Monday, 9 May 2016
BEYOND THE WALL AND OTHER ADVENTURES (Review)
When I was just getting into the roleplaying hobby, Dungeons & Dragons was a bit of a sensation. It wasn't unusual to find a copy of the Basic and Expert D&D box sets at toy shops and hobby stores (in those days that mostly meant shops catering to model-building, something I was never very patient with) alongside the stuff normal kids liked. For a few years, the essential tools of the hobby could be found practically everywhere, before the craze passed and it returned to the dim depths of specialty stores. In those days, you could find two adventures practically everywhere: The Keep on the Borderlands, and The Village of Homlett. Back in the day, the latter irritated me more than anything, because it was only the first part of the Temple of Elemental Evil series, something that took many years to actually be released. Where was the storied dungeon? This stupid Homlett adventure was just about a village, for cryin' out loud.
How tastes change over time. These days, I wouldn't give you a nickel for another dungeon crawl, regardless of the game rules powering it, but I am strongly attracted to low fantasy games that are about places inhabited by actual characters. Villages -- and fantasy games that are centered there, featuring characters and places the player heroes know and care about -- are pretty much everything that I love about modern gaming. Can't have drama without a cast of characters, and villages provide that a lot more readily than dank old dungeons. Most of the really good stuff I remember from my long-running FORGOTTEN REALMS game back in Kingston was the small-scale stuff focused on village life and its struggles. I could run a whole game about that, and lucky me - an excellent new RPG has been written that provides exactly that experience. And a heckuva lot more.
BEYOND THE WALL AND OTHER ADVENTURES is a stripped-down version of modern D&D (mostly circa 3rd edition, but substantially simplified here) that will appeal to a lot of players who are less interested in the "epic" fantasy experience. If you were one of the people who felt 3rd edition lost its way with too many feats, skills, and welded-on bits of crunch, this will please you very much. The magic system is short and flavourful, dividing up spells into quick-but-risky cantrips, spells, and long-but-powerful rituals. No different spell lists here -- there's only one, no matter if you're a magician or a priest of the old gods.
Although it has three core "classes" that can be played much like traditional D&D games, and they remind me quite a bit of the classes in Green Ronin's TRUE20, to be honest, you're not going to want to play them. The authors don't even recommend it. What you want to play are can be found in the character Playbooks, which bring a lot of modern gaming ideas to the F20 experience. The Playbooks are a bit like what you find in APOCALYPSE WORLD-based games, providing you with a lot of flavour and a strong foundation to start play quickly. Make a few rolls (or choices) and you're playing right away with a well-fleshed out character. The rolls provide you with what used to be called a "Lifepath", describing the events of your character's life up to this point. Each roll gives you some flavour, and provides you with appropriate bonuses to your ability scores. You start with a base amount, and by the end of finishing your playbook, you have fully developed stats with a rationale for why they developed that particular way.
The playbooks are pure joy. You can even play a bear! (See the goodies listed on the Flatland Games website for that one.)
Best of all, built into developing your character are opportunities to add locations and NPCs to the village where you live, adding a little modern collective world-building to your D&D-like experience. This is a tremendous idea, rooting your character in people and places that have a particular meaning to you personally. It's perfect for a low-prep play situation, which is what the game is really focused on. It really gets tasty on the GM side of things.
In addition to Character Playbooks and a worksheet for developing your village, the GM also gets what are called Scenario Packs -- these are basically skeletal adventures that don't require a lot of time investment from the GM to run. Plug in some of the ideas generated by your players during character creation, roll on a few random tables, and you're ready to play.
Although much of the setting is implied by what the Playbooks offer you and the elements the players add to your village, the consistent feel here is of a low magic, human-centric world that looks a lot like medieval English village life. Your village is your whole world, and there are goblins and faeries that live out there in the dark forest beyond the wall. In the words of the authors, it is "a game about young heroes who find themselves in over their heads and have to grow as a result of their experiences. The world is often gritty and dark, but it is never grim... Magic is mysterious and dangerous." If you dig things like LeGuin's Earthsea books or Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, you will probably dig this a lot.
I was absolutely delighted by this game, cover to cover. If you like fantasy games at all, and especially if you want a fresh perspective on D&D-style games without a lot of crunch, you really need to treat yourself to BEYOND THE WALL AND OTHER ADVENTURES by John Cocking and Peter S. Williams of Flatland Games. The core book is very complete, featuring everything you need for play, but you're going to want to get everything for this game you can get your hands on. There is a Pay-What-You-Want collection of new playbooks and Scenario Packs that is non-essential, but... well, you will want to get every playbook your hot little hands can find. Trust me. And the supplement FURTHER AFIELD is also very inexpensive.
Buy them all right now and support this great little game, and tell your friends. This game needs as much support and love as possible!