Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: Stonehell Dungeon

For some time now, the old school community has been obsessed with the twin pillars of early gaming: sandboxes and megadungeons. So great has our obsession been that it's attracted the attention of gamers outside our little echo chamber. It's not uncommon to see discussions of both cornerstones of the Old Ways in parts of the online world philosophically and stylistically far removed from our own. That's a testament, I think, not just to our enthusiasm but also to the power of these concepts. Even 35 years after OD&D burst onto the scene, both sandboxes and megadungeons remain viable, enjoyable ways to experience fantasy roleplaying.

Last month, I wrote a post entitled "Schrödinger's Dungeon," in which I argued that a published megadungeon was an impossibility, or at least very difficult to do in a way that adequately captures this uniquely old school adventure locale. As if in response, Michael Curtis of The Society of Torch, Rope, and Pole, and one of the founders of Three-Headed Monster Games, has released Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls. Written for use with Labyrinth Lord, Stonehell is a 134-page product, available as a softcover book for $13.00 and a PDF for $6.50. A six-page preview, which presents one-quarter of one level is available here, as is a free seven-page supplement, The Brigand Caves.

Before proceeding with a more in-depth review, let me cut to the chase and say that Stonehell is very good. Michael sent me a copy of it two weeks ago and I read it with great pleasure. I had been a fan of his megadungeon back when he posted bits of it on his blog; I even incorporated portions of it into Dwimmermount. Seeing it all collected in one place, polished and expanded, made me very happy and Stonehell deserves to be well-received in the old school community. That said, it's not perfect and, much as I like it, it hasn't changed my mind about the inherent difficulty in publishing a megadungeon. Stonehell probably comes closest to meeting my challenge but it still falls short, not for lack of imagination -- Michael clearly has that in abundance -- but because the demands of presentation have in my opinion constrained its design.

Stonehell consists of five dungeon levels, which we are told is but a portion of the huge underground complex. A later product will include yet more levels. As it is, these five levels consist of more than 700 individual rooms, more than enough to keep players busy for a long time. Each level is conveniently divided into quarters, each quarter using the One-Page Dungeon format originated by David "Sham" Bowman. That convenience is a double-edged sword, because, while it does make these dungeons much easier to use in play, it also tends to make each level feel less organic. Within each quadrant, the maps are often quite cleverly done, with many different possible paths of exploration -- a key feature of old school dungeons. However, the bridges between the various quadrants are typically quite limited, often with just a single connection between them. Likewise, there are very few sub-areas that straddle more than one quadrant, which gives an unfortunately self-contained feel to each of section that undermines any sense of level cohesion.

At the same time, the One-Page Dungeon format has the advantage of keeping each room description short and sweet -- a sentence or three at most. I found myself reminded more of the spare presentation of Castle Blackmoor in The First Fantasy Campaign than the expansive one of Castle Zagyg and that's a plus in my opinion. Such a spartan presentation pretty demands that a referee has to add his own ideas to the mix, if only to provide flavor and context. Again, this is a good thing and goes a long way toward ensuring Stonehell doesn't feel too "canned," which is to say, a pre-programmed adventure lacking room for the creative sparks that differentiate a megadungeon from a mere one-off dungeon lair. Indeed, Michael Curtis helpfully points out in his introduction many areas where the referee can inject his own ideas into Stonehell, another way in which this product differs from nearly every previous attempt at putting a megadungeon into print.

It's difficult to do full justice to Stonehell, because of just how much is included within its covers. In addition to the levels themselves, there are dozens of new monsters, spells, and magic items. There are also tables for rumors and wandering monsters, dungeon background information, advice on customizing the whole thing, and adventure seeds. In combination, it's a pretty impressive piece of work, made all the more impressive by how compact it is. There's quite simply a lot of ideas here and I'd wager that, even if one doesn't use Stonehell whole, there's a profusion of material that's easily adaptable to other circumstances. As I noted earlier, I have already swiped stuff from Stonehell for my Dwimmermount megadungeon and I suspect I will do so again now that I have more material from which to choose.

In the end, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is probably the best megadungeon published to date in any form, certainly the best to come out of the old school renaissance (although Stefan Poag's The Mines of Khunmar certainly bears serious consideration, if only for its maps). It's chock full of good ideas and, if nothing else, should provide a good model and inspiration for those looking to create their own megadungeon. I certainly hope that's the case anyway, because, while Stonehell is remarkably open-ended and flexible, it is nevertheless a very particular kind of megadungeon rather than an example of what all megadungeon are or ought to be.

Michael Curtis makes no such claims, of course, but part of the reason why I believe the megadungeon resists easy publication is its idiosyncratic nature. Megadungeons, much like the term "old school" itself, defy easy definition and attempts to jam them into a single mold (or group of molds) do them a grave disservice. There's no one-size-fits-all formula for producing or presenting a megadungeon and Stonehell is but one example of how a referee might do it. It's a rather good one, admittedly, but it still has its weaknesses, chiefly the rather artificial structure of its maps, which are much too rational and compartmentalized for my taste. I prefer megadungeons to be a lot more wild and woolly, with lots of sub-levels, side levels, chutes, and elevators rather than a neat stack of levels descending infinitely into the depths.

If I could sum up this product's weaknesses in one word, it'd be "caged" -- as if there's a wild, raging animal of creativity shackled by too strict an adherence a schematized format. What I'd like to see in follow-ups to Stonehell is a breaking of those shackles, if not wholly casting aside the artificiality of the One-Page Dungeon, at least a loosening up of its structure so that not all levels are made of the same number of pieces and stack neatly one top of one another. Michael Curtis demonstrates repeatedly in this product that he has a superb imagination; I'd love to see what he's capable of when he's freed from any constraints. Whether he can do that will, I think, say a lot about whether a megadungeon truly does defy easy publication.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If:
You're looking for a ready-to-run megadungeon or ideas to swipe for your own megadungeon.
Don't Buy This If: You'd rather design your own megadungeon.

15 comments:

  1. Damn, great review JM. And you know I don't hand out praise lightly.

    I've looked over dozens of dungeons in magazines and modules that I never even ran. But they were always fun to read, and this one sounds like one of those fun reads. I may have to get it just for that, if not to actually use in game (although I could use a nice tropey dungeon in the future). Based on this review, consider me sold.

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  2. Me, too. Great review, James, of a megadungeon I've been eagerly looking forward to playing with, but I share your preference for more wild and woolly structures and hope his next release for Stonehell breaks through those constraints.

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  3. James, could you mention a megadungeon or two that takes the wilder and woollier approach, other than your own unreleased material, of course?

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  4. I know i'm going to be crucified as a pariah or burnt at the stake for this:

    How hard is it to convert LL to 3.5/Pathfinder? Easy? Difficult?

    Be gentle.

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  5. The conversion is probably easier from Pathfinder to LL, as you can do it on the fly. But I don't see any reason you can't do it. As far as I can see from the preview / supplement, there are very few stats. For most common creatures, just use your standard Pathfinder monster of the same name. For new monsters, keep the HD, and damages, just convert AC (ascendingAC=20-descendingAC). The biggest part of the conversion is for NPCs, which will need to rebuild them, keeping class, level and abilities for humans. Dwarves and halflings are fighters, Elves are Fighters-mages.

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  6. I'll correct my own second comment above. Based on "Welcome to Stonehell" in the free preview, it sounds like he's probably following the one-page format for all ten levels.

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  7. I'm with James on this. Since I first saw it I have liked Stonehell, but it feels limited by that template.

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  8. I am of two minds about the way each quadrant of each level is its own self contained map. I definitely hear and understand the complaint that it feels artificial and constrained. On the other hand, for someone like myself who is unlikely to use the dungeon whole cloth but will be instead lifting sections out to use individually, this modularity is a real bonus. For instance, there is a level with a bunch of cool greenhouses and crazy plants, and I am going to use it in my Mutant Future game - the way the maps are constructed means I don't actually have to make any changes to them at all, really, to remove them from the bigger dungeon.

    On a personal note, I must say how rewarding it has been for me to see my artwork in a publication, and I certainly willing to do more drawings if anyone else out there wants a budding young new-old-school dude to whip up something for your project. The monsters and maps I drew for James' Megadungeon project got me started, and the two drawings I did for Stonehell really got my creative juices flowing.

    (I did the ogreface arch drawing, which is the cover for the free preview level as well as appearing as an interior illustration in the full product, and the illustration of the black bear in the canyon)

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  9. I know having the dungeon spread out on different pages isn't cool, but if you bought the PDf version of StoneHel you can easily make a hardcopy of the dungeon by simply printing out the floor plans and assemble them together with scotch tape.

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  10. great, I was really looking forward to it after the three free level Michael gave for free on his blog!

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  11. James, could you mention a megadungeon or two that takes the wilder and woollier approach, other than your own unreleased material, of course?

    There aren't many examples of such a thing in print, unfortunately. Arneson's Blackmoor levels form FFC have this vibe, as does Rob Kuntz's stuff like The Living Room or Bottle City, but they're not full dungeons, just individual rooms/levels. The reason I crave such material is that it's rare in print and Michael definitely shows he has the chops for this style of dungeon. I just want to see more of it.

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  12. Since I first saw it I have liked Stonehell, but it feels limited by that template.

    To clarify: I don't hate the One-Page Dungeon format and recognize its utility. I simply think that, like all such things, it works best when used sparingly or at least flexibly. Stonehell's first three levels all use the format a mite too religiously; they have a uniform appearance to them that distracts me. Level 4 and 5 are a little more creative in their use of the format, but they still conform to a 4 x 4 grid that feels unnecessarily artificial.

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  13. Carl,

    I love that particular piece of artwork. For that matter, all the art in Stonehell is excellent and really nicely sets the mood of the piece. I wish there was more of it, of course, but what's included is very good.

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  14. Using this dungeon for other games or other versions of the game should be no difficulty - I ran it using a mutant hybrid of 0e and B/X, had a lot of fun. I did a couple of tests using Savage Worlds, and it changes the play a lot, but nothing is lost.

    One thing to bear in mind for 3.5/Pathfinder or 4e is that this dungeon is populated semi-organically, semi-randomly, without real reference to play balance. Surely if you're reading Grognardia you are familiar with this feature of old-school play, but just in case: don't expect the challenge level of any encounter to "match up" to the party's expected abilities, except in the broadest sense (e.g., orcs and goblins on level 1, hobgoblins a bit deeper). My players found that the "big tough" monsters of level 1 were a breeze, while the 1/2 HD rats nearly TPK'd at every encounter.

    So if you do 'convert' the dungeon, you may find it useful to warn your players about this, and set expectations.

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  15. You're right about Stefan Poag's maps in The Mines of Khunmar. They have a marvelously organic feel to them and many lively 3d elements.

    And although they lack the 3d quality per se, I love the look and feel of Melan's Khosura. The absence of the grid combined with something about the geometry and architectural organization of his maps feels so very natural, so plausible, so right. His dungeon really breathes.

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