The temptation to yield to authority is a potential roadblock for BtW games. At some point the players will think “hey! We’re just kids, we shouldn’t be going out doing these dangerous things! Surely there are older, more experienced adults in the village?” It makes sense that someone older in the village will take charge — but if that happens the PCs will be benched while older and wiser villagers take up the quest.
In the vanilla Beyond The Wall game the map is a blank page, ready to be filled in by the players and GM as the group develops the playbooks; thanks to that, it’s easy to imagine the village is isolated in a lawless countryside, and that the PCs are the ones who will go out adventuring on behalf of their community.
Once you establish notions of nearby civilisation – which we are, since Garth Nix’ world implies 20th Century technology and communication, local and national government — suspending disbelief becomes harder. If there really were zombies rampaging through the farmlands near Wyverley and Bain, surely someone in government would do something about it?
Here are some reasons why the PCs are still relevant in this situation:
The Adults Are Busy (or Far Away)
This actually falls into three different categories:
- The adults are dealing with other things right now
- The adults are too far away to be contacted in time
- The adults don’t believe the characters.
Of these three, the second one — distance as a barrier — is credible, and it works with the local geography, too. The Wall is 40 miles north, so would require quite a journey to summon aid from the soldiers garrisoned there. Furthermore the area is not densely populated, being mostly rural.
Having the adults deal with more pressing matters is another way; whether the matters are of merit (those soldiers are fighting a full-scale incursion from across the Wall) or just a brush off (two lorry loads of paperclips just arrived and need to be sorted) this can work. However I would be wary of inventing trivial reasons for the adults not listening, least it become a case of them just not believing the PCs.
It’s possible that some people just won’t believe the characters; however this is not in keeping with the fiction. One thing I like about Sabriel is the way she can lead others, as shown in her interactions with the soldiers on the Wall. In general soldiers, locals and administration of Wyverley College are not ignorant of what’s going on in the Old Kingdom, and should be taking mention of a necromancer or Free Magic being on the loose very seriously. That’s not to say there aren’t green recruits who are yet to see action, or pencil-pushers in Corvere who believe the Charter is just superstition… but people in the North will tend to wake up pretty quickly, or become food for the Dead.
As well as taking notice of characters, soldiers and other authority figures definitely don’t bench the protagonists when alerted to the danger; quite the reverse, they often look to the principals for leadership. Earning respect from the community and getting recognition should be part of character growth in any BtW game, so if a PC steps up to the plate and offers to lead, let them.
There’s Only One Magistrix
The adults believe the PCs, but if there aren’t enough Charter mages to cover the area, it will fall to the PCs to pitch in anyway. The adults become a potential resource for the PCs, offering aid and equipment where directed.
Wyverley certainly has more than one teacher — and a whole lot of students — versed in magic and personal combat. Since the PCs will be sixth-formers they will tend to be the most experienced of the student body anyway, and well-suited to lead their peers.
The notion of a limited number of competent (magic weilding, hero-caliber) NPCs in the area should also reinforce the idea that the PCs themselves are extraordinary, and are the kinds of poeple that others will look to in a crisis.
Someone Else Will Deal With It
The locals aren’t ignorant of the dangers of living near the wall, but they are realistic about what they can do against the Dead. They will reasonably expect local organisations to act on their behalf, under the notion that they aren’t equipped to deal with the threat or otherwise cannot put themselves or their dependents at risk.
Just as authority figures shouldn’t be patronising to the PCs, the local farming community shouldn’t be either ignorant or cannon fodder. They will also take the PCs seriously (at least, the older community members will). But they’re unlikely to take action against the Dead, when fleeing is a viable option.
The GM will decide how much the locals actually know and understand about the magical nature of the landscape. Whatever they do know, the prime motivator of the locals will be survival of themselves and their families.
And finally, Wyverley College should impress upon the PCs the idea that they are remarkable, and expected to grow into persons of significance. Taking personal initiative and going on adventures should be acknowledged and rewarded (if not actively encouraged). The way this should be rewarded will be covered in the Experience and Growth section.