How to make your game badass by stealing from Borderlands

Diablo in D&D

Tomb Raider in D&D

Far Cry in D&D

Borderlands is one of my favourite video game series, and for some reason I strongly associate it with the summer holidays (happy July, everyone).

Today’s post might seem like an odd proposition, but Borderlands has considerable shared DNA with D&D: its most significant forerunner is probably Diablo, which itself is based on roguelike dungeon-crawlers and ultimately . . . yep, D&D.

This is not an article about playing Borderlands using D&D rules. Rather, a bit like my post on the MCU, I want to pick out some of my favourite elements from the Borderlands series and think about how we can highlight or incorporate them into our tabletop games. As always, if you spot something amiss, let me know in the comments below.


See ‘Humour in D&D’

Top of the list by design. For me, this might be what I love most of all about the Borderlands series: it is brilliantly written and frequently makes me laugh out loud. Borderlands 2 is particularly strong in this regard. Whether it’s snarky dialogue, grim, tongue-in-cheek satire, ridiculous, over-the-top characters, or all the running gags and in-jokes, Borderlands never takes itself too seriously, and it’s all the better for it.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Make your characters larger than life
  • Include plenty of pastiche and satire
  • Prep a few catchphrases for your NPC dialogue


Treasure hoards and magic items in D&D

Since Borderlands pretty much coined the phrase ‘looter shooter,’ I should probably cover this one next. D&D already has plenty of treasure in the form of gold and magic items, but in Borderlands such loot is almost a mini game in its own right. 

How to do it in D&D:

  • Use magic item pricing from Level Up 5e
  • Account for magic item drift when balancing encounters
  • Track all currency in gold for ease
  • Consider starting at higher level to get to cool magic items quicker


In D&D, encounters tend to work best when there are no more than a dozen bad guys. In Borderlands, a dozen bad guys might be a starting point. This sort of battle royale makes players feel like badasses mowing down wave upon wave of enemies.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Use lots of low-level enemies often
  • Run theatre of the mind for large mobs
  • Keep Sly Flourish’s mob calculator to hand!
  • Use average monster damage for speed
  • Consider starting at higher level

Boss fights

Of course, it’s not just about waves and waves of enemies: boss fights are also a super important part of the game. The final DLC for the original Borderlands game also gave us the first ‘raid boss,’ a massive crab-worm named Crawmerax the Invincible; these are bosses that can only be defeated by a team of badasses working together.

For momentous boss fights, I like DM Dave’s advice for ‘single-session encounters’. For Tier 1, use half of a party’s daily adventuring XP. For Tier 2, 60 percent; for Tier 3, 70 percent; at Tier 4, 90 percent. Thus, three 16th-level characters can probably take on a lich in its lair (CR 22), and six can maybe take on the tarrasque (CR 30).

How to do it in D&D:

  • Plan boss fights carefully
  • Think about terrain and combat roles
  • Consider a combat cheat sheet
  • Use DM Dave’s tips for single-session encounters


How to run a big bad in D&D

The original (2009) Borderlands doesn’t really have a strong villain; it sort of became a feature of the series from Borderlands 2 onwards. I think you could even argue that Handsome Jack is such a strong villain that he has cast a shadow over the series ever since.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Introduce the villain early and bring them into the party’s orbit as often as possible
  • Keep them at a distance: send minions and henchmen in their stead
  • The best Borderlands villains are rich, egotistical megalomaniacs

Science fantasy

I did a whole post on this, and it gave me a ton of ideas for my next adventure, Paths of the Nexus (of which the first level is nearly finished!). Borderlands’ setting is a mix of post-apocalyptic science fiction and Western, and some of the technology feels antiquated even by 2023 standards. There’s space travel, but people still shoot at you with revolvers, double-barrelled shotguns, and wood-stock, bolt-action sniper rifles. And then there’s magic: it’s not called that, but whatever sirens do, it’s functionally the same.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Lean into anachronistic technology: guns, trains, robots, teleportation
  • Consider the aesthetic. Do you want steampunk, diesel punk, or something else?
  • Embrace the world-building potential. In Borderlands, you have an ancient alien civilization, space travel, and multiple megacorps. Plenty of adventure fuel!  


The Mad Max stuff: a particular aspect of space fantasy, I suppose. If I’m honest, vehicles aren’t my favourite part of the game. The constant driving in General Knoxx got particularly tedious after a while. But if it’s something you enjoy, there are rules for ‘infernal war machines’ in the adventure Descent into Avernus which might scratch that itch.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Speak to your players: find out how important this is to them
  • Don’t let vehicle combat overshadow the characters’ abilities
  • Consider looking at third-party supplements for better vehicle rules

Aaaand respawn!

Death in D&D

In Borderlands, death never feels particularly permanent. Expensive, perhaps, but mainly just an inconvenience. Keep the difficulty casual by allowing dead characters to respawn at a cost. You can even call them ‘New-U stations’, if you want – it’s exactly the sort of blatant cultural referencing that Borderlands excels at.  

How to do it in D&D:

  • Talk to players about how you want to handle character death
  • Take ten percent of a character’s gold every time they die
  • Consider using variant rules like healing surges and epic heroism (DMG pp 266–267)

Are you a fan of the Borderlands series? Do you want to be a badass and loot-and-shoot? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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