Converting adventure modules to Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is a surprisingly painless process coming from earlier editions or 3rd party scenarios and OSR game systems. While I’ve done a fair amount of work with some AD&D 2nd Edition adventures, what you are about to see is my first time working with a 3rd party module, and it’s a doozy: Rappan Athuk, the Dungeon of Graves! (I used the Swords & Wizardry version.)
I went about this with a lot of preparation and a significant amount of structure, but what I learned is just how easy-breezy everything was. Join me as we take a look at converting the wilderness area surrounding Rappan Athuk, and one of its least frightening (though still very challenging!) levels.
I use a mechanics-free, info-dump version of the Lore Sheet concept (from Weapons of the Gods) as a simple, one-page reference tool for players. Basically, I think about what the players absolutely need to know about the campaign world, and I organize it such that a single page covers as much as it possibly can, whether that means one subject in depth, or a series of regions or subjects tied together by an overarching concept in a brief way.
Some Lore Sheet examples from Rappan Athuk:
- Zelkor’s Ferry is the little fort where the game begins, so there’s a map on one side from the book, and a Lore Sheet on the back that gives a quick list of the different shops there. That way, any time they roll into town, it’s easy for them to plan shopping trips, visits to NPCs to gather some lore, or whatever.
- Rappan Athuk Wilderness: this sheet has a full-page map on one side (mostly unkeyed, from my Free Stuff! section) that the players can write on as they wish, plus a Lore Sheet on the back listing the few points of interest they know are there. I had some remaining blank space, so I added some rumors so the party can develop some goals. I won’t give this out right away, but will do so after they talk to some NPCs and come up with a course of action during Session #1.
- Orcus and the Cultists of Rappan Athuk: the intro text of Rappan Athuk provides a legend that can be provided to player characters (retold here; I think there’s one deity reference, so I changed that to match the deities of my campaign), so I just copied it and pasted it onto it’s own Lore Sheet. I’ll give them this whenever they hear a bard tell the tale, and I’ll probably have one of the players read it aloud in an overly dramatic fashion for some roleplaying fun. No need for me to do all the heavy-lifting with the NPCs!
Here’s the Zelkor’s Ferry lore sheet in full:
Lore Sheet: Zelkor’s Ferry
Zelkor’s Ferry is a small cluster of buildings surrounded by an old stone wall that once served as a border fort. It is now an inn and a small trading post for occasional river traffic and infrequent overland travelers following the river trail to and from the Coast Road. The Ferry is the last convenient place for downriver traffic to make a safe landing, so although the settlement is small and the river traffic is infrequent, barges and keelboats do arrive here from time to time, offloading cargoes bound for the Coast Road.
A. Bristleback’s Inn: 1 gp per night.. Staff: Odo Bristleback (innkeeper and runs the entire settlement), Amelia (wife), Ysbel & Tallie (servers), Gumbel the Cook (cook).
B. Stable: 1 sp per animal. Staff: Igor & Volt.
C. Blacksmith: Assorted weapons and armor. Staff: Big Morgan (smith), Deslena (wife & potter).
D. Barracks: Houses Odo’s guards.
E. Rasmus Pye’s Trading Post: Adventuring gear, light armor, and supplies. Staff: Rasmus Pye (proprietor, wizard), Meregan (wife, tailor & leatherworker), Verestin (son).
F. The Necromancer: Ulman Dark (necromancer & astrologer), Kenndra Dark (bounty hunter).
G. The Ferry: Gutmark the Ferryman (ferryman & fisher), Adebrin (wife, fishmonger).
H. Kalgor the Gemcutter: Kalgor (retired dwarf adventurer, gemcutter).
The wilderness outside of Zelkor’s Ferry is dangerous; travel along the river is the only relatively safe path. The Mouth of Doom — a stone carving of a demon face in the side of a hill — marks an entrance to tunnels connected to Rappan Athuk, and stands about 5 or 6 miles from the Ferry.
Player character backstory — and specifically Bonds, which come from a character’s Background — are the primary means to get players excited about the game world and get them invested in the campaign. In Sly Flourish’s D&D 5e Bonds Based On Fiasco-Style Relationships, there’s a method of changing PC Bonds to a more Dungeon World-style where a player choose another PC to be part of their connective tissue to the campaign setting. You can read more about Dungeon World’s use of Bonds here. Below are some examples of Rappan Athuk-specific bonds in the style of Dungeon World:
- __ and I lost a mutual ally who went to explore Rappan Athuk. The ally was a (1d4): 1 friend, 2 mentor, 3 relative, 4 love interest.
- __ and I have been tasked by the priests with finding an artifact lost in Rappan Athuk. They are the priests of (1d8): 1 Mitra, 2 Thyr, 3 Muir, 4 Freya, 5 Arden, 6 Kel, 7 Bowbe, 8 Vanitthu. The artifact is (1d6): […I haven’t come up with a list of potential items yet, but we’ll get there. I’d simply choose 6 items I know will be in later levels of the dungeon, and write down the item and a page & location reference.]
- __ and I dreamed of exploring Rappan Athuk as children.
- __ and I were members of the militia, until our unit was annihilated by evil priests of (1d4): 1 Orcus, 2 Tsathogga, 3 Hel, 4 Snuurge.
- __ and I swore an oath to an aging Druid to find and destroy the temple of Orcus in Rappan Athuk. [This assumes that most people only know of 1 out of the multiple temples in Rappan Athuk.]
- __ and I have been magically compelled by a mysterious fey princess to save the Forest of Hope by consecrating Rappan Athuk.
Rappan Athuk Environs
As you can see above for Zelkor’s Ferry, I literally just listed the NPCs by location, found an equivalent statblock from an NPC in the Monster Manual or in Adversaries & Allies, and just said “yeah, you’re that.” Since I was already in there, it wasn’t hard to make a few random changes (I’ll let the eagle-eyed readers figure those out). Pictured above is one of the wilderness random encounter tables — there are 5 of them — and those were equally easy, 1:1 swaps in every case. If there’s a weird one — an ogre that can cast sleep — I’m not going to rebuild the monster; I just use the ogre statblock and (try to) remember that it can cast sleep.
Level 1C: The Mouth of Doom
For Level 1C: Mouth of Doom I spent a lot of time on the conversion, specifically because I wanted to see how it balanced with 5th Edition’s encounter and treasure expectations, and I wanted to figure what I needed so I could proceed more selectively — more focused and thus much faster-paced — on future levels. It took me the better part of two hours to get all of Level 1C’s 33 encounter locations written up, I think.
I figured I’d use a method tucked away into my article on Prepping and Running Published Adventures — which originated in Hack & Slash’s On Set Design article — that boils down the entire room entry into as little text as possible. You then parse the info in a visually “systematic” manner so it’s sort of like a flowchart of what the PCs see or interact with. For example:
There’s a much simplified version of this that I’m more apt to use in general, and likely to default to in the future once I’ve gotten a bit more used to how things shake down when converting Rappan Athuk to 5th Edition. The simpler method involves listing only monsters & traps, then treasure, like so:
7. Gnoll Den: 5 gnolls, 1 gnoll fang of Yeenoghu! Secret door DC 15 to 2B-4. T: 1d10 gp (per gnoll); 300 gp in bedroll (auto-succeed on Int/Investigation).
12. The Chapel of Green Flame: 1d4 fire snakes! T: snake’s skin (250 gp apiece).
You have to rely on the book at the table when using that sort of cheat sheet…but that’s sort of the point of paying for the book, isn’t it?
Monsters & Traps
A good deal of the work, then, was parsing the text as I read it into the format I needed — which required a little experimentation in some areas — and referring to different monster and NPC listings to get things converted. Traps also took some doing, because there’s a couple that aren’t direct equivalents from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and thus rely on spells or even monster traits to form the basis of their mechanics. Now that I know what to look for in order to get rid of a save-or-die trap and take something more interesting from a spell in the PHB or whatever, future levels (of equivalent size) should take about half this time.
I found the work rewarding because it showed me that balance issues for monsters wasn’t bad at all: a 1:1 conversion to 5E monsters/NPCs worked like 99% of the time, and the few changes I made were as simple as just going “What’s a cool monster of the right level to put here?” There was only 3 or 4 monsters that weren’t in the Monster Manual and I tracked those down to the 5E Fiendopedias or other conversions online within about 10 seconds of searching via Google, and after that I just needed like 1 or 2 that I said “well, that thing is way too powerful in 5E, so I’ll just use this other thing.” (The froghemoth was converted by the Newbie DM, for example.)
As for treasure, I found Rappan Athuk gave away WAY too much for 5th Edition math, so I just cut most coinage by one-half, changed out any gem listings to the lower tiers of gems in the DMG (10 gp gems or 50 gp gems at most), and traded out any art objects or similar things for the lowest two tiers of art object rewards in the DMG (25 gp objects and rarely 250 gp objects), often using the description straight from Rappan Athuk but changing the gold piece value to that in the DMG. No more “crown worth 3,000 gp”, it’s now a crown worth 250 gp! I always round lower, so anything worth up to 249 gp is going to be worth 25 gp and anything up to infinity will be 250 gp when it’s in a Level 1 dungeon area.
Magic items I ultimately just converted 1:1 for items that seemed “important” (they’ll jump out at you if they are) and replaced any others with random rolls from the DMG; I considered that there’d be maybe two level appropriate hoards spread out on each dungeon level, so I made a few rolls, subtracted anything similar from the 1:1 “important” item swaps, and played the rest by ear, placing the remaining items wherever there was other treasure dropped in the level.
I think the level still came out a little high in terms of total gp value of coins, gems, and valuable objects (but veered slightly low on total number of magic items), but considering how much of the treasure is hidden or out of the way, I don’t expect the players to get it all. Done!
I feel like if I didn’t have Adversaries & Allies I’d be in a bit of trouble to get NPCs feeling unique, perhaps having to do more work swapping out weapons and spell loadouts, but with it I’ve had no problem whatsoever finding an equivalent statblock to use. I think at most I have maybe 1 or 2 NPCs that list a change as difficult as “add Dragonborn breath weapon and resistance, Red” or “uses a Pike instead of a Longsword.” Dirt simple, and it took 15-20 minutes to complete all five wilderness encounter tables in the first part of Rappan Athuk plus the settlement of Zelkor’s Ferry, and maybe another pass of 5 minutes (tops!) to make the few tweaks that I made.
In future levels, I don’t have to do nearly as much work: I can eyeball the monster swaps or Google any conversions, and for treasure I just cut coins and values by 1/2 or more, and add in a couple treasure rolls worth of random stuff, making sure not to remove anything deemed “important.” As we play through several sessions, I’m sure I could just eyeball the whole process, but I like a little structure, and besides, I can probably publish some articles with fuller conversion notes in the future 😉
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