By Tad Davis Ars Phantasia Blog Generic/Universal Level ... 4?
Cresting the northern peaks of the Thildish Highlands is a series of Barrows, forever enshrouded in mist. Entombed within lie the remains of the Magearchs of Thedron, great sorcerers of a bygone age. For decades after its discovery the barrows served as one of Thild’s hottest adventuring destinations. Songs are still sung of the riches of the mage lords. What’s more, scholars and sages agree that Thedron was home to one of the great lost Demon-swords of old. Interest in the Barrows, however, declined sharply after surrounding townships were hit with a plague of ghoul fever that transformed the citizenry into undead cannibals. Of late the Barrows have become a place of interest for diabolists seeking to unearth forbidden knowledge, as well as a troupe of bandits hiding from the law. Yet the lure of untold wealth and relics continues to draw the occasional stalwart adventuring party to this hilltop necropolis.
This 32 page adventure features a two level “barrows” dungeon full of undead with about a hundred and twenty rooms. It’s trying to present an interesting, dynamic environment that is easy to use. It comes off as a slightly generic “undead tomb” adventure … with lower interactivity. Still, I get what they are going for.
Let’s say something not nice about this adventure! It FEELS like someones first attempt at writing an adventure. And I don’t mean that from a “the first time I played D&D” kind of viewpoint, but, rather, from a “first time trying to write an adventure for someone else to use.” There’s an inkling of knowing what to do, but other areas in which things are just not considered. There are assumptions that are made, by a designer, that they don’t even know they are making. You KNOW what x, y, and z means. It’s implicit in your understanding. And, yet, passing this along to someone else, they get to figure out what you meant. Which, it turns out, is not so obvious. Ideally your editor points this out to you and/or fixes it.
We’ve got a barrow complex here, a mini barrowmaze. A field full of barrows, a two level map with a bunch of barrows, a bunch of sarcophagus in those barrows. A bunch of undead in those sarcophagus. Some cultists running around. Some bandits, a goblin tribe. And things assumed.
The map, I guess, is a good starting point. There are just rooms hanging out on the map. A room surrounded by rock with a door leading to rock. What’s up with that? As near as I can tell these are meant to represent some of the barrows on the map that are “small” barrows. IE: the barrowfield map show a number of barrows, one of which is numbered to represent the entrance to the greater dungeon, and, I guess, the other barrows might correspond to the entrances to these “disconnected” rooms? So, you look at the barrowfield map and the partygoes in to one of these unnumbered barrows and then you flip to the dungeon level one page and try to match this up to the numbered room on level one. Or, you could just number the barrows in the field? Likewise the stairs. There are a decent number. Again, I think these are supposed to match up, vertically? Why not just number them or make a reference to where the come out at And, the main entrance to the main barrow dungeon. I don’t see a door? It’s written as “The Great Barrow Interiour” and that description makes it seem like it is the first room the party will encounter. But, there’s no passage to the surface, or obvious doorway to the outside? And the “wilderness” key for the great barrow doesn’t mention anything obvious, like, a hole in the ceiling or some such.
And then there’s the vibe of the place. Dead. I don’t know why but this has been grating on me for a few years now. Tomb dungeons just seem … boring? I get it, we’re tomb raiders! Yeah! Exploring the crypts! But, it’s got a lot of Stoic Dwarven Temple issues … that can just not be an inherently fun environment. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. But, combined with a low treasure and low magic world … it feels a lot like real world barrow exploring .. if they were this large.
It’s not impossible to create a dynamic and interactive environment in a tomb, but, the environment, I would argue, does not inherently lend itself to these situations. You get traps. You get frescoes. You get The Tomb of Horrors. You get caskets to open. It all feels very static. And, that’s the way this adventure feels, in spite of the various factions running around inside of it. Because they don’t FEEL like they are running around inside of it or that they are lending themselves to a dynamic environment. They feel staid. Ossified, maybe?
The formatting here is explicitly influenced by Courtney and the generic to specific style. You get some italics up front (blech! No long sections of italics please! They are hard to read!) with a kind of general room description, and then bolded sections underneath describing the various things of interest that the party might then want to investigate. Great in principal; it’s one of my favorite formats and it’s also easy to describe and a n00b to get in to.
So … should the trap come first? I mean, if there’s a fresco on the wall, should the Frescoe come first or should the trap, thats mentioned in the fresco description, come first? You want the room format to continue the theme of delivering what the DM is likely to need first, first.
Should things in descriptions ever say “appears to be?”
Should the entirety of the room description be “A small alcover is hidden by a thin wall behind the idol?” How about The Lich? Should the lich entry say something like “it has the name of the lich on it.” but never ever refer to the name of the lich? SHould the small idol not have a value but the jewels for its eyes have a monetary value? I mean, i think it’s a VERY small idol, stealable? Or maybe it’s not?
How about the monsters? Should they NOT appear in the room description? Should you just toss in “Creature: 6 ghouls” in to the DM section of the description?
It’s disconnected. Almost clinical in its coldness. There’s no joy. It feels generic and/or abstracted. Rocks are “large”. The wilderness encounters, for two trolls that are a major menace, says only “the trolls dwell in a cave in the center of the grove. The wilderness map that is lettered one through five while the entries in the keyed section are A through E.
The end result, from the adventure type, the descriptive type, the lack of dynamics coming through, is boring.
119. The Open Grave
The beginnings of a long fresco has been painted along the eastern wall. The floor is littered with bones.
Creatures – Shriven, Skeletal Champion
Fresco – a layer of background colors has been painted on the wall. The ghostly dark brown shadows of several human figures have been added, though not detailed. The fresco remains unfinished.
Gate Keys –in addition to the treasure carried by each of the undead, two egg shaped pearlescent orbs are in the pockets of the shriven. One glows a faintly azure color and the other glows aureloin.
What treasure the undead carry? What are they doing? Are they in the rubble? Standing in the middle of the room? I don’t need to be spoon-fed, but, the vibe here is disconnected.
This is free at the designers Ars Phantasia blog. And, yes, I did upload a random Barrow photo for the cover …. 😉
I want to see what this designer does next
I agree that the maps could have more clearly indicated connections between the surface and the Level One, but I think there is a one-to-one connection. I think you would find that if the surface map was printed out and laid on top of the level one map, the barrow entrances lineup exactly with the standalone rooms underneath.
Also regarding the maps, I really really like the Level 2 map. It is not linear. There are multiple paths. Plenty of room for exploration. Typically the things that you enjoy in a map. Surprised you didn’t comment on it.
“I think you would find that if the surface map was printed out and laid on top of the level one map, the barrow entrances lineup exactly with the standalone rooms underneath.” I checked and this is true.
Sounds like the writing just lacks verve & as you say, a bit of “how to” convey things. E.g
*A small alcover is hidden by a thin wall behind the idol* Should be
*Mottled discolouration marks the west all”- closer inspection reveals a slight sag in the plaster.
Something that draws the players over IF they choose to investigate, a little extra tip to explore further if they do & hey presto a slightly more interactive environment. back & forth.
The fresco description sounds good to me. Just needs interactivity- maybe if you stare too long the half drawn figures follow you from room to room, sliding along the wall. And if you speak to them, they can speak back & tell you things about the dungeon, but they keep asking to be finished… or erased… or give dire warnings… or there’s a room that creeps them the hell out & they won’t follow you there etc.
I actually think he’s set up some decent interaction here- The trolls are preying on the bandits. The trolls will let you live if you offer to catch up other people & bring them easy food. Coversely the bandits hate the trolls & are willing to recruit/ally if you help them with that. So he’s given us a bit to work with there. Simple believable motivations.
Improvements to bring that out- add a captured bandit in the troll cave who is spinning yarns about how he can bring all the bandits to an ambush for the trolls… so far it’s kept him alive for a day or two and sets up a dramatic moment, is he lying? Will either side go for it? Clues the players in about it if they stumble on the cabe empty.
The bandits need a lair somewhere or a leader with a personality/description. Flat without one. If they had a lair you could see them stockpiling oil or something vs the trolls. Or note that on non-hostile reaction rolls they will attempt to buy oil & torches or something. Again that adds the life to what is -almost- a really nice simple set up by the author. (and i don’t need complicated for my sideshow parts). This guy is almost there…