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Sunday, 3 January 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXII] Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1

On the tail of the Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & DragonsRuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 is a fanzine of a different stripe. Published by Swordfish Islands LLC (but also available in PDF from the author), best known for publishing Swordfish Islands: Hexcrawl Adventures on Hot Springs Island, it is a systems neutral regional hexcrawl inspired by B2 Keep on the Borderlands, most recently implemented by Goodman Games’ Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands. It is the first part of a trilogy which will explore the overland region in this the initial issue, then the underground areas in the second issue, and lastly provide the bestiary for the previous two issues. The setting for the Beyond the Borderlands, like B2 Keep on the Borderlands before it, is the edge—or just beyond it—of the civilised lands, the frontier outside of which lies untrammeled wilderness, barbaric tribes, and Chaos run rampant. Here a solid fortress has been established as the last outpost of civilisation, to provide a degree of protection to travellers making the journey beyond and against the possibility of an incursion from the ghastly Goblins, horrible Hobgoblins, obnoxious Orcs, grim Gnolls, and more, which lurk just out of sight, ready to strike…

The setting for Beyond the Borderlands is the Wicked Palovalley. Here Stronglaw Keep defends the Western Kingdoms against invasions from the monstrous forces of the Wicked Palovalley. It is presented as a six-by-six, thirty-six hex hexcrawl, divided into six different regions, each one with its own theme, content, rumours, and random encounters. The issue begins though with a description of Stronglaw Keep, which stands at the mouth of the Wicked Palovalley. Stronglaw Keep is an independent outpost, a last settlement of civilisation, the law—rigidly enforced upon pain of death or banishment, and the Church of the Holy Sun. Stronglaw Keep itself is delightfully presented in a vibrantly colourful isometric style, easy to read and use, and accompanied by two sets of thumbnail write-ups. The first provides simple descriptions of each of Stronglaw Keep’s eleven locations—though there are twelve, whilst the second lists the ‘Loot and Stuff’ to be found at each of the first eleven locations. This provides a little more detail, whether the Player Characters are looking for tools, to make a purchase—whether of goods or services, or purloin an item of vale or two. The possibility of the guards reacting to any theft is covered in a short table. Lastly, the Notice Board lists twenty rumours, events, and employment opportunities which can serve as a spur to the Player Characters to adventure and the Dungeon Master to create adventures.

Supported by a simple set-up—the Player Characters come to Stronglaw Keep, introduce themselves, pick up a job or two, and then go explore, and some simple travel, weather, and encounter rules, the bulk of Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 presents the six six-hex mini-regions of the Wicked Palovalley. From the Keep’s Domain to the Scarlet Forest, each is presented in a two-page spread. An isometric map of the mini region is presented on the left-hand page, along with a table of rumours and a table of encounters, whilst write-ups of each the six hexes are presented on the right-hand page. Each write-up includes a short description, plus two or three bullet points which provide further details. So in the Sludgy Bog, there are rumours of a carriage full of supplies which never reached the hunting camp and the bog is said to be inhabited by a monstrous people, and any brave adventurers which put foot into the squelchy swamp, they might run into Slug-Leeches or Frogmen, and perhaps follow a trail of shells to a reclusive Sea Witch or find a former keep, flooded, but still with stairs leading down into the water…

All of the maps in Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 are presented in isometric format, which when combined with their bright, vibrant colours, make them leap off the page. The writing needs an edit in places, but everything is well organised and packs a lot of information into relatively limited amounts of space. The format of the two-page spread used for each location and mini-region makes the contents of Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 very easy to run from the page. If there is an issue with Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 as a physical object, it is that it lacks a sturdy card cover.

The twelfth location in the write-up of Stronglaw Keep is a ‘Mysterious Cave’. It is simply left as that, awaiting the publication of Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2 to be fully detailed. This is not the only such location left undetailed the next issue of the fanzine. These include the Bloody Ravine where the infamous Caves of Chaos are located, the Flooded Shrine, and the Caves of the Unknown, a randomly generated, mythic underworld. Now of course, the descriptions of these underground locations were always going to be in the second issue of the fanzine, and then the bestiary in the third issue, but that cannot prevent a sense of deprivation in the reader and potential Dungeon Master, not in the sense of not having that information, but in not having that information and in not being able to bring it to the table and run it right now.

So Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 is not complete, but it will be with the publication of first Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2—when the Dungeon Master could supply the stats of the monsters and NPCs herself and thus run both the region and its dungeons—and then Beyond the Borderlands Issue #3, when the Dungeon Master will have the official stats. In a sense, Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 is delivering the promise of a full scenario, one that is inspired by B2 Keep on the Borderlands, but richer and despite the lack of dungeons or stats, has much more going on than B2 Keep on the Borderlands ever did. The vibrancy of the colours used in Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 evokes a Saturday morning cartoon sensibility to this take upon B2 Keep on the Borderlands, as if it was an adventure written with the Dungeons & Dragons television series in mind. Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 is the beginning of a charming and engaging take upon the classic B2 Keep on the Borderlands, but will definitely leave the Dungeon Master wanting the second and third issues to be complete.

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