StoneHell; Into the Heart of Hell (2014)
Michael Curtis (Self-Published)
The second part of Michael Curtis’s Megadungeon magnum opus, the inimitable StoneHell, a 10 level deep, 1000+ room behemoth comprising numerous sub-levels, caverns, tombs, dungeons, settlements, lairs, crevasses, halls and laboratories within its seemingly infinite depths. It continues where Down Night Haunted Halls left off, in the very literal sense.
The Megadungeon is interesting because it represents a way of bridging the gap between a module and a campaign setting. A whole host of delayed rewards, hooks, contacts, enmities become feasible where in a module these are more afterthought or flourish, more or less dropped in the GM’s lap if he desires to invest the energy to make them work. In Stonehell, many of these long-term ramifications directly affect the area that is the primary focus of the material.
Please permit me some initial incoherence. There are 170 pages of ultra-dense material to cover, contrast with the preceding 170 pages and the mind struggles with the option fatigue of so many different lines of attack. The first thing one notices is that Part II is indeed, different, from Part I. Part I was the introduction, the overture, it introduces you to megadungeoneering in the best way imaginable, by going as vanilla as it can to ease the players into what is going to become A REGULAR PASTTIME FOR YEARS. Familiar trappings. A baseline of platonic DnD (i.e. rats, slimes and orcs) against which the subsequent changes or variations can be contrasted and understood. The odd unique monster, alternate pathways, weird object, neutral locations, the players are gradually exposed to these as they descend. There is effective use of backtracking, introducing obstacles that can only be tackled much later. At around the 5th level the first vicious curve-balls start being thrown, with a temporally distorted mine where you are stripped of your equipment, trapped and forced to contend with an asshole ghost about the worst. It feels like a bottleneck, a mid-way boss.
Part II is much, much more brutal. And so it should be! Your players have made it this far, they have probably settled into a pretty efficient routine, and have learned to avoid the beginner traps. This is where Stonehell stops fucking around and starts getting stranger and stranger, throwing curve balls, getting downright vicious. Exactly as it should be.
The first thing you immediately notice is the geometry. FUCK IT. YOU DO WHAT YOU LIKE, says Stonehell. YOU WANNA SKIP TO LEVEL 8 YOU GO RIGHT AHEAD. Levels 6 – 8 are centered around a great fissure, the Majucek Sulcus, and provide ample (BUT NOT SAFE) accessways to about 6 SUBLEVELS PER FLOOR. Jesus H. Christ. The periodic entrances to the surface more or less dissipate, it is too far down. What you do get are temporary sanctums, entire communities, safe havens where you do not get any random encounters, there are even areas that you can use ONE PARTICULAR RING THAT YOU GET IN THE 1ST LEVEL IF YOU ARE CAREFUL ENOUGH to use a teleport spell almost without fail. Later on you get natural hazards, part of the Ninth level is built above a flow of lava, complete with a fucking lava river. And level 10, jesus fuck Level 10.
Levels 6-8 feel like their own area. You still get the odd deadly sub-level filled with nothing but nightmarish horrors from hell (shadow-dwarves, many-headed mountain trolls, mutant trolls, psychic troglodites, extraplanar mages, the remnants of a faded race of super-wizards) but the faction play is also much more prevalent. There’s a trading post of the Vrilya, a Casino temple to the Luck god (that is written so it CAN be robbed as an extremely complicated heist, but this is VERY DIFFICULT, PERFECT!), a neutral ground ‘bar’. This is augmented with a sub-system to help you modify reaction adjustments based on what faction you are palls with, and of course helping faction A pissess of Faction B. If you have ever played GTA it should be immediately familiar. Here too there are little touches; it is harder to regain a poor reputation then it is to lose a good one, and there are a few accomodations for secrecy; if you leave no survivors, then even rampant murder shall leave no mark on your reputation, well done.
One of my benchmarks for Megadungeons and dungeons in general is the list of Tricks & Traps Gary Gygax provides in book 3 of the little brown books, and to be sure, StoneHell burns through near all of them or provides challenges that are analogous. But 99% of dungeon builders don’t even get that far. Stonehell essentially extrapolates on these tricks and procedures and moves beyond them in a way that takes full advantage of the longer format. There are methods to permanently screw up the entire dungeon by destroying the power source of nearly all of its magical traps for example. What if I unleash a 500 hp AC -4 Terraforming enigine unto the surface of my world? Bold questions, requiring bold implementation. There is a sense that Curtis works according to a system, this is a limit or a restraint, and Stonehell is not afraid to break its own rules. It would be easy to say; fuck you, gargoyle lair with a max hp gargoyle, but Stonehell never stops there. There’s always something more to it. It’s the Father of Gargoyles, one of the 12 original progenitors of the Gargoyle Race, and he is Neutral! And the Gargoyles are a Faction! And so on.
There is a minor irritant. I like it that I receive an occasional prompt to add a dungeon level of my own design but I think Stonehell 2 might go a bit too far with its portals to other worlds, collapsed rubble hiding yet another level and fuck me in the ozarks, to coin a phrase, a tie in with Delta:Green taking you to the city of Carcosa. That’s a bit much. I would use it, to be sure, because the hook is so fucking good, but it’s a bit too much.
Do I need to go into the individual encounters? It almost feels moot because they are so good but covering any single one seems pointless as there are so many, and of such variety. Some weird perhaps. A bubble holding a 100.000 gp gem, that disappears to one of five locations if touched, and requires a complicated sequence of high level spells and an attack roll against a high AC to snatch before it disappears once more? How about a ruby throne with terrible guard, but the first guy who sits on it gets +2 to a primary ability score. And the weird is done right, its good AND bad, mörk börg authors take note, so you never know what you are going to get. PERFECT. THIS IS WHY IT IS WEIRD IN THE FIRST PLACE, THIS DIFFERENTIATES IT FROM TRAPS.
There’s entire rules of dungeon design that you can FUCK in the bin because of the additional context of the surrounding areas. In a gigantic dungeon it is perfectly viable, and even encouraged, to make entire areas that are fucking death traps that you aren’t going to get through without a few body-bags. And why not? The PCs are level 5+ at this point and have ample access to healing magic, wish, divination etc. etc. In this case, the Astronauts Tomb might be one of the most deadly levels in the entire dungeon, barring the lowest one, which we will get too, AND IT’S A TECH DUNGEON! A GREAT ONE! Mutant Future rules suddenly make an appearance on the 8th level. What about another encounter on level 7? Regenerating owl constructs that destroy your currency with each hit. Or chaos creatures that disguise themselves as innocuous beings and drain xp and wisdom on a hit? Yeah fuck you too! But…that’s perfect! The players can always skip those areas if they are not up to them. The player’s NEED to be constantly challenges as they get deeper. The challenge needs to ramp up. The arms race must continue so that they are constantly evolving new strategies or your game gets…TOO BORING.
Compared to part I Part II is also MUCH CRAZIER in parts, almost gonzo, but its all spliced together with a sort of weird verisimilitude. You are delving into the greatest dungeon of all time, and it feels like you are doing archeology, encountering races long thought to have been extinct, or some races that are entirely unknown, secrets from the world’s prehistory. And then you get to Level 10 and the fucking dungeon breaks down into a surreal hell-realm where reality is mutable and you can encounter fucking Michael Curtis himself, or WW1 Zombies, or entities from between the planes!
Stonehell is so large it does everything, essentially. But in a controlled, dignified fashion, with a pretense at verisimilitude.
Let’s talk about monster progression since it is never covered in any adventures and it doesn’t need to be because they are generally too short. The only hints you get are the Dungeon Random Encounter Tables in the DMG, and the video-game Rogue. I’m sure there’s a Dragon Article somewhere. DnD is, at its heart, an arms-race between player and GM and the game must adapt in order to provide new challenges to tackle the player’s and characters greater abilities. In a homebrew or a set of modules one need not pay much attention to it since it can be handled on a level by level basis but with a Megadungeon you really need to put thought into what is being encountered where to as to create a nice, steep and escalating ramp of danger that never fully abates. Or to put it differently, even a level 10 character fears a cockatrice.
In Stonehell you see something of this evolution in the monsters. Gone are the days of mostly by the book. More and more weird curveballs are thrown, new monster races are introduced, complete with a plethora of special abilities (someone has read his D series), and races are generally not just stronger but often more complex. Sanctums of spellcasters, the shitty psionics of the bastard Mutocks (and their leader, the Cyboytyugh). TEMPLATES. Everything to keep the players engaged as they delve through fucking 44 quadrants of dungeon, that almost never repeats. There’s always something fresh, some new trick, some off the wall idea to keep people engaged. An Ettin with a helm of alignment change so one head is lawful good and the other is CE and he wants to join you guys…what could go wrong?!? And fuck, Rover from The Prisoner is a monster. THIS.
And then we have the lower 2 levels. Near the end of the game, Stonehell, already mean, switches to Ultra-bastard mode and you find yourself fighting Fire Giants in an area with active lava flows, vampires with locked off coffins that exit through tiny vents in gaseous form mode, an area holding the echoes of a faded hedonistic race, lost to the visitation of what is probably Hastur, and the enigmatic Beekeeper, a remnant from the dungeon’s forgotten past. All the mobility and multiple means of egress stops. There is only one way to level 10. It is situated in a temple to the Ungod, and suddenly you are doing WG5 but also on Ultra-Bastard mode. There’s an odd silence too when you transition to level 10, end up in a shrine and witness the altar of your nemesis for the first time.
Continued sickly green luminescence; altar fashioned from obsidian that weeps blood; altar and room overshadowed by 15’ tall statue of an entity bearing the aspects of mantis, spider, puffer fish, and snail; the room is sweltering and freezing in rapid, unpredictable succession. Stacks of gold ingots piled before the altar. The 500 ingots are worth 200 gp each and weigh 20 lbs. apiece. Unfortunately, each is cursed (as per scroll) and only the death of the nixthisis will remove the curse on any who steal so much as a single gold bar
When the actual monsters start coming you shit bricks, and that’s even before the temple transitions into a winding cavern system/digestive system, more living being then physical location, where the very laws of physics break down and the nature of the damn place is as mutable as the fucking tides. This is it. Screams the dungeon. Are you ready for pain? Then follows a fucking brutal, surreal, perilous slog through a hellscape that defies reality, battling nightmares, noting references and possibly befriending some cats and settling them to a nicer area of the dungeon while we are at it. Less talking. Less open exploration. Now it’s a race to the finish. Will you get there before the dungeon breaks you. Any new monsters you encounter are invariably ABSOLUTE SHITBAGS.
There’s something about the tenth level that makes it different from the last bullshit level in Return to the Tomb of Horrors. It’s less dangerous sure, but almost everything is, but its also the size. RttToH felt underwhelming, a bunch of death traps squeezed into a fortress maybe twice the size of a public library. Contrast the last level of Stonehell. I think you traverse…5 miles? 10 miles of dungeon? before you get to the end. Winding passageways, a vast lake of Atramental Cruor, hideous unnatural obstacles, almost no treasure (but good treasure when you find it).
It ends in style, with a smackdown with some nightmare from beyond the spaces of time, infecting the place with its very presence. If your players are still alive, they should have been able to figure out how to kill it. If not, it’s likely the fucking abyss for them. A foe that is formidable, has many methods of killing, and cannot be tackled by merely blasting it with fireballs until one runs out. Magnifique!
Stonehell as a whole achieves its stated goal of being a roadmap to megadungeon design for aspirant dungeon masters. It takes the threadbare principles of dungeon design recorded so long ago in little brown books of cheap paper and renders it manifest in sweeping, epic strokes. There are within its covers, such immense variety, such crafty and meticulous design and it all fits together so well that this deserves nothing less, then the highest of high ratings. That StoneHell is not more well acclaimed in OSR territories is suprising.
Very well. Michael Curtis. For your extraordinary accomplishments, for your extrapolation of the hallowed traditions of the megadungeon campaign, often alluded too but never fully codified on such a grand, sweeping scale, we award thee that most supreme rating, that of Five out of Five stars, for the combined work. Rejoice brethren! True DnD is made manifest!