The tavern is just as central to the idea of fantasy role playing games as, well, dungeons or dragons. Millions of stories have spun out of a random tavern brawl, cleaning out some dire rats in the basement for room and board or a mysterious stranger selling a map in the corner. While the tavern is usually the springboard to an exotic location, Barkeep on the Borderlands keeps the adventure in town. Or, more specifically, in a maze of twenty taverns where characters will fight, flirt and drink their way to adventure. Does this adventure give the Dungeon Master a bad hangover? Let’s play to find out.
Designer W.F. Smith sets up a fairly straight forward plot line for the adventure. The Keep has prospered thanks to adventurers bringing back big piles of loot from dangerous locations. The players enter The Keep just as a weeklong festival kicks off but there’s an unexpected dark cloud. The Monarch of the Keep has been poisoned. An antidote has been created but it’s been lost somewhere in the city due to the chaos of the festival. Whoever delivers the Antidote to the Monarch will become very, very rich. The players scour the taverns for information on who has the antidote and where. Thanks to a loose bit of scripting the location and ownership of the antidote every night. The GM can muddy up this plot through the machinations of the various factions in the Keep, some of whom want the Monarch dead and others who might want to extract some fairs before they deliver the live saving potion. There’s even a rival in the Heir to the throne who can prove their worthiness to their father by finding the ingredients of the antidote and making their own.
Smith structures the adventure with each of the pubs being a major encounter and the walks in between as the random corridors where wandering encounters happen. There’s an element of time management to get the party where they want to go before the bars close and everyone stumbles home to sleep it off. The module is written to be system neutral but some of the encounters lean into the idea that some encounters are meant to be avoided because the monsters are too powerful.
The book also provides a solid set of rules for a night of drinking. As common as this occurrence seems to be in RPGs, few of them take the opportunity to work on mechanics. Barkeep on the Borderlands offers a portable set that should work well in any game with a Constitution score. They are a riff on usage dice from games like Forbidden Lands or The Black Hack. Constitution determines each character's Sobriety dice which gets rolled after each turn in or out of a pub. If it comes up low, the Sobriety die steps down a level and if the character is sufficiently drunk, they roll on an additional chart to see how they are being affected by their drink. Rather than counting individual drinks, it's assumed that unless the player specifies they are drinking water or abstaining they are keeping up with their companions. Doing so might help their sobriety but it causes the patrons to view them with suspicion and potentially hamper their search.
If the plotline doesn’t sound satisfying, the book offers twenty themed fantasy pubs that go above and beyond the usual moody wood paneled inn. Particular favorites include the bar where all the fire-based creatures hang out to the random citizen’s house where a never ending house party broke out. The charts full of inhabitants, side tracks and signature drinks for each pub could make it the centerpiece of its own adventure. Even something as meta as The Original Tavern(™) which was started by a group of adventurers hoping to franchise their way to riches rather than keep having to risk life and limb in real dungeons.
The overall design feels like it's part of the OSR but the tone of the book learns into the weirder side of things.The art and tone of the book are much lighter than a lot of OSR products. The artists here hit something more akin to Adventure Time or Old School Essentials even as they adjust the art to fit each of the bars themes. It’s a refreshing change from so many projects that try to emulate the heavy line art of old school D&D products. It also centers on the other part of the experience that made so many memories in those games; the weird moments tat derail the story from a heroic adventure to a wild night out with friends.
Barkeep on the Borderlands offers a pointcrawl that changes things up from the usual dingy dungeons with a lot of stealable elements that be dropped into any campaign town.
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