In the beginning, there were dungeons, and there were dragons. And it was good.
I’m oversimplifying it, but the old formula is still fun in modern d20-style fantasy role-playing games. There’s a reason the grand-daddy of RPGs invokes them in the name of its game.
Dungeons & Dragons is playing to the “dragons” half of the equation with its ongoing “Tyranny of Dragons” campaign. But if you’re looking for a compelling version of the “dungeon” half of the formula, the 13th Age system is releasing a new campaign book in February, Eyes of the Stone Thief. (A PDF copy of the book is available if you pre-order it, which is what I’m using to plumb its depths.)
Courtesy of Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and Pelgrane Press, this book takes the idea of the dungeon-based campaign and gives it a Yakov Smirnoff reversal. In most campaigns, players will hunt for dungeons; in Eyes of the Stone Thief, dungeon hunts you!
In the world of 13th Age, not all dungeons are death-traps created by insane villains or treasure-hoarding despots. Some are sentient death-traps borne of wild magic bubbling up through the earth. These latter constructs are known as “living dungeons,” and show up to wreak havoc on unassuming geography. Such living dungeons are bizarre accretions of monsters and traps that infest a location, inviting heroic adventurers to defeat them (or powerful enemies to turn them into deadly pets).
The Stone Thief is the oldest known living dungeon, a malevolent conglomeration of earth and ore and magical self-awareness who was old when the ages were still young. Unlike other living dungeons, it doesn’t just pop up and wait for adventurers to kill it. It’s mobile. It’s a predator. It swims underground like a massive graboid that eats whole populations and cities, digesting them and turning them into new and exciting ways for you to die.
Eyes of the Stone Thief isn’t so much a campaign as it is a way to put your players’ characters on a collision course with a shifting hell of iron and stone. The campaign is the sprawling epic that you and your players craft when they become intertwined with the ancient living dungeon:
The Stone Thief is effectively a giant crawling plot device that can be plugged into your own campaign. Ignore the fact that it’s a living dungeon for a moment, and think of it as a doomsday weapon, or a way to overcome magical defenses, or a way to sow chaos and confusion across the land. How might the big villains of your campaign use such a powerful device? How might such plans threaten the adventurers?
With those questions in mind, let’s delve into the book.
The First Dive
The first thing you’ll notice, aside from the beautiful art direction, is the enormity of the campaign. I haven’t seen the physical book, mind you, but even the PDF version of the Eyes of the Stone Thief radiates massiveness. If you’re anything like me, you’ll flip through the pages (yes, I still do so with a digital copy) to see what catches your eye.
Be wary. It’s really easy to get lost in the pages of this book, and before you know it you have no idea where you are and you’re pretty sure that orc with conflicted loyalties back there made off with your supplies and there’s probably a horribly gelatinous abomination around the corner…
Figuratively speaking. Of course.
Thankfully, the author gives you a basic spine of how the campaign might play out. It’s vague and generic, but it’s how you want to approach Eyes of the Stone Thief — broad picture first, adding details as you zoom in on specific areas, concepts, and quests.
Some of those concepts include the mechanics of the Stone Thief submerging, what happens when it’s underground, and the shifting nature of how the living dungeon is laid out. With these penciled in, the book moves on to the who’s who inside the Stone Thief. It’s a mobile microcosm, containing important factions and leaders who have not only survived, but have influence within the gullet of this ravenous aberration.
This big-picture approach is necessary, as there is way more material in this book than you need. I love it when that’s the case; it’s a feature I look for in RPG supplements and campaign books. You can tell a better story when you have the ability to leave material on the cutting room floor, and Eyes of the Stone Thief very much encourages this approach:
When the Stone Thief sees a big, impressive, interesting-looking castle, it steals it, rips it apart, digests it, and makes it part of itself.
Do the same with this book.
(Apart from the stealing part.)
Once you’ve got a very rough sketch of what the shape of things might be, it’s time to start to bring aspects of your version of this campaign into focus. If you’re a GM who loves foreshadowing and diabolical antagonists as much as I do, here’s what you do next: skip ahead. The next section of Eyes is about the titular Stone Thief, but you’re going to come back to it later. Keep flipping, because you’re skipping over 2/3 of the book right now. Be careful that you don’t get lured in by the pictures — that’s how the dungeon snares you.
The Second Dive
Once you get to the chapter marked “Prey,” you’ve reached the Quests section of the book. Here is where we continue reading. You can skim the stat blocks and potential quest details, but read the first few pages under each of the chapters. After “Prey” comes “Surface Quests,” followed by a couple sections on the possible opposition your players could face, and a brief catalog of suggestions on how to potentially use Icon relationship rolls to provide floating clues.
For my money, these are the most integral parts of Eyes of the Stone Thief. They provide guidance on how build the topography of this campaign’s narrative in your own way, which is an invaluable resource. Your players and their choices are a rush of water that will flood the narrative terrain you build. You don’t know where the water will go, but if you’ve built a structural logic into your fictive world, you can describe what happens when it hits and how it flows in relation to the topography. (You also know where all the potential waterfalls are, but I think we can wrap up this dramaturgical metaphor and get back to dissecting killer dungeons.)
The reason I skipped the big section about the Stone Thief proper is because I want to know where it’s all going, eh, what’s it all about. As the GM, you have the ability to seed your campaign and seemingly-unrelated one-shots with names, items, and events that potentially pay off later. Not all seeds will bloom into robust plot point, and that’s okay. There’s more then enough material here for a few seeds to fall fallow.
A great benefit of a campaign book this size—other than building upper body strength when you lift it—is that you’ve got plenty of advance warning of where the game might go.
The Quests sections also provide ways on how the endgame could play out, counter-moves the antagonists can use to react to player choices, a recap quest, and a whole armory of potential Chekhov-approved guns. At this point, you should have an inkling of the shape of things to come. Once you do, it’s time to jump back into the bulk of the book, the middle section that details of the Stone Thief itself.
The Stone Thief
Finally! We’ve arrived at the meat of the book, the hundreds of pages of monsters, madness, mayhem, and so many ways to die. There are 13 levels to the Stone Thief, and each one of them could be the setting for its own one-shot or campaign. In fact, if you wanted to salvage pieces of the Stone Thief for use outside this campaign, the author offers suggestions on how to do exactly that.
Each section of the Stone Thief gets it’s own subhead that lets you know the levels the player characters should encounter the area. It gives a brief overview, the campaign factions that are in play, some floating encounters to sprinkle at dramatically-appropriate moments, and map-like illustrations. Each section then goes into detail on all the sub-domains, including variations on how you can run each of them. Oh, yeah, and each section also contains a sidebar that discusses exits. Those might be useful if someone wanted to escape the nightmarish living dungeon.
The “Variations” topics are the ones I re-read and pore through the most. This campaign is designed for players to dive into and out of the Stone Thief, which means the players will re-encounter certain regions. If the region is unchanged from the last encounter, diving back into the dungeon is going to be a boring chore. Nobody wants that (just ask anyone who played Batman: Arkham Origins).
The variations give you ideas for how to alter each level. Not only does it improve the mechanics of play (matching threats to characters’ increasing levels of skill), but it also serves a narrative purpose. Players’ characters are the pathogens in the Stone Thief’s system, and if it’s upping the lethality of its regions, it means that this ancient evil actually recognizes the characters as a threat and reacts to their actions. This connection ties directly into the Quests section I mentioned earlier — the Stone Thief is actively trying to kill the players, and failing that, will do everything to demoralize and make their lives hell. This allows the Stone Thief to be more than a mere sentient force of magic: it’s an opponent that the characters react to emotionally.
Confronting the Dungeon
Pelgrane Press has a knack for publishing campaign books that are as much how to construct a campaign as they are the thing itself. Eyes of the Stone Thief continues in the vein. Sure, the Stone Thief itself is a shiny new car, ready for the track. But the book as a whole also gives you the tools and tips to customize the car for your track, your players, and your group’s preferred type of race.
It’s also an engaging meta-fictional twist on a standard gaming trope. The tried-and-true (and sometimes tired) dungeon crawl turns into chess match against a living dungeon who can strike anywhere. A foray against your enemy involves literally jumping down its throat, and hoping you survive and escape with something useful. I can’t wait to visit it upon my players this year.