Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Dungeon Divin' Done Right

Game: The Lost City of Barakus
System: d20/Pathfinder/Swords & Wizardry
Publisher: Necromancer Games and Frog God Games
Authors: W.D.B. Kenower and Bill Webb
Initial Release: November 1, 2003

Frog God Games, publisher of Swords & Wizardry and successor company to the late great d20 publisher Necromancer Games, produce a diverse range of products that nonetheless share a very particular flavor. With few exceptions, they take place in a high-magic, vaguely medieval fantasy world reminiscent of Greyhawk or Blackmoor - i.e., vanilla D&D - but wherein all of civilization is a thin veneer on a decaying world beneath which malignant gods, forgotten horrors, and eldritch abominations constantly threaten to corrupt and devour all that lives. In other words, it’s more Howard and Lovecraft than Faerun and Forgotten Realms. This gels well with Frog God’s old-school, high-stakes philosophy that players should feel free to explore wherever they wish, but that poking around in deep dark places is substantially more likely to see them murdered than doing the murdering.

The Lost City of Barakus, a Necromancer d20 module republished by Frog God for Pathfinder and Swords & Wizardry with fresh layouts, content, and errata, is perhaps the perfect embodiment of that philosophy.  One part city sandbox, one part wilderness hex crawl, and one part megadungeon, Lost City is all parts danger and excitement. The 176-page module (PF version) comes recommended for character levels 1-5, but there’s more than enough content here to keep them busy well beyond that. My own players didn’t wrap up the bulk of it until level 7, and there are still plenty of secrets they haven’t uncovered - and yet may, since the module’s flagship city of Endhome has become a major hub for their high-level adventures. 

For all that that the titular megadungeon Barakus gets top billing, the Free City of Endhome is every bit as core to the module’s success. Capable of being plopped into any homebrew campaign or used as a springboard for Frog God’s larger Lost Lands campaign setting, Endhome is as richly detailed and interesting a place to explore as any standalone city module this side of Frog God’s own Bard’s Gate. Intrigue abounds in the superficially unassuming city-state, and if your players are anything like mine they will find themselves embroiled in political plots, a temple front hiding a continent-spanning slave ring operation, monstrous sewer infestations, a full-fledged Wizard’s Academy, and a motherfucking vampire mafia family to please all the Masquerade fans in the audience from barely the moment they step foot in Endhome. These obvious major quest hooks are just the beginning. Endhome’s various locales and NPCs are chock full of seeds for stories branching into the surrounding Duskmoon Hills (the aforementioned hex crawl) and other modules in the Lost Lands universe that can easily be substituted for the DM’s homebrew locations of choice. 

Whether you decide to start the players in the relative “safety” of Endhome or use one of the several proffered plot hooks that have them travel there through Duskmoon, the real crazy shit begins outside the city walls. On the tamer end of the spectrum we have delightfully varied random encounter tables, a corrupted forest, and a band of dashing highwaymen clad in green who will happily relieve the party of their wealth to “redistribute” in their own woodland camp. On the more vicious (and shamelessly old school) end we have abandoned wizard towers, desecrated temples to dark deities, a volcano-dwelling red dragon, and, of course, Barakus itself.

Hidden beneath an enormous upper cave system that could itself stand alone as a top-notch D&D introductory dungeon, players could easily miss Barakus entirely if it weren’t right there in the title to pique their curiosity. A little more coherent than your average megadungeon - thanks in part to its epic backstory and an only-somewhat-batshit monster ecology - Barakus will please both the loot-crazed murderhobos and aspiring actors of your party alike. Running five levels deep and change (and featuring a tantalizing thoroughfare to the Underdark and Matt Finch’s Cyclopean Deeps), Barakus is stuffed to the gills with everything you could ever hope to find in the abandoned city of an advanced elder race. Bizarre mechanical contraptions, deadly traps, mysterious magical artifacts, forgotten monstrosities - Barakus has it all in scale. For a “lost” city Barakus seems to be experiencing a surprising population boom. Tribes of goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, roving drow up from the Underdark, and stranger beings all vie for control of the wealth-littered ruins even as they too struggle to survive against the more monstrous denizens, offering ample opportunities for alliances, faction play, and even, in my players’ case, all-out war. 

The cherry on top (or rather the bottom) of it all is the inevitable Big Bad Boss of the joint. This fresh take on an old favorite lies imprisoned in a lair hidden beneath so many secrets and Zelda-style puzzle levels your players may well never encounter it. But if they do, they’d better hope they’re well-prepared. The boss - like the almost equally dangerous thing waiting above his prison - is deadly enough in its default state, but practically a guaranteed total party kill if your players are anything other than the cautiously thoughtful types capable of out-scheming the creature. Not that they’re likely to have made it this far without an eleven-foot-pole mentality in the first place.

I could gush about this module for ages. I could also spend paragraphs ranting about its problems. The black-and-white art ranges from the forgettable to the downright embarrassing, but what do you expect - it’s a d20-era OGL product. Much more critically, the Frog God reprint was a missed opportunity to fix some glaring errors, omissions, and design issues that will frustrate a DM throughout. For all that the book tends to provide exactly the right amounts of world detail, its map, chart, and stat block placements defy all logic, and the lack player-ready room descriptions in the dungeons is a big “fuck you” to any DM wanting to run this without thorough preparation. Some rooms are completely incomprehensible even to the DM without cross-reference to the maps and other levels. The absence of an index in a piece of clockwork this complex is a baffling flaw unfortunately shared with many other Frog God products. For all its qualities, the city of Endhome, as laid out, is borderline unusable without tabs, hand notations, and careful pre-session study if only to correct all the errata Frog God never bothered to fix. You’ll also likely need a magnifying glass just to read the legend on some of the maps.

In spite of all that, I and my players can't stop talking about what an uncommonly great piece of work this book is. It’s rare enough to see a good sandbox that pulls together as a cohesive whole, let alone one that marries so well to a developed, dynamic city setting. The Lost City of Barakus really is the complete package, and would that it were the model for sandbox modules everywhere. 

Loved it!

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