[Review] Stonehell Pt. I (LL): Down Night-Haunted Halls; Overlord

[Megadungeon]
Stonehell Pt. I; Down Night-Haunted Halls (2009)

Michael Curtis (Three-Headed Monster)
Lvl 1 – 5+

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls



Beware All Who Enter These Benighted Halls of Stone. Within Lies No Solace Nor Any Comforts of Home. Toiling For Our Crimes We Must Dig Where We Dwell, With No Freedom or Mercy In Our Vast Stony Hell.
– Message carved above the entrance to Stonehell



At last.

There is a dichotomy between the module and the campaign that is undeniable, more so today then perhaps in the olden days. The module now; an intricate work of diverting craftsmanship whose contents can theoretically be slotted in anywhere, whose arrival is without precedent and whose departure is, mostly, without consequence. The contents of the greatest of modules leave the performance of any single GM’s home campaign in the dust yet lacks the staying power, the profundity of accumulated sessions of organic growth and so the two remain only somewhat reconcilable.

There is one format that perhaps attempts to reconcile them better than any other, that of the megadungeon, the module as campaign, a device that harnesses all the power of dozens of hours of prep-time and meticulous play-testing while eschewing any linearity or other such abominations of that pretender to the campaign, the adventure-path, whose name will not be mentioned in these hallowed halls.

The Megadungeon as the old-school concept is unique in that it represents a sort of El-dorado or Tesla’s Earthquake machine, a format that is simultaneously the oldest and most primordial, yet one that never saw publication in fully realized form during the lifetime of old D&D, and arguably not thereafter. All we got was joke versions of Gary Gygax’s original Castle Greyhawk, the occasional exotic side-level or hint, and Ed Greenwood’s Lugubrious Undermountain Boxed set, whose three page room descriptions are too formidable even for seasoned reviewing Gods. All this adds to the mystique of the Megadungeon as campaign and has caused it to become enshrined in the mythos of the OSR. Part of the OSR is a return to the Well, and you don’t get more Well then Gygax’s little brown books.

Which brings me to Stonehell. Stonehell is an immense, labyrinthine megadungeon, 10 floors, 4 sections per floor, 30ish rooms per section, the first half of which is covered in this supplement (700 rooms?!?). This is my first review of a megadungeon so it is hard to compare it with anything else. It is monumentally, immensely, overwhelmingly D&D Incarnate. The tips and tricks of Gygax’s megadungeon are here made manifest. A single floor of Stonehell is larger, more complex and has more variety then many entire dungeons. I cannot help but feel as if my first choice is an excellent baseline for the megadungeon format, and that others would pale in comparison with its glorious immensity, but as we go down the catalogue, perhaps this one too will be usurped by even greater things.

Stonehell began as a vast prison complex, hewed out of a mountain by the enemies of the Sterling Potentate, and watched over by a vizier with designs of social experimentation. Eventually the reign of the Potentate is cut short, and most of the prisoners released. Some had gone missing within the depths, others were so far gone that they no longer wished to leave. A century passes, with myriad inhabitants clawing out a territory within Stonehell’s cavernous immensity. Hobgoblins, myriad cults, some brought with the prisoners, others newer, an eccentric wizard persuing dreams of immortality, all these and many many more have entered the place from above. Other, darker things have been unearthed by the digging, and are slowly solidifying their hold upon the infinite black corridors. Welcome to Stonehell Bitch!

It is often that one hears a boast of a place that is too vast to ever explore fully or to have something that can easily sustain an entire campaign (a proper long campaign, 30+ sessions or years worth of play) without growing stale or repeating itself but it is another thing entirely to behold Stonehell in its immensity. The first part details only half, five floors, subdivided into four quadrants, each with a distincitive theme, a different random encounter table, and the whole connected through elevators, teleporters, stairs and secret passageways, with room left to expand further as the GM sees fit.

The one-page dungeon format, rightfully scorned in the more civilized corners of the OSR, is here utilized to maximum potential. Spending a paragraph or more on each encounter as per a traditional module would render Stonehell entirely indigestible. Instead we get intricate, nonlinear maps, dotted with secret doors and a generous helping of traps, a few noteworthy features that require more elaboration in the forms of multiple paragraphs, and the rest terse evocative description like so.

8. Cadaver Storage: Fresh humanoid corpses; linens & chemicals; rat-chewed door. Giant Rats (10). Under a flagstone are 3,000 sp & 2 gems (25 gp each). Kobolds store corpses here to trade with the Gentlemen Ghouls (see Level 4D).

The power of Stonehell is seldom in any single memorable encounter, though there are many instances of weirdness or awesome encounters with fearsome inhabitants to be sure, but in the way the encounters accumulate and build up over time. Let me give you another example.

33. Big Eyes: Sounds of work from area #34; 10‘ tall human faces with oversized eyes carved into the walls. Empty

Simple yes? But every empty room is given furnishings, and sometimes treasure is placed in rooms that are not visually or thematically interesting. The effect is to create a sort of seamlessness, where all rooms are potentially interesting and might have some hidden treasure or feature that provokes exploration.

The teachings of the master are preserved in this labyrinthine edifice and observed, almost to the letter. Almost everything that a good megadungeon should have is present. Factions? Psaw! Puh-lease. Of course it has factions. But the factions are not included mindlessly but exist in a sort of eco-system, from a medusa information broker to a Kobold bartering town that exists as a sort of neutral ground WITHIN the Dungeon proper. Checkpoints manned by powerful creatures that extract a toll on those going down. Information brokers. Factions and tribes sending out exploration parties into other parts of the dungeon. THIS is the power of Stonehell. Each quadrant fits into the history of the whole, making it feel like a living breathing place.

Traditionalism is neither flaunted nor scornfully cast aside. Instead it is observed where appropriate, to proclaim wholeheartedly that yes, this is in fact DnD, but innovation is introduced confidently and seamlessly. This is why the beginning is so good; You enter the broken gatehouse, rummaging through mostly empty rooms of rotting timbers, fighting giant rats, scavenging rotting equipment, encountering the odd cave bear or green slime…and it’s good. It’s damn good. It starts out as fucking traditional as it can possibly get, but it immediately sets some precedent; There is a statute there of an unknown saint, what does it do? Pray to it and find out. There are already multiple means of getting down to the first level, a path leading up the canyon to a bandit camp (detailed in a later supplement, but of course easily omitted), caves higher up, a section of caverns you can explore, secrets you can find. And it hasn’t even started properly.

This traditional template is perfect because any narrow theme is going to wear tremulously thin over the course of dozens and dozens of sessions. Instead each quadrant has its own theme and things going on. As you get lower things get gradually freakier, and Curtis starts throwing in some unique inhabitants among the Ogres, cannibal inmates, goblins, kobolds and undead that make up the meat and potatoes of the dungeon. Minor innovation, some new variant of dangerous beetle, is gradually expanded to include all manner of nasty beasties. The unique inhabitants of the Temple of Pain on the fourth level or the almost entirely unknown bestiary on a level that is basically a runaway hothouse with living plants and deadly spores and a thorny dryad queen worshipped as a goddess by the hideous toadstool people running it are particularly memorable, to say nothing of the lower level given over to the degenerate man-eating descendants of the original prisoners. Asylum level? Check! Halls of two-headed folkloric mountain trolls, complete with 7 int, easily befuddled, turn to stone if hit by sunlight? Yup! Ancient race of possibly supertechnological primordial descendants of all the demi-human races? You bet your keister! Memorable NPCs? Fuck yeah! The reality distorting power of the thing that lives on the lower levels is gradually making the dungeon stranger and stranger as the PCs descend. Yet the whole is executed with a charming level of verisimilitude, from the odd midden heaps, latrines or food caravans to the Obelisks of Air that replenish the air on different levels of the Dungeon.

The longer campaign format allows for rewards that are vestigial at best in the traditional format. Discovering the purpose of strange shrines to gain a spellike benefit makes sense if expeditions must take into account multiple hours of travelling down hallways to lower levels. One of the most enigmatic and powerful places, the Sanctum of the Plated Mage, will surely be discovered long before it can be fully penetrated and utilized. Likewise, few rewards in this format can be as welcome as discovering AN EXIT TO THE SURFACE, allowing one to bypass dozens of random encounter rolls as one slogs tiredly down stairways, trusting that the GM has neglected the use of the generously provided Dungeon Restocking Tables.



I mean look at it. LOOK AT IT. It’s majestic. It’s grand. It could absorb the entirety of the Barrowmaze into itself and add it as a sub-level and you would not notice. The power of the dungeon as campaign is not just demonstrated but displayed with a confidence and a lack of pretension that is laudable. This is really a spectacular effort at recreating an old legend of the oldskool that was not to be and all the more impressive because it was one of the earlier ones.

You will even find the odd Gygaxian FUCK YOU encounter. They are rare yes, perhaps too rare but they are there, probably in numbers sustainable for a long campaign. There is just something about a shaft with 3 Gargoyles in it on the 3rd level or a door that says ‘DO NOT OPEN’ in multiple languages that warms my blackened heart, although the Save or Die is conspicuous by its absence. A seasoned and cautious party should be able to make admirable headway in Stonehell, fools obviously get stepped on. The one exception is a particularly brutal section of the fifth floor, which traps the players and essentially makes them re-enact Ravenloft only stripped of all equipment and with the gypsy lady replaced by a mad Dwarven Ghost and Strahd by a Zardoz homage. Its one thing to throw save or die traps on the first level just to illustrate that this will be a world of pain (Stonehell doesn’t), but its actually far more brutal to throw a curveball at around the fifth level, when the players should have settled into a routine.

This section ends with a random table of room and container furnishings in case the GM might need it, contents entirely appropriate to the rest of this spectacular work. Unassuming, but VERY useful, EXACTLY what is needed to add a bit of spice to the odd empty room if the GM needs it. There is not a hint of showiness in this thing. It’s all meat, no gristle. Perfect.

I’m tempted to go straight for a homerun and just give the damn thing Five Stars but I don’t know enough about megadungeons to really have anything to compare it with. For now I’d put it at a high Four Stars and come back when I can compare it to Dwimmermount, Maze of the Blue Medusa and Castle Xyntillian. Still has more ideas in it then any ten *** modules.

****

[1] If I am not mistaken the original Rappan Athuk predates Stonehell by a few years at least. Fight On! Published a megadungeon serial that would tragically never see its lowest level and Barrowmaze was not truly a megadungeon on the scale of these other Titans.


46 thoughts on “[Review] Stonehell Pt. I (LL): Down Night-Haunted Halls; Overlord

  1. This, with Pt.2, Xyntillan and MotBM are the best around, in my opinion. I’m lazy, so maybe it is because they’re so easy to run at the same time so rich of content. Xyntillan in special, excels in every damn department. I’m yet to see something better than those.

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    1. I was indeed impressed by the utility of the thing, quite the achievement, considering its vast bulk. Xyntillian I have in hardcover so that one will most assuredly be on its way.

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  2. I actually like the one page dungeon as a concept, and as a goal for format and conveying information. I don’t think that you could have something as massive and ambitious as stonehell without the format, I definitely don’t think you should throw out the whole concept just because the contest has become an insufferable art house horror show.

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    1. I think we agree for the most part, but the one-pager on its own feels empty to me. I approve the effort to strip things down to their fundamentals but in case of the one pager the end result is often a shallow hodge-podge of tripe, given barely any justification. It feels…inconsequential? I think it could work if you had a great/genius map and one or two single ideas to build your dungeon around. Say…the dungeon is mazelike but the inhabitants periodically shift to evade the roaming spheres of annihilation that slowly circle around it. And then throw in a bunch of monsters that already have most of their thematic fluff and implied depth stashed elsewhere like Goblins or Ogres or whatever. Then standard dungeon dressing. And then its still a ***. There is something about great dungeon design that is lost with a one-pager.

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      1. Maybe you’re right about the one-pager by itself, but I run a lot of sandboxes and so I find them incredibly useful for stocking a map. Much like with Stonehell, actually, one-pagers link together to make some of the best D&D a man can play. There’s a strength that comes from acknowledging that whatever the ambitions of the module might be, you and your friends are going to be dealing with the game in three to five hour chunks… and I’m not sure why you need more than one or two pages to cover a 4-Hour session block.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think we agree. Using one-pagers to dot a sandbox and enjoy the emerging play that comes from that is something I can see merit in, even if the individual components are relatively weak.
        There is one element that I think is underutilized in Sandboxes. That of the Screwball location. A good sandbox can have locations that are a net negative to explore, but this keeps things fresh. In Carcosa there were many such places, maybe too many, but having some is good I think.

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  3. I ran this one for a while in forum posts. This review is spot-on. Running it as pbp is probably unacceptably slow, but it does give the GM a lot more time to think about the specifics of…everything. The party managed two delves before the campaign was disrupted by Real Life Events. The individual elements feel a little sparse, but they give you a great framework to dress things up.

    For example, the room dressing table yielded a trail of 100 silver coins, while the random encounter table gave me seven bandits, and there happened to be a pit trap nearby. It was an easy leap to decide that the bandits laid the trail of coins to the pit trap, and would leap out from a nearby room to extort whoever fell in. As a GM, you gotta love when stuff like that comes together.

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      1. I love ASE but it might be too incomplete to quality as a megadungeon. The creator promised to add new levels, but I’m not holding my breath at this point. GREAT material.

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  4. Another fine review, particularly of the virtues. In a large dungeon, you can decide to improve survival chances and feed off level 1 crumbs, or go for broke by plunging to lower levels and better treasure. You certainly get to richer hauls quicker in Barrowmaze.
    I love the setting in ASE, but found the dungeon in the initial book less inspiring. I don’t have a copy, but levels 2 and 3 tend to gonzo?

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  5. I’ve been running a Stonehell 5e conversion for over a year now (game every other week), and the players have just made it to the fifth floor. I replaced the vrilya with Skerple’s Drow Conspiracy, which was a ton of fun, especially when the party fighter was handed a head full of roses during their stay.

    The party has been pretty diligent with their mapping, and I’ve found having a copy of the combined floor maps and a highlighter has been fascinating just for watching what they’ve explored. It’s funny how they have barely touched 1C despite near fully mapping 1A, 1B, and all of 1C that isn’t behind a secret door.

    Conversion has been simple, most of the monsters in the early levels are in the 5e MM and the ones that aren’t I salvage from the FGG Tome of Horrors. The only problem I really ran into is that lighting is such a non issue in 5e due to light cantrips and darkvision being so common.

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    1. I admire your tenacity in converting the whole thing to 5e. Kudos to you, sir

      PS: Why didn’t you convert your players to LL ? :p.
      It would be much easier than what you did.

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      1. The campaign started at the LGS, 5e was mandated for getting a table. And then when the plague came and we switched to discord, no one wanted to switch.

        Once again, it’s not difficult. Stonehell doesn’t put monster stats on the map pages (they’re on the level description pages), so it was already gonna require cross referencing. Now I just cross reference a different book.

        Traps I use the DMG damage guide set to Lethal, combat is theater of the mind (save for one fight, versus Song of Night Screams, which used VTT because it was a fight against a dragon and those deserve it.)

        Stonehell’s main asset is that it’s already been broken down to basic pieces enough that on-the-fly conversion is simple. One could just as easy convert it to WWN or Troika or SS&SS without much fuss.

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  6. Why are disparaging Troika.

    If you don’t like and support/ play Troika?

    You must hate minorities.

    And Justice.

    You must be a bad person.

    You should not work.

    You should

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  7. Been running this for 3 years – while maybe a third of the sessions take place in the dungeon it’s very easy to weave threads leading to and from it making it the fulcrum if not the tentpole of the campaign. The classic theme and sparse descriptions are also GREAT as reflavoring and tinkering can be done easily to fit my campaign something which isn’t true of more specifically themed dungeons like Dwimmermount.

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    1. How do you develop quests from and back to the megadungeon?

      Can you give examples from play, what worked well and why?

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  8. You have made me look at this again in a new light. I dismissed it as an ultra repetitive environment with diablo style pointless upgrading of antagonist power but that is not fair.

    First of all Curtis writes well enough to deserve a close inspection, despite the moron placating pattern of information presentation. He is confident enough to transcend the limiting pattern with strong content variation and I think he achieves it. He gradually introduces more original monsters, and the environment he maps becomes more unexpected.

    Curtis strikes me as someone who demonstrates high diligence and patience in unfolding his plan. His aesthetic is ground zero AD&D. I am amazed, reading widely what the simple folk of D&D want, that Stonehell is not one of the central domains.

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    1. I’d say the terseness here is almost a neccessity. The damn thing is 200 pages long as it is. I am also surprised his work is so relatively obscure, given how platonic it comes across. It is hard to imagine something that is more essentialist.

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      1. He is pretty known in the DCC RPG community. He worked on the brilliant Dungeon Alphabet, several DCC RPG modules, and the Lankhmar boxed set, among others.

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  9. A dungeon is something to cap a campaign with, not wholly encompass. Nowhere in art do we see the idea repeated of an adventure which takes place inside a single environment. The best adventures are always grand, sweeping, with visits to many different places – Lord of the Rings, anyone? Like your Carcosa campaign. Myself and most people would be bored of this environment after a few sessions.

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    1. A fractal branch of disagreement:
      The first is art or fiction based. I ask What of Blame! or Dante’s Inferno, or Howard’s Red Nails, or Non-stop by Brian Aldis or Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic? Which all take place in a single environment, usually with a roof and corridors (in the case of Roadside Picnic it is a ” Zone”) . In the case of Blame! it seems like cheating; The dungeon is a megastructure that encompasses the outer solar system and has caverns the size of jupiter. But this introduces the concept; A good megadungeon should be a place so large that it has multiple ‘ locations’ or ‘ areas’ or ‘ environments’ inside of it, maybe to the point where one is . Stonehell is not a big dungeon, stonehell is 40+ different areas inside the same geographical location.

      As a collorary: I am not sure arguing from fiction in this fashion is neccesarily valid when one is trying to figure out what works or not. DnD is inspired by Appendix N but from all the different concepts you get a gestalt that contains elements of all but is not exactly like any of its inspirational material. Its possible to argue that DnD wizards are very unlike the Pulp Sorcerers of Howard, Leiber or Moorcock but that doesn’t mean that this is neccessarily wrong.

      I am a player in a megadungeon campaign and it does have occasional politics or missions abroad to break up the dungeon-crawling but the meat- and potatoes- is the exploration of this large underground maze. Thus far it seems fulfilling, but different strokes for different folks of course.

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    2. I think it’s a mistake to try to recreate genre fiction through role-playing. D&D is effectively its own sub-genre of fantasy. I agree with Prince that megadungeons are typically fairly varied environments, often acting as springboards for “side-quests” in other parts of the setting in a decent campaign. In the end I’d say YMMV but it all depends on your GM…as they say, what else is new?

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  10. Oy vey, have you reviewed Barrowmaze already? What about the subsequent efforts of Dr Gillespie?
    Keen to hear your views 🙂
    Cheers,

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  11. Good stuff, hoss! Your intro was as inspiring as the megadungeon itself. That format does reconcile the module and home campaign.

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  12. If you’re going to do megadungeons, how about Rappan Athuk, Mines of Khunmar, Gunderholfen and Castle of the Mad Archmage?

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    1. These are all good suggestions, I’m of two minds about Castle of the Mad Archmage. The end result is almost certain to be dissapointing. Maybe if I run out of Gygax to review and the craving gets overwhelming?

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      1. I was pretty disappointed when reading CotMA, but then I remembered how sometimes me and my players were having a blast with just a simple lair of troglodytes or a few rooms and corridors under a fish-man temple – so I don’t know.

        Then again, it almost sounds like the old “a good DM can make any adventure look good” argument, which is true but tells nothing of the quality of the module itself.

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  13. Having run about 10 sessions of a Stonehell campaign so far, my only complaint about it is how stingy the dungeon is. And yes – I can just adjust the treasure amounts up… but that’s a significant amount of work. My players have definitely noticed – any time I offer them another location (it’s a sandbox campaign so Stonehell isn’t the only dungeon) they immediately jump at it because they’ve learned through experience it’s incredibly difficult to actually get any significant treasure from Stonehell

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  14. I ran a few dozen sessions of Stonehell. It mostly works well; I felt it lost energy in the transition between Book 1 (level 5) and Book 2 (level 6). I used 5e D&D for which the amount of treasure felt appropriate; been running 5e Barrowmaze recently and it feels a bit too treasure-heavy off the bat.

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      1. My groups weren’t keen on paying the Vrilya for access, though they did establish cordial relations. Driving off the mountain trolls took absolutely forever. I think an access point from 5B (Night Screams/old Yig Temple) down to 6B would have helped a lot in opening it out.

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