I had the good fortune to start another game recently, and had been eyeing the award-winning Barkeep on the Borderlands by W. F. Smith (of Prismatic Wasteland) and friends for some time. I was intending to run it with Cairn 2E by Yochai Gal, but at the last minute decided I needed to get something else to the table that had been collecting dust on my shelf for far too long: Electric Bastionland by Chris McDowall. Though seemingly an Odd fit, I saw great potential in the immersion of EB's broken characters and strange urban tools into the tumultuous yet vibrant Raves of Chaos.
We created EB characters by-the-book, and additionally rolled up one of the d66 backgrounds with gear from BotB. I established that the reward for returning to the antidote and saving the imperilled monarch was a convenient £10,000 - precisely that which they collectively owed to the Society for the Punishment of Wayward Students.
Lastly, I must make one thing very clear. Despite all evidence to the contrary from the antics that are to follow, and I swear upon my mother's unborn grave, that nary a dram of liquor touched our lips all night, and we were quite sober.
- Geanne, Revolutionary Duellist (EB 40A) and Reformed Gambler (BotB 53)
- Rigella, Star Blessed (EB 21) and Parliamentary Candidate (BotB 51)
- Gurney, Newspaper Intern (EB 41) and Beleaguered Bouncer (BotB 15)
They say: make a strong start. I had laid out the physical map of the Raves of Chaos, and the party elected to go first to the Bar at the Beginning of the Universe, seeming only fit and proper. I roll for the initial situation and am greeted by:
54 skeletons in a conga line, labeled like playing cards.
I hesitate for a moment: what am I supposed to do with that? What are they supposed to do with that? I hold the faith and state it plainly. "Do you want to join in?" I ask coyly. Hell yes, they reply. Alright - we have blast off.
They pass a hole-in-the-wall bar, and noting that all this congaing is making them thirsty, partake of the establishment's signature drinks. Unwittingly, this splits the party, as Gurney selects the refreshment that takes you two floors up: they're only on the ground floor. No matter, looking over the map, I spy a perfectly cromulent flying wizard's tower. "We'll come back to that."
Geanne and Rigella are thrust into an endless procession of dancing Wonderland skeletons. An Ouroboros of past and future skeletons. Time is a flat gladiatorial circle. They face a deathmatch with their future selves, crab-handed and eye-mechaniced. Geanne (reformed gambler) distracts herself with a game of cards, and Rigella seizes the opportunity to wallop future-Geanne in back of the head. Future-Rigella follows suit, cudgelling their past self in the cranium, and they have once again formed a bony conga line.
Gurney arrives to find a Lab Assistant brewing a novel potion, which he immediately and unquestioningly downs. The world enlarges around him, but he catches on quick - no, I have become small. He tries to speak, but only squeaks - no, I have become a mouse. He scurries into the nearest bolt hole and traverses the impossible tangle of archanomagical pipes running betwixt the tower's floors until he finds a group of Intern Net's planning a heist into Somnambula's. I realise I've misread the prompt - fuck it, we're doing it live. Gurney surveys their drinks, and spies one of fluctuating variegated hues. He dives in nose-first and drinks deep.
Exploiting Rigella's weakness for rhetoric and fillibuster, and Geanne's weakness for a swift jab in the thigh owing to her mended broken leg, they fend off the their overfamiliar assailants, and retreat back through the swirling vortex of dancing bones.
Our time-tunnelling duo make it to a vermillion-curtained chamber housing a couple of pig Latin-speaking spirits that resembles but is legally distinct from Dual Spires. They want flesh-hosts with which to experience one last night on Oeurth. Geanne accepts and we roll in EB for her new patron's persona: Mock Lizard (32A), called Poggy. David Lynch does muppets? We are not living in the best timeline. Rigella politely declines, and they both walk backwards out of there towards a brighter tomorrow.
"Roll d100 for your new character," returning to Gurney: 41. I recognise it instantly, but he didn't pay as much notice, flicking through the ganglion-busting tome of EB. He bursts out laughing - "Newspaper Intern - I'm exactly the same!" He sets off with the Intern Nets to Somnambulas, easily slips them in pulling his old bouncer strings, and convinces the horse-headed barkeep to give them an audience with the owner for the bribe of a sack of animal feed, kept from back when he had to cover the collapse of order at the zoo. He is given as reward from the Interns the password 'Harold' to a 'wand room' in the Academy, which he swings by. I'm just pulling endless scarves out of my ass at this point: open up Knave 2E as its the last list of random spells I've seen, roll up some random wands: detect magic (20) and primeval surge (59, ie. embiggen and enrage). The latter is a cracker, but I note the former I might intentionally mispronounce as direct or deflect magic to up the shenanigans.
Poggy and Rigella reach the excavated tunnel of a voidworm leaving pearls of digested worlds in its wake - ponder the ramifications of universal degustation - and think better of it. They chance upon a burrowing unit of prison breaking post-dystopian dwarves seeking gainful employment, and follow them out to the surface to escape.
Gurney heads Off-to-Central Park and en route makes a new friend: a sewer-lurking lizardman from subterannea who flatters him with somatic imitation. They come upon pack rats pestering a bugbear's food stall. He's all-ready to bust out his new toy: "primeval surge the bugbear." He scares off the rats but starts himself terrorising the park Godzilla-style. I next roll for a park ranger hunting a bear with a pic-a-nic basket - exceptional. "The ranger lets his initial quarry go and starts unloading tranquilliser rounds into the colossal bugbear."
Geanne and Rigella pop in to the Quasi-Parliament for a quick state-sponsored tipple and are treated to Gerrymancering, the Whips' floggings, and general pointless waffling to keep a Foundry employee out of the parliament. Rigella establishes she has an unabiding and shakable affiliation to one of the political parties, though I can't rightly recall if it was the Royalists or Reformists, as their agenda are substantively similar.
Despite a 1-in-4 chance per use of the wand depleting, Gurney don't give a damn, and is wantonly embiggening beer flagons and a soft-serve ice cream. "I do it again," aiming at the already person-dwarfing waffle cone. I need to set some limits here - when you push into the void, sometimes the void needs to push back. "If you do this it's now 3-in-4 chance wand becomes depleted, the magic is getting unstable from stacking." He proceeds and misses the roll, but no matter: the park is summarily inundated with a soft-serve avalanche, pinning the giant bugbear in his sticky sweet cage. A job well done, Gurney and his new scaly mate bugger off.
The split parties finally agree in meta-game it's time to rejoin their inconsiderable forces. They meet at the tea-totalling Untippler's Nook and are dismayed at the general lack of debauchery or debasements. Rigella is little consoled by turning the Mothers Organizing Mayhem (MOMs) against "those other bastards," the opposition party in the upcoming election, for "doing all those unspeakable things your against, probably." The rousing speech works, and free democracy is saved once more.
Time was drunkenly staggering on into the evening, in and out of game, so they decided to hit up one last spot for the night: The Whirling Mummy discothèque. Poggy quickly takes to the stage to represent the party in a dance-off against self-immolating phoenicians, boarish septuagenarians, and a half-dozen clockwork-legged marvels who were only right twice a day. Pushing herself through on grit and gin, she has to downgrade her sobriety die and blacks out as the crowd cheers for an encore. Curtains fall.
Procedural infidelity. Despite the light rules for travel and drinking in BotB, I quickly broke the expectation for frequency of rolling the risk die and ended up just rolling for situations and sidetracks when the previous scene was wrapping up. I struggled with the mechanical association/coherence of rolling the sobriety die as well, since it felt more natural for players to declare when they would obtain a new drink and they wanted to roll the die then and there. Conversely, when travelling between venues for several turns, they would often get the risk die result to roll sobriety, yet we weren't imagining they were drinking 'on the road.' Despite these issues, I am glad it contained a procedure, as I think us knowing we were slightly botching it was part of the fun.
Challenge isn't everything. Much ballyhoo is made in adventure game circles of challenging player skill and presenting a steady stream of problems with no obvious, but many possible, solutions. I was hesitant before running BotB that the experience might fall flat because although it is brimming with fun and funny characters and scenes, a lot of them do not pose a challenge or threat, and can often just be briefly engaged before moving on, or circumvented entirely. This ultimately didn't matter a jot - we all had a tremendous time just discovering these ideas together, and quickly building a repertoire of call-backs and running jokes. If the game is a conversation, this was the fantasy fuel for banter and general hilarity.
Break-neck pacing. My tendency is to try and keep the pace up during play, guiding scenes to resolution quickly, and ensuring players have clear leads to follow, avoiding lulls in the action. This proclivity combined with the party quickly splitting up and the density of scene prompts on each publican spread, meant that the experience was a madcap rollercoaster. I had none of the usual cognitive downtime when players debate amongst themselves about how to proceed or divvy the spoils, they were similarly in the zone of 'do everything to everything, think later' like hyperactive little groblins. I found running the 2.5 hour session exhausting.
I'm sure we'll be playing further sessions of Barkeep on the Borderlands, and I'll try to post more write-ups. I'd love to hear from other people who have been playing this module, because I imagine every table will approach it differently and produce very different stories.