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Twenty sessions in: Stonehell recap, reflections, and anecdotage

June 5, 2012

A week ago I ran the twentieth session of Stonehell on the Borderlands. We began playing in July last year. Since then, for the sake of variety, I have also run one session of Stormbringer, two of Call of Cthulhu, and two of another short D&D adventure that ended in a TPK. That makes twenty-five sessions in total, for an average of 2.5 per month. Each session lasts three hours or so.

When we began play, I intended to run The Keep on the Borderlands more or less as written. At the last minute, inspired by reading Stonehell Dungeon, I decided to, er, keep the Keep, but replace Gygax’s Caves of Chaos with Michael Curtis’s megadungeon. It was an easy and painless operation. Not only that, but Stonehell and the Keep interact in fun ways. Some of these I’m not yet at liberty to divulge, because at least two of my players read this blog, but here’s just one example (SPOILERS AHOY!):

According to Gary Gygax, a “jovial priest” and his two silent acolytes are staying at the Keep. In my game, the priest’s name is Rustingrud Van Der Volk and he looks like Frans Hals’s so-called “Laughing Cavalier” as played by Robbie Coltrane. Gygax describes the priest, his personality, his subordinates, their equipment, and their willingness to accompany adventurers. Then he appends an important note: “All are chaotic and evil, being in the KEEP to spy and defeat those seeking to gain experience by challenging the monsters in the Caves of Chaos.”

On the first level of Stonehell Dungeon, meanwhile, Michael Curtis has placed “a band of evil acolytes who serve a distant Chaotic monastery”. They seek a mysterious man by the name of Malfreces Nul. Their motives are shrouded in secrecy. Anyway, it doesn’t take a genius to link these two sets of Chaotic clerics. I decided that while his associates were scouring the Quiet Halls in Stonehell looking for Nul, RVDV had opted for the less onerous task of staking out the Keep, enjoying “a cozy fire and plenty of ale” (Gygax again) while hoping to pick up clues from adventurers returning from forays into the dungeon. I also decided the clerics were loosely allied with a band of brigands troubling the region. The brigands would receive information on goods and persons travelling to and from the Keep, and in return they would supply the evil acolytes with shelter, sustenance, and a small share of any loot garnered from highway robbery. According to Stonehell Dungeon Supplement One, these brigands trade their ill-gotten gains with some smugglers in a nearby swamp. Now, look at the wilderness map in The Keep on the Borderlands. Sure enough, there’s a swamp. But there’s also a “raider camp” in the forest nearby: “A party of a dozen chaotic fighters has camped here – close enough to be able to spy on the KEEP, far enough away so as to be unlikely to be discovered by patrols.” Gygax doesn’t explain exactly why these unsavoury types are camping out in the woods. For me, though, that didn’t matter. They were a perfect fit; I had my smugglers.

I’m finding many such correspondences between my two source texts. In “joining the dots” I feel that, despite the inescapable fact that I’m using material by other writers, Stonehell on the Borderlands is nevertheless my campaign in a way that perhaps would not have been the case had I run The Keep on the Borderlands alone. In retrospect, and with no disrespect to the Caves of Chaos, I’m immensely pleased that I made the choice I did.

The party has mapped (not entirely accurately) about 85% of the first level, 12% of the second level, and maybe 3% of the third. They were very, very lucky not to lose some of their maps in the last session. Foreion Thacqspule, the mapper, walked into a trapped alcove, failed a saving throw, and was incinerated by a gout of flame. I rolled a saving throw for the maps he was carrying, and the result was a natural 20. Evidently his last act was to throw the pieces of parchment over his shoulder into the waiting arms of his companions. His wand of magic detection was, unfortunately, burnt to ashes.

To date, there have been 22 PC fatalities. That’s not counting Randlebar the fighter, who was transmogrified into a mouse but is nevertheless still very much alive. (I can’t even be bothered to count the retainers who’ve died. They are numerous. Several more have retired.) The mortality rate is high, certainly. Carelessness, foolishness, and sheer bad luck have all played a part. On the other hand, there have been times when the party planned and executed successful operations without taking casualties. Several times they have trounced large gangs of orcs. Their pursuit of a fugitive acolyte through the wilderness and into the dungeon beneath the tower of Modnar Buun was exemplary, textbook stuff. (Well, almost. Curiosity nearly killed Meikle-Clangour. Mysterious levers should be approached with caution.) Here is a list of the dead, and what killed them.

Session 1
JEREMY – Thief 1 – brigands
FRUCK – Thief 1 – brigands
TISTOR – Elf 1 – brigands

Session 2
GROVSNER – Fighter 1 – brigands

Session 3
No PC fatalities

Session 4
ALPINE – Fighter 1 – berserkers
UNTH – Fighter 1 – berserkers

Session 5
THROON – Elf 1 – zombies

Session 6
WART – Fighter 1 – skeletons

Sessions 7-10
No PC fatalities

Session 11
THROTNIK – Cleric 1 – zombies
MEIKLE-CLANGOUR – Dwarf 1 – balefire

Session 12
GUUNDEBAAL – Magic-user 1 – crab spider

Session 13
TYLEK – Elf 1 – brigands

Session 14
No PC fatalities

Session 15
“KING” ANGRYBEAR – Fighter 1 – sphinx statue
F’KWA XN – Elf 1 – living crystal statue

Session 16
IBN FALCON – Fighter 1 – hobgoblins

Session 17
PENSIVLY PEAR – Magic-user 1 – boiled alive
THACKING TIREE – Elf 1 – pit viper
SIR LIMEUEL STOATAALOVICH – Fighter 1 – asylum inmate

Session 18
No PC fatalities

Session 19

Session 20
ARTHUR TREE – Cleric 1 – gas explosion
FOREION THACQSPULE – Magic-user 1 – fire trap

Only one PC has made it to 2nd level so far. In fact, the thief Frack is now at the giddy heights of 3rd level, and halfway to 4th. He has achieved this by hiring a phalanx of armoured retainers (mostly female) and buying two trained mastiffs, Ripper and Rune. Ripper sadly died recently, but Frack has ordered another war dog. He avoids melee combat whenever possible, and retreats at the run when necessary. He is fairly rich and, more importantly, he has survived for nineteen sessions. All I have to say about the recent brouhaha stirred up by Jeff Rients is that I know Frack’s player is especially pleased to have made it this far in a perilous environment without a safety net. As he texted me following one eventful session, “Ain’t no fudge in Stonehell. Not even in the gift shop.” All the players know that death may be lurking around the next corner. Sometimes they act accordingly. Sometimes they get cocky or careless. Occasionally they rush headlong to meet their doom. It’s all good, and there’s no question that the rewards are all the sweeter because the risks are real. Anyway, the game isn’t a race to reach “name” level. The dungeon isn’t going anywhere.

What’s that you say? Tell us more about Rustingrud Van Der Volk? Alright, then. In the fourth session, having encountered some skeletons and zombies but lacking a cleric in the party, the PCs invited RVDV and one of his men to join them on their next dungeon expedition. The clerics were happy to oblige. At one point, a pit trap was triggered and RVDV and his acolyte fell in, sustaining light damage. The PCs solicitously helped them out, much to my (stifled) amusement. Later, when things seemed to be going pear-shaped (with several of the party members slain and the rest pursued by yelling berserkers), the clerics betrayed their PC “companions” but they hadn’t bargained on the elf having a sleep spell up his sleeve, so they soon found themselves unconscious and, shortly thereafter, decapitated. The remaining acolyte slipped quietly away from the Keep, but the PCs tracked him down, apprehended him, and now he languishes in the Keep’s dungeon, helping the authorities with their enquiries.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2012 6:34 pm

    All in all it sounds like you’re having an awesome time of it!

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