By the end of this article, you will probably conclude that my friends do not read this blog.
Because if they did, I would have hesitated to state which dungeon I plan to run them through, let alone why I choose it: to satisfy my inner sadist.
No honest GM can deny that craving to have omnipotence over others or to evoke terror and dread in one’s friends had some role in leading them to their life’s calling.
And so I wish to introduce my friends to Rappan Athuk. Published by Frog God Games (formerly Necromancer Games), Rappan Athuk delivers on the company’s former slogan, “Third Edition Rules, First Edition Feel.”
Because this 36-level megadungeon is fatal, much as early D&D in all its 1-hit-point glory was fatal. But this fatality in Rappan Athuk is not due to the rules it operates under, but rather from its encounter design. The first trap leads to instant death. And later there’s an encounter in which, unless your party makes a particular saving throw, you can inadvertently butcher almost your entire party.
But Tomb of Horrors this is not — it does not cremate players on account of bad luck. Rappan Athuk is not as unfair, and it rewards intelligent, cautious play. (I doubt any party has made it through much of Rappan Athuk without a death or two, however; and the climactic encounter of the dungeon has reportedly never been reached, let alone beaten.) Rappan Athuk has a delightful sense of wickedness that makes GMs chuckle and leads to some memorable and thrilling moments.
Which helps solve a quandary I’ve had lately. I have wanted to stick with a rules system that is modernly flexible and is currently supported (that is, Pathfinder RPG), but I would like to have some of that old-school feeling of death lurking around every corner, and my players holding their breath when I roll the dice and feeling like simply surviving the session is a true accomplishment.
But from what I have seen so far of Rappan Athuk, this apparently is not an either/or situation. I can have my cake (Pathfinder) and (my players) eat it, too.
Another aspect of Rappan Athuk that is refreshing is that it isn’t slave to the Pathfinder Challenge Rating system. Rappan Athuk doesn’t consistently provide “balanced” encounters that match or approximate the party’s power level. For example, a CR 4 encounter will be followed by a CR 5 encounter, and then a CR 12(!) encounter, in a dungeon level for which the stated difficulty level is for 8th-level players. Therefore, there is a continuously wide variety of levels of difficulty of traps and creatures, so that some are notably “easy” while others are near impossible that a judicious party must flee.
This restores some of that sense of peril and unpredictability that should come when a group of heroes enter a dangerous area like a dungeon.
Although I appreciate Paizo’s Adventure Paths and plan to run one as my first long-term campaign, I do wish that Paizo presented the encounters in its APs in this more unpredictable manner. However, the format of the APs would seem to be at tension with this design — if there is a (largely) predetermined path on which the story is supposed to go, you can’t really put insurmountable roadblocks in the way. At least in a dungeon, the party can wisely steer clear of that cavern door that a red dragon is breathing fire out of. But in those parts of the APs that are events-based and not location-based, the author doesn’t have this flexibility. You can’t quite place a red dragon on a railroad.
Still, I hope that Paizo adopts some of this approach in its future AP offerings.
In the meantime, I hope to run one of Paizo’s Adventure Paths (either Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne, or Carrion Crown). Once I get the hang of running a campaign from that experience, I’ll brew up a campaign that includes a number of adventures and will include all or part of Rappan Athuk.
And just recently, Frog God Games announced:
“Weighing in with over 50 dungeon levels and dozens of wilderness areas, Rappan Athuk will be released next summer as a hardbound, library-stitched book in both Pathfinder and Swords and Wizardry formats. The book contains 18 more levels even than Rappan Athuk Reloaded, as well as the outdoor adventures supporting them. I am also working on a leather cover (or faux leather) for the binding.”
Are these guys insane? And where can I pre-order my copy?
Have any of you guys read or done in an adventure in Rappan Athuk? What are your thoughts on this style of play?