Do we need another old school game? Do we need another game for modern espionage and military operations?
Bill Logan from DwD Studios doesn’t ask these questions, he just writes games. White Lies is the second game in this vein, his first one was Covert Ops (aff) (together with Larry Moore), a game based on d00lite which is based on the system of Star Frontiers (?).
Bill forked me a preview copy of the game, so I have it as a PDF on my computer right now.
While I’m a fan of old school games, I’m not really familiar with the espionage genre. I know that there are other contenders, but I haven’t read or played them (except for Covert Ops and Black Seven.
Please note that this is a reading review of an advanced copy.
What is White Lies?
White Lies (henceforth: WL) is based on Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox which is in turn based on OD&D (the original Dungeons & Dragons from 1974). WhiteBox is a cleaned-up version of OD&D with some tweaks and it is published under the OGL which makes it a good ruleset for game designers.
In fact, besides the name White Lies and the logo everything is open content under the rules of the OGL. That’s really sweet.
So, basically WL is an old school D&D game for spy stories. Here’s the blurb (emphasis is mine):
"Welcome to WHITE LIES, a modern role-playing game of espionage and paramilitary operations. This game takes advantage of an existing and well-loved set of role-playing game rules called Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, a light and simple set of mechanics designed to be fast and loose, like the cinematic espionage genre this game attempts to embrace. This is a toolbox to design your own thrilling tales of modern adventure!
If you read my blog, you know that I like S&W WhiteBox, so I am at least intrigued by having another old school game to complete my collection."
There is a short introduction which stresses Rule Number One: The Admin (Game Master) has the right to modify the rules. As typical for old school games there are sometimes “gaps” in the rules and the Admin is free to interpret them.
Then we jump right into character creation which is pretty familiar. The attributes are the same as always. Some character classes may gain additional XP (experience points) for certain high stats. Attributes are rolled as 3d6 in order.
WL includes a basic skill system which is a “die+modifier”-mechanic: you roll 1d6, add your attribute modifier and try to score 4 or more (4+). Opposed skill checks are rolled against each other, higher roll wins.
Saving Throws are the same as in WhiteBox, roll a d20 and score equal or higher than your ST (Saving Throw value) which is based on your class.
So far, nothing really surprising although I like the addition of a rudimentary skill system.
A look at the character classes
Of course, you have different classes, this game is based on OD&D after all.
The Confiscator: types like cat burglars and thieves who are good at sneaking in and bypassing security systems, based strongly on Dexterity. This class is loosely based on the Thief and gets a bonus when attacking from a hidden position.
The Eliminator: soldiers, mercenaries – the Fighter class. Good with weapons and other martial stuff and gets extra attacks per round.
The Infiltrator: the Charisma-type, the Grifter charming you out of your money or other things and deceiving you. They are good at forgery, disguise and persuasion, of course. As a bonus, they have masterwork Cover Identities.
The Investigator: this class encompasses the P.I.s, journalists, detectives but also hackers (!). As an Investigator, you are good at solving problems, interrogation, and technology. As a special ability, they have a Network of Informants.
The Transporter: the guy behind the wheel, they get skill bonuses when driving vehicles and get one as starting equipment.
I would have liked to see a separate class for the hacker. He is rolled into the Investigator which also covers private investigators and cops. Mechanically, you can’t really play with cyber security. The Investigator gets Saving Throw bonuses on interrogation and deception which doesn’t necessarily fit the hacker archetype. That said, there are skill bonuses for computers, too. Still, I find the umbrella of Investigator too broad for a typical hacker.
Every class has its own XP table, basic attack bonus etc. – it’s like in Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox.
Weapons do damage centered around a d6 which is true to WhiteBox, armor classes can be ascending and descending – again, nothing new. There is a nod towards the espionage genre by providing information for Expense Accounts and Mission Outfitting. I like that Equipment Kits are available, making staffing a character much easier and faster. The rules make sense and there is interesting material like “cleaner kits” or “halo kits” (for parachuting stealthily).
Because this is modern espionage, you have stats for firearms like revolvers and rocket launchers, explosives and also other weapons like tasers.
The game also includes rules for vehicles (dirt bikes, jeeps, motorcycles, pickup trucks, helicopters, jet skis and more) and vehicle as well as weapon upgrades.
This is a useful addition to the game, especially in light of the Transporter class. WL doesn’t want you to track ammo, it is assumed that you have one payload full of bullets appropriate to your weapon. Fallen enemies might have suitable ammo which is up to the Admin’s discretion.
Weapon upgrades, vehicle upgrades, and gadgets make the equipment list interesting and offer further incentive for the players in long-term play.
The rules for gadgets are a bit free-form. Generally, this approach can be seen throughout the whole book: it’s some vague guidelines and ideas which should help the Admin but not hard and fast rules per se. For example, there is no list of ready-made gadgets.
Describe the gadget you want to your Admin. In accordance with his experience, knowledge, and sense of fairness, the Admin then assesses how plausible the gadget is. This determines the gadget’s reliability and cost. There are 4 categories: existing gadgets (cheapest and most reliable), plausible gadget, improbable gadget and super-science gadget (most expensive and last reliable).
Still, the advice is solid and I like how the author came up with a “reliable rating” to make gadgets more intriguing. If you want to use your gadget, you need to make a roll on a d6 and if you can’t meet the reliability rating the gadget misfires.
Whereas there is still XP for defeating adversaries, the author also included experience garnered from Mission Payments. This is a clever idea and fits the genre. The payment depends on the scope of the mission (personal, local, national or international) and whether you met your objectives and other bonuses (i.e. discretion & secrecy bonus).
Combat is familiar, rolling for initiative and resolving tasks in rounds. Initiative is rolled individually (1d6 + DEX bonus). There are some special rules for situations like unarmed attacks, explosions, stun damage, rate of fire, automatic weapons.
You recover 1 HP per day as natural healing but luckily, you can also bind wounds or use a medic pack.
Interestingly, the product also includes guidance on Investigating which I find suitable. The advice is basic, but I’m happy to see it here.
So far, I like what I see in the Admin section. Considering the broad-strokes-approach, it’s well done and now we come to more appealing bits.
There is a cool method for Enemy Organizations, complete with random tables to roll on. I like that very much. For example, you can roll on the organization’s location purpose (i.e. propaganda site or training center), on the physical location and their descriptors (i.e. has an extensive pool of vehicles) and on the organization agenda (i.e. ascension or destruction of wealth).
Furthermore, the author also gives you procedures to come up with Master Villains, including villain type (i.e. celebrity, cult leader, politician etc.), motivation and power base (i.e. economic wealth, secrets, technical superiority etc.), tables for henchmen and minions and statistics.
Next up is a Mission Generator, again with tables (who doesn’t love tables?): mission scope, mission areas, area descriptors, area objectives, area obstacle, mission code name. I personally love the mission code generator which can yield funny names like “Operation Gomex Eel”.
All in all, this section is the true gem of the book for me.
And other tidbits
This part of the book deals with general advice on how to set up your campaign world, i.e. scope, funding, agenda, how the law works, security systems etc.
The bestiary of the book. You have spies, soldiers, thugs, martial artists, animals (“realistic foes”) but also (alternatively) some stats for aliens.
This chapter includes optional rules which expand the game and make it characteristic and different from the so far S&W WhiteBox rules.
Areas of Training allow additional bonuses for certain skill checks (roll 2d6 and choose the higher one).
Moreover, there are also alternatives for Development (raising attribute scores).
Bureau 19 & Operation: Wounded Wolf
Finally, we have an example campaign setting. Bureau 19 is a highly classified agency in the US. It uses a fairly standard power level, so there is no weird stuff, just straight-forward military action/espionage.
Operation: Wounded Wolf is an introductory adventure for 1st level characters.
The product comes at 136 pages total (including cover and OGL etc.). The print version will be digest size (6″ x 9″). The PDF is bookmarked. The layout is basic and sufficient with one-column text style. It makes good use of color for headers. Generally, the product uses a black-white-and-red color scheme throughout the book with silhouette-style illustrations. This amounts to a modern look.
My take on White Lies
First, the name is genius. Second, WL spins WhiteBox into a good take on the undercover operations genre. The classes make sense, grant niche protection but are able to model most common modern archetypes. I would have liked to see a more differentiated approach to the hacker archetype but other than that I’m sure I can find a class for many standard concepts.
I welcome the addition of a basic skill system and the optional Areas of Training.
Obviously, Bill Logan has put some thought into porting the original fantasy game into the modern world with adjusting the equipment section and adding rules for weapon upgrades, vehicles, and gadgets.
Like WhiteBox the game can be very vague and leaves things open to the decision of the Referee. This could be frustrating for people who want hard and fast rules. I admit that the broad-strokes approach can have its advantages as it gives you a framework to build upon but in parts I would have liked to see more “precise” formulas. For instance, a list with gadgets wouldn’t have hurt.
I really appreciate the tools for creating enemy organizations, master villains, and the mission generator. In regards to “standard” military operations and spycraft, WL clearly succeeds in providing the Game Master with a toolkit. In regards to offering a wide staple of options for different takes on the genre, it’s a bit sparse, though. For example, scaling the power level is not possible, so it’s hard to change between a “realistic” way or a more cinematic, action-movie modus operandi. Clear guidelines for the inclusion of fringe powers or supernatural conspiracies are missing, too (with the exception of adding aliens to the Adversaries chapter).
I also wouldn’t call WL a “modern role-playing game”. It’s an OSR game, nothing wrong with that.
Furthermore, the game promises light and simple mechanics suitable for cinematic action. Being an off-shot of Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, I can’t imagine that WL succeeds here completely. Yes, the rules are easy (and familiar if you’re an OSR aficionado). However, old school D&D derivatives usually don’t offer cinematic play as low-level characters die easily. I can’t see any adjustments concerning the mortality rate. Thus, I argue that cinematic play will be difficult.
I’m not sold on the idea that old school D&D is the best ruleset for cinematic paramilitary action 1 but IF you want to play D&D in the modern world this is certainly a neat game.
Where does that leave us?
WL is clearly a professional, quality work. The minimalist artwork style serves it well. It’s a well-made adaption of Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox. I can recommend it if you like old school systems and want to use them to play modern day espionage games. It’s a rules-lite, easy to learn system. The price point for the PDF is very reasonable given the excellent content in the Admin section.
Having said that, if you don’t have a soft spot for traditional D&D rules, you’d probably better be served by something different. WL is NOT a modern, cinematic RPG, serving different style of espionage gaming but a love letter to the OSR.
EDIT: The digital download of the game now includes Echo Team, a separate file with 5 pregens. Neat!