Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rappan Athuk Review, updated

(extremely mild spoilers)

I originally reviewed this back in January 2013 to a private G+ audience. We've been playing it for almost a year now, off and on.

"Don't Go Down The Well" - Frog God Games
"The grand-daddy of all dungeons" it calls itself. While Gygax's Castle Greyhawk should probably more appropriately bear that title, Rappan Athuk a.k.a "The Dungeon of Graves" certainly holds a special place in my heart for solidifyingwhat a megadungeon can truly be. Evocative, deadly, diverse, and filled with flavor. There are three published editions, I own all three, so I've gotten to see it evolve some.

Bill Webb says he has been working on this dungeon since 1977 - that's almost 35 years of development. Originally simply a 15 level dungeon (1st-level characters having very little chance of getting very far at all) with a famous and famously "unkillable" demon lord at the bottom (whether the demon lord is killable or not is debatable), the dungeon has expanded to over fifty levels and has significant reach across the countryside it exists in (including some connections to other Necromancer Games dungeons elsewhere). It is grand. It is epic in scale. It is thoroughly lose-yourself-inable. It is overwhelming. I love it.

Things that Rappan Athuk does right:

  • It's been explored - it's pretty clear that a great deal of the flavor of the place was developed through play. It is littered with the bodies, notes, and battlegrounds of the fallen - some of whom have come back in malevolent form.
  • It's deadly - while the dungeon (loosely) follows the model of deadlier the deeper you go, many of the encounters break away from this - roughly speaking there's almost always at least one thing per level that will totally kill you no matter how powerful you are unless you handle it well (or run away).
  • It's diverse - I mean, it's still a dungeon: you're usually underground, and there are monsters there, and so on; but while I haven't read all of the levels in detail, so far they've consistently been nicely unique and multiflavored, while still thematic. Very few of the levels feel busy for the sake of being busy (~cough world's largest dungeon cough~). Not everything in Rappan Athuk is evil, too.
  • It comes with a sandbox - There's a lot going on outside the dungeon!

Things that Rappan Athuk doesn't do so right:

  • Layout - Rappan Athuk is pretty clunky in its presentation and the Necromancer Games guys just haven't quite worked out how to make a referenceable dungeon. As the dungeon has gotten bigger, it's gotten worse. The interconnectedness of Rappan Athuk is awesome and interesting (something new around many corners) but the page-flippery to deal with it is really challenging. This is a dungeon that desperately needs a comprehensive, understandable side-view, and they still can't get it to look like anything but a spreadsheet.
  • Conversion - Rappan Athuk has been developed through so many different editions that there is a sort of editionlessness about it, this doesn't particularly bother me, but at it's worst the 2001 edition was sort of badly AD&D-translated-to-3.0 and a lot of people complained about that and I remembered struggling with it a bit. The new Swords & Wizardry edition is really nice in that it's bare-bones enough to convert easily from to any system of your choice, but if you're picky about your rules there may be an auditing/prep/scouring-the-internet-for-conversion-advice hurdle in there.
  • Monsters - The latest version requires the Tome of Horrors complete to even know what some of the monsters do, which is a bit annoying.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Spicing up the 13th Age Icons

Okay, mostly thanks to the enthusiasm of my friend Scott Moore and the occasional drops of interest from Kelvin Green, I'm taking a harder look at 13th Age, Heinsoo & Tweet's Pelgrane-published D&D homebrew. D20 engine, shaken up with some 4th edition, pulled back from miniature combat and then a dollop of story-gamey metaplot stuff, it's definitely a milkshake. I think I like the system, but it does that thing a lot of D&Dish settings do that I hate - it gives you a world that tries to still be both interesting but "generic enough" in the name of customizability; resulting in this tasteless neither-nor YetAnotherFantasyWorld™.

Whatevs. That's the nature of our genre, I think. Don't complain, let creativity reign. Or something.

from http://naksx.deviantart.com/art/the-story-331811497

Instead of alignments, 13th Age gives you icons - demi-Goddish setting-effecting Major NPCs, whose relationships to the PCs basically define what troublesome shit they're going to wade into in the campaign. It's a good idea - especially in the breakthrough of tying player-world relations directly to geography (take a look at Zak Smith's Warbox if this idea appeals to you) - but the dozen icons they give you are pretty blank. Purposefully so, GMs are supposed to make them their own.

Okay, I will then. I'll even pull some agendas out of my butt.

  • The Bahamut Ragnarok - One of the more evocative bits from the base setting is that when a portal to the Abyss opened up, an ancient Gold Dragon crawled into the portal and sealed it with its body. Such an act deserves a name, at least. Also, maybe instead of a pure dragon, it should be a qilin giant, because I'm not above a little self-insertion like that.
    • Perhaps the closing of the Abyss can only be accomplished through the death of another icon, which puts all the other icons on edge.
    • Generally Opposing: The Witch Queen, King of Mithril & Iron
  • The Silver Siren - Instead of the Priestess, let's have a fallen angel who requires the Dr. Fate-like possession of a young girl as long as she stays bathed in a fountain of liquid light; that gives her pre-cog Minority Report powers and means her temple may have time-shifting properties.
    • Being able to tell the future probably results in a lot of Needs-of-the-Many type thinking.
    • Generally Opposing: Whisperer to the Half-Blind God
  • The Fallen Star - Elven monarchies don't make a lot of sense to me, so I'm going to have the elves be caretakers of an alien consciousness that's working some centuries-long agenda of spiritual transcendence.
    • Always on the lookout for weird magical progenitor-tech. Doesn't like anyone messing with it's crèches.
    • Generally Opposing: Manork Talon, The Silver Siren
  • The King of Mithril and Iron - Hell yeah Dwarves have kings. In this case, an uncaring half-golem elemental-worshipping king.
    • Has a history of dabbling in planar rifts, digging too deep, etc.
    • Generally Opposing: The Worm that Sleeps
  • The Runemaster Tower - Somewhere between a wizard's magocracy and a Krynn-like library dedicated to recording and compartmentalizing everything. Primordial written language of magic, etc. etc.
    • Always showing up to "witness" stuff and claiming to be impartial, but obviously isn't.
    • Generally Opposing: The Witch Queen
  • The Legate of Onnai - You're telling me the dragon emperor wouldn't be a power-mad militarized theocracy? Of course it would. But screw worshipping dragons, how about an anti-polytheistic city-state, those are totally my favorites.
    • Dedicated to protecting its people, and banishing the worship of old Gods, undoubtedly at the cost of its people.
    • Generally Opposing: Manork's Talon
  • The Twilight Owlbear - I'm imagining some Mononoke-esque giant spirit of the forest-type thing, super powerful but susceptible to manifested corruption.
    • Everyone worries about pissing it off lest it goes tangible and gooey and starts stepping on things.
    • Generally Opposing: Whisperer to the Half-Blind God
  • The Hand and the Knife - These two share a great deal of clout, nobody knows who they are, and if thievery, intelligence and assassination is your game, they hold a lot of the pieces.
    • Standard medieval mafia. Evil and self-serving, but also frustratingly effective at Getting Things Done.
    • Generally Opposing: The Nameless, The Silver Siren
  • The Witch Queen - Magically-inclined but don't buy into "the system"? Wanna consort with planar outsiders? Hate that old fuddy-duddy runemagic? Get on board with sexy diabolism.
    • Not all-evil all the time, but you know, mostly. Gets a lot of refugees from the annoyingly strict runemasters, and yet probably in bed with them more often than not.
    • Generally Opposing: Bahamut Ragnarok, Runemaster Tower
  • The Nameless - There has always been a great stone monolith that stands for order and vigilance. There are those who swear oaths on it to forsake their worldly identity and their past to become inquisitors and justicars, sometimes for hire, sometimes for justice, sometimes for their own enigmatic purposes.
    • Sort of like Westeros's Night Watch but a bit more Hellknighty.
    • Generally Opposing: The Witch Queen, The Worm that Sleeps
  • Whisperer to the Half-Blind God - The secrets of the afterlife are carefully "cult"-ivated (GET IT?) by this sinister order and its whispering leader. It knows many things beyond the ken of mortality, but the prices it asks may not be of coin.
    • Nobody likes necromancers until someone has to get resurrected or someone died with a secret.
    • Generally Opposing: The Silver Siren, Legate of Onnai
  • Manork's Talon - Only Manork has the might to lead this loose alliance of orcs and beastmen, and only conquest can feed his desires.
    • Manork ruuuuuules. All the grunting and chest-beating is probably a front. I bet if you meet Manork he's sipping courvoisier and quoting philosophy and has a long history of being secretly invited to all the best parties.
    • Generally Opposing: Legate of Onnai, The Fallen Star
  • The Worm that Sleeps - If you delve deep enough into the underworld, you can hear the rumblings of the Master of the Dark, who claims dominion over the dungeons of the world.
    • You know, a dungeon master. Not necessarily evil, but constantly birthing monstrosities.
    • Generally Opposing: The Nameless, The Fallen Star