[Review] The Complete Barrowmaze (LL) Pt. I; Shell

[Megadungeon]
The Complete Barrowmaze (2014)
Greg Gilespie (self-published)
Lvl 1+



The megadungeondelve continues. In the dawn of the OSR, before the 48.756, the rising of King James and the ruin of the Invoked Molestation, there were in OSRland Greate Megadungeons Four. One of them was the incomparable Stonehell, ten layers deep. One other was the Powerful Anomalous Subsurface Environment, doomed never to be completed. The oldest of them was The Darkness Beneath, its lowest level never found. And the last of the Four Great Megadungeons was the Dire and Grim Barrowmaze.

Ah Barrowmaze, you endless labyrinth of winding halls, deadly traps and ancient, mouldering tombs! Where the dead sleep lightly, and the thirsty stone is watered with the blood of heedless tomb robbers! Today we take a look at one other of the greats.

The complete edition of Barrowmaze, 261 pages, is a compilation of two separate volumes, first published 2012 and now collected, amended, annotated and forged together into a veritable behemoth of dungeon-crawling goodness. Lest the noble reader be deceived into thinking that the 261 pages are devoted to mouldy tunnels and wooden doors alone, he need not fritter, for between its pages can be found a hexmap of the region, a complete village key, some notes on surrounding locales, a mini-pantheon, a host of additional rules and modifiers and an entire hexmap of the Barrowmaze area, dotted throughout with a tonne of other barrows to plunder and die in.

For the purposes of this review I think it will be most enlightening to focus on all of the surrounding paraphernalia FIRST and then move to the dungeon last as a contrast with the previously reviewed Stonehell, since this is an area that Stonehell does not deign to devote all too much time too.

The premise of the Barrowmaze (deliberately kept generic in the opening so it may be discovered through play, very good), is that an unknown people settled the region long ago, laying their dead to rest in a system of barrows that they constructed according to their customs. Over time the place grew, becoming a great, winding maze of tombs, temples and catacombs. In addition, there has been something of a regime change in the Underworld; Nergal, God of the Underworld, forseeing some trouble down the line, appears within the settlement, and soon his cultists drive out the villagers, infest the tombs, and conceal therein his artifact YE TABLET OF CHAOS. Everyone shrugs until his two asshole sons ORCUS and Boba Fett SET kick dad off his chair, but now are both stuck because without the Tablet you can’t administrate the Underworld properly. As both parties send their minions into the Barrowmaze, more shit hits the fan as the unholy power of the tablet animates the countless dead within the barrows. Gay. Enter the PCs, who probably come there to loot.

The Gazzeteer of the region starts off with a smattering of detail for the surrounding area, the foreboding swamp, which is inaccessible in winter, the rivers, the Aulde Bridge leading to the ancient dwarven kingdoms in the western mountain, the forest with its giant spiders, yet more forests with some elf tribes and so on and so forth. There is nothing stellar, but it’s serviceable, vanilla writing, the type of stuff you can effortlessly plunk down in some flower of hexes in Greyhawk or Faerun with none the wiser and it gives the GM a framework to riff any overland exploration off of.   
Ditto the pantheon. Its interesting to observe the divergence between the OSR 2012 and the OSR 2021, when it had not yet entered its third wave of expansion that would ultimately see the erosion of conformity and a shared frame of reference when writing one’s modules or setting. The deities may as well have leapt straight out of the Greyhawk Gazzeteer with a courtesy paint-job but I think this only makes sense if you, like Gillespie, actually started playing in the background that latecomers to the scene, yours truly included, could only absorb retroactively. There’s a little touch straight out of T1; The region has the (vaguely Celtic) Old Gods, that are now being gradually supplanted by the New Gods (definitely not St. Cuthbert & Mystra). Everyone is given a symbol, an alignment(only the CN slot is kept empty, For shame!) and a brief description of shared relationships or special followers and AWAY we go. The inclusion of the touch of old gods supplanting the new is a good one, it creates a sense of time passing, change, the old being supplanted by the new.

There are three settlements. Bogtown might as well be Nuln, a seedy logging town on the edge of the barony, ruled by the local thieves guild and an honest to god Witch with batrachian features, living in the swamp, and offering her healing arts in exchange for hard to get ingredients which can be sought out by the PCs in case the GM wants to do some overland adventuring or everyone is fucking sick of bashing skeletons to death. I find myself nodding approvingly. Then you have your Ironguard Motte, more of a proper barony town, complete with fortress, superior pricing for your pilfered treasure, higher level clerics (it seems Barrowmaze runs on LL but the type of LL that allows dirty dual-classed PCs, half-Orc clerics and Paladins) and the seat of the local ruler.

The bulk of the work is dedicated to the town of Helix, a mere half-days travel from ye swamp. Picture a classic fantasy village created by someone who has read B2 and T1. Ready? You now have the town of Helix. Much like T1, there is a bit of an irritant in that the services of the town are not grouped together in any convenient location but must be pilfered out of the keying in a most uncouth fashion, meaning that if the PCs want to find the Blacksmith the GM must run through all the entries until he encounters the entry for Blacksmith.

I am not being facetious, it’s not a straight ripoff. But it UNDENIABLY follows a similar template as B2 and T1, which is honestly the best template that nature has provided for constructing village-sized homebases suitable for protracted campaigning. There’s a dwarven blacksmith guy that could make nonmagical custom equipment, and the chapter of the merchants guild that hires mercenaries, and a convenient stable of hired henchmen, and wouldn’t you know it there are spies for the Shadow Hands (local thieves guild), and there’s a spy for the Acolytes of Orcus, a dilapidated wizard’s tower with a 6th level wizard where you can sell your magic items at ripoff rates and an elf fletcher that sells bows that have a 10% chance to give a nonmagical +1. If you are going to borrow design strategy, you might as well borrow from the best. If there’s criticism to be levelled, Helix is serviceable as a homebase and the handful of enemy or ambiguous spies provide a welcome complication to the otherwise straightforward business of exploring a giant death trap labyrinth of Barrowmaze but the Ultra-bastard mode of Gygax is absent and it all comes across as a bit too straightforward; where is the Gygaxian ultra-bastard mode? The three FREE henchmen that offer to accompany you that turn out to be CE? The rip-off artists, the hookers that give you diseases, the NPC hirelings that attack you on your way back to town. Or, for that matter, WHERE IS THE GOLD?!? If you are going to borrow from T1, why not stuff every house full of some cleverly hidden treasure damn you! This Helix place remains too tame and safe for my tastes, with not enough mystery to discover in the town proper. The type of stuff that develops over dozens of sessions or that your PCs discover because they happen to have cast Detect Magic in the Inn and figure out the signpost is actually a brazier of commanding fire elementals.  
I do like the hints at political machinations going on in the background, with the impetuous lordling joining one of the rival adventuring parties, and the unscrupulous 0th level councilor plotting to kill the 7th level Baron fighting-man. That’s good stuff.

What else? Good footwork being done before the campaign proper begins. Multiple hooks, mostly predicated upon the players being greedy assholes recruited by one of the NPCs in the village. Nice rumor table, not too short not too long, 20 entries, most of it bullshit but enough to spur discovery. All of this hits the ***  meter. It works in an unspectacular fashion. Solid. Reliable. Conventional.

Barrowmaze takes pains to make Tomb robbing feel like the grimy, strenuous task that it actually would be. Barrows are covered in earth, requiring many turns to excavate. Some of it has already been plundered. Sealed doors must be broken open with iron spikes and sledgehammers. Tunnels are bricked up. Some areas are prone to collapse or flooded. Doors are stuck. Treasure is hidden among countless alcoves. It emphasizes time in dungeon. This is reinforced further by having the random encounters in the Barrowmaze at night be tougher and more dangerous than the ones by day. It’s one expedition, and then back before nightfall or bad shit happens (2d4 Ghouls for a party of level 1 characters is knockout time, and unlike the olden days the Duchy doesn’t seem to have a high level cleric on call to raise any characters from the dead. That’s good, a sense of menace, palpable dread of things taking time and being difficult. Odd notes are added to the mix, like fragile treasure that will break if the characters carry it while engaging in melee.

There’s an additional optional rule that was probably needed if the lion’s share of your opponent roster is going to be undead. While inside the Barrowmaze, Turn Undead is harder, and each attempt raises the turning DC by 1 more, adding a tactical element to what would otherwise be a straightforward neutralization of the most common adversary.

The topside of the barrowmaze is quite extensive, consisting of 60-ish barrows, some of them leading to the network below, many more of them standalone tombs. On its own it would be a bit monotonous, as a companion piece to a megadungeon it’s a great addition. It makes the whole feel extensive, immense and gives the players some incentive to explore or wander around. Difficulty of the encounters is unevenly sprinkled throughout the area but there is a visible trend that as you move further into the field the tomb contents do get a boost in both lethality and possible reward.

I have a bit of a gripe when it comes to the overland encounters. There is a separate encounter table for low and mid-level parties and this reeks of Oblivion style rubber-band difficulty. While it would not be hard to blame the increased strength of the overland encounters to the gradual awakening of the Maze’s many undead denizens, surely a more elegant solution could have been found? What of a timer, or areas of the overland barrowmaze that contain more lethal denizens?  

The content proper is all possible permutations of single tomb + trap + guardian, coupled with just enough curveballs to keep it from getting stale. Treasure has been tombed up a bit, so alongside the jewelry, crowns, bracelets and urns full of gold you will find burial masks, canopic jars, runic tablets inscribed with curses and scarabs. There is a tomb filled with animated severed heads that can be used as consumable magic items. Thematically the whole sort of blends together. You get the feeling as if 2000+ years of civilizations have been using the damn place for disposal of the dead, with anything from creepy lizardman tombs to mummified smiths enthroned in enchanted regalia to a fucking chariot belonging to a roman-like guy. All of it helps you give the idea that you are plundering the worlds largest, oldest fucking graveyard.

Encounters proper: Essentially every trick in the tomb book is pulled. You have your Indiana Jones style gauntlet of death traps with a clearly visible reward at the end. You have your clearly visible reward with animated fucking skeletons surrounding it. Sometimes ruins have already been picked over, but something is left amid the debris. Hideous rotting mummies emerging from a half-flooded tomb to drag you to your death. Vermin. Giant ant tunnels breaking into the tomb. Enchanted riddles that, among other things, will give the character an attribute point, or perhaps lose the character one if he fucks up.
Little details leap out and give the whole some color.

A sarcophagus stands in the center of the room. Inside is a mummy. The mummy’s still white teeth contrast against its blackened skin. It wears a wrought Silver Ring worth 300gp and a Bloodstone Gem on a chain around its neck (75gp). These two items are underneath the wraps and are not immediately visible. Hanging on the ceiling, camouflaged against the flagstone, is a Gray Ooze AL: N, AC: 8, HD: 3, HP: 10, #AT: 1, DMG: 2d8.

Then there’s the weird. The real fucking curveballs. A centuries old Paladin, bound to his corpse, sworn to avenge himself upon the forces of evil before he may enter the afterlife. A fucking Death Knight and his retinue, and his skeletal fucking army in another. A hideous gateway to the underworld in a tomb daubed with nothing but warnings. A black pool that seems to go down forever, that allows you to emerge somewhere deep within the barrow itself. A fiery demon face that will answer any single question. This is the good stuff. Most of these smaller tombs are anywhere from 1-5 rooms in size, just large enough to place the odd secret door, or allow for a bit of exploration.

Monster selection proper will be delved into in the main course, but suffice it to say its 3 hundred billion different varieties of undead, many of them new, spiced up with vermin, oozes, constructs and other favorites of the tombcrawling genre, and heavily seasoned with traps of every conceivable variety as well as a liberal application of curses, moulds, diseases and fucking rot grubs.

As a supporting framework for a delicious main course it’s all quite adequate to good, at times great. Whether or not the aforementioned main course is worthy of such a lavish array of side-dishes remains to be seen.

Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon.


17 thoughts on “[Review] The Complete Barrowmaze (LL) Pt. I; Shell

  1. I have Barrowmaze I and II, but not Complete, therefore I haven’t seen the surrounding areas material. In the comments for another thread someone helpfully pointed out the major NPCs have head pictures, which is a plus for the referee trying to remember who is who. The rival adventuring parties are a nice touch, as the PCs get to meet them in non-combat situations and hopefully loathe them, adding extra spice to any later combat encounter. I like any town to be dynamic, with a chance for PCs to gain key positions if they grease the right palms, win an election etc., with occasional events like the arrival of the Duke’s treasure tax collector which you used in your play of B10.
    Barrowmaze is a solid piece of work.

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    1. Solid seems a good adjective. Its not spectacular or mind-blowing but its decent and it uses megadungeon tropes effectively. I’ll have to see the dungeon proper for a final verdict.

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  2. While I really enjoy Xyntillan, Stonehell and Medusa, and they are sometimes very different dungeons, I must say that I’m not a fan of Barrowmaze. I played it for sometime as a player, then I shifted to read it to see if I was missing something, but It really didn’t clicked for me. Maybe it was the descriptions, or the way the theme was presented, I don’t know, really.

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  3. “It wears a wrought Silver Ring worth 300gp and a Bloodstone Gem on a chain around its neck (75gp). These two items are underneath the wraps and are not immediately visible.” Classic “And on the mummy you see… nothing at all!” stuff!

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      1. I see, good point. My point is, don’t put hidden treasure in the visual description, only to mention it’s hidden status retroactively.

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  4. Thank you Prince for reviewing a product I’ve been tempted by several times. The OSR is almost 20-years old and it a wonderful service you are doing by looking at its most noteworthy accomplishments. Like the TSR modules, it’s interesting to see which have aged well and which have not.

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  5. Interesting, I somehow think of Rappan Athuk as an older megadungeon as well, but it’s apparently new compared to this hoary old bird. Stonehell was innovative (if controversial) in how it presented its information using One-Page concepts, how does Barrowmaze manage the daunting task of conveying all this information to the suffering MDM?

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  6. “I have a bit of a gripe when it comes to the overland encounters. There is a separate encounter table for low and mid-level parties and this reeks of Oblivion style rubber-band difficulty. While it would not be hard to blame the increased strength of the overland encounters to the gradual awakening of the Maze’s many undead denizens, surely a more elegant solution could have been found?”

    You praised a similar rubber-band mechanic in Castle Gargantua, I’m curious as to why it’s an issue here and not there?

    Just looking to understand. I enjoy the reviews primarily because they help me be a better DM with products I already own more so than for deciding whether or not to purchase them.

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    1. Welcome to Age of Dusk Sean.

      I consider Castle Gargantua to be something of a special case. Normally I consider it preferable to make an area with a reality that is independent of the player characters so as to maintain a sort of versimilitude, a sense that the place you are exploring has a solidity, a reality to it. In the case of Castle Guargantua, the entire thing is actually one giant exercise in illusionism, that is generated the second players decide to explore, no matter where the players explore they will encounter the room that has just been rolled. Also, if I recall correctly, all the rooms in Castle Guargantua are randomly stocked so the rubber-band method is there to ensure the random encounter table remains ‘up-to-date.’

      Castle Guargantua is essentially a trick or gambit dungeon. It works as long as the players don’t know how it works. Attempting something like that once as an experimental method of dungeon-design is interesting, but in the long run it has a lot of drawbacks to the traditional method.

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