Beyond The Wall: Play Report

I’m not used to writing actual play reports, but anyway: I ran Beyond the Wall for the second time, with a slightly more involved session than the 9 Worlds game. This time I ran a scenario pack of my own, called Merrow’s Watchers (documents available at the page at the top).

Character Generation

This is the area I think BtW really shines, and I was pleased that the players really got into developing their PCs and the village along with it. We roughly paced the game like this:

  1. Childhood (first 3 tables)
  2. First village drawing session
  3. Self-discovery (remaining 4 tables where the PC develops as a particular character class)
  4. Second village session
  5. Wrapping up with stats, equipment, etc.

I went around the table inviting each player to roll the die and talk about the outcome. Once we’d done three rounds (for the first 3 tables) I started going around the tables asking for details on the map, e.g.

Rowan, your parents are shepherds; where does the flock graze?

In general there were two new features to be added per player, and in the process other features were added spontaneously.

If I’m about to marry into the Miller’s family, there must be a mill here, and a river to drive the water-wheel.

We also added a few details that were just integral to the given playbooks, such as the ring of standing stones where the Fae Foundling was found by her parents.

Adding the details like this became even more interesting when the characters began to go through ordeals; nearby tombs were plundered, a cursed spot where a Chaos Spirit was imprisoned was marked on the map, etc.

In fact, the only part the players didn’t like was the number crunching at the end. I thought it was pretty straightforward, but to be fair the last time some of them played D&D it was in our student digs in a very atypical game of Ravenloft.

The Game

I think the game went well, although it managed to subvert a lot of the structure I’d assumed from the standard scenario packs. Halfway through the scenario the players decided to turn back, for a perfectly valid reason (they perceived the village as under threat) and missed out a lot of wilderness and dungeon exploration.

As a consequence the second half was not about adventuring but about interacting with the domestic side within the village wall, and making appeals to authority to deal with the threat instead of dealing with it themselves.

Scenario Design Issues

I realised afterwards that the scenario I designed had subtly deviated from the standard formula in the official BtW packs. Firstly I’d unwittingly placed large-scale features on the world map, to wit:

  • the village is on a frontier between two nations at war
  • soldiers had just passed through the village

We take for granted that the village is a place that must be defended from time to time. However placing it next to an actual empire put its scale into perspective; suddenly the players were not thinking of a village community with externalised low-level threats, but a fragile settlement between two large civilisations that could be upset at any moment. A lot of the power of BtW’s setup comes from establishing stability, and I wonder if this underminded that process.

Additionally the presence of soldiers undermined the characters as the prime movers in terms of exploration and defence. Maybe not directly (because the soldiers had gone, and weren’t there to help), but indirectly it implied that the adults in the village should be the decision makers and risk-takers.

Appeals To Authority

I ran into this issue before when I ran Sunder’s Children, the games’ predecessor. The players were explicitly the adventurers, the ones who could take affirmative action; the rest of the village were not inclined to either flee their settlement or to venture west to discover the source of various attacks from outside.

This concept came directly from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the reward structure of which involves (a) “retrieving treasure from remote and dangerous locations” and (b) killing things. In other words

  • this is not a game about domestic life (something for which D&D is not well suited as a simulation tool)
  • adventurers are in the minority; the majority of humans want to stay at home and live unremarkable lives
  • therefore, most humans are poorly equipped to deal with the decision-making process to address external threats.

All this means that, no matter how junior the PCs are they are the ones best equipped to make decisions about external threats; it’s logical that the rest of the village should look to them as the experts in dealing with monsters, supernatural threats, etc.

However when you’re playing characters who are explicitly youngsters, this doesn’t make sense. My players mostly deferred taking action themselves, instead trying to draw the attention of authority figures to the dark happenings around the village, which is a logical step — and yet completely disruptive to the game we were trying to play because the next logical step is for the adults to say “well done, now go home while we deal with this”.

D&D Quirks

As soon as the focus shifted from external adventure to internal domestic interaction, D&D’s shortcomings became more apparent. All the interaction becomes (mostly) freeform, perhaps only modified by Charisma checks.

Although some of the party had skills like Command these were largely forgotten. I wonder if this is due to skills being overshadowed by Attributes and Saving Throws; even LotFP’s sheet which has a big section for skills still prioritises the traditional D&D moving parts at the top of the sheet. It makes me wonder what would happen if we just inverted the sheet, much like inverting the world map.

This might not completely solve the issues inherent in appeals to authority (q.v.) but raising the visibility of skills (as one might do with a skills-based CV) might go a long way to making the players feel more proactive in non-combat situations.

Other areas of D&D that didn’t work so well for use were mainly to do with hit points and damage; even if we use the logic that HP are not wounds, but some kind of “luck running out” the massive loss of 5 HP for a 1st level character is enough to make them think about just turning around and going home again.

Sine Nomine’s Scarlet Heroes has a few tricks to convert traditional D&D damage into something more manageable for solo adventures; Scarlet Heroes damage is usually one or two points per swing, but it comes directly off monster’s hit dice, and PCs are likely to only suffer a couple of points of damage per attack. Keeping the amount of damage in the low integers could also help with keeping the general fantasy feel low-key. To balance this out you might need to adjust PC HP gains, although they could be just fine as they are. I probably wouldn’t use the other rules like Fray dice or post-combat healing.

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