For folks who want to eschew the playbooks, there are rules for creating a character in the more expected way. Simply pick a class (Warrior, Rogue, and Mage), roll ability scores (4d6/drop lowest), pick a few skills, etc. This might be a good "secondary method" for making characters if a replacement or new character is needed in the midst of an ongoing campaign. Needless to say, characters made this way won't be as flavorful as ones that are made using the playbooks, but what can you do? Another option is to generate characters with the dwarf, elf, halfling, or noble playbooks as they are not necessarily connected to the starting village.
Oh yes, speaking of the starting village, Beyond the Wall has a quick system for generating that as well. It's a collaborative system that looks like it would make more than enough starting locations and NPCs of importance to the characters to get things rolling.
Rules-wise, Beyond the Wall is a D&D-derived system with no particular edition allegiance. For example, it uses:
- the classic six attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The range for modifiers seems to follow Basic's schema. The modifiers do much what you would expect: Strength gives you a bonus or penalty to hit and damage with melee weapons, Dexterity gives you a bonus or penalty to ranged attacks and Armor Class, etc.
- a three-fold Alignment system of Law, Chaos, and Neutrality as in Basic D&D.
- a Base Attack Bonus that goes up with level, as in 3rd edition.
- ascending Armor Class as in 3rd edition. (Combat is "roll d20+Attack Bonus vs. target's AC.")
- five Saving Throw categories as in earlier editions of D&D. (Saving Throws are simple "roll this number or higher on a d20" rolls.) (There is an option for using 3e's Reflex, Fortitude, and Will saves as well.)
- characters possess Fortune Points, which function similarly to Action Points in 3rd and 4th editions. Fortune Points can be spent to give a bonus to an ally, re-roll a particularly bad throw of the dice, or to literally cheat death and stabilize a character who has fallen below 0 Hit Points. While these points may be seen as "plot armor" they do fit the tone and genre that Beyond the Wall is going for.
There are, of course, some differences from baseline D&D assumptions:
There are no weapon restrictions for characters in Beyond the Wall, but there are armor restrictions (this would be the first thing I house ruled...armor restrictions strike me as silly unless they simply modify your abilities).
Skill and ability checks are handled by rolling a d20 lower than the relevant ability score. So, if you are trying to sneak past the town guard, you might need to roll less than your Dexterity on a d20. If your character has a particular skill for moving stealthily, they would get a +2 to their Dexterity for the purposes of that roll. Bonuses and penalties for difficulty are also possible modifiers.
I've seen some people complain that this means that Beyond the Wall doesn't have a unified resolution mechanic, i.e. you aren't always trying to roll high on a d20. It's true, but I'm okay with this because it gives ability scores an actual purpose in the game other than generating a bonus or penalty to die rolls. If the lack of a unified resolution mechanic really bothers you, this would be super simple to replace with a 3rd or 4th edition style mechanic.
Beyond the Wall is a class and level system. Even characters generated using a playbook belong to a character class--it's just that their class selections have been folded into a flavorful lifepath system. The section on Experience Points is a bit vague, though purposefully so. As usual, you gain XP for overcoming (not necessarily killing) monsters, but you should also be awarded XP for accomplishing goals, completing adventures, and clever ideas during play. The text also notes that you should consider "personalizing" advancement (with bonus skills or attribute boosts) if you're playing a long campaign rather than a one-shot adventure.
All in all, the basic system of Beyond the Wall is a nice distillation of D&D's various iterations. It looks to be simple, elegant, and most importantly, easy to explain to new players. It definitely achieves the two stated goals for the game: it would be easy for veterans to pick up and play and functions as a solid introduction to RPGs for new players.
Next time: Magic!