Rappan Athuk Week – Part Two

In town for a week, the PCs directed the local wizard/alchemist to brew another jug of healing (at a cost of 2,400 sp!). Frederick also put out fliers to hire a new man, and successfully employed the veteran Oswin as his new bodyguard. Various experiments with the ruby dagger were attempted on subjects caught by the local rat catcher, to no avail. The PCs returned to Rappan Athuk.

The players had the idea to make use of the continual light candelabra in the main mausoleum. But the special key seemed to be missing! They found it again, and quickly ducked into the trapped mausoleum, grabbed the candelabra, and left. They also searched the two side-mausoleum, finding only a single room each with empty, sarcophagi and a few broken, gnawed-off bones and scraps of cloth. i

The PCs were somewhat irked to find their old rope gone, strung up a new one, and started climbing down the Well again. The 1-in-20 chance that the rope comes loose came up “1” for Frederick, who landed hard in the water at the bottom for some dice of damage. The players were getting very unhappy about this level of risk. The magic candelabra dimmed from double-strength to merely normal-torch strength, and more fear saves were rolled and failed. ii

Only one path forward was apparent, through the clawed-shaped cavern with the piercers to the east, so the PCs went single-file in that direction. iii Creeping forward, Gardy blasted with her magic wand once, twice, three times until the piercers stopped falling from the ceiling. Then the PCs ran forward with daggers and blades, and the fleshy/mouthy/tentacly soft topsides of the stony things, and stabbed, stabbed, stabbed until they were bloody and collapsed.

The PCs went forward and opened the secret door. Another 5’ wide snaky tunnel went north-by-northwest, corkscrewing once downward, and then entering a medium-sized cave. At the PC’s light, dozens, hundreds of rats could be seen on the floor scurrying away out of sight, a long squirming carpet of chittering fur, into various tiny holes and side-tunnels. More fear checks as at least one player uttered tangible disgust. Frederick thought to raise his light up and check the high wall/ceiling for dangers, and indeed – four pairs of large, hatred-filled green eyes! Instead of being surprised, Frederick had bought the party time to roll initiative, which they won. Gardy raised her wand and blasted – two huge panther-like creatures, hazy in their dim light, with long green tentacles sprouting from their shoulders, tumbled out of the high alcoves.

Two more of the creatures sprang down and attacked viciously with tentacles and bites. Rosalinde was grabbed and bitten, dead, her magic axe clattering on the stone. Gardy blasted that one again with the wand, and it failed to withstand it, paralyzed. Other PCs lunged at the remaining one but spears and swords slashed a foot away from where it really was – Frederick recognized the effect from the displacer cloak he wore. The displacer beast lashed out at Till (Gardy’s man), tore his arms from his sockets, and he died. The PCs bashed at the thing nigh-helplessly, its tough skin almost proof from damage. Maxine picked up Rosalinde’s magic axe. In frustration, Gardy fired the wand of paralysis again into the melee, paralyzing Iparaguire and Garabed, but not the beast! Oswin was grabbed and killed, a bloody mess. Finally the Veteran Maxine landed the 7th blow on the thing, and it thankfully died. The PCs shook off paralysis and dread from losing 3 fighters to a pair of beasts, and made sure to finish off the creatures that were magically stunned.

Exploring the back part of the cave, Gardy found a batch of strange mushrooms in one of the alcoves and scooped them up, thinking them to be some hallucinogenic substance good for carousing later on. The far wall of the cave fell away in an open abyss and cliff out of sight, and water could be heard. Gardy cast her one levitate spell, took a candelabra, and magically descended the cliff. Several rats actually jumped off the cliff at her, trying to viciously attack. Hovering above the bottom, some 90’ down, she found a placid pool of water and a short way across, a sandy beach with a closed iron door beyond it. She rose back up the cliff and the party conferenced. With almost half the group dead, it seemed wise to return to town and get additional help.

As the party turned to leave the cave, a new threat emerged at the mouth of the exit tunnel – a dead, naked man, heavily tattooed, eyes and ears stitched closed, moaning for brains – a juju zombie! It stumbled forward into the cave and the party meleed, their blows raining down to no effect. So the organized a fighting withdrawal, wizards entering the tunnel first, with Maxine bravely circling, slashing at the thing with the +2 axe, then back into the tunnel herself. Worried about being trapped in the tunnel with thing on their rear, Frederick cast web to block the tunnel entrance – a d6 was rolled it came up “1”, and Maxine’s axe was likewise hopeless stuck in the web! So they wisely sacrificed it, heading back up the tunnel and returning to the Well. iv

So now the PCs only had to climb up the rope to the outside. Garabed rolled a “1” on the climb check not once, but twice in a row, and died there. Frederick likewise rolled a “1”, took too much damage, failed his save vs. death, and died. The rest made it up and escaped back to town. The players took a break for some Indian food and collegial debate about the design of the dungeon and the climbing rule. v

i The PCs would have to repeat this action on every future escapade, because both the key and the candelabra teleport back to their starting locations at the end of a day.

ii At the end of the first night, Paul made a good point here about how the OED saving throw rule was a bit opaque to players, with numbers not appearing on the PC sheets as is customary. So thereafter I tried to be more explicit about what roll modifiers were happening in each case. They’re on the OED Player Aid Card, but in the future should probably be posted even bigger on the outside of my screen.

iii See the prior note about the mapping glitch that made it look like there was only one path forward (fortunately for the PCs).

iv This creature was only hittable with a magic weapon, which only the Veteran Maxine had at this point. Iparaguire was constantly stabbing with the ruby-hilted dagger, known to be magical, but which had no hit bonus. At this point there was some discussion that the hero of the protagonist of our story was really Maxine.

v The players were pretty much totally steaming at this point about the deadly climb checks, and you can’t help but sympathize. They’d rather heroically pulled off the fights with displacer beasts and juju zombie, and then had multiple PC lives slip out of their fingertips at the very end with daylight in sight. No money treasure found on this foray. Monster HD of 48 slain, so XP was 4800 ÷ 3.5 = 1370 each (685 for the henchman Maxine).


  1. I suppose I can't blame them either for the climbing thing. Barring special circumstances that make the climbing difficult, such as rain, old or unreliable ropes, etc., perhaps it would be best to assume that they can ascend and descend successfully without problem provided they have sufficient time and equipment. Mind you, I would count "wearing armor" as a complicating factor, so... and of course, they would perhaps not be so fixated on this if they weren't convinced that a long and deadly climb is the only way to access the dungeon. What are, incidentally, the real world stats on serious/fatal climbing accidents with competent climbers?

    1. This is a very hard question to answer (and I've tried). Also, we're talking medieval-level ropes/equipment here (no carabiners, safety harnesses, etc.) Even less than 100 years ago people were using a "body belay" which is no longer in use (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belaying#Body_belay).

      90' is a long friggin' way down and I'm pretty settled on the idea that there needs to be some risk to climbing for inexperienced people (e.g., a wizard with 5 Strength). In the past I've had scenes of the whole party dangling on ropes over infinite abysses at no risk, and I just don't think that's right.

      On the other hand, in the future I probably should explicitly throw out the risk and other options, like: Belaying, safety rope, hauling poor climbers up/down, etc.

    2. Hm, well, I certainly agree with you about wizards with a 5 STR! Ha! Yeah, like you, as difficult as it may be, I don't think I can cotton to the idea of NO risk for climbing... it just doesn't feel like old school D&D if it's completely safe!

  2. I agree with your players. I would make a Climb check if they are trying to climb in one round and no check if they are trying to climb in one turn.

    I am assuming the rope is not too long. I would let them climb up to 30 feet of rope per round based in the rope climb records (+/- 50 feet per round).


    1. I agree with 30 ft/minute as a reasonable-ish speed; that's what I just inserted into my house rules yesterday, in fact. Although it can vary tremendously. And the other thing is that I play with 1 round = 10 sec, so that's only 5' per round for me.

      But I disagree that even with no immediate pressure such a climb would be risk-free. As an example, here's an obviously athletic person, with no heavy burden, in a safe and well-lit location, with a coach advising, who can't even get started climbing a rope in several tries.

    2. Ok. You sold me... Rope climb up is hard as f*** without climbing equipment.
      I have done some abseiling with just figure eight and carabiner (I think) and it was easy.
      But as we say here in Brazil "Downwards every Saint helps" (means something like your "In a calm sea every man is a pilot").
      Also... Veins of the Earth have some nice rules about climbing.

    3. To be fair, that video is a free-hanging rope, which is a much more difficult climb than when there's a wall to plant your feet on and "walk" up.

    4. I should check out those Veins of the Earth rules.

      I must say, I'm not totally convinced up the upwards-rope-and-wall being a lot easier than a rope by itself. Both need some kind of special technique. And most examples of rope-and-wall tend to be relatively short, like 10' or so -- which crucially makes the angle of the rope from top to climber rather severe (assisting leverage). If the rope got much longer, like 100', the angle would be negligible, and I don't think it would give much advantage.

      Have you seen example of ~100' rope-and-wall climbs up? Even the trained rangers here don't have a super easy time of it. Or consider length/angle in play here here.

    5. I think that the bonus increases in the following way:

      Wall < direction < equipment < angle

      The wall can help, but equipment helps more because it can let you rest hanging.

      Climbing downward in vertical (aka. abseiling/rappel) is easier than a slope upwards.

      Climbing a horizontal surface upside down is the hardest.

      Also... In those video, they use really thick ropes which I don't think is the ones used to climb long distances (too much weight, hard to match equipment).

    6. 'Trained rangers' is being somewhat generous since the description says they're freshman cadets in Ranger School - they want to be rangers, but a lot of them won't make it. They're also going for speed. As for the woman in the gym, by the looks of it she could continue for a much longer climb, it's just that the gym ceiling isn't high enough to accommodate a much taller wall. I don't have any videos to show, but I know that large cliffs have indeed been scaled using nothing but ropes and grappling hooks - for example, at Pointe-du-Hoc.


    7. As an aside, a 1st-level fighter is probably pretty well equivalent to an Army Ranger, considering they're supposed to be veteran warriors a cut above the average professional soldier. Wizards wouldn't have that type of athletic experience to start with, sure, but by the time they're 4th level I would think that they'd be fairly competent and things like climbing and rappelling simply from "on the job training."

    8. That's a great link, thanks for sharing that. The thing is, if I search Google Images for "pointe-du-hoc ww2 climbing", there's quite a few photos... and all the photos of men climbing are neither just ropes nor rope-and-wall but simple ladders with a crossbar on a single rope every few feet. Example search. Of course the narrative does refer to, "plain three-quarter-inch ropes, toggle ropes, or rope ladders" but I wish we had photos of the plain ropes in use.

  3. As someone who's players got cocky in the caves of Chaos this weekend, these are a joy to read.

  4. I think the confounding factor here is that Delta's players feel 'obligated' to use the rope. IF the rope ascent is a requirement THEN it feels too deadly.

    Possible Solution: The village sells rope ladders. These should be what a strength 5 wizard climbs.

    Actually using a rope for 90' should be arguable MORE difficult. I doubt I could climb it after a hard day AT ALL. Rope use should be harder but more beneficial.

    1. I broadly agree with that. I think the optimal solution is for other (stronger) party members to just haul people up and down.