Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: Beyond the Wall

Flatland Games recently released the second major supplement for Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures entitled Heroes Young and Old. Until now, this was a game I hadn't given whole lot of consideration. To be honest, I'd kind of written it off. I had purchased it, both in PDF and Print formats, sure. But that was more as a show of solidarity to a fellow small publisher than any genuine interest in the product itself. I saw it as yet another B/X clone.

Once again, my assumptions have made a fool of me.

I sat down tonight and really dove into Beyond the Wall and was absolutely charmed. Billed as a simple fantasy game which requires little or no prep to play, it is a game built with a specific tone and purpose - which it achieves to near perfection. The folks at Flatland Games have designed a game that really hits all the right buttons for me as a game master and as a player. So much so, that I went ahead and re-purchased physical hardcovers of both Beyond the Wall and the supplement Further Afield.

Beyond the Wall tears fantasy gaming down to its bare bones, invigorated with a humble and fresh-faced charm. Only three classes are available to players: Fighter, Rogue, and Mage. Each of these is painted in broad strokes to accomidate many classic character concepts - but that's not the true beauty of the game. While characters can be built via your standard method of rolling a few attributes, jotting down some stats, and buying your gear, the true genius of this game comes in its Playbook method of character generation.

You see, Beyond the Wall runs under assumption that all of the player characters are newly minted young heroes who all hail from the same village and share a collective background. The world outside their village is a wild and dangerous place filled with fey creatures, fell dragons, and other creatures of legend. Using the Playbook method of character generation, each of the players generates a character based around a broad concept associated with a chosen class. A Fighter is a Would-Be Knight or Village Hero, for example. From that concept, a set of base attributes are determined and then modified by randomly determining a character's background before he became an adventurer. This background will increase the character's attributes, provide skills, determine equipment, and even help narrow down how a character's class features are chosen. But it never feels like railroading. Instead, with each roll a character is born in what can only be described as organically.

More importantly, a character's background builds connections and even modifies the statistics of other player characters in the party. So, for example if you are a Mage who was the Witch's Prentice, your background might say that you helped protect the witch from an angry mob and a boon friend stood by your side. This boon friend, who according to the Playbook is the PC sitting to your right, will receive +1 to their Strength because of events in your background. This ensures building a group of wide-eyed young adventurers who automatically will have a shared background and sense of trust. The statistical bonuses provided by these kinds of things adds a mechanical gravity to show, in game, that these experiences matter.

These character backgrounds play an even more important role than just uniting the PCs. As characters are created and important places and people in their lives are revealed, the group has a nearly blank village map in front of them with only an inn at the center. You're the son of a blacksmith? OK, draw where his shop is on the map. You like sitting under a strange old oak and telling stories to young children in the village? Where's the oak? A grizzled old mercenary took a shine to you as a boy? Where is his cottage? Each piece of your background gets naturally integrated into the village as each player character develops that background - so by the time character creation is done you've got more than just heroes - you've got heroes who have something to fight for.

Then we come to the way that Beyond the Wall does its adventures. They're certainly not your traditional "kick in the door, slay the monster, get the treasure" adventures. No, these are scenario packs - and like everything else in this game they are woven into the fabric of the players and their village. An example in the core book is The Angered Fae. In this scenario, one of the fey lords who lives in the wilds beyond the village has cursed that village and its up to the player characters to undo the curse. But not by plundering his magical keep. Each aspect of the adventure is determined via quick roll tables, giving every play-through of the adventure an original origin, story arc, and resolution. The key, in this case, lay in who exactly angered the fae in the first place. But the Scenario Pack leaves that chart blank because the referee is expected to fill it in with some of the NPCs generated in each player character's background and then randomly determine who angered the fair folk. Each aspect of the adventure: Who caused the curse, how it manifests, how the Fairie Lord confronts the village, what the players must face when traveling into the wilderness to the borders of Fairie, and what the Fairie Lord asks them to do to set things right is all determined via random aspects that fit a central thematic element and are designed to tie directly into the characters' village and backgrounds. It creates a natural sense of investment for players and keeps the referee's job simple, as these elements can be determined on the fly as the game unfolds.

Beyond the Wall really strikes a chord with me. It gives me that sense of wonder and enchantment I really enjoy in my fantasy gaming. By melding OSR staples with mechanics that create both player investment and charming adventures it goes beyond being another retro-clone and becomes something truly unique. I can easily see it being used to help bring new gamers into the hobby. Its simple choice of classes, quick and robust character creation system and easy to learn mechnics make it a very, very approachable game. But its simplicity is deceptive, as this game is easily capable of being used for on-going campaign play in addition to the fast-playing zero-prep single night of adventure.

The cover art is by the always amazing John Hodgson, who never fails to evoke the magic and mystery found in the wild places just beyond the horizon and the interior art is primarily pencil sketches which have their own wonderful charm. The book is available in premium quality hardcover (which I highly recommend) and PDF. I feel like this is a real gem among the endless stream of fantasy RPGs currently available and it really deserves a lot credit. Clearly it is a labor of love.

This game is a love letter to the stories of Ursula Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander, all with a healthy helping of good ol' fashioned fairy tales. I seriously can't recommend it enough - it suits my style of gaming pretty darn well and I look forward to running it in the future. You can learn more about it by checking out the Flatland Games website and RPGNow Storefront.

5 comments:

  1. I have this in PDF as part of a Bundle of Holding, but I had only skimmed it and not looked over the playbooks. This whole approach sounds great, since I love the idea of deciding how the characters know each other before the campaign begins.

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    1. I also got this as part of a Bundle of Holding and barely looked at it. The amount of love it's been getting recently has inspired me to give the book a more thorough look, and I'm really liking what I'm seeing. I just wish I had more time to run various things. I would really love to be what the Misdirected Mark guys refer to as "polygamerous," but adult responsibilities keep getting in the way. >:(

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  2. Aslo, the magic system is kind of quietly brilliant.

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  3. It's an awesome game! I thought it was just another clone too but Adam from DSR Podcast called attention to its ingenuity!

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    1. Well, to be fair, if Reverend Adam starts preachin', we all best testify.

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