Alright kids, sit down for an RPG history lesson. Don’t start complaining now, you will thank me when something about this topic comes up while you’re at the final question of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. I’ll mail you my bank details once you pocket that cash.
Anyway, RPG history. I don’t want to talk about the history of computer RPG’s, but the one of tabletop RPG’s. Of course, both these histories are intertwined, but for today’s lesson, we’ll focus on the ones you play with dice and paper character sheets. Back in the days, before I was even born and when RPG’s were quite new, most games were all about plundering dungeons and slaying monsters. While the players gave their characters names and Gamemasters filled their worlds with details and daring plots, the primary focus of the game was gathering loot, gaining experience points and repeating that every session. Everything was clear and simple, and for a time, everything was fine and alright in RPG country. But everything changed when the method actors attacked!
Okay, sorry for the ATLA reference, but the day that games like Amber and Vampire: the Masquerade introduced complex stories and characters into the mix, was the day we could clearly see a divide in the community. I’m not claiming to be an expert on the matter, but if I had to pick one moment in time where the divide between “old-school” and “new-school” RPG’s was born, it would be the 90’s. It was then when story-focused games with less rules started to become popular, while rules-heavy games like AD&D had a hard time to compete with their revolutionary cousins.
Of course, D&D would get back into the fray once Wizards bought the license in the early 2000’s. However, the term “old-school gaming” will always refer to the time in which RPG’s where about lethal saving throws, weird level progressions and room-by-room exploration in dungeons littered with traps. The so-called Old School Renaissance (short “OSR”) gave birth to many retroclones trying to emulate the old days of simple dungeon-crawling action. Some of them try to add something new, but in my opinion, most OSR titles are pretty much alike. Then again, I’m not an expert when it comes to old-school RPG’s, so my opinion might not be so relevant.
In the meantime, many modern RPG’s focus on characters and their relationships. Succesful publications like the RPG’s for Smallville, Leverage and Dresden Files use character-driven rule systems that put the emphasis on telling a story, rather than on surviving some ancient ruins filled with goblins. Players work together to create a thrilling tale, in a world they have designed together. It’s all about cooperative storytelling instead of cooperative monster-hunting.
Both kinds of games can exist next to each other, but like with many things that rub shoulders often, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to cross-breed them, creating something daring, something experimental. In a certain way, Flatland Games has done this with Beyond the Wall, and has succeeded!
Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is a game inspired by writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and Lloyd Alexander, meant to tell stories of young, special people who go out on their first adventure. The ruleset is a true OSR product: you’ll be making saving throws for things like Breath Weapons and Polymorph, while using your Base Attack Bonus to smack monsters. What is entirely non-OSR is the character creation process. Inspired by games like Apocalypse World, Dungeon World and MonsterHearts, BtW gives every playable class a Playbook. During character creation, you’ll be rolling on tables in that Playbook, which will determine your character’s stats and background. Also, you will be adding NPC’s and locations to the home village of your fellow characters and you, creating a diverse and interesting base of operations.
While this is just a small addition to the further completely old-school system, BtW integrates it perfectly and without forcing it. Sitting together to not just create characters, but to also think about the people and places in your home village forges an immediate bond between the player characters. Also, it gives you a truckload of plot hooks to start with: why does a retired dragonslayer live in this tiny town? Maybe the player of the Would-Be Knight who added the NPC can say something about that, which could be the start of an adventure. It allows out-of-the-box, sandbox gameplay, where everyone at the table adds something to the always changing world.
Now, of course, if you’re just not into the OSR-kind of rules, BtW will annoy you with its old-school feel. However, if you want to see what a nice mix between retro elements and modern narrative systems could look like, head over to Flatland Games and check it out.