Stonehell Dungeon #2: Into the Heart of Hell (OSR)
The second part of the massive Stonehell mega-dungeon clocks in at 162 pages, not counting covers, editorial and index.
The Stonehell dungeon books were donated by one of my patreon supporters for my edification, with the note that I can review them, if I’d like to. It’s time to also get the second part done, and once more dive deeply into this massive complex.
I assume familiarity with my review of the first part of Stonehell in this review; rules-wise, this is designed for Labyrinth Lord, but conversion to other OSR rules is pretty simple. More so than even the first part of this massive mega-dungeon, this book requires a well-rounded group of PCs to succeed, and it should be noted that this, in particular regarding some of the quadrants featured, amps up the difficulty to really harsh levels in some, admittedly optional sections. I’ll call out those below. As before, there is no read-aloud text within this tome.
There are a couple of things to note before we get into the details of the respective levels: The minimalist presentation of Stonehell remains as you have come to recognize it: The presentation is still provides an overview map of the level, and then notes complex features/items and creatures before providing all the information for a quadrant on two pages, which also feature the map of the quadrant. The information presentation for the respective keyed locales is as terse, concise and minimalist as we’ve come to expect at this point.
There is an important change for the second half of Stonehell: Level 6, 7 and 8 actually consist of 6 quadrants (sub-levels), while level 9 and 10 consist of the usual 4 quadrants we’ve come to expect. This broadening of scope for the upper levels has a curious effect – it changes the ambiance of Stonehell, negating the very claustrophobic subtle characteristic of the upper levels of Stonehell. This is intentional, for the Majusek Sulcus, a ginormous chasm, allows PCs capable of flight (or adept at rappelling) the means to change levels pretty fluently, rendering the levels 6 to 8 significantly easier to traverse and switch between.
There is another significant change that you should be aware of: Where Stonehell #1 really embraced the notion of a claustrophobic, prison-like dungeon, this book starts off with the end of the prison-levels; instead, we are diving into the underdark, as hinted already by the presence of a certain malevolent race in the lowest level of book #1. A switch in theme accompanies this – Stonehell #1 was a pretty gritty low fantasy dungeon in the vein you’d expect in some regions of Greyhawk etc., with a bit of weird sprinkled in.
Stonehell #2 is very much based on the notion of being a kind of graveyard of empires, where different civilizations have come and gone. As a consequence, there is a strong science-fantasy vibe in many of these levels, and a general feeling that predicts the DCC-aesthetic. Judges and fans of DCC are more likely to enjoy this book, as are those GMs that prefer the deeper levels to become progressively weird. It should also be noted that the final levels skirt the boundaries of gonzo and horrific in the most admirable manner, and make, like most quadrants herein, for a great scavenging ground.
All right, this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS regarding the levels of Stonehell. I will provide brief and very cursory glances at the individual quadrants. If you plan on playing Stonehell, please stop reading NOW and jump to the conclusion.
All right, so, after the PCs have first encountered the enigmatic vrilya, and indeed, level 6F, the trade corridor, does pretty much what it says on the tin – this place can be a (relatively) safe haven; beyond that, this level features the “slimy sewers of Amunculoth”, where a teleporting jewel makes for a hard-to-grasp treasure, and where a foul fountain can produce slimes; indeed, from slime mage to a template to create slime beasts, this is an interesting quadrant. PCs still engaged in the quest to find lost dwarven halls will find what they’re looking for in level 6B, though the halls are not empty – draugdwergs, undead dwarves, and arcanitech constructs gone rogue haunt these once proud halls.
The Majusek Sulcus makes up almost two quadrants of this level, with lost rooms, a subterranean tavern and the like rewarding intrepid explorers – and there is this one door that seemingly can’t be opened sans the right, magical key… My favorite quadrant here takes the graveyard of empires angle and presents the lost sepultre of the Kion, where opaque glass sarcophagi, columns sporting cryptic warnings and spike-shaped, strange keys alongside unique monsters await – and clever players might be capable of finding a cloning device…one they may well need sooner, rather than later…
In level 7, we can find the undermines – the western section has been taken over by mighty trolls, transformed into a nightmare of blood, gore and broken bones – a chaos pool and its corrupting effects have, for example, fused three trolls into a horrid gestalt entity. Said strange feature is a component of the corruption at the heart of Stonehell, and it has provided an interesting weapon: You see, in the Eastern undermines, there is a mighty boar rendered smarter, deadlier and more vicious, and clever players may well be capable of leading this creature around to even the odds…provided they do not end up on Kroog’s vicious tusks…Level 7E and 7C are linked thematically – here, we have a gigantic temple dedicated to fortune, a casino full of deadly denizens of the realms below, gambling away – and yes, this is the temple the wheel of fortune in the upper levels hinted at. Connected to this place would be the welcher’s halls, where the cheaters are thrown to fates that, usually, are not pleasant.
Undead adventurers and worse haunt these halls, showing the ugly side beneath the veneer of civility in the casino. The remainder of this level consists of Tanna-T’liev and its Gorgaan – hinterland. This would be the sole larger settlement within Stonehell, and random encounters are very much possible. Depending on how the PCs interacted with the vrilya so far, this region may prove to become a safe haven, or a truly brutal death trap, as the more potent castes weave their intrigues here,
On level 8, we finally reach the bottom of the vast Majusek Sulcus, and here’s to hoping that the PCs found some reprieve on level 7 and restocked, for this is where the gloves officially come off. At the bottom of the vast chasm, the pallid garden, awondrous ecosystem of shrooms provides nourishment for albino cave bears and slime slugs, and a rather conflicted ettin. But there is more. Oh so much more. There would be the caverns inhabited by mutated morlocks, patrolled by FIDOs (Free-Roaming Independent Defense Obstacles) and Wheezy, the gelatinous cube (so-called due to the strange alien flute stuck in it), and it is here where the halls of the fabled triclops and their king remain.
More than that, there are two of the deadliest quadrants in all of Stonehell here: The first would be the “Astronaut’s Tomb”, a full-blown science-fantasy dungeon that is fully Mutant Future compatible. The radiation that may be found here, the complex consoles, the advanced and deadly tech…oh boy. The PCs should get some shimmer suits and count their lucky stars if they don’t fall prey to nanite swarms, robots, space zombies (with a whole array of advanced tech weapons) and worse. And yes, the latter do wear classic NASA spacesuits with fishbowls. This level is brutal and at times even slightly unfair, but it does offer impressive riches for navigating its halls – and it’s optional. Less optional, as it could very well be a means to end Stonehell, would be the sanctum of anther major player, hinted at in the upper levels: It is on this level that none other than the Plated Mage lairs alongside his arcanitech constructs – and it is here that the Machine may be found. The life-force-powered engine that keeps Stonehell going – destroying it is one of the key-things PCs will have to accomplish to truly clear the dungeon. As such, the plated mage and his flunkies, and the machine itself, makes for potentially very deadly obstacles indeed. As an aside: I really welcome how well thought-out and conceived Stonehell as a whole is – the first effects of the machine, subtle and nuanced, could be encountered way back on the surface! Now that is planning!
Should the PCs manage to prevail, they will leave the section of the dungeon that could be deemed to be the underdark-region, and enter the underworld – for there is one more threat to take care of: The nixthisis, a supremely potent outsider whose drones the PCs probably have encountered; somewhere between mighty demonic entity, chaos-spawn and quasi-deity, it lairs like a festering ulcer deep beneath, corrupting reality. If the machine is the dungeon’s heart, than the nixthisis would be its brain and soul – but to get to the nixthisis’ lair, there is one more level to survive – level 9. It is here that the temple to said entity awaits alongside monsters that have been affected by the reality-unraveling powers of the dread being. It is also here that Stonehell’s vampire lord has his domain – and really thorough groups may actually still have his ring from the upper levels – which could well mean the difference between death and a successful escape. The other two quadrants of this level are taken up by the Hellrill, a massive flowing river of magma and the associated caverns. Mystic Fire, interstellar stowaways in stasis, strange idols and exploding kobolds complement this level, which struck me as comparably mundane…but that is intentional. It makes level 10 hit harder.
You see, the book contains a massive chaos event table, and while Stonehell has used these time and again, in level 10, things become brutal. For one, these labyrinthine tunnels need to all be passed – there is no means to skip any of the quadrants here beyond powerful magic. And since reality is coming apart at the seams, this may not be the smartest move – the PCs will ned to traverse two quadrants dubbed “The Fraying Tapestry”, stuffed with dangerously mutated unravaled entities, and a dressing table provides different looks for walls, floor, etc. – coarse, filth-matted fur may give way to alien resin or uneven crystal – or organic material. The Nixthisis’ nakthotis-servanzs, listening to cozy epithets like “The Crawling Cancer” haunt these halls, and surreal encounters like the one with Lord Mouse-Bane, and intelligent cat, add to the sense of confusion and disarray. Did I mention Stalactentcales? The very black blood of the earth itself must be traversed, and deadly crystal skulls can be found near displaced fields of the fields of the Somme, where Damnedboys loom. Trapped in a paper cocoon, the PCs may actually save…Michael Curtis. Who may be the author of Stonehell, but unlike in many self-insert scenes, he is of dubious use, and utterly frail. While usually, self-insertion can come off as arrogant, here, it actually is humble and charming. Pitting their powers against “The Mangled Innocence”, and “Horrible Delights”, truly gruesome nakthotis things, the PCs will slowly attempt to make their way towards the very center of Stonehell’s corruption.
This would be the Gnawed Heart (which hints at a setting called “Shiverwhen” – that sounds intriguing indeed!) – and provided the PCs make it to the end, they will have to slay the nixthisis – both in the material and in the ethereal plane! Oh, and guess what? The combat arena? It’s pretty deadly and tactical. The nixthisis’ stats, tactics and background cover a total of 3 pages, painting a truly gruesome and deadly picture in vivid imagery. The book also contains advice on concluding the dungeon, rules for the special substance vaedium, and exposure to it, and a list of characters that have fallen to these halls – which the PCs can btw. find in-game. The book concludes with a refreshingly humble conclusion that seems to be fully cognizant of the limitations of the book, and which remains rather down-to-earth, in spite of the accomplishment that finishing this book represents.
Editing and formatting are exceedingly impressive for a book that is a labor of love of one man. Tim snider, the editor, has done a great job polishing Michael Curtis’ vision – on both a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a no-frills two-column b/w-standard, and there are a few more b/w-interior artworks herein, though most certainly not many – this book is all about content. The cartography in b/w provided shows that the author has learned from book #1 and is more varied. Somewhat to my chagrin, there are no key-less player-friendly versions provided. I do not own the pdf-version, so I can’t comment on that. However, the softcover is pretty massive, has name and all on the spine…
…and is ridiculously cheap. Seriously, I am pretty sure that Stonehell is either at-cost, or pretty darn close to it. This mega-dungeon oozes passion, flair and feels, top to bottom, like a labor of love. More importantly, unlike most mega-dungeons, it doesn’t feel like its details decrease. Many mega-dungeons benefit from plenty of playtest-groups/convention groups making it to the upper levels, but don’t get the same attention to detail on lower levels. There is less testing done, there are less things added – and hence the upper levels often feel more organic. This is not the case here. If anything, this book is a testament to the authors’ conscious RESTRAINT, as he slowly ramps up the weird and horrific, as he pulls you in and creates this vision of a yawning maw beneath the claustrophobic upper levels. From nomenclature to the grave of empires-angle, the lower levels of Stonehell feel like they are progressively unleashing more and more of the creative forces that propel you further. Instead of blowing all ammunition at once, the dungeon carefully and deliberately proceeds to one-up itself in small slices and tidbits, until, in the end, we have something truly remarkable and epic.
In an age where the elevator pitch has become common in RPGs as well, this is refreshing to see – Stonehell earns and makes your players earn the fantastic; the ratio of wonders is kept consistent. What began as common and down-to-earth progressively, slowly, deliberately, turns into something else. This restraint is probably the true genius of this dungeon, for it makes progression motivating, and at the same keeps things grounded – it doesn’t create a disjunction, it creates a progression that makes the outré components feel grounded, more real.
If Stonehell #1 was a constrained beast, claustrophobic and enchained, then this book opens its jaws, tantalizingly, like an angler-fish – and as the PCs venture down into the Majusek Sulcus, they’ll realize that the maw is closing, and that the metaphorical teeth of the lower levels are sharp and gleaming indeed – that this beast is truly unchained, not enchained. This book literally contains years worth of gaming material, and even if you’re not interested in running Stonehell, is chock-full with material that is more than worth scavenging. This is create, well-wrought, and worth every single cent of its more than fair price point. Is it perfect? No, but it is one of the best mega-dungeons I have ever had the pleasure or reading, scavenging stuff from, and GMing. 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this massive book for just $9.00 here as a pdf!
The PoD only clocks in at $18.00 and can be found here!
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