Saturday, March 7, 2015

Review: Further Afield

I love to read and fiddle and hack all sorts of different rule sets. But the game I actually play is Beyond the Wall. It’s pretty great.

Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is set up for quick, low-prep games. You can sit down with your friends and some dice, and soon have rounded, interrelated characters, a detailed-enough base Village, and an adventure knocking down the door.

There’s no reason to limit such an appealing system to one-shot sessions. And a big new supplement is here to take the strategies that worked so well in Beyond the Wall and apply them to long-term campaign play: Further Afield.

I want to go to there.

I’ve been playtesting Further Afield content for several months. Here’s my take:

Collaborative Sandbox Design
Beyond the Wall makes play out of chargen, generating not only character abilities and history, but also relationships, significant NPCs, and the Village that serves as the base.

Further Afield uses this same collaborative approach to build a sandbox campaign. Players take turns adding locations to an approximate map. This, of course, is insane. How can the players explore a region they created? But—vitally—their characters’ knowledge is fallible. The players determine how their characters learned of this place (rumor, study, or direct experience), and the GM rolls in secret to determine how accurate their information is. It can be disastrously wrong.

This is the map I made for players to put their locations on. Very approximate.

After an initial round of location creation, players can then take a turn embellishing another player’s location. In my experience, this embellishing stage is where things really started to click. The initial locations people were coming up with were placeholders for game tropes—basically “put a scary dungeon here,” "how about an orc tribe there?" But with the embellishments, the locations started to get more specific, and a world emerged.

We had fun making our world. The players have a bit of ownership over it, and the characters have enough world-knowledge that it feels like they live there, but not so much that they can feel secure.

I’ve encountered exactly two players who seemed allergic to this kind of collaboration. I can’t quite wrap my head around that. It seems like unalloyed fun, to me. And all the other players have really taken to it. It’s opened the door to bringing in other games, like Microscope and Archipelago to flesh out parts of the world, and makes for a nice change of pace from the more traditional crawl-style play.

After a bit of fiddling, this is our sandbox.

Threat Packs
Beyond the Wall has Scenario Packs—clever little packets that use a couple tables and a few stat blocks to generate a nearly-no-prep evening or two of play. Further Afield extends this notion with Threat Packs. These generate longer-term problems at large in the world that eventually build to a crisis. I’m working with one of the Threat Packs, now. Honestly, it is so sympatico with the way I do things anyway, that it hardly feels like an addition so much as if someone wrote down some of my notes before I thought them.

Death and New Characters
Very useful for long-term play if you’re using Beyond the Wall playbooks. BtW creates a tight-knit group of characters with a shared history. Which is great. Until a new player joins, or someone dies and needs a new character. You can always make a new character, of course, but you lose out on the flavor that comes with the generated history. Further Afield provides suggestions and tables for bringing new characters into the fold. I haven’t directly used these tables, but I have taken inspiration from this section when introducing fresh faces.

Character Traits
Further Afield introduces Traits, little character bonus abilities, like “Tenacious,” “Oathkeeper,” or “Mighty Shot.” I don’t like these as additions to new characters—one too many bangles ruining an elegant sufficiency—but I can see awarding them later, during play, as a form of advancement.

Further Afield offers several optional methods of dealing XP, many of which will be familiar to anyone reading rpg blogs. The most promising, at least for games with a tone like Beyond the Wall, is a system of tying XP to money and effort invested in their home Village. Build a village wall, add a keep, upgrade the fortifications. As your village thrives, so does your character.

Creating Magical Items
It is so satisfying when you read a game mechanic that perfectly captures the feeling of myth and story, and you just dream of the opportunity to bring it into play and create a truly epic moment for your players. I had that response three different times while reading this section. Haven’t had a chance to use it yet in play, but it’s going to be so good when I do.

Optional Rules
I’ve played with the Combat Stances quite a lot, and found them very useful. They work very well with an abstracted approach to combat by adding strategic specificity without getting caught up in granularity or simulationism. There’s also a variant use of Fortune Points that my players glommed into in a hurry.
I made this chart to help remind my players to use the combat stances.

The Book
The layout and design at Flatland Games has been steadily improving. The illustrations—well, all the illustrations are good. Some are really, really good. But the tone is all over the place. Even more than you’d expect from a role-playing game. Illustrations have a huge influence on our perception of games. We might as well refer to Otus D&D and Elmore D&D, right? And BtW is a game with a carefully cultivated tone. This tone is backed up by both the crunch and fluff of the system, so it’s disruptive that it isn’t consistent in the visuals.

What I’d really like to see is the Beyond the Wall Core Rules and Further Afield integrated into one book, with some clean, crisp, spare layout and cohesive artwork. It would be my go-to Christmas gift for years to come.

Larry MacDougal just might be BtW's Erol Otus.

Further Afield is a solid expansion—a must-buy for anyone using Beyond the Wall, and a worthy collection of ideas for people who aren’t.

Further Afield
By John Cocking and Peter S. Williams
Flatland Games

Full disclosure: In addition to the playtest documents, I was comped a .pdf of the final edition.