Old School Foundations, New School Tools

Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is not a game whose core system will amaze or overly confuse anyone. It’s one of a plethora of fantasy RPGs out there riffing on Basic D&D; Ascending AC is the order of the day, a simple skill system based on ability score throws is presented, and there’s an option for using 3E-style saving throws, but we’re still dealing with a riff on Basic D&D here.

However, it’s quite an interesting riff, and a lot of that comes not from the foundations of the system but from the trappings offered around it. Beyond the Wall purports to offer a framework for running fantasy adventures based on the young adult/older kids’ fantasy of Ursula le Guin or Lloyd Alexander – stories of young people on the verge of coming into adulthood being called on to defend their communities, in which the roots they have with their home and their emotional connections to each other are of significant importance. On top of that, it provides an incredibly good framework for running games on a pick-up-and-play basis.

It accomplishes this latter goal with three different, interconnected design decisions:

  1. As noted above, it’s based off Basic D&D. This is a system most people with RPG experience will, even if they don’t know it exceptionally well, be able to tackle with a minimum of explanation, and is simple enough that those with no prior experience can get up to speed quickly.
  2. It utilises robust scenario generation tools of the sort used in OSR games like Stars Without Number and the like.
  3. It uses the decidedly modern concept of “playbooks” for character generation.

Other design aspects play their part too, but the above three elements do the majority of the work. I’ve already covered the system decision, so next I am going to tackle the use of playbooks. It’s worth noting that whilst Powered By the Apocalypse-style playbooks combine character creation processes with bespoke explanations of the special “moves” available to a character, Basic D&D doesn’t really work on moves so the latter feature isn’t there (though the playbooks do include handy little system summaries).

The emphasis, then, is much more on character generation. There’s a simple roll-your-own character gen system offered in the core rules here for producing your baseline rogue, wizard and warrior, but you are greatly encouraged to use the playbooks instead because these yield substantially deeper characters – they represent much more specific archetypal characters, and the process of rolling on the various tables creates both a set of links to the character’s community and with other members of the PC party, simultaneously creating a shared personal history for the party members and reinforcing the idea that you are members of a community which you have roots in and value. On a very real level – down to your stats and skills – your character owes part of who they are to their past experiences in the village and with each other. (I’d only use the no-playbooks character gen system for Beyond the Wall if it became necessary to introduce a new PC partway through a game which was already mid-flow.)

Meanwhile, the referee is encouraged to work with a scenario pack, allowing them to roll up a set of prompts to allow them to improvisationally referee the scenario concept associated with the pack. The particular genius of these is how they tie in with the character playbooks. You’ll roll things like triggering incidents which happened in the recent past to get the various PCs interested in the matter at hand, and some of the tables you roll on to determine features of the scenario are deliberately designed to be filled in as the players define things about their character – their pasts, their personal items of worth, their connections to PCs and NPCs – so you can tie that good stuff into the very substance of the scenario itself.

Past RPGs which have tried the pick-up-and-play thing have fallen over for various reasons. Perhaps the weirdest failure in this category is The Whispering Vault – which can only possibly work as a pick-up-and-play game if everyone present has already read the core book or otherwise had the core concepts very patiently explained to them (since it’s a really bizarre concept); this is a level of prep which more or less disqualifies it from being a truly pick-up-and-play game.

Conversely, precisely because Beyond the Wall is based on such a generally-understood system, and precisely because it runs off these delightfully preprimed playbooks and scenario packs, you really can sit down and start playing Beyond the Wall more or less on a whim, so long as you have some spare printouts of character sheets and playbooks to hand (or can e-mail playbooks to your players’ phones, tablets, or other preferred devices). The playbooks and scenario packs provided with the core book provide handy templates for producing your own, and of course if you are in a real hurry but don’t want to reuse one you’ve played already, well, that’s what the support products are for.

Other system changes subtly shift matters away from standard D&D fantasy towards the sort of Le Guin/Alexander territory which is its declared target. There’s true name rules, for instance, where the invocation of your true name by others can hamper you – or empower you – and magic is divided into cantrips, spells, and rituals, of which only the latter are divided into D&D-style levels. On the whole, though, it’s not tweaks to individual subsystems which is the key breakthrough of Beyond the Wall – it’s the clever synergy between playbook and scenario pack. The characters made with the playbooks shape the scenario and are shaped by it, thus guaranteeing that the characters are appropriate to the scenario and the scenario is appropriate to the player character party. It’s all rather elegant.

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