For the first of many biweekly RPG Play Sessions at the Game lab, we played the hexcrawl, Beyond the Borderlands with the free-form fantasy game, Tunnel Goons.
Beyond the Borderlands is an on-going Zine project by Brazilian illustrator and gamemaker Alex Damaceno (@gnarledmonster) to re-imagine the beginner Dungeons & Dragons adventure Keep on the Borderlands.
Tunnel Goons is an award-winning fantasy game by Nate Treme (Highland Paranormal Society). Its freely available, rules-light system is the basis for countless new games in a variety of genres.
I had planned to run Damaceno’s related dungeon, The Kobold Lair, as well, but each Hex in Beyond the Borderlands is so full of life in so few words that we had almost 4 hours of adventure journeying across only 3 hexes. What follows is both a summary of play and commentary on both of these awesome games.
First let’s introduce our cast of characters. Tunnel Goons is a compact game; all its rules fit on half a letter sized sheet. To make characters, you roll on 3 tables, one tells you about your character’s childhood, one their profession, and the last what they did during the war. Beyond that, there’s not much else, no list of classic fantasy races, no character classes. This mix of quick evocative prompts and wide openness (like being able to start with any one item of your choosing) leads, every time I’ve run Tunnel Goons, to some pretty fantastic characters. Today our duplicitous goons were:
- Powell: A ghost of a UCLA librarian who perished fighting for the rebels during the war.
- Howard Tarius Esquire: A Sentient, long-armed snowglobe with a very large hat
- Loynis: A Winged Titan, capable of throwing bolts of lightning. The most learned of our goons.
- Not Here, Not There: A strange ooze. Capable of transforming from solid, to liquid, to gas.
- Mo: A worm with a cloak of shape shifting and rebellious streak.
- Buff Pigeon: the name says it all. Flies with buff bird arms and smokes a laser cig.
- Gigi: a two legged amphibious goldfish. Incredibly strong.
Driven to the edges of civilization by the war suggested in Tunnel Goons’ backgrounds, our eclectic band of goons began on the gallows-flanked road leading up to the Stronglaw Keep. Despite a kind and formal greeting delivered to the Gate Guards by Howard Tarius Esquire, our adventurers were told no beds were available in the local inn and to inquire again tomorrow. However, these Watchers of the Church of the Holy Sun did tell our goons about some work: 20 silver each if the goons could find the lair of some creatures that have been raising nearby farms and pillaging livestock. Our out of work travelers gladly accepted.
Although Beyond the Borderlands suggests that players begin with a blank sheet of paper, I decided that I was already keeping the Hex Map to myself, so I ought to give the players the illustrated grid map as hand out to track their travels. When given the map, the players debated briefly about whether to abandon their work and instead chase the dragon drawn on the center of the map. They did decide to stick with the task at hand, heading towards the mountains at the north west where the guards indicated their quarry would likely be located. Though they did hope to investigate the spooky tree drawn on the map on their way.
I hadn’t specified the weather at the start of the adventure, so I used the weather table in Beyond the Borderlands to see whether the sun would persist during the course of the adventure. I rolled for heavy rain, so with storm clouds rolling in from over the mountains, our goons set off.
Their first stop was a Crossroads, where the goons found a Veteran Watcher cursing and hammering, trying to fix the knocked down direction sign. The goons offered to help fix the sign. They melted down Not Here, Not There’s empty magic lamp with Buff Pigeon’s laser cig to make a sturdier base for the signpost, while Loynis collected tree’s to build a wall around the sign. Powell, chatted with the veteran watcher about rumors in the valley and learned that the watchers believed the windmill nearby was haunted. So naturally, after fixing the sign and fortifying it with uprooted trees our goons headed straight towards the haunted windmill. Powell, himself a ghost, hoped to meet a kindred spirit.
One of Beyond the Borderlands many strengths is the way it describes hexes with what you see as you enter. There’s an immediate vista as you move from one hex to another, always with some landmarks to explore or some action in progress. It gives the feeling that you’ve emerged from a forest or crested hill, spying the next space or situation.
Walking through farmland overgrown with weeds, our goons arrived at some abandoned peasant huts. They decided to search inside to investigate the source of this supposed haunting. Finding only dust and old farm tools, Howard grabbed a pitch fork and Powell loudly set about hammering a banged up shovel back into shape. Loynis, too large to fit in the house, waited outside and Mo, wormed their way back outside to look for any signs of life. Mo noted that there seemed to be no animals around, not even other worms or ants.
Though the storm clouds were still a ways off, as Powell hammered, a dark shadow was cast inside the peasant hut, as though the sun was suddenly obscured by clouds. Most of our goons high-tailed it out of the house, only Gigi, brawny and courageous, remained with Powell.
A Skeletal Spectre floated out of the wall, and Powell, unperturbed, immediately started chatting with it. Asking it why it remained in this place and what could be done to lay it rest. The Spectre was happy to see another ghost and the two got to talking. It explained to Powell that all the farmers of these fields perished in a raid, abandoned by the Watchers who were supposed to come to their aid. It said for them to rest, their bodies, still laying in the fields, would need to be given a proper burial.
Our goons set off to the fields. Using Loynis’s height and Mo’s closeness to the earth, they were able to locate the uninterred peasants lying in the weeds. As the goons set about digging graves, the rain storm arrived. Mo shapeshifted into a tarp to keep our goons and the worksite dry. Leaving only Mo and Loynis exposed to the elements. As the rain let up, the goons finished digging and buried the slain peasants allowing their ghosts to rest easy.
As the goons continued their trek into the red forests of the Hunting Groves, I rolled a random encounter. Beyond the Borderlands has an elegant method for generating random encounters, it begins with a familiar 1-in-6 chance every time the player characters enter a hex, but for each hex entered the chance increases by 1, then resets to 1-in-6 once an encounter happens. This means encounters happen frequently, adding another layer of activity to an adventure already packed with situations everywhere players might look. Further, these random encounters vary greatly, from traditional wandering monsters (the FIRE BOAR), to mundane scenes (A herd of animals grazing), to chaotic hijinks (A bored noble shooting anything), to ongoing actions the characters might bypass or intervene in. We rolled one of the latter; Watchers fighting invaders from the Scarlet Forest.
So as our band of goons crossed into the Hunting Groves, they heard clanging and shouting. Loynis spotted over a hill a band watchers fighting some small, rat-like creatures (kobolds). The goons waited with Loynis acting as their eyes. A lucky shot from the kobold leader riding around on a giant rat, slew the leader of the watchers. Our goons decided to intervene on the side of the watchers (they were their employers after all).
Combats in Tunnel Goons shake up easy and fast. If a character is trying to accomplish a dangerous task, like fighting an enemy, they roll 2d6s and try to beat a set difficulty number. This difficulty number is also the enemy’s hit points. If the roll is higher than the difficulty number, the difference is how much damage the enemy takes, lower and the difference is how much damage the player takes. These rolls are modified by the player’s attributes, players also get +1 for each thing they’re using that might help them. This leads to players looking at their sheet, their items, their character’s portraits, the scene as it is set, for anything that might help them in their present circumstance. These easy to allocate advantages drawn from the players observations of the situation and the lack of any list of standard actions, means players are always devising clever and zany solutions to problems and plans of attack.
Loynis the titan threw Howard, the sentient snow globe at some far off kobolds. Not here, Not there, turned into a wave of liquid to help Gigi, a fish swim to reach the kobold leader faster and tackle him off his giant rat. Mo and Buff pigeon ambushed some kobolds that had not yet joined the fray, with Mo shapeshifting into a snake wrap one of them up and buff pigeon flying away from attacks with muscled bird arms. Powell attempted, without much success to possess the Kobold leader’s rat mount. After a few turns of tussling, our goons efforts worked and eventually the kobolds surrendered.
However, as the Watchers began to tie up the Kobolds, Mo began to talk with one of the kobolds about why they were fighting the watchers. The Kobold told Mo of the watcher’s raids into the paleovalley and the Keep’s nobles pillaging their hunting grounds. Mo decided our goons had taken the wrong side. Before all the kobolds were tied up, our goons hatched a plan with the kobolds to turn on the Watchers. Though the kobolds disagreed on who would get to keep the watcher leader’s magic sword, they approved of the mischievous plan. Our goons surprised the watchers and quickly forced their surrender. Freeing the captured kobolds. The session ended with Loynis competing with the Kobold leader in a game of dice poker to decide who would get to keep the magic sword. Though our duplicitous goons had great fortune in-battle they were bested at dice and ended the day empty handed, though with a new friend in this band Kobolds.
For this first RPG Play Session at the lab, I wanted to run something fast and fun, quick for new players to get into. Something that gave a taste of classic fantasy gaming. Both Tunnel Goons and Beyond the Borderlands were perfect for this.
Tunnel Goons I’ve run before, I’ve run it for a group of twelve players most totally new to RPGs. I’ve run it in one hour impromptu sessions, where I’ve been able to generate a site for adventure using Nate Treme’s Eternal Caverns of Urk, in the same time it takes players to come up with their goons (about ten minutes). It’s a fantastic system, play begins the second everyone is given the character sheet. I’ve never found anyone who hasn’t come up with a great goon by the time they’ve rolled their 3d6s to determine their character’s background. Or who hasn’t had a single idea by the time I’ve explained that the last starting item is anything they can think of.
Beyond the Borderlands was great to run as well. According to its itch.io page, it began from Damaceno’s notes for how he’d run Keep on the Borderlands for his home game. It feels like that. The writing is conversational, like another gamemaster who’s run their own borderland a hundred times is giving you the best notes and tools from their many campaigns. Each hex description is clear and quick, with strong visuals and compelling situations. They’re written like how you’d describe what was going on to everyone at your table, but with only the most vivid and compelling sentences left in. One top of the hexes, there’s a huge array of random encounters, just to make sure you’re never without an emerging situation. And this is just talking about the writing, you could run an adventure just from looking at the unique isometric scenes, spaces, and creatures drawn on every hex.
There’s a groundedness and subtle realism to Damaceno’s writing and nice subversion of fantasy tropes. In these borderlands, frogmen sit by a river descaling fish and cooking soup. Goblins gather vegetables. Animals graze. Bungling and blood-thirsty nobles stimulate the keeps economy through lavish hunting expeditions. In the related dungeon, the Kobold Lair, there’s also a damsel in distress who needs your adventurers help: A giant spider forced to work on a loom. These details and twists not only breathe new life into a classic module, they keep play surprising and unexpected.
Tunnel Goons quick freeform approach combined with Beyond the Borderlands chaotic hexes and encounters were the perfect way to jump straight into play for year of RPG sessions at the lab.