First off, this game has a definite setting. Beyond the Wall (BtW) is low magic, and set in a fantasy version of early middle ages Britain, with definite Celtic and "northmen" bits. So, no kung-fu monks or ninjas here. Also, the only player races are humans and elves. Dwarves, gnomes, and hobbits appear in expansion material. (On the publisher's web site there is also a fun free download for intelligent bear characters.) The monsters/creatures in the short bestiary are also European themed and scoped mostly to traditional types. No weird aboleths, cloakers, etc. to spoil your afternoon fantasy medieval jaunt. You could also drop it into a Tolkienesque Middle Earth--Bree would make a great starting village, for instance. The implied setting reminded me a lot of the one for the historically-based fantasy rules I started with: Chivalry & Sorcery. Like C&S it is also an all-in-one book which allows you to play without assembling a small library first (although there are several supplements). And at $7.99 for the pdf (I bought the dead-tree version for slightly more), it's easy on the budget.
Now for the core of the rules. For comparison with OSR games:
- you have the classic six attributes but rolled on 4d6 and drop the lowest
- there are three basic classes: warrior, rogue, and mage (plus an optional warrior-mage, the Elven Highborn)
- there are the classic five saving throws
- you get Fortune Points
- initiative is done according to set initiative scores, no rolling needed
- magic is a bit different, with cantrips which require an attribute check and can go wrong, spells which are cast much the same as in D&D, and rituals which take hours to cast and may also go wrong; also, compared with AD&D and later editions there are very few spells here, which is in keeping with the low-magic setting.
What makes BtW different from most OSR rules sets is the Character Playbooks. These are tables which the players use to build the background story for their characters and also to link those characters to those of the other players. The playbooks have names like "The Self-Taught Mage" and "The Village Hero". They have tables on topics like "How did you earn your name" and "What first caused the witch to choose you". You roll randomly and get a bit of background with stat and/or skill bonuses--and other characters can also get a bonus with a shared story. One example is: "For years you worked for her [the witch] calmly and patiently, and never questioned her wisdom or authority. The friend to your right often calmed you when you grew frustrated with your lot, and gains +1WIS" and the character gains +2 WIS and the spell "Sanctuary of Peace". I liked these playbooks because they help bind the group together with a shared history. They also make building a character background easy for those who aren't into it or aren't good at it.
The book finishes up with two scenario playbooks. I liked these a lot because they have a core concept which you detail with random roll tables. The tables make for good replay value, allowing you to re-skin them for re-use later.
Bottom Line: This is a great little book, packing rules, world building, a bestiary, and scenarios into an easy to read, easy to use package.