Beyond the Borderlands (2020)
by Alex Damaceno
Published by Jacob Hurst & Swordfish Island LLC.
Ah, Keep on the Borderlands! Beginner of a million campaigns, grave for a dumpster’s worth of character sheets, and template for a host of followers, imitators, and heartfelt homages! The most meat-and-potatoes D&D fare, so influential that the original template now seems nothing special! The Keep, however, bears an unholy curse: those who seek to recreate it, are cursed to frustration and failure. Such are the bewitchments of Gary Gygax. And it is so: all B2 homages invariably lack something from the original’s greatness. Perhaps their “Caves of Chaos” lack a convincing “Keep” to serve as a counterpoint to dungeon-delving, or they are missing B2’s killer wilderness encounters to drive home how this is a dangerous world.* Perhaps their Caves are not a panorama of immediately available, secretly interconnected lairs making for a surprisingly complex environment built from the most simple of micro-adventures. Perhaps the adventure locations are not given the context of the wild frontier, beset by the forces of Chaos. For such a straightforward scenario – I think it has been revealed that Gary penned it in just a few days – it has a mystery that has not been broken, a secret ingredient that has been left out in the imitators. The closest contender and B2’s meaner, weirder cousin, Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor (“the Keep on the Borderland for assholes”), is the only legitimate rival, and it actually predates B2 by a year. The borderlands have some sort of terrible secret. And so we come to this module.
|Beyond the Borderlands|
(Image courtesy of Swordfish Islands LLC)
Beyond the Borderlands #1 is the first part of a three-part zine aiming to provide a reimagination of the original module. The first issue – the only one published so far – covers the keep and the wilderness, but not the Bloody Ravine, with the six dungeons of this take on the Caves of Chaos. This obviously limits the scope of this review, but with 20 pages of material to go by, it is about sufficient to form an impression, doubly so because the zine uses a hyper-condensed style to present information – even the most complex areas are covered by a few short sentences.
This is a Borderlands imagined in bold colours, the unnatural hues of some forgotten early 1990s JRPG-meets-LEGO-set. My reviews do not dwell much on artwork – they are an aspect of imagining something, but text is still the main course – yet here, the artwork is the centrepiece, and the text the afterthought. What you will get is two very colourful main maps, one for the keep and one for the 36 hexes of the surrounding wilderness. The wilderness map is also broken up so its “regions” form two-page spreads with the map and descriptions both at your fingertips. As quality of life features go, this is decent, but it will in fact be this module’s limitation, the source of downfall. Having to fit the text produces the same issue you see elsewhere in ultra-minimalist design, and limits both style and meaning to miniature snippets. You have to be a very good writer to convey meaning in short work – poetry works this way, and so does the terse, weird JG classic, Huberic of Haghill – and you have to be precise, essential. But the author is not at this stage of his craft.
The resulting Borderlands is one that has everything a good B2-inspired adventure should formally have, but none of it is consequential. You have Stronglaw Keep, a home base that’s a fairly close replica of the original (down to the nameless Castellan), but does not suggest ideas beyond a cursory reading of the location names. The stables have horses, and the warehouse is used to store heavy goods. The hidden skulduggery and intrigue of B2’s outpost, however elementary, are not in evidence. A noticeboard’s random proclamations are perhaps the best part, although even here, what we have is the elementary fetch quest (“Looking for fresh blue mushrooms. Bring them to the tavern!”), the rescue mission (“Merchant kidnapped by ravine monsters. Reward if returned alive.”), and the odd detail that’s kinda fun (“The scarlet night is coming. Be ready.”) Consider the cryptic rumours from gaming’s early master of terseness, Bob Bledsaw (from City State of the Invincible Overlord): “A Basilisk has wrecked havoc [sic] in Naughty Nannies, 400 GP offered.”; or “A knight of the Inner-Circle to be Yellow-Striped in the Plaza of Profuse Pleasures.”; or “Rumor of retaliation by Clan of the Venerate against the Clan of the Host on Caravan Street tonight.” Here are rumours – and they are just those, without context or detail – which sparkle, and pack a punch in a single line. “The ruins have buried treasure” is not much of a rumour. B2’s “Bree-Yark!” is simple but memorable with its in-game consequences – no wonder everyone remembers it (not to mention the one with the imprisoned fair maiden).
Similar concerns emerge in the Wicked Palovalley, the zine’s primary adventure location. This is a hex-crawl with every hex keyed, plus region-based random encounter/rumour rolls, simple travelling and weather rules, the works. Six regions of the valley, individually six hexes each, are described on the basis of the isometric illustrations. There are many mysterious sites deep in the Palovalley, and the rumours link this up in a decent fashion. It almost, almost works. But, once again, the text is inadequate to carry the vision. There is no other way of saying this. There are interesting kernels of ideas, like a mushroom grove with strange magical mushroom effects, a lost magic sword, and a few NPCs with potential, but they are mostly fairly underdeveloped, lacking a punch or clever twist. Some hidden beauty lurks in the art that depicts this improbably coloured piece of wilderness, and combining the text with the imagery may improve the module, somewhat. But the well does not run as deep as the art suggests.
Beyond the Borderlands #1 seems to be a perfect example of the art-above-writing trend that’s everywhere in the itch.io brand of old-school products. Its never-ever retrogame aesthetics may suggest something, a vague sense of strangeness that seems to be deeper than the zine’s reality, but the aesthetics are thin, and there is really very little underneath that is not blatantly obvious. The module comes with two cool frogman stickers. These are pretty neat.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: ** / *****
* Fun note: when running B2 about 15 years ago for my then local group – none of them D&D vets – they headed out from the keep armed with backstories and elaborate “character goals” that had disappointingly little with killing goblinoids, and all of them were killed by the black widow spiders lurking in the forest. They never came near the Caves of Chaos.