Friday 12 February 2021

[REVIEW] Barrow of Sorn

Barrow of Sorn

Barrow of Sorn (2021)

by Mason Waaler


Levels 1–2

If you have been playing D&D for a while, you approximately know what kind of adventure Barrow of Sorn will be – this is one of those common mini-adventure subgenres which make up a lot of the cheaper DrivethruRPG releases. So, barrows. Every campaign setting can use them, you can put them anywhere (the barrow-building people are long dead), and they contain traps, treasure, and undead warlords. Barrowmaze, the king of barrow adventures, contains an entire megadungeon, but it is kind of an outlier, and not discussed here. This is the smaller kind that’s all plug and play, and suitable for about one evening’s worth of play.

Barrow of Sorn, originally written for a D&D-like system that is practically D&D, is short and decently made. It is a 20-room dungeon in a 12-page pamphlet, written in a to-the-point style that is unornamented but GM-friendly, with strategically used bolding to draw attention to the important stuff, and meticulously applied cross-references. The map, created with the excellent and free Dungeon Scrawl, is crisp and readable (the dungeon layout itself, a collection of rectangular rooms, is not too interesting). The dungeon has all the usual stuff of barrow exploration – six adventure hooks, an entrance section leading to a false tomb, subsequent traps, magical enigmas, puzzles, and an undead monarch.

There are a few aspects where this particular barrow stands out. Unlike the static tomb scenarios, this has a decent dynamic element with its simple but fun random encounter table. It is not just “a giant spider” or “warrior apparitions”, but a giant spider dragging a frozen body, and warrior apparitions still fighting some long-gone battle. There you have it  in a single step, we have gone from basic to inspired! Encounters with undead include a few intelligent denizens bound to the place, adding an element of interaction. Finally, there is a fun final hook of turning this beginner-level adventure into an exercise in unintended consequences, something I heartily approve of. There are a few weaknesses to note. The puzzles feel slightly artificial (the “keycard” approach, where you have to collect three gewgaws to open the way forward), there is way too much magical treasure (it is mostly low-level stuff, cheapening the thrill of finding something really good), and sometimes, the “monsters appear when the runes are disturbed” way of generating extra combat wears thin. It is a module looking for a missing "WOW" factor, perhaps, unless we count that final idea.

For a single buck, you get a beginner dungeon with a decent variety of encounters. Could you make up something similar yourself? Yes, most likely. Would it make for a good game if you ran this particular barrow module? Also yes. Does it slot easily into your campaign? Yes, as long as it is a D&D-like game, this will fit.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****


  1. Hey, sort of an off topic comment, but I am unsure of what other way is best to reach you. Just wanted to tell you that I’ve been running some people through your “Cloister of the Frog God” portion of Rappan Athuk (using Black Hack 2) weekly for the better part of 2020. Last session, they opened Zontar’s tomb and let the frogs out. Would love to tell you all about it if you want to hear it. Let me know the best place to share it. It has been a blast, and players have said how they have come to feel like the place has a personality and identity. Thanks for the fun!

    1. I would be really interested in that! I am really proud of that adventure, but (since it is kinda lost in the enormous Rappan Athuk book) few people seem to have played or run it. Our playtest campaign seems to have ended quite similarly, too!

      If you give me a few days, I will make a post about the module, and a comment there would be excellent.

    2. In which version of Rappan Athuk is it? I know that are a lot of versions and until now I didn’t got it because of that. I know that it has one for SW and one for 5E, but in SW there are supplements as well. I’m completely lost...

    3. Melan - will do, for sure. Tonight is round 3 of the tomb being open - by the time you post, I’ll know how it ended.

      Saci- I have the S&W version, however there are some edit issues - one room description was duplicated, but it’s correct in the pathfinder version. The maps in the module are also very confusing and have errors like missing doors - I found Melan’s original maps online and they are easier to parse.

      The section is very easy to run all by itself - I basically removed the tunnel that leads down into Rappan Athuk proper and that’s it.

    4. The party survived and thwarted the frogpocalypse. Hasty retreat, barred doors, grabbed some of the dead bodies from the catacombs, cast “lesser animate dead” and then “polymorph other” on them to make them into Ogres, and then used Ogre strength to topple the pillars of the antechamber outside the tomb before the frog horde could fully emerge. The ceiling collapsed a few rounds after they took out all the supports. Then we had an arch Druid come in and do stone to mud, and back again, sealing up the whole hallway leading to the tomb. 30ft of solid rock at a minimum surround on all sides.

  2. Thanks for the review. With the high-frequency gaming that is happening these days, such offerings as the one reviewed are pure gold.

  3. I was sent here by a friend who said I would find a D&D environment of quality (because Melan is great - yawn!!)

    Help! I see the same effort to review everything ever written rather than discover good material.

    Just because you READ something you don't have to tell us about it. REVIEW the good stuff.

    If you are not interested in discovering the best material,
    is there somewhere that stands by very good material only. That' what I want.

    1. Kent please everyone. Also, there is a tag that specifically includes the best:
      But of course, you already knew that.

    2. What?

      You avoided the point. Why do you repeatedly bring worthless rubbish to your readers' attention only to say 'don't pay any attention to this'?

  4. I don't think you understand what a "review" is. It's a "critical analysis", not "my personal top 10 list". Negative reviews are valuable, perhaps even more so than positive ones beause:

    1) They put things into perspective. They enable you to learn the reviewers thought and preferences. Without seeing that a reviewers considers to be bad product, you would have no certainty or trust that what he considers good is actually good.

    2) You may actually be interested in a bad or average product. Perhaps you are thinking of buying it. Or you've already read or played it and this allows you to compare your experience with the review - thus better understanding the reviewer, see above.

    3) Negative reviews allow the reviewer to discuss issues that are not present in good products. This educates you about them, allows you to learn spotting them on your own. Perhaps you're a module writer yourself - in that case, you should read negative reviews first and foremost because there's a lot you can learn from them, much more than from good ones.

    Etc... etc... The point is that reviews serve primarily as a point of critical discussion and game analysis. Sure, you can use them as recommendations (and I do) but that's not the primary point.

    1. There are more than a few negative reviews here. Perhaps next time you should take a look around before pronouncing oh so sagely what a "review" is, and what a reviewer should do to adhere to your adamant standards (which are, beyond doubt, the ultimate authority on the subject).

      And yes, Melan actually IS a module writer with dozens of widely acclaimed adventures under his belt. Whoa, a revelation again!

    2. I'm a bit confused by Volja's comment - not sure if he's agreeing or disagreeing with me. For clarity: I was reacting to Molloy above but forgot to click "Reply" in the correct thread so this displayed as a comment on its own.

  5. IF Melan's project as reviewer was the impossible task of surveying the whole field then of course morally he needs only be truthful and we will see a ton of mediocre descriptions.

    SINCE Melan is in fact reviewing a tiny sliver of the material out there to is legitimate to question whether that sliver should be random garbage as if from a complete survey, or a select group of reviews with a point.

    Should Melan's readers suffer because his experience has no bearing on his reviews.