Lost City of Barakus (Necromancer Games/Troll Lord Games 2003)
By W.D.B. Kenower and Bill Webb
D&D 3.5 edition for level 1 characters
The Lost City of Barakus, designed to take characters from 1st to 6th level (or higher) is as much of a campaign setting as an adventure. Detailed within these pages is the great, bustling metropolis of Endhome, the Penprie Forest and Duskmoon hills located north of that city, and, finally, the huge dungeon that is the Lost City of Barakus. Within all these areas are many adventures, NPCs, and locations for the PCs to explore, interact with and conquer. How and in what order the PCs choose to take on the various challenges before them is entirely yours (the DM's) and the players' choice.
The adventure is 212 pages long, cover price of $34.95 American.
- 5 pages of credits/legal/advertising
- 3 pages of background
- 21 pages of city overview and locations
- 25 pages of city adventures
- 6 pages of wilderness overview and locations
- 36 pages of wilderness adventures
- 77 pages of a mega-dungeon (Lost City of Barakus)
- 17 pages of monster stat blocks
- 22 pages of NPC stat blocks
- a large oversized pull-out map of the city and surrounding regions
All of the stat blocks are located at the back of the adventure, making it very easy to read and convert to other systems. When I ran the adventure, I photocopied the relevant stat blocks and had them ready at each session. The print is slightly larger than most adventures.
This is a grand sandbox adventure, and I would say it is one of the best written for the 3.5 system. There are a huge amount of encounters and adventures here. The book suggests giving out experience at half the standard rate, lest the party advance too fast for some of the latter encounters. When I ran this for my group in 2005, I gave out experience at 50% rate and it worked fine.
There is an over-arching plot, in that the city of Barakus fell under the sway of a lich. The citizens imprisoned the lich and began working on a powerful magic sword to defeat the lich. Before they could find a hero to wield the sword, the lich summoned from the ground a great monolith of madness that brought the city to ruin, but left the lich still imprisoned.
Scattered throughout the mega-dungeon are the clues and tools required to both free the lich and return it to power, and the tools to destroy the lich and the stone of madness. The climax of the adventure is the party's confrontation with the weakened and imprisoned lich.
The adventure also contains a wealth of additional adventures, side quests, and encounters, that do not directly relate to the lich, but provide a rich world for the party to direct their own destiny. The party could completely ignore the over-arching plot and have a wonderful campaign's-worth of adventure.
The city of Endhome has 30 detailed areas or buildings, and 17 significant NPCs, ranging from the authority figures, to a rival adventuring party, and a handful of NPCs that could be convinced to join the party. The city of Endhome also has a number of mini-adventures, including a den of were-rat thieves, a priestess running a covert slave-trade, a renegade wizard, and an old-money estate run by a family of vampires.
The wilderness outside of Endhome has 19 mini-adventures or lairs. There is a mysterious crypt; there is a lair of bandits that imagine themselves to be Robin-hood types, though they never get around to "giving to the poor"; there is a very dangerous cave of undead; there is a cave of grimlocks; there is a forgotten cave with neolithic/pagan ruins; there is an abandoned wizard's tower; there are tidal sea-caves; and many more people and places to see.
The bulk of the adventure is a mega-dungeon called The Lost City of Barakus. The upper level is mostly natural caves, and there are 4 separate entrances to the surface. The area is fairly wide, and has a number of different creatures with their own agendas. The adventure is non-linear, as there are many routes between one level and the next. I've you've ever looked into dungeon design, you may come across a blog Jaquaying-the-dungeon. Well, Lost City of Barakus embodies these design principals. There are many ways to get from one place to the next. I've found the players to be surprised and delighted as they go down an unexplored tunnel and suddenly realize "Hey, we've been here before, this is that cave we discovered last week!". The first level of the dungeon is regularly visited by a number of surface creatures, so this level can change from one session to the next. One of the main occupants is a CR5 black dragon that normally hunts in the countryside, but lairs in the dungeon. One of the other denizens of the 1st level, a grouchy gnome, warned my PCs about the dragon, so they were able to avoid it until they had a few levels under their belt were fit to battle the beast.
The second level of the dungeon is huge, having about 100 rooms. This level is mostly crafted, with proper flagstone, doors, marble halls, stairs, and balconies. There are a some ancient undead and treasure collecting dust behind forgotten secret doors. There is an active group of goblins, a drow scouting party, a group of belligerent orc brothers, and a group of hobgoblins all trying to eke out an existence.
The third level of the dungeon, titled "Level 3A", is a smaller secret level containing only 26 rooms, containing some werewolves, an ogre and some orc buddies, and some of the plot-elements regarding the lich and the stone of madness. This sub-level also contains a secret exit to one of the wilderness encounters several miles away.
The next level of the dungeon, titled "Level 3B", contains 18 rooms, including the stone of madness, and some former-adventurers driven made by the stone. There are also entrances to level 4 and level 5.
The next level, tiled "Level 4", is another slightly larger area with 24 encounters. There are exits to level 3b, level 2, and the Underdark. This level is controlled by two competing factions, the drow and a ghoul lord. The party can ally themselves with the drow. The ghoul lord has a powerful and intelligent helm that could restore the lich to power, if the lich could get his hands on it. The helm may lie to the party regarding its power in order to trick them to bring it to the lich.
The next level, level 4a, is a series of tricks and traps that is only accessible from level 3A. There are only 7 rooms here, but these tricks are tests protecting a powerful sword that can be used to defeat the lich and destroy the stone of madness.
The next level, level 5, has only 7 rooms, but some of them are very large natural caverns with a lake and an island. This entire level is the prison of the lich and is only accessible from level 3b.
In total, there are 7 levels in the dungeon, with over 200 encounters. There is a good mix of traps and tricks, things to explore, and monsters to kill or negotiate with. There are a number of potential allies in the dungeon, as well as some good adventurers that have been driven insane by the stone of madness and are now trapped in the dungeon.
Strengths of the Adventure
The sandbox style is superbly executed. There are hooks for adventure all over the place, not only hooks in the city leading people out to the wilderness or mega-dungeon, but also hooks in the wilderness and mega-dungeon leading people back to the city. There is a vampire in the lost city of Barakus trying to contact his relatives back in Endhome. The motives for the various NPCs and monsters are great. The sheer size and scope of the adventure give the players a great deal of freedom.
Weaknesses of the adventure
The adventure is too large for the 3.5 system. If your party is accustomed to quick leveling, they may not adjust well to the 50% experience rate. Alternately, the GM will have to heavily modify a lot of encounters to make them level-appropriate. Normally, I'd suggest cutting out a lot of extraneous content to deal with this problem, but the breadth and richness of the adventures are the strength of the book. I wouldn't recommend cutting the various encounters. Some of the adventures may seem a bit cliché, bandits living in the forest, a marauding dragon, a missing husband lost in the dungeon.
I don't give much weight to text density and cost per page... I'd rather pay a lot for a small clever mystery than pay a little for a huge repetitive monster bash.
I don't give much weight to new monsters, prestige classes, and magic items... they can add a little variety to an adventure, but to me they are minor decoration.
1. Interesting and varied encounters (I look for unique encounters, allowing for a variety of role and roll playing.): (5/5)
This is a big adventure and has a wide variety of encounters. There are obviously more role-playing opportunities in the city, and more combat in the dungeon, but there is a good variety, in that there are plenty of monsters and NPCs in the dungeon that are willing to parley, and there are a number of foul deeds in the city giving opportunities for combat. There are some traps and tricks/puzzles, but these are mostly in obscure places, like the abandoned wizard tower and the tests protecting the more potent magic items in the Lost City.
There are a few cases where the party may have to make some moral decisions, like whether to try and save an ex-adventurer driven mad by the stone of madness, or just put them out of their misery. I think there could have been a few more moral quandaries in an adventure of this scope.
The vast majority of the adventure will be determined by the players, as this is a sandbox, and a lot of thought and negotiation will take place inter-party as they discuss which of several leads to follow, and which goals are more pressing and important at any given moment.
2. Motivations for monsters and NPCs (or some detail of how they interact with their environment or neighbors.): (5/5)
Almost every NPC or monster has an explicit motivation or relationship with other creatures in the vicinity. For example, On section of level 2 of Barakus has a pair of bugbear brothers that have lost a gold cup and each feels that the other has stolen it. The bugbears haven't come to blows, but they've split up and taken their hobgoblin toadies with them, forcing the hobgoblins to wear different colored headbands to denote which bugbear they serve. The hobgoblins meanwhile are trying to fix the rift between the brothers.
Another example is a water mephit in a subterranean lake on level 1 of Barakus. The water mephit is territorial and detests land-lovers. However, the mephit also hates a mist-demon a few caverns away, and would be willing to offer a +1 dagger to the party of they would get rid of the mist demon. (the mist-demon lairs near the entrance to level 2 of Barakus, so any party that takes the mephit up on his deal will also find the entrance to level 2 and additional areas to explore.
These motivations for monsters and connections between encounters are really useful, especially if you have a party that sometimes decides to attack monsters, and other times, seemingly at random, they suddenly decide to parley with monsters. I never know how my players will react to any situation, and the motivations and development details in this adventure give me plenty of fodder for role-playing the monsters if the players decide to resolve an encounter non-violently.
3. Logical (the adventure should obey a sense of logic that clever players can use to their advantage): (4/5)
Most of the major encounters can be planned for, as there are a lot of plot hooks and plenty of NPCs or monsters willing to share information. When we played the adventure, the characters often went back to town to recuperate and plan their strategy for the next expected obstacles. There were some obscure areas, particularly the neolithic cave and the tests for the sword in which the players had no clue what they were getting into.
Barakus has a very old-school theme in which the deeper you go, the more dangerous it gets.
There were a few things that didn't really seem very logical, but I was willing to give them a pass. On level 4 of the dungeon, there is a hydra that "wandered in from the underdark". I usually imagine Hydras as more surface-dwelling swamp creatures, so that might be my bias. Also, one of the hidden routes between levels 1 and 2 was a secret stairway going out of the bottom of a sarcophagus on level 1 and ending inside a mausoleum on level 2. This caught the players by surprise, but they had fun exploring it.
4. Writing Quality (foreshadowing, mystery, and descriptions that bring locations and NPCs to life): (5/5)
The writing is fantastic, and at often transcends the medium. For example, there is an NPC and potential hireling at a tavern in Endhome named Kytor the Red. Kytor could have simply been described as "grouchy", but this is what is written in "Lost City of Barakus".
Kytor is fond of drink, and when drunk is prone to ramble on about his glory days in "The Guard." One might wonder, given his propensity to wax nostalgic about military life, why he ever left, but that question is irrelevant. Kytor is a hopeless grass-is-always-greener type, and life for him was always braver and better once before or looking brighter sometimes soon; in the meanwhile, he noisily endures the company of swindlers and lay-about, distrusts religion, and never eats a meal that couldn't have been a little tastier if the cook had just taken the time to care.
This description really brings the character to life for me as the GM, it is inspiring and a pleasure to read.
5. Ease of GMing (Clear maps, friendly stat blocks, skill check numbers, player handouts and illustrations): (4/5)
On one hand, there is no boxed text and very few player handouts. The few player handouts are buried in the text. The maps appear right around the time they are called for in the text. All of the monster stat blocks are at the back of the book. This may require page-flipping during encounters unless you have photocopied these ahead of time or unless you've converted the adventure to another system. There was little sample dialog for the NPCs and monsters.
On the other hand. The writing is clear, and the myriad plots and motivations for the monsters are explained well in a "development" section at the end of each encounter. The descriptive text is uniformly the first few sentences of each encounter, and it wasn't difficult to tell which text was appropriate to communicate to the players and which text was secret information for the GM. Most encounters had a "tactics" section that provides good guidance on running the combats. I would like to have seen boxed text, sample dialog, and more player handouts to rate this a 5/5.
Whether you call this a campaign, a setting, or mega-adventure, this is one of the best products written for the 3.5 version of D&D. Lost City of Barakus earned the Ennie award for "Best adventure 2004". I ran my group through the entire book; they skipped a number of side-quests, such as a number of sewer-encounters in Endhome, and the sea caves in the wilderness. I ran this adventure before running Vault of Larin Karr. It was a very fun campaign and the players enjoyed it. There were a few moments early on where the players felt like they had too many plot hooks—too many leads that they wanted to follow and not enough time to do it.
On level 4, there is a statue of a neutral good goddess with a powerful protective ward that generates a hallowed area. Inscribed on the wrist of the statue was her name, "Gallinda", which was very meaningful to my players, but I completely missed the reference to the good witch in the Wizard of Oz.
If you are looking for a big sandbox-style adventure, I highly recommend Lost City of Barakus.
You can see my other reviews on the forums at GrippingTales