Thursday, October 5, 2017

Stonehell Wrap-Up

I've decided to put away my Stonehell game for a while.  I recently moved from Kansas City to Atlanta and had to put the game on hold for a few weeks, after which I didn't get much response on starting it back up.  I think that after eight sessions there may be a feeling of futility in confronting the dungeon.



The Players

In 8 sessions I had 21 players join.  Of these, 17 were people I'd never played with before, recruited through the Roll20 LFG listing.  The others were members of my usual DCC game.  I had several other players sign up but never join a session.  12 players joined multiple games.  I only had to remove one player, and did so before he ever joined a game.  He asked a lot of questions about character creation that threw up red flags of trying to bring some weird fetish into my game, so I told him this was the wrong game for him.  When you're playing with random people on the internet, you've got to be prepared to encounter some odd ones, but I consider one in about thirty to be pretty easy to deal with.

I wish I had put up any sort of formal questionnaire about gaming experience, because it'd be cool to have exact numbers, but I think that of those 21 players only 5 or 6 had prior experience with Swords & Wizardry, maybe half had any kind of OSR gaming experience, and at least 2 were joining an RPG for the first time.  If you read my play reports, you can see that it was an often brutal experience.  In 8 sessions we had 22 deaths (8 of those hirelings).  More on that later.

The Dungeon

I'm pretty new to running large dungeons like Stonehell.  I got two sessions into Barakus before a TPK ended that game, and I ran the first three levels of Tomb of Abysthor, although I was converting it to DCC on the fly and changed the contents of the map pretty heavily as we got deeper in.  I've read a lot of Rappan Athuk but have yet to attempt running it.

Stonehell I feel is a perfect introductory megadungeon.  It is presented in easily manageable chunks that can be read over and read to go in a couple hours.  If you're playing online as I was, the maps are very easy to convert into a VTT like Roll20.  Everything you need to run a quadrant of a level is within a few pages in the book.  The room keys are sparse but cover the vital information quickly (none of that 3 paragraphs of room description before you realize there are monsters in the room).  Wandering monster tables are provided on every map page as well as a few extra details as needed.  The whole book is an example of fantastic design for a particular purpose.  I wouldn't want every megadungeon to follow this format is it is definitely limiting, but as a learning tool it is perfect.

Right from the first area the dungeon provides interesting interaction.  There are multiple factions with opposing goals at work.  There are neutral monsters that won't attack first and can provide the PCs information and help if they're smart.  There are clever traps and weird devices for the PCs to experiment with.  There may even be a dragon in the very first section of the dungeon.  My players never deigned to check, but the possibility definitely weighed on every expedition in.  The different quadrants of the map are meaningfully different.  This is important in giving players important decisions about what they hope to accomplish and where they feel they are better prepared to venture.

My only criticisms of the dungeon from this limited play is that it does not give a lot of incentive to explore and it lacks multiple points of entry (more on that later).  It is a dungeon in the literal sense of the word, having been used to imprison criminals and political rivals.  There is treasure to be found but the concept of it doesn't really speak to that.  I ended up going through and marking locations with significant treasure and creating my own rumors about those.  For instance, there is an orc band in the dungeon with a significant cache of gold.  I created an NPC at the home base who was a soldier escorting a military payload that was ambushed and the payload stolen by orcs.  He had tracked them to the dungeon but decided to desert the army rather than go into Stonehell.  Stonehell comes with a rumor table that has some useful and interesting bits on it, but it's light on motivation rumors.  In fact, it doesn't have a single rumor about any treasure on it.  Why are PCs going into this place?

The Table

I tried to run one or two sessions per week on varying nights.  I posted a sign-up thread the day prior to any session and capped the sign-up at 8 players.  We actually ended up with 9 players on one session because I thought someone was not going to make it who did.  Our lowest player count was 3 players on our last session, with 6 hirelings to fill out the party.

For the most part, I never felt that we had too many players.  I had to be pretty strict on the use of a Caller on nights with larger groups, where the scramble of a bunch of players saying they're doing different things didn't take effect until the leader told me each character's actions.

The difficulty of the open table however came from the lack of development in party tactics and cohesion.  While we'd get a couple returning players who could step up and lead the planning and direct some combat tactics, for the most part it felt like the party was unlearning everything each week due to the number of new players coming in.  This became obviously frustrating to some of the players at times.

Another issue with the open table that began to show was the lack of progress into Stonehell itself.  We had a pretty strict rule that the party had to return to town at the end of each session because we didn't know who would be joining for the next session.  This made for some entertaining rushes to escape the dungeon, but also meant that we were resetting a bit each time.  For practical purposes, Stonehell only has one real entrance, so there was no variety to the start of each session.  I kept a campaign calendar and kept the repopulating checks pretty minimal, but just re-traversing the same areas over and over again seemed daunting.  I did lower the wandering encounter chance in the crypts after a particularly combat heavy session cleared out so many monsters in that area, but that was our last expedition into the crypts so we didn't get to see how helpful that would have been in helping the party progress there.

Conclusion

I had a great time running Stonehell.  I tried to really focus on a lot of the minutiae that I think gets handwaved in newer editions of D&D.  The importance of encumbrance and movement rate and different light sources.  Most importantly, proper time management.  Even though we were playing on Roll20 I made all of my wandering monster checks with a real die which my players could hear rolling.  It added an element of tension and made them always aware of how long actions took.  Running S&W very much by the book, it's amazing to see how self-reinforcing all of these elements are.

As for those Night-Haunted Halls, I'm sure that I'll return to them before long.  I may abandon the open table format and seek out a steady group of adventurers, or I might just keep it in my repertoire to drop into another game on the fly.  You can never have too many dungeons.

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