Back to the Well Once Too Often

OK, time for some analysis of Rappan Athuk. As before, this will contain all manner of spoilers, so if you intend to play this module and want to be surprised, turn back!

Overall, I’d say my impression of Rappan Athuk is very mixed. I know it has a long history and must therefore be beloved by many, but I think overall Stonehell is still my favorite megadungeon, and I don’t think Rappan Athuk holds a candle to other stuff Dan has run for us, such as the G-series of modules.

Things I liked:

  • The “turn back, you’re all going to die” vibe was kind of exciting. There’s something very cool about testing your metal against something known to be very challenging.
  • Each room with actual encounters were well thought out. There was a lot of interesting combinations, like putting a black pudding in a lake at the bottom of a cliff, or creating an ooze that spits out reanimated corpses. The teleporting minotaur boss was pretty terrifying and fun to kill.
  • Plenty of scenery to bounce off of in the combats as well. Good use of vertical space and that final temple was full of very thematic components. I would love to see a straight fight in that last temple with a party of appropriate level.

Thinks I found frustrating:

  • Mazes. Why do we make them? Is it just too tempting when faced with drawing a top-down map on graph paper? The fact is you only engage one player when walking through a maze (the mapper), and even that person just wants to get through it to the fun parts. Fortunately Dan caught on to this pretty quickly too and abstracted them away. I’d be tempted to not even bother with that — just cut them out entirely.
  • Secret front doors. I actually like secret doors, provided they hide short-cuts, or hidden treasure, or other optional bonuses that don’t completely put the breaks on the adventure if your PCs roll poorly or don’t think to look in the right place. Putting the primary entrance to the first level of the dungeon behind a secret door is simply unforgivable in my opinion, especially when you then also include easy access to a much more difficult part of the dungeon. This is exactly backwards. Make the entryway for new adventurers easy, and make the short-cuts to lower harder stuff more difficult to come across.
  • Inconsistent challenges. After going into the too difficult area below the well, we fought some undead that I think were perfectly reasonable for our party of 4th levels to take on. Then we fought some stirges, which if anything are below our ability. All this pointed to the idea that we were totally correct about entering the dungeon via the well. It’s a good thing we never stumbled into the spectres, and I’m surprised we survived the displacer beasts. I’m all for a little variety, but the encounters were so all over the place that I never had any idea if I was about to stumble into a TPK.
  • Illusion of choice. We frequently hit cases where it looked like there were many avenues of exploration before us, and then all but one were snatched away. Above ground, the only entrance we could find was the well. Below ground, we kept hitting tunnels that narrowed to unusable size, funelling us ever forward. It was like living the old Henry Ford quote: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

Finally, I’d like to discuss the issue of the rope climbing. At the time, I gave Dan a lot of crap about the two character deaths in the well. I found it very frustrating to go through what felt like such a well executed withdrawal from the dungeon just to have two characters die from what felt like very arbitrary dice rolls. That said, I found a lot of humor and enjoyment when despite our intricate plans Joey still managed to roll double 1’s and die climbing down the cliff. There’s clearly something off here around expectations and actual results. When they’re off by a small margin it’s extremely frustrating and when they’re off by a giant gulf that’s comedy?

In retrospect I suspect what Dan is doing here is simply trying to be sure he doesn’t devalue the thief climbing skill by letting any wimpy wizard do it without even rolling dice, and I find that laudible. Also I think there was a strong element at play of mounting frustration from the “secret front doors” and “illusion fo choice” items mentioned above, and the climbing realted deaths managed to fit in just as this sentiment was mounting. And finally, I think there was a big problem of my preconceived notion that climbing up and down ropes should be trivial based on years of prior roleplay. I liken this to Dan’s take on non-exploding lantern oil. It’s a totally reasonable interpretation, but when presented to an experienced gamer with years of built up expectations he will find it very frustrating if he’s not given time to digest it first.

So my advice to Dan (whom I’m sure is reading) is this: don’t change your climbing stuff at all. Do make sure though that when climbing is first approached that you’re vocal about the potential outcome and chance of success, and emphasize that this may be different from prior experiences at the gaming table. Also, fix that freaking hidden front door to the dungeon.

All in all, I’d say I give Rappan Athuk a B-. There’s definitely some cool stuff there, but I wouldn’t run it as written. I think it needs some key edits to be really playable, but I also think a good DM could easily make those edits and end up with a really fun game.

2 thoughts on “Back to the Well Once Too Often

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