The dungeon Dan brought us this weekend was none other than Rappan Athuk, which appears to have quite the old school pedigree. I had never heard of it before, but it’s one of a few mega-dungeons to actually see print, and it has quite the history from inception in the late 70’s, to printings for d20 (aka 3.0 D&D), Pathfinder, and Swords & Wizardry. You can find more details of its history on boargamegeek.
What follows is an account of our game, and I’ll hold off on any analysis until a later post. That said, this will be rife with spoilers, so if you think you may some day play Rappan Athuk, maybe you don’t want to read this.
We began with four players doing character generation, and Dan informed us that our first decision should be race. He mentioned each of the race’s bonuses (infravision, bonuses to search, etc.) and for humans he granted the bonus of a free henchman. A pretty neat idea I thought, while anyone can spend money on obtaining a henchman, a free one to start was a nice bonus for the humans. It looked like several of us wanted to play wizards, so I proposed that we all create human wizards, and thus have 4 wizards with a cadre of 4 fighter henchmen. It was agreed, and so “The Supreme Masters of the Elements” were formed, along with our 4 personal body guard.
As we prepared to depart we received some rumors, as well as strong advice which I now understand to be a trope for Rappan Athuk, “don’t go down the well!” Unfortunately Dan was so vehement on this point that I felt it was likely a case of the DM doth protest too much, and that likely that was in fact the right way to go.
We arrived at the dungeon, where we found many gravestones, 3 mausoleums, and the aforementioned well. We began at the largest mausoleum, which had an interesting statue up front, and who can resist searching a statue? We used a Read Languages spell to decipher the runes: “Blessed is he who spares theses stones, Cursed is he who moves my bones”. A quick search revealed a secret compartment in the base of the statue, and within that an iron key. This was looking like a good start!
We used the key to open the main mausoleum, which was empty save for a large sarcophagus in the back. We decided to open it, and released an undead creature which we quickly dispatched. We then searched the sarcophagus, and the walls, and found nothing. We did discover an odd groove where the floor met the walls which suggested an elevator. Scanning the ceiling we saw a sarcophagus shaped indention and we realized it wasn’t an elevator but a trap. Fearing being squished, we quickly exited. Careful searches of the remaining buildings and graves revealed nothing. We found some holes which quickly became too small to traverse. It was looking like the well or nothing.
So we descended into the well. We found the place cursed with malevolence, and many saves were failed and many heroes thus suffered a -2 to all to hit and save rolls. We fought an undead creature at the bottom of the well, and at some point I sifted through the water looking for something useful and came across a ruby hilted dagger. We eventually discovered via detect magic that this dagger was intensely magical, but it never really seemed to help in a fight and despite frequent experimentation we never did figure out what it did (until the end when the GM told us it’s basically part of a magical key to a locked door that we certainly would not have wanted to enter).
We fought some more undead, we killed some stirges, we avoided a cave full of piercers, and we explored many twisted tunnels with far too many exits that rapidly became too narrow to explore. We were quickly becoming frustrated. It was not long before we found there was only one way forward: through the piercers (side note — after the game the GM revealed to me that there was one tunnel we missed due to a mapping error, however it would lead to a huge number of specters that would likely have resulted in TPK anyway). One of our wizards had a wand of paralysis, so after liberal application of that on the ceiling we dashed through, and found another dead end tunnel. Crap! Feeling really frustrated I randomly searched the wall, and what do you think I found? Why, a secret door of course!
Traversing through the secret door we continued through twisting tunnels and ended in a cave full of rats. Fortunately, one of our clever number decided to scan the walls and noticed just in time 4 pairs of large cat eyes — we were beset by displacer beasts! This was a very tough fight for us, we were 4th level wizards and 4 1st level fighters. We likely would have died had it not been for the good luck spotting them and the use of our best magic item – the wand of paralysis. It took out 2 beasts right away, and another later in the fight. Despite this all but 1 fighter died (my own faithful henchman Maxine) before we were able to kill the final displacer beast.
We discovered a large cliff down on the other end of the cave, but feeling too beat up we decided it was time to return to town. We planned to use the wand of paralysis on the piercers again but this time get in there and kill the unmoving creatures so we could safely pass through that tunnel. On our way out, we encountered a large undead creature and we were pretty worried it might kill us. We used our remaining magics to beef up Maxine to draw the creature into combat while the rest of us retreated into the tunnel. After we did so Maxine withdrew into the tunnel and a web spell stuck the creature in place so we could retreat. Alas we also lost Maxine’s newly acquired Battle Axe +2, but we were happy to escape with our lives — or so we thought.
When we returned to the well we still had a 100′ climb up. While we had done this a couple times so far (I think we maybe returned to town at least once previously, but I’m not totally sure when), this time was our undoing. Max’s wizard fell and took some damage. He tried again and fell again, and was killed. Joey’s wizard also failed the climb, fell, and was killed. Two wizards and Maxine made it back to town.
We broke for a meal and a swim and creation of two new characters. Max created a dwarven fighter, and Joey an elven thief/wizard. We plotted how to avoid further stupid rope climbing deaths. The mechanics to overcome for rope climbing were two fold: first for each climbing scene the first person would have to roll d20 with a 1-in-20 chance that the rope broke or our knot came loose. Secondly, each character had to roll a d6 climb check, with penalties for weight carried, and bonuses for strength or being a thief (basically the thieves had no chance of failure). So we decided to purchase rope in 100′ lengths instead of 50′ so there was no middle knot, and we’d use two ropes, one for the actual climb and the second one made a bit shorter tied to the climber for safety – if he fell the safety rope would swing into the wall but at least prevent hitting bottom. We knew we would have two large climbs ahead of us – the well and the cliff, and we wanted to minimize the risk as much as possible.
So we made it down the well safely, and then to the cliff. At the base of the cliff was a pool of water, and 10′ away was a beach and a solid rock wall into which was set an iron door. That was our target. We began with Isabelle’s wizard using levitate and holding the end of a 100′ rope to go up to the ceiling, crawl across to the opposite side, come back down, and affix the rope to the door handle. We then staked our second safety rope next to the first, tied it around the waist of our thief wizard, and sent him down. And here’s why I tell you all the rules for our rope climbing.
Joey, being the first to actually climb the rope (Isabelle used leviate), had to roll the d20 for rope breaking checks. His first roll was a 1. Yikes! He loses purchase on the main rope and swings down into the cliff, held by the safety rope. OK, well, he’ll take some damage but least he won’t die, right? Time to roll the d20 for the second rope, and yup, another 1. The safety also comes loose and into the drink goes Joey.
Phew, at least there’s water, right? He wasn’t dead yet! He rolled a check to swim and succeeded. It was his first (and last) successful roll with this character. Dan said he could swim to shore, or he could check out that interesting pile of bones on a ledge under water if he wanted. Joey was feeling good about his successful swim check, so he went for the pile of bones. Unfortunately, so did the black pudding that lived under the water. It quickly grabbed and consumed Joey’s second character.
It was getting late so Joey decided to head home, he’d make his third character in the morning. We played a little more, discovering a long passageway, but then it was also time to go drive to Alewife and pick up Christian, so we called it a night. Dan hand-waved our return to town since we’d have two new players and Joey all creating characters in the morning.
The next morning our party swelled to include Joey’s second elven thief/wizard, Christian’s elven fighter/wizard, and Mike’s hobbit thief. Feeling super burned by so many climb based deaths, we added additional safety plans of lowering the poor climbers down with the safety rope while they gripped the main climbing rope, ending with the thieves climbing down last who because of their thief skills didn’t need a spotter. Amazingly we made it back down both climbs without incident.
And so began a bizarre mapping challenge. We went through crazy twisting passageways with occasional secret doors that left us befuddled. At one point I had to slow the play just to transcribe some maps. Eventually we figured out that going through the secret doors was not necessarily always taking us to the same place. Magic was involved. We finally decided to avoid them completely and just go through the passageways as much as possible until we found a way out. We made it into a large cave, where we were assaulted by 6 minotaurs.
6 minotaurs! Even with with 6 PCs and a couple henchman, we were only 4th level and I was sure we were all going to die. And to make matters worse, their chief arrived, a giant minotaur who appeared to have the ability to teleport short distances at will. But it turns out, our hobbit thief had a ring of human control. Suddenly, we had 5 minotaur companions! We killed the 6th renegade and eventually took out the boss as well, killed by a very well placed backstab from our hobbit, the clear hero of the fight. We asked the remaining minotaurs to prove their prowess by fighting each other. The victor was then allowed to lead the way across a swift moving underground river, but when he got halfway out we peppered him with arrows (hey, that ring was going to wear off in a couple minutes).
Across the river we found the minotaur chief’s treasure, and an exit, which sadly returned right back into more labyrinth. By this time even Dan was annoyed with it, so he abstracted it away. He said we had figured out well enough how to deal with it, so he’d just advance the game clock 2 hours and make 2 wandering monster checks for each labyrinth we had to make it through. Thank goodness!
After making it through the labyrinth we encountered some goblins – finally something our speed! A fight ensued, and our dwarven fighter felled their leader. Invisible and with little to do, I decided to try and spook the goblins by lifting up their leader and making moaning undead noises. Having taken quite a few losses, they failed their morale check and backed away defensively. Christian demanded they surrender in goblin, and I immediately had the leader fall prostrate before him. Suddenly, we had 5 new goblin henchmen!
They told us it was extremely dangerous in the direction they came from, but we liked the idea of eventually finding a goblin city which sounded more our speed. We debated for a while going forward vs. back, but eventually the diminishing healing reserves won the argument and so we headed back. Amazingly Dan rolled no wandering monsters and through dumb luck we stumbled back to the iron door surprisingly quickly. We made it up the cliff and there had to fight a strange ooze creature that was regurgitating undead creatures. We dispatched it, but lost 3 of our 5 goblins. Upon reaching the surface we released the last two goblins with a hunk of gold ore each. I’m sure they lived long happy lives.
Joey and Mike had to depart, so we were now down to 4 players, but Max really wanted one more crack at the dungeon, and I’m very glad he did. This time we went through the exit from the minotaur cave on the near side of the river, and found a strange circular room with a trap door in the ceiling, above which was another room containing a gelatinous cube. One of our henchman very nearly died, but we eventually killed it.
From there we traveled down many stairs, into another room, and eventually found a pair of double doors behind which we could hear chanting and many other nefarious sounds. It was very late, and the game was ending, so we opened up the doors and attacked. On the other side of the doors was the lower temple of Orcus, containing a 12th level high priest, 6 6th level priests, a type 2 demon, and a flesh golem. The high priest filled the room with an insect swarm, and all our hirelings immediately fled. I was still invisible so I slipped forward, while my three remaining companions more carefully advanced. Isabelle managed to shrug off a finger of death spell, but then fell to the attacks of cultists and demons. Then I played my final gambit, a charm person spell targeting the high priest.
I knew the chances were slim to none, but there’s no cap on what charm person can affect. The high priest had a +15 to his save, and needed to hit a 20. We all leaned forward to watch the roll. Dan let the d20 drop, and rolled a natural 1.
We exploded in laughter and excitement. I told the priest to call off his minions which he did, and then I was a bit lost on what to do. I never expected this to work! I thought, even if I ask him to come outside, shut the door, take off all his armor and equipment, and then we all stabbed him, he’d probably then still kill us being freed from the charm.
So I did the only thing that made any sense. I demanded that he bring all his treasures to the hall in front of the temple. He did so in spades — the flesh golem was commanded to bring forth a lifesize platinum statue and a silver fountain magically enchanted to contain ever running water. Chests of gems and gold were brought forth, as well as his magical golden orb that was some kind of horrible evil artifact. They piled it all up at our feet. I told the high priest, go back inside, and we shall return to enact our horrible evil plot. He cackled with glee and anticipation, and closed the doors. We picked up every bit of loot we could carry and got the hell out of there.