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.