Every player can recall a moment when they latched onto something in a book, never to let it go. In fact, each player probably has several. Something about a class or a race or a spell tickled their brain and wedged itself in memory, and it became their mission to find a way to use it in game. Often it’s art that sticks out first, but art alone can’t do it. It’s a combination of how the object of their affection looks, how it runs, how it feels, and how they can apply it to a hypothetical character or campaign. It’s everything coming together in a mild obsession, such that a player can point at it and say “This? This thing right here? This is my jam.”
From anecdotal evidence and a bit of research, I think the apparatus of Kwalish is one of those obsessions for a lot of people. Introduced to D&D in 1979, it’s survived several edition and regime changes, continually popping up in Core sources like the Dungeon Master’s Guide. And why not? It’s an iron barrel filled with levers that transforms into a moving, drivable, crab-shaped submersible. It’s the closest thing D&D has to a mech or a submarine and there’s nothing else in the game like it. It enables weird exploration, it has stealth capabilities because it can transform back into an ordinary barrel, and it can even fight. What’s not to love?
I mean, besides the fact that it’s objectively terrible. As with a lot of things in D&D, the objectivity of something’s utility comes down to its raw numbers, and the raw numbers of the apparatus are hot garbage. Consider first the Pathfinder version. The apparatus costs 90,000 gp. If an L12 character wants it, that consumes more than 80% of their entire character budget. Its caster level is 19th though it doesn’t have any requirements unavailable to a 11th-level caster (and recall, in Pathfinder even those “requirements” are pretty mutable). It’s clearly not intended for low-level play. Even if two characters, the maximum number who can fit inside, pool all their money, they probably can’t afford it until they’re L9.
So let’s compare it to L9 characters. It has 200 hit points and hardness 15, which is bonkers. This is a literal tank, a defensive powerhouse few creatures can hope to hurt, much less kill. But it does almost nothing else. It’s as slow as a dwarf even in water, its native element. Its AC is 20, which an average CR 9 monster will hit on a 3. Its attack bonus is +12, not bad, but its damage is only 2d8. Battles using the apparatus are battles of attrition to see which combatant whittles down their enemy more slowly. And that is everything the apparatus can do. It has no movement tech (in fact, it takes a full round to turn around), no ranged capability, no sonar-like ability to make exploration more fruitful or fun, and because it’s a sealed environment with no line of effect to the outside it even limits spellcasting. It’s really only useful as a hit point sponge, but it’s a lot to pay for a item you can’t repair until you’re nearly at epic levels.
D&D 5E’s version has similar problems. Technically it doesn’t have any issues with cost, because magic items in 5E are delivered at the pleasure of the DM. Players can’t buy an apparatus with any amount of money, so it’s not possible for it to cost too much. But it is a legendary item, which the DMG recommends only for L17+ characters. It has AC 20, which is great at any level, and 200 hit points, higher than all but the hardiest PCs (but only on par with a CR 9 monster). Its attack bonus is +8, which is…fine, I guess. Again, we’re right about at the level of a mid-level monster. But its attacks only deal 2d6 damage, which is what I expect out of a L1 PC. In a best-case scenario it can make four of those attacks, which puts it significantly below any level-appropriate damage output. Battles with the apparatus are, again, a boring slog, and it still has no features that make it actually interesting.
Can we improve the apparatus and make it more powerful? Sure. That’s not the point. Nobody looks at the apparatus and thinks “Oh boy, this is mechanically viable!” It’s popular because it’s neat, just not neat enough to overcome its obvious power-balance problems. We could make this an Underpowered post, decide what power level (or levels, if we want to split it into multiple versions) the apparatus should have, and redo its numbers until it’s competitive, but that won’t make it as interesting as its concept. If we want a fun, usable version of the apparatus, I think we don’t want to make it fit the game, we have to make the game fit it.
In Faith we recently had such an opportunity. The party wanted to explore an ancient underwater structure and they needed some way to do it besides just getting some scrolls of water breathing and learning the aquatic combat rules. I gave them two apparatuses, but I halved the hit points, tossed the hardness, added an “energy” bar that depleted with each action, and changed some of what the levers did:
|B||Change bearing 90 degrees left or right||1|
|C||2 claw attacks: +8 to hit, 2d4+8 damage||1|
|E||Change claw energy (+4 to attack, -3 to damage)||1|
|F||Move forward up to 6 squares||2|
|H||Change hull energy (+4 AC, -2 movement speed)||1|
|P||Open/close side porthole shutters||1|
|R||Repair 4d8 damage||10|
|S||Open/close forward spotlight||1|
|T||Torpedo attack: +8 to hit, 5d7 damage and 1d6+2 splash damage||5|
|W||Spin rapidly, knocking away grappling enemies and turning the apparatus in a random direction||3|
I kept the laborious movement tech because that’s part of the charm of the apparatus, but I added accuracy/damage and defense/speed tradeoffs the players could enable or disable at will. It got a ranged attack, the ability to kick off anything that grappled it, and some ability to heal at all. I had monsters spot and attack the apparatuses based on how much light they gave off (the players always had the shutters and spotlight open, so that particular decision was somewhat moot; perhaps a campaign based on shounen anime is not the best situation for weird stealth mechanics). Running this in MapTool helped a lot because I didn’t have to adjudicate player actions; they clicked a button and it took effect, making attacks or moving them or changing their stats accordingly. If you’ll recall, last post I talked about spending hours writing neat macros; here’s where I used them. It also let me have an attack that dealt d7 damage. We don’t have enough of those in the world.
With this modified apparatus we split the party into two groups and explored an underwater maze/atrium filled with enemies. Crystals dotted throughout the maze could recharge some of the apparatuses’ batteries, and alcoves had levers that opened the passage to the dungeon boss. The party split up almost immediately, which let them explore much more rapidly, and the final boss came down to a nail-biting display of resource management and tactical awareness. I had this set piece in mind when we started this arc, but I didn’t expect it to be as fun or intense as it was, and it only worked because we built the encounter around the concept of the apparatus of Kwalish instead of the numbers.
Yes, okay, we did have to power up the apparatus. It has mechanical problems we couldn’t solve by ignoring them, and that’s missing the point. We really had to come at the item sideways to make it useful, and that applies to all sorts of weird, underpowered classes and monsters too. Everything excels in some environment, even if you have to make the environment yourself, and everything is usable given the right setting. That’s what 5E is doing; because players can’t create their own magic items for the own benefit, they have to come from somewhere else and have some other purpose, and the story around the item is as important as the function of the item itself.
In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to work around things like this, and every rule in the every book would be fun instead of frustrating. But sometimes things are fun despite their rules as long as you treat them right.