Rappan Athuk Week – Part One

For the July-4th weekend, I went up to Maynard, MA with some of my best friends and DM’d a D&D game for two days straight (breaks for meals, sleep, and pool time notwithstanding), which is of course one of my all-time favorite ways to spend the time. Paul S. has a birthday around then, so it’s a good opportunity to celebrate with some heroic (?) dungeon-crawling. For this year’s event, I brought Rappan Athuk, the Dungeon of Graves, by Bill Webb and others. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s arguably the biggest published megadungeon, having started play circa 1979 with the 1E AD&D rules, finally seen in print at the start of the 3E era, and still receiving regular expansions today. I brought the Swords & Wizardry PDF edition, which clocks in at 497 pages. All this week you’ll get a session-by-session description of the events, adjudicated with my OED house rules to Original D&D, with behind-the-screen annotations. Copious spoilers follow at every opportunity, so if you expect to play this, get the hell out now! i

We started with 4 players (Max, Joey, Paul, and Isabelle) with their 4 newly-rolled PCs of 4th level each – all Wizards! Partly encouraged by my house rule that humans above 1st start play with a free 1st level henchman, every player agreed to make a wizard with a fighter bodyguard. ii They pronounced themselves the “Masters of the Four Elements” and did their best to specialize in one each of earth, air, fire, and water (despite the fact that I was handing them premade, purely random spellbooks). Rolls for magic items did not go so well – the only significant offensive item was Gardy’s (Isabelle) wand of paralysis. Garabed’s (Max’s) henchman Rosalinde had a battle axe +2, and as usual the party started out with a jug of healing potion (6 doses) from a wizard in town. iii

I had read the introductory text prior to making PCs (… All who have explored Rappan Athuk offer this one universal piece of advice: “Don’t go down the Well.”!) If they could possibly clear out a feared Temple Of Orcus, and take whatever treasures they could find, that would be a mighty deed. So the PCs made their way down the Coast Road on horses to Rappan Athuk, getting their first first of the massive sunken grave complex. The went straight for the main mausoleum, using the special key to open the doors. iv Opening the sarcophagus, two wizards fled while the henchmen beat down the black skeleton. Then they carefully searched the sarcophagus inside and out, the far corners of the building, the walls, the ceiling – realizing that the whole place likely lifted up to squash people against the ceiling. Unnerved by this, they left the building. v

The party proceeded to the other end of the cemetery – checking out along the way the various rat holes (too small for humans to wiggle down), and open graves (one open with a marker bearing the name of Frederick [Joey’s PC]!). So they came to the fearsome monster-scratched Well and were convinced it was the only real way into the dungeon, and that the dire warnings about it were fakery and misdirection. vi

The group threw a torch down into water 90’ below, then spiked a rope and the whole party began rappelling down. This is not trivial, especially for wizards with low Strength and fighters in plate mail and other gear (and no thieves to assist). One wizard fell from about 30’ up into the water and had to take a draft of healing potion. vii

A small cave with murky, silty water and bits of flesh and bone floating in it. The party’s torch dimmed to half-strength, so one person could barely see another. The only way forward was one of two claustrophobic small tunnels. The whole party had to make fear checks, with several failing (take –2 on all d20 rolls on the level). Iparaguire (Paul) braved a search in the muck below, hoping out loud for a magic dagger of some sort – when lo and behold, indeed he pulled up an elaborate ruby-hilted one! viii

The party went westward into the darkness, scrunched up in single-file marching order, into a twisting back-tracking tunnel that confused the mapper. ix At a branch NE and NW, the NW was randomly chosen, bringing the party to a small room with alcoves on either side, at which place the point fighter was jumped by screeching black skeletons from every direction! Hemmed in by the tight quarters, the first fighter (Abbo, Frederick’s burly man) went down dead to the skeletons’ claws. The rest managed to beat back a few skeletons, use the alcoves for space and cover, and destroy the rest with some hard fighting. Maxine (Iparaguire’s bodyguard) picked up the morning star that she’d fumbled away in the fight. x

A medium-sized cave with a pool of water was reached, and the party was attacked by flying stirges from above; more fear saves were called for. One landed on Gardy’s hand, another on Rosalinde’s breastplate, and started sucking the blood at – as they were cut by friends, the mosquito-bats exploded in a bloody shower all over the PCs. After the initial fight, the party listened quietly, hearing more squeaks from above. Gardy fired her wand of paralysis cone upward into the darkness, and another score or so showered down into the pool, paralyzed. The party scavenged the bodies of several earlier adventurers, finding a magic arrow and boots, and left the room hastily. xi

A larger cave was explored, with spikes on the walls, but seemingly no other import than a few tiny rat holes worming away into the walls.

Down another tunnel, and the PCs found themselves back at the bottom of the Well from another direction. They turned back at this point to explore some more.

A narrow claw-shaped cave with several branching tunnels was entered, and a stony stalactite-creature fell almost on top of the leader fighter – a piercer! Listening, the PCs could hear more scraping into position above. Gardy fired her wand at the noise above, once, twice, three times, until the piercers stopped falling. The PCs ran across the small cave to one of the several short tunnels on the other side. Apparently another frustrating dead end, Iparaguire searched the wall for a secret door – and found one! Due to time constraints, the PCs turned back at this point.

As the party came back towards the Well bottom, shuffling along in cramped single-file, a lone wandering Wight came splashing through the murky water, eyes glowing red with hunger, and lunged forward to attack. Maxine at the head of the single-file party was well-armored (plus protection from evil by Iparaguire), but had no magic weapon with which to strike. So the party decided to freight-train the horrid thing, pushing Maxine and the wight back into the well-bottom in a mass of rushing bodies. Once they could maneuver, Rosalinde tried to attack with her magic axe. Iparaguire attacked with the ruby-hilted dagger, fumbled it back into the murk from whence it came, and spent the rest of the fight trying to regain it. Gardy fired her magic wand, not knowing the wight was immune, and accidentally paralyzed Garabed as he tried to climb up the rope to the outside. Rosalinde, seemingly the only person who could affect the monster, finally landed two solid blows and the thing went down. The party went back up the rope (with one person falling), and then back to town for rest and recovery. We broke for lunch and pool at this point. xii

i For the history of the design of Rappan Athuk, see here and here. This was the first time that I was running on adventure on my digital tablet (not printed on paper), and I think it worked as well as I could hope for. A short PC roster and individual encounter records I kept on index cards and that worked incredibly well (I could mostly stand and run any encounter with just two index cards in my hand). The one issue is that I printed maps for where I expected the players to go, they went totally off-script, and I had to flip back-and-forth in my PDF between map and text all the time.

ii As we discussed later, 4th level is a bit of awkward time (junior high) for Wizards. One level higher and they’d likely all have some game-changing mass-destruction spell, but at this point the best they have is something like knock, levitate, and invisibility. I debated quite a bit beforehand what level to set the PCs, and went with 4th because the 1st and 2nd dungeon levels specify that level of difficulty (and the mass-damage spells would have made those challenges too easy). As it turns out, the PCs never went to those levels!

iii I had a deck of business-card sized 1st-level NPCs that were the output of my Arena NPC combat simulator, which includes the possibility of magic items, seen here.

iv I now realize that most DMs have all 8 gargoyles on top of the mausoleum attack before the PCs enter it (and likely on every entry, since they regenerate over some days). The S&W text I have says, “They animate and attack when approached or whenever they are touched”, the latter part making me think the “approach” was very close, like needing to climb up to the mausoleum roof. If I had instead read it as automatic attack before the mausoleum, then I’d likely have attended to the text that says, “If the party is of very low level... have less than the full 8 gargoyles animate.” It’s another example of the several classic dungeons that for some reason suggest scaling monsters to party size in the opening encounter, but never again after that (see also AD&D Module T1 and Holmes Basic Sample Dungeon, etc.)

v The fact that they didn’t find the secret door in the middle of the floor to the 1st level set the track for the whole weekend of play – namely away from all the parts that I’d actually read and prepared for. This is where we learn once again the problem of major parts of an adventure being behind an unfound secret door. My instinct is, if I run this again in the future, to put the secret in the sarcophagus, which provides a point of attention for careful searching. Arguably I can be criticized here as terribly short-sighted DM for not just revealing the secret door when the PCs get anywhere near it. Looking at the Necromancer Games 3E forums online it seems like most groups do find it without much problem, so I’m not sure how other DMs are adjudicating that.

vi That kind of misdirection can be expected in our D&D games (and many others, I’m sure). I don’t know how many times I’ve had to learn this lesson, but we might call it the Iron Law of Warnings: the more you try to ward off players from going to a certain place, the more ferociously convinced they get about going there.

vii Rules-wise, this became a real point of contention in the game. The way the OED rules are currently written, the wizards and others had a 1-in-6 chance to fall on this trip, up or down; so the expectation should be that one of the party falls every such trip. I was rolling 1d6×10 for the exact height of a fall and hence damage. In addition, I assess a 1-in-20 chance that any rope breaks (once per particular climbing scene); this happened on the second time in, I think. Some players argued this climb should be free, not a distraction from the adventuring – and this sense was exacerbated at being convinced that the Well was the only viable entrance to the dungeon. This one I’m pretty settled on there needing to be a risk factor for a whole group of non-specialists making long, perilous climbs. The very first explorer was elevator-ed down, but this was then skipped until someone fell and got injured.

viii This is level 3A of Rappan Athuk; the equivalent dungeon level is listed as 9. From now through pretty much all the rest of the weekend, I was pretty much convinced at all times that a TPK was a few minutes away (and then we’d make new PCs and then be back to exploring the main mausoleum). The ruby-hilted dagger was a constant source of bemusement and experimentation for the players all through the game; in truth it is one of the 3 keys to level 3B, in which rests possibly the highest-level threat in all of Rappan Athuk (e.g., see end of Cabin in the Woods).

ix The other thing to be aware of is that from this point forward I’d read and prepared approximately none of the text or areas where the PCs were exploring. So all weekend long I was frantically swiping back-and-forth on my tablet trying to read the next few areas in advance and parse what happened as the PCs approached/entered. For example: There’s a point marked “A” on the 3A map that I swear to god I couldn’t find in the text over about a half-dozen scans while the game was running; so it just become nothing in our game. As it turns out, the side-tunnels of the well are supposed to places where PCs must dis-armor and army-crawl though naked if they wish to proceed (“A” is where this ends and they can stand up again). Would this have dissuaded the PCs from going further at this point? I’m pretty sure not.

x If the party had picked NE, they would have wound up in a river room being attacked by a pair of spectres, and beyond that the undead wizard with a pair of iron golems. (!) At this point Paul mapping did some erasures to clarify the confusing wind-around/cross-over, and in so doing accidentally wiped out the branch at this point. So the party was convinced for a long time thereafter that the dungeon was effectively linear, and had nothing else to explore in this direction. Which frustrated them but probably spared their lives.

xi They didn’t look in the pool to find the underwater tunnel, that would have possibly taken them to a batch of stronger undead and much stranger realms beyond.

xii The party only found about 100 sp in treasure in the session, plus 41 HD worth of monsters destroyed. Total XP: 4200 ÷ 6 = 700 XP per PC, 350 for henchmen.


  1. Having fun reading this, but annotations don't seem to work? I can log-in but don't have permission?

    1. NVM, i see the notes at the bottom.

    2. Dangit, I just realized those links are broken. Let me see if I can fix them.

    3. I think I got it now. Thanks for the alert!

  2. You don't create your own material do you, why not? I mean you spend time understanding minutiae of old rules and devising new ones. DMing for friends as opposed to strangers, I would think they might be more interested in your personal creations than generic universal acme corp. material.

    1. Well, honestly adventure design is not my strong suit. Takes enormous amounts of time and results are not so great. I'm working on getting better.

    2. I ask because I don't have a sense of the kind of fantasy you would try to simulate. Do you have a favourite writer you would lean on?

    3. Well, just looking at my bookshelf: Lovecraft, Howard, Lieber, Moorcock, Vance, Anderson, de Camp, Bellairs, Eddison. Roughly in that order/frequency. In the distant past: Stephenson.

      The other thing that occurs to me is that I do like a scenario that has a maximal number of eyeballs that have gone over it (i.e., a statistically large sample size), so that whatever testing or observation we come up with builds on, and enrichens in the future, the most player experiences.

  3. Marvelous! I look forward to hearing more about the brave group's adventures! Thanks!

  4. Rappan Athuk is a great dungeon. I often look to it for inspiration.

    1. It some ways it's like every D&D idea Bill Webb every heard about put into a giant complex somewhere.

    2. Well... not all of them! (see "Sword of Air")

  5. Very nice, I look forward to hearing more. I may have to look into this megadungeon myself.

    1. I think it has a lot of neat ideas (far more than I've had time to read so far). As you'll see, it also has some areas that fall a bit flat.