Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Two)
The first entry in my review of Paizo’s Ravenloft-inspired Adventure Path, Carrion Crown, dealt mainly with the first two modules of the series, The Haunting of Harrowstone and The Trial of the Beast. In the interest of space, I cut the first review at that point, not wanting to spill into the 4~5,000 words range. I probably could have dealt with all six modules in the adventure path, but there are some outlying issues that I wanted to touch on as I went along.
In the first entry, I touched briefly on the metaplot of the Adventure Path. Being the larger, overarching plot of the module series, the metaplot is pretty important in the long run. It gives the characters a reason to follow through on their investigations, and it does what it can to string the different events into a coherent whole. Since each of the six individual modules are written by different authors (something that remains in force for all of Paizo’s AP offerings, extending back into the days of Dungeon Magazine), the metaplot is often the only way that any of the scattered narratives can be brought together. It can’t be an easy thing.
The reason I say this is because there are some notable rough patches in some of the Adventure Path plots. There are points in some of them where narratives are sort of tacked on, and other points where abrupt shifts in tone seem to take over. I’m not laying blame on anyone with these, as it’s what is going to happen with this many thousand words and the strict deadlines that Paizo is working with.
To its credit, Carrion Crown avoids a lot of specific missteps in the way it comes together. The worst sin that can be lain at its feet is the exuberance in which the path switches between monster genres. And for the sake of covering the necessary ground, that can probably be forgiven.
The way that the modules follow the metaplot, in the mean time, can be called into question. Starting early in the second module, the characters are presented with a strange, unsolvable mystery. When the Beast of Lepidstadt is apprehended, it had aided in the theft of a mysterious statue. From there, the modules progress forward, never giving any hint to the players about why this particular maguffin is important, until a footnote at the very end of the fourth module brings the statue back into the hands of the characters.
In the mean time, the characters are supposedly hot on the trail of a pair of ‘dark riders’ (sadly, not Ringwraiths) who always manage to be one step ahead of anything the characters do. About the third time it happens, it starts to seem comical. They get to the forest? Just missed them. They find the ancient shrine to Desna? Oh, sorry. They end up at the war torn dead fields of Feldgrau? Whoops, you should have been here about 20 minutes ago. And so on. As with the statue stolen from Lepidstadt, there isn’t any closure brought to this until the end of module four.
There’s an interesting note in the final module of the series, where the editor, Wes, talks about integrating the main villain into the larger plot of the series. His suggestion (based as it is in classic horror movie stylings) has Adivion Adrissant take an active role in taunting the player characters all along, leaving notes and clues for them with the various cultists that he knows they’re going to kill. He laments that he hadn’t managed to include this at the outset of the path but suggests that it might be a good exercise for the GM who has time for a little prep and the entire modules series in front of him at the time.
And really, it’s a great idea. Personally, I would go a step further and have the character of Adrissant show up here and there in disguise, making conversation with the characters at the bar or in passing on the street, but that’s just my own personal take on things. It would go a long way to smoothing off the rough edges of having the cultists able to elude the characters for three full modules. (Four, if you bring in the standalone Carrion Hill module between Broken Moon and Wake of the Watcher.) It also gives the GM a better interplay than the taunting missives that Adrissant leaves for the heroes.
So, at the end of the second module, the characters are given a bit more information about where to go next and sent forward to stop the larger plots in play. Where the first module only hinted at the conspiracy, the second module confirms it and makes it clear that the player characters are about the only people available to investigate.
The third module has them head into the wild, bucolic woods in search of cultists. The main area is the hunting lodge for rich idiots, with various incursions into werewolf politics as the driving force of the first half of the module. The characters have to deal with the plots of the human villain, as he covers up his involvement with the cult that serves as the AP’s primary villain and the characters have to defuse a strange tangle of werewolf politics.
This is another thing that seems weird about the Adventure Path, as a whole. There are some specific points in the series where the heroes are expected to help the monsters, rather than hunt them down. This becomes particularly evident in module five, where most of the interplay in the module takes place with vampires. Given that a vampire hunter character archetype is pretty likely in the scope of the module series, this is probably going to end up being frustrating. To their credit, the module takes this into consideration, with ways to complete the plot once all of the damned vampires have been staked, but really… it diminishes the module and the way that it’s meant to be played.
Similarly, module two has the characters run ragged to keep Frankenstein’s Monster from being executed. Weirdly, there’s quite a bit of sleep deprivation involved in that module, given that the characters have to ride out into the wilderness to investigate and then return to give their testimony the next morning. This sequence is where the Lesser Restoration spell hilariously becomes the Pathfinder equivalent to Red Bull.
The final verdict, for whatever reason, is that the monsters are less monstrous and evil than the humans that walk amongst them. Even the war torn fields of the dead in Feldgrau are largely the fault of the people in the setting. Maybe this is why so many horror movie creatures feel like settling in Ustalav. They’re not the ones to be feared in this dark and horrible land.
Oddly though, this concept does not touch the player characters themselves.
You see, in Ravenloft, much of the flavor of the setting was the constant temptation towards evil. And if a character took any steps towards actually fulfilling the evil thoughts that swirled around them, they would be rewarded by the dark powers that governed Ravenloft. At first, it would a be a minor thing, offset by a minor drawback, but the nature of the rewards would become progressively more powerful. And the drawbacks would slowly become debilitating curses, an outward sign of the corruption that gnawed at the heart of the hero so tempted.
While I was running Carrion Crown, I felt that the characters had to make a conscious choice to fight back against the evil that surrounded them. The problem with this was that there wasn’t any mechanical reason for the players to hold to this. Granted, this was a single Adventure Path with very little spare room left over, but the Ustalav setting book could have dealt with it, as could have some other source. I always felt the temptation of the dark powers was a necessary part of Ravenloft’s feel, so having it missing from the latter day homage felt weird. Then again, my Star Wars games always had a heavy Dark Side presence, so it may just be me.