A week’s worth of sessions – a megadungeon reflection

Artwork by Zhu Bajiee

We’ve now had seven sessions running through Greg Gillespie’s Barrowmaze module as an open table using Off-White Cube and it’s always good to be analytical in the way one plays the game (within reason).

Warning: there are some spoilers below, although my players will have experienced them already so they don’t need to worry.

Preparing the Barrowmaze

The module itself has been great to work from – after reading the first few pages of setting introduction and the bestiary, I have had to do very little advance prep. The many barrows which dot the ‘surface layer’ of the mega dungeon are all individually detailed with simple, evocative descriptions. Since most of the barrows require some effort to break into, I have enough of a grace period to quickly read the entry and conjure up a mental image ready for when the characters eventually descend into the dark.

Our treasure hunters’ most recently explored barrow

We lost one treasure hunter and three hirelings to the barrow abomination, and a follower to the chest’s needle trap.

On one occasion we had the party stumble into the megadungeon itself a few sessions earlier than I had anticipated – before I had read any of its rooms – and the GM text was simple enough to operate from without any stress on my part.

Part of my minimal prep for this online campaign has been to make things easier for my tactile sensibilities. I printed out the Barrowmaze PDF and spent an afternoon slotting the sheets into a display book.

Why, yes, my day job is administration. Why do you ask?

My fondness for display books requires a blog post of its own but, suffice to say, flipping to and fro is a lot easier with one of these than with a printed book. This is the sort of prep which I like best – stuff which makes play easier, rather than planning play itself.

The lack of pressure to read the whole tome beforehand meant that, having found the first few sessions’ random encounters to be a little flat, I could spend some time working d4 Caltrop’s excellent selection of OSE Encounter Activities into an Inspiration Pad Pro table generator so that I can generate some more varied encounters at the click of a button.

Inspiration Pad Pro – another tool every GM should check out

So I’m very satisfied with the Barrowmaze as a product, and I have far fewer nerves in the run up to a session as a result.

It has even afforded me the luxury of a long afternoon spent painstakingly adding a Dynamic Lighting layer to a map of the entire dungeon on Roll20 – I’m hoping that was a worthwhile time investment…

And of course one had to try out the Coronavirus-bundled Hex Kit tileset

Game Rules & Structure

Off-White Cube seems to be working rather nicely too, which is gratifying. I spent a bit of time adjusting the Barrowmaze bestiary so that I wouldn’t have to convert damage dice to d6 variants or read a paragraph of detail to find a creature’s special abilities, and that’s about as much modifying as I’ve had to do in advance (and even that was a ‘nice to have’ – I’m pretty comfortable mentally shifting d8 to d6+1). So far it’s passing my OSR compatibility requirement.

This has been my first real attempt to lock in procedure-driven play, especially with regards timekeeping. Too often in the past have I been guilty of hand waving away the encounter roll – this time I have been keeping resolutely to letting the dice decide every twenty minutes, even when three consecutive 1s mean regular peril for the party (repetitiveness now offset by the juiced up encounter tables). It makes those occasions when the treasure hunters manage to spend four hours digging up a barrow uninterrupted all the more special.

And with everything being rolled in the open, I am committed to following the decrees of the dice. Most of the PCs have managed to get away with just a few wounds, but their workplace accident rate has forced them to throw more perks at their prospective employees – necessary with inventory slots coming at a premium and treasure hunting requiring a substantial amount of digging. The temptation to fudge things is flung aside.

Each session is about two and a half to three hours in length, and the quantum mundane adventuring gear in Off-White Cube means that the party is ready to set out on their expedition before the first half hour is up, and most of that time is used up deciding what hirelings they ought to go for. This also includes everyone updating each other on the previous sessions, so at the moment I think it’s a reasonable share of the gaming time.

To reinforce the open table nature of this campaign, every session is concluded by the narrative fog engulfing the Barrowmoors and forcing the party to retreat to the safety of their base of operations, the little town of Helix. A reminder is given about 30 – 45 minutes before the end of the game; this has served well to get the players planning their return so that each session stands on its own as an expedition, with a changing cast of characters narratively justifiable. Only once have we rolled for characters finding their way back in the deadly fog, and upon reflection I retconned that: several players lost their characters for no reason other than Discord dropped out before they could start making their way back. If a character is to die, I want it to be dramatic, tragic or hilarious. (And fair, I guess.)

Future Plans

It does, however, mean that there is an active discouragement to players from exploring beyond the Barrowmaze since the fog comes in at the end of the day – they wouldn’t be able to travel much further than they already have without condemning themselves to a roll to survive. I’ll have to have a think about how this might be alleviated – I’m not against the campaign being based purely in the Barrowmaze, but I don’t want to hamper adventurous players unnecessarily.

Having come across the very lucrative barrow shown above, some players are now absolutely rolling in cash. I need to find some good, simple rules for investing in Helix and the surrounding area. I’d rather not have to operate a complex spreadsheet – I do too much of that already during the working day, and at least then I get paid to do it.

The one pre-written NPC the party have had anything to do with

There also hasn’t been much in the way of interaction with the NPCs of Helix. This is mostly due to me emphasising the treasure hunting side of D&D, and I haven’t done much in the way of inhabiting the locals beyond the odd snarky comment towards the adventurers, but I don’t want to wipe out the roleplaying side altogether, particularly since Barrowmaze comes supplied with a fun cast of NPCs to utilise. I hope to bring NPCs more into play with characters sinking their funds into Helix – somebody has to run the stables while the owner is accumulating more wealth after all. So says capitalism.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m really delighted with the campaign so far. I pitched it as Terry Pratchett does dungeon delving, and the players have really bought into the tone. Their tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm combined with Barrowmaze’s ease of use for the GM has made for a really fun first few weeks, and with Britain now in lock down there may well be time for even more gaming.

It’s proving to be an excellent tonic from 5e burnout.

7 thoughts on “A week’s worth of sessions – a megadungeon reflection

  1. Thank you for the shout out Re: My encounter tables! I’m so glad to see them getting used. I’m still working on them (61/128 OSE Monsters at this point) and hope to compile them all together eventually šŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They’re such handy creative prompts, and your rate of production is seriously impressive! I’d love to have a plain text version of them when you’ve managed to do them all – they’re so good for plugging into random encounter generators.


  2. This is encouraging. My group are currently learning this game at the Tomb of the Serpent Kings, where we started in media res, but Barrowmaze is a couple of days travel to the east and Coruvon(The Challenge of the Frog Idol) a day to their west, with Orlane(Against the Cult of the Reptile God) in between. I will be waiting to see which direction they go before laying down the dynamic lighting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like fun! How have they fared against the various traps in TotSK? It did a splendid job of encouraging some 5e players to think beyond their character sheets.

      (I’ve also got a homemade map of Orlane in a previous post if you need a player-facing one – alas, we only got one session’s use out of it.)


      1. Since my last post, my Roll20 game budded and now exists as Friday and Saturday night games composed of early 20s newbies to ttrpgs on Friday and mostly 50-somethings veterans on Saturday. In general, the noobs have suffered primarily from impulsivity and have triggered all of the traps, losing two characters to the trapped door to the false tomb and another to a spiked pit trap. The veterans, with caution and patience, were able to figure out the trapped door and to detect and avoid the pit traps. The vets did fall prey to the lightning trap in the worse way(four deep lined up single file when it was triggered), but came away ok, after a poor damage roll on my end and successful dodge saves and good rolls on a death and dismemberment table by the party.

        Both groups had characters take damage from the mummy appendages and so contract a form of mummy rot. The vets had two characters taken out of commission by broken limbs sustained in a fight with the pudding. The newbies never encountered the basilisk. And the vets, from basilisk spoor, recognized the threat immediately and backed away hurriedly.

        Both noobs and vets fled the tomb upon discovering how deathly challenging (four character deaths between the two groups) it is to overcome gangs of goblins in their lair. The newbies almost managed the goblins right when they befriended one early on. However, one of the group convinced the rest that the goblin would be a liability, and so they murdered it.

        Humbled by goblins, both groups chose to venture to seek a cure for the rot in a nearby village, just off the edge of civilization, with a cleric by the name of Othar.

        This brings me back to your blog looking for insight. With your blessing, I intend to steal your table of outcomes for failure to return from the Barrows by nightfall. And I am curious if you have come up with any workarounds to allow for a broader sandbox while maintaining the day by day ventures into the Barrows.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s great to hear, and interesting to hear the different approaches (and ensuing consequences) of different playstyles.

        Please steal away! Can’t remember quite where from, but it’s pretty much a result of different idea-inspiring sources.

        I’ll have to put out a new post about a month’s worth of sessions now that we’ve passed the 30th. The games have expanded beyond just the Barrowmaze, and we pretty much just declared that the fogs do not descend on a nightly basis, particularly as they venture further afield, but that there still some warning now that their senses are attuned to its comings and goings. Nobody seems to have taken issue with it – though one player in particular is keenly seeking out a way to set up a consecrated bunker in the middle of the barrows which might keep fog and undead at bay, serving as a safe house in which characters may end a session and assume a safe return to the main home town.


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