[Review] The Barbarian King(OSR); Wight Power

[Adventure]
The Barbarian King (2018[1])
Gabor Lux (E.M.D.T.)
Levels 4 – 6

Barbarian King

Melan a.k.a Gabor Lux has been in my sights for a while. Ancient and terrible, grognards with creaking knees wheeze pneumonically of his dread rising and wreaking of works Olden Skoölen, long before the OSR was even a name. A mystic and sage, whose memory encompasses the unfathomable depths of time, infrequently he comes to this blog to quarrel and converse on matters DnDaisical. His writings litter the defunct magazines of the OSR’s golden Age.

It is also said by secret things that if one is to gain supremacy among all those who would lay down the law of what is good and what is foul in D&D and OSR, his works deserve great attention.

The Barbarian King is one of Melan’s earlier modules, wraught, expanded, stolen and reforged, its troubled history is the subject of extensive scholarship by neckbeards crustier then I. Without further adue let us dig into 24 pages of lost valleys and ancient tombs.

These harsh wastelands were once the domain of the Barbarian King, whose men
bowed before animalistic spirits and fought with weapons of brass. In their raids, they
showed no mercy: not consent with pillaging, they took their victims as slaves or killed them when they could. So it was until the death of the king, after which men in mail came from the plains, and as their foes once, they had no pity for those they met.

Barbarian King is a module with a feel so classic it should have been written with a typewriter and printed on cheap paper. Taking place in some forgotten valley beyond the borders of civilization, the PCs have come to rob the tomb of a dreaded Barbarian Lord, now extirpated, whose lingering evil still haunts the site of his internment. There is some mention of a nearby fortress inhabited by zealots but most of it can be adjusted. In fact, Barbarian King strikes a nice balance between generic and overly specific, making it very atmospheric but also easy to adjust to one’s own campaign. The twin deities Mitra and Alliria can easily be replaced with the local alternatives and the tomb can be readily placed in any campaign that has foreboding mountain ranges beyond the edges of civilization.

Besides a civilized 3 paragraphs of backstory and a handful of rumors, the module wastes no time getting to the Valley of the Lost, arguably the strongest portion of the adventure. The language is precise and evocative without being verbose and is a testament to useability. The maps and production value are charmingly amateurish but perfectly legible and there are some nice art pieces by Stephen Poag.

The selling point of the Valley is really its atmosphere. We are presented with a wonderfully organic area of ruined fortifications, haunted barrows and defiled shrines, littered with the remnants of ancient struggle and filled with mist. Characters are infrequently harried by phantom warriors and shades of wolves as they explore the valley, and being able to find shelter only in the desecrated shrines of men of Law. Ancient barrows with cursed treasure do this foreboding place. A village of thralls, still loyal to the vanquished lord fearfully clings to the valley, eking out a wretched existence in the poor plough land. There’s an atmosphere of foreboding and peril that is effective without coming across as edgy or try-hard. The undead are mostly classic monsters but presented in an effective way that highlights, rather then diminishes, their evil.

This whole section works because at first the characters have no idea where the tomb is located and the surly, treacherous villagers aren’t fucking telling. 4 grotesque animalistic shrines, inhabited by evil spirits, must be tricked, appeased with human sacrifice or defeated in some perilous trial in order to gain information to find (and presumably survive) the Tomb. The information is delivered…in cryptic riddles: “When you the mountain-depths see, will you see the house of my Lord. But if in his house my form you see, beware; for one alone is harmless, but more may kill you with but a sigh.”

I love this section. There’s plenty of shit to explore, room for players to experiment, deadly peril, risk and reward, riddles and its all presented in a fashion that could not be more classically Sword & Sorcery-ey if it was set in the rock where Arnold Schwarzenegger finds his Atlantean Sword in what is probably the best D&D movie of all time; Conan the Barbarian.

The Tomb proper is still good, but arguably much weaker. I hope you savour, with immense delight, the precise sensation that PCs get when you let multiple Wights burst out of tombs and have them attack because GODDAMN you will be seeing that trick a few times.

Entrance blocked by unclean, heavy cobwebs. Inside, there is the choking smell of dust and dried mildew; clay jars everywhere on the ground and in recesses. 6 wights are lairing here, wearing cobweb-heavy shrouds; a total 20 gp worth of jewellery.

The tomb proper is solid if very lethal, multiple rooms connected via interlocking passageway that give the impression of a sprawling complex to be explored. And a shitload of traps. To Melan’s credit, most are telegraphed (say, a trap door by frescoes on the wall proper). Other traps involve being blasted by lethal bear idols, a trap that you CAN be forewarned of if you did all the evil spirit challenges (and somehow lived) but you can also discover by being vaporized by bear fire/acid lasers.

There’s a few instances where I’d say the lethality goes a bit too far. The old Gelatinous Cube in the underground tunnel underwater or green glint in a pool that turns out to be green slime rears its head, AND harmful mold AND a cylinder with contact poison on it.

There’s classic tomb delving stuff here that makes up for the rather straightforward (if never monotonous) undead murdering that will have to be done in the tomb. Finding the tomb proper involves using one’s brain as much as one’s brawn and would it really be a tomb if there wasn’t a fake Barbarian King Tomb as well as a puzzle where you have to put gemstones in a statue’s eyesockets?

Its mostly the atmosphere that sells this part. The descriptions of gruesome decorations and the savage rites of the barbarians are unrelenting and maintain a constant atmosphere of danger. The tomb proper, a five-fold complex that takes you through all the stages of life, represented by brutal animalistic totems, is a thing of beauty. The barbarian King awaiting you along with the re-animated bodies of his thanes is a classic bit of fantasy.

The Tomb proper of the Barbarian King doesn’t have as much scheming, weird shit or conniving or circumnavigating of bizarre obstacles in weird ways that I find appealing but it betrays such a firm graps of the fundamentals of dungeoncrawling that one can’t help but be impressed. There were a couple of times when I’d scoffed a little that the mighty Melan must have dropped the ball only to discover later (as with the fucking laser bear death trap), that there is always some non-assholish way a clever player can figure things out or bypass it. There’s a few instances when I think the lethality of Barbarian King strays into the assholish (Gelatinous Cube in underwater passage yikes!) and I can’t help but feel as if I’d have to prepare for a palace revolt if I’d throw that many wights at my players but its a well-made module, cunning, atmospheric and deadly. The epilogue if the king is vanquished is somehow grimly fitting and puts me in mind of R.E. Howard.

There’s nothing mind-blowing or massively innovative about Tomb but there’s something about the craftmanship of it that I can’t help but admire. Its the subtle way traps are telegraphed or encounters are rendered interactive, treasure is placed or mundane monsters are presented so they are every bit as fell as they should be.

For some reason this module puts me in mind of Maze of Nuromen, a module Melan thinks is basic, since both are so filled with classic elements but where Nuromen is content to emulate, BK is a refinement of the classic formula, condensed, honed and sharpened. Its not goofy, gimmicky, mind-blowing or disruptive. It’s just good, maybe great DnD.

A fine module, reminiscent of the cold, forlorn mountain crags of Cimmeria, where the  fell spirits of ancient warrior kings yet dwell, greedily clutching pillaged riches in skeletal fingers, in crudely hewn tombs of ancient rock. A low ****

[1] First publication 2002 for C&C

As an extra challenge for the Audience: Better Tomb modules then The Barbarian King! (No Palace doesn’t count since it isn’t out yet!) Do we do a Tomb round yet since there are no Arctic Survivor modules?.


17 thoughts on “[Review] The Barbarian King(OSR); Wight Power

  1. [Tomb Modules]
    The big one that comes to mind is Tomb of the Serpent Kings. It would also be fitting to tackle that one since its a popular introductory module these days – maybe even more popular than Tower of the Stargazer or any of the B-series.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s the first one that came to my mind, too. A few others:

      I3 Pharaoh (not really a fan of this from reading it, some nice ideas mired by Hickmanisms)
      Tomb of the Iron God (this one is fairly nice, on the other hand, if somewhat overwrought with accounting)

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      1. The appeal of tombs is easy to see. “Undead in a can” works well enough for both answering simulationist questions about being locked away with insufficient sustenance and providing monsters that are unlikely to run into morality problems.

        More tombs, if I ignore that you asked for something potentially better than The Barbarian King:
        LT2 Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad is okay, if you want a funhouse version of a puzzle-based mini-megadungeon
        The Sunless Citadel is kind of a dungeon around an unknown tomb (boringly linear as written, but easily improved by adding a handful of extra doors)
        Barrow of the Forgotten King exists, but he was forgotten for a reason (it’s a pretty bad adventure)

        I’d say Death Frost Doom and God That Crawls are also tombs (well, GTC is a catacomb, but close enough), but you’ve reviewed those already. And you and Shuffling Wombat mentioned S1 and I2 (I’m a big fan of S1 in the right circumstances; the prohibition against high level clerics in I2’s intro turned me off from it too much to recall whether the tomb itself was any good)

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      2. An excellent summary of the enduring appeal of undead as dungeon opponents.

        If we allow catacombs with substantial burial areas, the likes of the Lichway and Barrowmaze also qualify. In this case I withdraw my “I don’t like them too big” comment.

        I found the Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad underwhelming. It seemed more like a book of (not very hard) puzzles.

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      3. [Tomb vs. Catacomb]

        Up to Prince where to draw the line between tomb and catacomb. I thought GTC’s focus on the titular ooze was sufficient to lend it a tombiness despite the catacomb setting. I’d think Lichway and DFD can qualify as tombs for similar reason of having a central monster that the rest is (figuratively and literally) built around. I’m not familiar with Barrowmaze.

        [LT2]

        The thing about Crypt of Lyzandred that stood out to me was it being the first dungeon of puzzles I came across where the puzzles could make sense in setting. My sentimental mind is probably giving it more credit than it deserves because of that.

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  2. Good review. I have an earlier version of this; I like it. In general, Melan’s work is imaginative. This is Melan restrained, but none the worse for that. The less gonzo, the more adaptable.

    Some tombs: DF18 Where the Frozen Jarls Sleep (free download from Dragonsfoot); Mud Sorceror’s Tomb, Dungeon magazine 37; I2 Tomb of the Lizard King.

    I think I prefer my tombs creepy, atmospheric, but not too big.

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    1. I’ll throw in tomb of horrors and we’ll make a nice list followed by a clickbait post titled TOP 10 BEST TOMBS OF THE OSR?!? YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!!! And then a minuscule list followed by advertisements for Palace of Unquiet Repose the kickstarter (coming May 2020).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bryce and Gabor both like Tomb of the Bull King. It’s still free to download I believe. Yet again, I have it but haven’t read through it. It’s pretty huge if I remember correctly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tomb of the Bull King is not really a tomb adventure, more like a small megadungeon that has a little bit of everything in it, including humanoid lairs, tombs, temples, a dragon lair, and so on. Its big idea is taking the palace of Knossos, blowing it up in size, and reimagining it as a dungeon. It lacks somewhat in the senseawunda, but has a pleasant complexity.

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  4. Neither Iron God nor Serpent Kings clicked for me, despite being explicitely targeted at new groups like the one I had in mind. I could sure use a couple a steady-handed princely dissections to help me understand why.

    Winter’s Daughter is also a tomb adventure and I enjoyed it a lot. Bryce too apparently.

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    1. Good call on Winter’s Daughter. Also, apparently the next issue of Echoes from Fomalhaut will have a module set in a glacier setting.

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  5. I’d suggest _The Shattered Circle_, from the 2nd Ed era? Not much of a tomb but a wholesome dungeon for newbs. It may have a claim to Greyhawk lore by introducing for the first time a less-well known and not-as-good-as stepbrother to Blackrazor.

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  6. Thanks for the review! Three peculiarities which may be relevant about this one:
    1) The outdoors section is much more recent than the tomb section – 2010 vs. 2002. They are separated by almost a decade, which shows. It managed to surprise my players, who grew accustomed to my 2010 style, and got hit by the 2002 encounters.
    2) I wrote most of that tomb section before game night in all of 30 minutes, including the stats. Quite proud of that accomplishment, and it holds up fairly well in context. It is D&D from the unconscious (since there as no time to think deeply about things, just write down ideas as they came in a series of images). It is full of assholish things, but it was written for a band of experienced powergamers and murderhoboes who could take it.
    3) The influence of the great, great Tomb of Abysthor is strong in this one. I can wholeheartedly recommend it if you want to review a bunch of tomb modules (the new version is found in Frog God’s Stoneheart Valley).

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      1. Surprised that no one has brought up the Lost Tomb of Martek, probably the mother of all D&D tombs that I have fond memories of running (though fond memories as we all know get much better w time, I am sure it was likely mediocre). The other tomb would be the beast of a gygaxian module Necropolis which is somewhere in a box in my attic but I recall being pretty well done.

        Liked by 1 person

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