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Saturday 26 February 2022

[Fanzine Focus XXVII] Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2

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 & Dragons, RuneQuest, 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 be 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

The Beyond the Borderlands trilogy of fanzines is different. Beginning with Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1, this 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 BorderlandsThe 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…

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, the first part of a trilogy detailed the last bastion of a civilisation on the frontier, Stronglaw Keep, and the surrounding Wicked Palovalley. What was particularly noticeable about Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 was that all of its maps were presented in isometric format, which when combined with their bright, vibrant colours, make them leap off the page. This feature is continued in Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2, which when combined with spare nature of the text makes the descriptions and details given nicely accessible and easy to run from the page.

Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2 takes both Dungeon Master and her players into that den of evil which so threatens the Keep, the Caves of Chaos! Or rather, it does not. For in Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2, the Caves of Chaos become The Bloody Ravine, a sharp valley whose walls are pockmarked by cave entrances, beyond which many different tribes of Humanoids find their home. Traditionally the Caves of Chaos have always been presented from right to left with the head of the valley to the left. Here, it is turned ninety degrees, so that when the Player Characters enter the valley, it is more obvious that they are ascending its dangers. The Game Master is given simple rules for handling the Alert Level from one cave to the next, starting at ‘Off Guard’ to ‘Can’t be Surprised’ and comes with a trio of Adventure Hooks, two out of the three potentially leading to the doom of Stronglaw Keep!

One big difference between the Caves of Chaos and the Bloody Ravine is that there are only six caves instead of ten. These consist of the Kobold Lair, the Bugboar Quarters, the Goblin Labs, the Hynoll Chambers, and the Owlbear Den. Notably missing from the range are the Orcs and the Minotaurs, though Hobgoblins can be found in the Goblin Labs. Two of the caves—Rockfall Range and the Empty Cave—are left undetailed and unmapped, currently under construction. If the Player Characters explore these, they will lead to random locations. The other caves are each given a two-page spread, with an Encounter Table, behaviour notes, and a list of potential loot on the left, and individual room descriptions on the right. Most rooms are given no more than a couple of sentences’ worth of description. That does not sound very much, but it should be enough for the Dungeon Master and her players to get a feel for each location. Each of the six cave networks is sufficiently different from their inspiration. For example, the Goblins of the Goblin Caves are under the thumb of both Hobgoblins and a Troll—who normally lives in what would be the Ogre’s Cave—and often plays marbles with the Goblins! The Goblins farm Mushrooms, who do try to run away, and then mash and distil them in a potent spirit. Another difference is the length of the Encounter Table for each cave, which adds flavour and detail and suggests that there is a lot going on in each cave. Despite all that though, the map of each cave feels exactly like its inspiration, but brought to live in three dimensions and little details.

At the head of the Bloody Ravine is the infamous Chaos Temple. This is noticeably different in that it is not as such an active Chaos temple. Rather, it has the feel of an abandoned temple that has been taken over by another Chaos faction. It has a weird, creepy feel and a tense atmosphere, all succinctly captured in just a two-page spread and all very much different to previous iterations of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Also very different is the addition of the Elven Catacombs below the  Bloody Ravine, which is full of skeletons and other undead threats, but there is plenty of treasure to be found. However, the map is not as easy to navigate or read, and its design is drier than that of the other caves in the Bloody Ravine.

Rounding out Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2 are write-ups for forty-eight of the NPCs and monsters encountered in both Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 and Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2. The stats have been stripped back to a minimum and are actually written for use with Dungeon Reavers, a Micro Retroclone designed to handle Dungeons & Dragons-style play, which is also included in the issue. What this points to is that the Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2—and thus Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 before it—can not just be played with the included Dungeon Reavers, but other Micro retroclones too. The language and terminology of Dungeon Reavers is still that of Dungeons & Dragons, so a gaming group can still play through this fanzine trilogy with the retroclone of its choice. Every entry is accompanied by a thumbnail illustration which matches the style of the maps. They include monsters and inhabitants of Stronglaw Keep, as well as possible NPC Hirelings and even potentially, replacement Player Characters. The illustrations are fiercely cute!  

All of the maps in Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2 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 #2 very easy to run from the page. If there is an issue with Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2 as a physical object, it is that like Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1, the issue lacks a sturdy card cover.

The Beyond the Borderlands series is intended to be a trilogy, but together Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 and Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2 provide everything that the Dungeon Master and her gaming group needs to explore the Wicked Palovalley and climb the slopes of the Bloody Ravine to descend into the various caves along its walls. That does not mean that Beyond the Borderlands is totally complete, for there are dungeons yet to be detailed, but the contents of Beyond the Borderlands Issue #1 and Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2 are sufficient to play through a solid campaign inspired by B2 Keep on the Borderlands. The third issue will be worth waiting for though and not just for the as yet undetailed dungeons. Beyond the Borderlands Issue #3 will be taking a leaf out of Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands and include the author’s version of B1 In Search of the Unknown. That will be worth the wait, but in the meantime, Beyond the Borderlands Issue #2 caps a charming and engaging take upon the classic B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

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