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Sunday 10 November 2019

2009: Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


The very first adventure that roleplaying hobby gave us was the dungeon and the purest form of the dungeon is the megadungeon. The megadungeon is like a dungeon, a complex of rooms and corridors beneath the earth populated by traps, puzzles, treasure, and monsters, but on a larger scale. Often a much larger scale—a scale large enough that the dungeon itself becomes the focus of the campaign. In such a megadungeon, the player characters will either visit the dungeon again and again, returning to the surface regularly to rest, resupply, and research, or there may be areas within the dungeon where they can rest or even resupply, so that they rarely return to the surface. Although other fantasy and fantasy-like roleplaying games do do dungeons or dungeons that are not ‘dungeons’—for example, Numenera and Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne—the megadungeon remains very much the province of Dungeons & Dragons and its various editions and iterations. The Old School Renaissance—a period so far contemporaneous with Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—has been the greater source of the megadungeon in the last fifteen years. Notable examples include Barrowmaze and Dwimmermount, both published for use with Labyrinth Lord, both large tomes in themselves, but another megadungeon, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, offers much more stripped back play.

Written and published by the author of The Dungeon Alphabet: An A-Z Reference for Classic Dungeon Design for use with Labyrinth Lord in 2009, Stonehell Dungeon offers a constrained five level dungeon with some seven hundred locations, complete with a detailed history, numerous factions, and a surprisingly reasonable rationale for its existence. And all that in just one hundred and thirty four pages. Plus that is only half of the dungeon as another five Levels and another six hundred locations are detailed in the second part, Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell. This sounds like an awful lot and an awful lot in relatively few pages. The question is, how does it manage to do what sounds like an all but impossible task?

Stonehell Dungeon does this by using the one-page dungeon format—best seen in the One-Page Contest—designed to fit a complete, compact adventure on a single page which a Labyrinth Lord can read and prepare in a few minutes before running it for her players in a session (or two). Thus the Labyrinth Lord has to pack in the monsters, the treasure, the puzzles, the traps, and the story into as tight a space as possible and it still offer a high degree of playability. Now the design of Stonehell Dungeon does not strictly adhere to the one-page dungeon format, but the fact that it does is not without its consequences, both good and bad,

Since Stonehell Dungeon is a megadungeon, it cannot simply fit one level into the one-page dungeon format, so instead it divides each level into four quadrants, each of which receives not the one-page dungeon treatment, but a double-page spread treatment—twice. The first of these highlights the salient features and nature of the quadrant with an overview, a description of its population, special dungeon notes, important NPCs, and any new monsters, spells, or magic items. This is the main body of the text for the quadrant, for the second double-page spread gives a map of the quadrant, tables for elements such as wandering monsters and random crypt contents, lists its notable features, and then provides a room key for all of the quadrant’s notable locations. This last feature is highly economical with its words, according each or location no more than three sentences each—and rarely that. What is this means that Stonehell Dungeon manages to pack in descriptions—thumbnail descriptions, but descriptions nonetheless—of thirty to forty rooms in just over page! 

Now what the room descriptions do not include are any monster stats. These are are included in a double-page spread given for the level and all four of its quadrants as a whole. This double-page spread shows the four quadrant maps together as a whole so that the Labyrinth Lord can see their connection and this is accompanied by an overview of the level as a whole and a full monster list for the level, including their stats. What this means is that the Referee is not going to be running Stonehell Dungeon from just the double-page spread of the quadrant map and room list, but will still need to refer to the overviews of both the quadrant and the level. That said, the format means that this cross-referencing is kept to a minimum and with a printout of the monster list to hand the Labyrinth Lord could just work from just the double-page spread of the quadrant map and the room list.

What this means is that Stonehell Dungeon can be run with the minimum of fuss, quadrant by quadrant, level by level. Even preparation is relatively light, since the quadrants, for the most part, are fairly self-contained, with little overlap from quadrant to another, though there is some overlap in the deeper levels. This almost compartmentalisation means that it is relatively easy for the Labyrinth Lord excise a quadrant from Stonehell Dungeon and run it elsewhere or on its own. On the downside, it means that the story and the narrative in the dungeon can also become compartmentalised because the connections between individual quadrants are also limited. Now to be fair, there are story and plot elements in Stonehell Dungeon mostly through the hooks which pull the adventurers into the dungeons, but this being a dungeon for the Old School Renaissance, there is less of an emphasis upon plot and more on what the players and their characters bring to the adventure and dungeon.

As to the plot and rationale of Stonehell Dungeon, it is a former prison, a penal solution for a tyrant some three centuries ago who had too many enemies and not enough gaol space. Begun as an experiment, the tyrant fed in more and more prisoners who had to dig and expand its confines in order to make space. The prison was also self-governing, the guards only there to prevent escapes and as ever greater numbers have been forced in, a malign society of rival gangs was formed. When the tyrant and his regime was overthrown, the prison was abandoned, few escaped, and the limited reform or rescue teams sent in, never returned. Those who remained went mad and many descended into cannibalism as something seemed to feed on and exacerbate the madness and later spread Chaos… In the centuries since Stonehell Dungeon was abandoned, it has been a base for bandits and brigands, a destination for adventurers, and more. Today, its location is well-known, lying at the far end of a gorge when the ruins of the prison’s fortifications and above ground facilities now stand. Together, these serve as Level 0 for the dungeon.

Beyond the abandoned and explored and re-explored opening ‘Hell’s Antechamber’ inside Stonehell Dungeon’s entrance, once the adventurers are in, there is the neutral ground of a Kobold Village of dungeon caretakers to be found, a Hobgoblin army preparing for conquest, a Dwarf on an architectural survey expedition to be joined, a former serpentine temple which adds an element of Cosmic Horror, an asylum, Wererat mercenaries and spies, a ghost funeral skiff whose crew are still looking looking to take away the dead—and the not-so-dead, whilst the laboratory of the Plated Mage and a strange alien race push Stonehell Dungeon into weird Science Fantasy territory. Not all of this is all that interesting, in general, barring the Kobold Village, any section involving races like Orcs and Hobgoblins feels like they have to be there in order to counterpoint the odder and more interesting aspects of Stonehell Dungeon where the author has been freer with his imagination. Even then, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is not as weird as it could be, for there are another five levels to come in Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell, and even by the fifth level of the dungeon, very little of weirdness has been touched upon. Of course, if the Labyrinth Lord decides to end the megadungeon playthrough there, it does end with a confrontation with a very well handled monster.

Physically, Stonehell Dungeon is a surprisingly slim book given what it provides. It is lightly illustrated, primarily with publicly available artwork. The writing and editing are generally decent, though the near adherence to the one-page dungeon format does mean that the content feels cramped in places. Another issue is that in the overview pages, elements are typically discussed before their placement in the room lists for each quadrant, so Labyrinth Lord will need to get used to that format rather than the sequential format of other adventures and campaigns.

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is not necessarily the perfect example of a megadungeon to come out of the Old School Renaissance, but it is undeniably a good one. It offers the means to use the stripped back mechanics beloved of the Old School Renaissance which leave room for the Labyrinth Lord’s and her players’ own rulings and input respectively. As much as it is representative of the Old School Renaissance, it is equally of another aspect of the hobby—that nothing new goes out of print. Stonehell Dungeon was published in 2009 and Print on Demand means that a decade on it is still available.

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls manages to achieve control of its content via the one-page dungeon format which prevents it from sprawling unnecessarily, which means that it is easier for the Labyrinth Lord to run the megadungeon quadrant by quadrant. Yet at the same time that format places constraints upon its storytelling possibilities and perhaps plots that all too often fight to escape beyond their quadrants. Overall, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is an incredible piece of design, economical of format and word count in a way which helps the Labyrinth Lord run the dungeon off the page.

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