[Review] Barrowmaze Pt. II (LL); Stonehell.

Jesus where did we leave off? It’s been a while so I might be out of practice. The meat and potatoes, the solid inner core at the heart of the peach of Barrowmaze is the big fucking megadungeon, 600-700ish rooms of mildewey, cold, dark, ancient tomb between you and the mythical Chaos Tablet, source of all the evils that are rising in this misbegotten place.

Barrowmaze is interesting to contrast with Stonehell. Stonehell is really too vast to encompass any single theme, incorporating dozens and dozens of differently themed levels and sub-levels, interlinked by various degrees. Barrowmaze is one central theme with varying shades, conducted on a grand scale. Miles and miles of tunnels, tombs, secret doors, spread out across a single immense floor and divided into roughly nine areas, populated by approximately nine billion undead, constructs, vermin, oozes, necromancer factions and the occasional guardians held in stasis or visiting monster families. It is gigantic and exploring every single facet or interesting detail would take ten blog posts.

If StoneHell is a guy who took Gary’s Mythic Underworld 101 and got an A+, Barrowmaze is the guy that got a B-. The understanding is complete but it does not reach a transcendent level. The myriad nodes and complexes are interlinked via diverse passageways, concealed and open, with access to parts of areas blocked off by various portculli, bricked up alcoves, doors with scarab keys or other road blocks. And yes, careful mapping WILL allow you to find secret doors thank you very much! The first thing you notice is how well the structure of Barrowmaze lends itself to the long term resource-management format [1]. Time itself is an enemy. Doorways are bricked up or stuck, hundreds of alcoves are waiting to be searched, corridors must be dug out. Combine this with plentiful random encounters and the fact that travel to and from the dungeon takes up half a day, this might be the best example of a dungeon that forces players to actually plan out their expeditions or weigh their options.  The infamous primary entrance to the Forbidden Antechamber, a hole in the ceiling that one must rappel down 35 feet, sets the stage for the things to come. Play this with full encumbrance rules, be stringent and strict. Different entrances to other barrows on the surface provide a method to prevent extensive back-tracking and an alternative reward to the abundant (and occasionally cursed) treasure.

If StoneHell can be a bit coy or indifferent about intrusion at first before really cranking up the assholishness, Barrowmaze lets you know right off the bat that you and it are not going to be friends. Bring thieves. Lots of thieves. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many pit traps in one place, and Greg Gillespie might be the first to pioneer THE BOTTOMLESS PIT and boy oh boy is he keen to demonstrate this wonderous invention to intrepid adventurers. Also numbered among the many favorites are closing doors to split the party and trap them together with animating undead (or for that matter, the occasional animating engraving, golem bursting from the wall or the rare monster awakening from stasis) and Hickman (?) style enemy gauntlets against waves of enemies which I must confess I am not a huge fan off.

Barrowmaze is tough to review because it does essentially everything with various degrees of success but there are few spectacular successes. There is almost no trick in the Mythic Underworld tips and tricks in the little brown books that it does not in some form utilize. Concealed vaults, treasure behind puzzles and riddles with hints to the aforementioned in different areas [2], sly hints to hidden effects, wonderous artifacts or effects that can be fucked around with (say, a throne in a tomb of a warrior of Athena that enhances one ability score for L characters or incinerates C/E characters). Describing all the ‘specials’, the wondrous effects alone, would take me a review, like the tomb of a Neolithic hunter whose final room transports you into a verdant dream world to do battle with his dinosaur prey. At the same time, perhaps inevitably, most of Barrowmaze is TOMB X CONTAINING SOME KIND OF UNDEAD WITH A TRAP. Repeat infinitely. Boring to read, probably necessary for a prolonged campaign format, with hundreds of delves taking place over years of real-time, a framework or backdrop against which the exceptions, the weird stuff can take place. It’s not lazy, there’s always a curveball around the next corner. You might not remember your fight against five fossilized skeletons but you will remember the time you met and chatted up the Ghost of one of the Paladins that fell in his quest to close the Pool of Chaos. Also bonus points for introducing the rivalry between the Necromancers of Set and the Acolytes of Orcus via a Gigantic Pitched battle taking place in a connecting area. Or the area where you have just hammered through a bricked up alleyway, only to find 10 undead knights and two undead acolytes waiting for you fully prepared. Or the tomb with the deck of many things and 200 caged ravenous undead in a somnolescent state. Or…

The Stonehell style theming and the idea that each new level throws challenges at you or has different rules is much less present in Barrowmaze, which seems to flow from one area into the other almost invisibly. I do appreciate it that it is possible to enter into an area that is quite beyond the power of lower level characters without undue difficulty, although the changing random encounters will certainly clue observant PCs into the fact that they might be out of their depth. Even within similar areas, Barrowmaze will occasionally place insanely high risk areas, and bait the trap with a correspondingly high reward. What of obscure areas that are difficult to find but correspondingly rewarding? The immense size of the place allow the designer to occasionally pull these tricks and gives the PCs the option to engage with them or not, which is appreciated (and probably a facet of good megadungeon design).  

Tying together this sprawling labyrinth of undead-haunted, trap-filled graveyard of empires [3] is a sort over-arching but certainly optional plot to find and destroy the source of the animating undead, the dreaded Tablet of Chaos, before any of the various intruding factions get their grubby paws on it. It does the gradual drip-feed of exposition through encounters much more consistently here then the grander Stonehell, and levels seem more interconnected on both a causal and thematic level. Sub-quests abound; There is a pool of Chaos to obliterate with a lawful good artifact, the location of the final resting place of the Tablet of Chaos to unearth, covens of evil Orcus worshippers or Set Necromancers to kill (or negotiate with) and occasionally friendly NPCs to recruit. The NPCs are a high note, anything from mongrel men to your typical dwarf to ghostly paladins to the spirit of a paladin transported into a flesh golem makes their appearance, and the whole is infused with a wonderfully grubby low-fantasy vibe.

There is a type of hierarchical complexity to the monsters that feels methodical, which given the vast amount of encounters is not suprising, but not lazy. There will be normal monsters, normal monsters decked out with magical items to make them more formidable, occasional more formidable variants and the always delightful but rarely occurring ‘Saturday Night Special.’ A bone-golem but with six arms, each of a different creature, and an instant kill breath weapon. A pool with a totally definitely unique black tentacle octopus in it! A minotaur guardian with magical weaponry that will return as a Ghast and stalk the party if both final bosses (!) have not been slain. A ghast witch with a coven of ghouls and ghasts preparing adventurers in a cooking pot (willing to talk). Dozens of these, the lords and ladies of their kind. This is combined with intelligent tactics for factions like the Necromancers, who have escape routes, traps and the ability to sound the alarm, but it doesn’t clutter up every already bulky encounter to the point of illegibility. I’m not sure how much of a fan I am of the deathmasks of precious metals that increase the abilities of any undead wearing them that is used to sort of justify buffing various groups of undead in the later areas but I guess you need some sort of system if you are going to be working on this scale.

Also a bazillion new monsters, some of them occurring only once in the entire dungeon, many suffering from the diablo syndrome of being mostly palette swaps, which is again understandable at this size but again advantage goes to Stonehell. Instead of fifteen different humanoid tribes with minor stat differences Barrowmaze has fifteen different types of skeleton. Sapphire skeletons that re-animate unless the jewel on their skull is shattered, exploding skeletons, fossilized skeletons, Black Skeletons, the dangerous Iron skeleton. There is also not an undead in the Monstrous manual without it getting some higher HD ‘Barrow’ variant. Rest assured that any undead not in the LL bestiary has been lovingly re-created, and thus you find your share of Crypt things, Hecuvae, Corpse Candles, Coffer Corpses, Ghasts, Ghaists, Phantoms and Poltergeists alongside the Mummies of Zuul, mummified Cat things, Mummy lords and lord knows what else. This is no high art but the myriad changes in ability serve to provide the players with continual challenge.  This is going to be the story of Barrowmaze. “It’s pretty good but very safe.” Conventional. Not boring or bad. Well-crafted and comprehensive. But its not spectacular or mind-blowing. It’s not Stonehell.   

Minor aside, the production value of this thing is spectacular and the illustrations, some of which are meant to be shown to the Players TOH or ROTH style, are terrific. High grade classical tomb fantasy art. Fantastic. The little designer’s commentary occasionally provided near entries where the GM explains how a trap (almost) killed one of his players are charming and useful. This is not cynical, a faithful rendition of a beloved home game.

Here, you want Rival adventuring parties?, asks Barrowmaze. Here you go. Your basic rival adventuring guys with slightly high mortality rates on their torchbearers but a liberal purse. The disgraced ranger led band of brigands that attacks you on the way back to the Village. Your band of murderous Viking bastards. You read it and you go okay and it slots in neatly in some currently invisible niche of you running this thing and it working. You know it does. Points for having slightly more than half of these assholes be evil btw. Sometimes you read descriptions of LG adventuring parties and you can already picture your PCs making cock-sucking motions with their hands or slyly coughing and whispering ‘faggot’ under their breath whenever the GM tries to say anything so the choice should suit, especially for grave-robbers. Good enough, moving on.

Treasure is the good, but basic kind. Barrowmaze avoids the ‘5000 gp worth of gems’ debacle but instead you get a thick paragraph consisting of nothing but Tourmaline (300 gp), Jaspar (200 gp), Star Signet (670 gp) etc. etc. if you find a medium to large hoard.  Magic items…fuck there are so many new ones. The addition of a new category of magical items in the form of runic tablets, figurines, death masks is noted and saluted and for a victory lap Barrowmaze also checks all the other boxes of new magic item additions by having a magic item whose component parts are located in different areas of the dungeon, your uberpowerful hard to obtain weapon of law, your evil staff only useful to chaos, clever little items like a compass that points to what you desire most (e.g. food, women or treasure for most people), a wizard hat that doubles as a bag of holding and so on and so ye forth, forever and ever amen.

Even if we compare the climax, the last level, Barrowmaze is no slouch. The hard to reach sanctum and consecutive lich battles, the fact that you have to figure out that your characters need to kill themselves in order to proceed, and the last minute reveal that the boss is actually two spirits sharing two bodies AND the artifact itself must be destroyed has a satisfying number of complications and victory conditions attached to it. But once again, for sheer impact, power, dynamism, Stonehell surpasses it.

This is a review, not a beauty pageant and in 95% of the areas in which it needs to excel Barrowmaze is perfectly fine. If you are looking for the quintessential megadungeon experience but you think Stonehell will be too daunting or intimidating to run, Barrowmaze is the user-friendly house brand alternative. It even provides a starting area and a map of the region with some politics, and its overarching campaign guidance is much stronger, giving it a leg up over the redoubtable Stonehell. In the year it originally came out it must have been mighty and I’ll be damned if you can’t get years of fun out of this. It feels like it is one step removed from an ADnD Greyhawk campaign, centre of mass DnD and for some people that will be just perfect.
But compared to Stonehell, there is a lamentable lack of verticality, it gets a little grindy, especially with the enemy waves towards the later areas, its not as thematically rich and it lacks the SCOPE, the AMBITION of that insurmountable module and unfortunately, the SKILL of its designer. Gillespie is good, but Curtis is greater.

Compared to any normal dungeon Barrowmaze represents an unimaginable amount of time investment, work, craftsmanship and occasional ingenuity. It is a faithful heir to the ways of old, and a faithful recreation of the dungeon as campaign, complete with Lich + Dracolich Boss battle at the end. But it does not go far beyond those ancient ways. Perhaps in time, when compared to other greats, it will rise or fall in my estimation.

A fine megadungeon, its fame deserved, but all the time I was reading it, I was fantasizing that I was reading Stonehell instead. I miss you Stonehell.

***   


[1] I mentioned this in part I
[2] These are quite good, verging on cryptic but presenting JUST enough of a challenge that most groups should be able to figure them out, and if not, there is
[3] And it does feel as if every culture on the world of, uh, Orth, pooled their graveyards and just decided to construct them in same place, everything from greek-style sage tombs to cultists of elemental evil to a fucking Neolithic hunter-gatherer are present


12 thoughts on “[Review] Barrowmaze Pt. II (LL); Stonehell.

  1. A fair and very good review. If you were to look for areas where Barrowmaze is stronger than Stonehell, you might mention:
    (i) the out of dungeon activities (politics, empire building);
    (ii) the more immediate availability of decent treasure;
    (iii) more likely to complete the adventure, or at least reach the exciting encounters.
    You already talked about (i), but it is worth a repeat for those wanting a T1 experience.
    Temple of Elemental Evil next, or Caverns of Thracia? The latter is my favourite module for layers of history/feeling the passage of time.

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    1. Good to know, I felt my joints were getting rusty.

      I mention T1 and B2 in my Part I as possible strong points, but my verdict of Barrowmaze can be summed up as ‘Good but i’ve seen this before’. In terms of weird hooks that could spiral into geopolitical upheaval on the surface world Stonehell has Barrowmaze beat. The ‘backstory’ of Barrowmaze is more cohesive and better implemented but I don’t know if that is a precondition for a good megadungeon. I’m missing the OOMPH, the thrill of discovery. A giant gorge with a fucking casino town in the middle, the neutral grounds, the tech death dungeons the fire giant volcano panic.

      I don’t even think having access to plentiful treasure in Barrowmaze is neccesarily a good thing, although I will say the Surface Barrows add a lot to Barrowmaze’s scope and the ability to wander and poke around is great.

      T1-4 next I think. I want to be at full strength when I tackle Thracia.

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      1. Point (ii) is really about PC level advancement. In Stonehell you can wander around level 1, not gaining many XPs. If you have reasonable luck in Barrowmaze, you can get to levels 2 and 3 quite quickly.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve used level to mean two different things in the same paragraph, not the happiest of choices. As I expect readers understood, on dungeon level 1 of Stonehell, you wander around and pick up very little treasure, and hence few XPs. In Barrowmaze, there is good treasure not so far from the entrance (or in barrows), so you can reach character levels 2 or 3 after a couple of lucky delves. Interesting that Sean’s group actually experienced (ii) and (iii); play reports are always of interest.
        However I see nothing wrong with the review: you can’t help but take away the impression that Barrowmaze is good vanilla, solid fare, not all that original. How you and your group value that against more innovative material is up to individual taste.

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  2. For me Stonehell is king as well. Barrowmaze is good and all, but the single floor and the hordes of undead just keep me uninterested. And as a player I didn’t found the urge to explore it. It all sounded pointless. That damned giant scorpions at the marsh was suficient to tell the party “yeap, let’s search elsewhere for gold and glory” About the holy trinity of the OSR megadungeons, I’m pretty curious about the classic edition of rappan athuk, but I think that beast is harder to dig into because of the size of it and its layout.

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  3. Both Barrow and Rappan are considered classics but they got expanded and worse over time for no reason?

    Interested in a comparison in how the products changed and if they justify making it harder for the DM to use and present to players

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    1. I think the expansion makes Barrowmaze better, and its not bad at all, that’s not what I am saying. I am saying Barrowmaze good, Stonehell greater.

      Rappan is on my list but these megadungeons consume a lot of effort, so I will not be marathoning them.

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  4. My group loved Barrowmaze, and completed 90% or so of it, but gave up on Stonehell in the first 25% or so due to the poor risk/reward factor.

    I think your review suffers from Bryceitis, itnterms of being clouded too much by “taste”. That’s probably more insulting that I really intended.

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    1. I can’t speak for any single group, even if they have tried both, because the individual playstyles, differences, expectations, the order in which they play it etc. etc. are bound to be massively different.

      My review has a number of suppositions about megadungeons and when it compares the merits of both dungeons I conclude that one is of superior quality, even though the other is certainly no slouch. I think this says it best:

      “This is a review, not a beauty pageant and in 95% of the areas in which it needs to excel Barrowmaze is perfectly fine. If you are looking for the quintessential megadungeon experience but you think Stonehell will be too daunting or intimidating to run, Barrowmaze is the user-friendly house brand alternative. It even provides a starting area and a map of the region with some politics, and its overarching campaign guidance is much stronger, giving it a leg up over the redoubtable Stonehell. In the year it originally came out it must have been mighty and I’ll be damned if you can’t get years of fun out of this. It feels like it is one step removed from an ADnD Greyhawk campaign, centre of mass DnD and for some people that will be just perfect.
      But compared to Stonehell, there is a lamentable lack of verticality, it gets a little grindy, especially with the enemy waves towards the later areas, its not as thematically rich and it lacks the SCOPE, the AMBITION of that insurmountable module and unfortunately, the SKILL of its designer. Gillespie is good, but Curtis is greater.”

      I am interested to see if I am suffering from designer’s myopia, where novelty is overvalued compared to a tried and true format, but Stonehell is traditional as hell, it just does much much more with the format. I might be wrong, I might underestimate the risk/reward ratio, but that’s my take.

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    2. “My group loved Barrowmaze, and completed 90% or so of it, but gave up on Stonehell in the first 25% or so due to the poor risk/reward factor.” Why would you say Citizen Kane is a good movie, when I personally didn’t like it?

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