Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part One)
Ah, Ravenloft. If there was one game supplement that I could blame for most of my evolution as a gamer, it would be the original boxed set campaign setting from 1990. It opened my eyes to how subtly horror could be handled in a game system that expected heroes to be able to stand up to any obstacle. In a lot of ways, the tips it offered were ways not to work creeping dread upon the characters, but on the players themselves. Uncertainty, unease, and deliberate forms of misdirection all came together to put the players off balance and start second-guessing their actions. These are all great techniques that have served me well over the years.
Carrion Crown was Paizo’s love letter to the greatest campaign setting ever wrought. Even their product description on the Paizo website hints at their obvious homage, as it opens with speaking of ‘the mists’ of the dark land itself.
The action opens with a funeral on a rainy day, the characters having traveled to the dreary town of Ravengro to bury their collective mentor, Professor Lorrimor, who is likely a stand-in for Ravenloft’s Rudolph Van Richten. Naturally, the good professor died under mysterious circumstances, and in the midst of coming to town to pay their respects, the characters are drawn into the plot.
As far as set-ups go, it’s a classic one. A funeral in the rain, a weeping daughter, and a small, desolate town in the shadow of an infamous prison, its stone walls now lying in ruin. The prison, naturally, is haunted, and the ghosts of the worst serial killers in the history of Ustalav lie in wait, their tortured souls seeking to escape the prison that held them in life. (As a side note, being the worst murderers in the history of Ustalav is really saying something. This place is a regular horrorshow to begin with, and these four ghosts somehow made it to the top of the list.)
As a standalone module, this is a pretty solid offering. The characters are working against a ticking clock, as the ghosts, disturbed from their rest by the workings of the Adventure Path’s larger metaplot, are slowly worrying away at the bonds that hold them in the prison. If they’re able to escape before the characters can put them down, the town stands to be destroyed completely. There are plenty of spooky happenings in the town, as well as on the grounds of the prison, which offer a sense of foreboding to the proceedings.
What’s interesting about Harrowstone is that the module borders on impossible if the party doesn’t have a cleric on staff. And if they do, many of the encounters become startlingly simple. Being that the bulk of the module is made up of ghosts and haunts (the ghostly equivalent of traps; these are actually really neat ideas that deserve to be used a lot more from here on out), a simple Channel Positive Energy will take care of a lot of the encounters. More than a few of the areas in Harrowstone involved the cleric of Pharasma stepping through the door, using a Channel, and the rest of the characters looking around for loot. Without the cleric, the characters have to use a number of workarounds to deal with the absurd number of apparitions.
As far as the metaplot goes, there’s enough to connect it with the larger plots of the Adventure Path, but not enough that it becomes intrusive. Essentially, the characters can discover the traces of cultish meddling that’s behind the unquiet dead, and they’re dutifully sent along to the next city on the cult’s list by the good professor’s daughter, carrying books to the professor’s friends in the next module as part of the will.
Each of the modules in the series deals with a different horror trope, which is an interesting mode to explore all of the different genres of horror. The Haunting of Harrowstone, as the first module, deals with ghosts. From there, we get to the setting’s version of Dr. Frankenstein and his creature in The Trial of the Beast, as well as the Golarion versions of Burke and Hare. The third module, Broken Moon, throws together werewolves and zombies, where the fourth, The Wake of the Watcher, goes all Lovecraft-inspired. Ashes at Dawn involves both vampires and hags, where the final module, Shadows of Gallowspire, fuses more haunted house motifs with a stock of liches and, oddly, what seems to be a throwaway reference to Hellraiser.
Paizo Adventure Paths have a tendency to be a bit … uneven … in tone, and Carrion Crown is no exception to that. The decision to include every available horror genre was a brave on the editor’s part, but it had the effect of making Ustalav seem a whole lot weirder than it may have needed to be. A lot of the strange inconsistency of the setting can be hand-waved away with requirements of the plot, but at least with Ravenloft, there was an in-game reason for all of the various horror tropes to be thrown in a pot with each other. With Ustalav, it seems like they got some sort of special tax breaks for moving in.
To their credit, they tried to make the different adversaries in the different modules seem like they kept out of sight from normal people and hid in the shadows as necessary, but about the fourth or fifth time that happens, it seems like someone would notice all the damned vampires. (Yeah, a Lost Boys reference. Why not?)
The second module has a serious Call of Cthulhu vibe to it, as the characters are called on to investigate the weird happenings that have been pinned to the Beast of Lepidstadt, who is on trial for a series of murders. And one rather incongruous theft. The set pieces to the investigation are well done, as is the presentation of evidence at the trial. The defense attorney is incompetent, to say the least, and it’s up to the players to do the heavy lifting. There’s a couple of interesting subplots that can be built as they wander around a decent sized city, but once they’ve finished the main investigation, it’s off to the mad scientist’s sprawling castle for the final showdown, after which they’re on the road again.
The first module was fine in how it handled the metaplot. From Trial of the Beast onward, it seems like the player characters are constantly one step behind the evil cultists. This can work, depending on the gamemaster, but it can also become pretty frustrating, pretty quickly. Especially when it is the main driving force behind the plot for about three or four modules.
Trial of the Beast is also where it starts to diverge pretty heavily from standard D&D expectations. The characters are thrown in a module with Frankenstein’s Monster, and they have to do everything in their power to make sure that he doesn’t get thrown in the Wicker Man to burn. (Yeah, they did that.) And it’s only a weird bit at the end that gives them the chance to actually fight a flesh golem, almost as an afterthought. In Broken Moon, there’s a heavy political vibe, where the characters are sort of nudged in the direction of navigating their way through the different factions of werewolves, and in Ashes at Dawn, the module really, really wants the characters to avoid killing all the vampires they run into. (This is especially noted in the foreword of the book, where the editor laments the natural tendencies of all D&D characters ever.)
And rather than overload the general attention span of any current or future readers, I might as well split this review into sections. I’ll post more on Carrion Crown tomorrow.