Barrow of the Elf King

Nate Treme
Highland Paranormal Society
The Vanilla Game
Level 1

And if joy were not on the earth,
There were an end of change birth,
And Earth and Heaven and Hell would die,
And in some gloomy barrow lie
Folded like a frozen fly
-WB Yeats, The Wanderings of Oisin

This sixteen page digest adventure features a ten room barrow. Of an elf king. I know, surprising, given the title, right?  It knows how to create an atmosphere and brings a certain OD&D charm to the table with its encounters. I will never complaining about small level one adventures, but, the challenge for a designer like this is moving away from the ten room level one dungeon in to something with room to breathe and the context to bring the larger area to life.

There are, I think, two major hurdles for most designers to overcome. In the Brycian model of adventure design we have Ease of Use, Evocative Writing and Interactivity … with hidden pillar four being “Design.” Ease of Use is not particularly difficult, once you know you need to do it. It’s mostly just following some guidelines. Interactivity that is formulaic can provide least middling results, enough that the adventure is not just one note anyway. The ability to throw away all of the tropes of all of the adventures ever seen and bring new life to things is an important skill. The imagining of a scene, and what it would really be like, getting past all of the imagination having been beaten out of you by life. The Evocative Writing then communicates this to the DM and the DM to players, painting a picture in their head, creating a mood and atmosphere. It allows the DMs imagination, and the players, to be leveraged in to something much greater than what was on the page, the negative space in the imagination being filled in by the players/DM’s own brains. This adventure hits on all three notes, successfully in all cases with some occasional bits that verge on brilliance. 

The dungeon is small. Ten rooms, which includes the exit which is not an actual room, at least not in my taxonomy. So, nine spaces to adventure in. It keeps the text to one room per page, one digest page, with relatively large margins a decent sized font, and generally some room left over at the bottom. (At least enough for my most petty of enemies t o make an appearance: the explicit mention of where each exit is in the room.) This allows the DM to scan the room quickly, picking up what the important features are. It’s generally written with the most important features appearing first/high up in the description, allowing the DM to narrate as they go through the room. It’s very tightly edited. There’s none of the usual if/then shit, or room backgrounds, or conversational styling to get in the way of the DM actually using the text to run the room. At most we get an occasional aside in the room that provides context within the bounds of ACTUAL PLAY. A room with three skeletons at a table playing dice tells us, in the middle of the description, “An ancient enchantment bound them here to protect the tomb but the magic has eroded with time and they are terribly bored.” The terribly bored part enhances the rooms play especially roleplay, which this room is bound to have. The “ancient enchantment” stuff can even fit in to that. It fits in perfectly with the next sentence “They’ll halfheartedly ask intruders to leave and end every conversation with “Ok, time for you to go” or “It’s getting late” while gesturing towards the entrance.” It builds. (and, good use of italics to offset while maintaining readability). Importantly, this is one aside in what is otherwise ¾ of a page of text, maybe, seven sentences total. The ratio of directly actionable data to tertiary aside is absolutely spot on … AND The tertiary background is relevant to the actual play of the room rather than just useless trivia. Good job. There’s an OD&D vibe here, not just in type of encounter but in mechanics as well. The text focuses on the play rather than the mechanics of play, with a sparseness of attention to it, letting the focus remain in the FANTASTIC rather than the mundanity of getting there. Oh, for a world in which the monster ref sheet page of the Ready Ref sheets were the norm!

Interactivity is … subtle. While there’s an obvious role play element to the skeletons, there are at least two other role play opportunities as well within the tomb. In the tomb! Tomb dungeons can be boring, but here we have something other than undead combat and traps. You can talk to a goblin, or with The Oldest Spider in the Forest … and perhaps strike a bargain with her. Want to see in the dark and walk on walls? The spider has a deal for you … and that deal is delicious! Literally, of course, but figuratively as well, causing the player to ask themselves what they will do for power. And, the ability of a minor entity, the oldest giant spider in the forest, to do that? Great! (More The Oldest later.) 

This sort of thing extends to the magic items.  Canopic jars full of brains and heart … who’s up for a light snack? Or, the living wooden sword of the elf lord … planted to grow in to a tree. Rewards for returning said gobo to her boggy home? The gift of a toad steed. Or skulls attached to the wall with thin silver wires. There are things to do!

The writing here is generally strong, and it supports itself by leveraging a kind of older folklore element, something pre-Tolkein and before the advent of every description becoming meaninglessly abstracted and generic. This is bleeding in to the general vibe of the dungeon and the atmosphere it creates even from the very first encounter. There’s a mound of dirt in the forest. There are three stone slabs on top, all the same shape, one that a single man can lift, one that three men together could lift, and one that it takes two men to lift. Stacking them, in order, creates the portal in to the barrow. Note this doing three separate things. FIrst, there’s interactivity. Second, there’s the appeal to the entrance to the mythic underworld … you have to do SOMETHING to gain entrance to it. Finally, the appeal to The Old Ways. This feels different. It feels like you’re in some older tale, a peddler or soldier matching wits with the supernatural. And it does this over and over and over again. The talk spider. The dicing skeletons. A dead elf lord on a dias, arms crossed, holding a black iron arrow in each one. Wearing white wooden armor and a crown of twisted branches growing green leaves. Note the evocation of the fey elf, closet to the wood elf king from the Hobbit. Fey. Iron. Bramble Crown. This all FEELS right, down in your bones. 

We get “A narrow stone brick tunnel is lined with small alcoves, two on each side. Each contains a skull, covered in ornamental markings in blue ink, with green gemstones “ A brick tunnel, with all the imagery that holds. Niches, and not just skull but inked skulls. And not just inked skulls but blue-inked skulls. These are simple, decently described, not overly verbose, evocative. And leveraging ideas to bring more than the simple words would indicate. Maybe could use some work in this area to get to super stardom description levels, but the trend is absolutely SOLIDLY on the correct side of the spectrum. 

A small lair dungeon for level one adventurers completed successfully. Good Job! You’ve done the most basic thing a designer can do. There’s a weaker room here or there (the exit room, the canopic jar room) and perhaps the writing could be even better. But, solid solid effort. For what it is. A basic level one lair dungeon. Yeah, that’s right fuckers, I’m complaining about that. Look, I like level one adventures. There are a decent number of them. Maybe fewer lair dungeons, since those tend to come from a genre not known for producing strong efforts. But, I assert, the level one lair dungeon is nothing but training wheels. There is no larger context of the world around the location. There are only ten rooms. The challenge is to continue this effort. To include the larger context. To have a dungeon  that larger design elements come in to play. One in which the players can stretch their legs, with all of the design challenges that come with that. The lair dungeon, that is but a single bite of a single donut. I want to see something more fully realized, with context and size. That’s where the designer needs to go next to stretch themself, both creatively and logistically. That is what will put Nate down in the annals of RPGdom. 

This is Pay What You Want at itch.io, with a suggested price of $7.

https://natetreme.itch.io/botek

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10 Responses to Barrow of the Elf King

  1. 3llense'g says:

    I was with you all the way up to “suggested price of $7”. For a 16 page barrow with 10 (or 9) rooms.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I hear Arnolk K say there is not enough fOxus on what makes a dungeon good. Beyond saying that x dungeon is good/ bad.

    I think your last point Bryce comes into what Goblin Punch did in lair of the lamb. Here is a,lvl 1 donut bite but here are the tools to expand with play beyond this bite to a donut box or heck backfest

    See the God that could be released. The city wrapped in religious conspiricy. Multiple NPC rival parties to strike back. Cults with plans.

    MUSHROOM PROPHECY

    PLAY TO FIND OUT NECESSARY INVENTION HERE THE TOOLS LAY

  3. Knutz Deep says:

    Will there be any actual donuts in that donut box?

  4. Stripe says:

    Read the whole thing, cover-to-cover.
    This is *exactly* what I seek for a quick, no-prep night of OSR game play.

    I’m very glad it’s not part of anything of wider depth or scope.

    Four masterfully-evocative sentences for an intro. Ten rooms, a long paragraph each. Easily scannable. Tells me what I want to know while inspiring my imagination.
    A proper dungeon, but no need for a battle map.
    Fantasy; can drop it in anywhere.
    Honestly, I’d rather have more and more of these than anything.

    The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford was likewise ideal and seems to be the next step up in “RPGdom;” a small hex map with a town and a few adventuring sites and a couple dungeons.
    If this were on DTRPG, I’d buy it and anything similar from this author—for $4.99. (Black Wyrm was $4.00; It was this and a lot more.)

  5. squeen says:

    Great review! I was puzzled by “There are, I think, two major hurdles for most designers to overcome. In the Brycian model…” because the two hurtles aren’t mentioned again. (…or did I miss them?)

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