atmospheric) use of them.
A Demonist can consult the omens a number of times per day equal to his Omens rating. The Referee will give a verdict on a proposed course of action (in the next 15 minutes): beneficial, harmful, mixed or no consequences.
The Demonist can also use Omens to commune with his otherworldly patrons. This can be attempted once per adventure (or once per month outside adventuring) and the player must roll equal to or less than their Omens score to receive advice or information about the dungeon or the campaign setting.
All the Referee needs to do is provide the player with a true and (fairly) relevant rumour. However, the best omens are cryptic riddles that lend themselves to many interpretations and turn out to be true in surprising ways. Go nuts!
Saving Throws & Trauma
Demonists save at +2 vs the powers of otherworldly creatures that they can bind and invoke. If you use the Trauma & Derangement rules, Demonists gain no Trauma from the manifestation of otherworldly beings (obviously), from the deaths of companions (they're pretty cold) or from being alone in dark or dangerous places (they know what's in the darkness - and they quite like it!).
At 9th level, the Demonist gains the title 'Master of Demons' (or something equally grandiose and macabre) and can build a Fanum, which is a sort of temple-laboratory dedicated to invoking otherworldly powers and opening portals to other realms. He will attract a group of strange and/or desperate servitors - soldiers, clerics, magic-users and lesser demonists, monsters, earthbound spirits - who will serve him in pursuit of their own weird agendas.
I've adapted these creatures from M Stollery's elemental imps in White Dwarf 13 - they later appeared in the Fiend Folio (1981) as 'mephits'. They fill a gap because White Box is rather short of 2HD monsters that come from other planes of existence. Yes, the original mephits were 3HD monsters but I've demoted them to give Demonists some minions.
Fey Demonists (Changelings)
Demonists could be aligned with the powers of Faerie rather than the Outer and Elemental Planes. Fey Demonists are Changelings if their power comes from possessing a fey soul rather than a mortal one - perhaps because they were exchanged at birth.
Changelings follow the same rules as Demonists, but can be Humans, Elves or Gnomes, with non-humans limited to 8th level. Their saving throw bonus is against the abilities of fey creatures and illusions. Unlike other Demonists, they can wear chain mail armour.
Instead of demons and elementals, Changelings can Invoke and Bind fey monsters.
This follows the White Box implication that goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears are fey creatures; if you don't interpret them this way, remove them and allow Changelings to Invoke/Bind Skeletons and Zombies like other Demonists.
I fear Phil Masters would despair of the White Box Demonist, but let's look what we end up with.
The WB Demonist punches like a Cleric, but doesn't gain Hit Dice quite as well. Still better than Magic-Users, though! Plus, the ability to use all one-handed weapons opens up the world of magic swords.
The low-level Demonist has some value as a stand-in Cleric, with the benefit that instead of just frightening mindless undead away, the Demonist actually recruits them as minions.
The real value of the low-level Demonists is as an augurer: reading Omens twice an adventure and having a stab at communing with the nether powers - this is impressive stuff.
At higher levels, Omens gets more reliable. You will miss the ability to turn more serious sorts of Undead, but when infernal or elemental critters do show up, the Demonist can recruit them instead. Or at least try to. A pet Night Steed is very fashionable. The Demonist can try invoking suitable monsters at the start of an adventure, but it does cost a lot of Hit Points and you can't guarantee they will be biddable. But when it works, it works! A loyal Succubus (if there is such a thing) smooths a lot of encounters.
Some balance is needed. Intelligent demons resent service and will do anything they can to get the Demonist killed. short of outright disobedience. On the other hand, if the Referee presents bound demons as more trouble than they're worth, the Demonist's signature power amounts to nithing. A good rule of thumb is that each bound monster should serve in one encounter without creating problems, but becomes increasingly unreliable after that. Wise Demonists will dismiss a bound demon to liberate the sacrificed Hit Points and spare themselves the inevitable betrayal.
Phil's Demonist had a built-in power progression, starting with ad hoc deals with entities encountered down dungeons through to spells to summon, bind and compel particular powerful beings on your terms, and culminating in that army of demons!
The White Box Demonist doesn't have that all mapped out in advance. At higher levels, a Demonist can invoke Djinn or Balor Demons. What that leads to is found out by roleplaying. It's up to Referee and player to concoct a thrilling story together.
And that, folks, is the beauty of White Box.
No sooner have I finished praising Szymon Piecha's excellent White Box supplement Expanded Lore (for its new character classes and campaign rules) than it gets a fresh coat of paint and reappears in drivethrurpg as version 2.
Click the image to visit drivethrurpg. The book is pay-what-you-want
Most of the text is unchanged (including no saving throw for the Druidic Sunburst spell!) but a couple of classes have had major rebalancing and there's a brand new class - the Witcher, sorry, no, the Hunter.
The original D&D Monk class was incoherent and unbalanced, but had memorable and popular abilities. Szymon revised the Monk for Expanded Lore v1, creating a much more subdued martial artist. Too subdued really. The new Monk had impressive attacks (two of them!) and healing at 1st level but rubbish AC and - and this was the problem - no where to go. Leveling up didn't improve open hand combat and the Feats were minor affairs.
Szymon fixes this by giving the Monk a 1-6 scaled Martial Arts skill, similar to a Thief's Thievery skill in White Box. This number (starting at '2') is added to the Monk's AC and saving throws to dodge missiles. It is also the amount of HP healed by the Monk's hour-long daily Meditation. Now we have a Monk that gets significantly better at things, with base AC starting at 7  and improving to 3  at 9th level.
My homebrew goes a bit further. I think Martial Arts should be added to the Monk's base move, producing 12 at 1st level rising to 18 by 9th.
I notice the Monk's To Hit Bonuses have been hiked slightly too, giving them +1 To Hit at 2nd level, like Fighters.
The Feats are a more robust bunch of powers, such as walking on water and a further small hike to dodges and AC. The big news is Nirvana, which lets you heal 1d6 after winning in battle, and Vital Strike, which lets you paralyse an opponent. Vital Strike is hemmed with limitations: it has to be your first attack against an opponent, you have to hit and deal damage and the opponent has to fail a saving throw. Iron Knuckles grants +1 damage in open-hand combat but crucially lets your hands count as magical weapons: a much-needed buff.
I could quibble about Vital Strike being so powerful but so limited; I prefer powers to be weaker but sure-things. Maybe no saving throw but the paralysis only lasts one round? But be that as it may, Szymon's revisions effectively abolish my Monk homebrew.
The original D&D Paladin was another over-powered creation that overshadowed Clerics. Szymon's Paladin redressed that, moving these righteous warriors away from Cleric-territory but keeping them Cleric-adjacent. They were perhaps a bit boring though? The new Paladin is even further from its original template but has much more attractive powers.
As with the Monk, Szymon gives Paladins a signature trait, in this case Pride. However, this trait starts at 2 at 1st level but scales up to 20 by 10th level. Moreover, it's not a skill so much as a pool of points.
Pride is spent to do the Paladin's healing and smiting, so a 1st level Paladin could heal 2HP or smite an enemy for an extra 2 damage, or heal 1HP and deal +1 damage. Pride is replenished by a single day of rest and gets halved if the Paladin breaks his vows.
I've got very mixed feelings about this. Giving a character a pool of points to fuel abilities has never been the D&D way. It would make some sort of sense to give Monks 'chi points' but giving Paladins 'Pride points'? Just what do these points represent? Then there's the clash between this system and the 1-6 scale that applies to Thieves (and Szymon's Bards and now Monks too). And all this innovation just to scale an ability that could have been set at '2HP per level' with pretty much the same results! It's not as if Pride fuels any other Paladin activities.
The Paladin's boring Mount is unchanged, but the Feats get a makeover. The old Blessing and Inquisition get merged: now Blessing lets a Paladin cast bless and detect chaos each once a day. Inspiring Leader and Inspiring Protector are both terrific party buffs: nominate an ally to receive +1 To Hit/damage or +2 AC for that round - and you do this at the start of the round so it's not even an action. This moves Paladins into the territory occupied by Bards in other iterations of D&D. Witch-Hunter offers an amazing half damage from magic attacks plus the ability to identify any spell cast on you.
This moves the Paladin far away from its quasi-clerical template. It's now much more like the Cavalier that appeared in Unearthed Arcana (1985). Has it moved too far away? Shouldn't Paladins get a Feat that lets them turn undead as a 1st level Cleric? If we're going to have pesky Pride points (and the name itself skews Paladins away from the Christian archetype) then shouldn't they fuel other things? I'm not convinced by this version of the Paladin, though it is much more balanced and very distinctive.
Szymon did a good job reconceptualising Bards, taking them away from their original 'jack-of-all-trades' remit without turning them into the super-spell-casters and party-buffers they became in later editions. The Feats were a little underwhelming, so Szymon revisits them.
But before we look at that, there's one feature of Szymon's Bards that hasn't changed and that I strongly oppose. Szymon's Bardic Charm doesn't work on undead or demons. Unintelligent undead - fine! But if PC Bards are to imitate the greatest Bard of them all, they should be able to descend into the Underworld and use the power of music to charm the damned souls there and the demonic Furies that guard them. Undead and Demons are touched by art too!
The Bard's Light Step feat still makes traps trigger only on a 1 in 6 chance (amazing power) but now confers +1 to AC too. Simple Counter-Spells now confer +3 rather than +2 to saving throws vs Spells. Swashbuckler used to confer +1 To Hit with light blades, but the new Fencer lets you choose between +2 To Hit or +2 to AC, which is powerful and flexible.
A fine set of revisions, slightly pumping Bards as a combat class, but not too much. This is all good stuff.
Szymon offered Fighters a range of 'sub-classes' which distinguishes them from each other at 1st level. Berserkers and Anti-Mages haven't changed. Archers now deal +2 damage rather than a bonus d4. I'm in favour of giving players fixed amounts rather than imposing more dice rolls for such trivial variations. Cavaliers and their mounted bonuses have gone, but now there are Mercenaries that re-roll critical fails with two-handed weapons. It's a neat ability but I can't see what it has to do with being a Mercenary. Nobles have been renamed Guardians, which makes their damage-redirection less setting-specific. Soldiers no longer get a shield bonus but they do get the ability to assign a +1 To Hit bonus to an ally at the start of each round, which I like. Swordsmen are restricted to leather armour but gain +1 To Hit and damage with swords and improve their AC by their Dexterity bonus. Wait, what? Yes, it seems Expanded Lore proposes abolishing the normal Dexterity adjustment to AC and I missed the memo. Well, I don't think I'll be incorporating that. Slayer has been removed - I think because it treads on the Hunter's toes.
There are some sensible changes here, but nothing ground-breaking. If, like me, you still let Dex bonuses improve AC for everyone, then the Swordsman needs revising. I think giving him the Bardic Fencer ability to toggle a +2 bonus between To Hit and AC on a round-by-round basis would do it. As for Mercenaries, perhaps the party could 'buy' them a buff like +2 To Hit or +2 Damage for the duration of a combat in exchange for an extra 50gp/level to their share of the loot.
One of the surprise absences from the original Expanded Lore was the Ranger. Well, now he's here, but de-Tolkienified and blended with the Witcher to form a new class with some distinctive progressions.
Hunters are like Dexterity-themed Fighters, limited to chain mail and slightly lower in Hit Points at 1st level. They progress in To Hit Bonuses in a similar fashion to Fighters and are only slightly worse with their saving throws. They have a Tracking Skill which operates on the same 1-6 scale as Thievery, Bardic Charm and Monkish Martial Arts.
Hunters gain +2 to saving throws against wild animals such as Poison and (for some reason) Illusions. I wonder what wild animals create illusions? Perhaps this refers to fey woodland creatures like Dryads.
Hunters collect trophies from their kills and once they have 20 trophies from a parrticular type of foe (e.g. 'demons', 'undead' or 'animals') they get the title 'Slayer of _____' and enjoy a +2 damage bonus against them. They can also choose to become an Expert in one of the foes they have the title Slayer for and they never need to roll to track these.
As with Paladins, there's a mechanic at work here that operates at cross-purposes to the normal White Box systems. In this case, a type of progression that's not linked to leveling up. Don't get me wrong: I like it as a mechanic. But I wonder if other classes shouldn't be allowed something similar, with Magic-Users specialising in certain spells, Clerics against certain undead, etc. This would effectively abolish the Hunter as a distinct class, since all characters could become Slayers too. It would also move the game far beyond 'Original D&D' in structure.
Like the scene in Predator (1987) where Arnie hides in the mud? Well Hunters have a feat called Ghost that makes them invisible if they lie still in thickets, water or mud and gives them +1 AC when they stand up. Tracker adds +1 to Tracking and Hunting Company (and I really like this one) confers +1 To Hit for the entire party against monsters the Hunter has successfully tracked. Quick Shot and Quick Stab both let the Hunter re-roll damage, but the second (rather than the higher) score has to be taken. Nonetheless, other players will be jealous of this. Life Reader lets the player know a monster's remaining HP - a nice 'meta' power but it depends how you play (I often tell players monster HPs to generate drama).
Hunters are a well-designed class with intriguing powers to bring to the table. The only problem is that, compared to Rangers, they're a bit one-note. They're just really, really good at killing things. That's it. That's their jam. No using crystal balls or concocting herbal remedies, no minor spell-casting or passing without trace. There's nothing mystical about Hunters. Nonetheless, I might revisit my White Box Ranger and dial back some of its Hunter-like powers to focus on wilderness survival instead, so that the Hunter can corner the market on slaughter.
Szymon Piecha is pretty experienced in rules design so these classes hang together nicely without overpowering the game. Well, perhaps the Hunter has a bit too much going for it. The main thing that Expanded Lore did - amd now does very explicitly - is move the game away from its OD&D roots into being a new OSR-style RPG entirely. These Bards, Monks and Paladins don't really resemble their D&D originals and the Hunter, while old-school in flavour, owes very little to the Ranger.
It really depends on what you are looking for from White Box. If you want a game that encapsulates the 'original' D&D experience of the White Box set, with Greyhawk and Blackmoor and Eldritch Wizardry, then this supplement deviates too much from the template. But if you want to see a different direction D&D could go in from the same starting point as Gygax/Arneson's 1970s original, then Expanded Lore charts an exciting course.
Since the last blog, I've been working on Psionics rules for White Box that are faithful to the spirit of 1976's Eldritch Wizardry while avoiding the flaws of Tim Kask's system: fiddly point counting, multiple tables to consult, over-powered psionicists, lack of rationale, dependency on Psionic Monsters as a balancing threat.
And of course HA-HA. One of the ironies of games design is that your own systems always seem simple and un-fiddly to you. Everyone else sees them for the convoluted mare's nest that they are. Doubtless someone will point out to me that all this is just as complicated as Tim Kask's original rules!
Szymon Piecha's Expanded Lore supplement introduces an excellent system of Feats into White Box, with characters gaining a new Feat at every odd-numbered level (and Humans starting with a Feat at 1st level). Psionic Potential is a new General Feat that any character can choose instead of the normal Feats available. This marks the awakening of the character's Psionic powers.
What about Elves etc.? The original rules in Eldritch Wizardry limited Psionics to humans and Gary Gygax's revision in 1st ed. AD&D excluded Elves. Personally, I see no reason to exclude any race (or class) from Psionics, but you might have a campaign setting that limits Psionics to certain groups.
Psionic Potential gives the character access to one Psionic attack mode and one defense mode:
And that's it! A newly-awakened psionicist gets some protection from Psionic foes and can call on a Psionic Blast to incapacitate enemies (but at a cost, as well shall see). All the exciting Psionic Disciplines and Talents are still in the future.
Monks and Fighters (optional)
Monks enjoy a starting ability at first level to meditate for an hour, ridding their body of poisons and healing 1d6 HP. Optionally, a Monk character may forego this ability and take Psionic Potential as a class ability instead. A Human Monk may then take another Psionic Feat (see below) at first level instead of a normal Feat.
Another option is for Fighters to choose a Psionic sub-class. Expanded Lore offers 8 sub-classes for Fighter PCs to choose at character creation. An extra sub-class could be a Psi-Blade who automatically has Psionic Potential at 1st level.
Whenever a psionicist would be eligible for a new Feat, they may choose a Psionic Feat from this list.
The Stress Die
When you use a Psionic Talent, you gain a point of Psionic Stress and roll the Stress Die (usually a d6). If you roll equal to or higher than your current Psionic Stress, all is well. If you roll less than your current Psionic Stress, you have lost control of your Psionic powers and a consequence will follow, which might be:
This makes using Psionic powers a sort of 'push-your-luck' experience. Sooner or later you will fail the Stress Test and either lose your powers (exhaustion) or incur something horrible. Players who are wise will call upon Psionics only under duress. As discussed later, using Psionic Blast against a non-psionicist always adds two points of Psionic Stress.
Removing Psionic Stress
Triggering a Stress Penalty removes some of your Psionic Stress as does losing in Psionic Combat, but those are bad things. A psionicist removes a point of Psionic Stress from a good night's sleep (uninterrupted, no watch duty) and a good day of ordinary (non-adventuring) activity. This means, at home, most characters will remove all their Psionic Stress in three days.
Talents & Sciences
When you acquire a new Psionic Discipline, you gain a new attack and defense mode, giving you more options in Psionic Combat. You also acquire a Talent which is a Psionic power that you can call upon at will, at the cost of taking a point of Psionic Stress and making a Stress Test.
According to Expanded Lore, when a character reaches an even-numbered level they may choose two attributes and increase them by +1 each. A psionicist may forego this and instead choose another Talent from a Psionic Discipline they already know.
A Science is a much more powerful Talent. A player who takes this Psionic Feat can suggest a Science to the Referee. It should be a more powerful version of a Talent they already possess. If the Referee approves it, the PC gains the Science. Using a Science always counts as failing a Stress Test, triggering alarm, exhaustion or insanity. The good news is that, after using a Science, the psionicist gets rid of all his Stress.
A character with the Telesentience Discipline already has the Talent to charm people through conversation. The player wants to have a Science that lets her replace a person's consciousness with her own and manipulate them like a puppet for as long as the character concentrates. The Referee allows this, but each time the player calls upon her 'Puppetry' Science she will trigger a Stress consequence.
Some Rules for Psionic Talents/Sciences
The magic-distinction an optional rule you are free to ignore if it leads to confusion. I suggest it to give Psionics its own character and create distinctive challenges for a psionicist. For example, to teleport to a place a psionicist must be familiar with it and this familiarity cannot be achieved by using a Crystal Ball or a clairvoyance spell. It also prevents unbalancing synergies with spell-casters: you cannot perceive someone using a detect minds (ESP) spell then psionically attack them. However, it also means that dispel magic and remove curse will not get rid of Psionic effects.
Psionic Sciences could get round some of these restrictions. For example, a psionicist with the Talent to teleport to a familiar place could develop a Science that lets him teleport to anywhere he can see on a map.
Discipline - Psychokinesis
Psychokinesis involves moving things with your mind, but really this is the mental control of energy so it includes creating and suppressing fire, electricity and even sound or sight.
Attack Mode: Id Insinuation
Defense Mode: Mental Barrier
The Id Insinuation is a similar attack to Psychic Blast (though it only works on other psionicists) and mental dominates opponents but it is less effective on the insane. Mental Barriers are another all-purpose defense mode. Both modes involve Wisdom bonuses or penalties.
Psychokinetic Sciences might include breaking down walls or fortifications, throwing multiple objects (perhaps 1d6 + Wisdom Bonus in number), outright canceling magical fire or cold damage, creating firebvalls or ice storms that deal lots of damage (perhaps 1d6 plus an extra d6 per Wisdom Bonus).
Referees need to decide what counts as a 'physical attack/creature'. Some creatures are obviously non-corporeal. My rule of thumb is that if a creature might be non-corporeal and requires magical weapons to hit (e.g. Wights) then they do not count as physical creatures and their attacks are not physical attacks. It's the Referee's call to make, just be consistent.
Discipline - Psychometabolism
This is the power of mind over body - initially your own body but Sciences might let you alter other people's bodies too.
Attack Mode: Psychic Crush
Defense Mode: Mind Blank
The Psychic Crush is much feared because it can kill an opponent outright. The Mind Blank is an effective defense mode against all attacks. Neither mode receives Attribute bonuses or penalties.
Psychometabolic Sciences might include healing others, rendering yourself immune to petrification etc., granting someone else enhanced Attributes, going into suspended animation for years, purging yourself of magical bodily effects.
What about the Psionic/Magic distinction? Well, I think psionicists should be able to grant themselves a buff against magical effects that fall within their Discipline, but outright immunity or removal of magical effects would have to be a Science.
Discipline - Psychoportation
Psychoportation is the manipulation of space (and perhaps, as a Science, time as well). It commonly involves teleporting but also includes speeding up or slowing down movement as well as astral travel.
Attack Mode: Ego Whip
Defense Mode: Intellect Fortress (10’r)
The Ego Whip is a dangerous attack, putting opponents into comas, but it is easily countered. The Intellect Fortress is the most potent defense and extends its benefits to all allies within 10'. Both modes receive Charisma bonuses or penalties.
Psychoportation Sciences might include moving at triple speed, teleporting to areas only seen on a map, transporting other people, moving groups of people out of harm's way.
It's important to be quite rigorous with perception/familiarity. For example, I would say you have to be able to perceive your precise destination, so you could not teleport to a distant mountaintop using a Talent (but a Science might allow that). Because of the Psionic/Magic distinction, a Referee could rule that magic items cannot be teleported by themselves (so no shortcuts round scenarios by teleporting the Sword of Doom straight out of the dungeon). Magical creatures - anything that requires a magic weapon to hit - cannot be teleported.
Discipline - Telesentience
Telesentience is the 'expanded awareness' that lets the psionicist perceive things without the use of the five senses.By establishing a perceptual link to a person or object, it can be a great enabler of other Disciplines. It includes projecting thoughts or feelings onto others.
Attack Mode: Mind Thrust
Defense Mode: Tower of Iron Will (3’r)
The Mind Thrust is a more subtle attack than Psychic Blast and stuns opponents, rendering them helpless. The Tower of Iron Will is a powerful defensive mode and extends its benefits to all allies within 3'. Both modes involve Intelligence bonuses or penalties.
Telesentience Sciences might include telepathy with anyone you know by sight, inspecting areas seen on a map or from a distance, dominating other minds, healing derangements, total immunity to mind-control or conferring these benefits to others.
NPCs don't get saving throws against Tekesentience but charm won't make characters or monsters act against their nature and 'strong emotions' can be acted on in a variety of ways so a Reaction Test will reveal whether the creature responds in the way the psionicist hopes (positive eaction) or in a less predictable way (negative reaction). Telesentience works on 'living minds' - not the undead, golems, demons or elementals. I'm inclined to regard fey as 'living' as will as djinns and efreets.
Psionicists automatically become aware if another character or monster that they perceive uses Psionic powers. Many monsters automatically identify psionicists as such when they perceive them, whether they are using their powers or not.
Any psionicist can engage in Psionic Combat with another psionicist they can perceive. Range is unimportant. If a psionicist is attacked, they automatically perceive their attacker and can retaliate.
This means that you can use Telesentience to spy on another psionicist and launch an attack on them, but they can attack you back even if they lack Telesentience themselves. Of course, you have the option to end the battle at any time by canceling the link.
Player characters can launch 'speculative' Psionic attacks on NPCs who might be Psionic but haven't revealed it yet. If the NPC or monster is not Psionic then this accomplishes nothing (unless the Psionic Blast attack mode was used) and the PC gains a point of Psionic Stress for the wasted effort.
Psionic Combat is simultaneous and lightning fast. A Psionic Combat exchange takes place at the start of a melee round, before initiative is rolled. The psionicists may take normal melee actions after their Psionic Combat exchange is resolved. Psionic Combat automatically breaks concentration, ending other effects the psionicist may be maintaining.
Each combatant chooses one of the attack modes available to them. Monsters choose the first attack mode listed for them and move onto the next on the list if last round's attack didn't work.
The combatant then chooses the best defense they have against the attack aimed at them. If there are several attacks, the defender must choose one defense and apply it to all of them. A surprised combatant must choose the worst defense mode available, if possible.
The chart shows the DAC [AAC] created by each defense to each attack. X indicates that this attack can NEVER penetrate this defense. Insane characters gain -4 [+4] to AC versus Id Insinuation and Demons are always treated as if they were insane for this purpose.
Characters add their normal To Hit Bonus and may add a bonus or penalty based on an Attribute. Psychic Blast uses Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma as its Attribute Bonus - whatever the player cjose when they first acquired Psionic Potential - and Psychic Crush never uses any Attribute Bonus. Monsters use their Hit Dice as a bonus To Hit. When a target is 'hit' in Psionic Combat, they acquire a point of Psionic Stress and after that the Referee has two options.
Option 1: Psionic Sudden Death
After gaining a point of Psionic Stress, the character or monster must make a Stress Test (usually on a d6 although powerful monsters roll 1d8 or 1d10) and if they fail this they suffer the effect of the attack instead of the usual penalty.
Option 2: Psionic Duel
After gaining a point of Psionic Stress, the character or monster checks to see if they have reached the maximum stress points, based on their Stress Die (usually 6, but 8 or 10 for powerful psionicists). If so, they suffer the effect of the attack mode. If not, the duel continues.
This means that you can use Telesentience to spy on another psionicist and launch an attack on them, but they can attack yu back even if they lack Telesentience themselves. Of course, you have the option to end the battle at any time by canceling the link.
Defeat in Psionic Combat
The loser remove Stress equal to the result of their Stress Die. In addition, the attack mode used by the winner takes effect:
If you use the Death & Dismemberment house rules then Psychic Crush automatically deals a number of Fatal Wounds equal to the victim's Psionic Stress at the time. If First Aid can be applied it is possible that the character could be saved; treat as Concussion + Coma.
Psionic Blast vs non-Psionicists
Psionic Blast is the only Psionic attack that affects non-psionicists. It automatically cause confusion in monsters that are less intelligent than the psionicist and stuns more intelligent creatures for 1d6 rounds (normal restrictions: creatures must have living minds). However, it is stressful to use this way: the attacker gains two Psionic Stress Points and makes a Stress Test.
Stress Penalties for Psionicists
Referees need to decide on the Stress Penalties for over-using Psionic powers. This could be based on the campaign setting. For example, in your campaign perhaps all Psionic powers are the result of having tainted demon blood and the Stress Penalty is insanity. Alternatively, the player can choose the stress penalty based on their character's background and the rationale for why they possess Psionics.
Option 1: Alarm
Psionic Stress sends out a psychic shriek detected by psionic predators attuned to such things. The Referee may choose a Psionic Monster in the dungeon to alert or roll on the Psionic Wandering Monster table. The monsters will arrive in 1d6 rounds.
You will notice there are tough monsters on this table and it doesn't scale by dungeon level. One option is: those are the breaks! It's a big dangerous world for psionicists and just because you've got Psionic powers it doesn't mean it's safe for you to go using them! Tread carefully!
But maybe you don't want your 1st level party running up against Mind Flayers just yet. You can scale the table by rolling 1d10 for early dungeon levels (1-3), 1d10+5 for mid dungeon levels (4-6) and 1d10+10 for the furthest dungeon levels (7+). A d12 Su-Monsters is quite deadly enough for low-level characters!
If the Referee places Psionic Monsters on an ordinary Wandering Monsters Table, then it will be these monsters who seek out the psionicist. If some of these monsters turn up as ordinary Wandering Monsters, why not allow the PC psionicist to detect their use of Psionic powers and know their direction and distance (but not exactly what they are).
Option 2: Exhaustion
Psionic Stress flips a circuit-breaker in the brain and the psionicist loses all their powers, effectively becoming a normal, non-psionic character. Psionic powers come back once a character is on full Hit Points and no Trauma and rests for an additional week.
This is the most benign limitation on Psionic powers but also the most restrictive. Psionicists get to use their powers for a few occasions, the they switch off and are gone for the rest of the adventure. Use this option if you don't want Psionics to get out of hand.
Option 3: Insanity
Psionic Stress drives you crazy. Perhaps psionicism is insanity. Either way, the psionicist suffers a breakdown. You could roll on a Random Insanity Table (D&D has tons of those) or use my house rules for Trauma & Derangement.
Trauma: Every time a psionicist gains Psionic Stress they instead gain a point of Trauma. Test for Breakdown/Derangements as normal rather than making Psionic Stress Tests. Psionicists who are hit in Psionic Combat gain Trauma and lose the combat if they suffer a Breakdown/Derangement (use normal Stress Dice for monsters). Deranged characters get +1 to their AC vs Id Insinuation for each level of Derangement they have.
This is the least restrictive limitation on Psionic powers in many ways: you can keep on adventuring and using Psionic powers while heavily Tramatised and Deranged. However many Derangements make it hard to rest and lose Psionic Stress. Derangements of level 3+ usually prevent a good night's sleep and level 5+ interfere with a day of restful activity too. Referees might allow psionicists to add their level of Derangement to any Psionic To Hit roll (making them very dangerous) and also deduct this from their AC (making them very vulnerable too). Characters with any level of Derangement alert other psionicists who perceive them to their psionic nature.
If you work back through 1970s D&D you run into Eldritch Wizardry. And there, sandwiched between the Druids and the Demons, you will find Tim Kask's rules for Psionics. Now if you ever wonder what Macbeth meant when he told his wife that his mind was full of scorpions, you will understand completely when you try to read these rules...
At the end of his rather heroic blog, Grey Elf exclaims that these rules are simple and anyone who doesn't understand simply doesn't WANT to understand. Be warned!
Psionics are quasi-scientific (rather than magical) mind powers and they came into D&D along this route. Back in 1975, Strategic Review introduced a new monster called the Mind Flayer. The Mind Flayer (great name!) is a nasty squid-headed subterranean villain, nicknamed 'Cthulhu Calamari'. Mind Flayers dish out Psychic Blasts that are brutal even to the toughest PCs and Referees quickly appropriated them into their bestiaries and players went in dread of them.
The hunt was on for a PC type that could stand up to such a monster, a counter-measure to the Mind Flayer's "wave of PSI force!" Steve Marsh submitted the Mystic subclass, a mind-over-matter Swarmi. Gary Gygax came up with the Divine, a new class with psychic powers, and tested it with his group. When the third D&D supplement, Eldritch Wizardry, was being developed, Gygax tasked Tim Kask with creating Psionics rules to keep the fans happy.
Eldritch Wizardry (1976). It's rather squalid focus on demonology and female breasts put D&D in the firing line in the forthcoming Satanic Panic. But it gave us Druids and Demogorgon!
Tim Kask was keen. A simple Psion sub-class would have sufficed, but oh no. Tim decided to use the Psionics rule to 'fix' D&D. Critics complained about the lack of 'spell points' in D&D and the absurdities of the 'Vancian' magic system that caused mages to forget spells as soon as they cast them. Tim introduced a Psionic 'spell points' system to fuel Psionic 'spells' that could be used and reused until the points ran out. Then he created a fiendishly complex Psionic combat system involving points and dice rolls and cross-referencing different styles of attack and defence.
The system isn't as unbalanced as critics accused it of being. Fighters lose Strength, Thieves lose Dexterity and Clerics and Magic-Users lose spells as they acquire Psionic powers. Psionics also requires an adjustment to the D&D setting. Referees need to incorporate Tim Kask's monsters into their campaigns and dungeons, critters like the Brain Mole, the Thought Eater and the Intellect Devourer that prey on Psionic PCs and make it dangerous to be a psionicist. This balancing monsters were largely ignored by gamers and when you look at the pictures you'll see why.
Oh no, a Brain Mole!!! The Intellect Devourer looks kinda cool, but the Thought Eater?!?!?
To be fair to Tim Kask, his Psionics rules were rigorously tested, but badly received. Perhaps a problem was that they don't gel with the established D&D infrastructure. They function like a game-within-a-game, at odds with the normal structures of class, level and roll-to-hit.
Or perhaps it is the lack of rationale. Just what are psionics? The indwelling potential of the mind? Extra-planar weirdness from the Cthulhu realms? A recessive gene? An esoteric discipline?
Why can't Elves have Psionics? They were famously excluded from these powers, supposedly because D&D designer Steve Marsh was 5'2" and strongly identified with Dwarves and lobbied against his ancestral foes being invited to the Psionics party!
Why can't Druids and Monks have Psionics? I mean Monks??? Gary Gygax opened Psionics up to all classes in AD&D but the Elves were still left out.
A final problem is the lottery element to Psionics. You have roughly a 10% chance of developing Psionics. Even those who possess the powers only have a percentage chance each level of gaining new abilities. This means that a few lucky dice rolls make some characters far more competent than others and rob Magic-Users of their distinctive contributions.
All of which is a shame for Tim Kask, who meant well, but history is a merciless judge. For the record, Tim looks back on Psionics with these good-natured reflections:
I LOVED psionic combat and had great fun devising it with all of its tables and charts. Apparently I was in the tiny minority. I guess mental combat was too esoteric for most D&Ders; not enough of them shared my fondness for the Dr Strange Marvel comics and Mindflayers. God, I loved Mindflayers; they were all over my dungeons. I just loved the idea of turning an annoying PC into a gibbering idiot.. Oh well, live and learn...
With the publication of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1978-9), Gary Gygax shunted the Psionics rules into an appendix as an 'optional' system. He removed the link to character classes, so that Psionicists could have any Psionic power based on a lucky roll. He also made them even more rare: the likelihood of having Psionic powers became just 1%, but augmented slightly if you had high attributes. This offers further benefits to already-powerful characters and builds into the lucky few a power progression that other players will never match - because, of course, however unlikely you make Psionic powers, someone will make that roll (or claim they did). The whole system was seen as unfair - and rightly - and widely ignored.
Since then, Psionics have ebbed and flowed. They were absent from 2nd ed. AD&D at first, but in the 1990s Sci Fi tinged Dark Sun setting they are ubiquitous. 3rd ed. D&D messed around with them further, proposing various Psionic character classes, which settled into four in 4th ed. D&D. The 'power points' idea to fuel Psionics remained fairly constant, despite being at odds with how everything else in D&D works. 5th ed. D&D tinkered with Steve Marsh's old Mystic class, before abolishing it in favour of the Psionics-for-everyone approach. Which just goes to show that Psionics remains the bane of D&D, the round peg in the square hole, the skull on the banquet table.
Early roleplayers discover the Psionics rules. Ha-ha, no: it's Et In Arcadia Ego (1638) by Nicolas Poussin, in which innocent shepherds discover the existence of death. Same thing?
Psionics in White Box: first thoughts
If we attempt to complete the 'White Box project' of stripping D&D back to its source and then retooling it in the simplest terms, what do we do with Psionics?
'Ignore It!' is one simple and attractive answer.
But that feels like a bit of a cop out. The Druid has been reclaimed from Eldritch Wizardry and so have the Demons. Can nothing be done with Tim Kask's legacy?
Some Design Principles
First, the random chance of Psionic potential has to go. You either choose to be Psionic or you choose not to be. I don't mind NPCs having a 1% (or whatever) chance of being Psionicists, but the point of being a player in an old school Fantasy RPG is that you get to be whatever you want to be.
Szymon Piecha introduces an excellent system of Feats in Expanded Lore, so it makes sense for Psionic Potential to be a Feat that grants access to a separate list of Psionic Feats that players can choose from instead of their normal ones when they reach odd-numbered levels. The beauty of this is that, by choosing Psionic Feats, you are foregoing the Class-specific Feats that are so important for shaping your character most of the time. This provides a solid reason not to bother with Psionics. Also, because they get an extra Feat at first level to make up for being racially bland, it maintains (for better or worse) the link between Psionic Potential and Humans.
The point-based system has to go. I'm not trying to recreate OD&D here or solve the gaming debates of the 1970s; rather, I'm trying to create a version of D&D as if those debates had never happened, with all the wisdom of hindsight. Out go Psionic Power Points. A different approach is needed.
Some things have to stay, not because they are good ideas, but because they are iconic. Tim Kask introduced a set of Psionic Attack and Defense Modes with deeply evocative names:
Yes, they're silly and jarring with their pop-Freudian terminologies that don't belong in any conceivable fantasy setting - but any White Box Psionics rules that don't use them are just total non-starters I'm afraid
The deeper issue is how to limit the power of Psionics in the game and this has to be linked to the explanation for what Psionics are.
One view of Psionics is that they are a perfectly natural potentiality in sentient minds that comes to the fore in some people, perhaps through rigorous mental training or some sort of genetic blessing. George Lucas started off treating the Force as the former, then switched to viewing it as the latter.
The Force: started off as a mystical energy, turned into a blood disorder
This tends to present Psionics as a fulfilment of human (or demi-human) potential. There might be a natural limitation to Psionics, which is exhaustion. Use the power too much and it short-circuits and you need long rests before it returns.
A different view is that Psionics are an aberration, something deeply unnatural. Perhaps they are gifts from eldritch entities, insights into things no mortal was meant to know, the side-effects of perceptions into a cosmic reality that ordinary thought cannot conceptualise. In this case, Psionics can carry their own internal penalties: the risk of madness.
Or aberrant Psionics can carry a more external risk: we need Tim Kask's psionic predators. Unleash the brain moles!
Or, y'know, a mix of these. If you want Psionics to be a Lovecraftian phenomenon, then using them too freely will both drive you mad and attract the attention of extra-planar gribblies with three-lobed burning eyes.
If I'm going to offer up a set of White Box Psionics rules, it needs to be setting-agnostic. So I'll need a mechanic that can be interpreted in all of these ways.
The final consideration is that Psionics should be unobtrusive. If one PC develops Psionic powers, it should not skew the game around their powers or the particular challenges they face. Yet despite this, Psionics need to have a distinctive flavour of its own, otherwise it's no different from having access to a few magic spells. Getting the balance right isn't easy.
A possible mechanic
I'm toying with a system like this: after using a Psionic power, the psionicist makes a saving throw, having to roll higher than the number of times they've used their powers so far (say, on a d12). If you fail, you wipe away all your accumulated usage and start afresh but a Bad Thing happens - maybe you become exhausted or gain a derangement or attract a brain mole!
One advantage of this is fairly minimal book-keeping. You're just keeping track of the number of times you've used your powers so far. Another is that it fits in pretty well with the house rules for Trauma & Derangement, which already function like this (you accumulate Trauma and make checks until you fail to roll over your current total, in which case you go crazy).
It was the tight bubble-perm on the smirking brownie that made him look like Paul Michael Glaser from Starsky & Hutch. That kooky illustration sold me on the Detective character class straight away.
It was 1981 and White Dwarf 24 had published Marcus L Rowland's oddball new character class, the Detective. Eyes rolled. "They don't belong in a fantasy setting," commentators opined, "they're from 19th century fiction, not myth and legend."
Of course, by the same logic, Monks don't belong in D&D either and neither do Eric Holmes' beloved Dreenoi, the insectoid space alien that the godfather of D&D played up to dizzying 4th level (whereupon it was eaten by Green Slime). That sort of negativity seems a bit quaint now, a symptom of the primness of '80s D&D that thought itself too grown-up. We're much more comfortable with genre-mashing these days. Terry Pratchett made a big contribution to the hobby with Guards! Guards! (1989, the first of his novels about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch). But maybe Marcus had read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980). Or the first three of Edith Pargeter's (aka Ellis Peters') Cadfael mysteries (1977ff).
But Marcus' inspiration goes deeper than a witty literary adaptation:
The detective is a new AD&D character class whose functions are the solving of mysteries and the restoration of Law.
Marcus' introduction hits just the right note. The Detective's nomenclature might be modern and winking-ironic, but his conception is rooted in old school D&D: the conflict between Law and Chaos. Paladins challenge Chaos with their swords, Detectives with their brains. Read on!
I'm taking some beloved fan-made sub-classes from my youth and adapting them for White Box RPG in the spirit of Szymon Piecha's Expanded Lore. Last blog reinterpreted the hilarious Houri. Now it's the Detective's turn.
Marcus L Rowland's Detective class has its feet in two worlds. On the one hand, she's a sort of virtuous Thief/Assassin who uses her powers for good. On the other, he's a quasi-clerical mystic with spells for combating Chaos. I think the secular version of the Detective is worth developing, because the clerical version doesn't require an entire subclass given over to it.
Detectives for White Box
Detectives are champions of Law and solvers of mysteries. They resemble Lawful Thieves and Bards to a degree. It is their calling to solve crimes and bring wrongdoers to justice. Some focus on tracking down particular Chaotic monsters, such as Werewolves, Vampires or Demons. Unlike Paladins, they rely on brains more than brawn.
Detectives must be Lawful in alignment. They are usually Human but at the Referee’s discretion Dwarves and Halflings may also be Detectives (advancing to level 6). The Prime Attribute for Detectives is Intelligence and they add +05% to earned XP if this is 15+.
Marcus' Detectives had to be Human or Elven, but I just don't see the Elf connection. Who is more law-abiding than a Halfling? Who is more dogged than a Dwarf? Little the little folk step forward to solve crimes and leave the Elves to being beautiful and mysterious.
Weapon and Armour Restrictions
Detectives may use light (one handed) weapons and bows. They may wear leather armour and carry shields.
Detectives advance in levels like Fighters, but their Hit Dice and To Hit Bonuses resemble Thieves. Their inferior saving throws resemble bookish Magic-Users. This class requires some commitment from a player: you'll take a while to get anywhere and you won't have much resilience.
This is the chance (roll on a d6) for the Detective to pick up a clue from spending 1d6 rounds studying a person, object or location. This could include:
At the Referee's discretion, a clue could help the player with:
During an investigation, a clue could include:
Deduction is mentally stressful and can only be used once per 10-minute turn. Whether successful or not, a Detective can not seek another clue on the same subject until he has gone up an experience level.
This is the Detective's signature power and it's pretty far-reaching. It's not meant to replace players figuring things out for themselves and a good way to punish its frivolous use is to impose a point of Trauma. The ability offers 'clues' and not necessarily the final solution to a mystery. It's intended to provide stumped players with a way forward and allow people to play brilliant investigators even when they're not personally insightful themselves (after all, D&D lets weaklings play strong and athletic types).
If a Deduction roll fails, the Referee should roll again and if this roll fails too then the Detective receives a false clue. If the re-roll succeeds, then no clue is provided.
PCs successfully listen at doors, detect secret doors and traps and open locks on a roll of 1-2 on a d6. Detectives are twice as good at this, succeeding on a 1-4 (and spotting secret doors and simple pit traps without searching for them on a 1-2).
This makes Detectives as valuable as Elves for detecting secret doors and replaces the Thief powers Marcus L Rowland gave them. The success range is high, but the player usually has to state that they are searching (and where) and Referees will make Wandering Monster Checks when time is spent this way - assume that most inspections use up a 10-minute turn.
Detectives prefer to capture some evil-doers alive. They can attack with their bare hands in the same way as Monks, They gain two attacks per round this way and deal 1d6-1 damage on a hit.
If a Detective uses bare-handed combat to reduce a non-magical enemy to 0 HP or below, she may elect for the final attack to be non-lethal. This knocks the opponent unconscious for 1d6 rounds instead of deducting Hit Points.
Two attacks per round is a lovely boost for 1st level characters. The Detective's hand-to-hand fighting is slightly less powerful than the Monk's: 1d6-1 (equivalent to daggers) rather than 1d6 (equivalent to swords and most monsters). Non-lethal attacks can still leave Injuries (see the Death & Dismemberment rules).
Detectives gain a +2 bonus against Poison and Traps.
This imitates the Thief's saving throw versus Traps but adds in the resistance of Clerics/Fighters to Poison. It's the one area where the Detective is superior to the standard classes in his build.
At ninth level, a Detective may build a Detective Agency in a town or city. She or he becomes a Master Detective and attracts the services of a band of lower level NPCs (often other detectives, bards and reformed thieves but possibly paladins or lawful clerics) who help her solve cases.
Detectives do not gain Trauma from negotiating with monsters, from searching corpses or from being alone in dangerous places.
Arcane Senses: Your Deduction power can be used to attempt to spot invisible or magically disguised objects or creatures (including illusions and polymorphs).
Elementary Insight: Add +1 to your Deduction score.
Escapology You can escape from rope bonds in a 10-minute turn if left alone or 1d6 turns if guarded. You can use a Deduction roll to try to escape from chains, manacles, bilboes, stocks and other more solid bindings.
Martial Arts: You deal 1d6+1 damage when fighting unarmed and your bare-handed attacks count as if they were magic weapons.
Master (or Mistress) of Disguise: You can spend 1d6 rounds disguising yourself to appear as any class, gender or race of your approximate build. If onlookers try to see through your disguise, use your Deduction skill to fool them.
Nemesis: Choose one particular enemy that you hunt. You are immune to its signature power. This could include the charm powers of Succubi, blinding beauty of Sidhe, the level-draining of Vampires or lycanthropy from Werewolves.
Sage: You have a broad area of knowledge (e.g. plants) in which you are an expert and a narrower area of specialism (e.g. fungi) in which you are unrivaled. You may select this Feat multiple times to extend your knowledge.
What about magical Detectives?
The spell-casting Detectives don't seem to require a whole subclass. They're just Lawful Clerics who follow a god of Justice or a cult of inquisitors devoted to solving mysteries or hunting down evil.
Rather than give Clerical Detectives the God's Weapon ability from Arcane Lore, give them a Sage area of expertise, just like the Detective Feat above. Let them expand into other areas of expertise, if they wish, instead of taking new Feats. They don't use the other Detective Feats and instead choose their Feats from the standard Cleric list.
Marcus L Rowland's Detective Spells
Some of Marcus' original Detective spells can be included for White Box, like these, which are only available for Clerical Detectives.
Spell Level: C1
Duration: 1d6 rounds
The caster can tell if she is being lied to (but not if someone genuinely believes a false report). The caster receives a saving throw vs Spells to resist a Houri Magic-User casting Silvertongue.
Reflect the Past
Spell Level: C2
Range: 10' radius of caster
The caster can hold up a mirror or shine a lantern through incense smoke to reveal events taking place in the same location in the past, up to one hour ago per level of the caster. The caster gains a point of Trauma from doing this. Certain demons and fey creatures might detect that they are being observed from the future and block the effect.
Spell Level: C3
Duration: 1 hour
The target of this spell is compelled to tell the truth. The target is not forced to speak but if they do speak they cannot lie. There is no saving throw against this effect.
Spell Level: C4
Non-magical bindings immediately fall away from the caster, including ropes, chains, manacles and gags. This only works on bindings on the caster's person, not locked doors. The caster receives a saving throw vs Paralysis to escape from magical bindings (such as web spells but not paralysation or hold person).
Vision of the Past
Spell Level: C5
This is an improved version of Reflect the Past because the vision occurs in the caster's mind and extends into the past for one year per level of experience. The caster sees the past as with her own eyes and can cast another perception-based spell (such as detect evil) but the vision will end immediately after a second spell takes effect. The vision causes the caster to gain 2 Trauma and demons/fey entities may perceive the caster themselves.
Was it the Houri's exotic powers or her sultry pose that intrigued me. It was 1979 and I was 12, so I think Russ Nicholson's art had something to do with it. But it was a good character class, a nod to non-Western themes (in a crude way) and one of those creations that briefly straddled the OD&D/AD&D divide. I've always wanted to revisit Houris.
Click on the image to read Brian Asbury's original Houri
Brian Asbury's 'Houri' appeared in White Dwarf 13 (1979) and was billed as a sub-class of Magic-User specialising in charm and stealth:
Houris, or Nymphs of Paradise to give a better description, are a very specialist sub-class of magic-user, their speciality being concerned with spells of charming and similar abilities. They also have the power to seduce single individuals and the ability to hide in the shadows as thieves.
Asbury's Houris have a fiddly Seduction ability that creates the same power creep problems as Bardic Charm and is rather problematic when reviewed from 21st century perspectives (it's super heteronormative!).
A seduced male will drop his weapons, become oblivious to his surroundings, and attempt to engage the houri in a passionate embrace. In such a state he is extremely vulnerable ... Seduction cannot be used in combat and cannot work against other females except homosexual ones
My appreciation of Szymon Piecha's Expanded Lore has made me want to take his philosophy and apply it to other fan-made character classes from those early days of D&D. How can we re-tool the Houri for White Box RPG?
There seem to be two ways to go with the Houri, which Asbury's original template muddles together. One is the Houri as a specialist Magic-User: whereas Illusionists specialise in illusions, Houris specialise in charm, ESP and other types of mind-control magic. The other is the Houri as a type of Bard: a seducer, spy and influencer. The latter seems to me to be much more interesting than the former, given that I hate the idea of Magic-User subclasses with their own unique spell sets.
Houris for White Box
Houris are intriguers and seducers who use their personal charms to manipulate others. They excel at gathering and trading rumours and exploiting social situations. Houris can be any non-Lawful alignment. Houris can be male (adonises, if you prefer) or female. They are usually Human but at the Referee’s discretion Elves may also be Houris (advancing to level 8). The Houri's Prime Attribute is Charisma, which confers a +05% bonus if it is 15+.
Weapon and Armour Restrictions
Houris may use daggers, darts and other small, concealable weapons. They may not wear armour or carry shields.
This table proposes Houris advance as fast as Thieves, but their Hit Dice, Saves and To Hit Bonuses advance like puny Magic-Users. This is a frail build.
This is the chance (roll on a d6) for the Houri to learn something of value from talking to a NPC for one round or observing a group of NPCs for 1d6 rounds. If successful, the Referee will provide the Houri with a rumour. If unsuccessful the Referee rolls a second time and if that roll is also unsuccessful the Houri is provided with a false rumour; if the second roll succeeds the Houri learns nothing but is not misled.
This is similar to Bard's Lore ability, but it deals with the present rather than the ancient past and people rather than objects. Intrigue might reveal who is a traitor, which monster carries a magic weapon or simply a rumour about the dungeon. It might reveal things NPCs know, such as traps on their treasure, a secret door they use to escape or the fact that they expect reinforcements soon. In a town setting, Intrigue exposes factions, plots and the ties between NPCs: who loves who, who hates who, who serves who and what it would take to bribe someone. The Referee decides how much or how little Intrigue reveals, but I recommend generosity (short of ruining your own scenarios) since this is the Houri's main ability.
This is an incredibly useful power, especially as NPCs do not get to save against it if they fall within the Houri's Hit Dice limit. The downside is that the Houri may be pestered and, in a dungeon environment, attacked by monsters. Nonetheless, the opportunity to stun monsters or lure away guards offers an incredible tactical edge. Entrancement resembles a Bard's Charm power, but the Houri does not have to do anything to maintain it; however unlike Bardic Charm it will only last a few rounds.
Houris can bewitch NPCs who have been entranced: this has the same effect as charm person. The subject is allowed to save vs Spells to resist this and, if successful, is immune to further attempts until the Houri has increased a level of experience.
Fascinated NPCs who are sexually orientated towards the Houri will be romantically infatuated. Other NPCs will be struck with admiration and a desire to impress the Houri
A Houri can keep one NPC fascinated, plus an extra NPC per Charisma bonus modifier (usually +1, +2 or +3). If the Houri exceeds this limit, a previously fascinated NPC is no longer charmed and conceives an intense hatred of the Houri that lasts 1d6 days but lasts weeks instead if the Fascination was romantic.
Being able to charm enemies at will sounds over-powered, but it's not quite that simple. The target must have been Entranced first, which is limited to a certain number of Hit Dice and carries its own risks if the charm doesn't work. Then there is the limit to the number of dupes the Houri can keep Fascinated at any given time - and every dupe you 'let go' to make room for somebody new creates an ex with a burning hatred towards you.
Houris gain a +2 bonus against ESP and mind-controlling powers.
At ninth level, a Houri may build a pleasure palace in a town or city. She or he becomes a Muse and attracts the services of a band of lower level NPCs (often other houris, bards and thieves but possibly illusionists or clerics of love-deities) who frequent her salon, which becomes a hub of culture, pleasure and gossip. A salon might be an artistic studio, a temple to love or a brothel or anything in between.
You can play Houris as the classic 'mystical prostitute' if you like, in which case the Salon is a place for orgies. This version of the Houri allows them to be more sophisticated than that: a Cersei Lannister or a Guinevere or even a Gertrude Stein rather than a sexual entrepreneur.
Houris are sensitive people but very flexible in their psychology: they do not gain Trauma from negotiating with monsters, from testing potions or from being charmed, possessed or transformed by magic.
Backstab: You can Backstab opponents you have Entranced, just like a Thief (gaining +2 to hit and rolling damage dice twice); this immediately ends the Entrancement.
Bewitching: Your Fascination power functions as charm monster instead of charm person.
Body Language: You can communicate with intelligent creatures without sharing a language, but only simple ideas, emotions and instructions can be conveyed.
Insight: Add +1 to your Intrigue score.
Master (or Mistress) of Disguise: You can spend 1d6 rounds disguising yourself to appear as any class, gender or race of your approximate build. If onlookers try to see through your disguise, use your Intrigue skill to fool them.
Poisonous Kiss: You can apply contact poison to your lips or body, causing a victim you kiss or embrace either to be paralysed for 1d6 rounds or to take 1d6 damage if they fail to save vs Poison. Victims are only affected by the poison once, until you re-apply it the next day.
Striking Appearance: Add +2 to the number of Hit Dice of people you can Entrance.
Notes for Referees
You have to rule on entrancement on a case-by-case basis.
In a dungeon situation, Entrancement will stun a group of humanoid monsters then cause them to target the Houri with their attacks. Since Houris wear no armour, they need to think carefully before employing this tactic!
In other situations, Entrancement can lure away sentries, break up crowds or cause enemies to pursue the Houri rather than other characters.
Entrancement is a pre-requisite for Fascination. Once a creature is Fascinated, the Houri cannot remove the effect except by Fascinating more creatures, which causes previous subjects to react with hatred. When the Houri Fascinates a new subject beyond their limit, the Referee should determine randomly which of the previous subjects reacts this way.
Intrigue can only be used once on each named NPC or group of unnamed NPCs or humanoid monsters. It cannot be attempted again on the same persons until the Houri has gained a level of experience.
The Referee should give Intrigue a wide latitude to discover secrets, detect monster weaknesses or ‘read the room’. By way of default, a successful Intrigue could allow a Houri to confer on an ally an attack with advantage (a spell that is saved against at -2, an attack with a +2 bonus, an opportunity to Backstab or Assassinate) or allow the Houri knowledge of a treasure, trap or secret door in the area.
What about magical Houris?
Brian Asbury's original Houri was a spell-caster as well as a seducer. Now it seems to me that there is no need for a separate class if this is what you want. Any Magic-User can specialise in charm, illusion, scrying and mind control. However, they do not get the powers of Entrancement, Fascination and Intrigue described above and choose their Feats from the Magic-User lists.
A Magic-User Houri will only use these spells from the White Box lists:
The Houri's Kiss
Rather than giving Houris a Familiar as a starting ability (c.f. Expanded Lore), allow them this power: if they kiss a target while casting a spell, the target gets no saving throw against that spell. Of course, kissing an opponent in combat requires a roll to hit and if the roll misses the spell is wasted.
Brian Asbury's Houri Spells
Some of the original Houri spells can be included for White Box like these, which are only available for Magic-User Houris.
Spell Level: M1
Duration: 1d6 rounds
The caster can lie convincingly. Listeners will believe anything the caster tells them so long as it is not contradicted by their senses. Lies that go against deeply held beliefs allow the target a saving throw vs Spells and, if successful, the target will believe nothing else the caster says.
Spell Level: M2
Duration: 1 hour
The caster can communicate with any intelligent, non-magical creature in its native language. (The caster speaks normally but the targets hear their own native tongue, which the caster understands in his or her own familiar language).
Spell Level: M3
Duration: Until dispelled
The target will fall in love with the next gender-appropriate person it sees if a saving throw vs Spells is failed.
Spell Level: M4
Duration: Until eaten
The target will conceive a violent hatred for the next person it sees if a saving throw vs Spells is failed.
Spell Level: M5
Duration: 1d6 rounds
All non-magical creatures that can see the caster are frozen with awe and desire for 1d6 rounds and can take no actions, including self-defence. Attacks against them are at +4. There is no saving throw against this but creatures are freed from the effect if they are attacked, roughly shaken or spells are cast on them.
Spell Level: M6
This spell lets the caster cast any level 1-5 spell they have prepared as if it were bestowed through a kiss (i.e. there is no saving throw against it).
Or, when does OSR stop being OSR and just become a brand new RPG?
Last week I started reviewing Szymon Piecha's Expanded Lore for White Box RPG. I spent a lot of time on a deep delve into Szymon's treatment of the old OD&D sub-classes: the Bard, Druid, Monk and Paladin.
White Box in softback from Lulu and Expanded Lore PDF from drivethrurpg
Szymon fills most of his supplement with character classes, but the second part is taken up with optional rules. He introduces these in a tentative manner:
the additional rules strongly modify the core rules of the White Box game and are designed for long campaigns. They are very optional and most purists may see them as too modern. Still, they are designed to keep the game simple, yet interesting (and most importantly – fun)
Szymon's concerns about 'purists' and a perceived need to alter the White Box rules for 'long campaigns' need to be unpacked first.
I suppose a 'purist' view is that the rules be as little altered from Original D&D as possible. But I think purism goes further than that, because White Box already includes features absent from the OD&D experience (like Thieves and variable weapon damage). It's a style of play.
There are two play styles that can, with equal merit, identify themselves as 'Old School'. One is a sort of Ludic Darwinism. In this style, players roll up characters very quickly and bestow upon them the most elementary form of individuality (a class, a name - you are Derek the Cleric or Elvis the Elf). These characters are very flimsy so you recruit a bunch of hirelings each. You go into a dungeon 'mob handed' and throw these characters into the thresher. Probably a quarter will die. The rest emerge with treasure and XP. Most players will lose many characters over the course of a dozen games, switching to play their former-hirelings or rolling entirely new PCs. Fate/Chance determines which characters make it to 2nd and 3rd level. There's a lot of wastage.
If Ludic Darwinism appeals to you, it's worth noticing that dungeons have to be low-threat in such a campaign. Look at Holmes' Sample Dungeon in Basic 'Blue Box' D&D (1977): a few goblins, a bunch of skeletons, giant rats; the worst thing in it is a big crab. Compare with Module B1: The Keep on the Borderlands, which is far too deadly to play in this way.
You're all gonna die
Ludic Darwinism proposes that (successful, surviving) characters start out as mere stereotypes, but they acquire individualism and defining quirks based on what happens to them in their adventures. You don't create a character so much as discover or evolve one. By the time he's 3rd level, your character has his signature bullwhip and fear of snakes, but he didn't start out that way. He started out as Junior. It was down the dungeon that he became Indiana.
The other view is RPG Auteurism. This is the idea that you create an intriguing character right from the outset: someone with a backstory, motives, friends and enemies, a personality, an agenda. This character isn't an empty stereotype; she is the protagonist in a sort of oral novel you are composing. Right from the outset, she is the hard-drinking, wounded-in-love daughter of Dr Abner Ravenwood, running a tavern in Tibet.
These two styles aren't necessarily opposed, but they sit uneasily with one another. If the game is run according to Ludic Darwinism, then Marion Ravenwood can be snuffed out unceremoniously on the first encounter. There's no guarantee her story will be told. Instead, the player ends up creating Shanghai stage singer Willie Scott, then when she gets iced, Austrian art historian and Olympic swimmer Elsa Schneider, hoping to come up with a character that lasts long enough to get to 2nd level and some sort of resilience.
Ludic Darwinism risks ignoring the central appeal of a game like White Box. With its simple 6 attributes and 4 character classes, you can create anything. Your imagination is the limit. You can be a steampunk robot with a human brain floating in a tank, or a two headed mutant from the future, or Eric Holmes' famous description of a D&D group in his Basic 'Blue Box' Set (1977):
an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, hobbitish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man
Blueholme, a delightful retro-clone of Basic 'Blue Box' D&D, explicitly invites players to ask their Referee to allow them to play as any of the races in the Monsters section - which includes the insectoid Dreenoi because Holmes' highest-level D&D character (4th!!!) was a Dreenoi (adapted from the 1974 Sci Fi skirmish game Star Guard).
Blueholme Journeymanne: Your next PCs...
White Box lends itself to, indeed, demands, a degree of RPG auteurism. Yet, once we have created these fascinating characters, we wish them to survive.
Szymon Piecha reveals his allegiance with his reference to rules for "long campaigns": he wants to tweak White Box in an auteurist direction by making starting characters less flimsy, more competent, and offering, more choices for how they develop at higher levels. The "purist" criticisms he forestalls are the Ludic Darwinists who feel that characters should stand or fall by a roll of the dice and the canny tactics of players during the game rather than being 'built for success' from the outset.
I suppose that's why Szymon warns that some might find his rules "too modern" and he's right. The striking feature of later iterations of D&D is their swing towards to RPG Auteurism: in 5th edition, first level characters are already developed persons, heroic of stature, and you have to make choices about their 'starting build' that are quite absent from White Box. Yet creativity is diminished. In 5th ed. D&D you create a complex character, but only out of those pre-selected components the game provides for you. The blank-canvas invitation to free creativity has gone.
Building Characters for Success
Szymon suggests rolling 3d6 seven times, choosing the best 6 scores and assigning them to attributes as you see fit. That's a well established house rule. For the record, I prefer rolling six 3d6 attributes in order then rolling an extra d6 for bonus points to be split between those six any way you like.
Whether players should take their character 'as rolled' and make the best of it, perhaps steering inadequate PCs towards an early death so they can roll up a better replacement, or if they should be allowed to 'tweak' the dice to ensure a character in line with their heroic expectations, goes to the heart of the Ludic Darwinism vs RPG Auteurism debate. There's a good discussion of methods of rolling up characters on the D&Dbeyond forum.
White Box follows the OD&D convention of only awarding bonuses of +1 for attributes of 15+ and -1 for 6 or less. This de-emphasises attributes in the game and makes the main distinction between PCs a matter of role playing: you act out the role of someone who is clever or clumsy or strong, rather than getting significant statistical skews to do it for you.
Szymon brings White Box more into line with Basic D&D, but keeps 15+ as the border between "better than average" and "really very good".
Except, wait: that's not quite right. Szymon has a +1 bonus kicking in at 12 (rather than 13), +2 at 15 (rather than 16) and +3 at 17 (rather than 18). This is empowering for characters, putting bonuses within easy reach. Yet it's hard to see the rationale for keeping the penalties at 8, 5 and 3 - they ought to be raised to 9, 6 and 4.
Getting these boundaries right is important, because Szymon proposes a new benefit at 2nd, 4th, 6th, etc levels: the player chooses two attributes and increases both by +1. This certainly makes 2nd level an exciting accomplishment (not much else happens at 2nd level for most characters) and allows players to 'buy off' poor attributes and invest in high ones as their characters progress.
Szymon goes further still, suggesting a range of extra abilities for starting characters. Clerics get a 'Godly Weapon' based on their deity's myths with which they are +1 to hit and damage; a nice way to get Clerics of Poseidon wielding tridents and Clerics of Artemis firing bows, and also making starting Clerics in some respects a match for Fighters.
Magic-Users get a Familiar; Thieves get Precision which lets them add their Dexterity bonuses in melee combat with Daggers (also making them equivalent to starting Fighters in some respects and keeping the dagger as weapon-of-choice for Backstabbing). Fighters get a range of sub-classes to choose from, conferring things like berserking, to hit bonuses against special enemies or even magic resistance.
The new sub-classes discussed in the last blog get abilities too: Bards can cast a 1st level Magic-User spell, Druids can speak with animals, Monks can meditate to heal and Paladins can summon their holy steed.
Races get extra abilities too. Dwarves enjoy 8-sided Hit Dice, Halflings take half damage from giant monsters and Elves? Elves are immune to Ghoul paralysis and detect secret doors with twice the normal range - both powers White Box already gave them. My house rules make them immune to charm (as they are in AD&D) and the level draining powers of Wights and Wraiths (and only losing one level to Spectres and Vampires).
You should find you have a beefy and resilient 1st level character now; someone who doesn't curl up and die in the first encounter.
There's more. As well as the Attribute boosts at even-numbered levels, Szymon suggests characters pick up 'Feats' at the odd-numbered levels - and Humans choose one at 1st level to make up for not having exciting racial abilities. These Feats let you customise your character in line with their evolution through play. There's a set of generic Feats:
I presume each Feat can only be chosen once. The +2 Attribute bonus, on the back of those Attribute hikes at even-numbered levels, will promote characters to heroic stature pretty quickly - but you would be mad to ignore that +10% XP bonus.
Szymon then offers class-based Feats as alternatives to these generic ones. Clerics can have immunity to fear, improved turning undead or a protective aura that reduces all damage they take by -2. Yes, these Feats are significant. Fighters can take a Feat that gives them a free attack every time they kill an opponent, bonuses to AC or saving throws or just +3 HP. Magic-Users can have a force field improving AC by +2, an extra 1d6 damage on their damaging spells or extra first level spell slots. There are similar Feats for Thieves and the sub-classes (although I suggest some of my own for Monks, since Szymon is very mean with them).
What has White Box become?
At the start of this essay I suggested that if you tweak OSR RPGs too much they turn into new modern RPGs. Arguably, Szymon Piecha does that here. Put another way, White Boxes stop being white when you added the smallest tincture of another colour to them and they can never be truly white again.
Indeed, the material that Szymon developed for White Box evolved into a brand new OD&D-inspired retro-clone: the Polish-language Grottos & Giants.
Incidentally, I call him 'Szymon' because that's how he appears on drivethrurpg but he seems to be credited as 'Simon' in his books
Nonetheless, Expanded Lore gets testimonials from White Box creator Charlie Mason:
Some White Box GMs will probably have a massive coronary over some of this stuff, but it's entirely optional and frankly pretty well done.
Charlie Mason is right: it is well done. Szymon Piecha has a good instinct for this, spotting where to simplify and de-power (such as the subclasses) and where to be generous by granting characters new abilities and letting players grow their characters into super heroes. He removes things I hate (minimum attributes, gradated character class powers) and adds in things I like (a modular approach to leveling up) and he prefers straightforward "now you can do this" powers to fiddly percentile rolls.
If his intention was to turn White Box into a RPG Auteur game, where players create resilient characters who can survive and level up over a long campaign, somewhat insulated from futile death, then he has succeeded admirably. Yet he still keeps the game's toes in Ludic Darwinism: characters can still die suddenly, creating a new character is the work of minutes, and the system is still wide-open and loosey-goosey enough to offer players unbounded creativity. If a player wants to be that Japanese Samurai or Lawful Werebear, the Referee just treats it as a new Feat.
Personally, I want to go further towards Auteurism in my campaign. The house rules on Death & Dismemberment help preserve characters from sudden and futile death at lower levels, increasing the risk of permanent masiming instead. But then, I'm world-building on the fly and each PC is a fresh creation adding to that world. After the player has put effort into coming up with background and culture, I want to see them stick around and enjoy the world they've added to.
Over on my White Box resources page I discuss the quirky impression of White Box as what could have happened if Dave Arneson had teamed up with Ken St Andre (of Tunnels & Trolls) instead of Gary Gygax when he marketed D&D.
Piecha's Expanded Lore strengthens that impression. Expanded Lore takes Mason's game further in the direction it was already traveling: not OD&D any more, but OD&D-adjacent.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: