The other night five of us got together with the intention of playing a 2-3 session game of Beyond the Wall. Our experience with D&D variants ranged from lots to little; we’ve just finished a lengthy Blades in the Dark campaign, so we’re used to gaming with each other. Here’s how the first session went.
Character generation was a lot of fun. It was difficult for us to fight off the instinct to tie our rolls to the bits we added to the village map, but we all relaxed a bit about that over time. We wound up with Galia, a druidy Devout Acolyte; Narah, a spiritualist of a Witch’s Apprentice; Magda, a tall agile bowwoman serving as the Village Hero; and Douglas, a carelessly lucky Halfling Vagabond. The halfling’s player wanted to be from the village originally, and it wasn’t at all hard to interpret the rolls with that in mind.
Interesting hitch in the process: if you’re not well-versed in D&D, the playbooks don’t make it entirely obvious how the stats work. In particular, the difference between stats and stat bonuses can be tricky. Since for most groups D&D is the lingua franca, this is no big deal, but it’s something I’d keep in mind if I was using Beyond the Wall as a tool to teach new gamers (and it’d be great for that).
We also wound up with a couple of interesting stories brewing; there’s one about how the town militia was under the thumb of the regional sheriff until Magda chased him off, and there’s one about the elves that Douglas followed out of town at a young age. Will these become relevant in the scenario we’re playing? Time will tell!
I am not super-experienced as a sandbox GM, although running Blades in the Dark for a year teaches you a lot about improvisation. I was curious to see if the scenario and character generation would give me enough to work with. The answer was certainly yes: the final character tables gave me some cool items to think about, and over the course of an hour and a half we got plenty of backstory to work with.
We then launched into Recent Events. This was also good stuff; I think in retrospect I could have leaned into the roleplaying a bit more and really fleshed these out as mini-scenes, but at the same time everyone seemed happy. Galia got sick and did not recover well on her own! Since Magda knows folklore, she was able to identify the illness everyone was getting as the fabled “Crone’s Plague.” But that’s not a real thing… or is it?
Magda later encountered an old traveling priest, who asked her what her name was.
“Oh, I’m Magda Weaver.”
“You look more like a defender than a weaver to me. Are you a weaver, or a defender?”
“… I’m a defender.”
“Good. This town will need one.”
Narah was sent by her witchy mentor to gather herbs in the far off woods. This was complex, since she’d just rolled her mentor’s death, but fortunately we’d decided that witches stick around as ghosts after they die. The ghostly witch also showed Narah how to brew a healing potion from the herbs.
Douglas discovered that his mom’s hops (used for brewing) were sprouting unhealthy green flowers. With Galia’s help, he was able to scrape off the bad growth and use it to make a few skins full of healing beer.
All this made the general flavor of the problem pretty clear: there’s a plague in the village, and the heroes need to figure out what’s behind it all.
The players decided they’d start out in the tavern at the center of the village. They’re deeply roleplay oriented, so this wound up being a lot of banter and defining personalities and awesome stuff like that. Douglas has his own special high chair, and so on.
Narah, taking the problem seriously, decided to use Sense Magic to scan for anything weird at the tavern. Whoa! Turns out Edgar the woodsman has a sickly glow around him. They quizzed him for a while and found out that he’d been cutting down trees in this sickly-looking grove a ways out in the woods. This sounded like exactly the problem at hand, so they gathered themselves and headed off to check it out.
They were interrupted on the way out by Mercia, an old widow who Narah takes care of from time to time. Mercia was really worried that the kids would be in danger and encouraged them to stay home, but eventually settled for a clear description of where they were going “So I can raise the alarm in the worst case! Oh, I’m just going to worry until you get back.” Somewhat satisfied, Mercia headed off to force-feed Edgar chicken soup while the heroes made their way through the forest to the darkened grove.
I had them make a Wisdom check to find their way there; with all the appropriate skills in the party, Galia made the roll trivially. System note: players who aren’t used to OD&D will in fact be confused by the fact that some rolls are roll under, and some are roll over. One of my personal notes for this game was to be liberal about calling for rolls, which was inspired by listening to an excellent Delta Green actual play podcast — I feel like I want a lot of that randomness and looking for other ways around a problem in this game. So far so good.
The grove itself was super-creepy, with unhealthy looking trees and darkly menacing music. (OK, the music was my soundtrack, not an in-game effect.) Narah started using Sense Magic to slowly scan for weirdness. Galia decided to look for the problem at the heart of the grove — trees don’t get that warped on their own, it’s got to be the soil in which they grow. Magda and Douglas stayed on alert.
As a GM, I am highly illusionist when it comes to filling in details. For example, Edgar popped into existence when Narah started using Sense Magic — I knew the Crone’s Plague was striking the village, and I knew it was magical, so I decided there was a woodsman called Edgar because that was a reasonable manifestation. Similarly, I took a cue from Galia’s statements regarding the world we’re playing in and decided she was right about the grove’s corruption needing a source. Once a detail’s manifested, it’s real and I don’t fudge it one way or the other, but I feel free to add elements on the fly.
Thus, Galia discovered a ball of vines and thorns and darkness buried in a hollow in the grove, with the roots of the trees growing into it. Simultaneously, Sarah realized that four of the trees had magical auras. Also simultaneously, those four trees ripped themselves free from the ground and went for the heroes.
Yay, fight! I have no good feel for how dangerous fights are in Beyond the Wall but hey, four 1 HD monsters, seems about right. I just reskinned zombies and decided the trees were really undead. Douglas immediately scampered out of the grove, making a Dex roll to escape successfully. Magda got Galia’s blessing on her arrow and shot at the root ball, which I completely hadn’t expected but sure, strike at the source! She did good damage which I partitioned out among all the zombie trees, killing one outright and wounding the others. Narah hexed one of the trees to strike less accurately.
The trees mindlessly split their attacks, missing twice and scoring on Galia. Next round Douglas threw a dagger at a tree, Magda missed, and Galia turned two of the remaining three trees. Narah missed with her dagger, and the last tree hit Galia again. Douglas tossed over a healing beer skin and everyone else made quick work of the remaining animate three. This was also around the time they realized they should spend Fortune like water.
The heroes scooped up the ball of vines and thorns: “I put it in a bag, then I put the bag inside another bag.” Galia knows how to avoid contamination. They then headed home, where Mercia fretfully met them and informed them that she was so worried! Also Edgar died even though Galia gave him some of her best chicken soup. And that’s where we cut for the next session.
We played for around three hours. I think if I’d pushed a little harder and we’d had one more hour we could have done the whole scenario in one night, but letting it breathe over two sessions is in tune with my group’s style. We’re also not all rules geeks, as noted, so the character creation went a bit slower than it might have otherwise.
Everyone had a ton of fun. It’s wild watching players who don’t have D&D in their bones the way many of us do! But, unsurprisingly, the system did not get in the way. I think the biggest thing I’ll remind the players about next time is that there is not all that much difference between a first level warrior and a first level mage in terms of hand to hand combat.
A couple of rules questions/notes:
I’m giving full experience for each monster killed to each character. I could split it up, but that seems like it’d make monster XP really insignificant compared to accomplishment XP, and I don’t mind fast advancement. It doesn’t matter much for a game I’ll only be running for two or three sessions, of course.
The Halfling Vagabond playbook claims that first level rogues have a BAB of +1. It should be a BAB of 0, right?
The Rogue class chart says level 1 and 2 Rogues have a Polymorph save of 12, but then level 3 and 4 rogues have a Polymorph save of 13. This has to be a typo — should it be 13 or 14?