Thursday, July 13, 2017

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.


  1. I am really enjoying these play-reports. Not only are they entertaining in their own right, the notes give us a chance to see your thought process as a DM, which provides useful insight for the craft. Thank you!

    1. Thanks! It's possible that I've recently developed a footnote fetish, because it's so incredibly useful to separate out the experience on the two sides of the screen like this.

    2. Well, of all people, you'll hardly hear ME complain about THAT.

  2. Dan I'm totally loving these posts. It's a delight to read. I'm surprised and tickled you remembered my incredulity over the ring of human control - a deep cut from the HelgaCons past.

    1. Any time I'm wrong like that it gets scorched in my memory. Every time I deal with that damned ring I hear your advice about that! :-)

  3. I forget, is charm person more of a dominate effect in your rules or is it an extra of the ring that the Minotaurs are ok with some of the party's suggestions?
    Either way, that's some good thinking out of the box for the party.

    1. Good question. My adjudication is in line with the original text, "it will cause the charmed entity to come completely under the influence of the Magic-User" (OD&D Vol-1, p. 23), and the same effect as seen for Vampires, Nixies, Dryads, etc. Although I do tone down the duration for the 1st level spell, I don't use the later massaging of gentle friendship or making a distinction versus the monster abilities (AD&D DMG p. 65).

  4. Thanks again for another great play report. I'm continually astonished by player's willingness to take on dungeon levels rated above their own.

    I'm assuming your group is familiar with OSR rules? I'm in a 5e game right now with new players, and the bold rush into danger is going to get us TPKed..

    1. Thanks for saying that! Paul & Max (players in this Rappan Athuk game) do use, e.g., Labyrinth Lord for DM'ing many of their games. Max recently introduced a brand new group of role-players using LL and the B2 module and yep -- TPK. Apparently there was initially very deep backgrounds written, with motivations that led the party to split and have the wizards-only half charge the lizard men mound. I hear that idiom changed quickly.

  5. Instead of having the ring not work on larger than man size, I would maybe have them each count as 2, or give them a save bonus rather than having it being either or.

    Loved these posts!