Honorable Mention of my Top Ten of 2016
This massive mega-adventure clocks in at 364 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 7 pages EXTREMELY detailed ToC, 3 pages index (useful), 1 page magic item index (even more useful), 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 347 pages of raw content, so let’s take a look!
This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy. While we haven’t yet finished this massive monster, quite a bit of playtesting went into this review.
We begin this book with an interesting explanation – while this massive hardcover very much does present a mega-adventure, it aims to provide maximum customization options to make this book really your own, to account for your table’s tastes. Hence, we begin with a list of icons and how they interact with the stone-thief…but the GM is NOT left hanging beyond that: Instead, we get detailed, smart observations regarding the structuring of the campaign and potential plot-lines to embark upon – this does include advice when to kill or not kill a PC, the effects of the escalation die on traps…well, and the submergence die, a handy and easy mechanic to track excursions into the stone thief and drive home the unique nature of the dungeon.
The pdf also sports advice on handling leveling in the dungeon, etc. A chart provides the default configuration of levels at one handy glance in three configurations and then, we are introduced to the nature of the levels and denizens and yet another chart helps you keep track of relationships between fractions, icons and movers and shakers within the framework of this campaign – two thumbs up!
AHRGH, I can’t do this! Before my face turns purple-red: Players, seriously…skip to the conclusion NOW. I need to get into SPOILER-territory right now!
Okay, seriously, if you want to play this (You do!) as a player, skip to the conclusion.
Through the underworld, colossal structures roam – barely sentient, they move forward, mindlessly assimilating anything that gets in their way, integrating it into their structures. The keyword here is “mindlessly.” Picture, if you will, standing on a keep’s wall, guarding your home. Suddenly, the earth starts to quiver, then shake…and then, the green orchards burst open, like a violent ripple of storm-tossed waters, only that tons upon tons of earth are moved aside as the most titanic thing you’ve ever seen approaches: You see a thing so big it boggles the mind and results in a temporary paralysis, as your brain tries to comprehend the doom approaching: You see a titanic, churning mouth of pure destruction, where crushed pieces of steel and towers loom, where ridges of arcades and erstwhile spires create a grotesque, titanic gullet that consumes not people…not dragons…but whole towns.
An (un-) natural disaster of epic proportions given sentience, a massive dungeon of power from ages long gone, a place with an agenda and the intellect to pursue it, a problem the Icons couldn’t really fix. Your town is doomed…but you and your allies may manage to infiltrate this huge thing, like microbes in a whale, riding on the pieces of town, keep and structures, in a churning maelstrom of stone, rock and blood – for before you is none other than the stone-thief, and it needs to be stopped. The stone-thief – Makh Miz Adaor, she who undermines. Makh Adaz Akor, the Howling Pit. Khazar Vuk Varag, oldest of hatreds. That’s how the dwarves know the stone-thief…and their lord personally wants it dead. The prince of shadows considered the stone-thief dangerous enough to steal its eyes (hence the title), blinding what otherwise would be a deadly threat…to anyone. The stone-thief may well be the creature to break the stalemate between the icons…so a lot of different icons want this beast either eliminated…or as the crown jewel of their arsenals.
If your first impulse of this was “Living dungeons?” – well, the absolutely awesome component here would be that the stone thief is its own world, if you will: Ever moving and blind, this titanic…thing’s capabilities are incredibly sensible: Whether it’s the structure of its levels (which btw. come with info on suggested levels, encounter-dispersion, etc.) that includes the gizzard you use to enter or its details – you always get that this is no simple dungeon to crawl through: Having limited control over its constituent parts, the stone-thief grows ever more powerful, reviving and controlling its denizens.
Even death cannot save you, as the stone-thief’s diverse denizens have means to recreate adversaries – flesh-forming, the undead…the stone-thief knows how to keep pesky small folk out…for the most part. I already mentioned the submergence die: You see, while this colossal thing burrows its paths through the planet like a poisonous worm in the proverbial apple, its insides contract, often in deadly ways…so one would assume that there is no life inside, right?
You see, while the stone-thief has a lot of control over its configuration, this control is not absolute: Deep inside, generations of people led by a witch live, trying to ultimately assume control over this powerful being.
The Orc Lord has sent an excursion that has established a foothold inside…but obviously, the green-skins shouldn’t be allowed to control this beast either…but at least they keep the cult of the devourer in check: Basically a group of insane apocalyptic terrorist-cultists, these people worship the living dungeon and hope to bring ruin to the realms above. Oh, and then there would be a council of spirits within the very walls – the custodians, who not only engage in complex power-plays among themselves, they also guide the dungeon and make sure it does what they want – if the dungeon should ever regain its eyes, they’d lose their status…and perhaps, their usefulness. Within in the pit of undigested ages, treasures of ages past loom and an apocalyptic settlement of the desperate hide within the stone-thief’s innards -Dungeontown. Whether that’s a safe haven, a despotic, sick settlement or anything in between – all up to the GM, though the seeds to develop this haven are all there.
It’s hard to talk about this dungeon without mentioning the structure of this mega-dungeon. So here goes: One issue of mega-dungeons is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” structural problem. As anyone who has ever played and defeated one of these iconic dungeons can attest, there are two basic approaches, both of which sport their own issues.
The classic mega-dungeon would be static one, which I’ll call “structured” for the purpose of this review: You get full maps for the whole thing, players and PCs can familiarize themselves with and secure areas and the process of exploration is classic, fun and all…but sooner or later, there will always be the session, where players are wasting time with a particular area; where the structure of the dungeon gets in the way. When you, as a GM or player are itching for an epic boss battle or the like, but you know you’ll have to slog through x rooms of minion-combats first. It is then that structured mega-dungeons are at their most frustrating. On the plus-side, the story told, the familiarity gained of the areas explored – all of that really makes the dungeon feel lived in, unique. These dungeons, like e.g. Frog God Games’ Lost City of Barakus, Cyclopean Deeps, Rappan Athuk, etc., excel at indirect storytelling, but their structure can get in the way of direct storytelling.
Similarly, dynamic factions can easily be moved around within. Modular dungeons are a different manner – E.g. Savage Mojo’s Lich Queen-saga champions full control over the dungeon for the GM: Instead of a concise overview map, one gets rooms and encounters that can be moved around at your leisure. While this does provide the means for the GM to always retain maximum control over the respective tension and requirements at the table, this approach has an inherent problem: You obviously don’t t get a concise overview map, have a lot more GM-work on your plate and no matter how good you are as a GM, you probably will never reach the level of familiarity within the dungeon and the sense of actually exploring the place. These dungeons lend themselves to better direct storytelling than structured dungeons, but ultimately invariably suck at indirect storytelling, which, to me, is a component I value just as highly. By necessity of this approach, dungeons will feel more like a highlight-reel, less like an organic place.
I see pros and cons for both approaches and can enjoy both – I can rattle off excellent examples for either approach.
This mega-dungeon, however, transcends the limitations of this dichotomy: All levels herein come with gorgeous, isometric maps, with the respective encounters using the environment in the best of 13th Age traditions to modify the surroundings and utilize the terrain in combat. Similarly, scaling for the rooms is provided…but here’s the thing: The dungeon’s structure allows for the recombination, inversion and resetting of areas and surroundings – and the book accommodates your needs: The killer-trap level the PCs will always have to traverse, the gauntlet, has more nasty traps and encounters than it needs – for your sake, so you get to choose, so you can maintain control over the pacing.
So you can keep the area familiar…yet fresh. Your PCs and players will grow familiar with components – revived foes may let them pass after having their butts kicked before, for example – but the dungeon does not suffer from the issue of potentially becoming stale or stagnant: The recombination of rooms and inhabitants within the levels is a glorious idea…and the whole mega-dungeon always has a sense of urgency due to the submerge die: Once the thing starts rumbling, the PCs better start getting out (or to a safe zone!)…which ends a perfect means to track and for a GM to rack up the tension if the PCs are idling…and yeah, there are plenty of actions that increase the submergence die…
The genius of this book, indeed, can be found in the fact that, much like the stone thief itself, it is a structure…that is alive and feels modular. It is inorganic and organic at the same time – to use a genre-wise inappropriate analogue, but one that my academic readers will understand: This is a cyborg dungeon. It is uncannily close to being what we know, but the capabilities are beyond that of the regular. This is no Frankenstein-hodgepodge – it is basically an evolutionary step ahead. Now I mentioned the requirements of direct and indirect storytelling. Indirect storytelling in structured dungeons works well – you crawl through the dungeon, because it is there and by virtue of room arrangement and the like, you slowly get a picture of what’s going on. This works herein as well. However, the massive book does not merely leave you with a room-by-room accumulation of descriptions – no.
Instead, this book presents a huge assortment of handcrafted stories beyond the structure of the rooms – the Quests. These are not simply brief outlines à la “PCs go to room xx, then to room yy, then get…” – no. The quests provide basically campaign-level fodder and ideas for excursions in and around the stone-thief – for the premise is that the PCs will have to evacuate the dungeon more than once! (And yes – one idea includes the stone thief sloughing off the part with the PCs in it while submerged under an ocean…)
These quests can be ignored or used, combined at your leisure and much like the premise to explore the stone-thief and all relating to it, customized in a myriad ways. And if you’re time-starved…you can still run the dungeon pretty much by the book. While I’d suggest reading this before running it as a whole, I tried running one level sans any preparation, blind – and it worked tremendously well.
Editing and formatting are superb – for a book of this size to excel in both qualities to this degree is a thoroughly impressive feat. The superb organization via ToC and indices guarantees furthermore that you have a very easy time finding the actual information you’re looking for. Layout adheres to the 2-column full-color standard established for 13th Age-products and the book comes with a metric ton of awesome artworks, with a lot of the bosses sporting downright evocative pieces in the distinct aesthetics established for 13th Age. The cartography of the respective levels comes in absolutely gorgeous isometrics in full color and leaves NOTHING to be desired. The electronic version comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The print-version is a glorious full-color hardcover and, sans hyperbole, one of the crown-jewels of my RPG-book collection – its production values are superb, the paper is thick and the binding great. This book is made to last…and it needs to.
Okay, this review took a lot of willpower to not immediately burst forth with what I really wanted to say:
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s Eyes of the Stone Thief…is the BEST MEGA-DUNGEON I HAVE EVER READ.
Regardless of system and setting.
This has all the strengths of both structured and modular mega-dungeons and none of the weaknesses. The characters herein brim with creativity. The challenges, whether they be traps, hazards, creatures of the stone-thief itself universally are simply SUPERB. Excellence. Platinum-Standard. This is innovative regarding the rules, smart in its depiction, exciting to read and a single level has more ideas than some whole dungeons I’ve read.
The intriguing nature of the dungeon itself makes sure that the stone-thief basically is one of the coolest villains I’ve ever read: More so than the myriad of foes in this book, the dungeon itself is what will draw the ire of players and PCs and the advice for depicting it, the exceedingly concise presentation of the mechanics and rules to which it needs to adhere, the thoroughly evocative settings, the stunning modularity of the setting and structure…every page, every sentence in this huge tome breathes pure, unadulterated, undiluted excellence.
Let me once again emphasize that: This is my platinum standard for mega-dungeons from this day onwards. It quite frankly makes many of the mega-dungeons I’ve read look like a grade-school-flutist trying to compete with a world-class prodigy. This is pretty much a whole class of its own – it is smart, well-written, brims with more creativity than just about any mega-adventure I have read and…I’m running out of superlatives to heap on this book. No matter the scale you apply, this is apex-level excellence.
I’ll go one step further: Know how console video-games are often branded as system-sellers? This is, to me, one of the very, very few books I’d consider worthy of this title.
This book is so good, I urge every GM, no exceptions, to get it. Even if you and your group have no interest whatsoever in 13th Age and its rules or setting. This book is so good that, on its own, it suffices as a reason to learn the rules. It can be converted and does not lose much, though you may want to give careful throught and special considerations regarding Koru behemoths -> replace with kaiju of your choice) and icons. Still, I wholeheartedly believe that learning 13th Age for the express purpose of playing through this book is worth every second, every dime. Even when taking the price of the core-rules etc. into account…this still is worth it a hundredfold.
This book is a glorious read, plays even better…and…let me give you a bit of context: I’ve read many 1st and 2nd edition modules. I have a HUGE collection of 3.X material. I own a metric ton of PFRPG-material. I have several 4E-books. I have a bunch of 5E-books. I have an extensive collection of OSR, CoC, GUMSHOE-books and a bunch of Midgard and Shadowrun books. My Pdf-only folder of books that I do not own in print is over 90 GB and this folder does NOT include pdfs of books I own in print.
I have literally read more than a thousand modules. I have a lot of modules, both big and small, that I consider awesome for vastly diverging reasons. From superb-investigations, spine-tingling horror to massive APs or superb sandboxes with concise structures. Among all of these modules, there are pretty much only a handful I’d even consider mentioning in the same breath. This is basically the 1% of the 1% of the 1% in terms of quality and ranks as one of the best, perhaps the best mega-dungeon ever published. At the top of my head, the only book I’d consider truly on par with it in imaginative potential and scope would be Frog God Games’ Sword of Air – and that one is not a mega-dungeon, but rather a superb combined wilderness/dungeon/investigation-sandbox…and my number 1 spot of last year’s Top Ten.
Now I know, this was released in 2014…but I only recently got into 13th Age and thus, as a consequence, into this book. And it needs to be honored properly. This gets a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval, is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016…and should honestly be in any GM’s library. Even for scavenging purposes, this is worth it. Even if you want to convert it to your system of choice, this is worth every second spent converting it. This is apex-level adventure-craft…and I really hope it has not forever spoiled me rotten regarding my expectations for a mega-dungeon. If you want to get one mega-dungeon…get this one. It doesn’t get better than this.