Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures

I can stop looking for the OSR game I will run. I might use Basic Fantasy to fill in gaps and corners in Beyond the Wall (the two have enough in common for this to work) but I am completely smitten with how Beyond the Wall takes the concept of the playbook and makes it the most engaging and creative experience I've had in D&D in a long, long time. I want playbooks in 5E now, damnit!*

I'll provide some more detail as we go, but for those who are curious here's a bit about what Beyond the Wall does: it provides a very stripped-down, easy to use version of the classic D&D rules and focuses on a simpler, more fundamental fantasy setting derived from the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander (using the two key examples provided by the author). The setting isn't so much defined as it is implied and enforced through fill in your own world, but use the framework of a land in which a village, that the heroes all grew up in, is the centerpiece of their heroic journey to become great defenders, protectors and explorers of the land. It exudes an interesting mythic resonance, and the game focuses heavily on making that feeling a reality in play.

The core rules provide a basic quick character creation system and all the rules you'll need to do your own thing if you so desire. Then it moves into the playbooks. The first supplement, Further Afield, expands the concept to include various style of sandbox play as well as more general ideas on how to GM open-ended campaigns.

The playbooks are basically lifepath generators (think RTG's Interlock system for a close example) with a different lifepath for each character concept: so you have things like the witch's apprentice and the would-be knight, the self trained wizard and the village hero. Conceptually these occupy the same space as the backgrounds that D&D 5E uses, but they are specifically aimed at building your character's history, not merely your personality. The D&D 5E approach is really is....but when you start a Beyond the Wall playbook you end up a few minutes later with a complete character, ready to go, with a full history that ties them in to the other characters at the table. Cool stuff.

Beyond the Wall also dares to mess around with D&D magic. At first I was expecting to read yet another OSR system that faithfully tries to replicate an older edition magic system using the D20 SRD. Instead, I got a strong, flavorful variant on D20 magic that takes everything familiar and skews it toward theme, style and feel of the story, creating a system of cantrips, true spells and rituals that is so cool it almost pains me to think of doing D&D magic any other way now.

The GM has his own set of tools as well: scenario packs and playbooks for threats, which let you quickly construct a scenario and send adventurers off that is both unique and reusable. The scenario packs aren't just aimed at a generic adventure generator, either; each one is specifically tailored to create a variety of unique themes for the specific topic of the scenario, such as "The Angered Fae" and the "Hidden Cult" in the main rule book. You can use this to create more than one such scenario for even the same's a simple bit of genius. Threats are equally interesting, letting you create random or custom major foes/villains for the overall story arc. All of this is designed to be quick, too: it will require a GM who's comfortable with a bit of improv, but I wouldn't say it requires an experienced fact, this method of play will make life easier for old vets like myself while simultaneously teaching new GMs how to run games in this style. It's an incredibly well executed idea that I think other games ought to learn from.

Beyond the Wall is doing something that only a handful of OSR games have dared to do, and that is make it's own unique flavor, strongly enforced by the game itself and its modifications to an otherwise familiar rule set. This is some incredible stuff, seriously....and it's a delight to read; this book was made to both be read and played.

Beyond the Wall didn't come out this year (it looks like the first tome dates from 2012-2014 in origins although it's first supplement "Futher Afield" was just released), but I did discover it in 2015, thanks initially to a Bundle of Holding that led me to the very nice quality color hard cover copies on rpgnow. As with most things in life for me, what was new in 2015 isn't necessarily what's got my attention, so my plan to put this on my top five games of the year list is my way of telling you that you need to get this game, now.

Ten Interesting Things About Beyond the Wall:
10. it has a freeform skill system
9. ascending AC
8. classes are not tied to race but races also get unique classes
7. the core mechanics make conversion to other OD&D and B/X D&D based systems simple
6. warriors get more useful stuff than in typical classic-D&D systems
5. The spell system's cantrips, true spells and rituals are compelling
4. there's a mythic resonance that exudes from every line written in this book
3. the playbooks are incredibly fun to roll through
2. the playbooks encourage relations with all PCs at the table; no more meeting in a bar unless the playbook pushes you there...
1. The GM's scenario packs and threat sheets are incredibly cool for facilitating quick play, overcoming lack of prep time and teaching new GMs how to run improvised games on the fly

*Playbooks differ from backgrounds in that they integrate character creation into the process. When you make a 5E character the background is usually the last thing you add on. When you start a playbook you end up with a complete character that makes contextual sense in terms of your life path rolls.

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