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.

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