Monday, October 12, 2015

Reading Rappan Athuk: The Ground Level and the 1st Level

So I never really did much with my read-through of Rappan Athuk. Now that I'm running a small mega-dungeon, I've decided to try to pick up on the read-through, adding a little more every week.

Ground Level: The Mausoleum

This entire area shows a continued lack of familiarity with 3rd edition D&D mechanics: the handy sidebar puts the Difficulty Level at EL7, but the some of the wandering monsters include dire rats, the locked doors are DC 20 (which a 7th level rogue without equipment should be able to open by taking 10), and there's a DC 8 Spot check to find a hidden compartment (search focused characters shouldn't be able to NOT find that compartment at 7th level if they look for it).

There's an enormously hokey bit where there are some freshly dug graves of famous adventurers, alongside an empty grave with a headstone bearing a PC's name. I get that Rappan Athuk is supposed to be a total bloodbath, but that's the kind of trick that works in Scooby-Doo, not when dealing mid to high level adventurers who can cast Divination spells and are going to wonder "how did that happen?"

The crowning glory of the Mausoleum is the nigh-inescapable quick kill death trap for anyone that didn't search a random (though admittedly, prominently placed) statue to find the compartment and the hidden key. Using any other method to get into the Mausoleum sets off a rising floor trap that crushes the PCs into the ceiling and kills them. There's a possible escape via a secret door which is actually easy to find (if the PCs search the right area), but gets blocked by the floor after a minute, so the PCs need to get lucky in their search.

Frankly, the entire thing seems like a dick move for a killer-GM. It's not entirely as bad as it could be, because there is an easily available key that circumvents the trap, but the fact that the statue isn't mentioned in the read-aloud text means that PCs aren't necessarily even going to find it. The fact that the trap seals the secret door four minutes before the trap kills the PCs is also poor form, because it means that through little fault of their own, PCs can get killed even though they've found the secret door. The entire thing seems like a recipe for player metagaming, using the knowledge that their dead characters' gained in a TPK to circumvent the trap the next time around. As I mentioned in my last review, all this would be less onerous if the rumors at least mentioned a deadly trap at the door and the need to find a key.

Alternately, the entire thing is just an aggravating example of pixel-bitching, and could just be replaced by a door to the first level of the dungeon.

Dungeon Level 1: Lair of the "Dung Monster"

There's really no other way to put this: Rappan Athuk is a published adventure that deals with toilet humor. I'm not really sure what to think about a GM who would put toilet humor like this in his personal campaign, much less one that would keep it for publication. It's just really juvenile.

At any rate, level 1 of Rappan Athuk is schizophrenic. It's nominally an EL 3 zone (which can only be reached by fighting your way through 8 gargoyles, an EL6+ encounter), but the titular monster is invulnerable to non-magic weapons and has insane magic resistance (SR 100? really?) and 140 hit points and can grapple and engulf anyone foolish enough to fight it at melee range. The rest of the foes are mostly minor trash monsters like dire rats or lone ghasts.

The level itself has a fairly linear flow, with only two real branches among fourteen rooms and no loops. The corridors also flow straight into the rooms, so there isn't much choice as to what to avoid and what to encounter. About half the encounters are traps, placed more or less randomly and with little warning. Treasure is either minimal (22 cp in one room, 200 cp in another) or ridiculously hard to retrieve (dig for a week to find a +1 keen short sword; there's a 25% of encountering random monsters every 15 minutes while digging).

The climax of the level is a fairly well designed ambush by a group of wererats. There are some notes on how to modify the ambush so it's less of an automatic TPK for low powered groups, but it seems like the entire encounter could be better written to either provide a level appropriate challenge or better warning of the potential danger. And then the level could have been rewritten to be less linear and provide more than one way to reach the next level. I mean, there's an underground river to level 9, but I meant something that most parties would consider taking.

Opinions So Far

This is a fairly awful entrance and first level: maybe fun for sadistic killer GMs and players that don't take the game seriously at all, but inconsistent about the difficulty level for no real reason. Also, it involves some really puerile toilet humor. There's really nothing here that can be easily repurposed for another game, either, and most of it would need to rewritten (and in the case of the map, redrawn) before being used.

One of the many reasons why Castle of Horrors started with Castle Ravenloft, and I didn't even consider Rappan Athuk, was because Castle Ravenloft had lots of encounters that could be used more or less as they were written and the maps provided a lot of branches and level changes for exploring. Rappan Athuk provides none of that, and is worse for it.

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