Spells Through the Ages Polymorph – Polymorph Matrix

We've had some extensive reflectections on the various polymorph spells in the past (link one, two). I just realized that I made a graphical matrix of abilities conferred by polymorph in editions from 0th to 3rd, but never posted it here. See below:


Saturday Software: Wizard's Spell Index

I threw out a new version of the index to the AD&D Wizard's Spell Compendium on Monday. Here's a complementary piece of software to go along with that. In my standard idiom, what you'll get is a command-line Java application (JAR), associated data and source code, and a Windows batch file to run it click-wise.

In this case, the program doesn't do anything very interesting; just read the entirety of the Compendium index, do an integrity check, look for duplicate spell names, and compile lists of all the special origins and schools of magic that appear. But if you're a Java programmer then you may appreciate being able to hook into this and read, use, modify, and possibly write out a new spell index in a few lines code. (It's what I used to programatically check and reformat the index myself.)

Perhaps more immediately useful, here's also an alternate spell list that you can drop into the spellbook generator program from last week, including everything from the Wizard's Spell Compendium General Mage List -- with 1,278 spells! Note that, following that work, spells marked "C" (Common) are identical to those in the AD&D 2E PHB (which is mostly the same as in 1E), excepting spells named after some NPC (which are "U" for Uncommon); spells from other supplements are at lower frequency levels. (Rename to SpellIndex.csv to use.)


AD&D Wizard's Spell Compendium Index

We wrote previously about our appreciation for the AD&D Wizard's Spell Compendium, compiled by Mark Middleton, here. Although released in the years 1996-1998, it wasn't branded as "2nd Edition"; rather, the intent of the product was to be a general AD&D resource covering publications from the game any time from 1975-1995. (That said, you'll find it categorized as "2E" in most places online just because of the time frame, and the format of the spell matches 2E, e.g., ranges in units of yards by default).

The four volumes have been missing from DriveThruRPG for some time, but as of this May, the first two volumes reappeared with improved scans, OCR, and indexing. Personally, I downloaded those, along with the older copies of volumes 3-4 I had, merged them with a PDF tool, and now have a single document close to 1,200 pages in length with all the AD&D spells in one place. It's pretty sweet.

Compiling The Index

One thing I'm not alone in searching for in the past is a digitized index of those spells to possibly use for analysis and input to software applications. James Rizza at Dragonsfoot made what seems to be the first attempt at this (here). We should be very grateful for that work (I'm pretty sure it was all manually entered, including schools, ranges, durations, material component listings, etc.), but it has a number of limitations. The most glaring is that every spell was entered multiple times, once for each school of magic to which it belongs. That runs up against the cardinal rule of database management, that is, to not duplicate the same data in multiple places -- because every copy is another opportunity for errors to creep in, fields to fall out-of-synch, etc. (and indeed they did in this case). It makes it impossible to gather vital statistics on the work, starting with simply knowing how many different spells there are. (I'm sure that was done to enable sorting by school, which was an important mechanic for 2E specialty spellcasters, but an immensely better way to do that would be to use the spreadsheet FIND function appropriately.)

So, below you'll see a version that I massively re-formatted and corrected. Where the original spreadsheet was all-caps, I put this one in title case (matching the text of the Compendium itself). I de-duplicated all of the spells and collected the schools into one field each. I separated out reversed spell names from the name field, where they were previously appended. I did the same with any special origins (like Old Empire, Red Wizards, Dragon Knights, etc.) -- except in the dozen or so cases where it was necessary to avoid duplicating another spell's name. I programmatically reformatted most of the ranges, durations, areas, with more standardized abbreviations, and shortened many of the material component listings. I deleted the extra columns for various specialty wizards which could be discovered by inspecting the schools listing (but were in many places out-of-synch). I corrected some spell name typos and missing spells. And I inserted the frequency data indicated in the Compendium Vol. 4 table for generalist mages.

We shouldn't feel surprised at errors in the original table; granted that it had 3,442 records × 24 fields/record = 82,608 total fields, even if the original author was working at 99% accuracy, we would still expect close to a thousand fields to have errors. I'm sure there's still a bunch of errors that I haven't yet caught. Feel free to send me more corrections if you find them (esp., missing spells?).

Statistics and Conclusions

Now we can present some descriptive statistics on the overall work:

Here are the level statistics in chart form:

For the levels, note that levels 3-4 are modal; this seems to be the "natural" thing to happen if someone doesn't enforce an outside requirement on level frequency -- it's the same thing that appears in Original D&D Vol-1. And here are the frequencies in a chart:

As you may expect, the letters C, U, R, V stand for the frequencies Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Very Rare. These are only entered as they appear in the Volume 4 "General Mage Spell List" (p. 1093-1101). The implication is that the 38% of spells marked as "None" here, that is, not appearing in that list, are "Restricted" spells given only to some specialty wizard type, and presumably appearing in one of the many other tables that follow in the Compendium. It's interesting that Uncommon is the most infrequently-used frequency.

We can also dis-aggregate the spells by level and frequency on separate axes. Consider the following chart:

Looking down the depth of that 3D chart, notice that at 1st level, more of the spells are Common than any other frequency. Meanwhile, around levels 2-5 there are more spells at the Rare or Very Rare ratings (and these are approximately the same at levels 3-4). However, at levels 6-9 the spells are mostly Very Rare (and the Rare category is almost totally unused at the uppermost levels).

Finally, here are compilations of the special origins and schools of magic to be found in the database:
  • Special Origins: 21 [Alhoon, Bard, Beholder, Dragon, Dragon Knight, Drow, Elf, Galeb Duhr, Ghul, Hishna, Necromancer, Neogi, Ninja, Old Empire, Paramander, Phaerimm, Pluma, Red Wizard, Savant, Witch, Wu Jen]
  • Schools of Magic: 28 [Abjuration, Air, Alchemy, All, Alteration, Artifice, Charm, Chronomancy, Conjuration, Dimension, Divination, Earth, Enchantment, Evocation, Fire, Force, Geometry, Illusion, Invocation, Mentalism, Necromancy, Phantasm, Shadow, Song, Summoning, Universal, Water, Wild]

Further Research

Among the limitations in the current index are the lack of data for setting-specific information, which are indicated in the Compendium with graphical icons next to many of the spells (e.g., Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, etc.; see p. 1126-1136). While the information for many specialty wizards can be parsed from the schools field (assuming no errors there?), other specialty mages appear at the end of the Compendium that would need additional field(s) to include (e.g., Deathmaster, Frost Mage, Red Wizards, Storm Mage, Witches, etc.; see p. 1137-1148). If you're generous enough with your time to add those, then do please forward it here so that we can share them.

Of course, many of us use a ruleset with different spell formatting than 2E. If I were to use a few entries here as surprise spice in my games, I'd probably convert all the ranges to either 6, 12, or 24 inches (depending on whether the listed range was closest to 60, 120, or 240 yards for a 12th-level wizard [i.e., 5, 10, or 20 yards/level]). And I'd convert durations to either 3, 6, or 12 turns (depending on whether the listed duration was closest to 1, 2, or 5 rounds per level). This is actually the conversion protocol that I generally used when analyzing spells for the 2nd edition of the Book of Spells work.

Data Download

Get the revised Wizard's Spell Compendium Index at the link below!

And if you need the original text, you can use the following affiliate link to get all volumes 1-4 volumes of the AD&D Wizard's Spell Compendium (and help support the Wandering DMs channel at the same time):

AD&D Wizard's Spell Compendium at DriveThruRPG


Saturday Software: Minidice

A minimalist website to roll dice. Like, really minimalist. It works on my decade-old feature phone.



Climbing Through the Ages

Climbing, by thieves and non-thieves, possibly with rope assistance, is a common dungeon, cave, and wilderness activity for explorers. It’s also one of those mundane, real-life skills that I would expect we could “dial in” correctly to our gaming ruleset. Coincidentally, just a day or two after our Rappan Athuk game, my friend Duncan posted a video of himself climbing a free-hanging rope for about 20’ in a gym, which looked pretty impressive to me. Discussion follows:

Indeed. Taking inspiration from the many climbing challenges last week, I felt obligated to investigate the rules present in classic D&D.


Chainmail (1971) mentions the use of ladders in the Siege rules (which are at man-to-man scale) -- 3 men can climb a ladder per turn (1 minute); defender above always gets first strike (p. 23, 25). The only direct mention of climbing in the D&D LBBs (1974) is that swimmers may climb the side of a ship to board (Vol-3, p. 31). Of the first pit trap, it is said, “it would only mean about one turn of time to clamber out, providing the character had spikes or associates to pull him out, and providing the pit wasn't one with a snap-shut door and the victim was alone.” (Vol-3, p. 5).

Of course, Sup-I (1976) introduces the Thief class with their special ability to “climb nearly sheer surfaces, upwards or downwards” (p. 4). The mechanic couldn’t be simpler: “There is a basic chance of 13% that a 1st level thief will slip and fall in climbing. With each higher level attained by the thief this chance is reduced by 1%”. As a formula, that is: 14% – L chance of slipping. Note what is not addressed: time, distance, speed, encumbrance, ability scores, or how many checks are required for a long climb.

AD&D Core Rules

Again, in the core rulebooks, only thieves climbing vertical surfaces is addressed. The probability is similar to OD&D, with an 85% chance of success at 1st level, a 99% at 10th, and so forth (AD&D PHB, 1978). Racial type may modify this; while Dexterity modifies most other Thief abilities, it does not do so for climbing.

The extra/errata notes in the DMG (1979) give movement and surface details for the first time (p. 19). In particular: “SLIGHTLY SLIPPERY surfaces DOUBLE chances of slipping and falling. SLIPPERY surfaces make chances of slipping and falling TEN TIMES more likely.” One interesting thing is how this mechanic makes the most sense in the context of OD&D, where percentages were given in chances to fail (see prior section); but it’s more confusing math when the percentages have been converted to a chance to succeed in the AD&D PHB (last paragraph). For example: 100% – 2 × (100% – P) for a slightly slippery surface, where P is the base chance of success. Like many AD&D rules, this was long a source of confusion to me, until I read OD&D which clarifies the conrext in which the rule was first written. And I think of this as one of many examples that to Gygax, the game was all one continuous work and not discrete, separate editions.

This latter rule is in fact exacerbated in that further down that page it is written, “Most dungeon walls will fall into the fairly rough to rough category. Some will be non-slippery, but most will be slightly slippery due to dampness and slime growth.” That is: Applied strictly, the default chance of falling is twice that apparent to players from reading the PHB.

And there’s yet another subtle-but-significant rule change between the PHB and DMG and that is: the time scale and number of rolls involved in one climb. The PHB asserts that only one roll need to be made for any climb: “It is assumed that the thief is successful until the mid point of the climb. At that point the dice are rolled to determine continued success. A score in excess of the adjusted base chance indicates the thief has slipped and fallen.” But the DMG gives a chart of move rates in “FEET PER ROUND”, in units of either 0, 3, 6, 9, 12, 18, or 24 feet per round; and then it specifies, “Be certain to check each round of vertical or horizontal movement for chance of slipping and falling”. So this page of the DMG has made climbing massively more dangerous to thieves, both generally doubling the chance to fall, and moving from a single such roll per climb to likely many.


For climbing by non-thieves, we’ll need to look outside the core rules by Gygax. For example, such rules appear in the AD&D Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). While this is past the time when Gygax departed TSR, the author Doug Niles gets instant credibility from me because of his excellent design work in the miniatures rules for AD&D Battlesystem and Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks. Like much of the book, the rules are somewhat too expansive to discuss here in full (p. 14-19), but an overview can be given.

Sheer surfaces like those detailed for thieves in the DMG simply cannot be climbed by non-thieves (p. 14). Compared to thieves, non-thieves are given a base climb chance of 40%, but this can only be applied to easier categories of climb like, “Rough, ledges... pole... tree... sloping wall... rope and wall” (p. 14-15). Bonuses per category apply, between +20% and +40%, making any of these climbs automatic for thieves. Abilities and encumbrance are not considered, but armor is: –5% for padded/studded, –15% for chain/splint/scale/banded, and complete prohibition for any characters in plate mail (p. 16). An even easier mechanic is given for characters rappelling downwards with a rope; +50% modifier and increased speed (p. 17).

Now, the movement rates are again given in units of feet-per-round, so in this aspect the DSG work looks continuous with the rule given in the DMG. However, there is a possibly subtle wrinkle to this; Niles writes, “When a non-thief character begins a climb, he must make a successful Climbing Check roll on 1d100... If a Climbing Check fails, the character can never climb that wall.” Now, read closely, this has the appearance of switching back to only one check per climb (due to the “begins a climb” language), and not rolling round-by-round as per the DMG. That makes climbing safer, although we might wonder about the last part of the rule, esp. for downward-direction climbs (maybe the most common usage in standard dungeon designs?). What happens when a character goes over the edge of a cliff on a rope and fails their check – are they just stuck there helplessly?

Consider the chart above which summarizes different types of characters climbing a rope-and-wall for 100 feet. (The percentages shown would be identical at any level.) Clearly there is a degradation in climbing chances, mostly related to the armor worn by the character. The roll indicated would only be made once; if successful, time spent climbing would be either 3 or 5 rounds by class (where allegedly 1 round = 1 minute).

B/X Rules

In the Moldvay/Cook B/X rules (1981), only climbing rules for thieves are addressed. The chance to climb is actually identical to that back in OD&D (only translated from chance-to-fail to an equivalent chance-to-succeed). The rule stipulates, “This roll should only be made once per 100’ of climb attempted. If failed, the fall will be from halfway up the surface.” (p. B8). So: Here we again see a once-per-climb mechanic (as opposed to the AD&D DMG).

Edit: Scott Keeney points out that Moldvay does briefly mention climbing for non-thieves in his two pages of "Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art" advice at the very end of the book (p. B60-61). In this case, it's "To perform a difficult task (such as climbing a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20." Cook backs this up with a paragraph on Climbing in the Expert rules, suggesting a Dexterity-based check when "climbing a tree in a high wind, or climbing up a crumbling wall." (p. X51)


The subject of climbing is the very last topic in my copy of the AD&D 2E PHB (1989), just before the appendices. Broadly speaking, the rules are the same as those found in the DSG. Base success chance is again 40% for non-thieves; climbing categories are roughly the same; modifiers are slightly adjusted (e.g., +55% for rope and wall); modifiers for armor are mostly the same (exception: plate at –50%, not totally prohibited); checks are again only once at the start of a climb; the rule for quick rappelling downward is maintained; climbing is permanently barred if a character misses their roll. Modifiers for encumbrance rating are added. And another paragraph has been inserted after the table for climbing chances: “On particularly long climbs--those greater than 100 feet or requiring more than one turn (10 minutes) of climbing time--the DM may require additional checks. The frequency of these checks is for the DM to decide. Characters who fail a check could fall a very long way, so it is wise to carry ropes and tools.” (Note that Dave “Zeb” Cook was the listed author for both 2E and the D&D Expert rules, so the echo of the 100’ unit from B/X should not be too surprising.)

In summary, it looks like climbing for non-thieves got significantly more generous than in the 1E DSG. Combined with the boosts to both the rope-in-wall case that we’re considering, and the improved situation for plate, fighter in plate armor have gone from an impossible situation to an almost 50% chance to make such a climb.

D&D 3E

Now, in the 3rd Edition PHB (2000), the formerly percentage-based rules, along with everything else, were converted to the d20-based uniform mechanic. Use of the Climb Skill (p. 64-65) is uniform for all character classes; it’s a class skill and so easily obtained by both Thief-types and Fighter-types (in fact, it’s the very first skill suggested for Fighters in their “starting package”, p. 37); so these classes might be expected to have skill points up to their level + 3 (the maximum). The skill is modified by Strength and Armor (e.g., –1 for studded leather, –5 for chain, –7 for half-plate), but not by encumbrance generally. The d20 target challenge ratings are, for example: DC 5 for a rope and wall; DC 10 for ledges; DC 15 for very rough natural rock or a tree; DC 20 for typical dungeon wall; DC 25 for overhang. DC is +5 for a slippery surface. Many modifiers are given for other situations and synergies. So it looks like, very roughly speaking, the categories of surface are approximately analogous to those first seen in the AD&D DSG.

But one aspect the re-emerges is significant: Rolls must again be made every round. “With each successful Climb check you can advance up, down, or across a slope or a wall or other steep incline (or even a ceiling with handholds) one-half your speed as miscellaneous full-round action.” In conjunction with this, a unique mechanic is that failures are not necessarily falls: “A failed Climb check means that you make no progress, and a check that fails by 5 or more means that you fall from whatever height you have already attained.”

The rule for rapid and easy downward rappelling is missing. But, a rule is added for something that I do think was overlooked in any prior editions: “Someone using a rope can haul a character upward (or lower the character) through sheer strength. Use double your maximum load... to determine how much a character can lift.”

Compare the case-study chart above to those given previously. Although the 3E requests that a check made each round of climbing (counter to the prior case studies), it is in other ways much more generous than in the DSG or even 2E. The modifiers for encumbrance are gone; the effects of armor are more significantly lessened (effectively only a –35% for plate); classes such as fighters as likely to have additional points in the skill; Strength bonuses can apply; and there is no prohibition against re-trying after the first failure. For example, Fighters in plate (–7 check) have that penalty exactly cancelled out by the 4th level (+7 skill); so while they need to roll DC 5 on a raw d20 to succeed in any round, it is impossible for them to fail by 5 and thus fall. They are in fact guaranteed success at climbing a 100' rope in about 1 minute of time (on average around 12 rounds, accounting for failed rolls; and note that 1 round = 6 seconds here).

This is, of course, the furthest possible cry from the 1E DSG where such a climb was strictly prohibited. But if a character is of lower level, or does not have maximum possible ranks in the Climb skill, then the chance of success will be lower -- and due to the multiplication rule for compound probabilities, the total chance to make the climb without a fall degenerates at a shocking rate. For example: At only one level lower (3rd), the fighter in plate will have a 5% less chance to make any particular climb roll (1 pip in 20). But then that opens up the possibility for a fall (on a natural "1"), and over the 10 Climb checks necessary in the example above, the chance for succeeding at the whole climb is only 52.4%. For a 1st level fighter with max skill the total chance is just 12.5%; and for an unskilled climber in plate, the chance becomes less than 1%! (Assuming no Strength bonus, which would move the example back in the other direction.) 1

Poll Results

I also asked this question on the Facebook 1E AD&D group. The results were approximately 3:2 in preference of a check every round (i.e., following the official 1E DMG rule), with another group answering some form of "it depends" (often by distance or surface type).

For what it's worth, everyone whom I know personally picked "one check per climb" (offering a good case study in how your friends can be non-representational of the population at large). EGG Jr. selected "one check per round".

Open Questions

I think that the last time I edited my OED house rules on the subject, I was primarily looking at the 3E rule for base probabilities; however; on my simplified d6 mechanic, making the climb more difficult (as in 1E) would be pretty much countered by the chance-to-fail-but-not-fall (in 3E), for about the same result.

So: Which of the above rules for climbing do you like the best? How risky should climbing be for an unskilled man, a fighter in plate mail, etc.? Do you prefer the frequency of checks to be once per climb (OD&D, B/X, 1E PHB, DSG, 2E), or once per round (1E DMG, 3E)? Should failed checks prohibit any further climbing (as in DSG, 2E), or not? What would be the best simulation of the real thing?

Finally: Anyone ever see anyone test climbing (rope, rock wall, etc.) in any kind of chain or plate armor?

1 This calculation is done by recognizing that the 4-pip window on the check in which no movement or fall occurs can be effectively ignored for this purpose, and proportionally consider the chance to fall out of 16 (with any negative modifier taken as the numerator). Thus, the chance for the 3rd level fighter in plate to avoid any fall is (1 – 1/16)^10 = 0.524; at 1st level it's (1 – 3/16)^10 =0.125; unskilled it's (1 – 7/16)^10 = 0.003. Also checked by computer simulation.


Rappan Athuk Week – Postmortem

What Went Right

  1. Index Cards: This may seem like a minuscule change, but for the first time I tried running the game encounters via index cards, and it really worked like a charm. I’ve got one card with PC summary stats (name, class, AC, weapon-in-hand, effects in pencil), and another card with monsters that gets filled in as an encounter starts (AC, MV, HD, hp). Previously I would document that on a standard pad of paper, taking up four times the space. With this I can stand or walk around with the two cards in my hand and run a whole encounter. Then I can document any after-effects (treasure found?) and put away the monster card, so my crazy scribbling don’t visually distract me thereafter. If some monster gets charmed or controlled that then becomes a new “live” card in play, and I don’t have to go hunting for it in my notepad. I have more free space behind the screen. And a nice coherent stack that I can go through later as an adventure log/ XP record/ notes for a narrative write-up. It seems silly, but boy, it improved my game.

  2. Spell Cards: On a thematically similar note, Paul’s design of Spell Cards for the OED Book of Spells was a complete master-stroke. I was a little reserved when he first came up with the idea, because I’ve always lobbied that it’s a nice thematic echo to have wizard-players riffling through books just like their wizard-PCs are doing. But both of us have been giving players in our games the option of book or cards, and everyone has been unanimous in picking the cards since we started doing that. This allows players to take out the cards for the spells they’ve memorized on one day and only look at those from now on. The OED spell text easily fits on each card in its entirety. If a wizard casts an effect on another PC, the card just slides over to that player to remind them what the exact effect is. That’s really killer. Paul wins.

  3. Rolling in the Open: An oldie but a goodie; I make all rolls in the open (excepting surveillance/ searching/ hiding type stuff). It increases the drama and the tension. It make things count. It actually makes it much easier for me as a DM, because it takes away the mental load of whether I “want” to override a die-roll or not. Even wandering-monster checks are declared and rolled in the open. So many moments of the game, both glorious and horrifying, would not have been possible (or believable, or as effective), without this. I’ve been doing this for years, and I honestly can’t imagine anyone wanting to do it otherwise now.

  4. Using a Tablet: For the first time I was running a dungeon via a PDF on my tablet. Partly as an experiment, and partly as a way to manage the ~500 page adventure text. This was essentially a big success, and I’d be happy to do it again in the future. The only complication was the PCs going into unexpected areas and my needing to swipe back-and-forth constantly between map and text. Ideally (according to original plan) I’d have a paper map in front of me and just need to browse text on one page at a time. Even better if the adventure text was digest-sized (instead of full-letter-page size). Also at one point I did run the power down and need to get an extension cord.

  5. Miniature Usage: I find that I’ve gone back-and-forth about miniature usage multiple times over the years, which is surprising. I was trying to use them heavily in the 3E era, and at some point I snapped and swore to god I’d never use them again for anything. Then multiple players started setting up marching orders for their own benefit, and that did seem helpful. Then occasionally I couldn’t resist putting down a scary miniature from one side or the other to show (or ask) which PC was getting attacked. Occasionally now I have a prepared battlemap, or ink out a critical area. There are no complicated 3E-era rules for movement (diagonals, attacks-of-opportunity, etc.). It seems to work very well for everyone. I think my current rough rule is; we have a marching order in front of us all the time, and only when some player asks or gets confused about positioning do I put down a few monster miniatures around that to clarify. (Paul has a supply of Dwarven Forge dungeon blocks but we never used that all weekend.)

What Went Wrong

  1. Main Secret Door: Gads, that initial secret door to level 1! Arguably that’s a really bad design decision – and yet it seems really integral to the way the initial encounter and introduction to Rappan Athuk is set up. I think I’ve had that lesson pounded into me numerous times over the years and I still got hit in the head by this. Partly this is a criticism of my capacities as a DM that I couldn’t avoid it. Granted that I only DM about 3 times a year currently, I find that I tend to start off a bit OCD/literalist to the text, and then later on start to massage or bend encounters a bit more for dramatic or pacing purposes. It’s possible that in the future that I’d move the secret door to the sarcophagus itself (a clear point of interest to be searched), or give it up automatically. Numerous accounts on the Necromancer forums seem to indicate players finding the secret door without difficulty – but I’m not sure on the details DMs are using to adjudicate that (e.g., if it’s 3E/Pathfinder then everyone can use a “Take 20” for automatic success if they have the time in-game). This threw my players in a different, much more dangerous direction that I really wasn’t prepared for all weekend long.

  2. Climbing Up/Down: Coupled with the fact that my players became convinced that there was no way into the dungeon aside from the Well (see above), the biggest single point of contention was frustration at the risk of falling and damage/death from climbing ropes up the 90’ well or cliff areas. Honestly, I’m pretty confident that there has to be some amount of risk here, especially for non-thieves making such a climb. But I have to listen sympathetically when the players get half-pissed off about this. If I’m hearing correctly, I think some argued that their PCs should know about the need to use a backup rope/rappel seat type setup in that kind of situation in the first place. Maybe I should explicate or investigate that more in the future.

  3. Maze/Labyrinths: Oh my god, those stupid maze locations. They just go on and on and on. And the fact that the text says to magically screw with the PC directions in random and utterly untraceable ways makes the labyrinths, by the book, absolutely impossible to get through. At least I knew enough to abort that particular aspect in our game. I would prefer if there was simply some purely abstract mechanic to it (like I think there was in earlier editions). Or be smaller or have some mechanic that the players could engage with, puzzle through, or out-think.

  4. Opaque Saving Throws: The OED house rules turn saving throws into a mechanic whereby PCs roll 1d20 + level + modifier based on category (spells/breath/stone/wands/death, respectively +0/1/2/3/4). It’s pretty close the equivalent to the RAW saving throw rules. On Saturday, I would tend to call for a save, the players would add d20 + level, and then I would do the rest of the math in my head to save them the effort. But as a result they couldn’t tell which category or bonus was in use, or how to gauge the chances of success. (In stock D&D you have target numbers on the PC sheet, but that’s something I clear off.) On Sunday I got more explicit about the type of save and exactly what modifier was being added, and that helped (not perfect, though). The numbers are on the Player Aid Card, but that was getting shuffled out of sight on the table – in the future I should probably post it in larger text on the outside of the DM screen. Thanks to Paul for pointing this out on Saturday night.

  5. Prepping on the Fly: This wasn’t a total catastrophe, but it did make last weekend one of the most challenging DM experiences I’ve ever undertaken. When the PCs went off from the prepared main levels (having read, prepared, annotated, printed maps, and noted monster tactics in main levels 1-4; see item #1 in this list), I was in emergency mode for two days straight trying to read a few pages ahead to see what was coming up next in the dungeon. Or thinking about how to adjudicate some of the stranger (or possibly more frustrating) challenges. And swiping back-and-forth to see the map and the text. Or scrambling to get a sense of the multiple branching side levels where the PCs might possibly go next. Hoo boy! I was sweating bullets. It was soooo worth it, though.

More Tales of Rappan Athuk

Check out Paul’s Blog for his perspective as a player in this epic game:
  1. One
  2. Two
  3. Three
  4. Four


Rappan Athuk Week – Part Six

After dinner, two of the players had to leave – specifically, both of the Thief characters (who have been key to successfully navigating the areas where rappelling was necessary). There was a question of whether further adventuring would even be justified or unproductively frustrating or not. It was decided that the remaining 4 players would take one more go at it.

Iparaguire hired posters for two new hires; one, another fighter-women to take the place of Maxine (hiring Hilda the spearwoman), and two, a dextrous and stealthy treasure-hunter named Klaus (who for affirmative-action purposes Iparaguire had wished to be a woman, and so took to calling him Klaudia, to his recurrent displeasure). Desperate for additional help (or at least a good time), Gardy herself tried the dungeon-procured mushrooms -- and found that they gave her infravision! When they were next in the dungeon, everyone would take one. Another jug of healing was procured, and the PCs were off again.

The group regained their magical candelabra, went down the Well and the Rat’s Cliff, through the labyrinth without harm, to the minotaur’s cave. Where to go now? They chose the unexplored passage on the side by the entryway, leading south – into another section of maze. Monster rolls went their way, and they came out the other side.

PCs found themselves in a 40’ round hemisphere of a room, apparently a dead end. They checked the walls and floor carefully. What about the roof? Errosali jumped and tapped the roof with a pole, and it seemed to sound differently than the walls. The group made a 3-high human pyramid with the elf at the top to search for secret doors. i Indeed, he found a cleverly-concealed catch! The opening slid aside and he went to climb up into the space. Just in time, he spotted a hidden gelatinous cube sliding out to engulf him, and he jumped back down into the arms of his comrades.

The thing slid over the opening and Raimund cast his spear, hitting it for a point of damage, at which point the thing retreated out of sight. The party decided to send this worthy up to contend with the thing. As soon as he peered over the edge, the cube hit him in the head with a pseudopod – a natural “20” for a critical hit, at which point he lost 2d6 Intelligence permanently! He was also paralyzed and fell back down to his anxious friends. But this made the cube visible to be struck by two magic missile spells, which tore holes through the evil jelly and destroyed it.

Clambering up, the PCs found themselves in a smaller hemispherical chamber above the first, with a tunnel south. This led into yet another labyrinth which they persisted through, coming to a long flight of stairs farther down into the bowels of the earth. They took these, descending some hundreds of feet. ii

The stairs deposit them in a circular stone chamber. Three doors on the perimeter are stoutly locked. Melchior (who has a giant strength of 20 thanks to Gardy’s magical spell of strength) goes around and kicks down all of the doors. Two lead to more sets of precipitous stairs, while one stays level. They take this corridor.

A hundred feet or so later, the PCs come to a 4-way intersection. Coming from the north, passages branch east and west; while a double-width corridor runs south. They take this for 60’ and come to a large set of brass doors. The doors are covered with terrifying bas-relief images of demons, devils, undead, the fires of hell, torn apart victims. The PCs listen and hear a pandemonium of noises: A chanting of many voices. Shrieking. Burbling. An unearthly whirring, spinning sound. Inhuman bestial grunting. Crushing footsteps. Should they investigate? The players are too excited to avoid it. They are unanimous that they must see what’s on the other side of the door. Melchior shouts, “Oh, yeah!!” and swings open the door. iii

So, this is the Lower Temple of Orcus. It’s as big as the entirety of our battlemap surface, so I push the marching-order PCs to one side. There’s a 70' diameter pentacle inscribed in silver, glowing eldritch runes, two 20’-wide vats of boiling blood of the innocents, a black stone altar, and a spinning golden orb in the air above the altar, showering the room with protection from good and blur effects. To the sides are a hideous toad-demon and a Frankensteinian monster. A half-dozen cloaked cultists are 6th level each. The evil high priest, garbed in magical plate, shield, helmet, and mace stands behind the altar (12th level). Melchior cries, “Oh, no!!” and tries to shut the door, but he is spotted. iv

Priests of the Lower Temple of Orcus

Should the party flee or fight? In real-time it’s pretty late at night, and it seems like the game is coming to a closure either way. At least half the party decides to go out in a blaze of glory. The priest gets initiative and casts an insect swarm at the PCs; the immense cloud/carpet of flying, crawling, biting insects terrifies the henchmen and they all run insanely into the darkness, most never to be seen again. The demons and cultists approach with weapons. Gardy heroically charges them, triggering her wand; one is paralyzed. Iparaguire invisibly sneaks past the line of cultists and the approaching flesh golem. The EHP casts finger of death at Gardy; she saves, but then succumbs to a lesser priest’s hold person spell; the cultists and demon leap upon her motionless body, stab and bite her horribly; dead, her blood pools out on the ground and her wand is lost. What else is there to do?

The only attack spell anyone has left is Iparaguire’s 1st-level charm person. In fact, he has maneuvered himself just barely in range to make one final attempt at the EHP, and he casts it now, becoming visible, alone and cut off in the middle of the temple area. The EHP has so many bonuses to his save that it takes me a while to add them all up. In total, the save is going to be this: roll a d20, add +15, and get a 20 or better. I announce this and roll the die. Everyone leans forward to see this final, last-gasp result.

Goddamn it.

No one can believe it. The players all start laughing and cheering. Momentarily I have no idea how I’m going to handle this. And neither does Paul, who cast the spell. Attacking now may possibly break the spell. So now what do the PCs do?

Iparaguire demands that the evil high priest bid his underlings to gather all the temple’s treasures and deposit them in the hall. And so they do. Piles and piles of treasure. Three huge chests of coins and valuables. A life-sized, solid platinum statue. Finely-crafted ornamental swords with many valuable gems. A magical silver swan fountain that perpetually gushes water. A solid-gold flute with gems. A magical horn. The high priest happily hands Iparaguire the massive, golden Sphere of Souls. Enormous fine tapestries. And on and on and on. All the treasures taken from decades of prior sacrificed adventurers.

The high priest is then invited to enter the hallway alone and strip off his magic armor, shield, mace, potion, etc., which he eagerly does. His belief is that Iparaguire the Evening Wizard is about to induct him into a new series of evil rites so hideous, so mind-numbingly horrifying, that none of his minions could withstand viewing them. He literally cackles with glee and delight. Then they show him the ruby-hilted dagger and he starts shrieking in stark terror. The Key! The Key of Three! If joined with the others, we are all doomed!! He screams unintelligibly. “Yeah, that’s, like, kind of a lot to process right now,” says Melchior. Iparaguire tells the EHP to wait right where he is, and they’ll be back in just a moment. v

Of course, the amount of treasure heaped up is comically beyond the remaining 3 PCs’ ability to carry away, but they try their best. They pick out the most bejeweled items and pack them away. The swords, flute, horn, armor, shield, mace, potion, scroll, wand, etc. are all taken. Iparaguire has the golden orb. Errosali takes the magic swan-fountain which sloshes water wherever he walks from now on. Melchior has one of the tapestries tucked under his arm. Each PC walks off dragging a huge chest. They do not go quickly into that good night. 

To get out, the PCs will need to navigate 3 labyrinth zones, the upper round chamber, the minotaur’s cave, rat’s cliff, black pudding, tunnels of terror, the Well, etc. Halfway through the first maze a wandering monster encounter occurs; but it’s only 5 goblins. That’s not so bad.

A goblin stabs Errosali with a spear – a natural “20” for a critical hit. Christian needs to roll percentile dice for the effect on his character. This comes up “98” – “throat cut, immediate death”. So now the group is down to 2 PCs.

The Veteran Raimund runs out of the darkness, terrified and panting. Iparaguire and Melchior load him up with the fallen Errosali’s pile of treasure and they proceed.

In the next maze, a half-dozen giant rats are encountered, but these are more easily defeated.

The Rat’s Cliff is reached. Melchior takes off his armor and climbs. He pulls up a sack with his armor and treasure. Then Raimund does the same, with Melchior belaying. But he rolls a “1” to climb – he slips, the backup rope swinging him safely (?) into the cliff side. At this point a whole pack of rats clinging to the cliff slash and jump at him, and he takes several hits. When Melchior pulls him up he is covered with a dozen bleeding rat bites – he, too, is dead. vi

Melchior and Iparaguire avoid other wandering checks, get up the well, pack up their horses as quickly as possible, and head back to town.

Most of the fabulous pile of treasure is sold off. But what to do with the golden orb? A suspicious buyer comes around, offering to pay 10,000 silver for the item. Iparaguire argues this may well put it back in the hands of evil cultists, and it would be better to melt the thing down. Melchior argues for the Neutral stance – that it’s not his concern either way; it's just good business to maximize the sale. This is an impasse with only two characters surviving.

Paul asks, “Want to dice for it?” Max says, “Yes”. They roll, and the result is 13 to 3. However: Paul has rolled a d20 and Max a d6 – they never said aloud what type of die. Sometime past midnight, this is approximately the funniest thing ever. We’re all laughing, tears streaming down our faces, for about 10 minutes. Amazingly good-natured, Max actually agrees to accept this result. vii

Enough treasure has been looted that both PCs easily go up a level, and they also split up the various treasures, between Fighter and Wizard. They go to bed and the game is over. viii

Wait, no, it’s not. Melchior awakes screaming, naked, attacked by a Gargoyle in his very bed while he sleeps at night! Bloody chunks get torn out by the thing’s claws, but the Dwarf Melchior is now made of stronger stuff. He rolls over and picks up the evil priest’s magic shield to defend himself. Iparaguire wakens and rushes to help. Melchior then picks up the magic axe and rapid attacks – one-two, the thing seems scrawny and only partly formed, and it shatters into rubble. Melchior picks up the black eye-orbs and goes to add them to his collection – but the prior ones seem to be missing.

“Do I have any enemies in town?” asks Max. Um, yes, I’m pretty sure you do at this point. “So, late at night I go to their house – and throw the eyes through the window. Then we get on our horses and skip town.” Thus Iparaguire and Melchior escape elsewhere into the wide world. They are not bothered by gargoyles again. Do they ever return to Rappan Athuk? If so, that is a tale for another time. ix

i We were starting to get a little punchy at this point as the evening wore on. There was some debate, compared to the 90’ climbing scenes, about how risky such a move would be. If necessary, could we pull it off ourselves? I actually offered that if the players could just form a single-high pyramid on hands and knees, then I’d give them the move in-game at no risk. They didn’t take me up on that, but a d6 roll came up in their favor.

ii The PCs are now entering Dungeon Level 9, with a listed Difficulty Level of 9. Now this is getting friggin’ ridiculous. I am stone-cold sure that they either need to leave immediately or the game is going to end in a complete bloodbath. Fortunately, many of the players are fond of horror RPGs like Call of Cthulhu, so my expectation is that they will appreciate their upcoming gruesome fate.

iii See also here.

iv A question can be posed here about how the evil priests are coherent, when officially in my OED rules no clerics are permitted. Now, if I were creating an adventure locale myself, I'd generally make cultists like this wizards, or possibly fighter/wizards. While I’ve done a conversion like that on clerics in pre-published adventures in the past (e.g., all the drow priestesses throughout GDQ), it’s a bit tedious. Nowadays if there are evil clerics in a module I leave them as-is, using only powers found in OD&D Vol-1. That is: While there are no clerics, there can be anti-clerics (as per last page of Vol-1), given power from pacts with dark entities, in my campaign world. Compare to classic D&D articles where clerics are very few (e.g., Sup-IV, p. 47, where Conan’s nemesis the Priest-King of Set is primarily a 30th-level wizard [and secondarily a 15th level anti-cleric]).

v Okay, so we can reasonably debate if the other evil priests or demon would object or obstruct this in some way. Honestly, my instinct is that an evil high priest is probably a psychopath, and associates of psychopaths learn not to question them when they go hot/cold on them at random (in this case, on point of bloody sacrifice). In addition, my feeling is that the natural “1” that came up indicates that things have gone as bad for the villains as can possibly be imagined. This result was simply my favorite possible way for this scene to work out. Role-playing the suddenly “flipped” crazy EHP was a joy, and the players noticed (most of the rest of the game was mindless undead and oozes). Presumably when he snapped out of it the next day, hideous revenge was plotted.

vi He’d also contracted contagious Black Plague from the rat bites (another natural “1” behind the screen). But that turned out to be unnecessary overkill.

vii Never bring a d6 to a d20 fight. Paul actually gifted Max a game card saying this afterward for his graceful play. Good show!

viii On this last foray, 13 HD of monsters were slain, and some 20,780 sp worth of treasure. Total XP: 22,080 ÷ 2 = 11,040 for each of the two PCs. Not only did they achieve 5th level, but they’re well on their way to the next level after that.

ix Happy Birthday, Paul!


Rappan Athuk Week – Part Five

The PCs were still in the Hall of the Minotaur King, on the far side of the mazy labyrinth. Having explored the perimeter of the cavern, they knew of at least two exits: one tunnel ran south, another east. Gardy made an argument for breaking apart the king’s wooden throne and boating on the fast-moving river to the south. The party decided to take the tunnel east, on the far side from where they entered. PCs took turns using Errosali’s magic boots to leap the stream, throwing them back each time in a sack tied with rope. i

At this point the party entered another section of labyrinthine maze. Here I abstracted the action to wandering-monster rolls. Halfway through they ran into an exotic mustard jelly, which emits a poison cloud of slowing and is hit only by magic weapons. Fortunately, the front-line fighters had such weapons, could withstand the poison, and bested the thing with some hard hitting.

A tiny fraction of the mazes of Rappan Athuk

After another hour of exploring in-game (i.e., just one monster roll in real life), the group came out into a small, empty room. Listening they could hear voices to the south. The thief Puddin’ crept forward to investigate and found two goblins, who saw him. He called for help and the rest of the party charged into the chamber. The goblins likewise called for help (“Bree-Yark!!”) and another dozen of their kind ran in from another room, along with a goblin priest, surrounding the PCs. Violence was inescapable. The PCs first had to chop their way through the front line, then pressed the attack on the priest. Gardy fired her wand at the side, paralyzing three goblins while avoiding her friends. The evil priest reached forward with a blazing-black hand and hit Melchior for 3 dice of damage, at which point the fighters cut the goblin down. Invisibly, Iparaguire picked up priest’s body and mimed as though it were undead. Errosali, knowing the Goblin tongue, called for the remaining 5 goblins to surrender (the dead priest apparently bowing in fealty), and they all threw down their weapons.

At last the PCs had some intelligible monster whom they could interrogate about the layout of Rappan Athuk. Where had the come? Far below, from a great Goblin city – up through harrowing caverns with dragons and many, many gargoyles, then confusing maze. Many goblins dead! How can one get to the surface? Priest thought this way, then got caught by Minotaurs – Many goblins dead! Will you be willing to serve for a chunk of gold ore apiece? Certainly – Master treat goblins better than any other!

So the players debated at this point which direction to go in; principally, forward towards the Goblin City, or back towards the surface? Arguments forward mostly turned on a belief that they couldn’t get back through the maze, and that the players wanted to experience more of the complex. A vote was taken; which split perfectly 3-to-3 on either side of the table. (Goblins ask: We get vote? But they likewise split evenly.) Then it was pointed out that the group had depleted all of their healing potions, and this swayed one of the players towards heading back to the surface with their treasure. So they turned back northward. ii

The PCs navigated one section of labyrinth, then the minotaurs cave, and then a second section of labyrinth. Fortunately, no wandering monsters of importance showed up, and some players were shocked at how quickly in real-time they returned to the rat’s cliff. iii The ropes were still in place, and no black pudding to be seen, so the thief climbed up and belayed the others. For extra safety, the fighters at this point doffed their armor, sent it up in a sack, and climbed without burden, armoring again on the upward side.

Going to exit the cave, the found the tunnel blocked by a new menace – some new type of black ooze unlike the others. The PCs made a line in the cave, some pitching daggers, others scooping up rats to use as distractions. One goblin was sent forward, tumbling into the ooze and being consumed horribly. And worse – it’s shambling skeleton was spit out of the ooze, marching forward to attack while the blob continued to block the tunnel out! Goblins fought ex-goblin, and fighters stabbed with spears. The next round, 2 skeletons were spit out of the ooze. Then the round after that, 4 skeletons. Melchior cut his way to the front of the cave and hacked at the undead ooze, chopping it into bits until the pieces finally melted away. iv

The PCs thereafter made their way back up the Well at twilight. The two remaining goblins were each given a chunk of gold as promised, and ran squealing with delight into the woods. v The PCs headed safely back to town, and the players here broke for dinner. vi

i While many sections of river in Rappun Athuk lead to other (lower, generally more dangerous) levels, boating here would be irrevocable death, as per the text.

ii Going down towards the Goblin City would have taken the PCs through a series of cyclopean caverns, get attacked by about 50 Gargoyles, a giant hydra, and a series of steam caverns with a pair of mated dragons. (The text identifies these as “umber dragons” but if necessary I was going to change them to red dragons for simplicity – note that Frog Tubson does have a potion of red dragon control.)

iii Twice an encounter came up as phase minotaurs, but I ruled that they’d been entirely wiped out earlier by the PCs.

iv The geometric increase in number of skeletons isn’t strictly the rule for the undead ooze, but in the heat of the game it seemed like a good way to ramp up the drama/tension (and force melee with the ooze still blocking the tunnel mouth). As I think about, this might also be a good way to stagger random wandering encounters, 1, then 2, then 1d6, etc. of a particular type.

v Melchior – “What do you bet that if we just follow them for 10 minutes we can recover the gold from their dead bodies?”

vi From the battle in the minotaur’s cave and various labyrinthine wanderings, the PCs had beaten 115 HD of monsters and picked up 6,350 sp value in treasure. Total XP: 11,500 + 6,350 = 17,850. Divided by 6.5 gave 2,750 per PC, and half that for NPCs. This actually permitted Puddin’ Superplum to become a 5th level Thief, and Errosali the Perfidious Magician to become a 3rd level Wizard. He paid the wizard in town to copy the levitate spell from his book.


Rappan Athuk Week – Part Four

Now we’re on Sunday morning, and we have two new players, and are rolling up three new PCs. Joey creates a replacement Elven Wizard/Thief named Puddin’ Superplum. i Mike creates a Hobbit Thief named Frog Tubson (5th level, with magic leather armor, a ring of human control, a potion of red dragon control, Con 16, and almost maximum-possible rolls for hit points [37]). Christian gets an Elven Fighter/Wizard named Errosali the Perfidious Magician (level 4/2, with magic chain mail, sword, and boots of traveling and leaping). More rope and potions of healing are secured. Some of the underground fungus found by Gardy is fed to captured rats, who then look around amazed. More determined experimentation with the ruby-hilted dagger is a wash. The group coordinate with their magic items and memorized spells against the expected monsters, and ride out again to Rappan Athuk.

The group again procures the magic candelabra from the mausoleum. Newcomers are warned against searching for long, due to the known death trap there. With backup ropes and strong thieves belaying, the group successfully goes down the Well, through the tunnel, to the cave of the rat cliffs. Gardy casts levitate and investigates the pool; the black pudding seems quiescent. They tie rope and slide down to the beach and pass through the iron door. ii

At this point the group enters an extensive, mazy labyrinth, which is designed to frustrate their progress forward in novel new ways. The identical slate-gray passages go on and on and on for hundreds of feet at a time. They double-back and zig-zag for 20’ over and over again. Multiple side-passages are dead-ends. The PCs hunt for any kind of clues or secret passages at the dead-ends and find none. Paul is mapping with an enormous extra-large pad of graph paper (5 squares to 1”), so as to avoid having a dungeon run off the edge. Nevertheless, this one does. He spends some time copying the maze so far so it fits in the center of his paper. At last, the group finds a secret door. iii

Paul maps the mazes of Rappan Athuk

The secret door leads only to more mazy passages. They go through a second secret door found at another dead end. A hundred feet beyond that, an ochre jelly comes burbling down the passage. They beat a hasty retreat through the last two secret passages. At this point, suddenly, the maze matches neither their map nor recollection; it seems to run off in a completely new direction. Puddin’ uses his wand of detect magic and finds that all of the air around them glitters with enchantment. Melchior experiments with the last spinning secret portal; perhaps a dozen times he passes through it, marking the wall with an inscription or leaving a coin. He marks an eye-symbol, then two, then three. They seem to appear and disappear on the wall randomly. A bent silver coin turns to gold, then copper. Then a 5-eye symbol, something he never marked, appears. The group comes to believe that they are being magically confused. They head off in the new direction, starting a fresh map, thinking to avoid any more confusing secret portals, and determined to follow the twisting passages wherever they might lead. iv

Five stirges appear and the party cuts them down. I think they’ve been in the maze for the better part of some hours at this point.

At last the maze seems to end! The PCs enter into a large cavern, littered with rubble, broken rocks, stony pillars, etc., that stretches beyond the sight of their continual light candelabra. Running water can be heard. Keeping to the western wall, the PCs explore southward, at half speed due to the rubble.

A bellow is heard, and appearing over one of the piles of boulders come a group of 8 Minotaurs! (Also: They have a phasing ability.) The PCs lose initiative and are trapped. Nimbly jumping from rock to rock, the minotaurs flank the party and charge the line; Maxine is hit, gored, and immediately dies. Iparaguire, adventuring invisibly for some time, says, “I think we’re all dead.” v

The stout Hobbit, Frog Tubson, has a magic ring; a ring of human control. He aims it at the Minotaurs. Will it work? He rolls 2d4 and it comes up 7. Yes! One makes its saving throw, so 6 of the 8 are now under his command (sort-of; he doesn’t speak Minotaur, but some frantic gesturing makes his wishes clear). The other 2 are surprised to be attacked by their compatriots; they phase away, but the turned 6 charge them, gore them, cut them down with axes. Mr. Tubson has saved the day! vi

Except that now a louder bellow echoes through the cavern, and some 60’ away an enormous Minotaur King rises, with an iron crown and a magical battle axe, standing as tall as a Storm Giant. Red rage burns in his eyes and he snorts angry smoke. The party cast missiles; incredibly the Veteran Raimund actually lands a throwing axe at an Olympic distance, clanging against his crown, and a spot of blood dribbles into the king’s eye. The controlled minotaurs charge their king.

But the king is crafty and can immediately tell what is happening. He phases out of sight, his minions missing their charge. He reappears directly next to Mr. Tubson, back to the western rock wall, and takes a terrifying swing at him with the magic axe. He hits, and Tubson is slashed, but like a good gladiator this is mostly epidermal, bloody but not lethal. The PCs surround the king and start raining blows on him. Fighters at the back have been armed with spears and stab at him over their allies’ heads. One minion minotaur gets in the fray. The King fights with back to the wall, preventing thiefly backstabs. He hits Tubson again, but down on his hit points phases out of sight.

With the controlled minotaurs about to come back to their senses in a few minutes, the PCs work their way through the laborious rubble to the east, towards a river that Errosali can see if he leaps into the air. The King reappears on a boulder directly over them and roars, enraged from a dozen cuts! Gardy fires her wand, but the king saves. Frog Tubson rolls to the back of the rock, makes his hide check, and strikes furiously upward with his sword – he catches the king under the armpit, gashes out the artery there (triple damage backstab), and the king turns suddenly pale, aghast at his fate, tumbles, and dies.

Hobbit slays the Minotaur King

The party discards the worthless iron crown, but pick up the battle axe. Is it the lost battle axe +2 of Rosalinde’s? Why, it is indeed! vii

The six controlled minotaurs were directed into the fast-flowing river. Gardy zapped them with the wand of paralysis; four were affected, and were washed away out of sight by the river. The other two were directed to fight each other to the death; after several rounds of combat, one went under. The last, bleeding from several hits, raised his axe in victory, at which point the PCs peppered him with missiles and arrows. He too was washed out of sight downriver.

Errosali used his magic boots to leap the river, finding an enormous gold-leafed wooden throne on the opposite side. Under a pile of rude hides was a cache of treasure – chunks of gold ore, gems, a jade statue of a three-eyed frog, and a gold and gem encrusted drinking horn! viii Here the players broke for a late lunch and pool respite from the heat.

i Most of the PC names are from various online generators that players go to when a name is necessary. In this case Joey landed on an Elf-name generator intended for cheerful Christmas elves or something. I think if I was sitting at home this name would have seemed unacceptable thematically, but mid-game it seemed satisfyingly bizarre. Actually, I didn’t realize the irony of Joey’s prior character dying to a horrific Black Pudding until I wrote this note.

ii They now enter Dungeon Level 7A, indicated as Difficulty Level 9.

iii “Happy Birthday, Paul!” – Mike.

iv Let’s talk about these mazy-labyrinth sections for a bit. The principal map for this level (and some others) has a few gray cross-hatched sections that just say “Maze” with no other detail. Later research indicates that early versions of Rappan Athuk had no maps for these locations, and the DM simply had to make their own or ad-lib the location. The S&W version I own has a number of “Sample Mazes” on p. 200-204, each about 600×400 feet, entirely filled with mazy, twisting passages. The text indicates that sections are meant to shift and redirect PCs unpredictably (I let these be found as secret doors). It also says that “Referees should intentionally give PCs wrong directions (i.e., left = right) half the time. Referees should improvise or alter each section to frustrate and bewilder their PCs. PCs’ attempts to retrace their steps prove futile, and the shifting nature of the maze prohibits classical means of maze solving (e.g., string). This maze affords Referees a rare opportunity to toy with players; have fun!” This I ignored, because with that ruling there would be absolutely no way for PCs to ever find their way through or out of the maze, and would have totally zero agency over the issue. Arguably it would be better to simply declare the party dead at this point than go through the random mapping exercise until everyone gives up. Compare to D&D module B2, where the minotaur cave has a similar feature, but it is only about a half-dozen short tunnels in extent (so it is much more likely to find the end at random), and it also provides for a recurring saving throw to allow the mapper to shake the effect off. I see that at an early date, 3rd parties were suggesting a number of fill-in mazes for Rappan Athuk, each a small fraction of the size of the current Sample Mazes (example). After the one run through the labyrinth, I spent some time musing the site over, and decided going forward to just abstract the whole thing into simple wandering monster rolls, using the established 2-hour mark as how long it took to get through one. Was this possibly how it was run in the earliest play sessions? Indicators make it seem likely. I do think that any of those would be better play options than what’s currently in the S&W edition.

v Again, I’ve been thinking this nonstop for the whole adventure. When the party became determined to pass through the iron door to level 7A, I was guessing that the mazy labyrinth would make them turn back. If not, then surely there would be a short TPK with the phase minotaurs. To my ongoing amazement (ha!), I greatly underestimated the players’ grit and fortune on both counts.

vi Let’s talk about the ring of human control item for a bit. Among the 17 magic rings in OD&D Vol-2, the ring of human control is listed 3rd, implying that it is among the lesser-powered rings (note that OD&D magic item tables are ordered roughly by power, not alphabetically); and thus the way that I randomize starting magic items, it is somewhat more likely to come up than others. The first time one appeared for a PC in a tournament game a few years ago, our friend Adam exclaimed, “You gave them that?” And I shrugged and said, “Sure”, not looking at the rules text at the time. But he had good point; it’s very powerful. Consulting the potion of human control for the effect, it “has the same general effect as a Charm Person spell”, but allows many more targets, e.g., 2-8 targets in the category of 4-6 Hit Dice; no duration or frequency of use is stated (most rings are passive effects only, so this one bends the idiom a bit in that sense). AD&D kept the same basic idea in the ring of human influence, able to charm up to 21 HD of creatures once per day, plus Charisma of 18 and a suggestion effect. B/X reduced the effect to only 6 HD total. Compounding this, the duration seems very long; in OD&D/AD&D the charm person spell can last indefinitely, subject to a save every few weeks or so; B/X states that the effect will “last until dispelled”. Looking more deeply at the rules, I think what I’ve glitched up here is overlooking the limitation of charm person to “figures near to or less than man-size” (Vol-1, p. 23, et. al.) – which is kind of easy to do when the ring/potion effect presents a category for success on creatures of 10+ Hit Dice. This I need to annotate in my margin so I don’t forget again; and in my game charm person lasts a day.

vii Well, not initially. See prior note on location of the lost axe. But the minotaur king really does have a +2 axe in the text, and when the players asked if it was Rosalinde’s, it seemed like this was a moment that I had to “say yes”.

viii Max guessed that the statue was of Tsathogga, and this is exactly the intended reference. There is in fact a shrine dedicated to that fell deity within the greater Rappan Athuk complex.


Rappan Athuk Week – Part Three

Max and Joey rolled up new PCs, and this time they were not all human Wizards. Max created Melchior of the Seven Eyes, a Dwarven Hero, with a magic shield and high Dexterity (for AC 0), a magic sword (+1), and the rapid strike feat (two melee attacks/round). Joey created Yurik the Elven Wizard/Thief (levels 3/4), who successfully rolled for an item of incredible power – the fabled Staff of Commanding, which combines the powers of plant, animal, and human control (could control a dozen or more of each per charge)! Gardy hired a new fighter, Raimund, at some cost of silver. Another jug of healing was commissioned. The local wizard was given 100 sp to look at the ruby dagger, but could provide no helpful information. Melchior had heard a new rumor: “The main mausoleum is horribly trapped, but there is a secret exit”, which was interpreted as merely a way to escape the trap back to the outside, and hence only a further distraction. So arrayed, the group returned to Rappun Athuk.

The PCs went to the mausoleum to retrieve the magical candelabras. As they did, the dwarf Melchior took note of the grave with Frederick’s name on it, now creepily filled in with dirt. Frederick had been wearing magical boots of elvenkind found in the dungeon, and Melchior brought a shovel to start digging him up. As he did so, a stone gargoyles on top of the mausoleum spread its massive bat-wings, took flight, and assaulted Melchior, working alone in the dirt above the tomb! Others would take several rounds to run to his location and help – but fortunately, the dwarf could strike true with his magic blade, and the thing fell in stony rubble. Two dead black eye-spheres rolled out – Melchior secured them in his bag and took the sobriquet “Melchior of the Nine Eyes”. i

Here we deal with climbing the Well again. The party brought lots of rope, like, I think, at least 4 lengths of 100’ rope each. At this point the started spiking two ropes at a time – a main climbing rope and a backup/belay rope, so even if the climber slipped (usually 1-in-6 depending on Dexterity and encumbrance load), people at the top got another roll to catch them, which seemed very wise. The last person down was Yurik, with his thieving climbing expertise, who had no chance of failing with a rope in hand. The rope did not break (recall: 1-in-20 chance). Light diminished and fear checks were made.

PCs made their way to the claw-shaped cave. Were the piercers back? They listened. To their surprise, not piercers but a group of stirges that had taken up the cleared cave flew down to the attack – with blades drawn they cut them to ribbons, Melchior leading the way.

The secret door was passed again, down the wormy corkscrew, into the rat-cave. Traces of the web spell at the entrance could be found, but not the killer zombie or the magic axe. Melchior spent the daily locate objects power from his magic sword, but could detect nothing. ii

Now the cliff needed scaling, down to the beach and iron door far below. For this, in the face of perilous climbing, the PCs had a well-developed plan. Gardy cast levitate, rose to the ceiling, hand-crawled across to where the pool should end, then down. Landing lightly on the beach, she carried a candelabra for light, and one end of a long rope. She tied the rope to the handle of the solid iron door. Then other PCs could rope themselves into a rappel seat and slide down, with another safety rope held/spiked at the top. This seemed eminently wise, safe, and as DM I was suitably impressed.

So here’s where the terrible thing happened. All the party but one slid down to the door, and Iparaguire cast knock to unlock it. Again taking the safety position, Yurik the wizard/thief slid down last. He could not fail the climb, but the ropes needed checking for failure under my once-per-encounter rule. Joey rolled the d20: a “1” came up and the rappel seat broke away. Of course, the spiked backup rope would merely swing him against the cliff as long as that didn’t fail. Joey rolled the blue d20 again: and by all that’s holy, it came up “1” again. So the backup rope snapped, sending Yurik plunging 40’ or so downward. iii

Even this wasn’t too bad, because the pool mostly cushioned Yurik’s fall, and he only took a few points of damage. Of course, now he’s in water in chainmail and other gear, and I ask for a d6 Strength check (2-in-6 like opening a door) to swim and not sink; he rolls a “5” which indicates success. I ask, “Do you want to pull yourself out, or investigate under the water?” Joey says, “As long as I’m here, I’ll investigate.” There is in fact a very large pile of stripped-clean bones stacked up under the water. At this point (2 rounds after falling in pool, per the text) a huge dark blob slides out from its hiding place under a rock protrusion, Yurik fails the next swim check, and it grabs onto his leg – for 15 points of damage, dissolving all his skin off immediately. A horrible thrashing takes place in the pool, and blood and bits of liquefied flesh and gear boil up to the top. Yurik is gone in an instant. The mighty Staff of Commanding is disintegrated, never used. iv

The party beat a hasty retreat away from the horrible ooze, through the iron door to the west. Beyond it, the candelabra light expanded again, and the PCs felt like they could breathe a bit easier; fear effects seemed to fade away. The PCs entered a series of 10’ wide, engineered tunnels of long gray-slate corridors. Three giant rats were encountered; two slain and one ran off. v After a few hundred feet of long corridors, it was decided to return to town. The evening was late and another player had to be picked up from the train station around midnight. I officially hand-waved the return back to town. Some of us watched a few episodes of Portlandia.

i Consider the prior note about the gargoyles on the mausoleum.

ii Had it been carried to the lair of the juju zombies, under water far to the west? Or to the wizard’s detection-proof sanctum? As it turns out, neither of these.

iii Now, after the players having lodged numerous and understandable complaints about the rope-climbing difficulty being “not fun”, at this point Paul said, “Okay, well, that actually just got totally hilarious.”

iv That’s a Black Pudding in the pool. Personal reflection: Traditionally I completely can’t stand horror movies or the like. In fact, I get totally freaked out by them. I’ve got more than one story as a kid trying to go to a Halloween party and coming away blubbering, unable to deal with it. Now I’ve got more than one friend/family member who knows this, and then points out, “But the games that you run are usually way more horrible than any horror movie”. That’s not something that I can totally explain. Max’s theory is the problem being that most horror movies are from the perspective of the victim; maybe if one was from the perspective of the evil destructive spirit that would be a suitable entertainment?

v Actually wererats in disguise.