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Beyond the Wall

by on September 28, 2020
 

Beyond the Wall

By Flatland Games

Beyond the Wall is a D&D style retro-clone touching on both narrative RPG elements and those of the OSR movement. OSR is often an abbreviation for “Old School Renaissance”, “Old School Revival” and any number of other things. The general style is that of old-school RPGs in tone and style, hacking the older games with out advanced awareness of how game mechanics work. I’m still not 100% sure whether this counts as OSR, but I also believe there’s an amount of ‘if you believe it’s OSR, it’s probably OSR’, like with so many RPG labels.

Either way, this is a game in the style of D&D, but specifically low-level D&D. You grab a bunch of multi-sided dice, make a character and go on small-scale adventures to protect your village from harm. This game excels at fun character creation, worldbuilding and setting things up for a one-off game, although there’s enough content to allow for a short campaign.

The Book

I bought a PDF copy of Beyond the Wall, so I’ve not seen a copy out in the wild. It’s a deceptively large book for the system presented. This is because the character and adventure playbooks take up a lot of space. It’s 153 pages deep and gives you a good amount of information to prepare for what are essentially prepless games.

Character classes are split between three types: Fighter, Rogue and Mage. Each get certain abilities and benefits, with full character creation rules if you want to make them from scratch, but I’ll tell you now you won’t want to. These rules feel like they’re in the book for the sake of completeness and for being able to completely customise your character in the style of D&D, but that’s not the fun way to make characters.

The fun way is with the numerous playbooks in the book, which are also accessed on their site. Each one has a flavourful name such as the Witch’s Prentice, the Village Hero and the Nobleman’s Wild Daughter. These playbooks consist mainly of tables for each part of the character’s life. You grab the playbook you like, or in my group’s case, read out their titles and see who wants to be what. We had a couple of playbooks where people both wanted to be the same thing, but there were so many fun choices that no one was left feeling like they didn’t get to be something they liked. You also need a character sheet and ideally some note paper to record your results as you go.

Each step in your characters’ lives are rolled, although one thing I found was great was to have them all roll each life stage together and compare what they got. Some results are funny, some serious and all of them build the character along with the world we’re all playing in. Each result adds to one of your stats, too. This way the devoted acolyte might roll that he was raised by weird druids and add to the relevant stat. Each result will add to one of the six ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma), add a skill or a spell. Even the rubbish-sounding ones will add something.

You go through your birth, your childhood and eventually you gain a character class! These are much like the ones in the standard character creation, but the content of the tables mean that some abilities and skill choices are different, in order to fit with whatever playbook you’ve got. The Heir to a Legend might get a special weapon they use, the Devoted Acolyte might get a couple of odd spells. You also determine what minor event pointed your destiny towards that of heroism. This result not only shows you why your character’s a hero, it involves a neighbouring player and adds to their stats. Now you’re tied together.

One other great element of these playbooks is that you’ve got little symbols prompting you to add an NPC to the village or to draw a landmark on it. The village map starts out with just the pub, because of course there’s a pub. Then each player adds more and more from their playbooks. The GM can add more, and throughout the game we added a couple more landmarks as they felt relevant. The village is your home, a place to keep safe. This meant that we needed it to be familiar and for players to have a sense of ownership of space. I always find getting the players to help make the world is great for this.

During all of this, the GM is taking notes. Always fear the GM taking notes. They will have a playbook for the adventure you’re creating together which has empty sections for the NPCs and locations you’re filling in. The group will have a band of first level adventurers and moments later, the GM will have randomly rolled to generate the problems present in the adventure, the opportunities, the distractions and which NPCs are at immediate peril. Other elements can be brought in, but this way the GM has all the prep they need to get running a game.

The character creation took up a quarter to a third of the session I ran and was great fun. Then we have the rules. The rules are fine. That’s it. There’s nothing overly special about them, once you’re done with character creation.

The basics of the system are a combination of either rolling a twenty-sided dice and aiming to get under your ability score, or rolling and adding a modifier. Generally any skill checks are roll under, as are saving throws. Attacks are roll above. I have a notepad where I list out the rules of systems I’m running, as my own cheat sheet. I drew little up and down arrows to remind myself of the difference and I’m really pleased I did as my players had issues remembering whether they were rolling above or below. I assume that after a few sessions or a few one-shots, this would be a concern that would go away, but at least to begin with it was an issue.

Attacks are fairly basic, with a flat initiative count to show when people act. I don’t care for initiative that much, so I did warn the players that if it didn’t work or feel interesting then I’d abandon it. It didn’t really have much of a feeling either way, so I stuck with it for the session, but might change it up to an alternate initiative system if I run it again. You roll to see if you hit, then roll damage. The GM actually rolls, too, which is the first time in many games I’ve had to do that. It was an odd sensation and the dice were the enemy of drama a couple of times as big boss-type monsters caused little damage. As it turns out, that’s probably for the best though, as player characters have very small pools of health which don’t come back quickly.

There are stances to help give a bit more choice in combat. I wasn’t sure how well they would get used, but actually the players varied them up pretty regularly. Normal stance is as I’ve said above. Aggressive Stance and Defensive Stance trade off attack for defence and vice versa. Protective Stance helps look after allies, while Commanding Stance allows anyone to play bard and inspire the team. Going from D&D to this, I can see it being useful. From Dungeon World, it feels like these are simpler versions of some of the moves.

Magic is also a bit basic, but I’m not a fan of complex magic systems, so I’m fine with this. There are no spell levels, just spells. Characters only go up to level ten in this game, so there’s not going to be much world-shattering going on with this magic. You have spells and you have cantrips. A spell caster can cast spells per day equal to their level, so a first level mage is only going to have a single cast in them. Cantrips on the other hand require an ability check to cast and you can keep going with them as long as you roll well. If you fail, either your access to magic is cut off for the rest of the day or the spell goes awry. For this, I got to bring along my ‘Spell Mishap Bag’ from my years of Dungeon World.

The cantrips are a little more powerful than you’d expect them to be, because they’re going to be the main spells used by a character, followed by the spells which are a bit more powerful than a first level spell. There are also rituals, although we never really got into those. They need multiple people present, have some requirements to be cast and need an ability check. My group were on a clock, so they didn’t have much time to cast rituals.

As I said, the rules are fine. They felt fairly basic once you got away from the superlative character and world creation. There are monster stats in the book and a few more online as well. The adventure playbook brings a few specific to the scenario you’ll be playing. These are nice and easy to get the hang of and to customise. I quickly bashed together the style and magic of the big villain of my adventure mid-game as it became clear the kind of thing they’d be dealing with. The game chafes slightly at some of the RPG design ideas which Powered by the Apocalypse games use, specifically the Quantum Bear. This is the idea that a problem didn’t exist in the fiction of the game until you failed a roll, so now there’s a bear. I don’t mind this, but some designers and players aren’t fans of feeling like everything wasn’t already pre-established. Given the rest of this game, it feels like an odd thing to call out, but I didn’t find it too much of an impediment.

As well as the six playbooks in the core rulebook, there are several free supplements and a couple of paid ones which collect even more for you to use. I whittled out about a quarter of them for my first game and depending on the overall style you want, you can easily dial up or down the D&D-ness of the characters. Some are pretty much just junior fighters, ex-adventurers or nonhuman wanderers. Personally I went for more village-based and at least partially mundane roles. The free collections are grouped together for things like this, allowing different types of nobles, different non-humans, different scenarios and more. They’re definitely worth the download and one of the paid expansions, Further Afield, allows for more campaign play by using wider, less immediate threats. The other paid expansion, Heroes Young and Old, collects the many other playbooks and adds a few more, to boot.

The Game

I’ve run Beyond the Wall once so far, at my local RPG community night.

Chris made Var Solven, the Heir to a Legend. He was fascinated with a tribe of people who lived over the river and had some ties to his ancestry. Under ‘Spells’ on his character sheet he just wrote, “Bah! Magic is for Witches!” and he played his abysmal Intelligence score very well.

Olly made Silas Ventuman, the Local Performer. He’d learnt some magic working in the tavern, despite having a family who owned a general store and didn’t care for his drama. He was taught to pickpocket by a local storyteller and used someone else’s tome of tales to entertain people.

Arthur made Abigail Knight, the Nobleman’s Wild Daughter, more at home swinging a sword and hiding any signs of her wealth from the others. She once scared a griffin and was taught by a local mercenary.

Ben made Eckhart Lambsbreath, the Assistant Beast-Keeper. He helped an old local witch and looked after the animals despite loathing a great number of them. His best friend was a small mouse called Mikhail and he knew an equally small amount of magic.

Pip made Jurgen Hale, a Devout Acolyte who was raised by herbalists and taught how to cast real magic after finding a sanctuary of the gods buried underground.

Together, their characters and backgrounds made Swanholm:

I listed their NPCs and locations on the scenario pack for The Opened Veil, which I thought sounded pretty cool. There were some names which the group could pick from and an inciting incident to pick, thanks to one of the NPCs. In this case Mother Whisper, Eckhart’s mentor, thought she could open a haunted barrow to stop a great evil. The villain here was a long-dead warrior-king called Viktor Hellstromme, who believes he still rules the land.

I rolled a location where the inciting incident started and an immediate problem which would demand the group’s attention. I rolled for a distraction, but for a short one-shot, I skipped it.

The scenario sheet had a table of, “What has happened lately?” for each player, which gives everyone something linked to the wider plot and gets players rolling their first skill checks. In this case, Jurgen had some suitable concerns about blighted crops, Silas had some family members fall ill, Eckhart was warned by a fortune teller, Abigail was given a dream vision of the secret name of the dead king. Var’s incident worked perfectly to start things off, as he fought off some ghostly horses which went through the tavern.

The group met up to discuss the ghost horses and the aftermath of it, only to end up facing a stray ghost horse who’d got stuck there. They had trouble getting rid of it, but Jurgen’s ability to Banish Undead pushed it away.

They decided to set out, looking for the cause of these horrors. Many years ago, the land opened up and swallowed the evil king’s castles. This explained the subterranean church Jurgen found, the weird caves Mother Whisper lived in and the generally weird look the world outside Swanholm ended up with. For an adventure I’d not prepared at all, it was great how it had aesthetic touches and landmarks just through what we’d made.

The group were stopped by a trio of mercenaries who knew little about the ghosts the village were plagued by, but were certain they’d stop it. They were certain they would be better than the group and they would get all manner of rewards from the locals. The mercenaries were Svenn, Seppel and Valeska. They were all utter jerks, who I loved playing and the group loved to hate from the moment they met them. The group left without the mercenaries, who were evidently going to be more of a hinderance than anything else.

The group wandered through the woods and looked into the fragments of ruins they found on the way. Once they were far enough out, they realised the mercenaries were stalking them, trying to be stealthy and steal the win from the group. They were humiliated and chased off, although the stagnant pond the group wandered by started to bubble. The undead pulled their way out, fighting the group, threatening to drag them under.

The night fell and the group could tell they were closing in on where the castle of the dead warrior-king was. They found a nook to hide in and make camp, while healing what little damage they could. It was only at this point I realised the fragility of the group. It also meant that Jurgen would get his ability to cast Banish Undead back.

As night fell, I had the group describe how things looked now they were near the castle. The leaves of the trees were blackening, ash was raining from the sky. This was not that far from the village, but it felt like another world. When morning came, there was a noise outside the tent and the group were pretty immediately attacked by a zombie bear.

Compared to the individual undead, the zombie bear was a giant foe who the group had to band together to take down. The brutal fight took some time and rather than use the dungeon tables in the scenario, I had the villain come to the group. The group were able to see the highest spire of the castle poking out of the ground, which was going to be the entry into the dungeon itself. Now, the stained glass at the top of the spire was beginning to crack. The undead king rose up, pulling the glass through the air to make a jagged suit of armour. Worse, it was almost like a kind of ghost mech made of jagged shards.

The kind went first, launching a massive volley and almost killing Jurgen, the weakest of the group. Eckhart ran to his side, while the others tried to fend him off. Abigail revealed that her dream had taught the true name of the king; Uzrath. Armed with the true name, they were able to actually harm him. Abigail and Var attacked, while Silas used the Commanding Stance to help add bonuses to their rolls. Earlier in the session he was trying to fight which was… comedic at times. Knowing that he could use his own abilities to support the crew and bard them was a great match for his character.

Eckhart took a hit for Jurgen and managed to wake him long enough for the acolyte to cast the spell he’d been taught. Hellstromme’s armour had been mostly shattered and with Jurgen so close, he was able to banish the warrior king back through the ruined castle spire and into his grave. They sealed the king’s coffin shut. They were wounded, but the village was safe.

We overran slightly, so we didn’t get to do epilogues, but it was an exhilarating, small-scale fantasy RPG. I definitely want to run it again for a one-shot and there are enough playbooks that it can be done with an entirely different selection for the next time.

Just to read… it’s an interesting one. If you like discerning things and seeing the potential in the many tables, it’s good. If you want inspiration for your adventures and characters, then the playbooks and scenarios can work. At 153 pages, you’ve got the system up front and then a teaching guide before all the playbooks, which helps for the prepless nature of the game.

Personally, I love the level and the feeling of this game, even if I’m not wowed by the system itself. I prefer lower level D&D style games, rarely venturing above tenth level there. This game evokes the early career of characters and investment in the world to the level I wanted to have in previous D&D and Dungeon World campaigns, which tended to escalate and go heroic. In a way, it gets closer to the Warhammer Fantasy RPG, just less grimdark.

Beyond the Wall is very cheap at £6.10 on DriveThruRPG as of writing this review, so at that cost, it’s definitely worth it for curiosity alone. It’s at the very least worth looking at the playbooks and the scenarios.

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