The Borderlands video games series started in 2009. They were an early attempt at the looter-shooter genre, and were commercially successful.
It takes place in a sci-fi universe. But the specific corner where the story takes place is much closer to Mad Max II and Beyond the Thunderdome.
There’s also a fair bit of Old West movie aesthetics. And the more striking visual stylizations were, uh, derived from the short movie Codehunters .
This article is about the setting. It’s primarily of interest for tabletop role-players.
It only covers Borderlands and Borderlands 2 (BL1 and BL2) for now.
Said setting is, in the reviewed material, but a sketch in the background. There’s little attempt at growing a mythology as with, say, Destiny or Warframe.
OTOH, that means free space for gamemasters to develop their own.
This article is presented in two halves :
- The first half — this here article — discusses the setting in general.
- The second half has all the DC Heroes technical discussion. And the guns. The ordnance. The shootahs. The bang-bang. The gats. The heaters.
If you were looking for a *games strategy guide*, as it happens, we have those too. It’s not our main activity by far, but I sometimes write one as I do research. So :
*Personally*, I don’t like the game much. It feels like two cats fighting in an empty fridge. One cat thinks all video games should be for cruel, angry 8-year-old boys. The other, smaller cat is flailing to smuggle in some human interest.
But BL fills a strong demand for looter-shooter video games. Those take a huge amount of labour and skills to even sort-of-work. So there aren’t too many.
Borderlands games are therefore well-known, and can form a shared reference. So people might want to crib material from BL games for their own stuff (TTRPG, fan fiction, etc.).
See our FAQ for more about video game material in TTRPGs.
Space, the final EXPLOSION!!!
The setting is space cyberpunk, not unlike the 1980s Aliens movie. This means :
- Evil mega-corporations monopolising wealth and power. There’s no visible public government.
- Accessible space travel.
- Technology that otherwise resembles ours.
- Post-terminal, nihilistic capitalism where lives have zero value. Except for the richest 0.000001%, of course.
- A dystopic frontier ambiance, as the action takes place on a marginal planet.
- Constant ultraviolence, crowds baying for blood, desensitized and unempathic people who all see killing as good ol’ fun. Greed, immediate self-gratification and hair-trigger tempers rule.
- Full artificial intelligence. Which is, in most cases, artificial stupidity.
There are important exceptions to tech not seeming that futuristic. These chiefly come from the discovery of a stash of alien tech, called a Vault.
Those exceptions we can see are :
- Endowing materials (such as bullets) with energy that has explosive, electrical, incendiary or corrosive properties.
- Force fields called “orb shields”. Orb shields range from models that protect a small city, or a single person. However, absorbing incoming force draws from their power source.
- A digistruction technology that can “transmit” certain objects to a receptor.
Its limitations are unclear but we see it working with small arms, medical supplies, auto parts (remotely constructing a car or truck within seconds) and robot parts (remotely assembling or even repairing robots weighing hundreds of kilos).
- Space flight wot’s fast enough to reportedly spread Human colonists across six galaxies.
- A digistructive resurrection tech that we’ll discuss later.
There are other bits of advanced tech, such as advanced AI or cyberlimbs. But these are within what you’d expect for near-future sci-fi, and thus prolly not of alien origin.
The seemingly extinct aliens who built Vaults are called the Eridians. Little is known about them.
Eridian ruins seem to be the only sign of a non-Human civilisation.
Pure and perfect competition
Only some of the corporations are seen in-game.
Dahl Corporation is a major one. It seems to be strong in the infrastructure and energy industries. But by the time the first game starts, Dahl has left this specific planet.
Atlas Corporation seems to be an authoritarian, militarized, dysfunctional megacorp. It has its own profile.
Hyperion seems to be big on robots and AI — at least by BL2. Its CEO, Handsome Jack, is a pivotal character across the games.
No such thing as society
One notable aspect of the setting is that most everybody is low on basic empathy. They have, at best, execrable people skills.
This is likely a combination of toxic stress, traumatic shocks, dire poverty, lack of education, toxic media and entertainment, cheap narcotics (though the game only mentions alcohol), high casualty rates, etc. etc..
Off the top of my head, there’s but a small handful of characters who seem to be functioning human beings (Helena Pierce, and to a lesser extent Mad Moxxi and the Siren Maya). Even people who’d like to have human relations, like Roland and Lilith, make a mess of it. Since they have so little experience and so few examples.
Those politiesGeneral term for an organised group (a tribe, a democracy, a theocracy…) we can see (the Zafford and Hodunk clans) seem more akin to incompetently-run dog packs with mob values. Corporate employment seems to mostly run on constant threat of torture and execution. The main character with sophisticated social skills is a sociopathic sadist.
Now, yes, this isn’t necessarily conductive to role-playing. But Pandora is exceptionally bad – other planets might allow for better human development.
The galaxy is held together by telecoms called the ECHOnet. It’s essentially smartphones, including a web browsing function and e-mails. The devices are not unlike a 1989 Gameboy handheld.
It’s also frequently used as an audio diary. Typing on the device likely is a pain, and many folks on Pandora are illiterate anyway.
Curiously, anybody can call anybody. There are no hidden numbers, no calls filtering. A simple hypothesis is that the ECHOnet is stripped of any privacy by design, except for people buying a privacy package. Which nobody on Pandora could afford.
A history of violence and EXPLOSIONS!!!
The story in BL1 and BL2 occurs on a remote, seemingly negligible planet called Pandora.
Years before the game begins, the Dahl Corporation sends troops and workers to Pandora. This world is resources-poor and seems to have little ecology, but there’s a small chance another Vault might be there. An archaeological team led by Dr. Patricia Tannis is thus part of the Dahl expedition.
As it turns out, Pandora’s orbit means that it goes through a long winter, then thaws. The return of the warm weather means that oodles of dangerous, ravenous alien animals come out of hibernation.
This unexpectedly, suddenly makes operations on Pandora far costlier. Furthermore, Dahl’s rival Atlas Corporation has been sending troops to Pandora.
Dahl therefore pulls the classic corporate move. The bulk of the expedition is left behind, since evacuation would be costly. That includes Tannis, part of Dahl’s military forces, and the vast majority of the workers.
With too little food being left, most of the left-behinds are forced to become bandits. They’ll raid anything that can provide them with food, ammo, guns, batteries, water, etc..
From colony to barren post-apocalypse in no time.
OH SNAP SON
As everything collapses into disaster, Dr. Tannis realises that there *is* an alien Vault on Pandora. Oh oh oh.
Every 200 years, this Vault can be opened, using a special key. An expert such as Tannis can assemble it. However, her team gets gradually massacred by the dangers of Pandora.
Tannis becomes traumatised, but remains mostly rational. Sort of. She thus manages to assemble much of the key, presumably using abandoned Dahl stockpiles to pay mercenaries.
As the Vault opening windows approaches, a new element (dubbed “Eridium”) spreads on Pandora. Apparently, it rises from the mantle and into the planet’s upper crust.
The following effects seem tied to Eridium :
- A greater number of abandoned workers starts physically mutating. Enhanced size and strength, or a form of dwarfism, are two common alterations.
- Many of the workers/bandits start having dreams containing Eridian images. Many become insane (or, in the local lingo, “psychos”). Even more become obsessed with an Eridian ideogram that seems to mean “Vault”.
- Creatures called “Guardians” reactivate near the Vault. These defenders likely are digistructed.
- Sirens apparently sense that something’s up on Pandora. What are Sirens ? Glad you asked.
Sirens are mysterious women who are capable of manipulating Eridian energies. There can only be six in the universe at any given time. When a Siren dies a girl gains her powers, as well as marks over her skin resembling elaborate tattoos.
Three Sirens are active on Pandora :
- Angel is the daughter of Handsome Jack, the soon-to-be CEO of Hyperion. She can remotely hack computers.
- Commandant Steele is a senior officer in the Atlas Corporation military. Her powers are unrevealed.
- Lilith has been trying for years to understand her Siren nature. She’s a deadly mercenary who can become invisible and intangible for a short while.
That Sirens exist isn’t common knowledge. Handsome Jack, and Lilith’s friends, are among the few who know for a fact that there are a few Eridian-powered super-women around.
Lilith is part of a weird, violent scene called Vault Hunters.
These are adventurers searching off-the-beaten-path planets for Vault locations. While the odds of success are dismal, the bounties offered by the megacorporations are enormous.
Angel approaches a number of such Hunters on Pandora. She has pieced together what’s going on, and her father forces her to manipulate mercenaries into opening the Vault.
She gets lucky with four recruits, who turn out to be exceptional badasses :
- Lilith the Siren.
- Roland, an elite NCONon-Commissioned military Officer, such as a sergeant who just deserted from Atlas’ military.
- Hulking local Brick, a former bandit and seemingly a mutant.
- Mordecai (and his hunting raptor Bloodwing), a marksman and hunter.
Posing as an artificial intelligence, Angel prompts her mercenaries to work with Dr. Tannis in recovering the Vault key fragments.
But Commandant Steele is wise to her, and leads Atlas Corporation forces to secure the Vault and key fragments.
Aziz, light !
Steele is successful, and opens the Vault.
However, *this* Vault isn’t a stash but… a prison. An Azathoth -like being, the Destroyer, starts emerging from it. This monster is theorised to have destroyed the Eridians.
Steele is slain as the Destroyer stabs her from behind. But at this point the Vault Hunters arrive, having fought their way through Eridian Guardians and Atlas troops. As the Destroyer is still much weaker from rematerialising, they eventually slay it.
(I would imagine that Handsome Jack’s ideal plan would have been to have the Hunters be slain by the Destroyer. Then blow up the Destroyer using orbital bombardment or a similar approach).
For a time, the remainder of the Atlas troops on Pandora persist as the dominant power.
But one of their agents, elite space ninja assassin ice queen Athena, goes rogue. So she’s now a rogue elite space ninja assassin ice queen. This results in the Vault Hunters getting recruited by her friend Mad Moxxi and clashing with Atlas.
Atlas’ commanding officer on Pandora, General Knoxx, reacts sluggishly due to a suicidal depression. This allows the Vault Hunters to kill him.
As with Dahl before, Atlas decides to cut their losses and leave most of their personnel behind.
At this point, Hyperion starts making its move. Recon teams are sent to Pandora. As well as the Luciferian-looking Mr. Blake, who is Hyperion’s VP of Mercenary Relations and Tourism.
A zombie outbreak later occurs on a Pandoran island. The insane Doctor Zed poisoned Jakobs Corporation workers, then turned them into tough shambling undead.
But the Vault Hunters destroy Zed — by then warped into a giant monstrosity — and his army.
One CL4P-TP “Claptrap” utility robot also goes rogue, and starts a robot revolution.
Though Claptrap robots aren’t exactly formidable, they can be chain-produced for cheap. They also develop cybernetic implants allowing them to reanimate the corpse of their enemies as cyborgs.
Mr. Blake simply pays the Vault Hunters a bundle to exterminate the Claptraps. This succeeds. It’s good to be rich.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
As the title implies, it takes place between BL1 and BL2.
Ain’t played it yet, since it was published after BL2.
It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, yadda yaddi yadda
The Vaut Hunters settle in New Haven. Under the leadership of Helena Pierce, this hamlet within a junkyard is the most civilised place in the area.
But by this point, the Eridium “summoned” by the Vault is close enough to the surface. Massive Hyperion robot forces are sent in to build strip-mining operations.
A Hyperion strike force, led by the cyborg Wilhelm, is sent to New Haven. Helena Pierce is murdered, and the four Vault Hunters only narrowly survive.
MINE MINE MINE !!1!
Most people assume that a given planet has at most one Vault. But thanks to Angel, Handsome Jack has discovered that Pandora… has two.
Jack’s goal is to have his daughter consume a massive stockpile of Eridium to force open the second Vault. With enough Eridium, it is possible to override the 200-year timer.
Within this vault is a major bioweapon. The Warrior is basically a super-soldier dragon, capable of destroying armies.
Meanwhile, the Vault Hunter Roland rallies abandoned Atlas Corporation soldiers. Along with agreeable bandits, they found the town of Sanctuary and its militia, the Crimson Raiders. This refuge’s orb shield can withstand Hyperion orbital bombardment.
Vault Hunter Lilith fakes her death, and assumes the guise of devastating bandit leader the Firehawk. This allows her to discreetly destroy bandit clans hostile to Sanctuary. That way, Roland and his troops can focus on harassing Hyperion bases.
New power generation
Meanwhile, a new wave of Vault Hunters is exploring Pandora. Five years after the Vault opening, the rising stars are :
- Maya, a Siren. With her arrival, once again half the Sirens in the universe are on Pandora.
- Elite Pandoran strongman and akimbo gunfighter Salvador.
- Ex-Dahl veteran commando and bounty hunter Axton.
- Mysterious space ninja sniper space assassin Zer0.
- Technophile delinquent and roboticist Gaige.
- Psychotic towering Pandoran bandit Krieg, a friend of Maya.
Handsome Jack sets up a trap for these within a Hyperion freight train. At first, it seems successful. It appears that only one Vault Hunter (the Player Character) survived.
But it eventually becomes apparent that all six survived. Likely due to discreet sabotage by Angel.
Shields are down
Angel manipulates one Vault Hunter into joining the Crimson Raiders in Sanctuary. Jack’s scheme is to have them recover a sabotaged power core, then try to power Sanctuary’s shield with it.
The plan succeeds. The power core has a backdoor that allows Angel to shut down the shield. Sanctuary comes under heavy orbital fire.
However, Lilith consumes a boatload of Eridium, allowing her to phase-teleport away the entire city.
Come from way above / To bring me love
At this point, Angel makes a face turn. Fed up with manipulating people to advance Jack’s sociopathic agenda, she rebels against her father. Angel starts offering invaluable information to the Crimson Raiders.
She also reveals that she already has the Vault key, and is being forced to supercharge it. This means that there’s no hope of stopping Handsome Jack without working with Angel, and hoping that she’s sincere about her change of allegiances.
Angel’s endgame is to have the Vault Hunters kill her. This is the only way for her to escape harassment and exploitation by her powerful father. And with Angel gone, Jack no longer would have a way to speed-charge the Key.
A thousand cuts
After many trials, the Sanctuary operatives manage to reach Control Core Angel. They thus discover that Angel never was an AI, and carry out her request for death.
But in the fray, Handsome Jack murders Roland.
Furthermore, Lilith joins the fight despite Angel’s warnings. Jack thus captures her, and uses the same equipment employed to enslave Angel to force Lilith to continue powering up the Key.
The Hunters manage to locate and invade the Vault. Both Handsome Jack and the Warrior (still weakened from its Vault time) are slain.
But when Lilith touches the Key again, it activates a nearby computer. It displays a map of the galaxy… showing hundreds of Vaults on nearly as many planets.
The illusive generic Vault Hunter
The “characters” in the first Borderlands game are closer to being character classes. They can all develop along builds in typical Action-Adventure Computer Role-Playing Game fashion.
However, they do have a minimal degree of characterisation. With a canonical name, a largely set appearance, a handful of lines, a brief intro sequence conveying a sense of their style, etc..
So, back in the days of BL1, we ended up considering them bare-bones characters rather than a character class.
With transmedia material (particularly the comics) plus BL2 and subsequent games, the BL1 Vault Hunters become full-fat characters.
Both generations of Vault Hunters have a New-U account and implant.
New-U is a service that digistructs a clone then implants the latest save of the memories. The data is kept up to date every few minutes at worst. Pandora has a solid network of New-U meat-printing stations.
New-U is presented purely as a gameplay conceit. With encouragement not to think too hard about the implications. Yeah, no can do.
- New-U was a start-up with untested but killer-sounding tech. It was bought and massively scaled up by Hyperion before anybody even knew whether the tech worked.
- The tech does work. But like other digistruction processes, the subject must be disintegrated once to acquire the data about how they’re built. We see car mechanics do that in-game to feed vehicle designs into the Catch-A-Ride digistruction system.
- Furthermore, in the vast majority of cases this has catastrophic psychological side effects. Let’s assume that it takes a few months and generally ends with a complete psychotic breakdown. This may help explain the number of nihilistic murderers running about.
- *But*, a tiny percentage of people have no reaction at all. Perhaps due to a rare genetic marker. Both generations of Vault Hunters are among this minuscule population.
This approach helps explain why all the NPCs normally stay dead, but the playable characters normally don’t.
It also explains why the playable characters are major badasses. They have far more fighting experience than should be possible, since they’re deathproof.
That PC bodies are digistructed also helps explain healing abilities, such as transfusion grenades. There’s no reason why wounded digistructed bodies couldn’t be patched up on the fly.
More No-Prize Hypotheses
We can also assume that New-U stations were built to be as autonomous as possible, to avoid maintenance costs. They are presumably resupplied by digistruction, and *everything* is automated to avoid icky icky human costs.
(Same idea – a bought startup being fed massive capital to scale up at warp speed before anybody even knows whether a business model exists.)
Interestingly, Hyperion has no control over their own New-U station. Otherwise, killing off the Vault Hunters would have been trivial.
But a sequence in BL2 where Angel needs a dongle to hack a Catch-A-Ride digistructor shows that even she can’t hack that sort of network without a backdoor.
Perhaps the initial investment was accompanied by an incomprehensible divestment mechanism, to lower Hyperion financial exposure. The losses would have been tranched, repackaged and whatnot until it is impossible to own the IP.
And in the same vein, we can imagine that everybody at the original startup cashed out and ran within seconds of being bought. Leaving no one with actual access.
Still, there’s one obvious exception. It seems that the Hyperion CEO has an override. It blocks a slain person from being digistructed back. But he has to be physically present, using his personal weapons. Even a DNA-copycat body double won’t do.
It’s likely a backdoor that’s low-level hardcoded in all Hyperion software.
The game also features teleportation stations.
Normally I consider fast travel to be a gameplay abstraction. But here, it seems that it’s the exact same technology as the New-U stations.
For DC Heroes RPG players, the article continues in its second, technical half. Well, it’s primarily for DCH players, but you can read it if you want.
Source of Character: Borderlands video games.
Writeup completed on the 15th of December, 2020.