The Last Barrow, D&D adventure review

By Mark Smylie
Aegis & Gorgon

In ages long past someone built a barrow for a prince, and laid him to rest–or so they thought. The bodies of his wife and a few of his descendants found their way there as well before the barrow fell into disuse and was in time forgotten. And now, perhaps, after centuries have slipped by, the hour may have arrived for the prince to return, and with him relics of great power.

This 104 page adventure (plus handouts!) features an eight page barrow. Great art and style. A rich tapestry of an environment. Lacking in usability. The page count isn’t as bad as it first seems.

Ok, up front, I like barrows. One of my dreams is to spend a year in Great Britain and Ireland travelling around, collecting the keys from local vicars, and exploring barrows. 

But, first, the page count in this thing. Normally 108 pages for eight rooms would seem to be an issue. The last fifty pages of this are mechanics for the various game systems: Artesia, 5e, and Runquest. This means that the main text description avoids those things and a room that “makes you uneasy” in the adventure is then detailed, in the various systems in the back half, with the specific game mechanics in each system. Thus you’re getting one generic text description and then three more specific sections of the system-specific mechanics for the system. Further, it does have a short lead in with hooks, and wilderness travel, and the area outside of the barrow, before the dungeon proper starts. And then, the entire thing has what one might call a “luxurious” layout style, full of art and page design. The actual backstory/extraneous shit is kept to just a couple of pages, with a bit more sprinkled in to the rooms. So, overall, not as bad as would first be indicated. Pruned back to just “generic + 5e”, and the layout condensed, it might be a 30 pager, which isn’t so bad for something taking the holistic approach to the adventure with good hooks, wilderness travel, etc.

The details here are great. Or, rather, the specificity. Specificity, without verbosity, gives the DM something to work with. They can take the imagination seed and run with it. And it’s here, a lot. From the hooks, to the people you meet on the road. Omens to happens, ocular visions, and wildflowers atop the barrow have purposes, as well as the magic effects of menhir circle … and maybe you meet someone up there also who is doing something. (That table, in particular, feels wasted. Why offer a dozen choices when only one will maybe happen? The others are, essentially, wasted effort. But, that’s a larger design issue.) The art style lends itself well to the adventure, with great illustrations of the various things you find, and handouts for the players, etc, to get you in to luxurious barrow mood. “Players in fantasy RPGs rarely seem to need a reason to send their characters off to disturb the graves of the dead …” the hook section tells us. Indeed! And this sly little witt is present here and there in the adventure.

Luxurious. To a fault.

For the thing has issues, both with its chosen style and writing decisions. First, the “system localization” doesn’t work well, I think. You are, essentially, flipping to two different sections of the text, the generic description portion and then your system of choice portion, forty pages later, to find the stats, mechanics, etc, of the room. It’s not that it goes overboard on the mechanics, it doesn’t, but just that the section is a long way away. You could take notes, I guess, or print out a second version to consult during the game? But it feels clunky to keep flipping back to reference the mechanic effects. And the stats are, essentially, not present, at least for 5e. For a given monster it will have a decent paragraph or two to read/consult and buried in it are things like “stat it like a GHOST or a WIGHT” … sans stats. So now I’ve got a third book to whip out and consult, assuming I put in the effort up front to prep it correctly. It feels HEAVY to prep.

And the text. For all of it’s pretty layouts it does little to organize the actual room data. Instead you get these LONG paragraphs full of richness … that it hard to scan during play. This is exacerbated by a fancy font choice that makes comprehension even harder.

This is a GREAT fantasy barrow, fully supported as a complete adventure, including follow ups after the adventure is over.But it just doesn’t feel like its usable. A great coffee table adventure to gawk at, but not to run.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is a good one. From it you can see the richness of the layout style and art choices. Care was taken to ensure that the font color didn’t clash with the background color. But note, also, the fancy font choices, italic old-timey, for certain of the descriptions. And note also the Longish paragraphs for the descriptions that bury what the DM need to run it in the hard to scan text.

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7 Responses to The Last Barrow, D&D adventure review

  1. Reason says:

    Looking at the preview- it’s one of those “lovely to look at” adventures that yes, are shit to run & don’t understand the format or utility. Normally, I’d run a mile. Not worth the effort when there is good stuff that is also handy.

    Buuuut… I’m also putting together a campaign building off the TPK of an old, celticish one … where the barrows will be the launching point to righting old wrongs (think, Where the Fallen Jarls Sleep as a jumping off point). I think between that, Tukrams Tomb, the one from The Graveyard Book by Gaiman & this one, I have enough feature barrows + weird barrow events to roll with…

    So I’ll probably get it anyway. I gotta tell you though it’ an aggressively bad design format for usability. ALL italics, ALL bold, NO sense of order or helpfulness to a quick description. It’s just straight into wall of text italics & who knows where the fuck the key points or first notices are.

    Highlighter job because the content weirdly hits right on the campaign button. Otherwise it’d be a hard pass.

  2. Bigby's Affirmative Consent Lubed Fist says:

    That table, in particular, feels wasted. Why offer a dozen choices when only one will maybe happen? The others are, essentially, wasted effort.

    I dunno, for a sandbox campaign, this could add some interesting faction play… what would be better than a dozen different groups vying to use the menhir when ‘the stars are right’? Control of the menhir at auspicious times could become a major prop for a campaign.

  3. The Middle Finger Of Vecna says:

    Reason said “Looking at the preview- it’s one of those “lovely to look at” adventures that yes, are shit to run & don’t understand the format or utility.”

    Yeah, that was my thought as well. It’s purdy to look at but I don’t buy modules because they’re pretty to look at.

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Sometimes I will use things like this as a coffee table book. But, it’s then a decoration, and explicitly NOT an adventure

    • Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

      In looking through the preview, my sentiments are very similar. It is overwritten for sure. It does have evocative elements buried in the text. The art is great. I did go down the rabbit hole on this one and started looking at the other stuff from the publisher. It seems like he is an author? who does all his own art and such and the whole setting seemed like DM NPC ode. Definitely not an adventure designer, though there is some creativity there.

      • Jesse Rodriguez says:

        I don’t have this product, but I have a lot of his other works. The Artesia graphic novels are pretty good. Art is great, writing so so. His first novel The Barrow I thought was very well written. I like the book a lot and am looking forward to reading the other installments. It’s dark without the grim, and towards the end is a nice twist on dungeon exploring and quest adventures.

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