Sunday, 25 January 2015

Beyond the Wall: Overthinking the Playbook Fiction

Sometimes there is an itch you must scratch.

In the process of working out my own playbooks for Death Comes To Wyverley I’ve done some deep analysis of the existing playbooks, reconsidered the role of the monomyth cycle, and generated a few flowsheets.

This is my original analysis of the playbook cycle:

Playbook Cycle

And this is my expanded playbook flow sheet:

Playbook Fiction Flow

I developed the flowsheet from some notes I wrote. These in turn were developed based on analysis of the existing playbooks. You can get them here:

Notes on Playbook Fiction
Playbook Analysis

For now I’ve password protected the pdfs. The password for both is the first word of the first paragraph on page 15 of the revised rulebook, lowercase (note — it’s the numbered page in the actual pdf, not what your pdf reader says is the page).

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Introducing the Playbooks [DctW]

This is part of a series for Death Comes To Wyverley, a playset for Beyond the Wall inspired by Garth Nix’ Old Kingdom series. This should be considered a fan work.


We all know that playbooks are one of Beyond the Wall’s USPs (at least, for a traditional OSR game).

Reiterating earlier comments, this is what a good playbook should do for kicking off the game:

  1. It’s a mini Mythic Cycle for that character; it creates a whole backstory for them in minutes
  2. It’s open enough that the players can make connections between the relationships in different playbooks and use those to give a picture of the Village (or in this case, the College)
  3. It’s based on a class, but the title is a concept (e.g. Young Woodsman, Heir to a Legend, etc.)
  4. It provides all the mechanics a player needs to generate their character, as well as the plot behind them.

Revisiting the Playbook Cycle

For DctW the premise of the original Playbook Cycle is unchanged: before the game begins each character has gone through their own little cycle of personal development, which includes

  • the Ordinary World
  • Meeting the Mentor
  • the Road of Trials
  • the Ordeal
  • a Reward

Playbook Cycle

The core playbooks of BtW assume the same kind of Ordinary World for all characters, with these central questions tackling the fundamentals of the PC’s early life — family and early childhood. The structure is the same in DctW (at least for most characters) with a central focus of Wyverley College.

Just as characters in a regular BtW game are young people on the cusp of adulthood, Wyverley characters (with some exceptions) are not far from graduation. By default they’ve just entered the Sixth Form. Almost all characters have been sent away by their families from an early age to Wyverley and inducted into the First Form (between 5 and 10).

The four common tables are:

  1. Early childhood: what was your relationship with your parents before they sent you away to boarding school?
  2. Arrival at Wyverley: how did you distinguish yourself among the other first-formers?
  3. Learning: what is your best subject?
  4. Other people: the other PCs are your best friends, but you also formed a significant relationship with another person. Who was that, and what was the basis of the relationship?

Common Playbook Tables (pdf document) — this is an early draft of some sample tables.

Introducing Relationships

Characters will have four key Relationships that arise from the playbooks. These are:

  1. Family. The character was sent away to boarding school at an early age; while they may visit their parents regularly, any interaction they have with their parents will mostly happen in downtime.
  2. The Mentor. This is the NPC who has set the character on their path, taught them the skills that set them apart from the others, and otherwise given them encouragement. In some playbooks the Mentor figure isn’t a person but an ideal, or a connection to a place. That’s OK. What matters is in times of crisis, the examples the Mentor has given are what the character reaches for to steady their resolve.
  3. The Party. These are the player characters, who have been best friends with one another since childhood. Of those PCs will have helped the character through an Ordeal.
  4. A significant person in Wyverley. This could be another student, a teacher, or another person. Like the relationship with the Family this can be an adversarial relationship. This interaction should feature regularly in the Domestic Phase of the game (see later).

All Relationships have Basis, which is one of the six attributes. Since these relationships are developed randomly, that basis may fall on a strong attribute or a weak one. This has no impact on the adventuring portion of a game — it only indicates what kind of relationship the character has. If the attribute is high the PC may be proactive or dominant in the relationship (e.g. they may be someone the NPC looks up to). If the attribute is low, the PC may be subordinate or the relationship may hilight a flaw. This will be discussed further in its own section.

Blurb for the nine playbooks

Finally, here are the outlines of the various playbooks.

Note that while several of these playbooks have grand names that suggest powerful destinies and high fantasy adventure, this game is supposed to be (at least initially) a low fantasy game. This is a starting point for the characters, and who knows what they will do later in life. Think of it as being not the story about the Abhorsen, just a story about an Abhorsen-in-waiting.

Students from the Old Kingdom

The Abhorsen-in-waiting
This character is born to the Abhorsen line; able to walk in Death and keep a delicate balance between the Charter and Free Magic necromancy.

The Royal Berserk
They are one of the Royal line of the Old Kingdom, and posessed of a great rage that can consume them but also give them great physical and mental resistance.

The Charter Mage
Many of Wyverley’s scholars learn Charter Magic, but this character comes from a line of Charter Mages and excels at her craft.

The Necromancer’s Get
Somewhere in the bloodline of this character was a Free Magic practitioner; this is the dirty secret of character’s family, and it has manifested in this character. Like the Abhorsen they have the Death Sight. Why were they sent away — was it to remove further influence to the character, or to protect the family from the shame?

The Sightless Clayr
The sight does not always come to the Clayr, and they must find other vocations. Normally such sightless Clayr are given other duties in their stronghold in the Glacier, but you have been sent far away. What is the reason?

Students from Ancelstierre Families

The Heir
You’re from a powerful Ancelstierran family with connections to the government. Great things are expected of you when you return to Corvere after your Northern education.

The Wyverley Scholar
You’re from an unremarkable Southern family; just another girl sent away to learn manners in Wyverley’s famous College. But in your time here, you’ve developed a deep, almost spiritual connection with the place itself — and you probably know more than anyone else about the College and the surrounding area. You can’t think of ever leaving.


The Sending
You look like a real girl. You attend classes, you learn, and you eat, drink and sleep like a real girl. But look closely and people will see that you’re not a human at all — you’re a solid thing, composed of intricate layers of Charter marks swimming over your skin. You know you’re not a real person. Where did you come from, and why are you here?

The Cat
Whyverley has always had its Cat. The Cat goes where it wants, and makes friends with whomever it pleases. It wears a little collar around its neck with a tiny little bell on it… oh, and it talks.


The Boy In The Woods
There’s a local boy who can be found in the woods at the edge of Wyverley’s grounds. He seems to live by foraging and begging the kitchen for leftovers, and for some reason the cook can’t resist him. He knows the secret places around the land, and the old stories that go with them.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Death comes to Wyverley: (not) Bowing to Authority

This is part of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a Garth Nix / Abhorsen inspired playset for Beyond the Wall. This should be considered a fan work.


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:

  1. The adults are dealing with other things right now
  2. The adults are too far away to be contacted in time
  3. 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.

Ancelstierre Expects

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.