Can you kill the dungeon before it kills you? In 13th Age, living dungeons slither up through the underworld and invade the surface lands. The Stone Thief is the most ancient and cunning of its kind; a vast monster that preys on the cities and structures you love, swallows them, and remakes them into more deathtrap-filled levels inside itself. Now, it’s hunting YOU.
It’s GenCon next week (which will have passed by the time you read this), so I borrowed this from a friend to kill time until I burn through my wallet in the dealer hall. Stone Thief does something that I don’t believe any module has tried to do: build a campaign around a megadungeon. Sure, most megadungeons recommend you do that but Stone Thief provides the tools to help you do that. This is more than the city in ASE1, or the wilderness/bandits in Rappan. This is all of the surrounding goals and motivations. Mini-quests. Things that could happen. Major hook and plot line suggestions. Less detail, like the wilderness sections of Rappan, but more Larger Context. It’s like Hanrahan read all the advice possible about building a megadungeon and implemented 90% of it correctly … within the confines of the 13th Age system.
For those not in the know, 13th Age is what modern D&D has tried to be … and failed at. 3.5, Pathfinder, 4, and now 5 (or, at least RPGA 5e.) It’s the ultimate evolution of the set-piece combat and linear plot and balanced parties and so forth. And it’s not bad. If you want that kind of thing then 13th Age does it much better than any other modern version of D&D. Wha 13th Age does better than those other version is provide some grounding. Rather than pretend Anything Is Possible it instead provides an opportunity for the players to ground their characters with motivations and relationships to some “Icons”, things like the rules of known world, the lich king, the elf queen, or the orc lord. This grounding helps everything get in to things much faster, IMO. Needless to say, you’re gonna have to re-stat this thing for a non-13th Age game. That shouldn’t be hard for anyone who’s not a stickler.
This dungeon, like all in 13th Age, is alive and travels underground until it pops up and eats a town. This is the pretext used to both the plot and to justify the various heavily themed areas of the levels found in the dungeon. And I use the word “plot” loosely here. The back third of the adventure describes how to integrate the dungeon in to your game. It’s got a lot of suggestions, a lot of variations, and some major themes. It definitely has an idea of how things should go, but I would argue that the “plot” here is lighter, much lighter, than about 90% of the adventures I review. It comes across os tools and ideas.
I’m going to say some things that I generally refer to negatively, as I describe the actual dungeon: linear and set-pieces. Not only linear, but the DM is encouraged to throw in some little minor encounters along the way (which are outlined at the beginning of each level, in about ¾ of a page. Nice touch to spice things up.) and also to rearrange the rooms and levels as the players explore the dungeon and re-enter on other quests/adventures. Remember, the dungeon is alive and a thinking being so it can do this … or at least that’s the pretext. The encounters tend to be set-pieces. Good set pieces, generally. I’ll remind you that I’m a hypocrite and also liked many of the newer DCC adventures that are, essentially, linear and full of set pieces. The encounters here are interesting and not throw-aways. They remind me a lot of the encounters from Tower of Gygax or the DCC funnels at cons … with a far lower mortality rate. 🙂 It’s going to be hard for someone to argue that the room encounters here vary significantly from the types found in Maze of the Blue Medusa. Certainly less talking than Medusa, and certainly fewer “choices” than Medusa, but the varied rooms do have a “free form” nature to them, even if they really are just mostly combat. Combat in pipe rooms with goblins dragging bodies in to them. A giant octopus with swords in its tentacles. The thing is packed with stuff. Let’s say something like seventy or eighty different encounters in the dungeon, almost all of which can be ripped off.
13th Age does a good job with mysteries. Both the core book and this adventure have a kind of open ended writing style that alludes to things but doesn’t come right out and explain in, in all cases. This makes the DM think. Or, rather, it encourages them to think. It gets their mind going. You start to think of explanations and possibilities as your mind races to fill in the details. Which is exactly what should be happening when you prep something for running it. It does some other similar things. There’s a very clear entrance to the Mythic Underworld present, you KNOW you are going SOME. PLACE. ELSE. It also has some great advice for changing the dungeon when the party returns to the same areas, and other advice for dealing with certain situations, and a great index/glossary that helps summarize things in the dungeon. You know how much I like reference data!
This isn’t a perfect product by any definition. The faction play elements or the dungeon are talked up however they are not really present in any meaningful way. Sure, there’s different groups in the dungeon, and you can talk to a couple of them, but the interconnected nature is not really present. So it’s faction play at its most abstract in that one or two groups, out of a dozen or more, are not immediately hostile. It also uses the old “it kills something/someone you love” as a hook. The DM is encouraged to make the players want to take revenge on the dungeon. From an old school standpoint this is an overused crapfest of a trope that is almost ALWAYS used incorrectly … and thus puts me on edge every time I see it. In 13th Age … well, it has an element of story gaming to it as you create your character, so revenge and character arcs, set up in advance, are not exactly out of the question.
These are nits. The worst problem is, I think, the lack of focus in the room descriptions with the Hard To Run consequences that results in. The descriptions, proper, are not bad. The actual text used to describe things is evocative and interesting. It makes you want to push the big red button. It’s also surrounded by a more conversations style of prose that makes it harder than it should be to pick out the important bits. Asides, with no meaning. The first line of room 3 is “The [dungeon] greets intruders with this seemingly unremarkable chamber. Six huge black pillars support the ceiling, where the faded and peeling remains of a once beautiful mural can be seen.” That second sentence is good, and could almost be decent read-aloud. The first sentence though, is useless conversational garbage. It’s completely not needed and clogs up attempts to pull out the data that IS important. This happens time and time again in the adventure. You end up needing a highlighter to draw attention to what you need to run the room. The elements are present. The initial description helps focus attention to the ceiling and the pillars, and both get a little break out to describe them more if the players have their characters investigate … exactly the way Describe & Inquire adventuring is supposed to go. Except … it’s a mishmash. The rest of the first paragraph, after the part quoted above, described the mural. Then the second paragraph describes the giant gargoyle statue in the room that holds a silver key. And then, later on, in the fourth paragraph, comes a description of the pillars. The basic room concept is a good one, but you end up fighting the text to pull out what you need rather than the text moving logically from one part to the next. The gargoyle is decent. The pillar stuff is excellent (they are actually hollow specimen cases with black swirling vapor inside … Wraiths!)
If you’re looking for a classic exploration dungeon then this isn’t for you. If you‘re ok with set pieces then it is. If you want to see something deal with a megadungeon in the larger campaign context then this is for you. It’s loads more interesting than Worlds Largest Dungeon, or Temple of Elemental Evil. I’m going to find a copy for myself, it’s interesting enough to warrant that. For 13th Age fans this should be a no brainer. For OSR fans you’ll have to deal with your own feelings about linear set pieces.