Spell Harder in Whitebox20: higher level spells and overcasting

Whitebox20 has many magic systems. The “Traditional System” is based on having:

  • a skill roll for the Tradition or School (Vivimancy or Healing or Illusion) to cast the spell correctly
  • and a Channel Power skill roll that is used to make anything magic happen at all.

I like this, playtesters liked it, the first roll makes it dangerous, the second roll makes it positively nail-biting. Usually the spell selection comes straight off Wonder & Wickedness, plus some extra spells that players want.

First thing to notice: any character can cast spells, if they know any. And until you botch you can cast as much as you want.

Second: if you fail the first roll, it’s a botch, and you might want to run away. If you fail the second roll, nothing happens, but you can retry. And if you have mana to spend and you have a Caster perk/class/career, you can just spend mana and the spell is cast correctly instead. Fate/mana is used by all characters for all kind of things in W20, and Casters use it to get an edge with magic.

The only problem is that there are no easier or harder spells, for the time being, and that the high variance of the d20 makes simple negative check modifiers not doing what I want them to do. Because what I really want high level spells to do is:

  • be better than simpler spells
  • be riskier than simpler spells
  • still be able to be cast by young, reckless and desperate wizards

Especially the last. So here’s the rule:

Difficult Spells

A character casting a spell of a higher level must spend an extra round casting the spell for each level of difference. During each of the extra rounds they must make an additional Tradition skill check. An equal number of Channel Power successful rolls are required: start rolling when the Tradition rolls are complete, and keep on rolling until a Channel Power roll is failed, and resume rolling the following round until the required amount of successes is achieved. The spell effects are

So, if a level 2 Caster wants to cast a level 4 Elementalism spell, they need to spend 3 rounds casting and roll 3 times on Elementalism, then roll 3 successes on Channel Power, taking as much time as they want.

Casters can spend one mana to fix a single Tradition roll plus a Channel Power roll per mana spent. If a Tradition roll is failed and not mitigated, the spell fails completely and all the failed Tradition rolls botches are independently resolved.

If the character stops or is forcibly interrupted, all the rolled Tradition tests are considered failures for botch purposes.

Since W20 characters grow over 3 or 6 levels (or not at all), if you’re using D&D spells use directly the spell level, not the minimum caster level: Fireball is level 3, so a level 3 character will not need to roll multiple Tradition checks.

Overcasting could be another option, but would require rigorous playtesting to avoid being too expoited: to cast a spell at a higher caster level (but the spell leve is not higher than the character level), specify a number of extra levels: the spell requires that many extra Channel Power successes in order to go off.


Magic in Whitebox20 and other playtest results

Playtesting kicks ass. I’m so happy about this last session with the Original Tilean Murderhoboes. Much progress led to a much more solid game experience.


whitebox20New Casting Rules

W20 has a bunch of different magic rules because I like to keep my magic mechanics as varied as possible, from the very simple Bene Gesserit-like Voice (roll on the skill to basically cast “command” or “dominate” on someone, depending on the success level) to Wonder & Wickedness RAW, to the new thing we playtested tonight (which is built on top of W&W). It works this way:

Casters start with 3 spells,+3 if they take the apprentice background. These spells can be picked from all the schools. Caster also can benefit from skills: Channel (based on Heart) and the skill of the school they’re trying to cast (all based on Wit for now).

To cast the spell the caster spends 1 round and must roll:

  • first, a skill roll on the School ability; there is an ability for each school, so a caster rolls on Elementalism to cast Stonespeak. Some schools have penalties from -2 to -6 for reasons, such as wearing armour, holding stuff on fire, being underground and so on. If the roll fails the spell is botched.
  • roll on Channel to power the spell. If the roll passes, the spell is cast successfully. If the roll is failed, the caster can try to channel again next round (and then the round after, etc).

Casters can spend a fate point, even after failing either roll, turns automatically the spell into a success. Non-casters can only spend fate points to reroll the skill rolls.

BOTCH: when a spell is botched and the fate point is not spent to turn the spell into an automatic success, the round after the caster must roll a channel roll. If they fail, the spell fizzles harmlessly and all is well. But if the channeling goes well, the caster pumped enough mojo into a badwrong spell, and the following happens:

  • The caster can’t use the spell again until dawn.
  • 50% chance of a Catastrophe! Roll on the appropriate Catastrophe table
  • …and then the caster takes temporary damage equal to the result of the Channel roll.

These are the outcomes:

  • non-casters can cast too. I’m not sure if they want to, but it’s an option. It’s interesting because without a high channel skill there’s less chance of failing horribly.
  • a caster with no skills can just spend fate points and cast away, exactly like in mana-based W&W.
  • casters can decide to focus and spend their skills in casting to cast more spells.
  • there’s a tradeoff in casting without fate left. You’re playing with fire that can explode in your face and potentially kill the whole party.
  • even if the caster has fate left, they can cast and botch, but convert the botch to a success by spending fate. Or, if they pass the first roll, they can fail the channel roll, so they might take several rounds to cast a spell for free.
  • that whole “retry channeling next round” makes great suspense and is hella cool in fiction too.

It’s possible to channel shields too. If the channeling is successful the shield lasts 1 round.

New Melee Rules: Defence & Shields

Shields give +2 to defence rolls. Shields had no rules before tonight. Playtest went ok. I might change it to +3 or +4.

Another important change: in melee characters get an attack roll and a defence roll every round, which used to be the Fighter perk. The Fighter perk becomes: “+1 melee, a successful attack roll can only be blocked if the defence roll is at least as much as the attack roll”.

So, for example, if the fighter attacks successfully with a 9 the defender must succeed a defence roll with a 9 or more to defend successfully.

The positive outcome is many-fold:

  1. if you are not a fighter you totally have a chance blocking non-fighters, but fighters will be harder to block.
  2. more blocking curbs lethality, which was a tad too high even for me.
  3. fighters and their really high melee scores don’t make an impassable wall… if you are a fighter too.
  4. the “decide to attack OR block” role sucked because it slowed combat and yes it gave a decision but it was not interesting. Uninteresting decisions suck.

New Fate Point rules

Characters stat with zero fate points, +1 if Hearth is 11 or more, +1 if they have the caster class, +1 if they have the Fool background, +1 for each extra level.

In general, any character can spend a fate point to pass a save even after failing, or reroll a d20.

Casters can spend a fate point to cast a spell successfully even if they failed a roll.

Mystic Knights can spend a fate point to pick a result on an attack or defence roll before rolling the die.

It’s not possible under any circumstance to use a fate point to automatically succeed in any roll where the character is taking Risk.

Skills in Whitebox20

Whitebox20 is a system where level matters, but not too much. Skills are more important.


Each starting Whitebox20 character starts with a few skills depending on their Mind (called Wits in Gangs & Bullshit). For example, Melee, Missile and Sneak. The skills improve with use and with training, so you can be low level and good at melee, or high level and bad at it.

That’s the point, actually. I was bothered by how bad low level warriors are at fighing in D&D. I was bothered by having a single dial for level-hitroll-saves. I was bothered by having a system where being competent means having oodles of hit points. Despite being aware of rule zero, I felt constrained in how my games felt. So I went for a skill system, of the roll under but roll high variety.

Let’s generate a character. Your PC has usually 3 stats, Body, Mind, Soul, determined with 3d6. [roll roll roll, 3d6 each of the three stats]

Geeno the Goon – Body 12 Mind 9 Soul 14

At chargen you pick a skill for every four full Mind points. Each of these skills has a base stat and starts at stat/2 + 3. There’s a list of skills for inspiration, but only the Referee will know what skills are relevant to the game. We want Geeno to be a backalley thug. Record skills like this, with the base stat in brackets:

Melee 9 = [B] 6 + O O O

Threaten 10 = [S] 7 + O O O

So Geeno’s hit roll is 9 or less on a d20, and will threaten successfully on an 10 or less. Why the three pips? Because you start at stat/2+3. And because every time you roll in a critical situation, and you roll a 1, you get an extra pip (with a maximum of 1 pip per scene, and only if the Referee deems it ok), and you get better at the skill. Training behaves similarly

If you don’t have a skill, you roll under the relevant stat/2 if the Referee thinks it’s ok to make you roll untrained. Some skills let you pick what’s the relevant skill, for example threaten, which can have Body or Soul, or Barber/Dentist/Surgeon which is Mind or Soul. Saves are skills too, can improve too, and get always the character’s level as a bonus.

Oh, I forgot to mention that if you roll successfully and get a 7 or more, that’s a good success. And a 14 or more, a great success. In general if there’s a contest and both characters succeed, the one that rolled highest will prevail, and better successes have increased effect.

Now Geeno needs only their hits, which start at body/2, and since Geeno’s got a big heart (Soul > 10), gets a Karma Point [temporary name]. Karma Points [temporary name] can be used to reroll dice, to cast spells, activate abilities, etc etc.

Level: 1 Hits: 6/6 Karma [temporary name]: 1/1

That’s it. Some Whitebox20 game sttings let you pick a class, or more skills, or more perks, or have 6 stats like Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, etc, and probably your Cleric will start with Exorcism [S] as an extra skill, and your Fighter will get Combat Reflexes as a perk, and your Jedi Mystic Knight can spend a Karma Point [temporary name] to make sure that their next melee attack is automatically successful, unless another Jedi Mystic Knight decides to spend a Karma Point [temporary name] to block.

But Geeno is done, because we are running an incredibly light version of Whitebox20.

Geeno the Goon – Body 12 Mind 9 Soul 14

Level: 1 Hits: 6/6 Karma [temporary name]: 1/1

Melee 9 = [B] 6 + O O O

Threaten 10 = [S] 7 + O O O

Whitebox20: Combat & Goblins

Combat rules took a while to decide. Literally, it’s what I thought about for the past few weeks when I woke up at night.

I wanted it based on the W20 check rules, and Melee and Missile be skills. It could have been a number of different solutions:

  • Opposed checks a-la FIGHTMORE, where who wins deals damage to the opponent.
  • Trying to beat someone’s armour.
  • Something with awkward math

Instead, I decided that every round you have ONE action.

You can Attack (make a melee check to deal damage) and if you’re hit and have not used your action you can use it to Defend (make a melee check or save to counter an attack). There are small other adjustments but that’s it.

How much damage? 1d6 + 1/3 of the margin or so. Much respect for Moldvay.

Armour? Reduces damage, from 1 to 3. Shields give +3 to defend/save.

Body modifier to damage? It already impacts on the hit roll, and the hitroll margin carries to damage.

By the way, here’s how I’m going to present monsters in the handbook (not in the adventures, where they will have a slightly different treatment).


Whitebox20’s Kinds of Magic: Eclectism and Disciplines

whitebox20 There’s this thing in fantasy that is essentially needed, and that’s the supernatural. Things must happen that defy mundanity and verge into the supernatural.

Fantasy needs magic, and there’s a school of thought that if there’s magic, it’s fantasy (and that would put Star Wars in “fantasy” because of Jedi Juju).

Said that, you might now that who’s writing is a big fan of magic systems. So when I started writing W20 I deliberately ignored the thorny question of how to write magic.

But at some point it dawned on me that with skills and margins I could do some really simple things like:

The Voice – you can spend a round and one mana to subtly change the tone of your voice and give an order to a person. If you win a contest of Voice (Soul) over the victim Save (Soul) they will carry our the order for up to 1 turn. Giving a directly self-harming order or orders going against the core beliefs of the victim requires an Awesome success or otherwise the victim will instead be confused and take no action for 2d6 rounds.

And I could also use AFG’s Traditional Magic (named this way because of its traditions). Casters could spend mana for casting spells.

And Wonder & Wickedness’s Sorcery. Casters would spend mana for memorizing spells.

And Vancian Rotes. Barkerian Lore. Words of power. Rune Magic. Psionics. Alchemy. Shapechanging. Maenads.

Or I could use them all. All their different mechanics. At the same time.

Disciplines are ways of doing magic. There would be different disciplines, and casters would get one at character creation, plus one every few level (probably instead of a stat increase). Traditional Magic would be a discipline, Vancian Rotes would be another, the Seven Sorcery Schools would be 7, the Voice would be one, and so on.

They are not necessarily compatible: while the Traditional spells can be cast through Vancian Rotes, the Voice gives no talent in Alchemy, but they all burn mana, and mana is mana.

And mana comes from within, and from other places too.

And is going to be a horrible pain to design properly in a non terribly messed up way. Wish me good luck, Freddie.


Paolo, weren’t you going to keep this clean and simple?

Yes. The baseline mode would be Traditional Magic. It’s really really simple. But if someone wants to play something simpler, they can just pick up Voice or some other simple, self-contained discipline. They can all be tucked away in a separate book and never mentioned again.

Whitebox20: design space & direction struggle

I’ve been toying here with design decisions for Whitebox and I felt I was hitting a good stride. And I have a document where I’m actually writing the game, which is great.

It’s not great because HELL YEAH PROGRESS, it’s great because that’s the point where you’re actually, you know, finalizing the decisions. It forces the designer to take a choice.

Yeah, they’re not final. I can go back and change the rules. But as the game gets written (not played, as it’s totally possible and recommended to try different rules during exploratory playtest), it takes a shape, and the taking shape means that you have to choose its shape.

And I didn’t feel comfortable with the shape. I felt some of the good decisions I was taking were not bringing the game where I wanted.

I want a pick up and play barebone adventure game with clean mechanics.

I was designing a skill-based adventure game with clean mechanics.

The two things are not the same. The second has way more faffy character building. I need to stay on track of what I really want to do. The faff has to go. The faff can always be reintroduced as optional rules later. 🙂

I curbed down, wrote some, and will playtest soon.

Oh, here’s a layout test:

Whitebox20: more on nonbinary success systems


Ok, we are still in inner-head-rable-land here. Part of a series. Feel free to skip this instalment. By next time I should actually have a small document ready. Typeset in LATEX.

The Current System

The current margin system needs a margin of 5 for a full success, 10 for great and so on. This is good in case of success because we immediately know by looking at the die the margin: if we pass and it’s a 5, the margin is 5, marginal. Just look at the d20.

The dice shows 6? margin is 6, full success. Just look at the d20.

11? margin is 11, great. Just look at the d20.

Interestingly, if you have a -3 to the roll, it just changes the maximum success.

If you have strength 12 and roll 6, it’s a full success. Just look at the d20.

Strength 12 and -5 to the roll? 6 is still a full success. Just look at the d20.

-8 to the roll? 6 is a failure, no need to know the margin.

This also means that if you’re not good you simply don’t have the option for incredible successes. This is intended.

Except if you risk. This is intended too.

Do you have an Alternity?

There’s another way that could work. Alternity came with a margin system that I think is great BUT requires some math. Roll under the modified attribute for a success, but IIRC if you roll under attribute/2 it’s a full success, under attribute/4 for critical. You might have had to roll and sum/subtract extra dice as difficulty modifier.

Neat. Very neat. I was really impressed back then (and sadly didn’t play Alternity).

But requires mathsing. Ok, it’s math that is easy and somewhat can be done in advance, but it’d rather it not be there, and I’m not sure this math is actually easier than calculating the margin. who knows?

Yet another alternative, is to have full successes on every even number, criticals on every number divisible by 4. This allows anybody (with an attribute of 4 or more) to have marginal, full and critical successes, but it’s a bit faffy. Also I don’t really like the idea that someone with an attribute at 4 can succeed as well as someone with the attribute at 27.

Try Again?

Yet another way is to roll multiple times. This combines nicely with bennies and dice pools, and let’s disregard momentarily that rolling a number of times depending on a high-spread attribute is potentially unwieldy (you train a little, 1 reroll, but if you train a whole lot, 5 rerolls? would would this work with improvement-through-usage?).

D&D 5E does this (also AFG and Chthonic Codex before it) but it has the unfortunate issue of being more effective for attributes toward the middle of the spread, when the base success rate is around 50%. Training for people with little or a lot of talent is ineffective. This is not something I want in my game.

A variation is to roll multiple times and count successes. I really liked this in Merchant & Marauders, which uses this approach with something like the 5MORE system. While still having problems with low attribute, at least high attributes get multiple successes. Which by definition win over a smaller number of successes. I have to run the math for this, but I suspect it can be handled as a variant of the original WoD system (without the horrible critical special cases that made that system a horrible moraine where sometimes being better at something meant both more chances of failure, both normal and critical).

Whitebox20 and the Q&A that goes in my head

So, what’s going on here?

Oh it’s just me showing what a bit of what went through my head while designing W20.

Oh, right, yes, I was there when we decided this. Let’s start with: what kind of resolution mechanic do you want?

Possibly based on a d20. Stat in the 3d6 range, roll under stat to succeed, because stats are often underused in those games. Also, roll-under but high is good for contests because if you succeed the margin of success is whatever your die shows. That’s good. And of course from 1 to 5 becomes a marginal success, 6-10 a success, 11-15 a great success (or double success), 16-20 phenomenal (triple), over 20 extraordinary (quadruple). Also, it’s a system you can “lean on”: if in doubt, just ask for a roll, and a “yes/no/how good” result will come out, no need for contests or establishing difficulties beforehand.

That means that that if my strength is 5 I can’t do more than a marginal success at, say, brawling. How is that good?

Yes, it’s intended. It makes stats somewhat more important. You can still get more than a marginal success if you play dirty, say bring a lightsabre to a fistfight.

how do you get a margin of over 20 if the stats are rolled with 3d6?

You can risk. You can basically say “ok, I risk X”, so if you roll from 1 to X on the d20, you fail. But if you pass, that’s great, because you get a +X to the success. If you have strength 5 and want to risk 3, you now fail on anything over 5 AND on 3 or less, but if you succeed (with a 4 or 5 in this case) you would get a +3 to the success, bringing the success to 7 or 8. We playtested risk in a very long campaign and it was amazeballs. “IT WORKS ON THE TABLE” SHALL BE MY ULTIMATE METRIC.

And for people with say intelligence 37?

If whatever you have to roll under is over 20, add the difference to the margin. Your supersmartpants would get +17 to the margin. If you’re tricking Coyote, prepare to lose hard.

So for checks you have roll under stats, and for combat you have… roll under what?

Probably roll under descending armour, so we can use this thing. So if the target armour is 3, you need to roll 3 or less. Which makes it a bit annoying, because it means that good melee modifiers are negative: if you have a to-hit bonus of 3, and you roll a 4, you hit armour 1. Which is ok, but conterintuitive. And modifier are pants and I want to get away from them as much as possible.

Alternatives? I want solutions, not problems.

An alternative is to give multiple attacks instead of attack bonuses, but it’s unexplored territory.

Or have the attack roll under combat, and defence rolls a defence roll, which could be used also for blocking/dodging maybe.

Or have the attack roll under combat, and have the armour reduce damage. And maybe you get a free block attempt.

Ugh game design is hard sometimes. Not because I can’t come up with alternatives, but because the alternative are too many, and…

Didn’t you say something about “working at the table”?

Ok, I need to playtest.

What about skills and other things?

Well, you can roll under the related stat. And if you’re untrained, under half stat. And if you’re trained, under stat + 4 or whatever.

Don’t you have a system that proved itself at the table like that you could plug in?

Oh, yeah. I could work something like 5MORE in.

Let me do some math. 5MORE requires on average 3*3*6 = 54 tests to get +1 on a d6 (+17%) on a task. Which is a lot of padlocks or climb walls or enchanting or downtime practice. That means that using the same progression to get a +4 on a d20 (+20%) you’d need 54/17%*20% = 64 rolls or so. That turns out to be a +4 modifier spread over 64 rolls, which is 1 in 16 rolls.

1 in 16 is unfortunate. 1 in 20 is slower but better because we can have an automatic skill improvement on a natural 1.  Which is when you succeed by your teeth. Seems good. Roll a 1, barely succeed and get a +1 on the relevant skill forever.

Isn’t 1 in 20 a bit too low?

Maybe the +1 can be gained also on a 20? is 1 in 10 ok? Playtesting is needed.

What about untrained improvement through use?

If you do this while untrained, you just pile up some +1 to compensate that you’re rolling under stat/2. And when you get enough +1s to counter the stat/2 penalty, you’ve done enough to be trained. And you can get +1 training pips when you practice and someone teaches you, until you roll against stat+4.

Doesn’t that mean that a less gifted, lower-statted PC will be trained before someone that is more gifted?

Yes, but it’s irrelevant because they also will be worse than some. This means that if you are less gifted, you benefit from training up to a certain point, but more gifted people will benefit from more training. Being untrained does not give penalties but training give you bonuses instead, and the more gifted you are the more training you can get.

So, why can’t you get training in Melee and Missile instead of leveling up as a fighter? Can you?

I think it really depends on the kind of game you want to design. Maybe you can. We’ll see.

Whitebox20: something old, something new

I’m working on a new game. It’s going to be a small game.whitebox20

Well, I have a few files with the design heart in it. It is the spiritual offspring of Adventure Fantasy Game and Mageblade, with some bits and bobs added here and there that should have been more of a thing ages ago, like non-binary success, simpler spellcasting and more reliance on stats and less on of modifiers.

The focus for the whole enterprise is to release a game that is kind of old-style, but most importantly with clean mechanics. Clean because I realized that overall a clean and straightforward design that makes sense to beginners is more important than any other pet rule I might want in. So I’m putting in some mechanics that worked well in playtest, and some other that are just leaner that the alternatives. Some old cruft got thrown away, a bit I kept because of compatibility’s sake, and some new shiny things are in.

It’s going to be small, but complete. As in, probably one or few slim booklets, with a base game and a smattering of advanced players’ options, a few dungeons and a sandbox. I’m still on the fence as to whether add a “how you run this game” section or not. Who knows.