RPG Review: The Stoneheart Ruin by Jonathan Swadley

Welcome back to our series of reviews of some of the works from the Fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop. Each review will be followed with a brief chat with its author(s) where we will be delving a bit deeper into some of the aspects that most intrigued me. Every two days there will be a new review and mini-interview out, so keep tuned to discover some of the amazing things that these bright new authors are coming up with.

Spoiler warning: It is simply not practical to review a product without mentioning anything about it. I have attempted to remain vague where possible, however I can not guarantee that you will not learn something about the adventure by reading this review

Declaration of interest: This article includes affiliate links.

Cover image of The Stoneheart Ruin adventure by Jonathan Swadley. The subtitle proclaims that it is an adventure for three to six characters of second to forth level. The image depicts a large rocky mountain, with snow on it and clouds surrounding it.
Cover image of The Stoneheart Ruin by Jonathan Swadley

The Stoneheart Ruin by Jonathan Swadley

An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 1.

Review

Get your Indiana Jones groove on as you explore The Stoneheart Ruin! The party is tasked with exploring the ruins of an ancient civilisation after the original research team was scared off by a weird noise, and also discover what happened to one of their colleagues that was left behind in the confusion. Unbeknown to the researchers, these aren’t the vestiges of an ancient civilisation but actually an old mindflayer temple. The illithids have since abandoned it, but their followers still inhabit the ruins, preying on local fauna and anyone foolish enough to set foot in their domain. Designed for a group of tier 1 adventurers, this module can be ran as a one-shot, or is the perfect starting point for a campaign based around the underdark and mindflayers.

Once the party has got the quest from the druid anthropologist running the research team, they must make the arduous journey to the ruins. After a brief encounter with a bulette, the characters have to overcome a skill challenge to make it up the mountain to the ruins. This is a good way of simulating the ascension, and also points out how other skills can be used when travelling rather than just a survival check, however it would be nice to of had the rules for skill challenges be more explicit here, as they do not officially exist within 5th edition. There are a fair few guides that you can find online so this isn’t a major problem, but it would be helpful.

Once they’ve overcome these challenges they can get stuck into exploring the ruined illithid temple. The layout of the temple itself is interesting, having adopted a non-linear layout that allows for a few different exploration routes. There is also an excellent mix of allies and enemies within the dungeon. The party can hope to convince a wounded githyanki warrior to ally with them, which also provides a convenient way of providing mindlfayer lore, while facing off against the grimlocks that form the remains of the illithids cult, and their king, who has a really nice stat block. The grimlocks also use decent tactics, pulling back to regroup if they take too much damage, which helps guide newer DMs towards making fights more dynamic. They can also find and save the missing research team member, though they might not be quite what they seem.

The Stoneheart Ruin really provides an excellent starting point for a campaign designed around mindflayers, no matter how much experience your players have. Illithid lore is provided throughout the adventure in how the temple is constructed and via the NPCs. The adventurers will also face off against the traditional followers of a mindflayer cult: intellect devourers and grimlocks, but without actually encountering any mindflayers, leaving room for the big reveal in a future adventure. There are also plot seeds that are dropped throughout (such as the blood powered portal and the githyanki ally who returns to the underdark) that can be picked up again later. This can of course be easily tied to the research group, whose leader is proposed as a group patron.

This adventure carefully balances all three of D&Ds pillars. It’s an excellent starting point for a campaign, but is also a very good one-shot that could help introduce new players to some of the games most iconic monsters, as well as covering the basic mechanics and a few more advanced tools. The Stoneheart Ruin is a solid addition to a DMs library.

Behind the Screens

Hello Jonathan, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. The Stoneheart Ruin is an adventure about mindflayers, but without any actual mindflayers. You’ve woven illithid lore throughout the adventure, with the presence of a githyanki, illithid writing, the enemies that the party faces, but you’ve kept the illithids themselves hidden. What was the intention behind this choice?

First, thanks for doing this Sam. I’ve enjoyed reading your interviews and have picked up a couple adventures I wasn’t previously aware of from this series.

I’ve always enjoyed a lot of the original ideas and monsters in D&D, but so many of them are high tier, and we all know how little most groups get to play in that space. Mind Flayers, straight from the Monster Manual, don’t look like much, a CR7 with a fairly low AC and HP total (albeit with their devastating Mind Blast ability). Their strength comes from their cabal, their organization, the sheer number of other powerful telepaths and thralls they have at their disposal. I feel like most DM’s have to do some work in building the mythos behind a cabal of illithids beyond just throwing that stat block in front of a group and expecting a visceral reaction. My intention was to give low level players a taste of that lore and open the door to the scale of an illithid operation. In playtesting I saw how new players (who don’t have years of lore and knowledge to fall back on) saw their friends (some of whom did have years of that knowledge) make the associations and immediately become more cautious and scared. It’s probably my favorite reaction to the adventure so far.

The main strength of your adventure is how well you’ve integrated all three pillars of D&D. Despite the relatively small size of the temple, you’ve managed to include social interactions, the trek up the mountain makes good use of exploration, as do the hidden bits of information spread out throughout the adventure. Was this something that you worked hard to balance? Do you have advice for designers wanting to integrate all of the pillars into an adventure?

I worked pretty hard to make that balance in the adventure. My initial drafts were pretty different, and I especially focused on giving rewards to players for exploring and finding noncombat outcomes. I enjoy very specific types of stories and adventures, like mysteries, or funhouse dungeons, but I find it’s rare that all players in a group will get the same enjoyment out of those. I like some heterogeneity, giving different character and player types a chance to shine.

I think my advice to designers, RE: the three pillars, is to think about how each class, or each different player type, might approach the challenges in your adventure, especially the ones you may not have as much experience with. I have a player in my home game that enjoys playing knowledgeable, but typically non-combative characters. They’ll probably be bored by a typical dungeon crawl. Whereas a min-maxing strategist playing a battle master fighter won’t feel like they can bring much to the table in a game all about political intrigue. I love having adventures where both of those characters (and their players) can feel useful and important to the group. It’s impossible to always include everyone, but as long as you aren’t stretching yourself too thin, it doesn’t hurt to try.

Before getting to the temple itself, the party is confronted with a skill challenge. I’ve always found these to be useful tools for DMs, and it’s particularly well adapted here, and it’s a shame that they don’t have any official rules in 5e. In what sort of scenarios do you think skill challenges are better than simple skill checks or a group check? Do you have any advice on how best to run skill challenges?

I think skill challenges are seriously underutilized, as you said, probably because there aren’t any official 5e rules. I maintain that the 4e DMG was, and still is, a great resources for new DM’s, but I’ll still admit it’s implementation at skill challenges was lackluster. D&D really hasn’t had a strong ‘fail forward’ mentality baked into its rulesets, and DM’s tend to have to make this happen on their own. Skill challenges are an easy way to do that. I think exploration and travel are great ways to make use of skill challenges, especially if you’ve given your players some sort of time crunch. Even without a time limit, no one wants to get lost in the wilderness. And if they do lose their way, what will they find? You can have some really fun sessions where the bulk of what happens in between the big events in your world. It helps season the adventurers a bit, makes your world seem lived-in, and avoids the pitfall of relegating travel to a montage.
As far as how to best run them? I tend to be pretty straightforward with my players, and I encourage collaboration and discussion. Here’s your goal, here’s what the DC is, tell me how your character helps the group achieve that goal. I make sure and tell them the specific skills that will work for this challenge, but that if they can come up with a way to use another skill instead, tell me. This lets players be creative, and gives everyone a chance to help out with that Survival check, even the fighter with WIS for their dump stat. This feels collaboration, like a discussion, instead of the antagonistic ‘players vs. DM’ mindset we all want to avoid.

I really like your design of the Grimlock King, especially the mix between the terrifying (cannibalistic bite, terrifying yowl) and the slightly comedic (the belch reaction). Does making fun monster blocks come easily to you or is it something that you worked on?

Thanks so much for digging the King! I’m a huge Transformers fan, and that was pretty much just me having fun at Hasbro’s expense. I love making monster blocks; they’re one of my favorite design elements in D&D. I think monster stat blocks and supplements are a super fun way to break into 5e design, so it was kind of a no-brainer that I wanted to have some interesting stat blocks for the ‘boss’ monsters in my adventure. That said, in my early drafts, these were pretty unoriginal and uninspired. So yeah, I do work at it quite a bit, and am constantly tweaking and reworking flavor text and stats to find what will work best. I do a lot of mock combat scenarios, and the section on making your own monsters in the 5e DMG is invaluable, especially if you’re doing something on the fly. Not every combat needs to be high stakes, huge tension, “duel of the fates.” But I want to counterpoint the more mundane combat with monsters that are more interactive and memorable – my players joke that all my bosses have reactions (which might be true…)

This is a relatively minor point, but in the starting town you reference the “Church of the Frozen Flame” which isn’t fleshed out in the text. Care to shed a bit more light on this organisation?

So, the Church of the Frozen Flame is a holdover of mine from years ago, back in 3.5e. They’re a polytheistic religion(some might say cult) that focuses on service and tries to give ‘the little guy’ a leg up. They preach about being rewarded for enduring suffering, praising those who serve their communities and families, and making your own path through life. They’re not inherently good or evil, but like a lot of the best NPC’s and plot elements, have shades of grey. In the past, I’ve had players pledge to the Church, only to draw the ire of the ruling class, as their message seeks to fundamentally upset the balance of power in most kingdoms. Initially, when writing my adventure, I had a few pages on Cauldwin, but found through playtest that I really just wanted to get the journey started quicker, so a lot of the NPC’s, rumours, and organizations in Cauldwin got reduced or cut altogether. It’s definitely a group I’d like to explore more in future (potentially follow-up) adventures.

Finally, one of the things I loved in this adventure was how you dropped plot hooks for future scenarios throughout. The portal to go further into the Underdark, the possibility of turning the quest giver into a patron, the githyanki ally heading out into the depths that might be found later. Do you have plans for follow-up adventures that you’re working on? Or are these purely for the benefit of the DM?

Speaking of follow-ups, I absolutely have more adventures in mind, some that even have actual mind flayers in them! That said, when writing Stoneheart, I tried to keep in mind that I wanted to give DM’s tools, not a specific “You must run this 100% this way” story. That way, if a DM has their own homebrew world, but just wants to drop in this adventure, there’s plenty of ways to reference elements from it later on and make their world feel more lived-in. Sometimes the best ideas start from a simple prompt – a new location to explore, a new patron, a new danger to face (and maybe warn others about). It also lets those DM’s who just want to take the bones of an adventure have a (hopefully) easier time tweaking it to fit their table and world. If someone reads my adventure and thinks “Oh I like this monster, or how he does the travel, or this dungeon” and they just use that? That’s still a win to me.

Is there anything else that you would like to add before we finish?

I don’t think I have anything to add, except that this was a lot of fun to do and I really enjoy and appreciate what you’re doing for the community! Hopefully my answers give you enough to work with and made sense beyond some mad nerdy ramblings!

Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!

You can find the adventure on the DMsGuild here, and more work by Jonathan here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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