This massive book of expansion-levels for Rappan Athuk clocks in at 165 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC,1 page back cover, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 159 pages of content, so let’s take a look…
…but before, let me say one thing – this review is my Razor Coast. This review crashed and burned (!!!) times, with all data gone; Once on my laptop, once due to my mobile HD being stolen and once due to my desktop PC’s HD crashing. I’ve literally written this review 3 times, only to have it crash before I had the chance to back it up. So let’s get this posted before my desktop PC dies…again.
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. Got that?
So, after a brief introduction we receive the first of 4 new wilderness areas, Castle Calaelen. Situated west of Zelkor’s Ferry and north of the mouth of doom, this locale makes for a good starting adventure in case your players are not hardcore enough for the dangers that lurk below the surface – the base of operations for a few goblins and their gnoll mercenaries. The castle itself sports relatively meager defenses and breathes a sense of a world that has turned onwards, that has left its heyday behind – with grim traps like trapped goblin tea parties, an infernal raven and finally the option to save an innocent gentleman (of half-orc stock), the level did remind me of the starting modules of old and is probably as close as Frog God Games gets to providing an easy introductory module. Bits and pieces that can turn nasty are here, but overall, the castle probably is the easiest thing to have been released under the Lost Land-banner. And generally, I wouldn’t complain here – it’s a nice place. When compared to the challenge that Crucible of Freya (nowadays collected in the Stoneheart Valley-anthology) posed, the attention to detail with light sources, shifts etc., I can’t help but feel that this castle is meant to ease new players into the feel and playstyle. What I’m trying to say is – don’t expect this chapter to challenge your players too much.
The second new wilderness area would be Hell’s Hamlet – and scarcely has a moniker been so fitting. The town of Mitchrod is firmly in the hands of the forces infernal, with multiple examples of devils existing among the predominantly hobgoblin populace. Now here’s the catch – no one like apocalyptic demon cults, not even the devils. Hence, this village may be tackled in two ways – on the one hand, your players could well opt to scourge the opposition, rooting this taint from the land. On the other hand, less scrupulous characters may well opt to throw in their lot with the village – after all, legendary Demonbane was wrought in the smithies of hell… Personally, I consider non-hostile interaction to be the more rewarding option here, mainly because this city and its inhabitants and guardians are unique in all the right ways – from the delightfully odd tin-man guardian golem to the kyton that may very well resurrect your allies to hallucinogenic mushrooms, there is a lot cool stuff to discovered – and in the vast depths of Rappan Athuk, there are plainly enough creatures for your PCs to jab their pointy sticks into…a bit of social roleplaying won’t hurt them, especially if sprinkled with a healthy anxiety at the practices of their…hosts?
The third “encounter” is perhaps the oddest herein -assuming the PCs venture towards Rappan Athuk by sea, their vessel is attacked and they, by some means or another, are deployed into pirate captivity, only to be able to escape their bounds and into the wilderness. This may sound some alarm bells – and indeed, as the introduction acknowledges, this section may well seem contrived and forced if not handled properly. However, the good thing here would be that the main meat of this section is NOT about the somewhat railroady event, which imho can be potentially skipped, but rather about the survival action in the middle of a vast forest – from odd food to a variety of disturbing daemonic entities with unique tricks, guided by a malevolent will, the PCs will have quite a lot of exploration to do to toughen them up before they can return to the “safety” of civilization. That being said, while I do really, really like this survival aspect, the encounters, scavenging tables etc., I have to admit that I consider the tie-in to Rappan Athuk, both in theme and execution, to be almost non-existent. My advice is to run this as a stand-alone – it probably works better than beating PCs expecting a dungeon-campaign over the head with such a module. It’s a good module, though not a perfect one and the glaring tactical errors the evil entity executes, while explained and rationalized by the author, might come off as DM-fiat to some players – experienced DMs can pull this off and make it very memorable and awesome, though.
The 4th wilderness encounter/following dungeon levels would be the Tunnels of Terror, situated in a ruined keep and guarded by bandits – and believe me when I say, these levels are on par with what one would expect from Rappan Athuk – the first level’s map spans three whole pages. On its own. Level 2C and 3D would be the extensions of this massive dungeon. (Well…massive in relative terms when compared to other FGG-dungeons, but you get what I mean…) If you want to mince no words, make no false pretensions of Rappan Athuk being anything but deadly – well, here we’d have a neat example why a dungeon like this ought to be feared. Stone Ropers at CR 6, level 7 priests (yes, the channel energy WILL kill the party if they are not VERY careful…), death traps – while not as nasty as big ole’ RA itself and terrain-wise, relatively conventional, this place is a challenge. On the downside, at least in my opinion, it does not add that much to the overall myth of Rappan Athuk. Hidden very powerful demons? Tsathar, bandits? Yep – you know the drill and unlike other examples of the Tsathar being their awesome, froggy selves, they may be the lesser of the evils in this case…which somewhat detracts from and diminishes their antediluvian demon-god/great-old-one crossover flair…but that may be me just being a fanboy for them. The tie-in regarding actually working for them may make for a hideous twist of fate near the end-game…after all, FGG has a module called “Against Tsathogga…”
Level 2C, as mentioned, contains the second level of the tunnels, and is not smaller – the temple of Tsathogga, blind albino frogs, magic mirrors – a nice example of an evil temple underground, though honestly, I considered the temple to be somewhat disappointing regarding terrain – some more unique hazards, flooded passages, unique traps etc. would have helped setting this temple further apart from all the Orcus-temples in main RA: The level also contains the Rainbow Vault and its riddles – pity that a tie-in/synergy with the Hall of the Rainbow Mage has been omitted here. One note – while I do love the puzzles on this level, I’m not a fan of ROYGBIV being a part of a puzzle’s solution – that’s mostly meta-gaming convention and knowledge and furthermore makes me flash back to Sam & Max Season 1. (The game, not the animated series..) Note that this is me being nitpicky, though – after all, there are the prismatic spells…. Speaking of puzzles – the final section of this level sports multiple statues that can be turned. to turn them, though, certain pillars have to be unlocked and rotated, but there also are pillars that activate traps – THANKFULLY, a massive sidebox explains this puzzle. As much as love complex puzzles like this, I do not advocate the way it is presented – it’s a matter of taste, but I’m not a fan of Myst-style puzzles where you have a complex mechanism and then essentially guess what you’re supposed to be doing. While not absolutely required to progress in the overall scheme of things, a general, cryptic clue, a visual abstraction of the level, which then can be identified by the players if their mapping-skills are up to par – some clue where and how to tackle this one would have been appreciated by quite a lot of players. Now don’t get me wrong – in my book, we need challenges like this more often…but some hints to prevent trial and error would be more than welcome.
The final level of the tunnels contains another temple of Orcus (One more? So what does this one do if you deactivate it?), which generally feels a bit out of place. Oh well, at least the opposition, making ample use of Tome of Horrors 4, is pretty unique and the option to save a djinn is nice as well. Also a pity – this place is supposed to be created by an advance force from Tsar – so where’s the optional tie-in to that place? Lost chance here. And yes, I’m complaining at a high level here, I’m aware of that. Now the second section of this dungeon-level is once again up to grisly lethality – golems, vampires, uncommon undead – all you’d expect from Rappan Athuk, yet still in a fresh guise. Nice!
Level 6B would present the PCs with perhaps the most lethal of adversaries possible – adventurers. undead ones at that. In their home-turf, with plenty of servants. And unique puzzle-creatures that are smart…and a nice nod towards Silent Hill 4’s ghosts. Have I mentioned the friendly undead dragon wishing to chomp on your PCs? GLORIOUS.
We close this pdf with various encounters/NPCs to be inserted at your whim into your game, as well as an appendix that depicts the Disciple of Orcus PrC and the new monsters.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to FGG’s printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard, with plenty of neat cartography and high-quality original artworks, though there are no player-friendly versions of the maps, which constitutes a detriment in my book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. Inexplicably, an index listing at one convenient glance the danger levels and exits/entries of the respective individual levels has been omitted – a pity, since RA already requires a lot of book-keeping on the DM’s side and help like that would have been appreciated.
Bill Webb, Alex Clatworthy, James Redmon and Skeeter Green have woven more Rappan Athuk…but can it hold up to the original? Yes…and no. On the one hand, this tome is an example of excellent old-school adventure-craft – each and every piece of content breathes the spirit of what is great and awesome about old-school modules. On the other hand, though, the different voices show. I’ve been struggling quite a while with myself for this one. Why? Because I am honestly not sure whether it’s just me. It might be very much possible that I’m burned out on Orcus-priests and their undead minions after Slumbering TSar and Rappa Athuk. On bandits occupying a ruined fortress as well. I can’t be sure. It does feel like, at least partially and at least to me, though, as if I’ve seen some of the tricks herein done better before….in Rappan Athuk. Does every level herein have some part of that old-school magic? Yes! How could one NOT like gold-pooping, purring, fungus-shaped dwarf-affine pets that pose as rocks to avoid detection by certain races? How could one not like actual riddles that challenge one’s mind beyond just rolling dice? This compilation offers quite a few examples of what is awesome about old-school adventuring.
To give you an example, the wilderness-survival module, in spite of its problematic beginning, is modular enough, with all its cool daemonic critters, to incite one’s imagination. The puzzles are glorious, if not always perfect in their hint-distribution. Evil undead adventurers groups? Heck yeah! On the other hand, getting YET ANOTHER shrine of Orcus (sans bearing on the metaplot), getting a Tsathar domain that simply isn’t as alien or partially, as interesting, as it could be…feel disappointing on a very high level. This expansion is best in the cases it truly enhances Rappan Athuk – by providing social encounters, a whole hamlet to interact with, by its distinct challenges. Alas, not all of this expansion is devoted to that – there are examples I’d consider derivative of the main module. This may be intentional. Perhaps it’s just me after reading and purchasing 3 iterations of the dungeon + Slumbering Tsar…but it takes more to wow me than a couple of named NPCs, acolytes, undead and demons on a level devoted to Orcus to blow me away. Is it thematically coherent when it happens? Yes. Is it stellar? Alas, no.
Heart of the Razor – while not perfect, provided thematic, culturally relevant expansions to the main book. This one does so as well…in a couple of cases. In others, it fails to deliver them. In the superb wilderness module, for example, some kind of permanent boon would have most definitely been appropriate. Is this worth being purchased for Rappan Athuk? Yes. As a stand-alone? Yes. Is it required or perfect? No. This is a fun book, a good book, but falls short of the level of quality delivered in the new levels of PFRPG’s iteration of RA – the level of awesomeness of a certain level with planar awesomeness as an organic, fitting change of pace, is absent from the book.
I really like components of this book, ESPECIALLY the fact that it demands that your players use their brains. But it also has some components that left me underwhelmed at a very high level. In a context that was not Frog God Games, I’d probably be singing praises on how this module is almost on par with Frog God Games’ mastery of old-school modules. So what’s my final verdict? Honestly, I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by a couple of levels, but at the same time, I’ve really, really liked several ideas herein – hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4 stars – a good compilation to have, but not a must-have.
You can get this neat expansion to Rappan Athuk here on d20pfsrd.com’s shop – both in PFRPG and S&W!