Monday, January 2, 2017

The Barrowmaze, an Uncommonly Good Dungeon


Careful exploration, sudden traps, overwhelming foes, a ready shovel and sledgehammer.  Torchbearers running screaming into the darkness.   It's the Barrowmaze.  This dungeon has helped facilitate a classic "Old School" style of campaign unlike any other I've run.  It is perfect for short episodic sessions online using a traditional D&D ruleset.  Using the magic of Roll20 and Google Hangouts my friends and I are nine sessions or so into a nicely emerging campaign.

I mostly run Type V D&D because that's the game people know; it's the new and shiny, but I've been reading OSR gaming blogs for years, wondering if that sort of mythical "old school" dirtbag style of play would really work for me.  It requires a different set of assumptions than a more heroic high magic style game.

A few months back I picked up the 261page megadungeon Barrowmaze Complete via the Kickstarter for the forthcoming sequel.  I'd been thinking about it for years and the magic of Kickstarter hype got me to pull the trigger.  That and the epic cartoon trailer.

Barrowmaze makes a great set up for this style game, it's a complete campaign setting: Starting in a dirty little village on the edge of a backwater duchy, the dungeon delvers wake at dawn to make their way to Barrow Moor, where ancient barrow mounds hide entrances to a sprawling maze beneath.  The goal is to get in and out with a bit of treasure, get back to town and spend it on carousing!


One of the really nice design decisions of the Barrowmaze is that it is a single level, with multiple points of entry.  The bane of big dungeons is that the whole thing can get bogged down when the characters are trapped in the dungeon, unable to recover and unable to vary the play over multiple sessions.  The way Barrowmaze works out is that the players discover more entrances the further East they go, deeper into the surface map.  Some entrances are discovered from the surface.  Others have been discovered as an escape from below.  On the whole, it makes for a nice session, into the dungeon, back out, makes some carousing roles, count up XP.  There is a bit of a story to the Barrowmaze, but its secondary to the players' story.  That said, this dungeon can be defeated, and it would be pretty satisfying to do so!


Wandering monster rolls are crucial to this dungeon.  Loud noise triggers rolls.  And it creates a time pressure.  Should they break down that wall or move on?  Should they search through all the burial nooks?  Wandering monsters can add up quick as well, and players have fled from an encounter with Sapphire Skeletons or Coffer Corpses ("They just won't die!").  This is a dungeon that is enhanced by keeping track of time, torches, and rations. 
The Doom Dice mechanic I introduced to Uncommon Dungeons has really helped for this. 


The book is pretty self-contained.  Most of the monsters featured have descriptions and stats (for Labyrinth Lord which works fine for my rules) in the back of the book, as do magic items and key spells.  Tables for treasures, dungeon dressing, rival tomb robbers, and re-stocking are included as well, but they can be hard to find in the moment.  I use a lot of bookmarks and a cheat sheet.
Best of all, there is a large section of handout art to show players for particular rooms and encounters.  I've always really like these sort of additions. 


The writing and art direction are really great.  The visual theme on a whole makes me think of a cartoon version of death metal album.  The writing is brief, useful and friendly.  There's a bunch of sidebars telling stories of the author's games, which is amusing and serves to highlight the intended play style.  The illustrations are all black and white, heavily inked drawings.  It's mostly very useable, with illustrations of the things you want to be able to show players.


Overall, this is a book I was able to sit down and run multiple games with hardly any preparation, so the book is obviously organized well enough, but I have a couple of quibbles.  There's a few funny decisions on organization.  The special rules for things like barrow exploration and runic tablets are sort of buried in the book, just before the Barrow Mounds section.  It makes sense to read, but in play I wish is was collated in an appendix in the back.  The other quibble is with the dungeon entrances, or rather the exits.  The Barrow Mounds section clearly states where each stair down appears in the maze, but sometimes I have players discover an entrance from below, and the map has no indication of what mound # it goes up to.  So, the DM makes some notes.

The maps are simple and mostly clear.  I did run into a moment last session where the group unexpectedly made it to room 100, which which nicely spans the gutter of the book.  In the moment it was hard to figure that one out!  The map is a huge sprawling affair that spans six pages, but in the book it is divided into slightly themed sections, with limited travel from one to another.  The result of this is that each section could be taken out and used as it's own small dungeon complex in your own campaign world.  It also means you can wrap your head around a particular constellation of foes if you know where your players are heading next session.


There's been some criticism about the price of this product, but this book outplays the cost.  It is more expensive than most of the osr products out there, and indeed that held me back for a long time despite really liking what I saw in terms of style and design.  Through play I've found that I've used this book more than many rpg products I've bought, so I consider it well worth it in the end.  Any rpg book is worth it if you actually play it a lot!  I've been continually stoked on playing in this dungeon and hope to keep it up for awhile yet!