Thursday, November 12, 2015

Let's Talk About Beyond the Wall

First, before we do anything else, go get this:

https://bundleofholding.com/presents/OSR3

I know you think you have everything in it already, but make sure. If you don't, this is a great way to get it. The three things in this bundle that make it worthwhile to me were Beyond the Wall and +Chris Kutalik's Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. Don't let Owl Hoot Trail turn you sour on the whole batch.

Ages ago (well, maybe not ages, but decently long enough ago) I got the original version of Beyond the Wall. All in all, it's a nice little retroclone with occasional modern mechanics not unlike Basic Fantasy and, much like Basic Fantasy, it had little to recommend it to me other than its admittedly neat magic system. When the new edition came out and I started to hear/read people clamoring for how cool the system was, I just "psssh"-ed it off. "It's just another retroclone that does the same thing every other retroclone does. Why should I play that rather than LotFP or Labyrinth Lord?"

And then people started talking about things like "playbooks" and "scenario packs." I understood playbooks from my time with Dungeon World and scenario packs just made sense (although what separates them from modules or adventures I couldn't tell you). I went back to my older BTW rules and saw nowhere where "playbooks" could interact with character creation, so I was confused.

As I said above, when I saw the Bundle of Holding's "OSR Bundle +3," I was skeptical, thinking I had everything in it already. But, I'll always contribute to a good cause (which the Electronic Frontier Foundation is) and I really really really wanted to know how many nods to Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes were in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, so I jumped in and started checking out Beyond the Wall.

So, there were those playbook things, all in the zip file with the rules, but I didn't start there, no, why would I? That'd be like reading DW playbooks before understanding the basic mechanics of the game. So, instead, I delved into the rule book and found the exact same thing I already fucking had! [Note: I did not make it all the way through the book when I had this reaction. This is an important detail.] Rules for character creation that made no mention of playbooks. Huh? What?

So I opened the playbooks.

Then I started to get it.

I looked more closely at the rule book; there's a section that explains the playbooks and how to use them.

Turns out that BTW's playbooks exist to get your game up and running quickly and easily. Since the point of BTW is that you're playing "hometown heroes" just starting their adventuring careers, the playbooks offer a number of easy-to-use shortcuts to create not only a robust character, but also his backstory and a bit of the world around him. As players develop their characters, rolling dice in a vaguely Traveller-esque (more MGT than CT) that tells them how certain events in their past went down and how it affected them, players get to add locations and NPCs to the settlement they grow up in, officially cutting down on the DM's work and allowing the players to create things of lasting importance to their characters, tying them into the game even more closely.

It's explained that the playbooks are intended specifically to get a game up and running quickly, that they exist because the authors understand and expect that not every gaming group has the time to organically develop the degree of the detail that the playbooks allow to be developed in short order. If you had to come up with this stuff on your own, you could totally do it. What did your character's parents do for a living? How'd you get started in your character class? What was growing up like for you? That sort of thing. The difference between interpreting your character from a series of numbers and small facts on a piece of paper and the playbooks is a simple one: time. Yes, you can do it on your own, or you can roll some dice and play that instead.

I find it sort of ironic that it feels like "narrative mechanics" like these -- if indeed narrative mechanics they be -- are likely to be resisted by a number of old school gamers who are conversely totally okay with playing a luck-of-the-draw, roll-3d6-in-order crapshoot of a character that standard old school games provide. Sure, you can roll with the punch of playing a fighter with a CON of 7 and a WIS of 5, but you can't handle it when a die roll gives them a piece of background information. No, I'm not talking about EVERY old school gamer, just the ones who are vehemently set against narrative mechanics.

For me, the playbooks are nice and a great way to build a character that's every bit as valid as "3d6 in order." [Note: the backgrounds you roll on the playbooks' charts add to your character's ability scores and sometimes give you extra stuff like skills or spells, too.] Further, visual cues that mean things like "now it's time for you, dear player, to add a place to the map" are pretty freaking sweet. I play a lot of games on the fly and I could see BTW becoming a regular one.

Thanks, +Mike Evans, for suggesting I give this game another chance. Now, I'm trying to figure out when I can afford to buy the hardcover...

Just when I thought this post was over, I realized I hadn't talked about the "scenario packs" I mentioned above. These are not modules. Instead, they're like adventure tool kits like the ones that we publish in the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad zine. You get some tables, roll on them, and instant adventure. But wait! The cool twist on these scenario packs is that you take the things (places & NPCs) that the players added to the campaign maps and fill those in on some of the tables. WHAAAAT? That's awesome! It really inspires me to try out some new stuff in the pages of Metal Gods and even Nova Scream.

Very cool.

I'm eager to get this one to the table soon. So much so that I think I've found my game for our first DSR Actual Play stream of Season Two.

While we're on the topic of DSR, the podcast now has a Patreon page which you can find at http://www.patreon.com/DSRCast . You know what to do.