First Experiences with Running "Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures"
I just watched this video from the Wandering DMs (Dan Collins and Paul Siegel) about their experiences with playing/running games at conventions as compared to long-running campaigns. Aside from being interesting in its own right, it was fairly relevant to me since I just ran a game of Beyond the Wall (henceforth BtW). It wasn't exactly like a convention game since the players weren't strangers to me, but two of them were meeting the third for the first time, there was a mix of experience levels (with gaming as a whole, let alone with D&D-style TTRPGs in particular), and I had to try fitting it into a constrained window of time, so I got to reflecting on it as I watched that video.
That'd be too much of an exercise in navel-gazing for me to post here, though, so I'd rather use this opportunity to talk about how the session went.
One of the major qualities of BtW is its suitability for minimal prep, pick-up-and-play character creation and adventure building. I'd been keen on giving it a try for a while, so I printed out packets for the six character playbooks in the main book as well as three of the additional playbooks from the Heroes Young and Old supplement (specifically, the devout acolyte, the reformed bully, and the local performer). I'd also printed out all of the scenario packs, and a random roll led to me choosing the goblin infestation scenario from the The Wicked Dark supplement. I'd been on the fence about whether to include that as a possible option since it suggests using some extra effort to do procedural generation of the goblins' lair, but I figured I could just go with the example lair from the supplement and reskin it on the fly if needed.
My first roll to name the village gave "Abindgdon", but I didn't trust myself to not fumble about saying that, so I made an executive decision to pick "Kirkwall" instead.
The characters we used were the witch's prentice (Storm), the village hero (Sira, which I'm probably misspelling, with apologies to my player), and the untested thief (Loco). Right from the first roll of the playbooks (that Storm's parents filled her head with old stories of folklore), we started having a good time of trying to interpret the results and come up with an understanding of the various characters' backgrounds. Some of them fit incredibly well (e.g. Loco was a son of the local weavers who self-trained in thievery by pinching baubles from travelers, of which his greatest heist was stealing a very, very sharp dagger from a stranger passing through), some of them were a bit more haphazard (e.g. Sira was the daughter of some shepherds who earned her name by wrestling down a bear and was rewarded with a "dragon's scale" trophy), but they all ended up pretty solid and sensible. I'd run through making a test character with each of the playbooks myself to get a sense of what kinds of results I should expect, but I was surprised at how much more fun it was to do that as a group.
That said, adding NPCs and locations to the village map proved notably less smooth. I think the players were a little overwhelmed initially with the prospect of being able to add something unrelated to the details of their characters, and it also wasn't terribly clear when I was supposed to add my touches as well, since the scenario pack only adds one of each while the playbooks add two of each. Also, the whole idea of drawing a thing on the map led to a small but annoying downtime as everyone waited for their turn to do some artistry (probably not helped by two of the players being people who've made professional-grade artwork), and naming the NPCs was left to be done on an as-needed basis in play to offload some of the burden from the players. Some more constraints on that side of things would've helped smooth out the process, I think, but overall, getting three well-developed characters and a somewhat detailed village out in about 30-45 minutes was pretty impressive.
At that point, we took a quick break for the players to have some snacks while I made the rest of the rolls for the scenario pack. One of the things that stuck in my head from the character/village creation was that there was a special farm next to the alchemist's lab (which I started calling the GMO farm) that was separate from the witch's garden (which came up during Storm's creation, and her player specifically wanted the witch's garden to be on the other side of the village from the GMO farm), so I tried to think of how I could build the rest of the set-up from that. I rolled on all of the tables aside from the mid-session unforeseen twist, though because of the time constraint, I ended up ignoring the special feature of the goblin tribe or the details of their goblin king (in fact, I pretty much dropped the whole goblin lair and just went with a couple of goblins with a guardian beast since I was running late to wrap things up by the time they finished with that first encounter).
We were only going to have about an hour of playing time at this point, so the fact that the goblin infestation scenario pack only has one roll for a recent event to start things off was a blessing in disguise. The result on the recent event table was #2: "There were reports of strange activities outside of the village. You and your closest friends went to check them out, finding only the remains of an earlier goblin attack, such as dead travelers on the road." Just reading that verbatim seemed boring to me (incidentally, I loathe read-aloud boxed text in adventure modules), so I improvised a simple description of Storm taking her friends to check out some possible threats in the haunted forest outside of Kirkwall on the advice of the village witch, who had left on a mission less than a week ago. They passed the Intelligence test (Storm had 19 INT, so it wasn't much of a test, really), so they recognized it as a sign of a goblin attack, and for clues about the location of the goblin lair, I had them both find some broken arrows of unusual wood and some claw sheddings for which they did not recognize the source animal.
They went back to Kirkwall to see if the grizzled Viking mercenary Hagar might know what kind of animal they were dealing with. On the way to the inn, however, they noticed a crowd milling around outside of the ancient dwarf's hovel. Storm continued on to the inn while Sira and Loco went to check out the crowd. Much to their chagrin, they saw that the village's ancient dwarf was dead, laying prone on the ground, with more of these crude little arrows protruding from his back (Sira's player was the most chagrined as the dwarf had been one of her additions to the village). In checking around to see what they could turn up, Sira recognized the arrows as being carved from yew, for which the only nearby source was a particular copse in the haunted forest, and Loco found an acorn-like gem on the dwarf which they didn't recognize.
Storm rejoined them, having convinced Hagar to help try to identify the strange beast. He headed off to the haunted forest together with Loco and Sira while Storm told chilling stories to the crowd. In doing so, she jogged her own memories of goblins and recalled that they could have means of corrupting wildlife to serve them.
Hagar explained what he could about the animal after checking its traces, which he recognized as a wolverine, but Sira couldn't understand how it differed from a normal badger aside from being bigger (I felt bad about the player failing her INT test despite having skill in animal lore and spending a fortune point on a reroll, but that's just how the dice go sometimes). They did learn enough to develop some ideas for how to lure it into a trap, though, so it wasn't a wasted expedition. They decided to stay in the area and watch for any signs of it (or goblins) while giving the acorn gem to Hagar to get it checked by Albert the alchemist.
Hagar gave it to Albert, who in turn gave it to Storm, since he recognized it as something magical and she was the resident expert on such matters while the village witch was away. She got an incredible roll for an INT check to see how much she could glean from using her Sense Magic ability on the acorn (she rolled something like 15 under her INT score), so I told her that not only did she recognize that it was infused with magic, and not only did she know that it was witchly magic rather than goblin magic, but she could even read enough of a signature to tell that it was her witch's magic. That seemed to do the trick in ratcheting up the tension before Storm went into the haunted forest to meet back up with Loco and Sira.
She had no trouble getting there, but just moments before her arrival, the other two witnessed a pair of goblins come by, riding on the back of what I said looked like "a hobo badger on steroids". That was not the more eloquent way of describing a mangy wolverine touched by chaos, but it was evocative enough to stick in their heads, so I'd say it did the job. Storm used her knowledge of herbalism to help Loco in finding what he needed to make a snare while Sira thought about the sounds she'd heard the hobo badger make to try working out a luring call.
Honestly, I'm summarizing a lot in that last sentence, because for some reason, it seemed to take a long time to work that plan out at the table. I can't recall exactly why, but at any rate, I was almost out of time at this point and needed to get things finished in a hurry, so I scrapped trying to do any sort of a detailed goblin lair and decided to just crash ahead to an ending.
Fortunately, Sira and Loco rolled great on their checks to see the effectiveness of their call and their snare, respectively, so the hobo badger came rushing out and blundered heedlessly into the snare. Its noise drew its two goblins out of their hole, and that wasn't much of a fight anymore as Sira skewered one in a single hit and Storm disable the other with an entanglement spell. After some arguing about what to do with the last goblin, I had it spill the beans on having been hired by the village witch to stage an assassination of the alchemist in return for getting the magic they needed to corrupt the hobo badger.
To my players' credit, once the goblin mentioned that they acorn let them track a target to know when it was alone, they needed no further exposition to work out that the alchemist had given the acorn to the dwarf without knowing about its magic, thus the dwarf's death was an accident. They stumbled a bit on trying to figure out how to confront the witch about the whole matter, so the goblin suggested that they make it look like the alchemist was dead, which led to a further moment of brilliance when they decided to use Storm's pass without trace spell to make it look like the alchemist had disappeared when they had actually smuggled him into the cellar of the Loco's family's textile shop.
Once the funerary rites finished the next day, the witch returned, and the players questioned her about the goblin's story. Having run about half an hour passed the finish time that I'd tried to stick to, I just had her confess about having done it because she wanted the villagers to rely on her organic produce instead of the alchemist's GMO farm (casting the witch as an eco-terrorist was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek joke about two of us having worked on a major environmental-improvement industrial project). Storm tried to hex the witch but rolled a 20 for the WIS check to do so, so the hex backfired on her, giving enough of an opening for the witch to break out the old "I taught you everything you know, not everything I know!" line before disappearing in a puff of smoke.
All in all, I had a great time with running BtW, and all indications are that the players all had a blast, too. If I could go back in time and do it again, I'd have tried to constrain the scope of their freedom a little more and/or have been more willing to jump into their internal discussions to help guide their actions towards their desired ends in order to do better about not running over time, but the actual play with the system felt good. The whole cantrip/spell/ritual division of magic was interesting and seemed to work well in practice, although I'd need more experience with it to form a stronger opinion, but the structure for making a group of PCs with connections to each other and to their home village was great, and the scenario pack did a fine job of giving me inspiration for how to spin a situation out of that while still retaining the freedom to customize it to the table. I want to run at least a couple of more experiments with it, but based on this first experience, it's a solid OSR game with a great collaborative structure that can probably be adapted to many other TTRPG systems, and I'm very much looking forward to Flatland Games's next major release (Through Sunken Lands and Other Adventures, another OSR game, but this time aimed at pulp adventure swords-and-sorcery rather than rural fairy tales).