What This IsAt its core, Barrowmaze Complete is a combination product covering Barrowmaze I and II, so you do not need the II book to have everything - it is all here. This is essentially an old-school mega-dungeon, but without all the mega-dungeon problems. The layout of the mega-dungeon are the tombs and catacombs under a huge area of ground, the burial mounds of an ancient civilization lying underneath a foggy moor. There are hundreds of mounds to break into and explore, all for the loot this civilization buried with its ancestors, so you can be sure the grave robbers and other ne'er-do-wells are lurking about busting into these forbidden places, getting themselves killed, or killing the others who loot the tombs and head back to town with sacks of loot over their shoulders.
And the marsh itself is deadly and dangerous, especially at night, and it is far enough away from town that you have to conserve daylight to be able to excavate the ruins of these tombs and get out before the night falls and the certain doom of twilight descends upon your party.
What I love about this is it marries lore and a real understanding of grave-robbing mechanics to an old-school experience. You need to physically dig up these places. Many are hidden. You need to bust through mortared-up walls with sledgehammers to get at the good stuff - and all that work makes a lot of noise. Any noise invites wandering monster checks. This sort of risk versus reward feeling extends through the overland plus the expansive underground, the more noise you make, the less chance you have of getting out of there alive.
And then there is the question of time. You may have a great run in the underground spaces only to find out you miscalculated and it's night outside. Torches matter. Light matters. Nightvision matters. Being able to find traps matters. Supplies matter. Resource management is critical to survival. All the low-level "manage or die" stuff that makes old-school gaming so fun matters and this adventure was built to support smart play through realizing you can't rest out here, you need to get in and get out, and there is no way to come out ahead without willfully walking into a place that will most likely get your character killed. This is the perfect tour-de-force of old school sensibilities and gaming and a hallmark example of an adventure written to bring out the best of why we love this genre of gaming.
Old School Death Metal DungeoningOne thought I kept having was this adventure was like finding an old death-metal record by some band that no longer exists. And when you put the vinyl record on the turntable you are both terrified by the noises coming out of your stereo speakers but amazed by the genius of what this band was able to do with both what they had and the time this was made in.
One of the things I love is the unholy marriage between old-school mechanics and story. This place is infested by the undead, so you would think bringing a cleric or paladin along would activate easy mode, right? Well, it turns out an artifact, the holy grail of evil itself, is lying underneath the boggy fens and foggy moors of this place and it makes turning dead harder - sort of a home-field advantage for the undead team should you choose to venture forth in their domain. It is a small special rule, but this adds so much flavor to the place my heart sings along with the chorus of evil-dungeon master glee.
The excavation rules, the numerous bricked up walls and sealed off tombs, the ever-present "make a noise and we all die" sort of feeling where the noise of one encounter's combat could trigger the roll for another just gives this place an atmosphere leagues better than many of the "places of the dead" adventures I have ever read. The tombs force you to break through walls to explore and find the good stuff, and in doing so you could possibly seal your fate by the noise you make.
And there are optional insanity rules tool that turn this wonderfully crafted gem of player apprehension and terror into a Call of Cthulhu masterpiece where the halfling rogue you depend on for that backstab damage goes insane at just the wrong moment and runs away, only to fall into a bottomless pit to be gone forever, no save allowed. And in that moment you realize your party is doomed because you ventured too far in this time, the halfling was carrying all of your oil for the lanterns, and you won't have enough light to make it out of here without stumbling into more monsters or other traps.
It is like the beginning mission in the movie Aliens where the squad of space soldiers gets in way over their head and all hell breaks loose. Only here, this is old-school unforgiving rules like some insane rage-quit game and you laugh at the incredible stupidity of it the gory demise of the characters around the table and realize what you got into was all you and your group's fault.
Puritanical Sensibilities on the TabletopYou know that feeling? Your greed put your characters here and they all paid for it.
There is that puritanical "you shall be judged for your sins" sort of feeling that runs through old-school games like the sermons of the 1980's equated tabletop-gaming with evil worship, and I love the morality play here. While gaming is not evil worship, this adventure paints a rather harsh and unforgiving lesson that greed knows no good end that actually meshes quite well with those fundamentalist teachings of yesteryear. To pursue greed is to pursue evil itself, as your character makes a selfish decision to save their own skin and run while leaving your friends behind as a terrifying horde of skeletons busts out of a sealed up wall and engulfs them all. Playing old-school games really gets you 'close to the metal' of morality and sacrifice, and it brings out that "what would you do" moral choices (good or bad) that I assume those preachers did not want young parishioners to make for themselves.
Moral choices. What would you do? Is gold and power worth a part of your soul?
It was funny because back in the day we bought our first copy of Dungeons and Dragons from a religious Christian bookstore. They likely sold it as a sort of a game that taught morals, good versus evil, and the hippie-like holy-rollers that ran the store were cool and probably used it as a teaching game to kids on how to make the right choices in life.
Do you kill a helpless goblin? Do you steal? Do you do what is right, or something that benefits only you? Do you abandon your friends in a time of need? I love that sort of feeling in B/X games, like the game allows you to make good and bad choices and you live with the results of your choices.
And the game doesn't tell you what choice to make.
You bring that to the table. Your faith and beliefs. Part of your character or not. And you live with the outcome. You can choose to live by your beliefs, or not, and see what happens in a safe environment of make believe.
I love those choices, because to see the faces of people that you thought you knew when push comes to shove and they shove the elf covered by green slime into the nearest pit of fire because they have no way of fighting the green slime once it devours the elf and then comes for them is priceless. And then the player who was playing the elf and the look on that person's face? Yes, priceless. Dude, I thought you were my friend! And you don't get those moments if the character design system creates characters too painful to lose, too enshrined as heroic icons, and a rules system that promises fairness and balanced play.
If I ran a Pathfinder game this way? I would get players who would never play with me again because some feel there is some unwritten contract of challenge level written into the rules they would point to and say I wasn't DM-ing the game right. I have seen this happen, and I see this "GM as DVD player" sort of design decision written into almost every modern pen-and-paper game that puts balanced story-based play ahead of a more harsh sandbox and brutal survival style of play that I love. To each their own, and if you have fun with a game please keep doing so - but hard player choices are what I love seeing in old-school games.
At what cost power? At what cost fame and fortune? How do you deal with limited resources, an ever-present dangerous world, and a ticking clock of death? I don't feel today's video-game inspired "story type games" get it, where layers of character protection, hours of iconic hero character-generation, and some assumed hidden contract of GM fairness can even tell a story like this. The new games really can't, and I feel old-school shines when you want this sort of experience. It is why some people love to read horror novels, and some people can't and won't.
To me, old-school gaming is the fantasy equivalent of Call of Cthulhu, but you don't need artificial insanity and horror rules for characters to give the game its sense of terror. If you run the game right, the players are the ones in terror and going insane with every door they open or wall they have to bust through. No game, besides Paranoia, comes close.
If at the end you can all laugh and say you had a good time, like walking out of a theater playing an intensely scary horror movie, the experience was all worth it and you all had fun. Maybe you stood with your friends. Maybe you stabbed them in the back. The game gave you that freedom, and since your characters were a bit more disposable and easy to create you could laugh about it and not feel three hours of character design time and backstory authoring were wasted.
That is why I play old-school games and B/X.
Devious Dungeon DesignI admit, I saw the words mega-dungeon and my stomach did a complete one-eighty. But this isn't your typical mega-dungeon, this is more a cross between B1 Keep on the Borderlands and the S1 Tomb of Horrors. It is a huge area with many small mounds and mini-dungeons that you can map and explore over an entire campaign. The secret is, without giving too much away, the mega-dungeon lies underneath this place and you could break into it at any time. There are entrances everywhere. You may not even know you are, in fact, since there are many smaller tombs (completely mapped) that can fool you into thinking "this is it."
There could be a mound you dig up that provides and unwitting entrance into a connected part of this evil place. You could find an entrance inside one of the mini-dungeons. A pit descending straight down into the earth could link to a part of this place. You could explore a part of the mega dungeon and think it was an unconnected mini-dungeon without even finding the secret door leading deeper in. You could stumble upon a collapsed entrance that with you magic and powers now never be able to dig through, but later at a higher level...
The ability to go in and out, map, explore, and get back to town without having to traverse through seventy previous conquered levels is the great strength to this dungeon. The farther you go overland towards the source of evil, the tougher the wandering monsters get, so the risk/reward and danger of taking the overland route is still very high - even for higher-level characters.
Also, there is a system in the appendices for creating random tombs of any size, large or small, deadly or empty, so the possibility of expansion is very high. A referee could drop his own version of the Tomb of Horrors right into this place as an add-on dungeon and players would never know better. A level underneath the Barrowmaze perhaps more deadly? A deep catacomb with insta-death traps right and left? A giant additional complex with its own story, yet connected to the overall theme? This is all possible, and the adventure as a framework for further sandbox-style fun is very high, which increases my love for this adventure even more.
Oh, and there are rules for restocking cleared rooms with new traps, monsters, and encounters over time. This is less a "burn through it" module than it is a complete campaign sandbox with a near-infinite level of re-use. Who knows, maybe the characters lost on a previous expedition show up as guest zombies and undead fiends on future runs. There is an organic level of re-use and a living dungeon feeling here that I love in a setting.
Campaign SupportWe also get three towns and a campaign map with this adventure. Normally, this falls to the level of, "nice to have" but I feel there is something really important here. This is set in the fantasy campaign world of an area like Detroit is in our world. A run-down, hopeless, poor, broken down, forgotten place of end-of-the-Earth lost hopes and shattered dreams. The towns are infested by opportunists, grave-robbers, and thieves. The people that come to these fetid hovels are interested only in one thing - either stealing from graves of a lost civilization or getting rich off the fools who do so.
We have towns, maps, characters, portraits, and little backstories for all of them that tie them to this place. There are those you think you can trust, and those you shouldn't but have to. Watch your words, because that shop-keep you shared your plans with just may try to make a coin or two selling your plans out to the local bandits who prey on people like you and your merry band. You may stumble out into the fading light with that bag of 50 looted gold pieces and that bag full of potions into an ambush by eight good-old-boy local bandits with crossbows in their hands, greed in their eyes, and murder in their hearts.
There are factions lurking about, both connected to the town and also some of the denizens of the maze to worry about. There are secrets everybody holds. There are cults and cutthroats wandering the streets at night. There are hushed conversations happening when your merry band enters the tavern. Other parties of fools and grave-robbers wander about, doing the same exact thing you are doing. You may wander upon a camp excavating a tomb with workers led by happy-faced dwarfs and elves only to later go by this same camp and find them all dead or missing. Or worse, the entire lot of them turned into flesh-hungry ravenous zombies and they now wander the bog looking for living flesh upon which to feast.
If you subject the players to NPCs that seem perfectly normally busy, competent, and focused on one task and then end up as mincemeat for the unseen Blair Witch style evil that lurks out here you are doing a good job as a referee of this adventure. The farmer they buy cheap food from many times goes missing. The friendly group of nightwatchmen that guard the gate and always fight off the monsters chasing the party all end up dead one night. A shopkeeper who gives the party great prices and information suddenly refuses to deal with the party out of some fear. A mad traveling priest starts shouting at the players one night, saying they are going to get the town killed, and then he disappears without a trace.
Set up reliable NPCs and expectations early on, and then suddenly and slowly start taking them all away to instill a sense of terror and hopelessness in the players. This is not some static town you would find in a video-game to go restock supplies at and rest at the inn, the town and its people are an integral part of the horror and dread, and the actions players take have consequences. Raid the were-rat lair and get away? One night the were-rats show up and raid the town, NPCs are killed, and buildings are burned down (and stay down for the rest of the campaign).
What do you do?
Did you cause this with your actions?
There is enough room here for the referee to make their own factions, plots, and stories, and have them wander through the area. Some may interact with the players, some may not, or some may have what they did found later and the players wondering why or how did this happen?
Another group of "adventurers" may open up a tomb with something that shouldn't have been disturbed, getting themselves all killed and now a rot-mummy covered by deadly poisonous gas-spewing mushrooms wanders an area of the bog. You may not know what others did and wander into their stupidity. Others may trail you into the bog for nefarious reasons. They may get eaten alive, or survive long enough to turn on you when you wander out of a tomb battered and bruised. You may choose to be the bandits yourselves and enact some revenge upon them, only to incur the wraith of others.
Remember when I asked, "what would you do?" Yeah, that moral question comes up big time in the campaign aspect of this adventure when you deal with the town and the oft self-serving people that live here. Played right there is a whole lot of intrigue and backstabbing going on outside the dungeon, and that adds another layer of fun to this adventure and its surroundings.
ConsThis is expensive, even $30 for the PDF, but I chose for the book-plus PDF option and that is more than twice the price. There aren't many player maps, if those are important to you. This is really focused on the Labyrinth Lord system (and other B/X clones), so if you play other Pathfinder or D&D 5 type systems you will need to convert, and you may lose some of the danger and flavor.
You need to have players interested in old-school games, and because they can't read this adventure, they may not understand the excitement behind it (I admit the high cost here is a benefit because not many players would be willing to fork out this much to cheat). Again, you have to be good at communicating why they should play this over the more player-friendly and story-focused modern games, but you may be lucky and have a crowd of old-school fanatics ready and willing to be able to dive in and lose dozens of characters in an old-school romp.
To me, the creator of such a cool setting deserves to be rewarded, so I feel the cost is well worth it and contributes towards me supporting the hobby and those who create within it. I will get a lot more enjoyment out of this than a $70 AAA video-game, and I will have a physical book to read and enjoy for myself. If this inspires me I am happy to support it, and this does inspire me.
Other StuffThere is an "illustration book" of S1-style pictures that can be printed and used as flavorful player handouts. There are also news spells and items in the book, plus an impressive collection of monsters - a 24-page mini-monster manual with pictures and statistics for each. You get pre-gen characters, plus a section covering rival adventuring parties. You also get a B/X and Labyrinth Lord 2-sided style character sheet that is absolutely to die for with beautiful art-filled borders and plenty of space to create your certainly doomed character with.
You get a complete random dungeon generator focused on creating these types of tombs, and a record and worksheet for each one you generate. The adventure encourages expansion with mini-dungeons of all sizes and levels, so the potential for supporting a wealth of unique user-generated content is very high. Make a low-level dungeon that stretches on for a dozen rooms. Make a mid-level deathtrap of secret rooms and deadly puzzles. Make a cultist headquarters. Make a bandit hideout overrun by were-rats. Make a high-level mini Tomb of Horrors style character killer dungeon with rewards and wealth worth chasing...but at what cost?