Barkeep on the Borderlands

By W. F. Smith
Prismatic Wasteland
Levels ... ?

The Keep once loomed on the margins of civilization. It is now the center of culture and commerce.

 Each year, the Keep celebrates the Raves of Chaos to commemorate the brave heroes who gave their lives to rid the nearby caves of vile monsters. Their sacrifice cleared the way for the Keep to expand to its current size and scale, the envy of all humankind. The Monarch drained the royal coffers to pay for a powerful antidote, but it never reached their lips. The caravaners say it must have gotten mixed up in the deliveries to the Keep’s many pubs. Despite their illness, the Monarch was able to muster the energy to order the execution of every caravaner, ale draper, ale tunner and ale taster in the Keep.

This sixty page presents twenty bars with the barest of framings for an adventure. The bars are magnificent, in a gonzo sort of way, with tropes galore and a decent homage to The Keep. But the thing is without enough direction to form an adventure with, in any but the barest of definitions of that word.

The Keep is now all grown up. The city is massive now and the lands civilized. You’ve got to think of this like a mashup of Ankh-Morpork with a healthy dose of all of the humanoids inhabiting it. It channels  that magical ren–faire vibe and humanoids vibe without going over the edge in forced happy land where everyone gets along that those settings do famously badly. Instead there is a healthy dose of cynicism here that colours everything. And the setting is pushed in to something akin to gonzo, but fantasy themed. No one is going to bat an eye at a tower with some long hair hanging out and a wheel spinning gold. Not fairy-tale, this is firmly rooted in fantasy. It’s just that everything is in this. 

First, a brief divergence in to character creation. I mention it only because it is mostly just character backgrounds on a table to roll on But very solid one. The Orphaned Heir starts with a mansion and a set of black leather armor. If you can’t do something with that, in a one-shot, then you don’t deserve to play D&D. “My parents are dead!” That’s a hilight, but most of them are quite solid as well. And that’s what you need for one shot backgrounds, something for a player to riff off of without telling them how to play their character.

The Cult of Chaos is now reformed, in to the Church of Chis, or, as the adventure states “Formerly the “Cult of Evil Chaos,” the Church has made efforts to rebrand, pivoting to a less overtly sinister image.” And therein we get a taste of the tone that is prevalent throughout. The adventurers that cleared the caves are called murderers, but, also, with regard to the goblins “But the Goblins rarely make the same mistake more than a few dozen times.” And, they are in fact up to evil. As is the cult. I mean church. The skewering goes both ways, as if the Lazy Lich finally realized that hippies ARE actually mean people. The museum keep is referred to as a repository of revisionist history, but the old woman who runs the candy and gingerbread themed dive bar in the woods IS up to some shit also. There are no good guys in this respun Keep setting, and that’s something I can get completely behind as a setting for an adventure.

The dude in charge has been poisoned. He’s going to die within days. The antidote has been misplaced … in a bar shipment someone thinks. And thus folks are looking for it. It’s moving around to different bars, according to a timeline and a series of unfortunate events. During this the annual Rave on the Borderlands is happening. A drunken festival, arranged by the Church of Chaos once a year, in which laws are relaxed. This comes with themed days, laid out like a typical Caves expedition in order of the humanoids, with Gnoll Caves day being having to defeat someone in a fight to get cooked meat, else it’s raw meat for you! It’s a cute mechanism to add some theming to the days in front of the party. It pushes things JUST far enough to maintain some semblance of order while still being strongly themed. Alongside this is an heir to throne looking for the antidote also (or creating his own) and some elections for parliament happening. And this is set inside the expanded keep, grown well past its walls, to encompass the old town, the forest that cant be cut down, the swamps now home to factories, and so on. Good sub-region theming. Zones in the dungeon, yeah?

The bars are the highlight here. Each has quite a short description that is then enhanced by a patrons table and some things that can happen there. Here’s the description for the first one, Granny’s Cottage: “Over the river and through the woods, there is a quaint dive bar. Its walls are gingerbread, and its windows are crystallized sugar. The crone that runs it is in constant good cheer. Pay no mind to the pitch-black smoke billowing from its chimney.” That’s a great description. Note the last line, which is evocative and leads you to a conclusion but doesn’t detail it. That’s exactly what a good description is made of. Your mind fills things in and it leaves the door open for a variety of outcomes. It’s quite short, but sets the scene well. As for granny, proper: “Granny appears as a beautiful maiden each day at sunrise. By noon, she appears as a plump matron. She is a wrinkled crone by sunset. Beginning each midnight, Granny’s skin grows green and her nose sprouts warts” That’s something you can work with as well. Something solid to use. One of the patrons is “A child who was lost in the woods until Granny found them. Now they can stay up as late as they want and eat lots of candy!” Again, short, evocative, and can lead to a variety of outcomes. A witch, or just a nice old lady? Either is possible. And so it goes, from themed drinks, to what is Granny doing, to the various events/situations within the bar. Who’s up to sample the Poison Applitini cocktail?

There are two sins with this adventure. The first is the events within the bars. They lack the driving force of an actual adventure. FOr example, iN grannys “The Woodcutter whittles on their cabin’s porch. Due to a curse, they cannot leave the woods until the Keep’s walls fall down.” WHich is nice, but it doesn’t lead to anything. It’s just a thing that happens. Something weird. Window dressing. And this is the same for almost everything in the events/situations/sidetrecks in the adventure. They are just a decent wandering monster table, meaning not really related to the adventure as a whole. 

And then there’s the adventure proper. You wander about, from bar to bar, looking for where the antidote is today, hoping to stumble across it. There’s not much to lead you to where you should be. Not in the bars. Not in the little events, or the mini-games like the election or goblin subterfuge. As much as I like “A giant spider offers to host a luncheon. Over tea, they lament that passersby keep chucking garbage into their web.” It doesn’t really lead you anywhere. You gotta have something here for the party to latch on to and follow up on and so. Otherwise it’s just a drunken bar crawl. 

And as a drunken bar crawl it’s fucking fantastic. Some of the best fantasy taverns around for window dressing. A great Dungeon Dozen for bars. Farce. Absurdity. But as an adventure? I think not.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. It’s an assortment of rules (drinking) and the first pages of Granny’s. So, a decent preview, even if you don’t get to see the “Adventure” proper.

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One Response to Barkeep on the Borderlands

  1. Piibsworth Zwischenlanken says:

    Thanks for the review. It made my morning to see this.

    Not that it is your job, but do you have vague suggestions on how to convert it into an adventure with slightly more obvious breadcrumbs? For instance does the module provide enough background so that some sort of spellwork or investgation of shipping manifests would help the party find the King’s missing healing MacGuffin?

    The setting definitely sounds like slightly goofy weird fantasy, which I appreciate. And I could see how the King’s purge and quest could both be hooks to steer the party to the locale. The lack of level appropriateness isn’t a dealbreaker if this can be used as a regional or urban backdrop.

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