Thursday, 9 April 2015

Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures

Imagine, if you will, Dungeons and Dragons as a huge empire, established in the 1970s, to rule the RPG world, under the aegis of Emperor Gary I of the Gygaxid dynasty. Internal squabbling inevitably follows with various important factions within the empire, but D&D remains the dominant power in FRPG for over 20 years. Eventually, however, with the launch of the Open Gaming License in 2000 the empire is subject to something of a social revolution that devolves more power to smaller potentates, nobles, governors and suchlike. In the short term the empire flourishes, becoming if anything even more supreme. Life is good.

Eventually, however, the emperors want to recentralise power. They need more money and create a new vision that will grant them more control. They hope for the good old days to return, but it is too late. The body politic has fragmented. While loyalists close to the court hope that a new age of benevolent dictatorship can be ushered in, too many provincial rulers have now been granted the tools to forge their own paths. Some have created new and exciting principalities with the power that has been afforded to them, others succeed only in spawning pale copies of the former imperial glory.

In my group, since we stopped dabbling in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, we have tended to play Pathfinder, and more latterly, 13th Age and 5th edition D&D. Consequently there has been less time to travel in the provinces so to speak. Having said that, there are some excellent little gems out there in the OSR reaches, including Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the phenomenal Vornheim, and Crypts & Things. More recently, I've picked up a copy of Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures, hereafter referred to as BTW. I purchased a hard copy and the PDF from DrivethruRPG with some trepidation, as the print quality of the last hard copy item I ordered from Drivethru (Hunter: the Vigil) was less than satisfactory.

However, BTW comes with excellent production values and paper quality, possibly because it has been published with a view to online distribution. It has wonderful cover art by John Hodgson (my fave RPG artist at the moment) plus atmospheric internal art.

Several years ago, I postulated a village-focused setting for a Savage Worlds game called Village People. The scenario used pregen characters and assumed that they were all natives of a village near a dungeon. They were not the seasoned adventurers who might turn up to explore the dungeon themselves, but might, for example, be roped into becoming hirelings for NPC adventurers. Since the group I wrote the adventure for has broken up, I've left it somewhat fallow, apart from mulling over whether it might make for an interesting setting for Hillfolk. BTW has changed that.

BTW combines aspects of old school, OSR gaming, with new school role playing inspired by Apocalypse World. It does so in a very clean and seemingly workable format. Its premise is that the action centres around one community, and that all the characters have grown up in the community and know each other. The character generation process also helps to create the village, including populating it with NPCs the GM can use.

In the basic game, there are three character classes, Warrior, Rogue and Mage. You could use BTW to simply roll up conventional characters, but the real juice is in the background tables. These are structured more like playbooks from Apocalypse World, and help you to create a local youth with a fully-fledged and interesting history in the village.

For example, the Self Taught Mage playbook starts with:

"You were always a bright child, and loved stories of ancient wizards and sorceresses who mastered the arcane arts. Unfortunately, there was no one around to teach you such things. In fact, sometimes you wondered if the stories of magic were even true. When you came of age, you found an ancient tome and decided to find out for yourself."

The play book then features tables which address key background questions like 'What did your parents do in the village?' or 'How did you distinguish yourself as a child?' as well as class specific questions like 'Who wrote your precious book of magic?'. These are random tables, but the answers are not pat, one word responses: they help to build your story, the village's story and the relationships between the characters. Hence, the Village Hero has as a table called 'Where did you learn your skill at arms?' Roll a 7 on d8 and you find that you distinguished yourself in the village levy, gaining Long Bow weapon specialisation and +2 Dex. The tables help to individualise characters, giving them abilities, spells, property and possessions, as well as creating relationships between each other. By the end of the character generation process, you should have a community and a group of young stalwarts with rich backgrounds. I like this. It is so much better than having a group of thugs hired in a tavern. The community element also gives them more of a stake in a living, breathing village, rather than being a mob of murder hobos.

Games of BTW are meant to be played with limited prep, although it would be perfectly possible to simply stick an OSR dungeon next door to your village and send your party off to explore it. Using my Village People scenario, you could also have a number of NPC adventurers generated using another OSR rules set, turning up to explore said dungeon, your typical band of murder hobos. How do the PCs react to them?

There are no non-human options in the basic game, although rules are included for them in an appendix. The default is really expected to be humans, and the non-human elements are intended to be dark and mysterious. Elves, for example, should not be the pointy-eared tree huggers of traditional D&D, but again mysterious creatures of faerie that may / may not be friendly. Elves get funky abilities like Lords of the Fae, a +2 bonus to command or impress other fae creatures, while Dwarves have a True Name which can be used against them if revealed (+5 bonus on ANY actions against the Dwarf). The book is packed with interesting flavour and new approaches to traditional tropes.

I really like the look of BTW upon first inspection. As an OSR product it really hits the nail on the head for me, doing something a little bit different and more engaging. It is a great campaign starter in an of itself, and also offers scope for the GM to gradually expand the area around the village as the campaign continues, rather than having to map out a vast campaign world in advance. If the campaign matures, then great, but if not, you haven't wasted any time. Truly excellent and a little visionary too.

I've not played it yet, but upon first reading I'm giving this 9/10. More adventures would have been nice but I note that publisher Flatland Games is starting to make more classes and scenarios available online.