Beyond the Wall: Where OSR Simplicity Meets OGL Mechanics
As the cicadas sang their whirring courtship song, Galen’s grip on his father’s sword tightened. It had only been a few hours since the goblins had raided the village, and the wounds of the previous night’s violence were still fresh in the young man’s heart and mind. The foul creatures had come in the night, burning and pillaging. Before it was over, the granary was razed and Galen’s parents were dead. Worse still, Galen’s sister – a girl of only 14 summers – was one of several villagers kidnapped by the goblins.
The cicada song wound down to a brief silence and then resumed. Galen stood in the golden summer sunlight, his gaze fixed on the entrance to the goblin warren. Around him stood his father’s dearest friends from his days as an adventurer. Now they were the closest thing Galen had to family.
“No better time than the present to end this threat,” Orin the dwarf said, gripping Galen’s shoulder firmly.
“For once I agree, Hairface,” smirked Tarien, the elven ranger. The dwarf frowned at the nickname. “The sooner we get in there and get out with the surviving prisoners, the better. The hratha won’t dare pursue us in broad daylight,” the elf added, tentatively testing his sword’s thin blade against his thumb.
Sister Elena, an acolyte from the town’s chapel, hefted her mace. “Are we ready, then?” she asked impatiently.
“Yes,” Galen said grimly as he drew his father’s – now his – sword. “Let’s end this.”
The four strode with purpose into the shadows of the cave…
During my youth, I fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons game as well as the worlds revealed to me by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander. My mother found a second-hand copy of the Moldvay basic D&D set at a thrift store (minus the d8) one summer and after that I was hooked. But, living in rural Iowa and being an only child, I had no one to play the game with. Of course, being a gamer during the satanic panic of the 80s didn’t make it much easier.
With the advent of D&D 3.x and Pathfinder, I dove back into the game. While the new editions improved some of the mechanics (Ascending armor class! Simplified saves!), they still suffered from the rules bloat that plagued their predecessor. Mechanics seemed to be popping out of the woodwork as players and designers demanded rules to handle the story-related details of their games.
For a while I thought the halcyon days of simpler fantasy gaming were over.
When the Old School Renaissance – OSR – came about, it was originally characterized as being made up of older gamers like myself standing at the entrances of their dungeons, waving rusty battle axes and yelling at the younger kids to get their “storygames” off the lawn. Others have derided the OSR as being focused on nostalgia and power fantasies founded on broken mechanics and out of print games.
Despite this hyperbole, the OSR has placed simpler editions back in the hands of beginning gamers. Additionally, the lower cost of rulebooks in PDF format has made it all the easier to get into the hobby. That’s where Flatland Games’ RPG “Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures” (hence BtW) comes in.
Mixing OSR and OGL concepts and mechanics with the wise adage “Keep It Simple”, BtW draws upon numerous sources in those design schools to create a compelling, yet simple RPG. The purpose of this is twofold – to reduce the amount of preparation needed in running a game and to focus on the type of stories told by such authors as Alexander Lloyd and Ursula K. LeGuin – those of childhood friends swept up in fantastic adventures.
The designers of BtW have fulfilled this mission admirably. While the system does separate race and profession, it further simplifies things by using a three-class system – those classes being Warrior, Rogue, and Mage. Clerics, Paladins (or Templars) and other classes can easily be distinguished by choosing the appropriate knacks, skills and other trappings in character generation. Rules for dwarves, halflings and elves are found in the alternate rules section, as are the rules for simplified saving throws and multiclass characters.
Ability scores are 4d6, drop the lowest; hit points are maximum for the character’s class at first level, modified by Constitution modifier. A character starts with two skills assigned by the player, not determined by the character class, as well as the other abilities of their class. Alignment harkens back to the days of BECMI D&D (Law, Neutral, Chaos), but with an emphasis on flexibility. “Chaotic characters are not necessarily evil, wicked, or selfish individuals, though many are,” the rules state. This appears to run a bit counter to the assumption given in the BECMI D&D rules, which states: “Chaotic behavior is usually the same as behavior that could be called ‘evil.’”
Additionally, character generation can be accelerated using playbooks which help players determine their character’s abilities, backgrounds, and ties as friends and party members. During the course of using these playbooks, the gamemaster and players build and populate the heroes’ home village. Tables in the lifepath sections of each playbook allow the players to form ties between their characters as well as gain skills and even special items from shared encounters during their youth.
Ability score and skill rolls are handled as d20 roll-under with skills adding 2 or more levels to the necessary ability score and the difficulty of the task subtracting from the ability score. Saving throws and combat rolls are handled by rolling high. BtW caters to both OSR and OGL sensibilities in this area by featuring both the original five-save system and an alternate three-save system. In either system, saving throw target numbers decrease as a character’s experience level increases.
Combat is equally straightforward, using the backbone of the OGL combat system. Characters, NPCs, and monsters have static initiative; attack rolls are d20 + Base Attack Bonus, rolling high against Armor Class 10 + armor. As in D&D 3.x, BtW characters are down at zero hit points and die at -10 hit points. Quite frankly, my preferences go with death occurring at zero hit points as in BECMI D&D, cushioned with a house rule from the Pendragon RPG: the afflicted PC must make a Spell Effect or Fortitude save to avoid falling unconscious once they hit one-quarter of their total hit points.
Magic is equally simple. Spells are divided amongst cantrips, spells, and rituals. A mage can only cast as many spells as they have experience levels. After that, they have exhausted their power and must rest; rituals and cantrips are exempt from this ruling. Cantrips require a mage to make a successful Wisdom or Intelligence roll (determined by the cantrip description); rituals are the only dweomers which require a mage to be of an appropriate level to cast.
Monster stats in BtW rival BECMI D&D in simplicity. Compare a cockatrice in BtW to its counterpart in the Mentzer D&D Expert rules.
|Armor Class 14|
Hit Dice 5d8 (23 HP)
Attack +5 to hit, 1d6 damage (beak)
Alignment – Neutral
|Special: Petrification (any opponent touched by a cockatrice must make a saving throw versus petrification or be turned to stone|
|Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures p.77|
|Armor Class 6|
Hit Dice 5
Attacks: 1 beak
Damage: 1-6 + petrification
Flying: 180′ (60′)
|No. Appearing: 1-4 (2-8)|
Save As: Fighter 5
Treasure Type: D
|Mentzer D&D Expert Rules p.47|
It should be noted that monsters in BtW receive the same saving throws as everybody else, except their saves are based on hit dice, rather than what level they fight at as a warrior. Rules on creating variants for demons, goblins and dragons are also included, giving gamemasters a way to make their monsters memorable with little to no fuss. Two scenario packs – “The Angered Fae” and “The Hidden Cult” – are included in the back of the book along with a number of playbooks. The scenario packs are not fully fleshed out, allowing a gamemaster to either flesh them out quickly before the game starts or during character generation with the playbooks. Each one includes a listing of suggested foes. A third scenario pack, “The Goblin Infestation” is available for free from Flatland’s page on DriveThruRPG.com and includes more notes on making encounters with goblins more memorable (and dangerous).
Overall, the rules are simple and players and gamemasters are encouraged to add their own monsters, spells, items, and simple house rules to cover such things as added perks for leveling up in longer campaigns. The production values of the game are excellent, and the artwork is very fitting, though I do question the decision to use both color and black and white artwork rather than one type or the other. Adding to the charm of the game is the fact that a majority of the expansions for it are free! Flatland Games offers small PDF expansions covering the nobility, the village and elders, dwarves, halflings and elves (Where are the gnomes?!), as well as the afterlife and undead. Each of these expansions include not only stats for NPCs but also additional character playbooks. There’s also an excellent fan-made playbook and rule supplement titled “Beyond the Cave” which presents players the opportunity to play a bear (The Village Bear playbook) and include bears in the folklore of the setting. The only for-pay supplement in the line is “Beyond the Wall: Further Afield”, which covers such things as running campaigns with story arcs, going beyond 10th level, and a variety of expanded and alternate rules.
All in all, BtW is an excellent addition to the already dizzying array of OSR and OGL fantasy games out there. I find it to be a worthy successor to BECMI D&D and look forward to running adventures in it for gamers new, experienced, young, and old.
Galen ran, his heart pounding so hard he thought it would burst from his chest. Behind him he half-dragged, half-pulled his sister. In the darkness, the howls of angry goblins could be heard along with the clash of blades and cries of pain. Clutching his goblin-sullied blade in his free hand, Galen bolted into the late afternoon sun, pulling his sister along into the light.
As the two siblings caught their breath, Sister Elena stumbled out of the cavern, supporting the wounded dwarf. Behind them, Tarien stood defiantly, loosing one last arrow which found its mark in the shadows. “What about… the others…” Galen gasped, wiping his blade in the grass.
“We were lucky enough to get away with your sister, lad,” Orin grunted. The dwarf winced in pain as the cleric sat him down roughly and began to tend to his wound.
“True,” sighed Tarien. “We would have had more luck had that bumbling merchant not complained about leaving his wares behind.”
“Sit still and this won’t hurt – much,” Sister Elena warned, pulling out a small packet containing an herbal poultice.
“Augh!” Orin grimaced as the cleric applied the healing herbs. “That stings – and stinks!”
“That’s what you get for challenging their chieftain to a duel. Now, let’s get you on a horse and get out of here,” Sister Elena grunted, helping the dwarf to his feet.
Galen boosted his sister onto the back of his horse before climbing into the saddle. Orin swayed slightly in the saddle of his pony, his face slightly paler than normal. Tarien reached over from his own steed and took the reins so the dwarf could concentrate on keeping his balance. “Easy, Hairface. I’ve got you.”
“My thanks, Treewalker,” the dwarf said, the barb of the nickname dulled by his pain.
As the four rode back to town, Galen looked back at the goblin warren. The thrill of dodging goblin blades and outsmarting the filthy monsters burned in his blood. Was this what his father felt as an adventurer all those years ago? The young man patted the hilt of his father’s sword. Was this what it was like to be heir to a legend?
About our Guest Author – Dale Meier
Dale Meier got his start in RPGs as a youth growing up in the wilds of rural Iowa. Cutting his teeth on the Moldvay basic D&D set, he moved on to West End Games’ Star Wars RPG in 1987 and has continued exploring and creating worlds without number as a gamemaster since then. In the mid- and late-1990s he was a regular writer for the amateur press association Interregnum; in the early 2000s he served as a demo team bounty hunter for Alderac Entertainment Group running demos of the company’s Legend of the Five Rings and Spycraft RPGs. Currently he is the Traveller line editor for Trooper X and the RPG line editor for his fledgling company, Silent Sage Publishing.
Publisher: Flatland Games
Publisher Stock #: FLG2001
Page Count: 153 (including both covers, OGL license and a single-page ad)
Design: John Cocking and Peter S. Williams
Writing and Layout: Peter S. Williams
Art: Jon Hodgson, Erin Lowe, Larry MacDougall, Seth Meeks
Editing: Harold Cranford
Copy Editing: Ann Brady
Graphics: Jesse Wolf
Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures RPG
Beyond the Wall – Further Afield
Beyond the Wall – The Nobility
Beyond the Wall – The Village
Beyond the Wall – The Elders
Beyond the Wall – Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings
Beyond the Wall – The Goblin Infestation
Beyond the Wall – Across the Veil