The Sadistic GM

Rappan Athuk Reloaded cover

Rappan Athuk. Someday I want to inflict this on my players.

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.

Ohhhh yes.

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?

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About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
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6 Responses to The Sadistic GM

  1. edowar says:

    Rappan Athuk would be interesting to look at. I’ve never thought of 3E/Pathfinder as being well suited to mega-dungeon style gaming, what with those humongous stat-blocks and abundant rules crunch. It would be interesting to see how they handle it.

    Ed Green

    • ronaldsf says:

      As far as I can tell, the crunchiness of Pathfinder can become an obstacle only in combats. I don’t think it does much to slow down the free-form/exploration part of dungeon delving.

      As for the combats, again I haven’t run high-level Pathfinder yet. (And Rappan Athuk, although it says the first couple of levels should not be attempted by parties of less than 3rd or 4th level, I really wouldn’t try on my players until they got maybe to 7th level.) Not sure how a lengthy, lots-of-math combat might be counterposed to what you mean by “mega-dungeon style gaming” though. For me, what I am looking for is lots of traps, a dose of trickery, and some “unbalanced” fights.

      Also, there’s a version of Rappan Athuk for the Swords & Wizardry retroclone, based on the 0e rules.

      • edowar says:

        In addition to lighter combat rules, 0e/clones also really streamlines the exploration process. A few simple d6 rolls to find secret doors or determine surprise, a quick % roll to find a trap, etc..

        Pathfinder’s skill system is a lot crunchier, with varying DC’s (this door is DC 15 to pick, that one is DC 22, etc.), more applicable class and race abilities, and more modifiers to apply to all that. All that crunch adds up quickly, meaning that even the exploration part of the game could bog down.

        Even torches are more complicated in Pathfinder: in 0e, a torch gives off light to a certain radius (20 or 30 feet); but Pathfinder torches give normal light to 20′, then dim light between 20 and 40′ with different modifiers to perception checks and ranged attacks.

        Of course, that doesn’t mean PF can’t be used for mega-dungeon crawls, but your players might get frustrated with a lack of progress. Maybe some of the crunchiness can be hand-waved to streamline things.

        That said, if I do pick up Rappan Athuk, I’ll probably get the Pathfinder version, mainly because it’s easier to convert from PF to S&W than it is to convert from S&W to PF.

        Btw, if you do put your players through it, any plans for play reports? It would be interesting to see how things go.

  2. Jason says:

    Have you looked at their Tome of Horrors? I’m considering picking up a PDF of it.

    BTW I’m really enjoying your blog, keep up the good work!

  3. coaxc says:

    “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.”

    Not true: such cravings played no role in me wanting to GM. It is possible! If anything, I had to get used to letting players fail and suffer the consequences of their poor decisions.

    I know your quip is meant as a joke, but it’s a joke that’s supposed to be funny because it’s true. I hope I’m not the only one that breaks this stereotype, even if I am rare (and I am, and have met or experienced enough other GMs to know it).

  4. ronaldsf says:

    coaxc, thanks for the comment. Yeah I must confess I’m of two minds when I GM, and this is why I think my preferred situation is to have 2 different approaches with same group of friends:

    The first is a campaign intended to be long-running, where the stories are king. This requires having some continuity in who your characters are and some real investment of time and thought put into making each character vivid. This requires lowering the degree of fatality and (gasp!) some fudging on the GM’s part. However, when death comes this makes it all the more memorable and real.

    The second is a series of perilous adventures, putting the PCs in situations where they are frequently placed in considerable danger of dying if they’re not careful. This scratches a “different kind of itch” with which the first approach is incompatible — that “itch” of thinking tactically because your game decisions have real consequences, and also getting that feeling of considerable danger and not knowing what’s around the corner.

    So I enter GMing with BOTH of these urges, so I’m kind of schizophrenic. 🙂 While having the desire to scare my players that I have above, I also hesitate at delivering the killing blow because I want the deaths to be punctuations in a campaign, truly memorable, but never undeserved and never so common that the players never get attached to their characters.

    I’m still developing a relationship with my players and finding out what ratio of continuity to danger is the right proportion for them.

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