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.)