Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures (part 3)

First part of the review.

Second part of the review.

Beyond the Wall doesn't make use of the usual "Vancian" magic system found in D&D and D&D-derived games.  There are no traveling spellbooks, memorization, or fire-and-forget magic.  Instead, there are three types of magic, each with its own rules: cantrips, spells, and rituals.

Cantrips are minor magical effects.  To use a cantrip, a player needs to roll less than their character's Intelligence or Wisdom (which ability is specified by the cantrip) on a d20.  On a failure the player gets to decide whether the character's magical energy is depleted (they cannot use any sort of magic until they spend a night resting) or if the magic has spun out of control (which means the DM gets to decide what the magic does.)  Sample cantrips include producing light, hexing a foe, or conjuring an illusory sound.  An example:

Second Sight  (Intelligence)
Using this cantrip allows the caster to see spirits of all sorts: the dead, faeries, and demons of all stripes. This cantrip only grants the caster the ability to perceive these spirits; if she wishes to converse with them, she must know their language.

The Second Sight cantrip may also give characters certain additional powers over spirits or demons as noted in their monster descriptions found in the ‘Bestiary’ booklet.

Spells are more powerful and more reliable than cantrips.  No roll is required to use a spell; rather, a character can cast as many spells per day as they have levels.  Thus, a 3rd level character can cast three spells per day.  Once their spells are exhausted, a character may cast cantrips and rituals as normal.  A character can cast any spell they have learned; to learn a spell, they must simply study the spell in a tome or from a mentor and make a successful Intelligence check.  A character can know any number of spells, but is still limited in how many they can cast by their current level.  Sample spells include entangling a foe, banishing the undead, or creating an illusion.  An example:

Terrifying Presence 
Range: Near 
Duration: 2 rounds/level 
Save: yes
The caster of this spell moves and speaks with terrible authority and causes his enemies to quail before him. The caster may turn his baleful will toward any one opponent per round for the duration of the spell, causing the target to run or hide for the remaining duration of the spell. A successful saving throw on the part of the target negates the spell.

Rituals are the most powerful magical effects.  Like cantrips, they require the caster to make a successful Intelligence or Wisdom check; a failure means that the ritual achieves both its intended effect and the DM gets to invent a further negative consequence.  In addition, each ritual has a level, and a character must be at least equal in level to a ritual to cast it.  (This is such a small thing, but I love it because it means I don't have to explain to new players why a 3rd level wizard can't cast 3rd level spells. I've always found that to be a particularly embarrassing artifact of Gygax's design.)  Also, a ritual requires a number of hours to cast equal to the level of the ritual--as well as requiring special ingredients.  Sample rituals include conjuring long-lasting protection, summoning otherworldly beings, and creating apocalyptic maelstroms. An example:

Friends  (Wisdom)
Range: Self 
Duration: 1 day/Level 
Save: no
Blessing himself with powers of leadership and trust, the mage rants himself 2d4 points of Charisma for the duration of the ritual. While the ritual is in effect, all who meet him are impressed by his words and bearing.

The mage requires various mystical herbs, which he makes into a thick drink and then imbibes. To make his words sweet, he then paints his lips with his own blood at the culmination of the ritual

I'd have to see how this all plays out, but from my reading of the magic section of Beyond the Wall I think I vastly prefer how it handles spellcasting over D&D's "Vancian" system.  The division of magic into three different types of sorcery fits the folkloric and literary depiction of magic far better.  The spells are also quite flavorful; for example, look at the description of Flame Charm: "Some mages know the tongue of the flames. They can speak soothing words to them, causing fires to dwindle to small coals, or they can speak words of anger, causing the flames to leap higher and dance about."  The selection of cantrips, spells, and rituals feels very comprehensive, certainly offering more options than would get used in a campaign.  But if that isn't enough, the text encourages you to adapt spells from other games, with the group deciding on how powerful the spell should be in game terms.  Very nice and collaborative, that.

The magic chapter is rounded out by a good selection of magic items that could be uncovered in play.  While the function of the magical items detailed here aren't too far afield from D&D standards, their brief descriptions have far more flavor.  An example:

King’s Thief Reds
Worn by Oswald the Red when he stole the crown from the Stone King, this red-dyed leather armor grants +2 AC as normal, as well as +2 to all Stealth checks.

NEXT TIME: Monsters and adventure.


  1. I like it, and I'm a big proponent of Vancian magic. I actually decided to spring for a copy of this based on your reviews, and at first glance, it looks pretty good!

    1. Yeah, I don't mind Vancian magic, but I like this better--no lie.

    2. That's cool. I won't send the Orthodoxy Compliance Officer around....this time.... ;-)

      I do have a long-term interest in Rituals as a general part of the OD&D/AD&D magic system*, so I find Beyond the Wall to be interesting just to get another take on it. I also like the fact that while it was designed as a old-school D&D-esque/story game combo, it comes off as more as a hybrid than a chimera, if you take my meaning. The story game components fit in well, but you can drop them and play the system in a more traditional "gen you chars, equip, hit the dungeon, wash-rinse-repeat" way. (Given there are already so many other games that do the latter, the party and scenario generation aspects are what sets it apart.) And even though I chafe at terms like "narration", etc.., it's a solid game. It won't displace AD&D at my table(AS&SoH is the only thing that might stand a chance), but it's definitely a candidate for pickup games at home and at conventions.

      *: when you look at some the parameters for spell casting in AD&D, several of the spells already fall into what many accept as a ritual: long casting times and/or rare/strange components

    3. Hmm, what do you see as the storygame components here?

      Heh, terms like "narration" never give me pause because so few games use them properly anyway.

  2. The whole shared party creation especially "your character had this event in common with the person to your left/right", the Fortune/Fate/Destiny Points mechanic, pervasive discussion about telling a story in the text, characters helping to design the village. All those things are hallmarks of storygames, at least in my mind. On the other hand, I'm a hardcore sandbox/"let the PCs wander the wilderness and find trouble" grognard who doesn't ever plan anything outside of 2 weeks of in-game travel time, so my calibration might be off.

    1. Well, I think "storygames" are so ill-defined that your definition is as valid as anyone else's. For me, I think fortune points are so common in RPGs at this point that they just seem standard. The collaborative aspects do feel a bit more "storygame" (for lack of a better word) to me, though.

    2. I get what Rich is saying. Systems that give narrative control and world-creation powers to players are hugely popular among the Forge/S-G crowd and mechanics that divvy up fiction control this way are pretty clearly a characteristic of a lot of the well-known storygames and of the design of a lot of the well known storygame designers. Older school games, alternatively, usually limit player control over the narrative or game world to character knowledge and character interaction with the game world. Ron Edwards has a whole essay about this (Narrative first, I think it's called).

      I think Beyond the Wall does something clever here, though: while major narrative control is handed the players during character creation, what they wind up controlling and creating is stuff that's really well within the ambit of character knowledge. That is, it doesn't really violate the GM/player division common in old school games. I think if the games you play are a political choice, then this is going to feel like a bit of a sham, but for the rest of us... who cares, it's clever and fun, right?

      Also, I use a much more hand waived version of village/town creation for this very reason. Talking about where their characters are from helps players think about who their characters are. One thing I have noticed, though, is that this seems to work better when you've got a few options for starting locations. Like character x is from the plantation farm, characters a-c are from the village and players y&z are from the town. This helped smooth edges when one player wanted the starting location to be like one thing and another wanted it to be something contradictory (literally, one wanted it to be a rural village, out in the badlands and the other wanted to be from a kind of cosmopolitan area). And what's also fun about this is that they kind of build the starting map for you.

  3. Well, to me the key thing to a story game is the stage is set before the gameplay starts with things like, "your characters are together and care about each because of X", where the relationships are defined by particular events. In the case of Beyond the Wall these are events can be rolled up with the scenario packs, instead of being free-form hashed out by the players during chargen (of course that doesn't have to happen with Beyond the Wall).

    But I digress. My point is that whenever bonds between PCs and NPCs, motivation for adventuring, anytime there is a definite end-game/episodic end-point to adventures by design, etc... are all setup before play actually starts, to me it's a game set to tell a particular story, and generally I term that a storygame.

    Personally, I'm fine with: "yer a bunch of mooks out of work, and you all gravitated to adventuring, finding yourselves in the same Inn...", then letting the relationships develop in-game. Except for putting up a skeletal structure which serves as the setting, I'm quite happy to only have a story in hindsight.

    That's my normal MO as a DM, and generally how it's been as player for me. At the beginning of a campaign, I've no idea where it is going to end up.

    I do enjoy games where background and bonds are built as a group during chargen as a change of pace, and I think Beyond the Wall does a really good job with the playbooks and scenario generators.