Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures (part 1)



Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is a role-playing game with two purposes in mind.  On one hand, it aims to be a game that can be picked up and played by experienced gamers with a minimum of preparation.  On the other, it aims to be an introductory game suitable for people new to the hobby.  Many old-school (or old-school influenced) games hold those to be goals, but what sets Beyond the Wall apart from other fantasy games cast in D&D's mold is the game's tone: "At its heart, Beyond the Wall is a game about young heroes who find themselves in over their heads and have to grow as a result of their experiences. Their world is often gritty and dark, but it is never grim. The characters have a chance to save their homes, their friends,
and their families, but their success is not guaranteed."  Beyond the Wall wears its influences proudly; this is a game inspired by the Earthsea and Prydain books.  It's more Hobbit than Lord of the Rings, if you see what I mean.

Character generation in Beyond the Wall is meant to be done as a group; the method employed in the game is intended to generate characters who grew up together as friends and have tight bonds to each other and their community.  Each player selects a "playbook" detailing a character type, such as the Young Woodsman or Prentice Witch.  The playbook gives your character's starting ability scores (usually a base 8 except for one or two slightly higher scores) and guides the player through a series of random life-path tables that add depth and personality to the character, as well as defining their special abilities and attribute bonuses.

The implementation of the playbooks is so ingenious that it's worth giving an example of the character creation process here.  Let's make a Would-Be Knight.  First, we note our character has a Strength of 12 and all other ability scores at 8.  Then we roll on the first table, "What was your childhood like?"  An 11, which means "You went on journeys into the woods to gather herbs and berries."  This roll gives us +2 to Wisdom, +1 to Dexterity, +1 to Constitution, and the skill Herbalism.

Next, we roll on the table "How did you distinguish yourself as a child?"  An 8 gets us, "You solved everyone else's problems, never mentioning your own."  This nets us +1 Strength, +1 Constitution, and +1 Charisma.  (Our character's stats are currently: Strength 13, Dexterity 9, Constitution 10, Wisdom 10, Intelligence 8, and Charisma 9.)  It also gives us a potential background question to develop further: what was that problem of ours that we never mentioned?

The next table is going to tell us who else befriended us in the village and what we learned from them.  A 5 tells us, "You are about to marry into the miller's family." Uh-oh, I don't want to be a miller, I want to be a knight!  Potential tension there.  We also get +1 Strength, and +2 Wisdom.

With our childhood days firmly in place, we now move on to tables that detail our quest for knighthood.  We're told that as a warrior we get the weapon specialization and knacks abilities, as well as the Riding skill.  Our next table is going to tell us where we practiced our skill at arms.  "You first saw action with the archers in the levy" gives us +3 to Dexterity and the Drinking skill.

"What is your preferred fighting style?" asks the next table, and the 2 we rolled answers "A glorious mounted charge."  Our weapon specialization is with the lance, and we get +2 to Strength.  But...somehow that doesn't sit right with how I'm imagining this character.  That's okay, the rules say you can swap out one roll you're not sold on.  I've decided that this character is more about "Clever swordplay and a quick guard," which gives us +2 to Dexterity and a specialization in the longsword instead.

The next table will tell us "When did you first draw blood?"  Apparently a stranger challenged our character to a duel and found him more than they could handle.  Serves them right.  This gives our character +2 to Dexterity and another weapon specialization.  But also, the character of the person to my right was there with me; they distracted the would-be duelist's friends.  For their part in this episode of our shared past, they get a +1 to Dexterity!

The final table concerns "how will you seek your fortune?"  A 6 indicates that "You will visit distant lands and tirelessly seek adventure along the way."  This grants us +2 to Constitution and a lodestone as part of our equipment.  (Final stats: Strength 14, Dexterity 16, Constitution 12, Intelligence 8, Wisdom 12, Charisma 9.)

The rest of the playbook tells us how to fill out a character sheet with everything we've generated above, what our starting equipment and money consist of, what our class/level progression looks like, and even summarizes all the rules we need to have in front of us to play through an adventure--and the entire playbook is a mere four pages of clearly-explained prose.  It's worth noting that each "career" section of every playbook is unique; characters will definitely have a different feel from one another, yet because they are tied together by the shared adventures and common childhood experience they will feel like they have a unity of origin.

Next time: mechanics!  (SPOILER ALERT: it's stripped-down D&D of no particular edition-allegiance.)

18 comments:

  1. I've been wanting to take a look at this. Thanks for the in-depth review.

    It seems like they've done some interesting stuff with a D&D chassis.

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    1. My pleasure, though I thought I was going way too long in this reviews, heh.

      Suffice to say, I'm really impressed by this so far. When I play D&D again, it will very likely be this.

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    2. I think this same sort of approach has uses for other sorts of settings as well, though of course that would require a lot of prep work.

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    3. Oh, definitely. My mind immediately went to "How would I set up tables like these in a Gothic-inspired setting..." as I was reading through the playbooks.

      One thing that strikes me is that the playbooks establish the tone and feel of a setting, but not nailed down parameters; there's still room to move in the framework it creates, which is pretty neat.

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  2. Great review. You just made a sale for Flatland Games.

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    1. Thanks! I'm glad the bribe they paid me to write this has worked out for them, heh.

      Also, check out the free supplements they have up on RPGNow as well.

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  3. I love the idea of the inter-connected character generation!

    But I am concerned about how that synergy will hold up through low level adventuring. If this is a D&D clone it's likely there will be fatalities. Is the danger dialed down or is there a mechanism for bringing in new characters that maintains that cool party relationship?

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    1. I'm actually not sure yet, but that's a great question. I'll be sure to address that as I read the next bit of the book, where it should be covered.

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  4. Twee fantasy is my bread and butter. I was a bit disappointed with this product. I wanted it to be Earthsea so much but in all honesty it wears that influence thinly. The core of this style of gaming is challenging the PCs philosophically, it says it's about growth but I haven't seen anything encouraging anything other than the classic D&D kill, rob, loot cycle.

    I look forward to future products, hopefully a fabulists guide to DMing. That would fit this style perfectly.

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    1. Hmm, you're farther into the book than am I...I was hoping to find an XP system different than the usual fare.

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    2. Unfortunately not. Monsters, Quests, and Roleplaying XP is all that is covered. There is so much potential in the playbook format though, to do class specific XP which relates to 'growing up' or 'coming of age'. I think it would be an easy tweak if you are familiar with twee or childrens fantasy.

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    3. Hmm, I read the XP bit today and I think I'm fine with it. XP for overcoming monsters (not necessarily killing them) fits, and it doesn't reward murderhobo thievery. I think XP for completing adventures and accomplishing goals is close enough to the genre being emulated, even if it isn't particularly focused.

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    4. Perhaps I'm more of a purest. It sounds like generic D&D to me, not necessarily genre.

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  5. The XP system is quite different from what we get with B/X and AD&D 1e. Surely lots of people have house-ruled these aspects in their games, but BtB, B/X and AD&D 1e focus on treasure gathering and overcoming monsters. BtW stresses different things from the start.
    BtW also differs greatly from (A)D&D in how magic is handled; having cantrips, rituals and spells work with different mechanics, and with cool spells to boot (and some nice changes to the usual fare) also means that the flavour is strongly affected.
    Finally, an ingenious and simple skill system makes the game very flexible.
    Also the treatment of monsters is brilliant; just look at dragons, demons and goblins. And other "old" stuff gets a nice treatment (read the entries for wights and wraiths, for example.)
    Overall, I think BtW is perhaps the best and most original offer when it comes to the OSR (forget noise like LotFP et al.)

    The only quip I have, is that they didn't push things far enough; having different dice rolling conventions for attacks and save, and skills and ability checks, in a so elegant and streamlined system is somewhat strident. When I am going to run this, I am surely going to adopt a different roll-high mechanic for skills and ability checks, too.

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  6. Digging this. Alot. Will have to pick up a copy as well.

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    1. Awesome, the pdf is well-worth the low low price

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  7. Really cool game! The book is at the printers now :)

    I will most definitely try this out with my secondary player group! In my take of The World Between :)

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