Monday, September 23, 2013

Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures (part 4)

First part of the review.

Second part of the review.

Third part of the review.

The bestiary section of Beyond the Wall is short, functional, and offers no real surprises.  The standard fantasy creatures are covered: goblins, ogres, cockatrices, worgs, etc.  That said, the descriptions of even these standard creatures have the same quality of brief-but-evocative flavor found in the magic section.  For example, we're told that Wights "are the spirits of long dead kings, found wandering their barrows and the surrounding lands."  Similarly, Wraiths aren't simply ghostly undead but rather are "incorporeal spirits trapped between this world and the next, caught in agony between worlds and hungry to spread their pain. Plants wither as they pass, and any creature touched by a wraith’s icy presence loses its personality and will."  Certainly not ground-breaking stuff, but definitely just enough flavor to make the description interesting and inspiring to read.

I'm also rather enamored of the minimalist statblocks for all the creatures in the bestiary.  For example, even a mighty Demon of Vengeance is presented elegantly:

Hit Dice: 20d10 (110 HP)
AC: 24
Attack: +24 to hit, 1d6 + 20 damage (stick)
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 17,300
Notes: Great Strength (Dom Ilska’s attacks do extra damage, included in the profile above), Invulnerable (may only be hit by magical attacks), Magic Resistance (Dom Ilska has a 30% chance to resist magic), Swift (Dom Ilska gains a number of attacks equal to the number of opponents in close range of him, up to a maximum of three attacks), Unholy reflexes (Dom Ilska has a bonus to hit, included in the profile above).

The bestiary also includes systems for generating Demons and Dragons, since these might benefit most from being personalized for a campaign.  If you'd like even more monsters to choose from, definitely check out this free supplement which has a ton of new monsters and also features systems for generating personalized Undead creatures.

Of course, part of the stated purpose of Beyond the Wall is to be able to get a game on the table with a minimum of preparation.  To that end, the game comes with a sample Scenario Pack that is very much a DM-facing analog to the players' playbooks.  The featured adventure is called "The Hidden Cult," and it offers a variety of random tables that allow a DM to roll-up an adventure pretty much on the fly.  This first bit of the Scenario Pack is meant to be used while the characters are generated; you grab the locations and people connected to the characters and plug them into tables of who has betrayed the characters and who/what the evil cult desperately wants to get a hold of.

Further random tables generate the cult's purpose as well as the cult's leader.  There are other tables to generate a "dungeon" (not necessarily an actual dungeon) associated with the adventure.  However, these dungeon tables are not the sort of random-stocking tables old-school players may be used to; rather, they suggest the nature of the dungeon's guardian and what final challenge it poses.  Additional tables detail what hints might be available as to the nature of the cult, as well as what red herrings might throw the characters off the scent.  The Scenario Pack is rounded-out by tables of "recent events" and tables geared to push the characters into action.  All in all, this seems like it would quickly generate the skeleton of an adventure that could easily take multiple seasons to complete.  If you want to make a campaign of it, you're on your own after that, of course.

I want to return to the two stated purposes of Beyond the Wall.  One is to provide a game that veteran players could grab and play with a minimum of preparation.  Beyond the Wall easily accomplishes that.  Players could grab Playbooks while the DM grabs a Scenario Pack, and I imagine they could be ready to go with new characters and enough adventure to hit the table in 20 minutes. 

Of course, if Beyond the Wall is to be a series of one-shots there's going to be a need for many more Scenario Packs.  Also, frankly, the characters generated by the playbooks are so interesting that it would be a shame to abandon them after a single adventure.

The other stated purpose of the game is to be a smooth entry point for new players.  This is where I think Beyond the Wall wildly exceeds its goal.  I feel confident in saying this: Beyond the Wall is the best introductory game based on classic fantasy RPG rules I've ever encountered.

Beyond the Wall has replaced Labyrinth Lord as my go-to D&D game.  I think this is the finest new game I've seen in ages, even if its roots stretch far back into the genesis of the hobby.  I definitely recommend giving this game a chance if its premise appeals to you.

The game can be found here in PDF and print.

If you'd like to add elves, dwarves, and halfling Playbooks into the mix, there are freely available as a set here.

If you'd like to tell a story of courtly intrigue and the nobility, there are freely available Playbooks for that here.

If you'd like another Scenario Pack to fool around with, check out the freely available Goblin Infestation here.

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.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures (part 2)

The first part of the review is here.

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!

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.)