The last blog outlined a plan to launch into Greg Gillespie's epic Barrowmaze megadungeon, but using the rules for '90s indie RPG Forge: Out of Chaos.
Warning: Minor spoilers for Barrowmaze content ahead
The Dungeon Fodder
Forge character creation is a bit more involved than D&D, but not too much so. There are six Stats on 2d6 and each has a decimal value as well, rolled on a d10. Anything between 4.5 and 8.9 is in the 'normal, no modifier' range. My players excel at rolling really badly at Stats. Fortunately, skills and races will offset bad rolls slightly.
We wanted to avoid the 'psychotic gorilla' tropes about Ghantu, so Ng-Johnann is a landowner. He lives in a dilapidated mansion near Helix and owns the Stone Circle. In my twist on BM's setting, this site is sacred to Grom, the damned war god and creator of Ghantu and other monsterfolk. Grom's religion has been suppressed by the new Church of Enigwa in Helix and Ng-Johann has fallen on hard times. Adventuring might pay to repair his leaking roof (1000gp). By the way, the Ng-prefix is a Ghantu honorific, like 'Mister' or 'Sir.'
I'm interested in whether the Ghantu cognitive deficit will play out like autism (a la Drax the Destroyer) rather than antisocial personality disorder. I want to emphasise the distrust and fear the Ghantu inspires in Helix, but also the respect from people who still venerate Grom or respect the strength he provides.
We decided to play Jher-em as Edwardian English gentlemen, like something from Wind in the Willows or Jeeves and Wooster, but with their distinctive phlegmy wheeze. "What-ho, cousin!" is their usual greeting, as well as "Tip-top, old chap!" and "Tally-ho!"
The important NPC Ollis Blackfell has been recast as Jher-em as well as the mage Wiselaumas from Bertrand's Brigands. These conversations make for some merry interplay. I like to imagine that the Jher-em engage in banal pleasantries and conversation about the weather precisely because they are telepathic, so focusing on polite trivia is the best way of keeping other Jher-em out of your head!
I'm playing Kithsara as immensely cultured and rather cerebral creatures, but Tshu'a is in conflict between the civilised behaviours he learned in servitude and the barbaric impulses from his upbringing in the swamp. He also has to keep his magical talents hidden from the Church of Enigwa. It's been a long time since they burned a wizard, but if they start up again with anyone, it'll be someone like Tshu'a.
Session One - First Foray to Find a Fallen Prince
The town crier announces that young Krothos Ironguard hasn't returned yet from a foray into Barrowmaze. Ollis Blackfell wants to downplay the seriousness of the situation since the young prince often takes off with his friends to hunt or debauch. Nevertheless, a reward of 250gp is offered for his quick and safe return.
The only other adventuring party in town is Bertrand's Brigands and they're nursing wounds after a run-in with Renata's Robbers at the Old Bridge. Our heroes meet up at the Brazen Strumpet and decide to beat the rush by hiking out to the Barrowmoor first thing in the morning.
After a bit of mound-mapping, the heroes find the Great Barrow, but icy mists close around them and out of the murk stumble two undead warriors. Tshu'a strikes down one, but it reassembles itself instantly wherepon the other seizes the panicking Ghantu by the throat.
Yes, these are Coffer Corpses, ported across from the old AD&D Fiend Folio. Not only do they throttle and terrify, but they also need magic to kill, so they're just about the worst thing that the daylight wandering monster table could throw out.
Tshu'a uses his Ice Bolt spell to free Johann, who abandons his two-handed sword and flees. A second Ice Bolt demolishes the first undead, but the second corpse advances and Tshu'a is out of spell points. Everyone flees into the Great Barrow: Johann falls down the pit and knocks himself out and the other two hide from the prowling undead before descending to help the Ghantu recover with binding kits and healing roots.
This was an electrifying start: full of eerie menace, then horror and the threat of Total Party Kill. The heroes are left at the gateway to Barrowmaze without spell power and resources depleted.
After this brush with death, the party become super-careful and cautious. They map corridors and get their bearings before trying other doors. They set off a trap, loot some alcoves and hide when more wandering monsters pass by. They venture quite deep into Barrowmaze and find a magic weapon - hallelujah! - and when some Zombies march up they run away - right into the maw of a Mevoshk.
A Mevoshk is a Forge monster I substituted for a comparable enemy in the dungeon. Mevoshks are fast and their venom paralyses; you suffocate within ten minutes unless a Brye Leaf is applied to the wound. Odwood is bitten immediately and starts to succumb to the venom.
Another TPK looms, but Tshu'a pulls out the Vigoshian Herb he bought in town. It gives a temporary boost of Spell Points, but a permanent drain on your Intellect Stat. Tshu'a uses the SPTS to fuel Ice Bolts and then Johann chops the thing's head off with his big sword.
The fight was observed by a band of hideous Mongrelmen who rejoice in the Mevoshk's death. Though paralysed, Odwood communicates telepathically with them. They want to retrieve their jewels from the monster's hoard, but offer Brye Leafs to save Odwood's life and they hand over some nice (but not the best) gems in gratitude for slaying the monster before they scuttle off.
Did I fudge this? Well, yes and no. There was a successful wandering monster check from the noise of the fight, but I selected Mongrelmen as the encounter. The idea that the Mevoshk had been preying on them had been foreshadowed by tracks the players had been puzzling over. The exchange of a Brye Leaf for a small fortune in jewels seems like a good deal for the NPCs. No jury of my peers would convict me!
The players decide to beat a retreat, but the Zombies are still blocking the way out. Tshu'a decides to burn those remaining SPTS on his Big Second Level Spell: Spark Shower. And boy, does that make a difference or what! The Zombies frazzle and the players escape ... but alas, no sign of Krothos Ironguard.
Everyone was thrilled with this old school dungeon crawl and his keen to return!
The Barrowmaze itself is intensely atmospheric: silent, dripping, cold, eerie. There's a tempo to things, with very frequent wandering monster checks and extra ones occasioned by any sort of noise. The players are pondering how opening doors can be made, if not quieter, then at least quicker. The dread of making noise grew as the evening advanced.
So did the dread of staying too long in Barrowmaze and being caught on the Moors after sunset. After all, if you can meet Coffer Corpses in broad daylight, what abominations will you run into by night?!?
Helix will take longer to make an impression, but some features established themselves as distinctive: the town crier, the expectation that adventuring parties will descend on the village as the Spring arrives, Ollis Blackfell as a sinister vizier, Bertrand's Brigands as (friendly, for now) rivals. The Forge setting manifested itself as the Church of Enigwa spying on people for signs of magic use.
The players were delighted with the energy Forge brought to the tired tropes of dungeoncrawling. Forge has an action economy rather different from D&D/Labyrinth Lord. PCs are tougher, more resilient and more capable that 1st level D&D characters. There are resources to track and decisions to make about their use: do you apply binding kits to wounds? when is a good time to stop and repair armour? should you push your luck by using enhancing herbs? should you conserve your SPTS or burn them in a dramatic burst of eldritch power?
In terms of character development, Forge doesn't have XP. Your main advancement is through getting money to improve armour and equipment, better herbs, more binding kits; mages need spell components or back-ups in case they risk 'pumping' their spells and it goes a bit wrong.
Nonetheless, we realised that skill advancement is going to be painfully slow at this rate. This led to ongoing house rule tweaks. There's nothing wrong with Forge's slow advancement, but the characters do need to keep pace with D&D characters if they are not to be overwhelmed deeper into the dungeon. Essentially, beginning Forge characters function like 2nd level D&D characters in terms of resilience and combat odds - but they gain much less as they advance and advancement is slow. A Forge PC with Magic at level 2 is maybe equivalent to a 3rd or 4th level MU in D&D. A warrior with Long Sword 3 hasn't significantly advanced from their starting build, whereas in D&D a 3rd level Fighter is markedly better.
What's interesting about this for me is that, where Forge gets noticed at all, reviewers like to condemn it as a D&D pastiche that brings nothing new to the dungeoncrawling experience (for example, here on BGG). Our experience so far is that this isn't true. Forge's little innovations add up to a gaming experience that feels very different from D&D.
We'll iron out the creases as we go. But for now, we're delighted with the drama, mysteries and sense of dank, chill menace that Barrowmaze exudes and Forge is measuring up very well as an alternative rules set to old school D&D.
A challenge has been laid down! We're going to delve into Barrowmaze. But we're not using AD&D or Labyrinth Lord or even sleek little White Box FMAG, oh no. No, we're going to use our beloved fantasy heartbreaker Forge: Out of Chaos (see blogs passim, or here).
Very minor spoilers ahead for the village setting in the Barrowmaze adventure.
Wait - what? Barrowmaze?
Barrowmaze is a megadungeon, published in 2011 by Greg Gillespie, who has built a career out of designing, publishing and running college courses on these vast dungeons. With over 600 detailed rooms, the Barrowmaze dungeon is designed to be the sort of thing you walk into as 1st level noobs and walk (or crawl) out of again, months or even years later, as high level heroes. It's an entire campaign in one dungeon complex, plus its equally well detailed environs.
Modern cover and charming old school monochrome cover. The links are to Labyrinth Lord (OSR) editions but there are 5th ed D&D versions as well.
Barrowmaze has an interesting structure, because it doesn't descend deeper into the earth through levels of increasing toughness, hostility and reward. Instead, the vast underground complex sits below a surface level Barrowmoor where the landscape is dotted with 70 barrow mounds. Each of these is a stand-alone mini or micro dungeon and a half dozen of them are access points for the Barrowmaze below. As you travel further into the Moor, the barrows get nastier and more lucrative to raid and the Maze below features more awesome monsters and treasures.
In theory it's possible for lucky and reckless novice adventurers to proceed directly to the further extent of the Moor and discover an access point to the most perilous part of the Maze, where the Big Bad Evil Guy(s) are waiting.
But we won't be doing that now, will we guys.
So, seriously ... Forge?
If you've followed this blog, you'll have come across my advocacy of this late-'90s indie RPG before. It's part of a stable of indie products that emerged in the dark days before Print On Demand and which collectively represented a sort of proto-OSR movement, celebrating dungeon bashing even as the hobby was moving in moody, exotic and cerebral directions in the wake of games like Vampire: The Masquerade and D&D projects like Planescape.
Forge can be criticised for being derivative of D&D in the areas where it isn't innovating. But that's a good thing if it means that Forge's combat system, magic and adventuring assumptions map quite nicely onto the 1st Edition D&D/Labyrinth Lord rules undergirding Barrowmaze. I've even got a Forge/D&D monster converter on this website.
Where Forge does diverge from D&D is in its setting: a world where the gods are all dead or exiled, there are only two types of 'cleric' and there are several unusual options for PC races (or is it species? well, you know what I mean!).
Forge gives us fairly conventional Elves and Dwarves and its Sprites are essentially Halflings with magical empathy powers. Gigantic one-eyed Ghantu and pig-faced Higmoni fill the orc/half-orc slot. Berserkers are goliaths (but Forge predates their appearance in 3.5ed D&D).
Next up, the oddballs. The sun-fearing albino Dunnar have innate magic detection, but look creepy and shuffle awkwardly. Then there are the animal-inspired lineages. The weasel Jher-em have prehensile tails and terrible asthma. The scaly Kithsara are innately magical. Bird-person Merikii are ambidextrous but, alas, cannot fly.
Adapting the Setting: Helix
Helix is the village on the edge of Barrowmoor that is the jumping off point for adventurers. Its name is odd, but probably suits the vaguely SF Forge better than the trad fantasy D&D.
Author Greg Gillespie is very fond of exploring religious allegiances and conflicts in his settings, notably between the New Gods of civilisation and the Old Gods of the wilderness and the earth. An important deity is Nergal, the death god murdered by his demonic sons and whose cult built the vast funerary complex of Barrowmaze. Helix has a new shrine to St Ygg, one of the civilised gods of light and law, but many locals still venerate Herne the wilderness god at a nearby stone circle.
Forge also has a 'dead' death god - Necros - and two more gods who are literally in Hell, but all the other gods have been banished by the wrathful (but strangely distracted) supreme being Enigwa. I've got a detailed analysis of Forge's unusual mythopoesis here.
It's straightforward to treat Nergal as Necros, which makes the Barrowmaze a site that pre-dates the God's War, from a time before Necros turned to utter villainy.
St Ygg has clear corollary with Forge's Berethenu, the god of Law and Justice with magical healing magic and a mission to exterminate Undead - who is currently burning in Hell.
But it might be more interesting to link St Ygg instead with the worship of Enigwa the Supreme Being. Enigwa's religion could best be described as Deism: the belief in an all-powerful and moral creator who does not answer prayers, grant revelations or intervene in the world he has made. In Forge's world, this sort of religion would promote Humanism, education, self-reliance and philanthropy.
We know that Enigwa forbade teaching magic to mortals; author Mark Kibbe's other books describe the Church of Enigwa persecuting mages. This makes sense if the Church of Enigwa is promoting science, reason and community enterprise over superstition, magic and individual glory. A very worthy religion indeed and one you could imagine running a small school and infirmary in Helix. No healing magic from Brother Othar and his acolytes though - but presumably high levels of medical expertise.
Who or what then is being worshipped over at the stone circle three miles outside town? It makes sense that Grom the (also Hell-bound) war god might have been someone the villagers turned to for defence before the Church of Enigwa turned up. Perhaps Brother Othar drove out the Grom Warriors who lorded it over this place, but villagers are still inclined to call on Grom when some undead horror shambles out of Barrowmoor. Education and Humanism are lovely things, but sometimes you need a sword reeking of hot blood.
In a setting like this, virtuous Berethenu Knights must keep a low profile and perform their healing magic discretely. Valeron the Elf is likely to be such a one. Perhaps the Church of Enigwa looks the other way if Berethenu Knights donate their charitable tithes to the local school and infirmary. But if a Pagan Mage draws attention to herself with public magic use, Brother Othar will petition Lord Ironguard have that Pagan fined, put in the stocks or even gaoled in Ironguard Motte. Actually, he'll petition the Jher-em vizier Ollis Blackfell (why make him Jher-em? well Ollis is described as "a weasel-looking fellow").
I think I'll turn the local magic-user Mazzahs the Magnificent into a Kithsara Enchanter. My take on these lizardfolk is that their cold bloodedness makes them philosophical and scholarly by nature. Mazzahs teaches occasional classes at the school in return for being left alone to practise Enchantment - but he can't afford to advertise his magic too loudly.
That will do for now. I'll post up session reports for the exploration of Barrowmaze and also how Forge fares as a surrogate rules set for this sort of mega dungeon bashing.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..