Thursday, June 2, 2011

Many Faces of Stonehell (a junkyard post)


"What is the most resilient parasite? An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate..."
 -Inception

The Junkyard:  This is the place where I put campaign ideas, notions, and high concepts that just haven't gotten built.  Yet.
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This is a continuation of my Ode to Stonehell  - the review from the other day - putting some thoughts together on different ways I've considered using the book.  Stonehell is more than an adventure module - weighing in at 20 dungeons in scope, plus the upper works and a pair of supplements, it's a mini-campaign covering character levels 1-5.  Once Stonehell 2 is out, I'm thinking it will cover levels 6-9 or 6-10.  Truly epic.  On with the ideas!

From Funhouse to Madhouse
Stonehell was a prison created by a mad despot and his twisted vizier as a dark experiment; the prisoners themselves carved the dungeon after generations of laboring.  A powerful extraplanar creature was attracted to the pain and suffering within the prison, feeding on the negative emotions, and it continues to lurk in the deeper levels even today, attracting monsters to the dungeon and keeping it Chaotic.

Stonehell has some of the "funhouse" qualities of the early megadungeons, but I would play up the horror aspects of it.  Many of the human 'monsters' in the dungeons are descendants of the prisoners, in various states of insanity and degeneration - one level is full of the insane and exudes a creepy vibe.  Asylums feature in many of my favorite horror movies.

Gothic Horror stories are almost always personal in nature; in the horror version of Stonehell, the characters would be related to the descendants of the prisoners that escaped after the dungeon fell into disuse.  As they plumb the depths, are the sub-humans they're fighting distant relatives, and do the players ever learn the truth about their legacy?  Lovecraftian themes implicit here are things like tainted blood, degeneracy, and one's inescapable destiny - conceits from such heart-warming, inspirational stories like "The Lurking Fear", "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family", "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", and "Pickman's Model".  Horror and Stonehell, best friends forever.

The Less and More Approach
Sometime earlier this year I reviewed the excellent Lesserton and Mor supplement by Faster Monkey; it describes a fully realized home base town for adventurers, along with a nearby ruined city for placing adventures.  Hmmm, the one thing Stonehell is missing is a home base town… combine those tastes, it'd be like peanut butter and chocolate.  Lesserton and Mor and Stonehell.  Mmm, tasty.

I'd consider removing the Stonehell upper works and placing the entrance right in the ruined city, perhaps under the old imperial palace or citadel.  Having to deal with Mor's Orkin tribes every time you go in and out of the city would be loads of fun (for the DM).

Alternatively, use the simple wilderness map that came with Lesserton and Mor to place it out in the countryside, and give the players multiple options on dungeon destinations.  Either way, between these two products, you have everything you need to run a long lasting campaign.  If I didn't have so much going on, I'd probably be running this as a campaign myself (with the horrific version of Stonehell from above).  Time to start warming up the TPK voodoo doll again and ask for nothing but 20's.

The Seven Samurai… in Stonehell
I have a limited knowledge of Eastern history, but when I hear about a despot using countless laborers to build a massive underground prison dungeon to hold political dissenters (part of the Stonehell back story), I can't help but think this would play well in a land once dominated by a corrupt, Imperial empire in a fantasy version of the Far East.  You could imagine the mad Dragon Emperor of the previous century bending the vast resources of the empire to implement his cruel scheme, his soldiers dragging away his enemies to the endless dungeons.

I keep waiting for the OSR version of AD&D 1E Oriental Adventures done right… it's coming some day, I believe it!  In the meantime, there's Ruins & Ronins, an add-on to the Swords & Wizardry rules to provide some Asian feel.  Unlike AD&D 1E which took an expansive view of Asian myth (with a whole lot of martial arts), Ruins & Ronins is Japan-centric and fairly grounded.   I'd want more of the high flying wire-based wuxia martial art action in the AD&D 1E version in my own Asian themed campaign - iron-skinned monks catching arrows, kung fu eagle claw attacks, ninjas and crazy kiai shouts - brings me back to those Saturday afternoon Hong Kong theater movies.  (Ruins & Ronins, though, is an excellent value - the monsters alone are worth having as a resource).

Assuming I didn't do a Stonehell campaign with my regular group as a main campaign, I could see reskinning it to be an Asian themed megadungeon.  Costuming orcs, hobgoblins and similar humanoids in lacquer armor and giving them some nunchucks - I'm all over it.

Closing Thoughts
Stonehell really changed my thinking around dungeon layout, and how much detail you need to run a good game.  Hopefully yesterday's picture of Gygax showed that he ran his own game off sparse notes as well.  I don't know if I can take advantage of the same layout techniques as I put together the Black City, I'm a rambler, but I'll be thinking about it.  As I get older and crankier, I want game products that play well at the table more than read well.  I've started to loathe products where monsters and key information are camouflaged in a wall of text as part of the encounter description - blech.  (Just because TSR did it that way doesn't mean it was a good approach, people).

I'd also recommend using my ideas for keeping a megadungeon campaign fresh in a Stonehell campaign - I'd build campaign events for the Stonehell campaign and a handful of rival NPC groups to keep the players on their toes, and require them to react once in a while instead of always initiating adventures.