My physical copy of Stonehell just arrived in the mail!
I’ve been enjoying the .pdf copy so far, but now I’ve got the physical to add to my collection. Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell now takes its rightful place among my megadungeons.
This past Sunday our intrepid adventurers continued their mission to destroy Strahd von Zarovich, or failing that to light as much of Castle Ravenloft on fire as possible.
As it turns out, they were successful on both counts.
We had a fifth player join us at the table, running a dwarven fighter/thief, and I ruled that he was a prisoner they rescued when they blew up the witches coven at the end of the last session. With their new friend added to the marching order, the Sunsword restored, and Strahd’s history revealed from the Tome of Strahd, the party descended from the towers back into the heart of the castle.
The players were again in fine form, with good rolls, excellent role playing, and creative solutions that on more than one occasion caused me to stop and think. They continued their pyromania plan and soon the central keep was ablaze, and they were very successful at finding hidden things, including secret doors that lead them to Strahd himself. Along the way there were several notable encounters.
The magical portrait was a fun annoyance. This was closely followed by a potentially disastrous encounter with two wraiths, but the Sunsword, the magic-user’s Magic Missile spell, and some marvelous rolls ended the fight quickly.
The most creative moment was when the Fair Gertruda fell to a venomous spider’s bite. The magic user was under the effects of a Potion of Gaseous Form and asked if she could force herself into the Fair Gertruda and perform CPR by moving in and out of her lungs. This was such a strange and unique idea that I went with the Rule of Cool. I checked to see how much longer the potion would be in effect (reforming inside her would be… messy) and came up with how many rounds she’d have to do this before I’d give The Fair Gertruda another saving throw against poison. It all worked out and the magic user saved the Fair Gertruda’s life.
The funniest moment was when the party discovered the secret door in the back of the roaring fireplace. Rooms outside of the study were burning and the carpet within the study had also caught fire, meanwhile a group of gargoyles were smashing their way through the door to get to the adventurers. The Fair Gertruda stumbled upon the mechanism to open the secret door and the party decided that a hasty retreat was in order. The human thief and the dwarven fighter/thief both nimbly leapt over the fire without being burned, right into the fake treasure room. The magic-user was next to try…And she failed, falling flat onto the fire and taking a good amount of damage, her robes catching fire. The heroic Landsknecht took this opportunity to hurl The Fair Gertruda over the area shielded by the magic-user’s body and to safety. The lawful evil cleric, in plate mail, then used the magic-user’s body as a bridge to cross the fire. This did more damage to her, grinding her into the coals. Finally the heroic Landsknecht lept across the gap… and failed his roll, landing full onto the magic-user’s back. In chainmail. This did even more damage to the magic-user and almost killed her. It also caused us to take a break due to laughing so hard.
I ruled that the gargoyles had stopped breaking through the barricades and were now laughing and mocking the players. The adventurers finally managed to drag everyone to safety beyond the flames, shut the secret door, and pour a lot of healing magic (and the Landsknecht’s spare clothing) onto the somewhat upset magic-user. Just in time for the thief to fail his Remove Traps roll and release a cloud of sleeping gas.
Ravenloft, where sometimes you’re in a Hammer Horror film and sometimes it’s a Tex Avery cartoon.
The most epic moment was their confrontation with Strahd, whom they discovered in his hidden treasure vault when the Sunsword began glowing while they were in the belfry outside. The plan was for the Landsknecht, Sunsword in hand, to lead the charge and take Strahd head on. The cleric and the human thief would back him up, while the magic user and the dwarven fighter/thief used Potions of Invisibility to get in position behind the vampire.
Plans made, potions quaffed, the door was flung open and the Landsknecht bellowed his challenge. Strahd turned to face him and used his Charm powers to take over the Landsknecht’s mind, commanding him to defend the vampire against his fellow adventurers. The cleric held his action while the thief used his magic throwing dagger to attack Strahd, failing his attacks but drawing the Landsknecht’s attention. This worked out well, as the thief’s Displacer Cloak allowed him to keep their mind-controlled ally’s attention while keeping him safe. Strahd lunged at the cleric, but rolled a one on his attack and stumbled. The cleric struck Strahd with his magic hammer Thundercrack, doing almost maximum damage, and unleashed its power to make everyone within 20′ Save or be stunned for 1d4 rounds. Several players were stunned, but more importantly so was Strahd. Only for one round, but that gave them an opportunity. The dwarf had made his saving throw and was now behind the stunned vampire. He made his attack to backstab Strahd, and rolled a natural 20.
The room filled with cheers.
He then rolled maximum damage! x3 for the backstab, x2 for the 20, plus the damage already done by the cleric and Strahd von Zarovich’s head went bouncing across the piles of gold.
Victory! An amazing win. The players were elated.
They then proceeded to stake the corpse, douse the head and body with holy water, smash the head, and light everything on fire.
One thing that struck me was how happy the players were even though the final fight didn’t take long. It proves that every boss fight doesn’t need to devolve into a long slugfest. The players knew how dangerous Strahd was, they knew what he’d done to their dead comrade and the evidence was all around them. Solid planning on their part and some really amazing rolls gave the final fight the same sense of being epic that a drawn out battle would have.
I haven’t run Ravenloft in years and it was great to revisit this classic module and it was even more fun since most of my players were unfamiliar with the adventure. It was a great way to celebrate Halloween. The only challenge left to me is deciding what to do next year.
Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell is on sale now at Michael Curtis’ Lulu.com site and contains the final five levels for his wonderful megadungeon. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. The first volume, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, captured my imagination when I first saw it. The layout is a very user-friendly style that borrows from the OSR’s One Page Dungeon concept, striking a great balance of content without becoming unwieldy. This is my kind of dungeon, that mixes the fantastic with the logical, with the story of Stonehell unfolding through exploration, always just beneath the surface but not controlling the game. I cannot wait to crack open the new volume and see what waits below.
On Curtis’ Lulu page you can find both volumes of Stonehell in print and .pdf versions, as well as a free sample of the first level and a free expansion. There’s also an inexpensive .pdf with additional adventures in and around the dungeon. You can find it all here.
In honor of Halloween I gathered a few friends together to venture into the classic Ravenloft adventure.
No box set, no overly complicated demi-plane, just the original stand-alone module I6 Ravenloft by Tracy and Laura Hickman in all it’s vampiric glory. It’s a wonderful module that I haven’t run in many years, but re-reading it brought back fond memories of the blood-soaked halls and the night terrors faced by past adventurers.
With four players, most of whom have never played 1st edition AD&D, I decided to pre-generate a selection of high level characters to choose from. This also proved to be a fun exercise for me, and once I covered the core character types I branched out into a few mutli-class and sub-class options. (More on that in a later post.) I left the character details for the players to flesh out and that also proved to be great fun, as they were quick to let their imagination loose. Selected for the adventure was a chaotic good human magic-user, a neutral good half-elven cleric/magic-user, a chaotic neutral human thief, and a lawful evil human cleric.
Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the lawful evil cleric is under contract.
The hook for the party was that the king of a nearby land was alarmed that the realm of Barovia seemed to be expanding. Packs of wolves and zombies had attacked villages and most troubling of all, the circle of mist surrounding Barovia was expanding. The king had sent a company of his royal guard to deal with the threat, but none had returned. In desperation he turned to a group of adventurers promising them wealth, name fame, and lands to form their own dominions in.
The adventure went well and I did my best to play up the hammer horror film feel of the game. Not far past the gates of the road to Barovia they found the corpses of the king’s men hanging from trees on the sides of the road. The group spent a good deal of time in the village, trying to learn all the information they could and seeking allies, while also trying to protect the burgomeister’s daughter from Strahd von Zarovich’s dark embrace. They did manage to gather some valuable intelligence, aided by creative use of the Speak with Dead spell, but at a high price.
On their second night in the village, the half-elven cleric/magic-user decided she would stay in the chapel with the priest in order to witness the parade of ghosts that happens before dawn. The rest of the party decided to stay in the burgomeister’s manor again, to continue protecting the daughter. The night before voices from outside had attempted to get them to open the way, including temptations for the evil cleric, and the pitiful pleadings of a little girl who was apparently killed by wolves when the character on watch wouldn’t let her in.
With the party split Strahd decided to attack the lone adventurer. His agents caused the bell of the chapel to ring, then come crashing down into the main hall. This was followed by a wave of rats, advancing on the frightened priest and the half-elf. She unleashed burning hands on the rodent tide, but there were too many. Grabbing the priest she smashed through the window and fled the burning church, a cloud of bats dropping to assail them as they dashed through the night. She heard the priest scream behind her, but the bats clouded her vision too much to see his fate. No door opened to her frantic banging and no trick or spell she pulled could stem the wave of vermin. Towards the end she realized they were herding her to the manor. She did bang on the door, but instead of asking to be let in she screamed, “Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain!”
Inside the manor the cleric cast Hold Person to stop the thief from opening the door, while outside a great bat flew down and changed into Strahd himself. The party was forced to listen through the door as the vampire beat the half-elf to death and carried off her body, and we had our first character death before they reached the castle.
It was glorious.
The rest of the night went well, with several more moments that were epic, horrific, and absurd. They met another adventurer, a flamboyant knight errant of the Landsknecht on his way to test his luck in Castle Ravenloft, who went on to find romance in its haunted halls. They faced the undead corpses of their dead friend and the little girl. They killed the Heart of Sorrow and restored the Sunsword to its full power. They lit many things on fire.
The night ended when they blew up most of one of the central towers, taking out a coven of witches in the process and sending their cauldron hurtling through the night sky, presumably to land somewhere in the village far below.
As night in the real world beckoned we decided to end the session there. The party has gained some powerful advantages but Strahd still prowls the castle halls. To win their freedom the adventures will have to destroy him and cleanse the evil in Barovia.
I had a blast running Ravenloft again and the players were in a fine groove. The player making her generic human fighter a dashing Landsknecht and then romancing the swooning Gertruda was my favorite flight of fancy. This was followed closely by the lawful evil cleric of Romney, God of the 1%, who made a point of pontificating at every chance. Even the character death was delightfully harrowing and gruesome, just perfect for an October adventure.
We have plans to finish the game this weekend, so stay tuned as we see if any of the adventurers will get out alive.
One of the fun things about the OSR is that it has inspired me to pull out the old books and try to figure out why rules were designed the way they were.
Case in point, why did D&D use gold pieces as a standard of weight? Why not use a real world standard, like pounds or kilograms?
The AD&D Player’s Handbook specifies that encumbrance is measured in Gold Pieces, with ten gold pieces equal to one GP of weight. One GP of weight is roughly equal to one pound, but it isn’t a direct comparison. The Dungeon Master’s Guide clarifies that encumbrance is not a true measure of weight, but an abstraction of weight and volume:
“Many people looking at the table will say, ‘But a scroll doesn’t weigh two pounds!’ The encumbrance figure should not be taken as the weight of the object – it is the combined weight and relative bulkiness of the item.”
-DMG, Pg. 225
This is a reasonable, if fiddly, explanation for why D&D wouldn’t simply use standard measures of weight. However the reason for the Gold Piece standard goes deeper than just being an abstraction of weight and volume, its purpose is also to re-enforce the focus that early D&D was about finding treasure. The Player’s Handbook section on Encumbrance states:
“Lastly, as the main purpose of adventuring is to bring back treasure, provision for carrying out a considerable amount of material must also be made.”
-PHB, Pg. 101
Mentzer’s Basic edition also ties the importance of treasure to the mechanic of encumbrance:
“One coin of treasure, whatever the type (gp, ep, and so forth) weighs about 1/10 pound. Since coins are the commonest of treasures, the coin (not the pound) becomes the simplest unit of weight. From now on, the weight of all treasures, equipment, and so forth will be measured in coins, abbreviated cn.”
-Basic D&D Player’s Manual, Pg. 61
Dungeons and Dragons is full of seemingly arbitrary rules, but it’s fun to dig back into half-remembered concepts and discover the method behind the madness; that they were meant to re-enforce the vision that Gygax and Arneson had for the game.
It has arrived!
And it is beautiful.
Barrowmaze Complete is finally mine!
Barrowmaze has long been on my want list. When they announced that a complete edition was on the way I decided to wait for it, but wasn’t able to jump on the crowdfunding campaign. So I have been patiently waiting for it to hit the retail market. I picked up the PDF/Print combo, which is currently a really good deal, and have been reading through it on my iPad. Now I have the physical copy in hand and it is glorious.
I need to do a proper review once I’ve finished the book, but right now I’ll say that I like what I’ve read. This megadungeon takes the classical dungeon crawl approach and injects innovative ideas that really brings the dungeon to life.
Or perhaps “unlife” is the better term.
It’s also a beautiful book, filled with illustrations that fire the imagination and bring home the OSR sensibilities.
Barrowmaze Complete now joins the ranks of my megadungeon arsenal.
Truly a fearsome collection, printed using the tears of countless adventurers.