Barrow of the Forgotten King
by Ed Stark

Barrow of the Forgotten King is a D&D adventure produced by Wizards of the Coast. It consists of a 64-page black & white booklet that describes the adventure, and a separate cardboard cover that has the dungeon's map on its interior. The adventure is for 2nd level characters, and should take a group of 4 to 6 PCs to either 4th or 5th level, depending on how successful they are at overcoming the challenges of the adventure, as the text says. It is also the first of three connected adventures; the other two, The Sinister Spire and Fortress of the Yuan-Ti, are due out later in 2007.

The adventure booklet is really in two parts. The first 19 pages describe the adventure and the connections between the encounters. The final 42 pages describe the encounter areas, in the new tactical encounter format. (Three more pages are given to title page, credits and one page of advertisements for other D&D products).

The most striking thing about the adventure is how linear it is - in general, the PCs will proceed from one encounter to the next as they delve deeper into the dungeon. There are few side encounters - mostly the dungeon is one long corridor with rooms placed along it. To compensate for this, Ed Stark has included a wide variety of encounters. Even if the majority are combat encounters - in truth, the meat and drink of most D&D play - the terrain and choice of monsters keep each distinct from the others.

The writing style occasionally moves to the inspired - I love how Ed describes the town of Kingsholm as having a pretentious name - but is mostly functional rather than brilliant. One thing the adventure does do well is in presenting all the information in a clear, straightforward manner.

The plot of the adventure revolves around a group of tomb-robbers that have invaded the barrow. Although mostly competent, some of the more chaotic have alerted the local townsfolk to their presence. This brings the townsfolk to the adventurers, and thus the adventurers to the barrow.

The adventure is written from the point of view of the PCs pursuing the tomb-robbers deeper and deeper into the tomb. If the PCs need to stop and rest, well, so do the tomb-robbers. It is not written as an event-based adventure, however. Any "progress" of the tomb-robbers is merely illusionary. It does, however, make things much easier for the writer and the DM.

One of the exceptional things about this adventure is how it makes use of skills, terrain, and the D&D rules for interaction. When the PCs come across a puzzle encounter, the adventure text allows them to gain clues through the use of Bardic Knowledge, Search and Knowledge checks, and these combine with the ingenuity of the players to solve the puzzle. Roleplaying encounters - of which there are several - give the actions of the monsters based on the results of the Diplomacy roll. Thus, its actions if Hostile, Friendly or otherwise. DMs who wish to role-play the encounter more (and put less emphasis on the dice) are also well-served by this approach, as they can use it to tailor their responses.

The adventure also makes good use of mysteries. Why are the tomb-robbers here? Who is the Forgotten King? As the adventure continues, the PCs gain the answers to these and other mysteries - and a few more are posed.

Despite all of this, I keep coming back to the linearity of the adventure. This is somewhat of a pity, because several of the encounters really thrill me. I'm so used to dungeon design where the PCs have more choices as to where to go... even if those choices are mostly illusionary in the end. Instead of having areas of great freedom that then constrict to one or more bottlenecks, it feels much like an ongoing bottleneck. I stress that this is not a playtest review, however, and my feeling might change based on actual play.

It should also be noted that this is the first adventure of three. When you come down to it, the reputation of the classic Against the Giants series is not based on The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief! I've always found that a fairly dull adventure, leading into adventures that are far more interesting. I would say that Barrow of the Forgotten King is already more interesting than Steading.

A few other matters of note:

The adventure has a legacy weapon - and gives all the rules for using it as well, and is thus not dependent on possession of the Weapons of Legacy supplement. As I like WoL, this pleases me.

The tactical encounter format uses a lot of space. The adventure only has 23 encounters! However, the benefits of the format are significant to providing ease of play. It is likely that the adventure will take 4-6 sessions to play; whether this is good value for your money is up to you. As I am a completionist, I rather like having the product, though I do want to run it and its sequels as well.

The monster statblocks use the new format, which I adore. Unfortunately, they don't give the source of the monster, requiring the DM to do some research if he wishes to know more about them, although such is not needed to run the encounters.

In conclusion, Barrow of the Forgotten King is a solid, if not great, adventure. When comparing it to other recent adventures, I would rank it below Red Hand of Doom, Sons of Gruumsh and Shattered Gates of Slaughtergarde, but above The Twilight Tomb and Scourge of the Howling Horde. I look forward to seeing what Ari Marmell and Bruce R. Cordell do in the following adventures.