Sunday, May 4, 2014

Interview: Beyond the Wall's Peter Williams and John Cocking

There is such a wonderful profusion of creativity that has emerged from the OGL and the SRD, and I thought it would be interesting to chat with some of the creators involved, beginning with designers of the game I'm gearing up to run this summer.

Peter Williams and John Cocking, of Flatland Games, are the designers of Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures.


What are your histories as gamers?
Peter: Like many of my generation, I started playing with the original Red Box, which my older brother got for a present at some point when I was quite young. I remember having a 1st Edition Monster Manual in the house much earlier, which I believe our parents picked up for us on a whim, knowing that we liked mythology and monsters. From there it was on to other early favorites, particularly Stormbringer. I've been gaming ever since.

John: It may sound like a line, but around the same time I learned to read, my friend and I played AD&D in a tower. We just had a Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, and a half-set of dice, but it was enough to get started. Games have always been about stories first for me, perhaps because I learned to game at the same time I first heard most of Grimm's fairy tales.

Could you describe BtW?
Peter: Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is a game about young heroes. It runs on a chassis made from the OGL, but differentiates itself in its genre, which comes directly from classic young adult fantasy fiction, and the approach to starting a game. We use what we hope are flavorful and interesting Character Playbooks and Scenario Packs to allow pickup play.

John: I'd go so far as to say that as well as Peter's description, you could call Beyond the Wall a trick for making characters matter to each other within a traditional game setup. We used the OGL because it's the lingua franca for gamers of a certain age.

What motivated designing this game?
Peter: Oh, probably a lot of things. The foremost in my mind right now is the fact that we, as many gamers of our age, were finding it harder and harder to find steady play. That was the impetus behind putting together something for quick, one-shot play. In terms of our literary inspirations, I think I was just generally frustrated with being unable to find games emulating the kinds of stories I most enjoy; I certainly don't have anything against either epic heroes or grim and gritty stories, but neither of those speaks to me the way that the Hobbit does, or the works of LeGuin.

John: I really wanted the convenient fun of a one-shot dungeon crawl, but wanted to play a game like the stories I read—stories about people helping each other when it really matters.

BtW shows an influence from more contemporary story-based and collaborative styles of games. What were your non-OSR inspirations?
Peter: I'm a big fan of a lot of modern, story-based games, in particular Burning Wheel and Fiasco. I think you can see the touch of both of those games on Beyond the Wall. Interestingly, Apocalypse World and its derivatives, which are excellent, and to which we are frequently compared, came afterward for me.

John: I seem to remember that I kept pestering Peter to play Apocalypse World, but never made the sale. It and Fiasco certainly shaped much of my thinking about getting games started quickly. The card game Once Upon A Time, which I once rather optimistically purchased in French, was also an influence.

Peter: I do remember that now. I was an idiot.

What is your take on the balance of mechanics and narrative?
Peter: That is a really complex question, and one about which I go back and forth all the time. If I am speaking personally, I often very much enjoy playing traditional games with simple mechanics that get out of the way and let me immerse myself in my character. However, I also really like what indie games have done with story-driven mechanics in the past 10 years or so, and I do think that system matters. The interplay between those two sometimes conflicting desires is probably also behind the origin of Beyond the Wall.

Ultimately, I certainly believe that there is room in the world for games that address the relationship between mechanics and narrative in many different ways, and personally like a great number of them. I frequently don't understand tribalism.

John: Beyond the Wall is our first run at that very question. We picked the OGL to have access to a set of mechanics that would "get out of the way" for many gamers, and used the Playbooks and Scenario Packs to introduce mechanics to serve the narrative. Another approach would be Burning Wheel, a game I adore, which in its stake setting and Duel of Wits mechanic does a wonderful job of keeping both the story and the game system active and engaging.

How integral is the setting/flavor to mechanics of BtW?
Peter: Probably not as integral as I might like. We knew that we were working with the OGL because, as John said earlier, it is the lingua franca of the roleplaying world, which meant that it was perfect for immediate pickup play. That meant that we really couldn't do too much to work the flavor directly into the mechanics, and instead had to rely on things like the Playbooks and our monsters to get that across. Having said that, we did several things here and there that I think are a big help, like our magic system and the rules for true names.

John: The change of the magic system, the addition of Fortune Points, and the use of the Playbooks and Scenario Packs are our ways of using the mechanics to model the setting and flavor we're trying to capture.

There are three distinctive mechanics of BtW I’d like to hear more about, both in terms of inspiration and development:
1.     Character Generation
Peter: I think that John was the one who first had the idea for discrete Character Playbooks, and I thought it was pretty brilliant with only a little pushing on his part. I've always liked joint character creation and players bouncing backgrounds and ideas off each other, creating an interconnected group from the start. It was nice to have something, like our Playbooks, to facilitate that sort of group creativity and unity.

John: It's hard to care about someone else's lone wolf assassin character, but when your characters have all grown up together, and the players have helped invent the village, suddenly there's a reason to care. Even single goblin is a big deal when it might kill your aunt.

2.     Magic
Peter: Some time around 2005 or so, my personal group at the time decided to start an AD&D campaign. I hadn't played any flavor of D&D in years at that point, and some of the players never had. John was running, and he and I had a brainstorming session that lasted most of a night. I was mostly a 2nd Edition guy in my childhood, but John showed up with his 1st Edition books. We mostly used a 2nd Edition Player's Handbook and 1st Edition everything else, and I remember that we could never agree on which edition we were playing, to the point that arguing about it became a mostly unfunny running gag.

In any event, one of those books that John brought was Unearthed Arcana, of which I had only a vague recollection. John pitched a game of very low magic, all human characters, but I wanted to play a mage. Using the optional rules in Unearthed Arcana, John started me at level 0 knowing only a few cantrips, but he let me cast the cantrips as often as I wanted with an Intelligence check. This experience was absolutely awesome, both when I was just using those cantrips in creative ways, and then later when I finally learned spells.

When it came time to do a magic system for Beyond the Wall, I knew that I wanted to recreate some of that feeling, and it helped that the combination of quick but weak cantrips and a few more powerful spells matched much of our source fiction. Rituals were the last piece of the puzzle, and I think that they help make the magic seem like a bigger deal. That's one of the reasons spell components are shunted off to the rituals alone and made even more important there.

John: As well as what Peter said, I would add that in the stories that I love most, magic doesn't work at all like it does in D&D. I'm happy that we've found a way to keep some of the best of all possible worlds.

3.     Adventure Prep
Peter: Like I said earlier, we were finding it harder and harder to make regular, longterm play happen. Once we had Character Playbooks, it wasn't a very big leap to get to these Scenario Packs that tie in with them. John and I both regularly "wing it" when we are running games, doing a bit of prep and then seeing what happens at the table; I frequently show up to run games with one page of notes, tops, and sometimes I think John does less. We knew that this was the only reasonable way to make a roleplaying game suitable to a single evening of play, but figured that we needed to provide some help for the GM so that the whole thing wasn't too stressful.

John: Many of us spend a lot of our working time alone in our heads, getting to dream up cool ideas, solve complicated problems, or troubleshoot server settings. That was much of the fun of preparing adventures. I do that for work now, so I like to spend as much of my gaming time at the table as possible.

BtW doesn’t have Clerics. Did eliminating their healing spells or undead-turning require adjustments to the rest of the game?
Peter: It hasn't really been much of an issue. For one thing, both healing and turning are available as spells for the mage class, so it is still possible to have someone healing in the party. Our HP and death mechanics are also a bit more forgiving than some others out there, though not much.

John: Peter recently played a follower of a forgotten god of Law using the Devout Acolyte playbook. It's not that we got rid of clerics, it's that we tried not to be prejudiced about where anyone's magic might come from. That said, you're right that the balance of the party is shifted a bit by folding the cleric into the mage class. The strongest balance for that has been our Fortune Point mechanic.

Were there any legacies of the original game that you considered problematic, but too established, either mechanically or in the mind of the player, to get rid of?
Peter: Saving Throws! We agonized over them for some time, but ultimately decided that they needed to stay for compatibility purposes. It was important to us that players be able to use any module they wanted with a minimum of fuss, and that meant keeping some legacy mechanics that might not have been our favorites.

On that note, there was a time in the development of Beyond the Wall that we worked on making our own system from scratch, and I recall that we actually did get somewhere with it. In the end though, we just decided to go OGL and keep it simple, again for the lingua franca reasons mentioned earlier.

John: That Fantasy Heartbreaker system we abandoned was wonderful, wasn't it? Still, I like the one we kept.

Peter: For the record, we called the project "Fantasy Heartbreaker" for some time and almost used it for the official name of the game. I am still sometimes sad that we did not, and I know that John is sadder.

John: This is the only grudge I ever intend to hold.

What’s the longest running BtW campaign you know about? Does the game scale well to upper-level play?
Peter: I'm not sure how long people have been playing it out there, but we have certainly messed with it at all levels of play ourselves. Really, it works just as well as most OSR games for campaigns, but most people are more focused on the Playbooks and one-shot play.

John: Built on the chassis of the OGL, Beyond the Wall does at least as well as its ancestor. One thing we did well was to make every character class relevant at every level. With cantrips, higher HPs, and access to weapons, the mage can meaningfully contribute at first level, but by moving the most earth-shaking magic to our time-intensive rituals, we keep the high-level mage from overwhelming the rogue.

What do you play when you’re not playing BtW? What do you look for in other editions/retroclones?
Peter: In the past year or so I have played Fiasco and Vampire, in addition to Beyond the Wall and other OSR stuff. My brother is working on a neat Apocalypse World hack that I have playtested in that time too. I play a fair amount of board games. I recently got into a miniature wargame called Saga, which I am pretty keen on.

John: In roleplaying games, I look for a system that will make the other players think I'm clever. I know, it's asking a lot.

How has the community received BtW?
Peter: Better than I expected, to be honest. We aren't a phenomenal success, but the press has been good, and people seem to like it.

John: Everyone's been very kind. We've reached electrum seller status on Drive Thru RPG, and even had a wonderful extended Bestiary made by Colin Chapman. (Check it out! http://www.flatlandgames.com/btw/downloads/)

What are your plans for the future?
Peter: We've been working on a largish supplement for Beyond the Wall dealing with campaigns and other bits. I am pretty excited about it. We've been through several iterations over the past six months or so, which has caused the time table to get pushed back repeatedly, but I like what we are on to.

John: We're working hard to make sure your villains are as interesting as your heroes.

Can you share any of the thinking that's going into the campaign supplement? Is it a scaling up of the playbooks? Or a completely different beast?
Peter: We are trying to approach the "campaign problem" with a similar mindset to the way that we approached the "one shot problem." I use the quotes there because I am not convinced that either of these things are problems per se, but we do recognize that it can be a difficult thing to get a game off the ground sometimes.

Given that, we build on our existing framework to provide the GM and the whole group with some tools to set up what we hope to be a dynamic campaign setting directly tied to their characters and the village. Then we try to have some simple rules that keep lots of pieces moving in the background so that the GM has a minimum of prep required for play sessions. Our flavor concerns are still present throughout, so we also need these tools to suggest games in which relationships and home matter more than treasure and monsters (but there are plenty of those, too, of course).

John: Yeah; we're tapping into the systems that were so useful for character creation and quick-start play to provide sustenance for longer-term play.

What is the appeal of the OSR?
Peter: I think my favorite thing about the OSR is how cross-compatible everything is. Whether the mechanics of these games are your favorite or not, they are extremely serviceable, and the wealth of material means that you can grab what you like on any given night and never run out. There are so many neat games and supplements coming out with really interesting takes and bits and bobs, all of which run on the same basic engine. Just look at something like Adventurer, Conqueror, King and its domain rules, or even something as small as the Summon spell in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. All of these pieces can be combined in an infinite number of ways.

John: Yes. It's mostly that we're familiar with the underlying grammar. Thirty years from now, Apocalypse World or FATE might be the system that everyone kind of knows.

Thanks to Peter and John for their generosity in responding to my questions. Beyond the Wall is available for download at DrveThruRPG.

Illustrations for this interview are from The Book of Wonder Voyages, 1919, illustrated by John D. Batten and found via the precisely named fuckyeahvintageillustration tumblr.