Beowulf Designer​ Diary 1

We’ve seen a lot of excitement around our upcoming RPG projects – Ken Hite’s Hellenistika and BEOWULF. Today we present our first designer diary for BEOWULF!

Our designer diaries will be irregular updates on how things are progressing behind the scenes, what we’re working on, the challenges we’re facing and so on.


BEOWULF DESIGNER DIARY 1

About the story of Beowulf
For those that don’t know, Beowulf is one of the oldest recorded stories in Western literature. As such it’s right at the root of a lot of the kind of heroic stories we enjoy. In terms of events it’s very simple – Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, a people living in Southern Sweden, hears tell of problems in Denmark. A wonderful meadhall, Heorot, has been built there, but it’s been largely abandoned due to the malign influence of Grendel– a monster who has been killing the inhabitants. Beowulf being a heroic type resolves to slay the hellspawn of the haunted hall. And he does. After figuring out the monster’s weakness he abandons his traditional war-gear, wrestling the creature and ripping its arm off. Poor old Grendel limps off to die.

But things aren’t over. The victory comes with consequences! Grendel’s Mother presents another monstrous threat to happy life in Denmark. Never being one to shy away from great deeds Beowulf must also figure out how to defeat this new adversary. Which of course he does!

Time travels on, and Beowulf becomes a King of his people. Word comes to his meadhall that a great dragon has awoken after its hoard is disturbed by a thief… We won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t read it. But we strongly recommend that you do. Both Seamus Heaney and JRR Tolkien have made marvellous translations of Beowulf, and they’re well worth your time.

In addition to the heroic events and inevitable battling, there’s a lot of exciting “meta” stuff in the way the tale was recorded, and the accompanying glimpses we get into cultural details of Anglo-Saxon life. We love it!

BEOWULF the RPG setting

Taking our enthusiasm for Beowulf the Anglo-Saxon poem as our inspiration, we set out to make an exciting setting and set of additional/amended rules for 5thEdition. 

The world of Anglo-Saxon stories is something we’re all really interested in from a historical and fictional standpoint. We love the style of the stories, the way the world looks and feels, the arms and armour and so on. BEOWULF will feature all the feel, but it isn’t intended as strictly a historical treatise. It’s a strongly-flavouredstory book” world of heroic tales.

Heroes in BEOWULF will sail across a story book version of the world of roughly the 5thto 11thcenturies, solving mysteries and ridding kingdoms of monsters, just like Beowulf in the original tale.

Duet Play
The first “rules thing” we wanted to offer was really high quality duet play for 5thEdition. None of us have quite the time we’d like to play RPGs, and by making a great set of rules for just two people we can really help with that. So it is that BEOWULF is designed primarily for one gamesmaster and one player. 

That in turn led us to develop a really strong structure for duet play for both the player and the GM: we’ve been analysing what having just one player means for the 5thEdition rules, as well as the social side of play. The results of that work all come together really nicely in BEOWULF as a setting and ruleset. 

Followers

The Beowulf of the story is a singular hero, just as the rules are for a single player, but Beowulf is not entirely alone in the story. Like so many heroes of legend he has his followers with him, occasionally chipping in to help when relevant to the story. (This is also true of Achilles’ Myrmidons, Jason’s Argonauts, Gilgamesh’s Enkidu and so on)

So with BEOWULF we are creating a special set of rules for the actions of a hero’s followers. And as far as we can tell it’s rather unique! Just like in the story of Beowulf, followers are on hand when you need them, but there’s no need to track them as if they were full non-player characters. They’re there when it matters, and they’re in the background when they don’t. 

Followers support the hero, and a hero will need to recruit help along the way as he or she tries to figure out any mystery he or she encounters.

Play beyond the session
Followers in BEOWULF also offer some unique additional features. We’re really keen to offer the chance to actively “play” betweensessions – The gamesmaster always has opportunities for fun in creating adventures, but in BEOWULF the playertoo can invest some time in enjoyable and rewarding game activity on their own between sessions. 

The exploits of followers becomes the focus between games, and that mechanically feeds into the next session. 

Challenges
Recently, we’ve spent a lotof time discussing what it means to lose a follower, and precisely how we want to pitch that. As something you’ll be invested in, and something more than a simple resource, we want the loss of a treasured follower to matter. The interactions with your band of followers matter. But we don’t want it to hobble your character mechanically beyond reason when a follower parts company with your hero. Indeed, we want the loss of valued followers to happen as part of the story of your hero.

We’re finding the balance between the loss of a follower being akin to the loss of a favourite magic item in a regular 5e game, or the loss of a whole level in a more old school game. Those are loose analogies, but they give you an idea of what we’re wrestling. The answer we’ve come up with relates to our core maxim when making BEOWULF – that you can lose in the short term to gain in the long term – and we’ll have more about that in a future diary.

Whither Multiplayer?
The way we’ve put BEOWULF together means that if you do want to play with a group you can! If you wish to assemble a team of heroes from across the world that have to come together to battle a threat too great for one hero you can totally do that! Followers fade much further into the background, and the group of heroes comes to the fore, replacing the need for followers to support their hero.

What’s next?
We’re finishing up our current round of rules polishing, and once that’s done we’ll be reaching out for more playtesters. That call will go out via the Handiwork Games newsletter, so be sure to sign up! You can find details on our website at www.handiwork.games