Retro Reviews: Shadows on the Borderland

Shadows on the BorderlandOccasionally, I will be posting old reviews I did for The Gamer (print only) magazine back in the 1990s, and consolidating them here.  You can also find these reviews on rpg.net.

You can tell when a designer truly cares about the material he’s writing, not just by the amount of detail included, but by a sense that he has been to the place he’s describing, that he’s spoken to the people who live there. From the understated front cover, which illustrates the discovery of a skull-decorated temple (and a fresher specimen in the foreground) to the deranged wallmarkings drawn into the margins of the reference section, the authors have crammed this brooding, 104-page supplement with enough adventure to keep players engaged for a good long while.

Presented as a combination of adventure scenarios and background for the Gloranthan setting, Shadows on the Borderland continues the series of adventures set in Prax and the Borderlands laid down in two other recent RuneQuest releases, Sun County and River of Cradles. Three loosely connected scenarios, “Gautama’s Vision,” “Dyskund Caverns” and “A Tale to Tell” make up the bulk of the package, along with a description of the Cult of Thanatar.

Also included is a referee pullout section containing clues for the characters, NPC notes and statistics, referee staging tips, and three of the consistently superb ‘What My Father Told Me” series, wherein a younger family member asks important cultural questions of an elder. A set of nicely drawn fold-out maps complete the supplement.

Of the three scenarios, “Gautama’s Vision” provides the greatest opportunity for roleplaying. Characters encounter an impoverished village that hides a dark secret. The mystery unfolds little by little, until the true atrocity of the situation manifests itself. Horror is more difficult to sustain in a fantasy setting, but the author manages to establish a weird mood and build tension to a nasty climax on par with the better Call of Cthulhu adventures. The scenario is open-ended, but provides for the most likely NPC reactions to the characters’ snooping.

“Dyskund Caverns” has characters spelunking for any reason the party chooses: pure adventure, to thwart an ancient evil cult recently revived, or possibly as mere dupes for a scheming Carmanian survey team. The adventure hooks provided are not as compelling, but referees should be able to concoct a good maguffin. Even so, this was probably the weakest of the three scenarios, lacking a strong central goal for the characters to pursue.

In “A Tale to Tell,” the adventurers stumble across an ancient mystery and, should they solve it, inadvertently break up a notorious broo gang’s magical edge. Broo are fearsome chaos creatures able to incubate their young within any mammalian host; the PCs may deal with the gang as they see fit, and the supplement gives strategies and tips for the final showdown in the treacherous High Holes Caves. A high point in the scenario has the characters being attacked by a cursed being who cannot control his actions, yet is helpful even as he’s busy trying to slaughter the entire party.

The section on the Cult of Thanatar describes the brutal worship of the chaotic Severed God. In Glorantha, the secretive priests of Thanatar are feared for their bizarre practice of devouring knowledge from severed heads. More terrifying is the idea that the victims of these rituals do not die, but instead are trapped within the confines of their own rotting skulls, remembering all, powerless to exert their will.

Shadows on the Borderland is one of the more grim set of adventures set in Glorantha and is well suited to players who want to explore the grittier side of fantasy roleplaying. But it’s not for beginners. The supplement is rich with information, and the relationships and motives of the numerous NPCs play an important role in all three adventures; it will require a fair amount of referee preparation, even for veterans. An understanding of the complex and often convoluted Gloranthan mythology will prove enormously helpful as well, and referees who do not own other Gloranthan supplements may well find themselves confused by references to information hardcore RuneQuest players take for granted. For experienced Gloranthanites, Shadows on the Borderland is a must-buy. Newcomers will also find plenty of interesting material here, but may find the leap to the Gloranthan setting a bit of a stretch. Still, I don’t hesitate to recommend this supplement to those who are looking for fresh material and don’t mind tackling a steep learning curve. It’s worth the effort.

Shadows on the Borderland
Published 1993 by The Avalon Hill Game Company
Various authors
$16.00
Reviewed by Gilbert Pili
The Gamer Magazine #15
November 19, 1993
Grade: A

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