Vintage Reviews: EZG reviews Rappan Athuk
This pdf is 676 pages long, 1 page editorial, 2 pages ToC, 10 pages of thanks for kickstarter backers, 4 pages of SRD, 15 pages of space for character obituaries, 5 pages of advertisements,1 page front cover and 1 page back cover, leaving a total of 635 pages of content.
How does one review the third iteration of Rappan Athuk? Seriously. I asked myself this question for quite some time. Slumbering Tsar, the last monster-book by Frog God Games came in installments. Not so the granddaddy of dungeons, the so far highest grossing PFRPG-kickstarter and one of the highest funded RPG-products ever – Rappan Athuk starts off as this vast monster of content and here I am, at the point of writing this, after big-mouthed announcing that my review for this monster would be ready for Gencon. How am I to do this? In order to fully appreciate the book and quality-check the new content, I’d have to go through all of it and that’s exactly what I’m planning to do. I initially thought about comparing it to its former two iterations, but with the review going to be as bloated and the limited use for people out there, I’ll refrain from doing so. Since asking for mercy would be futile, I’ll leave off for now with another wish: May Orcus look the other way, I once again open the pages that contain the most deadly dungeon I’ve had the pleasure of running in 3.X.
And how else to kick off such an epic milestone than with a tribute to the true legends among the RPG-designers like Arneson, Barker, Bledsaw, Gygax – touching and well-written. Speaking of well-written: If you know one of the older iterations of the dungeon, you’ll know the legend of Rappan Athuk and have a warm (or clammy, if you’re a player) feeling when reading the 66 rumors about the dungeon of graves. While an introduction on how to read the dungeon entries was expected, we also get a nice overview of all the levels and their names and then a 2-page side-view map, which makes it (relatively) easy for the DM to get how all the levels are connected. After that, we get into the first chapter, entitled “Wilderness Areas: Dying outside the dungeon”. Now THAT’s an announcement. Before I go on, I have another little thing to talk about: In the last two iterations of the dungeon, there were several monsters that are IP of certain wizards – when I recall such monsters being there, I’ll try to comment on how they’ve been replaced.
Since from now on, I’ll delve into massive SPOILER-territory and since this dungeon is probably the most epic you’ll ever play in, I encourage players to skip to the conclusion (after about 3 metric tons of text).
Still here? If you’re a player, you may incur the wrath of Orcus AND Tsathoggua by reading on. They watch us. They watch us all…
…Still here? Sure? All right, let’s explore the area around Rappan Athuk! The chapter kicks off with the one ways to start old-schoolish wilderness-depictions – random encounters by area (And, again a map), thankfully also including non-hostile patrols – 5 of these general areas are presented. After that, we’re introduced to the less savory individuals that haunt the area around Rappan Athuk. If you expect standard bandits, you’ll be in for a surprise, though: What about a doppelganger rogue that not only comes with cronies, but also NPC-companions as a kind of party-anathema or a wizard that has enslaved a bunch of trolls? Not only are the respective bandits listed in their own entries, we also get encounter areas for PCs looking for some serious trouble/stamping out of the lawless beings: Care to take on the dragonmarsh’s froghemoth, for example? Or PCs wanting to participate in a not particularly harmless fey festival? Other highlights include two mapped bandit-mini-dungeon, a fane with a dread prophecy, a sea-hag coven, a wrecked pirate ship and can purge a tribe of vicious bugbears from an (Also mapped) ruined fort and if the PCs are REALLY eager to die outside of Rappan Athuk, they can also try to invade the island home of the local wyrm…
And then, we get to the inverted-cross-shaped surface graveyard under which the dungeon rests – as well as a one page of grave-markers and the iconic entry to the dungeon: The very first trap is deadly and a potential TPK-machine – when I first ran my players through the first Rappan Athuk installment, they died here for the first time and knew that RA doesn’t Screw around… In contrast to the other incarnations of the dungeon, we now also get two alternate, although also rather problematic entrance to Rappan Athuk – and deep levels of the dungeon to boot. However, the entrance is underwater, the caves are guarded by a kraken and at low levels, the PCs will probably die here – if they persevere and e.g. find the solution to a great puzzle, they might score the help of a neat ally – and the PCs can use ANY help they can get.
Another potential location from which to gain access to the legendary dungeon now rests atop a desolate ridge over the marshland and comes with a stellar artwork that immediately evokes a sense of almost lovecraftian foreboding – the cloister of the dread Frog God with two different cloisters and multiple levels of crypts and dungeons containing chthonic remains, dread intelligent killer frog swarms, old artifacts and challenges aplenty – creepy, unique in atmosphere and mood, the cloister of the Frog God would have made for a stellar adventure on its own, especially with the nice, player-friendly overview map: Here, though, it’s just a precursor of the dread to come and a possible entrance to a sublevel (4A) of the dungeon of graves. But one thing remains before we delve into the dungeon of graves itself: Zelkor’s Ferry, the small settlement and its immediate surroundings are detailed as well, including a nice old necromancer whose resurrection attempts may have some unforeseen consequences for the PCs subjected to theme – rules-wise an awesome throwback to the risks of returning to life.
But we’ve stalled long enough: Let’s go through the dungeon, level by level. And yes, this review will probably be rather bloated and long… After passing the dread trap at the beginning, The PCs delve into the stinking, disgusting first level of Rappan Athuk and meet one of the place’s iconic inhabitants – the slow, unkillable and truly dreadful Dung Monster (nicknamed “Dungy” by my players), which has probably slain A LOT of PCs. The level 1A, temple of the final sacrament, is another personal favorite of mine -accessible via more than one location, it features mocking, taunting inscriptions reflecting the challenges faced in this temple and PCs should beware – not only is the temple HARD, it also features an entrance to the dread bloodways, but more on these later. On Level 1B, the abandoned bastion, the PCs can encounter mist-filled alcoves containing strange and deadly connections to the otherworld as well as an organized force of goblins that will respond dynamically to incursions. Special mentioning also goes to the rather cool traps contained on this level. In direct contrast, the “Mouth of Doom” (level 1C), a mostly deserted and rather easy level makes for a new way to introduce characters to the rigors and dangers of Rappan Athuk – among the challenges and ideas on this level, most intriguing, at least to me, was the option to play at a rather neat divine slot machine and get some uncommon boons – or summon disaster! On the classic level two, insane madman Marthek still looms, but those familiar with the older installments will notice that Saracek the fallen, skeletal champion and dread adversary, has been upgraded to antipaladin in this iteration, making the undead menace even more deadly than his prior fighter/blackguard version. Of course, the third “boss” menace is also still here in the person of Ambro the Ogre.
The new area 2A will be hated by players – now, Rappan Athuk also has its teleporter-maze level. Yes. Teleporter Maze. Ouch. On the plus-side, the PCs can actually find a surface one-way teleport out of the dungeon. On the downside (for them) and to my everlasting glee, they actually have a chance to die by BUBBLES! Yes. Rappan Athuk can even kill you with friggin’ bubbles! I love it. “How did your character die?” “Welll…ehh…he…was killed by bubbles.” I HAVE to kill some PC off this way, I just have to! The Demon’s Gullet, the sequel to the Mouth of Doom, also provides rather appropriate challenges (still being deadly, but not as bad as the main levels…) for low-level PCs and even features a wishing statue that could grant you your heart’s desire – or swallow and suffocate you. Speaking of swallowing and related deaths – with level 3 and its eponymous warning of purple worms, the dungeon gets deadly. Prior to this level, Rappan Athuk is challenging – from here on out, it gets deadly as hell (or rather abyss) and this incarnation is no different – old favorites like the oracle are still present in this version of the dungeon and Scramge (now a rakshasa maharaja, btw.) and his assault should challenge the hardest of parties – unless they act smart indeed, this level WILL see the end of your PCs.
Speaking of the end of PCs – the warning “Don’t go down the well” still applies – and level 3A, still features some of the deadliest, most sadistic encounters written – not to speak of this level’s boss and his iron golem bodyguards. That’s NOTHING, though, compared to the sick and deliciously evil traps that can be found on level 3B – here, the PCs can get into CR 20+ encounters. Several of them. E.g. Greater Stone Golems plus hasted regular stone golems. Or Stone Treants. Have I mentioned the ancient mummy lords guarding the creatures known as ravager spawns (CR 20), gibbering orbs (CR 27) and then, the legendary Ravager, a CR 30 beast that could very well be a spawn of Rovagug. Compared to the apocalyptic dread of level 3B, 3C, the third of the “beginner’s levels” of RA feels almost tame – an enclave of healers wanted to once flush out the threat of Orcus. Now, though, only a bleak disease-ridden complex populated by vermin and worse remains. Especially the fountain of pestilence, which generates demons, rats etc. will make for a cool encounter indeed also thanks to the disturbing artwork that portrays it.
It is in level 4 that the PCs will face off with the main quest of Rappan Athuk for the first time – since the ultimate goal (and who are we kidding – rather futile) is to kill Orcus, it is here that the PCs will have to invade the first temple of Orcus and get a sense of the depravity and things to come – and face challenges that will have them sweat blood and tears: The NPCs make use of the Disciple and Zealot of Orcus Prestige Classes (more on those MUCH later), making the adversaries more deadly. Max the intelligent and potentially benevolent (at least as far as RA goes…)otyugh also makes a return. How challenging is the boss encounter? Well, the text tells the DM to buy the players a drink if they prevail and indeed, the finale is lethal…though in the context of the dungeon, it’s just the beginning. The Basilisk Caverns (level 4A) include a potential dwarven cohort, the eponymous basilisk(s), a team of lethal goblin adventurers and even a mated pair of vampire/succubus with a rather evil trick up their sleeves… Level 4B, the “Gut” is essentially not a regular level, but a vast tunnel with several sub-sections that links the “beginner’s dungeon” (understand that “beginner” means NOT easy) with the main-levels of Rappan Athuk – via Zombie stables, a subterranean inn run by a mongrelman, a colony of plantoids and more foes – including a Tiefling fighter with a rather interesting two-weapon build.
Level 5 provides us with the lair of Banth, wicked transmuter and his creations. Here, players can recruit further allies (or replenish their ranks after suffering losses) with two characters and especially rangers and druids might have a chance to shine/get nice companions in this level. A stream of lava runs through level 5A, the prison of time, in which time elementals guard the so-called Dark Thelaroi are contained – I look forward to reading more about these weird beings in future adventures. In level 5B, “Aladdin’s Lament”, some problematic, genie-themed items can be recovered – if the PCs manage to survive e.g. the ingenious and awesome trap that will make them feel like frogs in a blender. The level also utilizes some rather neat inscriptions to set the mood. Level 6 has always been one of my player’s hate-levels – the Maze not only contains a storm giant ghost and the remains of the legendary titan Ereg-Tal, but also comes with 10 (!!!) sample mazes for your perusal – making sure that PCs will hate these labyrinthine corridors. Level 6A once featured a mind flayer in a gorgeous illustration – unfortunately, with the IP-problems, we only get the intellect devourer-substitution and no new illustration to depict the aberration. The bosses of the level, 3 ancient, well-equipped trolls and the spider/human hybrid, the Spider Queen, also make this level a nice challenge.
Level 7, the aptly-named gates of hell, has also been redesigned: While the cerberus-like 3-headed hell-hound being still here, we also get a great substitution of the mind-flayers and giths that once populated this level in the guise of encephalon gorgers and morlocks – a much better r3eplacement for illithids, though I still bemoan the absence of the good ol’ squid-heads. In Level 7A, the halls of the phase minotaur king, the PCs not only will have to defeat this legendary minotaur and navigate even more deadly labyrinths, they will also have to deal with more lethal goblins from the subterranean city of greenskins and a crimson death as well as water weirds in their native elements… Level 8 contains the “Tomb of the Evil King”, a breather for PCs – at least partially – the vast amounts of cave scorpions, the river flowing through the level and the eye of the deep (which replaces a beholder) still make this a challenge, as does the option to find and unleash a banshee, but generally, this level feels less lethal than others. Level 8A, the tomb of the beacon, on the other hand is one of my favorites: This vast level set in a primarily vertical cave features not only a waterfall, antimagic fields and a side-view map, but also offers PCs the chance to meet the utterly disturbing Blood Orchids and even form an alliance with flumphs! Come on, who doesn’t like flumphs? The new level 8B contains not only a neat subterranean jungle, but also has the chance for the PCs to find evidence of a now extinct breed of intelligent apes and utilize their leftovers: Turns out the mummified monkey dung is explosive and that among other treasures, the PCs can find a banana of holding! Now that is cool!
And honestly, the PCs will need all the potential tools they can get their hands on, for starting with level 9, things start to get truly painful: The second temple of Orcus awaits and its caretaker, Gudmund, has a vital key the PCs will need. Unfortunately for them, the disciple of Orcus is not exactly a nice fellow and the demon-enhanced showdown will challenge your PCs to the breaking point – especially if you’re a sadistic DM like me – there’s a maze with a bunch of teleporters on this level and making a running dash for the area allows your NPCs e.g. time to rebuff – just as a tip in case players first manage to breach the temple’s defenses and seem like they’re winning. 😉 Level 9A, the Hydra’s Lair, contains one of the truly evil dick-moves of this dungeon: Extremely well-hidden, there’s a tomb of a CR 26 death knight AND a CR 27 Demilich. When compared to these “bonus-bosses” of epic power, the normal foes like huge groups of trolls, a pair of umbral dragons and a 12-headed Pyrohydra guarding the mithril gates leading to level 11 feel almost easy. Until you recall and experience their power that is. Hope that your PCs are smart enough to let the two ancient beings lie… Level 9B and 9C make up the two levels of the well of Agamemnon and while the first level is not too hard, the whirlpool the PCs will have to brave to access the latter level will test their luck and ingeniousness, a good precursor for the difficulty that awaits the PCs in the person of Agamemnon, the now-corrupted vampire archwizard and his groaning spirit-brides.
Level 9D are the bloodways, first introduced in Rappan Athuk Reloaded: Taking the trope from the classic “Desert of Desolation”-set, the bloodways are a labyrinth filled with bloody, red mist that obscures vision, are almost impossible to truly navigate and make up 4 (!!!) levels of dungeon – the bloodways are flavorful and confusing, though their boss, Duke Aerim the bloodwraith, feels rather like a bit weak for the level. That being said, the confusing and lengthy nature of the Bloodways makes it still a disturbing challenge and perhaps one of the hardest levels – and there are the forgotten tombs, where undead mummy-priests and even a marilith awaits, so enough potential for death and mayhem here. Let’s hope that by the time PCs reach level 10, the aptly-named Lava Pit, they have some option to make themselves immune to fire, otherwise the local salamander-population under the command of CR 28 noble salamander sorceror Irtuk will annihilate the PCs. Who are we kidding? Even if they are prepared, Irtuk and his elemental creatures will constitute a challenge that could break all but the most experienced players – and let’s hope that their curiosity doesn’t kill them – there’s essentially a nice “story-kill” also possible on this level. Level 10A, the “Great Cavern” is appropriately-named – with another total of 4 pages of maps depicting both an overview as well as the respective sites. Among the creatures herein, the PCs can find the “Mother of all Purple Worms”, two legendary orcus-mummies, negotiate with an insanely powerful lich who actually is a foe of Orcus, navigate a colony of fungus people and find another set of mithral gates and even a vein of gold! In level 10B, the goblin outpost features some rather interesting green-skins – armed to the teeth, having multiple class-levels and teamwork powers, they and their unit training should make the PCs reconsider hard any notion of underestimating goblins and provide them with a taste of the things to come.
In level 10C, the Talon of Orcus, another outpost of the Orcus-worshippers, has also a rather large contingent of deadly foes and overshadows the goblins from the prior level – the Seer of Orcus, special stone golems etc. won’t make things easier for the PCs and the broken, MPD-afflicted adventurer they can rescue may yet succumb to the traumas he had to endure – with potentially fatal consequences, but also some very fun roleplaying potential. On level 11, the PCs can encounter, among other beings, a neothelid (which replaces a beholder, if my memory serves me correctly) as well as find the statue of a high priestess struck by a divine curse – greed and risk/reward ratios of groups are put to the test here, though I always considered it a pity that per se no way to free the priestess has been included. Oh, have I mentioned the mithral vein? Level 11A not only features the gates to the subterranean city of goblins, but also perhaps the hardest group of NPCs in the “rival adventurer”-style encountered so far with non only a hall of 40 wraiths at their beck and call, a group of high-level vampires will bleed the PC’s resources further dry. Wait, you say: Goblin City? Yes, one of the largest levels of Rappan Athuk is the meticulously detailed Goblin City of Greznek in level 12A – a roleplaying town that comes with its own attitude-adjustment sidebox and the options for starved adventurers to not only stock up, but actually do some trading and even side-questing, making this city a great alternative and break from all the dungeon crawling. Level 12 contains a whole array of potential cohorts and the reason is rather evident by its title: The Slave Dens contain all those unfortunate enough to have been caught by the servants of Orcus or the goblins and it is from here, if anywhere, that the PCs will need to stage their escape attempt should they get caught alive by anyone. Worse for the PCs, two elite priests, their mohrgs and their option to summon a balor also are a part of the fun things they can encounter this level. Another cool break from standard dungeon crawling would be level 12B, Tiamat’s Puzzle, in which the PCs do explore a dungeon, yes, but one focused very strongly on riddle-solving and with a different theme. It is here the PCs may find a potent sword, which remains cursed for now – until they find the parent-sword in the vermin-themed level 12C, that is. This level is more about mass than threat and probably will have the PCs feel a surge of power, which is ok, I guess -especially since the giant amphisbaena anaconda is waiting for worn-down, overconfident PCs…
Level 13 houses a dread ghost antipaladin – and options to die. Hard. By becoming cursed, by facing a mirror duplicate and by failing to properly navigate the portal on this level, for it is here that the only point of access to the final level can be found. But we’ll return to examine that later – after we’ve checked out the Goblin Barracks and the military commander of the greenskins (13A), followed the winding Dark River (13B) to Zombieland (13C). Where, bingo, a LOT of zombies wait. To be chopped to pieces. That’s fine, let the PCs smash through whole armies of them and find a way to access the “Lost Levels” as soon as they are released. As soon as the PCs are overconfident enough, they can find a wall of force – if they bash it down, they’ll have fun with 2 CR20+ liches and the dread evil artifact, the Zombiestone of Karsh. Now if you’re familiar with the classic mythology of demon-princes, you may not be surprised to find that the defense of the lowest of the three temples of Orcus falls to not only extremely powerful beings, but actually to a combination of demons, undead and disciples as well as Maphistal, a demon lord of his own right. If the PCs manage to clean this temple as well, they might actually have a teeny-tiny sliver of a chance against the Demon Prince of Undead. Level 14A houses a tragedy – it is here that the defeated army of Tsar retreated to and that a fallen angel and a dwarven undead abomination still lead an army of hundreds (literally, there are that many) undead in their congregation, guarding level 14B, aptly titled “The Grand Cornu of Orcus” – here, the high-priest of the demon-lord of the undead makes his final stand, here his shadow-advisor Pagonis, his Kyton torture-master, his denizen of leng librarian Ashfallen and his personal, powerful undead servants wait and work tirelessly for the detriment of all that is good and holy and it is here that the epic battle against this stain upon the planet will reach its penultimate climax- at least, that’s what one would think until one sees the “Architect’s Workshop” (level 14C) – where legendary planar architect Glazerel waits alongside his anima engine, where PCs can be hurtled to seemingly prehistoric times, a strange mercane-bar tended by valkyries, awaken stranded in a Kyton-hospital (Silent Hill is calling…), travel to a strange garden eden, battle an undead gold dragon and visit a plateau that might very well be adjacent to Leng itself – the planar chaos and dimensional sidetreks are plain awesome and make this my favorite new level of the dungeon.
Speaking of which: Only one to go: Level 15. The Den of the Master. When the PCs, covered in their own blood and naked, pop up in this dimension, they are in for an immediate blasphemy for fun and giggles, continuing blasts of evil energy and can kiss regaining clerical magic goodbye. Apart from highest echelon demons, we also get a selection of Orcus’ most powerful level 20 allies as well as..well. Orcus’ friggin’ avatar. CR 35. The PCs better be running for that teleporter circle to et as fast away as possible from the Demon Prince. Though, of course, if they prevail, Orcus is gone for 666 years and their feat will be sung of in legends forevermore…
The pdf also contains stats for all new monsters, an appendix with the “Disciple of Orcus”-archetype, the Archwizard and Zealot of Orcus-PrCs, a total of 38 new magic items (of which many are artifacts), an appendix detailing the presumed default gods of the Necro/FrogGod-verse, illustrated pregens for level 1 and 6 of all CORE-classes, but not of the APG/UM/UC-classes, a total of 37 pages of battle-maps as well as the aforementioned obituary-sheets, which imho will see a lot of use…
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn’t notice any significant glitches and the scarce minor formatting glitch did not detract from my enjoyment of this mega-dungeon. Layout adheres to FGG’s two-column b/w-standard and the most iconic of the b/w-artworks have been re-used from the previous two iterations. It should be known, though, that we also get a vast slew of new pieces of art of a comparably stellar quality. One major upside since the latest incarnation of Rappan Athuk is that all encounters feature directly the CR-ratings for the respective areas, which is a huge help, as is the decision to include major statblocks where they are needed in the dungeon – layout wise, especially in direct comparison, this version of Rappan Athuk first mops the floor with its predecessors and then gobbles up the remains. The pdf has also been lovingly bookmarked, enabling easy navigation in this monster.
Rappan Athuk is perhaps the best dungeon released for 3.X. In my opinion, it’s the best dungeon-centric module for the system. However, it had its weaknesses: While the initial levels had been detailed to the nth degree, the final levels felt a bit more abrupt and less imaginative. Another weakness was that the module(s) did not offer anything for low-level PCs to do. And finally, the wilderness was not as detailed as I would have liked it to be. These three weaknesses have been purged in the PFRPG-iteration – with the new low-level dungeon, PCs can suffer from 1st level on. The new wilderness-areas and 0-level entry-levels to the dungeon of graves are glorious. The sideview map means I don’t need a spreadsheet of connections between areas to navigate the dungeon. The Frog God’s Cloister would have made for an awesome module in itself. And the bonus-content keeps on coming: Even when compared with the reloaded version, the latest iteration feels vastly superior – minor ties to Tsar and the upcoming Sword of Air (which are always unobtrusive and don’t require the ownership of either), top-notch new levels at the higher levels of the dungeon, more deadly foes, more artifacts and even cool utilizations of PFRPG-rules – Plain awesome all around.
Now is there something I did not enjoy as much? Well, yes. I’m a huge fan of the APG-classes and you’ll find no alchemist, no inquisitor, no magus etc. here (though witches are there). I would have enjoyed more support for them. The replacements of IP-protected monsters make sense and work well in the context of the dungeon and serve to mostly enrich their environments, not detract from them. (Though I still miss mindflayers…)
So. After writing this review for x hours, reading the whole monster thrice, I can say I look forward to my kickstarter-exclusive level and the bonus modules as well as the player’s guide, all of which will also be reviewed in due time by yours truly. For now, I’ll have to give my final verdict and even if my copy of Slumbering Tsar wasn’t growling at me from my bookshelf, I couldn’t rate this any lower than the full 5 stars + endzeitgeist seal of approval – this could literally be all the deadly, imaginative old-school dungeon-goodness you’ll ever need.