Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Buried Secrets of Stonehell, a Review

Stonehell Dungeon Supplement Two: Buried Secrets, 20-page PDF, $2.99 from Lulu 

A good review should answer one simple question: is this product worth my time and money? I'll give you the punchline before the long wind-up for Michael Curtis' recently-released second supplement to Stonehell mega-dungeon: yes. Hell yes.

For sure, it's a rare occasion that I actually buy, let alone use, a published adventure these days. It's not that I consider myself such a master of the difficult art of crafting an adventure that I don't need a little help now and again. Nor is that I have some high-falutin' ideological trip in favor of homebrewing. (I steal elements like a fiend from a manic range of sources and have had great fun with refs that run mostly modules.)

It's just that no matter how much I may enjoy reading a particular author's work I have a hell of a time making the squares fit in the round holes of my campaign. With all the work of filing off the serial marks, reworking contexts, familiarizing myself with reams of detail, and blending it all into the sandbox enough that the players would buy it's existence, I invariably feel that I was better off just writing up the damn thing from scratch in the first place.

I suspect I am not alone in this.

Curtis' work is consistently the rare exception. From his Dungeon Alphabet to last year's release of the first five levels of his megadungeon, Stonehell, he seems to be one of the few gaming writers that truly get his cranky, quirky DIY ref audience. We don't want to drive the car off the lot--and perhaps trick out details like spinners—we want kits of varying levels of completeness that will help us build the thing from the bottom up in our garages.

It sounds counter-intuitive that a published mega-dungeon product could fit this bill, but it does. Using a two-page riff off the blog-vaunted haiku one-page dungeon format he created a product that hit a sweet spot for me: enough detail and flavor to find much to borrow while reducing the running details to a manageable stripped-down level.

For sure you could play it straight as one-big stand-alone campaign dungeon straight out of the box, or you could—like me—look at each of the level's one-page map quadrants as custom sub-levels I can blend directly into a level or two of my own creations.

The highly distinctive flavor of each of the quadrants only enhance that modular, plug-in and play value for me. I felt like I hadn't bought a book of a large dungeon that I would read and discard, but a useful collection of 20 mini-dungeons (and several above ground locations).

The new supplement expands on this collection nicely with three new adventuring areas, two designed to be outlier areas topside of the dungeon and another as a sub-level. All three can easily be separated and plugged into most old school D&D campaign worlds with little to no work.

[Mild spoilers ahead. Be warned.]

The format is mostly similar to the parent product. Layout is clean and crisp with lots of text-heavy bang for your buck (in fact, no interior art at all). The three areas are presented with the same one-page maps, but the text room descriptions stray from Curtis' terse two-page limit. None of the descriptions are longer than three short paragraphs (which is right on the line of my own tolerance level) and do allow for presenting a few unusual situations and puzzles.

Content wise, I enjoyed all three areas. The vermin-ridden, lost-cult caverns of Nest of Ortogg struck me as the strongest entry of the bunch, followed by the debris-choked (with a science-fantasy twist) environs of Modnar's Cellar. The Sanctuary of Chtonia is a little on the light side in terms of it's content (which likely makes sense given it's role as a possible safe-space sub-level), but is bolstered by a well-presented, interestingly-motivated duo of NPCs that dominate the area.

Adding more value to the product is the continuation from Stonehell of adding new monsters, spells, deities, and magic items custom tailored to each area. All three areas nicely have these curve balls.

All in all a nice addition to my gaming table. For frugal GM's, Stonehell's first supplement can be downloaded for free here.


  1. For a product review a very good read, with some excellent feedback for designers too.

  2. I've heard some good things about Stonehell. I'll have to pick up a copy. Thanks for the review.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, ckutalik. I think yours is the first review of Buried Secrets and I was worried that the silence was indicative of me missing the mark on this one. I'm glad to see that, in your opinion anyway, that wasn't the case.

  4. Very nice review. Much appreciated.

    @Mr. Curtis: Speaking for myself - as soon as I can open up some more 'reading time', I was planning on buying it regardless of the presence of reviews! For 2011 - start thinking about a Stonehell boxed set!

  5. Cool review. I got a small taste of the 1st stonehell as I played in an LL game in Tacoma at a gaming store where a guy was running it awhile back. Then he joined a hockey club and peetered out on DMing. Supp 2 sounds good. Will try and convince wifey to buy for Xmas for me

  6. @Michael
    Given your remarks, I feel like we need to develop better ways as a community/hobby devoted to classic play (and beyond) to recognize and promote good, useful products. Blogs are an obviously useful medium, but seem a little too dependent on band-wagon fever when it comes to product reviews.

    Glad Scaly chimed in, I was going to point out that I have three friends in three different gaming groups playing (or recently played) in Stonehell.