What? A review? That’s right! I’m going to start reviewing things again on my blog! I figured as I was tearing apart my own adventures in the Deconstructing Dungeons articles I might as well take a look at some other people’s work too. This article we’re going to delve into the Storm King’s Barrows; what appears to be Volume 1 of the Dungeoneer’s Packs (potentially more to come)! This mammoth product is a collection of 10 dungeons related to Storm King’s Thunder that can be run as part of that adventure, or as their own one-shots. It was published in July 2018. It was written, edited, illustrated and produced by a host of the DMsGuild’s best: Jason Bakos, Matt Butler, Ken Carcas, Robert P Davis, Andrew Dempz, Christian Eichhorn, David Flor, Eddie Gioffre, Luke Instone-Hall, Darren Parmenter, George Sager, Rob Twohy, Christopher Walz & Micah Watt. If that list of names isn’t enough to convince you, they’re even giving away Preview Copies for free! Also, if you’re a VTT gamer, Rob ‘King of Fantasy Grounds’ Twohy has formatted it all to make your life easier.
To begin! This product is amazing value for money. Every encounter in the compendium has something to offer, and the range of styles presented by the authors mean there is something in here for everyone. Although some of the adventures aren’t to my personal taste, they all have their highlights, and some are absolute gems! Where I’ve been critical of an adventure, I’ve tried to do so in a constructive way, and nothing I’ve written here should put you off buying Storm King’s Barrows. DO IT NOW!
Before we dig right in, I’m going to take a moment to explain my (probably highly flawed) rating system. Each review I give will be given a rating out of five in each of three categories: Design, Writing & Production. Design will focus on mechanics for player and DM supplements, and on the narrative of adventures. Writing will always focus on the style of the writing, including how well it has been edited and how comprehensive it is. Production will take into account layout, artwork and the general flow of the document. Also, despite receiving a free copy of this product to review, I’d like to stress that all views are my own, and I’ve not pulled punches where I feel improvements should be made.
Because this particular product is a collection of 10 dungeons, I’m going to review and rate each one individually in brief, and then take an average for the whole product. I should note here that there is a delightful forward and introduction to the contributors before any of the adventures begin, which is an easy read and adds a personal touch. There’s also a lovely map of The North of the Forgotten Realms.
Breve Heeros Onli!
I don’t like deliberate misspelling of words. I’m not sure exactly why this technique irks me so much, but it really does. Especially if the NPC is then discovered to be pretty literate. Despite this, Breve Heeros Onli! Has a pretty interesting premise. A kobold named Heep has teamed up with a black dragon named Shevra to lure adventurers into her lair, where they can be killed and their loot stolen. Shevra gets a pile of gold, and Heep gets to keep the odd trinket, as well as selling kit to the doomed adventurers.
This is a cute idea for an encounter, and is pulled off well by the author. I’m a huge fan of Heep selling the PCs some stinky gear to help the dragon fight them, and like the inclusion of consequences if the characters ignore the kobold or work out the scam. What I don’t really understand is why the kobold wouldn’t just send the PCs straight to the dragon after this, or into some death-trap dungeon with a rigged cave-in. Instead, Heep sends the characters to a moderately dangerous area of the dungeon. The author then allows the DM to insert a dungeon of their choice, but does give an example of their own just in case.
In the provided dungeon, I’m not a huge fan of the creature choice, or rather, I’d prefer the creatures to be more themed to Storm King’s Thunder and The North. I’d probably change Shevra to a white dragon rather than a black dragon, and keep the weretigers but describe them as weresnowleopards or something similar.
Design: 4/5 I like the premise for the adventure, and although I think it’s slightly flawed in terms of balancing PCs against foes, I understand that just killing your PCs isn’t fun. I also love the idea of fighting a blind dragon which is aided by the scent of rigged equipment and the sounds of her kobold conspirator – I would have cut the interim dungeon and had the social interaction with Heep followed by the combat with Shevra as the entire adventure.
Writing: 3/5 Although I don’t like deliberate misspelling, I understand why it’s there, and it perhaps adds a certain charm in conjunction with the amusing character of Heep. There are some parts of this adventure that could be reworded to make more sense, and stick closer to the 5th edition style, but the writing is certainly comprehensive. In general, the encounter also lacks read-aloud text; if more descriptive text had been included I think the adventure would be greatly improved.
Production: 4/5 The layout and artwork within the encounter (and I expect the whole book) is great! The quality of artwork and it’s use within the adventure adds a lot, and the general layout style is easy to read and looks spectacular. To bump the score to 5/5 would require custom art and full-colour maps, which is not a wise budget choice for a 135 page document, so I understand its omission! The second map for the encounter is not gridded, I’m not sure why.
This is a long one! Gerschmalig’s Tomb is 21 pages long, and involves a gruesome cast of characters involved in creating an undead army to assault the Sword Coast. This plays out as a monster dungeon crawl filled with undead foes and cinematic locations. Unfortunately, this adventure is let down a little by its sheer weight. There’s simply too much going on right from the start. We have an introduction that’s almost two pages long and reads a little like a history book. It introduces the main NPCs, Geschmalig, Udiken and Karzai, but also gives us their life story, which, for me, is unnecessary. It also uses the phrase ‘no woman could withstand his advances’ which I don’t really want to read in an RPG product. Although these characters are compelling, they’re too big for this adventure. We’ve got undead agents of vecna and lost sons of the Raven Queen. On top of the massive intro, we have only a paragraph of adventure summary, which makes the whole thing feel like the PCs getting a look at the author’s novel, rather than sculpting their own adventure.
The text is also, unfortunately, peppered with grammatical, spelling and syntactic errors, and iterates rules in full that could be cut with the addition of a page reference. I understand that some people would prefer the info in front of them, rather than having to look it up in another book, but this adventure is already so full that they hamper the flow of the adventure. Space could also have been saved with the introduction of things like general features sidebars, rather than spaced paragraphs.
Despite these flaws, the adventure does have a fun roster of NPCs including the grim, half-dissolved necromancer Salem and the tomb-robbers Sinser and Melissa, and contains cinematic fight locations such as a vat chamber which holds a pool of flesh-eating liquid, and a throne-room with an undead winter wolf and throne of bone.
Design: 3/5 Although there is potential for cinematic fight scenes and epic boss battles, there are some flaws in mechanical design in this adventure, and it feels slightly devoid of player agency.
Writing: 3/5 As previously mentioned, this is a dense read. There are a substantial number of errors which sometimes make it hard to understand the authors intent. Having said this, the author succeeds in painting some truly gruesome and epic scenes.
Production: 3/5 I think this adventure, being a hearty dungeon crawl, could have made use of General Features sidebars, and even sidebars for traps or modified monsters rather than new stat blocks. Having said that, the use of art and well-labelled maps is a boon.
Grotto of the Death Giant
This adventure is a somewhat typical D&D encounter, but is very well written and has some nice twists. It focuses of a reforming cult of Karontor, who are beginning to gain some followers in the local region and threaten the nearby humanoids. It’s whole dungeon is reminiscent of Drizzt and Wulfgar’s attack on the giant camp in The Crystal Shard, and that traditional D&D feel comes through in this adventure, but doesn’t seem stale.
My favourite element of this adventure is the final boss – a half-formed avatar of Karontor. The fight has a unique way to destroy the avatar, by putting ‘points of magical energy’ in to the Black Heart of Karontor; an artefact of the deity. This mechanic is explained in a clear and concise way, and gives the characters something to do other than whack on the bad guys. I also like that the finale comes in two stages – interrupting a ceremony inducting new cult members, and destroying the artefact.
This adventure makes good use of sidebars here (although I’d still include the encounter adjustments in sidebars), and brief, in-text changes to creatures rather than new statblocks. This kind of monster alteration makes the adventure quicker and easier to run. All I need to is open the Monster Manual (which I’d do anyway), and look over at the pdf for changes, rather than flick to and from the statblock in an appendix.
My only real niggle with the adventure is that measurements are included in the read-aloud boxes. That’s what maps are for! I’d rather the measurements were entirely graphical or briefly detailed after the read-aloud, giving more space for evocative description, which this author does brilliantly! I’d probably also swap out magma mephits for ice mephits as Karontor ruled over Tarterus, a plane of ice, but that’s me being REALLY picky.
Design: 4/5 Although this adventure is simple, it’s far from boring. The narrative is elegant, and brings in all three pillars of the game (though is weighted more toward combat). There are enough unique features and vivid descriptions to keep this straight-forward adventure exciting!
Writing: 4/5 This adventure is written in a clear and concise fashion, but contains enough description to make it come alive. The intro is short and sweet, the synopsis works, and the dungeon doesn’t feel like a drag to read. This could be elevated to a 5/5 score by giving a little more personality to the important NPCs (maybe just an ideal, bond and flaw), and removing the feet from descriptions.
Production: 4/5 I’m going to sound like a broken record here. The layout is good, much better use of sidebars. The artwork used is classy and thematic, and the maps are great quality. Unfortunately, I have to reserve that sweet 5/5 for custom, colour art and maps.
Saving Barbadoo’s Mine
Another short and sweet adventure which sees the characters attempt a rescue of a cloud giant Barbadoo from his mine, which has been taken over by Kragnor the fire giant. Barbadoo’s son, Dooba, is also at risk, and can provide more information for the characters. The adventure is linear and straight-forward, but written well enough to keep it exciting. A great example of this is the thrilling opening, which I won’t spoil, but is sure to gets your players engaging with the adventure. There is also room for some lighthearted roleplay with Dooba, although the whole Barbadoo/Dooba thing might get a little confusing!
One of the best things about this adventure is the wide variety of foes that can be found throughout. Although they might be difficult for a DM to run if all encountered together, they’ll certainly make for a memorable fight. Most of the time the author gives enough guidance of their tactics, behaviour and interactions to make this manageable. The adventure also presents some great combat locations, and details how the creatures interact with it. The best example of this is Kragnor throwing rocks at large stalactites to dislodge them, and cause an area attack against grouped PCs.
Design: 4/5 As with the previous adventure, this simple narrative is brought to life by the interesting NPCs, and the inclusion roleplay, combat and exploration. There are also some gem locations whose mechanics should keep combat interesting.
Writing: 5/5 Interesting and evocative descriptions, complemented by clear and concise wording of mechanical elements. My only quarrel is the measurements in read-aloud text again, which is probably personal preference rather than a legit ‘rule’, but it only happens once or twice. Great NPCs which come to life through the writing.
Production: 3/5 Same pros and cons as before. Would prefer to see more sidebars. Maps and art are good quality. Unfortunately, this map isn’t gridded, despite reference to distances in the text. Despite this, still far better than average production quality.
Stone Giant’s Lost Rock
What a great little adventure! Exquisitely written, a twisting plot of honour and betrayal, with a well rounded cast of characters and opportunity for all three of the pillars of the game! In this adventure PCs take the quest of a giant who fears that war may break out between his family and a nearby dwarven clan who stole a relic belonging to them. As the story unravels, you discover that all is not as it initially seems, and requires the PCs intervention. I won’t reveal too much more as I think this is a great little adventure and would hate to spoil it.
Everything in this adventure is highly comprehensive and easy to understand, but is written with a flavour that makes it a joy to read! The locations and monsters present are sure to make for a great few combat encounters, and the nature of the narrative means it won’t necessarily just be a hack and slash dungeon crawl. Again, I can’t reveal more without spoiling it, but the construction of this adventure is exquisite.
Design: 5/5 The narrative of this adventure, the encounters within, the potentiality and agency it contains and the mechanical elements it presents are masterfully constructed.
Writing: 5/5 The style of writing is impeccable. Read-aloud boxes contain superb descriptions of the locations and situations, and are present for almost all eventualities. The mechanical text is to the point, which will make this adventure easy to run in a pinch, and helps make it a highly enjoyable read.
Production 4/5: Again I would like to see general features and difficulty adjustments in sidebars just to split up the text and help compartmentalise. One map is not gridded, which is a shame.
The Barovian Book of the Dead
Another gem! This adventure sees the PCs investigate a ruined chapel, destroyed in a fight between giants and the small folk alongside the charming Iannar June, a explorer and relic collector. He is searching the chapel for a Barovian Book of the Dead, which provides a nice link to the Curse of Strahd campaign. The characters may end up fighting hoards of undead in order to help reclaim this book. This adventure’s feel is a mix of classic D&D with pulp Indiana-Jones-esque action. As with the previous adventure, the writing is of high quality, being concise and clear. It has a simple narrative that is easy to follow, but doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is. It also contains a neat little work-around for an otherwise skill check gated end point to the adventure.
Design: 4/5 Although the narrative is simple, its ability to keep ticking over depending on the actions of the characters makes pretty neat. I also like that the adventure cleanly links the two campaigns without introducing too much of either, allowing it to be tinkered with to fit a DMs desires. For what it is, this adventure is perfect. I’m holding back on a 5 simply because I feel like it could have had perhaps one more element to fill it out.
Writing: 4/5 This score would be a 5 if there had been more read-aloud text in the adventure. As it stands, the descriptions of the place are evocative, but read-aloud text would allow DMs to easier convey the appropriate info to their players.
Production: 4/5 Same benefits and concerns as always. This book has a consistent production style throughout that can’t really be bashed save for lack of colour maps and custom artwork.
The Great Worm Caverns
Zombie polar bear – need you know more? This great little encounter is an expansion of the Great Worm caverns from Storm King’s Thunder, but does a good job of turning it into something more fleshed out and more fun to run. It is chock full of fantastic locations, including an ice cave filled with magical tree sundered in two by the frozen corpse of an arctic couatl. The adventure helps give more backstory to the Great Worm tribe, and gives the characters a chance to help overthrow the dragon Winterhorn, their evil ally.
Possibly my favourite element of this adventure are the detailed combat tactics for Winterhorn in its lair. They really provide a ‘Dragon Combat 101’, and even if the adventure was lame, would be worth reading. Thankfully, the adventure is great, so you get both! There are a range of cool foes to engage with on the way to fighting Winterhorn, as well as some puzzles and challenges to overcome, which rounds out the adventure and prevents it becoming too combat heavy.
Design: 4/5 Although limited in scope, what’s been done with the narrative of this adventure is great. It has the capability of really connecting with the PCs, and motivating them to keep at it. The fantastic locations created are mechanically backed up, which is always a pleasure to see.
Writing: 4/5 The read-aloud text is present for each location, though is a little brief in places. It would have been nice to get a read-aloud description of Winterhorn. The mechanical text is straightforward and well-written too, making it an easy read and easy to run.
Production: 3/5 See above but the map isn’t gridded. I’m not sure if maybe I’m mad and just can’t see the grids on these maps?! This lets the encounter down significantly, as the writing and design are very good.
The Tomb of Mild Discomfort
Although it’s a little cheesy, this adventure is a fun little break from the usual variety of encounters in this supplement. It’s essentially a mini Tomb of Annihilation but with all the annihilation taken out and replaced with annoying little traps and tricks that, if played correctly, should be a grand laugh at the table. I think it’s worth bearing in mind that this kind of encounter won’t go down well with all groups, and although it’s lighthearted, the puzzles within are not false, and require some prior understanding – not one to drop in on the fly! There’s also a nice backstory involving Acererak which is somewhat revealed through play, but could end up being overlooked.
This encounter is almost completely made up of traps, puzzles and tricks. There are a few combat encounters, but not many. The majority of the puzzles are well designed and worded, with only the occasional slip up. One or two of them might require reading a couple of times to get all the information in your brain, but that’s hard to avoid at times. My favourite puzzle within the encounter is the lava fountain which (SPOILERS) turns out to be false. The characters have to wade through the fake lava, grab a hammer which has appears to be red hot thanks to an illusion, and strike the bas-relief of a key mould in the wall to yield an actual key. I can imagine this being great fun in play, though the players might need a few nudges in the right direction.
Design: 4/5 The overall design of the adventure is good. There’s very little narrative, and this style of comedic play won’t suit all groups, but I like it. The traps and puzzles are great fun, and should be an interesting challenge for players.
Writing: 3/5 Although I like the different puzzles presented in the encounter, I did have to reread two or three of them just to solidify the solutions and hints. Because of this, I can’t recommend simply dropping this adventure into a campaign on the fly – it requires a thorough read-through first. Having said that, most of the description and mechanical text is of good quality, it’s very close to a 4.
Production: 4/5 90% of the map is gridded, yay!
The Vault of the Undying
This adventure has an exciting premise; a long-forgotten tomb has opened up in the ground, and whenever anyone tries to enter, they flee screaming in fear. In my experience, PCs love to investigate this kind of thing. The tomb turns out to belong to Vasha, an undead mage sealed into the tomb by his foes long ago. During Vasha’s rest, he has constructed a giant scorpion golem out of stone to help him conquer the surface world once he finally escapes.
Whilst I like the idea of this simple dungeon crawl, none of the story is revealed through play, making it feel a little two-dimensional. Several of the traps are slightly mundane, as they are just spells such as symbol, which can be easily bypassed by 7th level characters with access to dispel magic. I do appreciate that the author has taken time to provide different solutions to dispel magic (such as destroying doors), which prevents progress becoming gated behind ability checks – this is good design.
Again in this adventure we see too much measurement in read-aloud description for my liking. This should be clear thanks to the map, and the read-aloud should be saved for evocative renditions of the scene. This is done well later in the adventure, but the first few dungeon chambers receive very utilitarian descriptions. This adventure also repeats itself in a few areas, talking about doors in the way out of one chamber, and the same doors on the way into another chamber. This should have been picked up by the editor and cut in my opinion.
Design: 3/5 There is some great potential in this adventure for a fun little dungeon crawl. Some of the traps are good, and could be made brilliant with a few small changes. I especially like the Tomb of Unseeing. I also think the new monsters statblocks are great.
Writing: 3/5 A lot of the description, save for the final rooms, is rather lacklustre. There are a few areas where spell names should have been italicised which has been missed by the editor. Having said this, the mechanical text is clear for the most part, and the summary and hooks at the beginning of the adventure are well-written.
Production: 4/5 I would have liked to see general features sidebars, though it doesn’t detract much from the overall high quality of production (seen throughout the book).
This potentially lethal adventure is packed with demonic madness. It tells the tale of a warlock named Orfeon Yancazi who attempted to battle with the demon lord demogorgon, was thwarted and punished through transformation. The adventure has quite a Lovecraftian vibe about it, delving into this maddening crypt of demonic powers and dark rituals. The read-aloud description within the adventure helps to solidify this feel, emphasising the abyssal corruption of the crypt. The exploration of the crypt slowly reveals the true story of Yancazi, before the PCs end up meeting the fiendish creature face to face. There are a few rooms that probably could have been omitted from the crypt (bathroom, bedroom, dining room etc.), as they don’t progress the story or provide much unique challenge.
My only concern with the adventure is that it might be too deadly. It’s designed for 10th level characters, but it is literally packed with demons and dangerous traps. This shouldn’t be a problem for most DMs, as they can adjust encounters on the fly to help balance for the characters, but it might throw a spanner in the works for less experienced DMs and players.
Design: 4/5 I think the revelation of narrative through the dungeon in this adventure is extremely well done. It would perhaps have been nice to see a few more NPCs and the opportunity for more social interaction, but if you’re looking for a pulpy, lovecraftian dungeon crawl then this is a great example.
Writing: 4/5 The writing is of high quality throughout, with excellent read-aloud description, and comprehensive mechanical text. To elevate my score to a 5 would require some of the text to be a little more concise. There are some columns of pure text which I feel could have been cut down but still retain their important information – a job for both editor and author.
Production: 4/5 The production quality of this book is high throughout. This particular adventure has fully gridded maps, a couple of artwork pieces and numerous sidebars which help break up the text. A score of 5 would require colour maps and custom artwork.
Conclusion – 4/5
For a price of $14.95, you should buy this book. The production quality of the product is very high, and despite lacking custom art and colour maps, the consistent style and feel of the layout makes it easy to look at and enjoyable to read. Although the quality of the adventures within varies a little, there are some absolute gems within there (I’m looking at you Stone Giant’s Lost Rock), and each adventure offers something new to stick into your game. The variety of encounters is also a boon, presenting opportunity to fill all three pillars of the game, and pick the encounters that match the thematic style you want for your campaign.
Improvements: I think some of the encounters could have done with a more thorough edit, as they are in need of cutting and clarifying in some areas. I would also have liked to see the use of sidebars more prominently, especially because the lack of art means there is a lot of text in the adventures. It would also be great to see colour maps and custom artwork, but, as mentioned before, this is not easy on a DMsGuild budget!
Best Bits: For me, the best bits are Stone Giant’s Lost Rock and Saving Barbadoo’s Mine in terms of encounters. Not only does the design of these adventures appeal to me personally, but I think the quality of writing stands out. I also want to applaud again the consistent style of the product, which makes great use of CCo artwork – a good example for those looking to do layout on a budget!