Stonehell Dungeon #1: Down Night-Haunted Halls (OSR)
The first part of the massive two-part mega-dungeon Stonehell clocks in at 128 pages of content, though it should be noted that editorial, index, how to use etc. are not included in that number.
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. That time has finally come.
Stonehell is a mega-dungeon, obviously, and it is deliberately designed to be capable of carrying a whole campaign, from the lowest levels to the highest echelons. It is intended for use with Labyrinth Lord, and can be converted to most other OSR-games with minimal fuss. A well-balanced party of 4 – 10 players is very much recommended; the fewer players you have, the tougher this’ll get. It should also be noted that this is an old-school adventure. If you can’t cope with PCs dying, you’re wrong here, but then again, if that applied to you, you probably wouldn’t be playing Labyrinth Lord, right?
So, what sets Stonehell apart? Well, apart from the two-map surface region (a canyon) with a gate-house, Stonehell proposes a type of presentation that is reminiscent of One-Page-Dungeons. That is to say, the book wholly embraces and champions the “terse, concise writing” ideal of some parts of the OSR. Each of the levels in this book consists of 4 quadrants, each of which constitutes its own sub-level – and the book has a rather clever in-game rationale for this structure bred of necessity/limitations of the project. Each level features its individual monster list for reference, and each of the quadrants manages to cram all information immediately required on two pages.
Basically, the format is as follows: We get a brief summary/history of the quadrant, which also lists unique hazards and properties, magic items and more complex mechanics relevant to the quadrant. New monsters and the like are also provided in this section. Then, we move to the two pages that referees will have in front of them: Special features are listed in their own key, and designated a letter for reference on the map; rooms are labeled with numbers, and sport brief, terse sentences and sentence-fragments denoting their occupants. Next to the table, we have the wandering monster information, and below that, some rudimentary dressing. Speaking of which, while the back of the book does contain a massive d% table of general dressing for rooms, as well as a 2d20 table for containers, this is not a book to whip out and start playing – I’d personally suggest to, for example, use Raging Swan Press’ phenomenal “GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing” for your dungeon furnishing purposes. To give you an example of a room key and the detail/terse information presentation: “Drifts of leaf litter; broken-open chest (empty).A Crab Spider clings to the ceiling of this cave, dropping on potential prey with a +1 bonus to surprise. Among the dead leaves is 94 cp.”
A plus-side of the Quadrant-based presentation is pretty evident from the get-go: Stonehell is surprisingly easy to scavenge from; the limited stretch of land covered by each quadrant means that the respective subsections can be slotted without much pain into other complexes, should you choose to go that route instead of tackling the whole mega-dungeon. One word of warning, though – in a way, this will take away one of the most clever aspects regarding the atmosphere of Stonehell – but I’ll get to that below, in the SPOILER-section.
If the formula hasn’t made that abundantly clear, let me spell it out: There is no read-aloud text in this book, and the aesthetic and assumption is definitely that an experienced referee takes this dungeon and makes it their own. This is not a beginner’s mega-dungeon in either what it demands of the players, nor in what it demands of the referee/GM. This does not attempt to tell an intricate narrative of NPCs, it focuses more on emergent play. Stonehell also is NOT about to hold the hands of players or PCs, and while it’s generally a fair dungeon, it is difficult. A well-rounded group is definitely recommended, and if you play this as intended, you will soon realize how brutal the Saturday Night grind could theoretically be. That being said, I considered the entirety of Stonhell to be a tad bit fairer than e.g. Rappan Athuk, as far as the challenges are concerned. You won’t inadvertently wake a demi-lich plus death-guard as a reward for finding that super-secret locale. Stonehell is less of a hell-hole, and more of a claustrophobic, slightly more bleak environment; it feels more like a dark fantasy bandit kingdom Greyhawk than a like darker Forgotten Reams aesthetic, if that makes any sense. At least, the levels in this book do.
As a word of warning: While Stonehell starts off as surprisingly restrained, the mega-dungeon’s lower levels do embrace a weird fantasy aesthetic with some dashes of gonzo and horror thrown in; particularly the lower levels are, in aesthetics, closer to DCC than to classic Greyhawk, but this change is earned via the progression, the depth, the remoteness from the surface. Book #2 also features some magical society things that don’t feel as out of place as one would expect. Still, if you expect solely a dark fantasy mega-dungeon, this is something to bear in mind. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In order to discuss this book in more detail, I will need to go into SPOILERS. I will break down the entirety of Stonehell #1 in the following, trying to give you a good overview of what to expect. Potential players should definitely jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs/referees around? Great!
The Sterling Potentate was a tyrant like so many; ruthless and paranoid in his persecution of those with other beliefs, of dissidents and those that happened to be a threat, perceived or imagined, to his supremacy. What set the Potentate apart from other tyrants was his vizier – a man of many talents, well-versed in necromancy and demonology, but, more importantly, a genuinely brilliant philosopher, whose inquiries into the nature of human(oid)s led him to conclude that the bucket-of-crabs-system would work rather well for unwanted subjects as well. (Putting crabs in a bucket, you don’t have to fear them escaping – their brethren drag them back down again.)
It is thus as a twisted kind of social experiment that the hell-hole of Stonehell started: A prison camp, where the guards were there only to prevent escape, where the prisoners were told to dig, to carve out a structure, to work. The resonance of themes with concentration camps is probably very much intended, but stops there in the basic set-up. The crabs-in-a-bucket system worked tremendously well; the violent criminals and sects quarreled and regulated themselves, all while Stonehell tunneled itself down into the earth, a blight, an infected wound in the earth. The Sterling Potentate was eventually overthrown, and Stonehell “liberated” – for as far as that was possible, but that was not the end of the dungeon.
The people, traumatized and mad, couldn’t all be liberated; the complex and its madness extended too far below the surface; too manifold were its dangers. And thus, it sits still, a predator awaiting to pounce, a base for bandits and brigands, a place that swallows those seeking fame and fortune. And in its depths, things beyond the ken of the surface stir – but the second half of Stonehell depicts those. This book covers the upper 6 levels, with 4 quadrants each, which was mostly the complex that once served as the prison. The halls are claustrophobic, cramped, generating a sense of a caged beast, mirroring the experience of prisoners in the very structure of the mega-dungeon. Cleared and repopulated, its beginnings are humble. A century has passed since the liberation, but the ominous pronouncement of doom on the ruined gatehouse still remains – said gatehouse is btw. also the first “mini-dungeon” of sorts; the first region, spanning two quadrants, would be the canyon that houses the entrances to Stonehell.
“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.”
Pitted and weatherworn, those rhymes still remain, and present a glimpse at the shape of things to come. The canyon is per se a taste of the things to come, focusing primarily on predators, brigands and goblins – and there would be a bear, rumored to be a good luck charm. Slaying the unofficial mascot may have dire repercussions, and there may well be a bit of truth to the rumors. As an aside: Stonehell is pretty immaculate in its structural composition – there are pools where the temperature doesn’t seem to check out; the source for these temperature deviations? It’s hidden deep below, among the last levels of the complex. It is evident that the author has managed to weave a surprisingly intricate web here.
All right, considering the density and sheer amount of content this book contains, I’d be hard-pressed to cover everything in my usual level of detail; as such, I will instead give you very brief overviews of what you can find within the respective levels and their 4 quadrants; most of these do have unique stats for new creatures, hazards, and items – just to make that perfectly clear. I just can’t go through all of them without bloating the review beyond any usefulness. All right, let’s start!
Level 1 contains a dwarf interested in recording stonework of dwarven origin, providing one of the exploratory side-quests; a magical wheel of fortune does hint at a massive temple to chance in the second book, and there is a new magic-user/elf spell of 2nd level that allows you to generate a triggered action of an unseen person; this spell may not look like much at first glance, but is actually a very strong tool for the PCs. Beyond the often-cleared quadrant dubbed “Hell’s Antechamber”, the primary means of ingress into Stonehell, there also would be the contested corridors, where orcs and goblins seek to claim dominance, and where mysterious entities that seem to have a connection to emotions fan the flames of conflict. One quadrant, Kobold Korners, is safe, as far as Stonehell is concerned. Even more cramped, this region represents a dungeon-village if you will, and this region is basically a tradehub. The most deadly of the quadrants of the first level, and probably the coolest regarding challenges faced, would be the Quiet Halls, where a thoroughly wicked leper blessed by a godling lairs, and where a ghostling funeral skiff and surreal flames haunt the corridors. The latter made me flash back to Corpse Party in a rather amazing manner. Sure, this is a relatively standard crypt-level, but it manages to be fantastic and creepy.
On level 2, we have a quadrant that once was made by more enlightened prisoners, an asylum for those broken by Stonehell. Suffice to say, this place is haunted by degenerate inmates, poltergeists and worse. Haunted straightjackets and madness-8inducing murals generate a true sense of dilapidation and insanity. A true winner. The quadrant known as “Reptile House” is a themed complex, where the children of Yg once thrived; since then, lizardfolk and similar critters came, making this a serpent-themed subsection. This one is primarily interesting in its connections to lower levels. “Without Doors” has a less pronounced leitmotif, but still remains one of my favorite levels among the upper Stonehell regions – with strange haunts and an obelisk blasting tempestuous winds through the corridors, enigmatic small men and the like, this level is weird in a good way. The hobgoblin redoubt, the final quadrant of level 2, is not particularly interesting, with a discotheque trap being the one thing that grabbed my attention in this pretty standard humanoid-focused sub-section.
This also extends to the first quadrant of level 4, dubbed “Monster dorm”; it’s a pretty standard dungeon level; gnolls, wererats and harpies exist in an uneasy truce here. A highlight is that the PCs can avoid a deadly, properly telegraphed trap with the proper item/brains. Thankfully, all other 3 quadrants of this level are a) dangerous as hell, and b), more interesting: There is a hothouse/plat-themed quadrant that managed to really creep me out – and half of the level, two quadrants, would be devoted to the legendary Plated Mage’s “Hexperiment”; it is here that some arcanitech and subtle science-fantasy sprinkles show up. Identity-transfer, doors that repulse targets and strange spell lenses make these halls dangerous, but thoroughly magical in how they feel; it should also be noted that there are rooms aligned in the shape of the Sephiroth, and that clever players may use the complex to enhance/create magic items! All in all, level 3 is where Stonehell starts to flex the creative muscles.
The fourth level of the mega-dungeon contains the Temple of Pain, which is not only haunted by the undead (and, if the name is not enough indicator, can be rather deadly); it is there that the PCs will probably also encounter, for the first time, a phenomenon that hints at the corruption beneath Stonehell – a wound in reality itself can be found here! It’s easy to dismiss as just something weird, but it begins establishing, pretty clearly, that something fundamental is wrong here, that some of the weird creatures faced above may not be random, may be symptoms of an affliction most dire and grand. Half of the level, two quadrants, are devoted to the living caves – natural caves inhabited by berserkers, ogres and elemental creatures as well as the natural critters you’d expect. I consider these two sections to be basically filler. The residential tombs, led by the Gentleman Ghouls, is a haven for fine arts, excellent dining and the better things in life – but when you get an invitation, be aware that you may end up as the main course, if you behaved, well, in a course manner.
On the fifth level (and last one for the first book) of Stonehell, we have a massive hall that has been occupied by mountain trolls as one quadrant; more interesting would be the mine that is haunted by a powerful spirit out of time – and the mine btw. does have temporal distortions galore, adding a unique challenge to the quadrant. Another quadrant depicts the lair of one of the most dangerous beings in the upper levels of Stonehell – it is here that “Song of Night Screams” lairs, a mighty, black dragon who actually has lair defenses and items that make sense for the mighty beast. Oh, and yes, pretty solid chances of getting away if outclassed. This is easily the toughest and coolest combat challenge. If you plan on running only Stonehell’s first part, this dragon makes for a great and classic boss. As an aside: Know how many modules treat dragons as pretty dumb, tactics and item-wise? This fellow is smart. Two thumbs up! The final quadrant of this level btw. introduces us to one of the major players of the second Stonehell book: The vrilya. A caste-based subterranean race, and if you’ve read Bulwer-Lytton’s book, you know that magical technology and the like, a more pronounced science-fantasy angle, are awaiting. And yes, to state that clearly – they are evil. But also intelligent, and if the PCs manage to get past them to the lower levels without bloodshed, that’ll be helpful…but not required.
Editing and formatting…are EXTREMELY impressive on a rules-language and formal level. Michael Curtis and editor Alex Schröder did an amazing job here; while I noticed a few minor snafus (like three instances of verbiage not being perfect, and one where I’m pretty sure that level-references in the transition to book #2 are incorrect), as a whole? OH BOY. This is more refined than many books released by big publishers. Layout adheres to an easy to read two-column (or one-column for the dungeon-level spread) b/w-standard, and the book makes sparse use of artwork, focusing primarily on the public domain. The cartography of the dungeon in b/w is rather detailed and neat, though not unlabeled, player-friendly maps for VTT etc. are included. I can’t comment on the pdf version, since I do not own it. The softcover PoD is nice, and frankly, for the sheer and vast amount of content, a total steal. As an aside: I’d have loved this in hardcover or with a more sturdy binding. Being perfect-bound, the print version will start showing serious use when playing this; my copy has started to come apart, but that’s not the book’s problem, and rather that of the printing process.
Michael Curtis’ Stonehell has probably one of the best bang-for-buck-ratios I have ever encountered. The mega-dungeon’s first half is extremely flavorful, diverse, and contains AT LEAST half a year worth of gaming. The pdf also clocks in at $6.50, the print version at $13.00. No, I am NOT kidding you. This is pretty much insane and designates this book as a pure labor of love. It shows.
The book is cognizant of its limitations regarding aesthetics, regarding the format of presentation – but instead of struggling with it, it OWNS them and integrates the claustrophobic need for compact maps, making it a leitmotif of exploring these night-haunted halls. Are all quadrants winners? No. But there is so much awesome stuff herein, the book warrants its low asking price for scavenging purposes as well. You can easily pick the dungeon apart, if you choose to, and from all the monsters to the unique magical effects and devices, there is much to love within this tome. If the presentation-style and need to flesh things out works for you, if you’re looking for an excellent old-school mega-dungeon, then check this out. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of this platform. And yes, the review of #2 is coming very soon.
You can get the pdf of this mega-dungeon for a paltry $6.50 here on lulu!
You can get the softcover version of the book for $13.00 here on lulu! (Yes, for thirteen bucks.)