D&D General Thoughts on running Rappan Athuk (and deadly megadungeons in general) [SPOILERS]

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Supporter
When did you run it? For the 5e re-release that is no longer true. There is a series of low level adventures with the Zelkor's Ferry supplement. The Mouth of Doom can be run with (very careful) low-level characters. Castle Calaelen offers low level adventure and the possibility or creating a stronghold/home base for the party. The party can certainly level up to high tier one and perhaps low tier 2 before setting foot in RA proper.

We started at level 0. Plenty to do at low levels.
One of the aspects of megadungeon play is that the low-level areas are restockable, so that new low-level characters can always enter.
 

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MerricB

Eternal Optimist
Supporter
So i have been gearing up to give PF2 a honest try and it turns out between the big humble bundle earlier this year and Black Friday, I got the Abomination Vaults for Fantasy Grounds for $12.
My commiserations. ;)

I hope it goes well for you! My group bounced very hard off PF2 and the Abomination Vaults, but given there are lots of people who do like the game and the adventure, let's hope your group is one of them!

Cheers,
Merric
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
HUGE SPOILERS - I've already warned you, but I'm warning you again.

This is a long post, but I took a lot of inspiration from the various Lost Lands setting books and adventures, discussions in ENWorld, and the Frog God Games Discord channel. Perhaps some of this will be interesting and useful to a DM running Rappan Athuk.

The party finished the battle with the Avatar of Orcus and his minions in Level 15 last night. Took over 12 hours of IRL game time over two sessions.

I altered it a bit from as-written in the book. Originally, I wanted to redo the layout of the entire level because it just wasn't that inspiring to me. But work go in the way and I instead changed a few things to make it work for me.

In the maze, I changed the cadence of "something bad happens" table roll to every round and when a roll resulted in something bad happens I would skip rolling for one round after that. Also where there was an encounter involving non-flying creatures, I created a flying alternative so that if the characters were flying then the flying creatures would attack. For those of you you know the adventure, magical flight is suppressed in the maze above the abyss. But as written, an except was specifically carved out for natural flight. The example given in the book is a druid wild shaped into a flying creature. I would suppose an aarakocra would be able to fly there as well. Most of the party polymorphed as dragons. I ruled that their flight would be allowed. I figure that there are plenty of nasties in the abyss that can fly and that it would make sense that Orcus would send flying baddies out of the abyss to attack flying threats.

Even with flight, the maze area is huge and with all vision and light being reduced by half on the entire level, the party still had to figure what direction they needed to go in, even though they didn't have to walk the maze. With the risk of something bad happening every round or two, it created a sense of urgency and used up some resources.

In the first huge room when you come up the stairs at the other end of the maze...I feel that was rather uninspired adventure writing on Frog God Games part. I ran it is written with the two mereliths, which were not a threat to the party, though one teleported onto one of the players and got some good hits in. One merelith was killed and the other teleported into the third and final room with Orcus.

I changed up the chokepoint corridor between areas 2 and 3 from how it was written. The ceiling height for the level (obviously a pocket dimension) says "infinite". An infinitely high and still fairly wide corridor is hardly a choke point. So I had the height at 8 feet and had a horde of zombies at the front of it near area 2 and a horde of skeletons near area 3. I used a special horde statblock based on another discussion thread I started here on ENworld which gave me some great ideas on how to make something that really felt like a horde while still being reasonable to run. The hordes served their purpose well giving Orcus more than sufficient time to keep bringing in new undead in room 3 while the party was working to making their way there.

For the Avatar of Orcus itself, the stat block for the version his Avatar in the Rappan Athuk 5e book is very similar to the stat block of the demon lord him self in DnD Beyond. I took some of the lair and wand abilities from the WotC official version--most notable the Power Word Kill lair action and the ability to create 500 HP worth of undead--and added them to the RA stat block. To make the fight more interesting and challenging. The Lair Actions started in area 2. I did not consider the Maze as part of his lair. Just areas 2 and 3. Also, I added the requirement that while he could be damaged with magical weapons as written in the stat block, they could only take him to one HP. An artifact level weapon was necessary to finish him off.

One tactical mistake I made, which I though was clever at the time, was that I pre‑calculated the 500 hp worth of undead ahead of time, and went on the lower end of HP to bring in more higher-CR undead. Basically, I had a lot of glass-cannon undead (demiliches, banshees, a death dragon, as well as ghosts, haints, and a variety of other creatures that could do terrible things if the players failed saves. Gotta eat up those portents!

But when the party got into room three, the unpolymorphed simulacrum wizard cast wish to cast an Forbiddance with an increase of 75% in the area covered and damage dealt. That was able to cover all of area 3. That wiped out most of low level mooks (ghouls, shadows, etc.). But it also meant most of my class canons died before they were able to take their shot. In hind sight, I should have either spent the 500 hp on fewer and more beefy mooks, or better yet, just hold onto that. The wizard would likely have still wished an stronger forbiddance to wipe out the ghouls, shadows, etc. and Orcus could have moved/teleported to Room 2 and brought in the 500 hp of mooks outside of the forbiddance area. But hindsight is 20-20. You can't plan for everything players might do.

Orcus took the battle back to area 2. The characters polymorphed as dragons eventually dropped the polymorph because the old claw claw bites couldn't damage Orcus (they are not magical attacks and even with multiple dragons, the breath weapons recharge delays and Orcus's incredible saving throw stats didn't make the dragons enough of a threat. EXCEPT...

And this is something I'm sure many DMs will criticize me for. In my game I use the DMG rule for disarming an opponent. So one of the players in dragon form managed to actually knock the Wand of Orcus out of his Orcus's grip and another character scooped it up into a bag of holding (I rolled poorly and they rolled well). I feel I should have just noped that and just have made that impossible. But that's not my DM style and per the rules of the campaign, that is something they could try.

Orcus without his wand is just not the same threat. I didn't consider this ahead of time. His actions and legendary actions and his spell list kinda such. All of his coolest tricks are in his wand and his lair actions.

With that it was just few rounds before they were able to down him. Well, once a player with an artifact-level weapon was able to deliver to coup de grace.

Perhaps Bill Webb and fans of the setting will say I went too easy. But it did take 12 or so hours of IRL play to clear the level and defeat the Avatar of Orcus. And, really, it was 5 years of tactical play, gathering intelligence and divination, and destroying the three Shrines of Power, and leveling to superhero anime levels of 5e power that made it possible. So, all-in-all, I feel the players earned their victory.

Another thing I added, was to actually destroy the dungeon and create a barrier to seal the weakening boundary between the Abyss and the Material Plan, the Anima Engine would have to be used. After defeating the Grand Cornu, the party had made a deal with Glazreal, the Architect. If the party defeated the Avatar of Orcus, he agreed that his contract with Orcus would be voided and he could enter into a new contract, which the party negotiated so that he would contract with Loom She (Loom She is a character from the Borderland Provinces setting, where Eastreach Province is located, in which Rappan Athuk is located). Glazreal would work to find a solution to Loom She's planar-travel sickness and they would both leave the Prime Material so that Glazreal could futher distance himself from the influence of Orcus and of Glazreal's father, Asmodeus.

What Glazreal didn't reveal to them until after they defeated the Avatar of Orcus is that Anima Engine could only be powered through the destruction of souls and to achieve a lasting barrier, it would take the willing sacrifice of a great soul with right intentions. When Orcus walked the land in ancient times as Arvonliet, Prince of Beauty and Lord of Light, and Thyr, Muir, and Kel combined to send him to the Abyss, and transform him into his current form, it took the sacrifice of the goddess Kel to create the Keltine Barrier under the Stoneheart Mountains to ensure he could not return. While not as great of a working as that, it would take the soul of great and powerful hero to create this new seal and collapse Rappan Athuk on top of it.

Zordlon, a cleric of Telophus in the party, sacrificed himself.

The session ended with the rest of the surviving party sharing what their characters did with the rest of their lives, what other great deeds, travels, and working they accomplished.

Then I ended with the following epilog:

At the junction of the Coastal Road and Calaelen Way stands a figure. The view zooms in. It is a woman dressed in an elegant black gown with fine red and silver trim and embroidered circular maze patterns made up of rounded lines. She holds a torch in one hand and a gleaming sword, reflecting the moonlight, in the other. Two black dogs stand guard with her. Zooming closer, you see she has three faces, each facing a different direction of the two roads.

Out of the darkness of the night, just beyond the light of the torch, steps a man, dressed in black. He walks towards the lady with an almost imperceptible limp. As he steps into the light, he is revealed to be a handsome, confident middle-aged man with a carefully trimmed goatee. He is unadorned other than a fine ring on the pinky of his left hand.

“A fine night my lady, is it not? You take quite a personal risk inviting me to the mortal plane. It would cause great consternation if word got out.”

The woman’s faces merge into the one facing the man. “It is a good thing, then, Ashema Deva, that word will not get out. Have you brought what was agreed upon?”

“Indeed.” The man reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a silver coin that glows with a pale white light. He extends his hand to the woman, offering her the coin. “You know the rules. You must release his soul into the world so that he may be tempted again. I’m sure Telophus will not be happy, but the law is the law.”

“The law predates the gods. Telophus will have to wait for the proper season.”

The man chuckles at her subtle joke and hands the soul coin over to her. He takes a deep breath. Ah, if only I could linger here a while longer.

“The law is the law” says the woman.

“Yes, yes. The law is the law. Says the man. He turns and walks away from her, disappearing into the darkness.

Far to the West, on the edge of the Haunted Wood, in the shadow of the Wizard’s wall that guards the rest of the continent of Akados from the hordes of the Haunted Steppes, a simple family of wood elf wardens maintain a humble forest home in a small community among blighted trees.

The cries of a female elf in labor can be heard from inside the house as the father leans against the house to the side of the door. Trying to push away his concerns over the dying forest and his worries about the new child he is bringing into this place.

He can hear the midwife comforting his wife and encouraging her to push. After some time he hears the cries of his newborn son and his excitement over seeing the baby is soon overtaken by the wonder he feels as the trees near the home lose their blight and turn green again. Before he can fully process what he is seeing, the midwife opens the door and pulls him in. She puts the cleaned-up newborn boy in his arms.

“It is time,” the midwife says, “whisper his name to him.” The father, thinking about the dreams that came to his wife and him throughout the pregnancy says “the name is already given.” He leans down and in the barest of whispers, says into the child’s ears: “Zordlon.”
 

I’m gearing up to run Lost City if Barakus and the Tomb of Abysthor combined in GURPs Dungeon Fantasy. I typically don’t run games with such large dungeons so we’ll see how it goes.

I’ll be dropping clues with the cultists if Orcus in both dungeons that lead back to RA. We’ll see if the group takes any of them.
 

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