Sunday, July 16, 2017

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


  1. What critical hit system did you use. I saw mention of a percentile die roll. Is it something you can share and I could look at?

    1. Good question; it's from Dragon #39. When a "1" or "20" come up, I give the victim a save vs. stone to avoid the critical (so: harder to succeed at it vs. higher-level opponents). I've been using this for years and really like it. Full disclosure: I mostly run one-off convention-style games and haven't done this in a long-running campaign.

      I excerpted the Dragon #39 critical hits article here.

  2. This has been a wonderful and interesting read, thanks for sharing.

  3. Here is a piece of text from room 6-2 that somehow did not find its way into the S&W conversion of Rappan Athuk: "To provide a sufficient level of difficulty, require an hour of game time per maze section to locate the exit."

    Given that, each time the PCs entered a maze I'd have them encounter a mustard jelly 1-8 rounds later, and I'd also make one check for wandering monsters since the text says to make a check once each hour.

    In other words, a maze indicates the following:
    1. a certain encounter with a mustard jelly
    2. a 45% chance of a second encounter with something on the wandering monster table
    3. the passage of an hour

    Voila! :)

    1. Boy, that's really critical. Thanks immensely for pointing that out!!

  4. The mausoleum trap is, imo, terribly designed. I've been meaning to write up and post my revised version for a while now, so maybe this will give me the impetus to actually get to it.

    1. I would definitely be interested in reading that. I understand the text has been tweaked a few times in the various editions.

  5. Delta, what's the screen size on your tablet? Which model, if I may ask? I've used an older gen Kindle Fire at the table and while it's good for looking up rules or spells I'm not sure how good that screen size would do for adventure text. Thanks in advance.

    1. Yeah, I think I have the original Kindle Fire with about a 3.5x6 visible screen area. You're right that letter-sized adventure text (8.5x11) is slightly awkward. It's great for digest-sized stuff like the original D&D LBBs, or stuff that I write in the same format.

  6. I have really enjoyed your posts about Rappan Athuk! Many times have I been thinking about running it, but have never gotten around to it.

    Now I might just do it...

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. It's quite a monumental work. Thanks for reading my stuff here!