Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Why I Finally Decided to Purchase Barrowmaze

         I get a few people asking me questions about my old Keep on the Borderlands game and what became of it. It went on for quite some time, but I had some medical issues then ran some Star Wars D6 for a while. I brought the characters from the Keep on the Borderlands adventure back, and started them in a modern classic Barrowmaze. I will admit that in the past I was hesitant on Barrowmaze due to the significant monetary investment that is involved. I can generally buy five to ten other OSR products for the cost of the hardback POD. I am here to recant my criticism though, the product does live up to the hype. I have now been running it since December on a weekly basis with my group of students at school and we all love it. The students really do like it more than Keep on the Borderlands, which to me states volumes. This article is going to cover what exactly Barrowmaze is, for those that are not familiar, and what I like about it.

What is Barrowmaze?

I think when you ask most people, “What is Barrowmaze,” the most common response would be a Megadungeon. If it was just that, it would have succeeded quite nicely, but it is actually a lot more. To me, Barrowmaze is something better than a singular Megadungeon, Barrowmaze is a skeleton. What do I mean by that? Barrowmaze outlines and entire mini-RPG ecosystem. The campaign takes place in the Duchy of Aerik which has an amazing framework for not only the Megadungeon, but the ability to build and expand into other adventures. The book comes with the areas other locations, gods, backgrounds, and threats. You are not buying a Megadungeon, you are buying a mini-setting that is easily expandable. The village and Barrowmaze itself are the focus of the book and have a lot of meat invested in them, but the surrounding area is fleshed out just enough that you can add to it quite readily. Your PCs can easily become influential with the local government, build up status and reputation, and eventually even settle and build permanent structures. You can also slip other modules into the areas around Aerik, if the PCs want a change of pace.  

The Megadungeon itself is structure a bit differently than the norm. Most dungeons get more dangerous and rewarding the lower you travel. Barrowmaze is a series of burial mounds that act as mini-dungeons. These are great for short, punchy play. You can run sessions in only a few hours and still feel accomplished by knocking out a few mounds. As the PCs travel from left to right on the map, the mounds get more difficult and more rewarding. Below the mounds is a single level that qualifies as a Megadungeon. With close to 400 rooms it is the titular Barrowmaze. The maze will challenge the players and is divided up into different sections with factions in each section to deal with and negotiate. Combine this with the 70 burial mound min-dungeons, for the price, you are getting a product that will provide a huge amount of content. In a dollar to content ratio, this is one of the cheapest products on the market. 

There is an overall plot, but it is as relevant as the DM wishes to make it. If they want to lean into the plot, they easily can. If they would rather use this as a boot-it and loot-it game, you can easily do this as well. I personally am running with the plot as I find it interesting and I like to tie other adventures into that plot.  

A Great Questing Beast Review of Barrowmaze.

Using the Book

These days I am running an open table for anywhere between 4-6 players on average, though it has been as high as 9. The group’s foundation is that they are a mercenary company, like many of the others in town and they are seeking their riches while the "getting is good." I wanted to add to the overall feel of the area and I used other supplements to spice up the duchy. As an example without too many spoilers, the duchy map mentions a “Secret Shrine”. In the setting background the plot is tied up with a serpent god as well. I replaced the “Secret Shrine” with Skerples module Tomb of the Serpent Kings, and dropped just a few ties to the main Megadungeon. Also, there are rumors of tribes, froglings in the base book, running around the swamps in the game. I kept the froglings, but I have an Old School supplement with amazonian warrior clans and I added them to the swamps. They fight each other, and everyone else who is not them. The players can attempt to negotiate with them, or go to war. Maybe put one against the other? The tribes are related to a witch located in swamps of Bogtown and their local Thieves Guild.

I am trying to get my PCs as tied to the town as possible in order to get them to want to spend money on the town and watch it grow. They seem to like investing in things and have that investment pay off. This setting seems to lend itself to that style of play. Some players are trying to form businesses, some are trying to make fortifications for the town, and others are making a reputation as party animals and carousing experts. Making the environment a living thing is important. Players are spying on rival companies and finding out information on the locations of possible good treasure, then swiping it out from underneath them. Sometimes they go into the mounds expecting to open a mound with a treasure haul, only to find out that a different group was already there. I added a touch to the main bar in town where each of the adventuring parties have their names with numbers by it on a board. These are the number of trips to the Barrowmaze the parties have made and come back with significant treasure. I imagine this kind of like Top Gun with the different pilots competing for who is best. 

        Beyond expansion, it is a great resource to steal from. The village of Helix is wonderfully detailed with enough information to hang your hat on, but is not too detailed to not allow for customization. You could just use a few pages from the Helix section and drop this as a home base in any of your campaigns with little difficulty. The town is big enough that it has some meat to it, but it is not a major metropolis with all the needs of the characters catered to by the NPCs. Barrowmaze also comes with loads of new monsters, rival NPC parties, spells, and magic items. All of these are great for any DM looking to throw something new and different at the party that is not in the core books.

Lastly, it is incredibly useful to a diverse audience. It was originally released for Advanced Labyrinth Lord, which makes it compatible with just about any Old-School System. I personally use Old-School Essentials with the Advanced Fantasy Genre Rules added into the mix. It was also converted and is available to for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and all of the systems that radiate off its core mechanics. This selection covers a huge swath of the fantasy RPG industry with players from all sorts of editions able to access this awesome product. 


This is a great product, and with all my hesitations before about it, I was proven thoroughly wrong. It is worth the price, and it is a great piece of modern game design. It deserves all the accolades it has acquired, and if you have not checked it out you should. Right now is GM’s Day(s) at DriveThruRPG and you can get Barrowmaze quite a bit cheaper than usual. If you want to check it out, click the link that I provide below.

Barrowmaze for Old School Games can be found HERE.

Barrowmaze for 5th Edition D&D can be found HERE.

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  1. My one question: what the heck is the cover about?

    Seriously, everyone I've ever read really loves Barrowmaze. I may indeed have to pick it up soon.

    1. The cover illustrates one of the monsters a party will find and fight in one of the barrows. I believe it is unique to Barrowmaze.

  2. Erol Otus did the cover, and he gets to make whatever he likes and we get to love it! You should pick it up, it is a great product.

  3. I converted and re-skinned bits of it for my heavy homebrew Tunnels and Trolls campaign and use it for those moments when I need some quick filler. It's a solid product overall, and I can see where running it as-written could be a fun romp.