Beyond the Wall

On 14 April 2016 I was able to try out this role-playing game by Flatland Games. I ran the game for two of my brothers using voip and an online dice roller. Thanks to the innovation of the playbooks and scenario packs, it was astonishingly quick to set up. It’s a simple game with a lot of elegant tweaks and, while I’m not a fan of the OSR movement in games or Tolkienesque fantasy in general, Beyond the Wall really worked for me.

I’ve played role-playing games for much of my life. I certainly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a twenty-sided die was for.[1] I think playing games helped me to develops maths and reading skills[2] but also gave me a pretty safe way to pass away the summer months when I was a child. I carried on playing as an adult, probably because it’s a bit cheaper than getting drunk all the time.[3] I think it’s a peculiar hobby, when you get in to it, especially as I usually end up as the games master, a position analogous but not identical to that of a referee in healthier pastimes. Basically, everyone else pretends to be Lord Grim Grimminity or The Sourcerer of Saigon and I’m taking the role of Hannibal Lector, the inn-keep of the Prancing Pony,[4] the armies of the Dark Lord, and also that tree with the net in it. I don’t know that is speaks to anything other than having a slightly administrative bent – it’s less about creativity as it is that I’m pretty good with spreadsheets. I’m being rather off-hand about the whole thing, but I’ve had some great times with RPGs, told some fun stories, and made some excellent friends.[5]

As I have grown, my tastes in gaming have developed and, more or less, solidified. I like modern games with crunchy powers and lots of fights. I am not too fond of role-playing in the acting sense; I enjoy throwing dice because of its uncertainty, I don’t feel I’ve much of a gift for putting on the silly voices. I vastly prefer non-standard fantasy; a sort of hodge podge of influences that allows me to have wizard schools be something between a mystery cult and a kung fu school, naming conventions drawn from anything other than Ye Olde Englande, and less adoration of kings and Lost Golden Ages.[6] Also, I tend not to care for nonhumans, especially hobbits, in fantasy, for a bunch of reasons.

Beyond the Wall then, probably shouldn’t be the kind of thing that appeals to me, but since I grabbed some of the alpha documents way back in 2012(?), I’ve found it rather charming. The initial hook is the playbook system. In BtW you can generate a character the same as you would in any other version of Dungeons and Dragons[7] and be on your way, but the writers recommend you use the Playbooks instead.[8] Each playbook focuses on a particular concept or archetype of adventurer, and then provides some random charts to flesh out your particular iteration. It begins with their childhood and then moves on to their life in the village, how they became an adult, and who their friends are. All the while, it squirrels away bonuses to your abilities, skills and so on, so that once you have rolled through the playbook, you have an idea both of what your character can do and who they are. Character generation extends in to the creation of the village, a process shared by the whole group.

For example, last night my two brothers rolled up an Assistant Beast Keeper, Shirley, and a Halfling Outrider, Cuthbert. Shirley was the son of a smith but learned a bit from everyone. He’s the witch’s apprentice and mucks out the stables. Soon, he’s marrying in to the Miller’s family. Cuthbert is the child of famous local “tobacco” farmers, he befriended a local merchant, and became friends with Shirley when they helped the ghost of a long forgotten murder victim. Of course, they also know that the Miller intended to have the local merchant robbed, leading to Shirley’s nuptials in some no doubt humorous manner. Shirley has a pet mouse he named Queso, Cuthbert is walking around with some treasure maps. This all from about fifteen minutes of dice rolling. While they were doing that, I was able to pull out a scenario pack and, with some rolls of my own, determine that some nefarious subterranean goblins had attacked their village, abducting the local merchant for unknown reasons – that not all the goblins were on board with.

These sorts of play aids are really useful. The prompts help encourage less confident, less assertive players[9] to contribute stuff to the game and the world, and it gives everyone a stake in events. At one point, while Shirley was trying to convince Queso to scout the goblin warren for him, Cuthbert got impatient because it’s his friend down there with the cannibals. I also really liked that I could get an adventure for an evening put together in the same time it took the group to make characters –  and not some desultory hacker[10] but a twisty warren with the potential for interaction and lateral thinking. Indeed, the two of them used peaceful means to get through the first encounters – feeding (and freeing) some hungry gob-dogs, negotiating passage with the lesser king of the goblins.

Locating the game in the village, with the heavy focus on the local and personal, helps resolve some of the problems I have with Tolkienesque fantasy. The characters are not princes or chosen ones, they’re just little locals with a bit more luck or talent than their fellows[11] but not set apart from them. It’s a focus I appreciate.[12] There are miss-steps, such as the continual reiteration of what your fathers did, who your father was, rather than leaving it as parents or parents, or even switching between mother and father. While I dislike the shades of benign aristocracy in the Noble playbooks,[13] I really like that the playbooks contrast and complement with the villagers. There is a difference between the Would-Be Knight, born of the village, and the Knightless Squire, heir to the manor, informing their backgrounds so that, while both might be wielding heavy arms, their origins have an impact on who they are as people.

To return to the specifics of my game session, then, this manifested in a series of rolls that linked Cuthbert and Shirley together. Cuthbert’s motivation for leaving his comfortable hobbit hole was the tales of far-off places that a visiting Merchant shared with him. Shirley is set to marry in to the Miller’s family. This came together when Cuthbert rolled that he had seen the Miller arranging for a thief to rob the Merchant – and Shirley helped Cuthbert to disarm the whole situation. This is a purely random series of accretions that have come together to present the backstory to Orford, but it was really cool in the way it turned out. Shirley and Cuthbert are fast friends because of this event – and in Shirley’s case, it got him a fiancée.[14]

Within the playing of the game itself, once I had determined the motivations of the goblins and the scope of the lair, BtW is modelled heavily after pre-3rd edition D&D systems. When making attacks or saving throws, one rolls high, for ability scores, one rolls low. On first read, I didn’t particularly care for this, it’s a needless complication that will slow down play as each person tries to remember whether they roll low or high this time. There is a sidebar in BtW that explains why this design choice was made: the roll under stat check means that there is a meaningful distinction between ability scores that don’t have a differing ability bonus – so a character with a 9 strength and one with 12 will have different chances of succeeding at a task without needing to proliferate bonuses. That’s pretty sound reasoning, so I kept it.[15] And, as this session featured mostly ability and skill checks rather than the clash of arms,[16] ability checks came up a lot more often. When it did come time to throw down, the combat rules are very simple – roll, hit, damage – but there is the option to adopt stances in combat, which I’ll probably look to integrate more later. I was able to vary monsters a little bit by upping their hit points, a simple fix that I probably wouldn’t have done in a more complex game.

This simplicity is probably BtWs greatest asset and but also a liability; it’s fun to give a little narration to action, but it doesn’t have any impact on the mechanical level. It certainly lacks the heft of 4th edition D&Ds ability to declare what type of attack you are making, or even 13th Age’s variable dice mechanics. There is something to be said for reliably representing outcomes within the system itself – so a warrior knows how to ding an enemy just so and leave them dazed, or a ranger can always find such and such an amount of food. And, as always, while everyone is free to describe actions and chance the dice, magic users retain a set of mechanical tools that allow them to declare that A Thing is Happening. I think that much of the Old School methodology considers this a feature, not a bug, so I don’t anticipate it getting examined at any point.

It’s a game that lends itself well to a decent sized group or a small one. I do think that, with more players, the interactions between playbooks and how that rolls out in the village is an incredible asset. I’d even be happy to look to import the playbook method in to other games. For future sessions, I’m looking to roll out the village generation, traits, and then area and threats. BtW was good fun and I’m looking forward to future sessions.

[1] Stacking up as towers.
[2] Though not language skills. Too much fantasy has left my grammar a pitiful wreck.
[3] I never really went down the rabbit hole of miniatures wargaming. I did have some lizardmen once. I stopped collecting them after being told that painting them like poisonous geckoes was Doing It Wrong. Tough lesson, but probably saved me a lot of money in the long run.
[4] I don’t like Tolkien, doesn’t mean I can’t reference him.
[5] Perhaps, given I have never been attached to a gaming scene, it might be better described that I have excellent friends who have allowed me to share with them my strange hobby.
[6] I am partial to Lost and Obscure Relics – but the thing I want is the past to be different, not better.
[7] Roll dice, pick class, record stuff, fight monsters.
[8] They also offer loads of them for free on their website.
[9] Not a problem with the two brothers I was playing with, mind.
[10] Which, to reiterate my stance earlier, I’d have no problem with. I like fights!
[11] I’m quite left wing. This way of thinking is quite often mischaracterised as thinking everyone is the same; it’s not, it’s that everyone is equal, which is really quite different.
[12] Though I’m not saying it’s a move to speak from the margins, I think it is certainly influenced by this impulse.
[13] The Nobility playbooks also include the only specifically gendered archetype: The Nobleman’s Wild Daughter. All the other playbooks don’t assign gender characteristics to the PC so generated. We could read this gendering as implying that all the other playbooks are neutrally male – especially the predominantly martial types such as the Squire and the Future Warlord, given that her skill at arms marks the NWD as transgressive. That could be a problem for some groups. We could assume that this is a (social) class rooted constraint; a Local Hero can be a woman because gender roles are less strictly enforced on the sharp edge of survival. Still, If one player is making a NWD and another making a Squire who happens to be a woman, it creates a conflict in concept. I also think, that it pays to bear in mind the source materials: that is, not that women did not fight in history, but the fiction that BtW is inspired by, which includes many, many very very popular examples of your women who rose up to fight against the wishes and expectations of their society. It is an example of importing inequality to a secondary world in service to audience expectations.
[14] Which is an interesting connection all in its own right – I tend not to focus on relationship issues within game, but here’s a fresh hook.
[15] Also, one of my players has the most atrocious dice luck, so being able to succeed on a low roll is a rare chance to shine for him. Or to fool the dice gods, depending on how superstitious you are.
[16] Shirley and Cuthbert successfully negotiated with a pack of Gob-Dogs and the Goblin King, though they would later go on to fight the King anyway. It was reasonable in the context of the game.