Monday, May 18, 2015

White Hot Star

I started writing yet another "poor me" post about my lack of time for writing and realized that such a post is itself a waste of my time (I keep forgetting that). So F that noise.

If I wanted to just do reviews of games and game products on this blog, I'd have material for at least six months (even assuming I stopped acquiring new stuff). It wasn't all that long ago that I wrote how I loathe buying PDFs and prefer actual printed books, and how I really hate buying both. But this before my local game store (Gary's Games) closed shop, and long before I moved to Paraguay for what appears will be an extended stay. These days, I'M one of those dudes emailing publishers and asking "when will this be available in electronic format?"

[yeah, I've turned into that guy. I still prefer hard copy, but since I can only get mail order every 3-6 months (when I get state-side), more often than not I'm purchasing BOTH hard and e-copy so that I can peruse the PDF while I'm down here. New Fire, for example...a beautiful book that I will probably never, ever one which I bought both in print and PDF format. I should write about it...and about Bulldogs! and Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul and Crimson Blades and Dust Devils and...well, you get the idea]

SO...White Star. Everyone's talking about it, so I bothered to pick it up a couple days ago (at the same time as I purchased Hill Cantons Compendium II, actually...perhaps something on that later, too). In PDF form, because it was relatively cheap (I found a coupon through Tenkar's blog). Here's what I think about it:

James M. Spahn's White Star is S&W Star more, no less. Like my years long, on-and-off B/X Star Wars project...except using Swords & Wizardry as its base. The text, monsters, and campaign ideas imply that the system can be used for more concepts: Star Trek, Firefly, Aliens, etc. But it really can't...not as written. It says it's taken a cue from other space opera stories, like Flash Gordon (and presumably Buck Rogers)...but it's lacking in areas that would allow one to run those kind of games.

Without modification, that is. Folks have already started adding their own supplemental setting material for White Star. Tenkar's doing as series of WS "pocket settings," WrathofZombie knocked off more than a dozen alien races for the game, and Calum M created a hack-splice one might call White Star 40K (if you were so inclined) set in humanity's grim, dark future. Clearly, people love a game that can be house-ruled easy-shmeazy.

Have they never seen Dave Bezio's X-Plorers?

White Star is very spookily similar to my original "first pass" at B/X Star Wars...right down to a "Star Knight" (i.e. Jedi) character class with Wisdom as a prime requisite. An "aristocrat" class based on CHA? Check...though I call mine "high born." Spahn's three robot classes? Almost exactly the same. Star Wars monsters with the names rearranged? Check and double check (though I called my Sith "Shadow Lords," not "Void Knights"). The equipment list as well (though I had "shielded" weapons occupying the spot of him "monofilaments" and I had a catchier name for my lightsaber knock-offs).

This kind of thing is easy enough to do...if you take Saga edition Star Wars and examine the differences between it, simple D20, and early edition D&D it's not very hard to "reverse engineer" to something like B/X or OD&D (or LL or S&W). That was my initial impetus for tooling around with the idea after all. The stuff Spahn has done, concept-wise, is the easy stuff.

[writing, organizing, and commissioning great artwork isn't anything to sniff at, just this review, I'm just talking about the design of the game]

Which is to say, I guess, that I'm a lot less impressed than some folks are. I know, I know: I'm a big turd. Thanks. Now let me talk about the stuff in White Star that I REALLY don't like...

[boy, I hate this part...the "honest opinion"]

One of the things preventing White Star from being something other than Star Wars, is its conspicuous lack of a scientist/engineer class. Without such an archetype you lose a large swath of protagonist characters from classic space opera: the Spocks and McCoys and Scottys (Star Trek); the Dr. Hans Zarkovs (Flash Gordon), Dr. Huer/Dr. Theopolis (Buck Rogers), Kaylee and Simon Tam (Firefly), The Robinsons (Lost in Space)...even Cale Tucker from Titan A.E. These are major protagonists, not hired henchmen, and they allow for different types of problem solving besides blowing holes in things with your blasters, or ships guns, or "star sword." Sure it's an easy fix (house rule your own)...but it's easy enough that it should have already been included in the game (with a prime req of INT, yeah?).

[and if you're going to bother to have hired assistants, it would sure be nice to have a description...or better yet, an NPC write-up in the, "alien creatures" section. After all, these aren't ALL "aliens" (see soldier, for example)]

But that's just an annoyance. What's far more problematic is the damn experience system. I've written before that about the hardest thing to design for a space opera RPG is a decent method of character development...even X-Plorers effectively "punts" on the subject. White Star simply defaults to standard OD&D (or, rather, S&W) save that it gives XP for "credits" as opposed to gold pieces.

How is this in any way informed by the space opera genre? Sure, it makes the game S&W compatible (which appears to be a clear design choice), but how does that facilitate anything other than a Firefly/Traveller-esque game? Hell, how does that allow one to play Star Wars, the thing for which WS seems expressly designed? In which Star Wars film are the protagonists looking for a big score of cash?! This is worse than a's a knucklehead move. And, yes, you can, of course, house rule something different...but when you start needing to change the basic building blocks of the game, then you might as well be designing your own game.

[or, to put it another way: file the fantasy tropes off S&W classes, monsters, and magic spells and don't even bother buying White Star]

At least Bezio's X-Plorers gave you an XP value for blowing up enemy starships. White Star has no XP award for space combat (unless you're supposed to add up an amount for the pilots and techs aboard an enemy starship...difficult considering there's no guideline for how XP is calculated (like for, say, NPC character classes) and there's no NPC listing for things like, say, enemy pilots and gunners). Sure, you can house rule your own stuff in this regard (in fact, you have to) or steal from something like Terminal Space...but then, why are you bothering to play this game again? Because it has nice artwork?

[it does have nice artwork for B&W interior pieces], force, "Meditations and Gifts" are simply the Vancian magic system re-written for Star Knights and Alien Mystics. Nothing particularly special here, and again it's just taking the "easy road" design-wise, rather than attempting to model the genre in function as well as form. But, of course, you can house rule your own with everything here....

Spahn takes an interesting tact with regard to non-human races ("aliens"), creating two specific race-as-classes in the forms of the archetypes Alien Brute and Alien Mystic. I'll be honest: much as I love me my race-as-class in fantasy adventure games, the one time I feel it's better to add a species tag is in the space opera genre, where other space-faring races have their own pilots and techs and nobles and soldiers, etc. So...ballsy as it is to take this route, it's probably another thing that I'd want to house rule...especially if you want to play something that looks like the Star Wars Expanded Universe with its non-human Jedi, er "Star Knights." Just another "possible campaign setting," right? So how do you model all those be-tentacled, saber-swinging Jedi monstrosities from the prequel trilogy using only the "Alien Mystic" class? Heck, they even have a different spell list from the Star Knights' "meditations" (and Why O Why do you need a purify food & drink spell?). What if I want my Alien Brute copilot to aid in repairing my starship (or putting my protocol 'bot back together?)?

Oh, right: just house rule it.

Look, let's talk turkey for a moment. It probably sounds like I'm being awfully hard on White Star...and, yeah, I guess I am. Fortunately for Mr. Spahn, my opinion isn't valued all that much these days, even around my own corner of the blog-o-sphere. And anyway, he's making his money: White Star is #36 on the DriveThru RPG sales. I bought it one gifted me with a review copy.

Here's the thing about White Star: if you want to run something space opera-y ESPECIALLY in the Star Wars (original trilogy) variety, and want it in a familiar system (i.e. "old school D&D-esque"), then White Star is the closest thing you're going to find. It does more work than X-Plorers in a couple regards (monster lists and a Jedi/Force system), and is much more streamlined and (in my opinion) "user friendly" than Stars Without Number. But at 130+ pages, nicely laid out and well-illustrated...well, I guess I was expecting more for my money.

Actually, scratch that. For the $8 I paid, it's a quality product...I've certainly paid more money for less useful game material (consider the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide...). And I don't think the game has been "over-hyped" by the blog-o-sphere (not nearly the same way as "5E Basic" was, for example). Like I said, it's the closest thing to its target that you're really going to find. Hell, its got falcon-men and obviously wanted to be Flash Gordon compatible.

It's just that Flash never looted anyone to "level up."

But I AM disappointed that it didn't do more, or invest more, in the design process than what I was doing back in 2010...back when I was calling my project "B/X Starkillers." There's a reason I didn't publish something like this: it wasn't good enough. Even if I'd had the artwork and professional design layout, the content wouldn't have been good enough. And I suppose I'm disappointed that this is the best someone can come up with after all these years. Production-wise, it still doesn't hold a candle to FFG's Star Wars series of RPGs.

Tell you what I'll do: let me look over my very long-ass document that was going to be a SW-esque supplement for X-Plorers (no, it's not the same thing as my B/X Starkillers...White Star is close enough to BXSK that publishing it in any form would be fairly redundant). Give me a chance to clean it up a bit, and I'll post it to the blog as a series of posts to spice up your X-Plorers game. Free of charge. My original idea was (of course) to publish it and make some money for all my hard-earned words typed, but I am sooooo sick of looking for artists and artwork (God, I wish I could draw like some of these self-published dudes)...I'll give you the "sans art" version as a freebie.

Yes, I have no less than three other projects I'm working on at the moment, but you people deserve a bone, every now and then. Right? Sure you do.
: )


  1. Every once in a while I have a hankerin for something Scifi and SW Whitebox has always been a favorite of mine. But, despite all the attention, I really have no interest in this spin off.

    I'm actually disappointed that X-plorers has gotten side lined (maybe dropped would be more appropriate to say) through lack of support. It's a great game that is easily house ruled and adaptable to most situations.

    My sons a Star Wars fan (me, I'm more a Buck Roger's guy), so I tacked on some psionics to X-plorers with some prerequisites and called them Guardians of the Galactic Order. I even came up with some simple spaceship design rules for the few games we played.

    So yeah, I'd be interested in what you would post on the subject.

    1. @ Dervish:

      Looked over my KWN supplement (which I haven't done since, oh, about June 2013). The thing IS nearly complete...I think I stopped working on it (in part) due to work on 5AK, and in part wanting to use a more "original" game system than the ol' B/X chassis. Well, that and I realized I was going to surpass X-Plorerers' page count with my little "supplement," even without artwork, table o contents, etc. by about 20 pages.

      Anyway, the first 40 pages or so are pretty much ready for posting. You can expect the first installment in the next day or so. Maybe I should make it a "Patreon thing?"


    2. Kickstarter (;

      Seriously, look forward to the post.

  2. Wait, Gary's went out of business? *looks up stuff on interwebs* Ah, a year ago. I haven't been to Greenwood in over a year. Looks like he retired. Ah, well, at least there's still The Dreaming.

    The release of White Star has had me in a tizzy of sorts. Well, deeply questioning whether I need to go on with Spectacular Science Stories/Rockets & Rayguns (still haven't picked which of those I should use). I think that you've answered, though - White Star is Star Wars plus D&D, while SSS/R&R is intended more as Northwest Smith and Eric John Stark meet up with Qui-Gon Jinn and Dr. Zarkov and fight against Charlie X and Emperor Ming. So, yeah, I'm going to have XP for cash because that's what Northwest Smith and Eric John Stark (in the same way as Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, which is to say, off-screen in the written stories, but explicitly their described goals) are after, and they are my central figures. I do want to support Qui-Gon and Flash Gordon, though, so I'm going to add something else as well (probably the "Achieving Goals" XP from Warriors of the Red Planet). Dr. Zarkov has his own approach, not necessarily related to XP.

    So, yes, I have a Scientist class, alongside an Adventurer and a Psychic Warrior.

    I want my Psychic Warriors, actually, to be more like Blue Öyster Cult's Veterans of the Psychic Wars. So, I'm probably going to include a lot of telepathy and not much telekinesis, if you see what I'm saying, and add in some kind of Sanity/Wisdom damage mechanic. "All the scars are on the inside", indeed. I should work more on the Psychic Warriors, I've been spending most of my time on the Scientists.

    Plus, of course, my ADD-like gaming habits keep sending me back to older projects (like the Fantasy Wargaming and Top Secret retroclones) and making up new ones for me to waste time on…

    1. If you can build your game as a supplement to White Star or X-Plorers (all these things have OGL-type attachments) you might as well go ahead and do that. If you need a system that's substantially different, build it from the ground up.

      Regardless, we can always use another flavorful look at space.
      : )

    2. @ Faol:

      And just BTW: I love your take on psychics and would prefer to see what you're describing instead of the MU/cleric knock-offs of White Star. But that's just MY taste preference.

    3. Yeah, that was my problem with Mystics and Scientists in Warriors of the Red Planet, too. (Which is not, by the way, to say that it's bad or that I wouldn't use it when playing that game.) I'd like to see a new approach that tries to catch the specific flavor of the thing, rather than recycling the old method that was designed for a different flavor.

      No, what I'm doing builds on S&W:WB, but it needs to incorporate some rules to emphasize the setting. From little things like a mechanism to cause ray guns to be knocked out of peoples' hands (which happens a lot in the source materials) to big ones like the invention rules, I want the rules to serve the concepts, and not just be something that is hashed out really quick.

      Also, in addition to X-Plorers and Stars Without Number there have been Hulks & Horrors and Tales of the Space Princess (note: not Machinations of the Space Princess, which is more like Heavy Metal). Not sure why people forget all of those.

    4. I second JB in thinking you should publish your setting, be it as a supplement or own game. I liked reading your take on aliens...

  3. I appreciated your take on White Star. It's nice to get an insider's opinion on the OSR du jour. Rather than sour grapes or bitterness, I see it as unvarnished real-talk. Thanks for adding your two cents, hoss.

    1. @ Venger:

      You're very welcome. And thanks for reading!

    2. Yeah, I was kinda taken aback by Tenk's reading of this review. It seemed like he took the most uncharitable reading possible and read theoretical discussion as if it were bitterness (and others have taken up that reading, too). I see it more as referencing the thinking you'd already given to the topic and using that as a springboard to discussing the failings of WS (which, I hasten to add, are not crippling ones in my opinion). If we can't discuss where games fail, how are things going to improve over time? Why does all criticism have to be cheerleading these days?

      Anyway, I think that Tenk has a lot of emotion invested in WS, which is cool, but I think that it interfered with his ability to read this review objectively.

    3. @ Faol:

      Ok... I see what you're talking about.

      Let me think about if (and how) I want to address that.

    4. Hey, JB. I want to send you something but don't know how to reach you (other than commenting here). Please email me at:

    5. @ Venger: contract email is no longer on my blogger profile. I'll have to fix that.

  4. I came over here from Tenkar's Tavern (even though I also subscribe to this blog). I'm glad this review is more substantial than Tenkar gives it credit for. It's nice to see a review of this game that isn't all adulation.

    I bought White Star, and I like it (especially for an $8-$10 investment), but I had my own little annoyances with it. For one thing, the non-human classes are largely cut-and-pastes of S&W Whitebox classes (well, except for the robots). This results in all big, beefy alien PCs having the ability to see in the dark and all magical alien protagonists being able to find secret doors (are those even a thing in most space opera?)

    Basically, it looks like Spahn sometimes adapted his source material in Whitebox for the genre, and in other places just ported things over as is with the serial numbers filed off.

    That said, White Star does a great job of stirring the nostalgia for a certain generation. The decision to go with Star Wars plus a sci-fi kitchen sink universe was a brilliant marketing decision.

  5. @ KR:

    Um...yeah. Not sure if Tenk managed to read my whole post. I spent only one paragraph of my review comparing "spooky similarities" between WS and an (old) project of mine, and I can't see anywhere in my criticisms where I said *I* could have done it better.

    But I suppose I'll have to post some kind of rebuttal. Ugh.

  6. I appreciated your review as well. All I could find was the echo-chamber reviews that gloss over details you addressed. Many of those reviewers seem to be friends or business partners of the game producers as well, which obviously makes one question their objectivity, the more so when they all read like "White Stars is the best game ever for sci fi!" My impression was that it's basically D&D tries to do Star Wars, which to me seems a mismatch of rules and setting. Anyway if I wanted Star Wars I have WEG already and it's the real deal. I was hoping for a more generic and adaptable sci fi game, but the absence of scientists as a class points back to Star Wars rather than most other sci fi I have read and enjoyed. Indeed it seems heavily influenced by TV and movies rather than any books or magazines. I think I'll just stick to the original Traveller for my non-Star Wars sci fi games and use Star Wars for my Star Wars games. Not really sure I get the point of White Stars. I already have D&D and there's nothing stopping me from introducing spaceships if I want that.