First of all, I’m well aware that I’m late to the party in reviewing this adventure. For some reason, despite being a fan of all things 13th Age, and already owning pretty much all of the Pelgrane Press produced books, this one had simply not peaked my interest. I had mistakenly thought it was another soft-cover book along the lines of Strangling Sea or Shadows of Eldolan.
When I discovered that it was a beautiful hardcover book, I had to have it. When it arrived I was very impressed with the quality, although not surprised. All of the 13th Age products I own are exquisitely crafted. Lovely glossy pages, great artwork and (this may sound weird) a glorious smell of newness and quality.
So where to begin with reviewing this tome? Well, first of all it’s a chunky beast. At 360 pages, it’s bigger than the core rulebook. There’s a lot of content in here. While it seems disingenuous to compare it with similar campaign source books from other systems, there are no equivalent 13th Age products to compare it with. Physical size-wise it’s comparable with “Rise of the Runelords” (Pathfinder) and depth-wise it’s like “Curse of Strahd” or “Storm King’s Thunder” on steroids. Unlike any of the campaign resources mentioned above though, this one will probably require a little bit more work on the part of the GM, but more on that later.
It would be too preposterous to say that this is the dungeon (or megadungeon) which changed my life as a GM, but it’s certainly the one which changed my view on what a dungeon is. All of my life, dungeons of various types have been home to many of the most memorable villains in my campaigns. However, the Stone Thief is entirely something else. The dungeon IS the villain. A sentient behemoth (or “living dungeon”) that burrows under the land, occasionally surfacing to devour towns, structures and even other dungeons before absorbing them into it’s cavernous gut then re-purposing the pieces to make even more fearsome creations within.
Given the unusual, and highly mobile nature of the main antagonist the book does a very good job of suggesting some plot-lines and icon driven ways for the players to encounter the Stone Thief and to have a reason to venture into it’s terrible depths. There are also some useful suggestions on how to tie the Stone Thief into players ‘One Unique Thing’ to give them a personal reason to want to challenge it. And that’s the key with this adventure. It’s so vast that it’s unlikely that the players will ever defeat the Stone Thief in a single expedition. That would be too arduous for both the players and the GM to cope with. Instead it is designed to be a recurring villain in a wider campaign and for that kind of approach to work, the players have to develop some kind of personal animosity towards the Stone Thief.
Structurally, the book is laid out clearly. The Stone Thief has numerous “levels” – “The Maw” or entrance to the dungeon, “The Gizzard” where the living dungeon absorbs stolen parts of the surface and incorporates them as it’s own Frankenstein style structures and (my favourite) “Dungeon Town”, a sanctuary within the dungeon, littered with survivors and a last bastion of defiance within the body of the dungeon itself. These are only a few of the areas in the dungeon, and each level is packed with encounter areas, curiosities and not inconsiderable danger. Two areas which particularly stand out are a library staffed by undead librarians and an ancient dwarven dungeon, so old that the entries for this in the book are presented in the old D&D 1st Edition style, right down to the font face.
The path through the Stone Thief is not linear or constant though. The dungeon is constantly rearranging itself. No two journeys through the Stone Thief will be identical as it shifts the locations of all the areas as it moves through underworld, so adventurers returning to the Stone Thief after a break away from it will not necessarily encounter the same areas in the same order. Thankfully, the book contains a very useful diagram showing how the path through the dungeon could look, offering choices at all points for the GM. The recommendation is that each visit, the players should encounter 75% new ground and 25% familiar. Obviously this ratio will eventually become impossible to maintain but there’s a lot of mileage in it before you’ll reach that point.
Maps of the individual areas are beautifully drawn in isometric view. This really helps you to grasp what the area looks like overall. They are also drawn in such a style that you can really feel the despair dripping from the page. It should be noted however that these maps are not necessarily to scale. 13th Age is designed to encourage theatre of the mind and to avoid grids wherever possible so this adventure remains true to that ideal. I play all of my games online through virtual tabletops so it’s probably going to be a bit more challenging and will likely cause more work for me but again, that’s as a result of my decision to play remotely. I also feel that players using virtual tabletops have become a wee bit too conditioned to having gridded maps available all the time and from time to time they need to be gently nudged out of the mindset of always having something to look at. If I was running this at the table, in person then all of those concerns would largely disappear.
As I mentioned earlier, there is some GM work to do with this adventure. Unlike a “Curse of Strahd” or a “Rise of the Runelords” there is still a lot of content that the GM needs to create to fill the gaps between expeditions to the Stone Thief but given the nature of this antagonist that doesn’t seem an unrealistic expectation. Unlike Strahd, it’s not the master of the entire domain and it didn’t summon the players to it’s world. Instead, it’s a persistent, recurring villain, within the PLAYER’S world. And that’s the genius of it. Wherever the players go they’ll be listening nervously for the noises and earth tremors that herald it’s arrival on the scene.
In conclusion, this is probably one of the best RPG products I’ve ever purchased. It’s certainly the best published adventure bar none. I don’t currently run or play in a 13th Age group because all of my limited time is booked up for the short term with an existing game but this is marked tentatively in the diary if that ever comes to an end.
The real beauty of a resource like this of course is that even if you never run it in its entirety, it’s just such an astounding source of encounters which can just be lifted, re-purposed and inserted into anything you are currently running, even if it isn’t 13th Age. After all, that’s exactly what the Stone Thief would do.