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Vaguely Related Review: Bunkers & Badasses – The Tabletop Game

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By Nelson Schneider - 05/14/23 at 05:35 PM CT

When the MeltedJoystick Crew first encountered Gearbox and Nerdvana Games’ D&D knock-off, Bunkers & Badasses, during the “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep” DLC pack for “Borderlands 2,” we all quickly agreed that it was hilarious and one of the best pieces of ‘Borderlands’ content ever created. That was way back in 2014.

Thus it was with great surprise and delight that I learned of a planned release of a genuine tabletop Bunkers & Badasses game in 2020, and pre-ordered two copies – one for MJ’s most obsessive ‘Borderlands’ fanatic, Chris, and one for myself – of the Deluxe Edition. It was with some surprise and significantly less delight that I learned that the final product would not, in fact, ship in time for our annual Yuletide gift exchange that year. And it was with great irritation and annoyance that I learned that Bunkers & Badasses would not grace us with its presence until the bitter end of 2021.

Thanks to a large combination of factors, we were not able to actually crack open the B&B boxed set and settle in for a game until mid-2022, when I forced the issue as my birthday wish from the other guys (along with a selection of fancy liqueurs that I enjoy). I went through the effort of painting up the miniatures in my Deluxe Boxed set, and, damn it, Chris was going to give us his best impersonation of Tiny Tina, come hell or high water.

We’ve been playing Bunkers & Badasses on an attempted-monthly basis since August of 2022, and I feel like I can give a thorough and informed impression of what the game is like.

In short: It sucks.

Yes, Bunkers & Badasses has plenty of Gearbox-y humor and flair scattered throughout the manual, but as an adaptation of the ‘Borderlands’ videogame series into a tabletop game, it leaves a lot to be desired. Many mechanics from the videogames are missing; the rules as written in the print edition of the Sourcebook are riddled with typos, mistakes, and omissions; and what there is just feels poorly designed and completely un-playtested. Then there’s the problem of Bunkers & Badasses being a tabletop game based on a videogame that revolves almost entirely around random loot, but the loot tables in the Sourcebook leave a lot to be desired, especially when the suggestions for how to handle Legendary items are so vague and unhelpful that they may as well have been written by Gary Gygax himself.

As a long-time Dungeon Master and amateur tabletop game designer, I’ve had to re-write large sections of the Bunkers & Badasses Sourcebook to make them remotely comprehensive, and have added several new mechanics as House Rules – just minor things like going into Fight For Your Life mode when hitting 0 Health instead of dying immediately. Sadly, though, I feel like if I wanted to have a truly good ‘Borderlands’ tabletop game, I’d have to gut the entire book and rewrite nearly everything from the ground up. That’s not a good feeling to get from a product that cost $100! And apparently, I’m not alone in these feelings.

Chris has BM’ed (nice) the MJ Crew through the tutorial adventure, “Marcus’ Quest for the Wizard’s Wand,” and we are about halfway (I think) through the tabletop version of “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep,” and, generally, the adventures are ‘fine’ but not particularly exciting or original (here’s hoping the final adventure, “Butt Stallion’s Hunny Heist,” actually brings the thunder).

Mechanically, Bunkers & Badasses feels both stifling and too free-wheeling all at once. Character creation involves mixing and matching an Archetype from one of four choices (Deadeye, Elementalist, Enforcer, Guardian) with a Class drawn from the Vault Hunters that populated “Borderlands” and “Borderlands 2.” If you want to run a character that’s like one of the Vault Hunters in “Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel” or “Borderlands 3,” tough noogies, you can’t. This close adherence to the “BL1” and “BL2” cast is even more irritating in the fact that there are many Classes that feel like duplicates of each other with minor changes, that could (read: should) have been mashed together into a single class with some pick-and-choose options for players. I also would have liked to see a way to pick-and-choose Feats and Skills from a broader swath of generic capabilities rather than the rigidly-narrow Skill trees (though, ‘tree’ is a misnomer, since they’re simple ‘lists’) we actually got.

At the same time, though, it feels like there’s no reward or encouragement for players to create weird Vault Hunters outside of roleplaying reasons. Zer0, FL4K, and Claptrap have proven to be some of the more popular and memorable characters in the ‘Borderlands’ IP, and all of them are robots instead of humans. Why isn’t there a Race category in this game that allows players to choose to be a robot and get some affiliated perks and penalties…? Oh, I know why, it’s because everyone is terrified of being called “racist” in the Snoring ‘20s, so we can’t even talk about the differences between humans and robots. I House Ruled Race into our game, giving the MJ Crew the opportunity to play as Human, Mutant, Robot, Eridian, and Saurian Vault Hunters, and it’s been fine, but we’re hardened GenX-ers, not Millennial or Zoomer snowflakes, so we can actually handle the concept without having an emotional meltdown.

Outside of character creation, the primary things to do in Bunkers & Badasses are getting into fights and generating loot, with the latter proceeding from the former. Fighting in B&B is usually about guaranteed hits and guaranteed damage, though, not to the extent Chris would like (he is notorious for “forgetting” to make Attack Rolls for enemies). Vault Hunters and their foes take turns rolling a 20-sided die – known colloquially as a d20 – to see if they hit. Players typically refer to a ‘Gun Card,’ which contains the stats of their currently-equipped weapon to tell them how many Hits and Crits they score with a given d20 roll, divided into three basic tiers for poor rolls, average rolls, and good rolls, with a Natural 1 always resulting in that character pulling the trigger and getting the ‘click, click’ of an empty magazine, and a Natural 20 always dealing double-damage.

Enemies, on the other hand, typically DO NOT HAVE GUNS, for some reason, and instead roll on a generic Enemy Attack table to determine if they miss (Natural 1) roll normal damage, get a small boost to damage, or deal double damage (Natural 20). In yet another exquisite piece of poor design, this Enemy Attack table doesn’t appear anywhere on the Bunker Master Screen – a tripartite cardboard stand-up that both obscures the BM’s notes from prying player eyes and (supposedly) contains shortcuts to commonly referenced game mechanics. Oopsie!

I’d also like to pay particular attention to the bizarre way the game’s mechanics handle Critical hits. ‘Crits,’ as mentioned above alongside ‘Hits,’ are part of every gun’s potential damage output… but unlike a Critical Hit from a Natural 20, they don’t deal double damage. Instead, the rules state that the player is supposed to roll a d12 (12-side die) instead of whatever their normal damage dice are for a Hit… yet in far too many situations, such as with sniper rifles, rockets, and high-level guns in general, rolling a d12 is either the same damage as a normal Hit or – mindbogglingly – less damage than a normal Hit, which makes absolutely NO sense. (We House Ruled it as adding an extra d12 damage to a normal Hit instead of replacing it.)

If they don’t feel like shooting an enemy, Vault Hunters do have a melee attack option at their disposal, which is generally underwhelming as, in a another fit of design oversight, the writers at Nerdvana games completely failed to implement any kind of melee weapons into the game’s systems. Aside from one vague mention of a ‘Sword of Legend’ in the Assassin’s Class description, there’s bupkiss… and I haven’t taken the time to implement such a system myself. Considering that “Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands” features a fully fleshed-out system for melee combat and loot, it should only be a matter of time before Gearbox or Nerdvana releases an errata pdf to add such mechanics to B&B tabletop, but there are a lot of things Gearbox and Nerdvana should do that they don’t, so I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting.

In addition to normal “boring” attacks, players can choose to have their Vault Hunters participate in so-called ‘Badass Moves.’ While there is some attempt by the Sourcbook at quantifying the mechanics of a Badass Move, they are largely – sadly – arbitrary Gygaxian nonsense where the BM just pulls a number out of their ass and lets the Badassing player roll the Big Boi d20 that has three 1s and three 20s, just to make things interesting. As a result of how arbitrary and situational it feels, we rarely use Badass Moves in our sessions, typically sticking with tried and true combat activities like shooting from cover and deploying Vault Hunter Action Skills.

For a game that revolves so insistently around loot, the treasure tables in B&B feel really crappy, bare-bones, and stripped down. In far too many combat encounters, we’ve ended up with nothing but grenades as a reward – not Grenade Mods, just grenades to refill our stock, which we never use. Grenade Mods, though, are common enough as well, with actual guns feeling incredibly, frustratingly rare. Of course, at the end of our last session, in which we completed a ridiculous 4-part boss gauntlet that Chris further filled with Badass Enemies instead of their normal counterparts, we finally got plenty of guns… but ended up throwing out most of them, because, true to form for ‘Borderlands,’ if it isn’t Epic or Legendary, it’s not worth using.

Sadly, I had to rewrite all of the loot tables for Shield Mods and Grenade Mods, simply because the rules-as-written in the Sourcebook reference nothing but the original “Borderlands” and its related mechanics. There were furthermore no rules for generating Legendary Shield or Grenade Mods, which was a massive oversight. Of course, even when dealing with Legendary Guns, the Sourcebook is woefully in adequate, encouraging players to “create their own” Red Text effects to apply to Legendary items. In response to this lazy, handwaving design, I always consult the ‘Borderlands’ loot-whoring fansite, LootLemon and the ‘Borderlands’ Wiki, and simply convert the mechanics of those guns into a tabletop compatible form. Are they balanced? Probably not, but I’m doing my best based on my decades of experience with D&D, and it’s not like Legendary items have ever been balanced in any ‘Borderlands’ videogame either!

What else is missing from Bunkers & Badasses that should be there? Well, first, the enemy selection is woefully small, missing classics like the Goliath, and instead focusing on the stupid, goofy, Fantasy-spoofy takes on baddies seen in “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep.” We’ve fought a butt-load of skeletons and orcs, but only a couple of psychos and, distressingly, no skags, spiderants, or rakks (though, at least those last three are in the book).

Then there’s vehicular combat. Catch-A-Ride doesn’t exist in the rules, and it’s next on my list of things to workshop and add-in myself, but that brings me to my ultimate conclusion about Bunkers & Badasses as a tabletop game: If the MJ Crew isn’t planning to continue playing this game long-term once we’re done with the adventure modules in the back of the sourcebook, what’s the point in making all the effort to patch-up, expand, and de-crapify the rules into a definitive ‘Borderlands’ tabletop experience?

+Signature humor
+Quality art in the book and cardboard enemy standies

-Poorly written rules
-Poorly edited Sourcebook
-Incomplete rules and missing mechanics
-Incomplete Bestiary of foes
-Terrible loot tables
-Very few ‘official’ Legendary item cards
-Useless BM Screen
-Cheap, undetailed miniatures
-Not ‘real’ ‘Borderlands,’ but Tina’s Fantasy knock-off version

Overall, the official tabletop version of Bunkers & Badasses by Nerdvana Games feels incredibly half-assed, and is not worth the $120 the company is currently asking for it. Unauthorized third-party knockoffs and add-ons for a competently designed base system would serve the dedicated ‘Borderlands’ fan better for creating a long-running, well-designed, balanced, and fun tabletop experience than the official product. And that’s just EFF-ing sad!

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