This is what is generally known about Stonehell Dungeon. Especially old characters, like elves, would know all of this. Others may just know a bit of rumors of the history. But since you’d all be traveling together, you’d probably share enough around the campfire / ale house to fill in the gaps.
(Original text by Michael Curtis – edited for spoilers and cheesy writing by me)
The Sterling Potentate possessed many qualities, but mercy and trust were not among them. The grandson of the man who first unified the squabbling city-states and wild tribes of the west, the Potentate ruled precariously over his subjects. Having neither the charisma nor fair heart which consolidated the rule of other kings, he relied on fear and an overzealous police force to keep the flames of rebellion from kindling.
His subjects learned to dread the knock on their doors at midnight, an event that was invariably accompanied by the Potentate‘s secret police. Loose talk in a tavern could lead to the sudden arrest of entire families, leaving behind only rumors as to their fate and warnings that the police‘s spies were everywhere.
Before long, the Potentate learned that, while his draconian methods kept his kingdom under control, these midnight arrests filled his prisons to capacity. As the years of his rule passed, his dungeons became overcrowded, his oubliettes filled, and his executioners weary from swinging their axes. A solution had to be found.
After a month of scouting, his vizier announced that he had found a location suitable for a new prison. Immediately thereafter, one hundred prisoners were drawn from the ranks of the Potentate‘s dungeons and carted to the western border of the realm. There, in a small box canyon, the prisoners were forced into a cave and handed tools of excavation. They were then commanded to begin digging. It was to be their task to excavate a new dungeon to serve as their place of incarceration.
The rules were simple: a prisoner who worked would be fed; a prisoner who resisted would not. Anyone attempting escape was killed. The guards who oversaw the place, many of whom had been assigned to this duty because of their own cruel natures, did nothing to maintain order within the prisoners‘ ranks. As long as the work proceeded, they fed these wretches, but this was the sole concession to law and order.
Many sages and holy men would like to believe that the prisoners quickly banded together to overthrow their overseers and seek freedom from bondage, but the sad fact was that most of these inmates conceded defeat and abandoned their dreams of escape. Instead, they replaced those hopes with the desire to make the best of their situation by any means necessary. When they did band together, it was to dominate weaker inmates and to carve out a prison block of their own.
As the excavations grew and the numbers of prisoners thinned from violence and exertion, more inmates were funneled from the Potentate‘s dungeons into this cruel prison. With each new group, the established prison power blocs found new numbers to add to their ranks, and the underground holdings of the various factions grew larger and deeper. The dungeon became like 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 wrote, ―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.
In time, even the bravest or most callous of guards ceased to patrol too deeply into Stonehell. Rumors began to spread as to how far the prisoners had dug into the earth and what they found in the depths. Attempts to conduct a census of still-living prisoners were failures. Stories were passed from prisoner to prisoner about the brutal and petty kingdoms 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 the coup d‘état that ousted the Potentate from power not occurred. 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, the gates of Stonehell were throw open to release those incarcerated during his rule.
It is known that only a small portion of the prison‘s inmates were freed, staggering into the sunlight 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 their daily survival being too great for them to bear. Attempts were made to recover other prisoners who had fled into the depths of Stonehell, but these missions came to naught. The deeper prisoners were too far gone or too well-adapted to their subterranean 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 fate.
More than 200 years have passed since the liberation of Stonehell, but in that time the prison has not rested easily. During these decades, the site has been used as a hideout for countless bands of bandits and brigands. It has served as the laboratory for wizards who needed solitude to conduct their bizarre experiments. Practitioners of grim religions have sought sanctuary within its night-haunted halls to avoid the prying eyes of the forces of light. Roving bands of orcs, goblins, and other fierce humanoids have found 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‘ve carved a fortune of jewels from the earth compete with yarns about obscene magical experiments that stalk the corridors below. Bands of fearless adventurers regularly plumb the depths of the former prison. Those who return do so laden with riches won from that which still malingers within, but many do not return at all.