Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures (Review)
Beyond the Wall And Other Adventures is an old school role-playing game in the style of D&D. Another retro-clone? Yep. But the premise is a bit different. The authors took inspiration from the stories of Ursula K. LeGuin, Lloyed Alexander and Susan Cooper. So this is a game where you play coming-of-age stories with childhood friends in a low-fantasy world. You can buy the game at OBS in PDF for USD $7.99 or as a premium hardcover for USD $35.74 (aff). So, what makes Beyond the Wall (BtW) different? First, the tone and second, the scenario-driven play. BtW has playbooks and scenario packs. These are pre-made randomized situations which you can plug into play. Those who know Apocalypse World and other Powered-by-the-Apocalypse-games (PtbA) will be immediately familiar with the concept of playbooks. Old school gamers might know them from the excellent free game Old School Hack by Kirin Robinson (please take a look). Basically, you have a ready-made character sheet and choose (or roll) options instead of creating your character from scratch. The playbooks often use archetypes. Characters are more specialized because they have unique abilities which other classes can’t choose. Let’s take a look at character creation!
The game offers standard character creation as an alternative method: there are three base classes: Warrior, Mage and Rogue. Apart from the usual aspects (Warriors can wear any type of armor, Mages have fewest hit points) every class has special class abilities. Warrios have Weapon Specialization and Knacks (i.e. Defensive Fighter (+1 AC) or Resilience (+1 to all Saving Throws)). Rogues are the skill monkeys and get Highly Skilled and Fortunes Favor (more luck points, explained later). Mages can do Spell Casting and Sense Magic. There are also rules for multiclassing. The playbooks handle character generation a bit differently. You collaboratively go through different stages of your character’s childhood and adolescence. Each stage has a table where you have to roll on. (I like the idea of random tables, it’s something which I find very old school.) The outcome gives you background story, bonds to other characters and mechanical bonuses. You are encouraged to elaborate on the results instead of simply rolling and moving on. For example from The Young Woodsmann:
What was your childhood like? (roll 1d12) […] 5: Your father was the local smith and taught you both hammer and bellows. Gain: +2 Str, +1 Dex, +1 Cha, Skill: Smithing
So, the advantage of this system is that you get a well-rounded character with his own niche, background story and character relationships. Your alter ego is not a blank slate but already a “character”. Furthermore, the character creation is done together at the table. One entry deliberately ties PCs together, that makes working together as a party easier. The disadvantage I can see is that customization is limited. The playbooks both are unique but also act as a limit to what you can do. Well, you always have the option of using the alternative rules and roll a character from sratch. Additionally, there are only three base classes. The distinction between different characters will most likely come from the base class and then background and flavor which the playbooks easily convey.
In D&D-fashion you gain experience by leveling up, for example for defeating monsters. As a nod to more modern games you also gain experience points for finishing stories, solving mysteries and attaining goals.
Let me put this up-front: It’s an old school D&D retroclone so most of the time you’ll get what you expect. There are the classic five attributes (Strength, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom) and a level-based class-system. Everyone is human but optional rules for elves, dwarves and halflings exist. Alignment uses the 3-fold-alignment-system: lawful, chaotic and neutral. Generally, the authors emphasize easy and clear rules. The text is very accessible and beginner-friendly. Although the designers assume some familiarity with role-playing games there is advice and guidance for gamemastering and a basic explanation of terminology. Interestingly, Initiative uses a fixed Dexterity-derived score so the order of combat is not very dynamic. BtW has ascending armor class. I really like that, it’s more intuitive for me than descending armor class. An unarmored human has AC 10. Hitpoints depend on your chosen class. For instance, Warriors have a d10. Kudos to the authors for explaining how they see the Hitpoint mechanic: damage up till 0 HP means scratches and near misses. If you fall under 0 HP you suffer serious damage and are unconscious. A PC loses 1 HP each round, at -10 HP he is dead. Saving Throws: Poison, Breath Weapon, Polymorph, Spell and Magic Item. If you come from D&D 3e there are alternative rules for Fortitude, Reflex and Will. Let’s get to an original mechanic (in regards to D&D not rpgs in general): Fortune Points. What’s that? Basically, they are Bennies (you know Savage Worlds, right?). It’s a meta-gaming currency which gives the players control over the game world. By spending a FP you can avoid death, re-roll a die roll or help out a friend even though you don’t have an applicable skill. Finally, BtW has a rudimentary skill system. Although there is no list with default skills there are still suggestions like Stealth, Acrobatics, Cooking etc.
Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ ….
I’m a friend of unified task resolution systems. BtW doesn’t deliver me that but luckily, there are only two systems in place. Ability Score Checks and thus Skill Checks are roll-under (or equal). If you have an applicable skill your target number increases by +2. So if you’ve got a DEX of 14 and want to sneak, you need to roll under or equal 14 and if you are skilled in Stealth it’s 16. Saving Throws and Attack Rolls are roll-over (or equal). Collaboration and helping each other is stressed. Mechanically, you are only allowed to help another PC if you have a suitable skill. Alternatively, you can spend a Fortune Point. What I really like is that the authors explain how group efforts are handled. Does everyone roll, does just one PC roll with the help of another or does perhaps just the weakest character roll? They also offer advice for reaction rolls, charisma checks, skill rolls, perception and searching etc. All in all, I really like this chapter. The tips are solid and especially useful for newer Game Masters or people not used to D&D. After reading this chapter I feel well prepared for a game as the most common situations are covered. It’s nicely explained with a friendly tone.
If you know D&D there’s no surprise here which I count as a good thing. Armor Class is ascending so making an attack means you need to roll equal or over your opponent’s AC. In melee, you add your Strength modifier, ranged uses +Dex. Coming from 3e, everything feels familiar. The obvious difference to other D&D games is that Initiative has a fixed value. If you don’t like that you can easily house-rule it. Damage depends on your chosen weapon. Natural healing is 1 HP each night. If your reach -10 HP you’re dead. Fortune Points reset at the beginning of each adventure.
Beyond Fighting: True Names & Magic
These chapters really show how BtW differs in tone from the standard fantasy heroic assumption of D&D. Creatures like spirits and demons have a True Name. Knowing the name gives you power over such a creature. Now, magic. BtW is supposed to be low-fantasy and the magic rules cleverly represent that but still are true to the D&D-mechanics. On the one hand, some spells are the usual (Magic Missile). On the other hand, other entries are flavored towards the setting. That means there are spells like Sense Nature or Pass Without Trace. Spells have three groups: Cantrips, Spells and Rituals. Cantrips are familiar. You need to make an ability score check (either Wisdom or Intelligence) but you can cast them as often as you like. They only have minor effects but failure should result in some complication. A beginner character has one or two cantrips at his disposal. Spells also work as expected, they have a level, a range and a duration keyword and some allow the affected creature to make a Saving Throw. A Mage can only cast a number of spells equal to his level. You can learn new spells by spending one week for studying (and making an Intelligence test). The ingenious thing about BtW’s magic system is that more powerful spells are categorized as Rituals. It isn’t easy to cast Fireball or Invisibility. Rituals are powerful magic and they require a lot of time (1 hour per spell level), special ingredients and an ability check to cast successfully. Moreover, a caster can only cast Rituals equal to his caster level. Learning new Rituals is equally difficult. BtW’s magic is potentially powerful but it requires a lot of effort to use. This fits well into the low-fantasy world. A Mage character can’t rely on spellcasting alone to be effective. While I find this approach very appealing and it fits well into the game designer’s intent it might not be for everyone. So, what’s more? There are rules for magic items. This section explains how to create them and also has some sample items. For example:
Love A staple of every witch’s repertoire, the love potion’s strength will vary by maker. Our local wise woman’s brew made me fall in love with the next woman I saw; it took the work of another three witches to free my heart. The drinker is affected as though the target cast the False Friend spell.
Someone needs to be the GM…
… and he could do worse than Beyond the Wall. As you’ve already seen the rules are straight-forward and easy, especially for someone already familiar with D&D. The rules are explained well and the GM chapter is no exception. The topic features some advice on how to utilize BtW’s unique feature, the use of playbooks and scenario packs. How do you guide your players through character creation and how do you make the most out of the scenario packs? How do you build the characters’ village? I find this information very useful. The book is very encouraging towards newer Game Masters. BtW lends itself to collaborative world building but might be a bit more forgiving than PbtA-games. The scenario packs and the random tables give you a bit more structure than the slightly more freeform nature of PbtA-games. This lowers the entry threshold and might be useful for players who are not familiar with having influence over the game world in this regard. The playbooks have special symbols which tell you where you can add a location or a character to the village. Plus, this section of the book offers general game mastering tips like “Make it personal” or “Keep Things Moving.” There is a Bestiary as well and it features some appropriate monsters. There is a Faerie Lord, Merfolk, Kranken and ordinary monsters like Goblins, Skeletons and more. It’s a good mixture. If you want to have Demons in your game, the book got you covered, too. Demons have True Names and those are pretty important.
Playbooks & Scenario Packs
The book has six playbooks: - The Self-Taught Mage - The Untested Thief - The Village Hero - The Witch’s Prentice - The Would-Be Knight - The Young Woodsman An optional playbook for demihumans is also provided: The Elven Highborn. Other playbooks are available as separate downloads for free (see below). Also included are two scenario packs, The Angered Fae and The Hidden Cult. Both look very interesting and especially the Fae one conveys BtW’s tone very well. The scenario packs come with a list of suggested monsters and a list of names. I can see myself running these scenarios with (almost) zero prep. (I would read the scenario pack beforehand to get a feel for the game.)
The PDF weighs in with 153 pages total and has digital bookmarks. It has a classic, easy to read two-column-style layout and makes good use of boxed text. The cover art by Jon Hodgson is simply amazing. Some opinion on having a premium color hardcover: The book looks sweet and the higher paper quality avoids color bleeding. However, most of the artwork is black and white. It looks good but I feel it’s a bit wasted for a color book. The text would look as good in black and white as the layout and typography is simple. The boxed text uses a subtle green but grey would work as well. The print version costs USD $35.74 plus shipping & handling. For me a softcover version with black and white text would be nice to have. It will look almost as good and will be cheaper.
Just recently Further Afield was released. I didn’t read it yet so I can’t give you my opinion. The supplement expands the rules to campaign play. There are also new playbooks and another scenario (free): DTRPG link (aff). The publisher’s website has some more freebies, i.e. a bestiary: Freebies. Further discussion and fan-generated material can be found in the G+ community.
What do I like? The authors wanted to create a game that models the coming-of-age stories and literature of Earthsea or Chronicles of Prydain and requires minimal prep. Goal achieved! BtW is a clear and concise D&D ruleset which is well written. The game mechanics are familiar but the playbooks and scenario packs give it an own spin. For me the game marries two things I like: old school gaming and some modern concepts (the playbooks). The game would be very well suited for introducing younger players to role-playing. It’s fairly kid-friendly and especially teenagers will like the focus on young heroes growing up. What would I’ve liked to see? More advice on generating playbooks. Look at the Dungeon World community: people are always coming up with new character ideas. The six pregens get you started and you could use the alternate character rules to make a multiclass but I would have liked to see a bit more material on this topic. The same goes for creating scenario packs. As already mentioned, I think it would be a good idea to offer a softcover black & white print option as a cheaper alternative to the premium hardcover. Final thoughts: I own a lot of old school D&D games, perhaps too many. They are very similar. So do I really need another game? Probably not but I like Beyond the Wall. I’m really glad I bought it. It’s unique enough to merit a look at it. It uses a setting idea and tone that’s different. It takes ideas from newer games and incorporates it into D&D. At the end of the day, it’s a niche within a niche and you must decide if you’re interested in such a game.