White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying
This, the first part of my detailed read review of White Star looks at what’s basically the Player’s or everyone section of the book. It’s the first half, that is meant to be read by everyone, while the remainder of the book is for the GM (Referee).
Chapters looked at: Introduction, Attributes, Character Classes and Races, Equipment, Playing the Game, Personal Combat, Starship Combat, Gifts & Meditations.
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White Star Starts with a short one-page intro telling us what this book is about. Which is basically a conversion of the Swords & Wizardry fantasy RPG ruleset to a Sci-Fi setting. Now Swords & Wizardry is itself a retro-clone of original Dungeons and Dragons, the original Brown/White boxed set or OD&D as it’s often called.
This is a stand-alone game. You don’t need to own S&W or any version of D&D to play. White Star was written as a generic sci-fi setting made to handle anything from Flash Gordon Pulp to Alien Horror to Sci-Fantasy like Star Wars. That said, reading it so far there’s definitely a leaning towards Star Wars as the primary source.
If you’ve played any D&D or any game based on D&D you know these by heart. What’s most interesting to me here is that very little is derived from your stats. It seems like most modern games are pinning more and more things to each core stat. This goes the other way. Most of the stats are just stats and nothing more, some give an XP bonus and nothing more. Now that’s the base rules. There are optional rules.
About that: this game has a ton of optional “House Rules” obviously inspired by the many ways GMs have been adopting and adding to the core D&D rules over the years. There are a lot of these. For example, between the two pages I have open right now there are three house rule sections. Between these two pages, there are nearly as many words spent on house rules as there are for core rules.
As an example: there is a house rule that lets Mercenaries and Alien Brute characters add their STR bonus to attack and damage rolls from melee weapons. I’m sure anyone that’s played any version of D&D has seen this as pretty standard rule over pretty much any edition. Well here in White Star, it’s a House Rule.
Stats are rolled 3D6 down the list in order (but of course there are house rules to modify this if you want). Stats range from 3-18 and there are no modifiers for class or race (not that we’ve gotten that far in the book yet).
It’s also worth noting that it’s expected that characters will gather/collect assistants and that’s one of the main things Charisma (CHA) is used for: determining how many Assistants will follow a character and how their loyalty is affected.
A great example of just how rules lite White Star is, is the attribute bonuses. I know I’ve had characters in modern games with ratings as low as minus 3 and as high as plus 6. You won’t find that here. The range here is very small. minus 1 to plus 1. That’s it.
This section also has players generate starting money (credits) simply based on a 3d6x10 roll.
There’s a small but confusing section on Alignment that had me actually go to the White Star community here on +G and ask about it.
It’s odd. It notes that alignment is usually set up as us vs. them. Then talks about good, evil, law, and chaos. But that’s it. The usual nine alignments aren’t even mentioned, and it just then leaves it open to the referee. Talking to James Spahn, I learned that his intention was that in Sci-fi it’s usually black and white, there are usually only two sides and that’s what he expects from the ‘normal’ White Star game. You are usually on the good side, fighting the bad side, or some type of independent. Which I think fits well but I didn’t think was clear from the book.
There are only four main classes in White Star: Aristocrat, Mercenary, Pilot and Star Night. Then there are three optional Races: The Alien Brute, the Alien Mystic, and Robots. Note the first four are classes and the last two are races but this all means the same thing (something else OD&D fans will recognize).
All classes contain a class chart that shows how much XP each class needs to level up, their hit dice (HD) at each level, their Base Hit Bonus (BHB) and their Saving Throw (ST). Some classes then have a second chart for Meditations or Gifts (the spells of White Star). Every class then has a list of class abilities.
Now don’t expect the four-page spreads of Pathfinder here. Every class is very simple. The core classes go from level 1 to 10 but each of the optional races has level caps with the Robot being the most stringent at level 4. Each class only has 6-8 abilities and they don’t change. So no getting new powers or feats as you level up or anything like that. Though some class abilities themselves do get better. Actual class abilities range from weapon and armour restrictions, Saving Throw bonuses, XP bonuses for high primary stats, and abilities totally unique to each class. Many of the clases have abilities that lead to the character gathering followers and eventually building a base of operations. This will also be familiar to old-school fantasy gamers though instead of a Fighter building a Stronghold you have an Aristocrat owning their own Planet. Here’s a very short look at each class:
Aristocrat: The face. Talker. One of their abilities is Silver Tongue. Starting at 4th level they start gathering followers.
Mercenary: Your ‘fighter’. Uses all weapons and armour. Gets lots of combat bonuses.
Pilot: Expect a lot of ship-based combat in White Star and that’s where your pilot comes in. Also a mechanic with useful skills like Jury Rig
Star Knight: Jedi. There I said it. They follow The Way and get Meditations starting at level 2. Very adept with a Star Sword.
Alien Brute: Unarmed hand to hand melee fighter. Your Wookie or Klingon.
Alien Mystic: If Yoda were a PC instead of an NPC he would be an Alien Mystic. Kenobi could also fit this. Weird magic alien no one quite understands. Alien Mystics get the second kind of “spell” in White Star, Gifts.
Robot: Everyone loves droids. Interestingly this is the only class that has subclasses. You can pick Combat, Diplomacy or Mechanical.
I can’t remember if it was in this section or the last but I thought it was worth mentioning how Hit Dice and Hit Points work in White Star. All Hit Dice are D6. A character’s level indicates how many HD that character has with some classes giving a small bonus. One thing I’ve never seen before is that when you level up instead of rolling one more die and just adding it to your total, you completely re-roll all your Hit Dice. If the total is lower than your current Hit Points you stay the same. Only if you roll higher do you end up with more hit points.
Instead of gold, silver, and copper, we have credit, sub-credit, and chits. Thankfully it sticks to the 1/10/100 conversion rate most of us are useful with the chit being the 1.
There’s a short gear chart including weights and costs followed by short descriptions. Fitting the rules light nature of the game there’s no mechanics here. So it’s noted that it’s really hard to repair something without a Tool Kit but there’s no actual mechanics for using a toolkit or even a list of what’s in one.
After gear, we find Weapons and Armor. Two important things to note here. First, all damage is D6 based and weapon damage ranges are very small. Until you get into explosives the best damage you will find is 1d6+4 for a
lightsaber Star Sword. Second, two different AC systems are presented to keep both the old grognards and the rest of the fans happy. You can use either ascending AC where AC becomes the difficulty number you need to hit, or you can use descending AC where you have to look up the target number on a chart. Note thisn isn’t THAC0, the version of D&D White Star is based on pre-dates THAC0.
Seeing weights listed on these charts made me worry there would be some kind of detailed encumbrance system, though I didn’t remember reading anything about weight limits under Strength. I was pleased to see that it’s much simpler than that. If you carry too much your movement is reduced, that is all.
Playing The Game
This chapter is basically all the miscellaneous rules that didn’t get covered by the previous sections.
White Star brings us back to very long rounds, even in combat. 1 round is a full minute and 10 rounds make up a turn. Saving Throws are “roll over” and are used to avoid everything from environmental hazards to the Star Knights meditations and every character has just one stat for Saving Throws.
Here we find rules for surprise, concealed and secret doors, movement, gaining XP (for overcoming opponents, uncovering treasure/technology and for advancing the adventure. Split between players and assistants who get half shares), and assistants.
Compared to modern fantasy RPGs this is a very short combat section. 6 pages, single column text, digest-sized. Probably the smallest combat section I’ve read in a long time (not counting Mermaid Adventures).
It’s what you would expect. Roll a D20, add your Base Hit Bonus (BHB), add any other modifier (Dex bonus for ranged attacks, STR bonus for mercenaries if using the House Rule, etc) and see if you meet or beat a target number. This number is based on AC and depends on which system you use to determine it. If you hit, you roll damage based on the weapon used. Damage reduces Hit Points. If HP hit 0 the target is dead.
One thing I skipped over: Initiative. White Star uses “side based initiative” that’s where there is one roll made at the start of the combat and whichever side wins that roll goes first with the other side going after all combatants on the first side have done their actions.
Speaking of actions: you won’t find any free, simple and standard actions here. Each round a character can move and if they didn’t use all their movement then attack. That’s it for rules. It’s up to the referee to determine exactly how much can be done in a given round. But remember: in this system a round is a full minute. So things like equipping and stowing weapons, diving for cover, opening a door should all be able to easily fit into one action.
Gifts and Meditations have one extra rule that they have to be announced before each round starts and if the ‘caster’ takes any damage before their action they lose the gift or meditation they are casting.
What’s good to see here is a section on Diplomacy hinting at the fact that not every conflict needs to be resolved by combat. What’s more interesting is that there aren’t really any rules here. There’s no mechanics for diplomacy checks to be found, just a note that sometimes combat can be talked out of.
Rules for invisibility, death, healing and movement are here. Along with many of those house rules I mentioned before. Here you find a lot of the modern RPG tropes like Crits and Fumbles, and individual initiative rolls.
I didn’t count but I think this is the longest chapter in the book. A big part of that though is that this chapter probably should have just been called Starships since it’s a lot more than just the combat rules. Besides ship to ship combat, this is also where you find the rules for buying ships, modifying ships, repairing ships and travel in space including faster than light.
Starship combat is basically the same as personal combat with a few exceptions. Movement is more abstract. Pilots play a bigger role. Weapons need to be manned by individual characters and you have to deal with shields. What you won’t find here is anything like the old FASA Star Trek system where every character class has a specific job. It looks to me like Starship combat is the place the Pilot really gets to shine and everyone else gets to shoot a few guns. Which is cool with me as I’m sure the pilot was probably a bit bored when the rest of the group was raiding that alien mine.
I don’t think I’m going to bother going into detail here, but just note that this section uses the same core rules as the rest and it continues to follow a very GM Fiat, rules-lite, methodology.
There are ten classes of starship given the core rulebook ranging from capital ships to stunt fighters. All of them are ridiculously expensive and not something any character is going to be able to afford any time soon. So if your game is going to be ship-based you are going to have to come up with a reason for those PCs to have a ship(s).
Gifts and Meditations
This is the “spell” section of White Star. I was worried getting to this chapter, as I hate reading through spell lists (kind of like lists of mythos creatures). What I found though is a rather short chapter with a very truncated list of abilities (compared to the games White Star is based on).
There are only 5 levels of Meditations (used by Star Knights) with only 26 meditations split between them. There are no big flashy things like fireballs or lightning bolts to be found. Instead, most meditations are utilitarian. Things like Healing, Read Languages, Detect Thoughts, Locate Object and Dark Vision. There are even fewer gifts (used by Alien Mystics). Three levels with four gifts each. Again there are no big flashy damage spells. Here we find Light, Levitate, Fly and Purify Food and Drink.
Like equipment descriptions, spells do not include many actual mechanics (the exception usually being if a saving throw is allowed and how many HD the gift/meditation can affect). For example “Charm Person” causes the target “fall under the Star Knight’s influence” exactly what that means is determined by the referee.
My thoughts so far
I’ve been really enjoying reading White Star. I don’t know exactly why. I’m flying through the book finishing up half of it in one day over two sittings. I don’t know if it’s because most of this material is already pretty familiar due to playing years of games based on the same core system or if it’s something else. I find that I’m approaching it with a mindset of: Well let’s see how James handles X while going over in my head all the ways I’ve seen X handled before.
The book is excellently written and flows very well. I never felt like I needed to skip ahead to understand something or jump back to re-check something I’ve already read. As noted in the first part of the review I really dig the layout that Jason Paul McCartan did for this book.
As for the game: it sounds solid. It’s a very rules light, GM fiat based Sci-Fi game that leaves a ton of information in the hands of the players and GM. I can easily see using this system for a wide variety of different sci-fi settings despite is obvious Star Wars influence. The rules sound uber simple and I could see being able to pick up this game and start playing in about half an hour, and that includes character creation.
What I can’t tell, is how well these simple rules would keep the player’s interest. Now, this is hugely based on player preference. To me reading, right now this sounds like a super fast, deadly and loose system that would feel like a break from playing more complicated games like D&D 4th edition (the last edition of D&D I played regularly), or the three year Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition Campaign we wrapped up last year… But then to others, it could feel like there is just not enough there, and there’s very little inbuilt reward system. When you level up, you may end up with a bit more hit points and maybe a slightly better chance to hit but that’s about it. No fancy new feats, cool new magic abilities or prestige classes to change into.
What this really means for me right now is that I really want to try White Star at the table. Will such a simple system draw people in, or will they have fun with it for a session or two and want to swap to something with more meat on it?
First off, before I even consider setting up a White Star game night, I’ve got to finish reading this book.
If you are still curious about White Star be sure to check out part two of my White Star review. You may also be very interested in reading my White Star Galaxy Edition review or watching our White Star Galaxy Edition Review on YouTube as it’s a newer version of this game.