Monday, April 15, 2013

Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures: Initial Reactions

Back in February, when I blogged about the experiences that brought me to role-gaming, I mentioned my encounter with J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit as possibly the crucial factor in making me primarily a fan of fantasy (and thus only secondarily a fan of science-fiction). Tolkien was certainly the first author to introduce me to fantasy, but Lloyd Alexander followed right upon the Professor's heels. In fact, I'm almost certain that I picked up my copy of Alexander's The Black Cauldron (the 1980 Laurel-Leaf edition with the blue-edged pages and the Jean-Leon Huens cover illustration depicted above) at the same Book Fair where I acquired my first copies of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I thus came to Prydain only a few weeks after I first visited Middle-earth.

I also had the honor of speaking with Lloyd Alexander twice: first as a sixth-grader participating in a phone interview and then as a graduate student in Philadelphia attending a meet-and-greet at Chris's Corner bookstore. After the phone interview, my reading teacher Marty Podskoch gave me a publicity photo of Alexander playing the violin; said photo now hangs on my living room wall. The bookstore meet-and-greet resulted in an autographed hardcover of Black Cauldron that is probably my most carefully guarded book. So I guess you could say that Lloyd Alexander meant—and still means—a lot to me.

Which is why I'm always surprised that Alexander never had a greater effect on role-gaming. He was certainly a factor in my own early gaming: one of my first Tunnels & Trolls character was a rip-off of Gurgi, and I remember adding Gurgi's ever-full sack of food to a list of Dungeons & Dragons magic items I was writing up. But beyond my own initial games I don't recall Alexander having much of a significant influence.

Until now: Flatland Games has just published Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures, a D&D neoclone explicitly "Inspired by the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander" (as the BTW website puts it). What distinguishes BTW from other neoclones is its focus on the party as a band of "young heroes finding their way in dangerous situations" (p. 2 of the Core Rules booklet). D&D as YA fantasy instead of sword-and-sorcery, if you will.

Although it appears that you can more or less run the game as a rules-light version of D&D, BTW's "killer app" is its use of Character Playbooks (randomized life-paths generating different versions of YA fantasy archetypes) and Out-of-the-Box Play (as the players generate their characters using the Playbooks, their dice rolls help to generate the party's home village and influence the GM's scenario—the adventure provided with the initial rules has blank spaces for GMs to insert character-specific information and hooks that shape the way the scenario plays out).

BTW's approach to fantasy thus aims right at the oracular-pig-shaped hole in my gaming heart. I'm going to take some time tonight to roll up a character using one of the Playbooks (either a Taran-esque "Village Hero" or an Eilonwy-esque "Witch's Prentice"). Since BTW assumes that the players will create their heroes as a group (the sixth table in every Playbook not only generates a stat bonus for the character in question, but for the character of the player to the right), this sample hero won't be a completely accurate test case for the game. But I think it will nicely get at just what BTW has to offer the role-gaming scene.

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