I recently had a chance to play Beowulf - The Hermit’s Sanctuary. I have been looking forward to this game for some time and so was excited to try it out, especially since it is designed for a GM and one player.
The game is built off of the 5e rules and so should be fairly accessible to many RPG players without much of a learning curve. I was interested to see how this would be handled, and I have to say, I think that what has been done really does make for a very playable and exciting experience for a single player.
Before I get into the gameplay, however, I would like to briefly discuss the setting and feel of the game. Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Beowulf, or at least familiar that there is a story called Beowulf. I suspect that most people have never read Beowulf or if they have may have forgotten most of the details. Some may have seen the animated movie with Sean Bean and Angelina Jolie some years back. There was even an attempt to make a serialized television show back in 2016 (I tried to watch it and made it through about 1 ½ episodes). For those of you not up on Old English literature, Beowulf is an epic poem written sometime around 1000 years ago. It describes the tales of a great warrior and leader of men, Beowulf. He comes to the aid of a kingdom being slowly massacred by a horrible monster, Grendel. Beowulf confronts and kills the beast, and then has to go deal with the creature’s even more horrifying mother. And then years later Beowulf fights a dragon. He wins great honor and rewards his followers with rings and wealth. For some people it might be more helpful to explain that this game is set in a similar timeframe as the TV shows Vikings and The Last Kingdom (which is well worth watching) but here the monsters and myths are real.
In many ways it feels a lot like Middle-earth, which is no accident, since J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and formed the world-of Middle-earth out of a desire to create an English mythology based on Anglo-Saxon cultural elements. He even has a published translation of Beowulf and themes from Beowulf pop up throughout The Lord of the Rings. I’m sure many people know far more about this all than I do, but for people who don’t, I think it important to bring it up. In many ways, I felt like I could have been playing a Middle-earth game, or to be more precise, Beowulf felt a lot like the Middle-earth RPG games I have played, namely The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-earth, its 5e sister. I don’t think that that is an accident either. Jon Hodgson, who owns Handiwork Games wrote this with Jacob Rodgers. Both worked on the development of The One Ring and Adventures in MIddle-earth. To me it feels pretty obvious that they took what they learned from that experience, especially the 5e variant of the Middle-earth game and built upon it to create a really delightful game with Beowulf. It also has a lot to do with the artwork, which Jon has done for Beowulf. Those of you who know his unique style, especially people acquainted with The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-earth will get the sense that there is something very familliar here.
Perhaps I should mention here that I was introduced to the world of tabletop role playing games through The One Ring. I tend to feel more comfortable with games that are set in a more low magic or magic free setting. Beowulf is not a high fantasy or high magic setting. You play a heroic figure, but you are not casting fireballs or shooting lightning from your fingers. You are a human with human weaknesses facing off against supernatural creatures. You are also fighting them alone, albeit with the help of some followers, which I will get into momentarily. If you are comfortable with playing a game where the magic is a bit below the surface, then you might give this a try.
In the sample adventure, there are four pregenerated characters to choose from. There is only one race, human. I don’t know what will happen in the full game, but for now it appears there is only one class, the Hero. Alignment appears to be one of three choices, to the church, to the old gods, or unaligned. Because you are flying solo you get a health boost to your starting hit points. You have a boat, which plays a role in the adventure, and you have followers. Each pregenerated Hero has a different number of followers that they can retain.
So let’s talk a bit about followers. They are more or less controllable NPCs that can be called on for certain advantages throughout the game. Some also come with disadvantages, or “burdens”. Some of these are passive abilities, some allow the follower to get the player’s hero out of trouble or even take a blow for the hero. Some of these abilities will cause the follower to be spent and make that follower unusable for the remainder of the session. Followers can be killed or slain too. Basically, followers are Beowulf’s way of allowing a single player character to accomplish what normally would take a party of players. It is a very creative and useful system and I could see people adapting it for other games, like Adventures in Middle-earth.
Once a Hero is picked and followers are selected, the player then rolls a Portent. This is a four word phrase generated from a table that is used throughout the game to aid in roleplaying and also as a means of generating inspiration in addition to the traditional method. An example of a portent might be “Ruinous Wisdom, Ancient Hall”. This would be generated from a table by rolling dice. Each die roll also assigns an inspiration token to an inspiration pool. Some will go to the Hero, some to the Followers, and some go to the Monster. That’s right, the monster can get inspiration too, and use it to cause extra damage and destruction. In order to claim inspiration from the pool, the portent must be tied into the story in some meaningful way. I think this is a great way to encourage story telling and is very much in keeping with the style of the ancient epic poem from which the game gets its name. My one concern with this is that players familiar with the traditional 5e setting may not think to use this mechanic, or not feel inclined to focus as much on storytelling. I know in the game I ran, I had to remind the player several times that they had inspiration available, but even then, they were struggling to understand how to invoke the portent.
The adventure always starts with a sea voyage, just like the epic poem. The hero must overcome an obstacle at sea. This will feel very familiar to players of The One Ring or Adventures in Middle-earth. It is very much like a Journey Phase in those games. The result of the encounter (I assume the full game might have multiple encounters at sea, but the sample game has only one) will have some impact on the hero and the adventure, for good or bad. Then eventually the Hero lands his longboat at the destination and the second phase of the adventure begins.
Once the Hero arrives, an investigative phase begins. The player’s hero takes his followers and heads out to find out the nature of the monster they are hunting, search for clues as to how to defeat the beast, and deal with whatever NPCs might be hanging around wishing to help or hinder the player. It appears that this is where the bulk of the time in the adventure will be spent. In Beowulf, Monsters aren’t to be trifled with. Your hero is a party of one, and no matter how brave, it is impossible to walk into the lair of a supernatural beast and slay it without first uncovering its secrets. I really enjoyed this part of the game. There are clues hidden everywhere and the hero must piece them together in order to have a chance against the monster. I liked the fact too that there was a built in urgency. The clock is ticking. You don’t want to rush in before knowing what you were getting into, but you also can’t just sit back and wait. I thought this sample adventure was very well written and enjoyable with plenty of paths for the player to reach the goal. It will be interesting to see how future adventures are set out and what kind of guidelines for creating adventures will be included in the core rulebook.
Finally, the hero will have to come face to face with the terrifying creature that is causing all the problems. This is intentionally a challenging fight and will take creative and well timed use of the followers and their abilities to overcome. The Hermits’ Sanctuary seems to strike a good balance of having a challenging not impossible fight for a single player. I did like the fact that combat does not bog down with a single player, they are always engaged.
I would say that even though I have been waiting for this to be released, I was pleasantly surprised that I found Beowulf even more enjoyable than I had hoped. It is often difficult to get a group together to play a regular tabletop session. A single player and GM seems much more likely to happen for me, and that is an advantage this game has over others that I want to play.
I love the setting, although as is probably obvious, I really like the time period and shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom have probably piqued my interest in a game like Beowulf. I would recommend this to someone who is up for a little less traditional 5e experience who would like to focus a little more on character and story and less on slashing and looting everything that moves. After all, this is a game based on an epic poem. It is all about telling a story; a story about epic sea voyages and hideous monsters and heroism. I really did enjoy it and would encourage others to download the Hermit’s Sanctuary and give it a try.