Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: Stonehell Dungeon, Down Night-Haunted Halls...

Good Afternoon, All:

I have finally completed reading through Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, by Michael Curtis. Here's the basic blurb from the website, to give you an idea of what this book is all about:

Stonehell Dungeon is a classic-style megadungeon, filled with enough monsters, traps, weirdness, and treasure to keep you gaming for a long, long time. Explore over 700 rooms, encounter more than 40 new monsters, and discover 18 mysterious magical items -- and that's just in the first book!

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls details the first six levels of a megadungeon intended for use with the Labyrinth Lord™ role-playing game, but is easily adaptable to most early versions of the original fantasy role-playing game and its retro-clones. Featuring art by J.A. D'Andrea, Lee Barber, Marcelo Paschoalin, and Ralph Pasucci, Stonehell Dungeon gives the game master all the necessary information to run his players through the dungeon, while offering enormous opportunities to customize and expand on the site.

As you can see, this product declares itself as the first half of a fully-detailed megadungeon, capturing six levels (plus the surface) inside 134 pages. This review contains my impressions of the product, in the hopes that you find this information of use to you when considering whether to pick this book up or not.

I picked up the print version of this book. Stonehell Dungeon is a softcover RPG book, perfect bound, with 134 pages printed in black and white. The front and back cover are glossy black, with the occasional series of red splotches that may be intended to conjure images of blood splatter. The front cover also includes a line art drawing of a single adventurer raising a portcullis within the dungeon, a nice piece provided by J. A. D'Andrea. The product has a title page, a credits page, two pages for an index and a page for the legal licenses, leaving 129 pages for pure content. The typeface is easy to read, in a two column format save for the two pages that detail the map for each sublevel. The maps are black and white, as are the other illustrations found through the text. I found all of the art to be well drawn and appropriate to the setting and flavor of the book. All in all, I found the book to be well organized and well-written. I don't necessarily like the red splotches on the cover, but otherwise, I think it's very well produced.

In terms of content, Stonehell Dungeon is very dense. Fortunately, Michael Curtis's writing style makes it a very interesting read, and the only places that really bogged me down were the room details are each sublevel. As begitting a product that calls itself a megadungeon, Stonehell strives to create a setting that could serve one or even more campaigns rather than create a site for a single, albeit large, adventure. Although all of the game mechanics presented in this tome are for Labyrinth Lord, it is presented in such a manner that this setting could be used with very minimal adjustments with any of the retro-clones or original editions of the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game. With a little investment in creature and treasure conversion, I could see this product easily being used for a 3E/Pathfinder or even a 4E campaign.

After a brief introduction, Mr. Curtis dives right in with details on how to use the dungeon, followed by a simple two page history, Stonehell's secret, general dungeon features, common residents found in the dungeon, thoughts on changing the dungeon over time, how to customize the setting to make it your own, identifying those elements that he would leave up to the individual Referee to resolve, a list of adventure hooks and even some rumors. In eight pages, Mr. Curtis packs in a lot of great information, but I found it interesting to read and complete enough to start me mentally salivating over the prospects that might be found within.

After that, the true content of the megadungeon begins. This product details six major layers (the surface and the first five levels of the dungeon). The surface layer is comprised of three sections, and each of the five dungeon levels are made up of four sections or sublevels apiece. All told, that's 23 maps, complete with details on their contents and their own individually flavored populations, all in conflict with one another on some level.

Each major layer is detailed in the same manner, much like a chapter of the book. First, Mr. Curtis presents the collective map for the entire layer on one page, followed by a single page that contains a bestiary of sorts for the level. This bestiary provides the basic stats for all of the creatures that appear in that level for ease of reference, as well as a quick overview of the core concepts for each sublevel within that layer. Right after that, each sublevel or section is then detailed.

Each subsection is displayed in the same consistent manner. First, Mr. Curtis provides us with two to three pages that give us an overview of the sublevel. This includes more detail on the conflicts of that particular area, the population that the player-characters are likely to encounter, special dungeon features, important NPCs, new monsters, new magic items and new spells. After the brief overview, Mr. Curtis then provide a two-page version of the One Page Dungeon template. Page one contains the map and some basic notes for use with the adventure, like elements that don't occur in a given room or random encounter tables. Page two of the template contains a list of all of the rooms on the map, along with a brief sentence or two describing its contents. For example:

Dormitory: Smashed bunks; moldy furniture; smell of mildew. Empty.

Many of the rooms have inhabitants and/or treasure. Those would be written instead of the word "empty" in the example above. I simply chose an example that doesn't give away anything so as not to spoil some of the surprises. While this method of presentation does not spell out the "read out loud" text that other adventures would, Mr. Curtis does an excellent job of capturing the level of detail needed to create and describe the room's contents. In addition, I found his work to be highly imaginative and inspiring. I could easily picture myself running this entire setting, if only I had the time to do so in addition to my current game.

After all of the maps have been detailed, Michael Curtis completes his masterpiece with two appendices. The first provides three random tables to cover dungeon dressing and the contents of containers such as bags, pouches, satchels and small chests or wardrobes. The second appendix lists the special monsters that populate Stonehell. Among them are the Vrilya, perhaps based on the public domain work The Coming Race by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Only two of this mysterious race are detailed, but Mr. Curtis promises more will appear in Stonehell 2.

My Thoughts
All in all, this book is simply amazing to me. I found that it sparked my imagination with almost every page. The conflicts are varied and appear to be a lot of fun. In addition to the major conflicts that flavor each sublevel, Mr. Curtis has also added fun little elements and scenes that really captures the flavor of Old School gaming to me. I found myself consistently wondering how I could fit this in as a second weekly game with my particular schedule, or if I should wait until after the baby is born and make this my next campaign. I couldn't be happier with my purchase of this book, and I know that I'm going to pick up the second one as soon as it becomes available later on in 2010.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, I'd have to give Stonehell Dungeon a 9.5. It's probably worthy of a 10, but I don't want my second review to identify a product as being the penultimate. However, this is a damn fine product, and I think any Referee or Gamemaster that enjoys running large dungeons would be remiss if they didn't pick Stonehell Dungeon up, in either PDF or Print-On-Demand. It's just too good to let it slip by.

That's My Two Coppers, Anyway,


Aaron E. Steele said...

Came to your website by way of Michael Curtis' "society of Torch, Pole and Rope".

Very nice review.

This is one product where the asking price is too low. Just don't tell Michael.

Flynn said...

Thank you, Paladin, for your kind words. It's good to know that my reviews are helpful. As an aside, I really enjoy your blog as well. You set a high standard against which I must measure myself.

With Warm Regards,