Last week, I mentioned that during my experiment with the One Page Dungeon Level Method, the name and history of that new megadungeon just popped into my head. I present that history for you now. It’s strange to think that after all the years I’ve spent in this hobby, I’ve never actually designed a “dungeon” that actually was a dungeon. I’m glad I finally got around to doing so. I think there’s a lot of possibility to this megadungeon complex, and I’m going to explore it some more in the future. I mentioned that one of my goals for this year is to run a Holmes/Moldvay-Cook/Labyrinth Lord game. Stonehell looks to be the setting for that game.
The Sterling Potentate possessed many qualities, but mercy and trust were not numbered amongst them. The grandson of the man who first unified the squabbling city-states and wild tribes of the West under an iron fist, the Potentate ruled from a precarious perch above his subjects. Having neither the charisma nor fair heart which consolidated the rule of other kings, he relied on stark fear and an overzealous police force to keep the flames of rebellion from burning his realm to ashes.
His subjects soon learned to fear the knock on their doors at midnight, an event that was invariably accompanied by the Potentate’s secret police force, the Red Wyverns. Loose talk in a tavern could lead to the sudden vanishing of entire families, leaving behind only rumors as to their ultimate fates and warnings that the Wyvern’s spies were everywhere.
Before too long, the Potentate learned that, while his draconian methods kept his kingdom under control, these midnight arrests quickly filled his prisons to capacity. As the years of his rule progressed, his dungeons became overcrowded, his oubliettes filled to capacity, and his executioners weary from the strain of swinging their axes. A solution had to be found.
Luckily for the Potentate (and quite unfortunate for his subjects), amongst his advisors was a certain vizier known to dabble in such obscure arts as necromancy, demonology and – most worrisome – philosophy. Seeing his master gripped by paranoid thoughts of an open rebellion birthed from these overcrowded gaols, this vizier proposed a plan that would alleviate the Potentate’s worries as well as provide himself with a fertile laboratory to conduct his experiments into the dark hearts of men.
Detailing his scheme to the Potentate, he was pleased to find it one that his master readily embraced and he soon began the preparations needed to bring in to fruition. After a month of necessary scouting, the vizier announced that he had found a location suitable for his experiment. Soon after this, one hundred prisoners were drawn from the ranks of the Potentate’s dungeons and carted to the eastern border of the realm. There, in a small box canyon, the prisoners were forced into a small cave system and handed tools of excavation. They were then commanded to begin digging.
The vizier had long held the belief that man, although an adaptable beast, was an animal nonetheless. Concepts such as honor, kindness, and “for the common good” were merely fragile veneers supported by the needs of civilization. Strip away the supports of civilized life and man would show his true nature: baseness, cruelty, and the vicious drive to kill to retain what little he owns. This small cave system would be the crucible in which he would separate the dross of civilization from mankind’s base soul.
A prisoner who worked would be fed. A prisoner who resisted would not. Anyone who attempted to escape was killed. The guards who watched over them, many of whom had been assigned to this duty based on their own cruel natures, did nothing to maintain order within the ranks of the prisoners. As long as the work proceeded, they fed these wretches, but this was the sole concession to law and order.
There are sages and holy men who would like to believe that the prisoners soon banded together to overthrow their overseers and seek freedom from this bondage. But the sad fact was that many of these inmates conceded defeat and abandoned their dreams of escape, replacing them with the urge to make the best of their condition by any means necessary. When they did band together, it was to dominate weaker inmates and to carve out a subterranean domain of their own. The vizier had wisely chosen his seed prisoners for the experiment.
As the excavations grew and the numbers of prisoners thinned from violence and exertion, more inmates were funneled from the dungeons into this unholy project. With each new group, the established prisoners found additional numbers to increase their ranks, and the underground holdings of the various factions grew larger and deeper. The site became as if it were a great beast with an endless hunger; devouring scores of men, women and children who would never see the sun again. A visiting scholar who toured the site would write, “These doomed souls are condemned to the earth. Without the possibility of pardon or parole, they will spend the rest of their days in a vast stone hell of their own construction.” The name stuck.
The vizier, encouraged by the initial success of his inquiries into the debased nature of man, soon began to add variables to the experiment. Food rations would be halved, even stopped, without warning to see how the prisoners would respond. Fell beasts would be captured, then set free amongst the underground halls of the prison. When the Potentate’s drive to expand his empire uncovered a warren of kobolds in the north, these scaly humanoid were chained and thrown into Stonehell to see what effect these intruders would have on the prisoner population. Many of these and other “adjustments” were observed by magical means, their effects recounted to the Potentate and his court for their entertainment.
In time, even the bravest or most callous of guards ceased to patrol too deeply into Stonehell. Rumors begin to abound as to how deep the prisoners had dug into the earth and as to what they found within those inky depths. Attempts to conduct censuses of still-living prisoners were failures. Stories were passed from prisoner to prisoner about the cannibalistic petty kingdoms some of the oldest inmates had established in the deeper levels of the dungeon. Stonehell had indeed lived up to its name.
It is unknown what the ultimate fate of the prison would have been had it not been the eventual, almost inevitable, coup d’état that would oust the Potentate from power. The atrocities that he committed daily upon his people eventually grew to the point where they could no longer be ignored. When his palace was set ablaze and the Potentate forced to flee for his life (royal treasury in tow), the gates of Stonehell were throw open to release those unjustly incarcerated during his rule.
What the prisoners’ would-be rescuers discovered was beyond description.
Those who were present that day refused to speak about what they found beyond the doors of the prison. It is known that some of the prison’s total number of inmates were freed, staggering into the blazing sunlight and cool autumn air that they had not experienced in decades. Of these, many would never be able to return to polite society, their experiences in the prison and the crimes they were forced to commit for daily survival being too great for them to bear. Attempts were made to recover other prisoners who had fled deep into the depth of Stonehell, but these missions came to naught. These deeper prisoners were too far gone, or too well adapted to their subterranean nightmare world to return to life on the surface. With heavy hearts, the well-intentioned rescuers took what few prisoners still bore the spark of civilization and humanity back to the cities and left the prison and its inhabitants to their ultimate fate.
Almost two hundred years have passed since the liberation of Stonehell, but in that time the prison has not rested easily. Like a festering wound in the earth itself, Stonehell will not heal or grow quiescent. During those years, the site has served as a hideout for countless bands of robbers and bandits. It has been utilized as a laboratory for insane wizards who sought solitude to conduct their bizarre experiments. Practitioners of grim religions have sought sanctuary within its haunted halls in hopes to avoid the prying eyes of the forces of light. Roving bands of orcs, goblins and other fierce humanoids have sought shelter and respite within Stonehell’s chambers, their numbers swelling with the passage of time.
The years have done little to quell the rumors as to what lies within the crumbling prison. Tales of cannibal kingdoms, inhabited by pale-skinned ghouls who carve fortunes of jewels from hidden veins within the earth compete with yarns of obscene magical experiments gone awry that still stalk the corridors below. Bands of fearless adventurers often attempt to plumb the depths of the prison. Those who return often do so laden with riches pried from the hands of that which still malingers within. Many do not return at all. While taproom gossip and the stories of bards and wordsmiths hint at what lies beneath, only those brave enough - or foolish enough - to enter themselves will ever know the truth…