Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Three)
This is actually turning out to be a longer review than I had anticipated. If only I were paid by the word. Or paid at all, really. Such is the way of things.
Broken Moon is a pretty good module, overall, but it feels a bit like it’s two adventures packed into one volume. Most of the adventure deals with the exploration of the Shudderwood, Ustalav’s great dark forest of doom, with a segment at the end that deals with recent history of Ustalav in the form of an extended zombie encounter. In the main part, the characters are reluctant guests at Ascanor Lodge, from whence they start doing their research and trying to pick up the trail of the recently departed cultists. Outside the walls of the lodge, werewolves prowl the night, unsettled by the events of the previous week. One of their leaders has been slain, and it has thrown the delicate balance of the tribes into turmoil.
Were I to run this module series again (entirely possible, given), I would probably stall the action at Ascanor Lodge for a while, building it into a deeper sort of plotline. There’s a lot of fascinating potential in being within the grasp of the scenario’s villain, even while he tries to manipulate the characters to do his dirty work and get them killed off in the process. There’s plenty of interaction within the frame of the module for dealing with the various NPC’s that dwell at the lodge, but these characters could have deeper motivations and red herring subplots to expand their role in the larger adventure.
There’s also a lot of stuff that could be done with a closer exploration of the Shudderwood itself. In context of the module, there’s essentially a couple of encounters on the way to the lodge, an encounter based on one of the main NPC’s of the lodge itself, and then a rush towards the confrontation at the abandoned temple in the woods. Having run Kingmaker, I could easily see adapting the hex-by-hex wilderness campaign to the Shudderwood. The opening encounters of the region hammer in the understanding that this place is dangerous, and a couple more mysterious ruins on the way to the temple would nicely underscore that.
The big set-piece dungeon of the module is the abandoned temple to Desna that now serves as the central meeting place for the werewolves. It’s an interesting commentary, as Desna’s the goddess of the moon and stars to begin with, and some of the werewolves are Varisian (the pseudo-Gypsies of the setting who generally worship Desna), but there isn’t a lot that’s done with it otherwise.
It does raise a strange complaint that I have about the module series as a whole, however.
Each of Paizo’s Adventure Paths dedicate themselves (in the extra, non-module material) to illuminating specific regions, monsters and gods of Golarion. In the absence of a sister magazine – as they’d had with Dungeon and Dragon – they have to use the available space to build their setting. It had been a very helpful feature in Dragon, and it’s a great way to give the players and GM a little more material to work from, rather than waiting for the next hardcover world guide or having to reference a number of various softsplats (like the particular nation guide, deity guide, etc.) for flavor.
For Carrion Crown, the deity guide focuses on Pharasma. In the setting, Pharasma is the goddess of morticians and midwives, death and rebirth, fate and prophecy. Given the amount of undead in the setting, a god that abhors the undead is a logical choice. When I was running the campaign, naturally, one player was playing a Varisian cleric of Pharasma to keep in setting.
The problem was, until the end of Wake of the Watcher (the fourth module), it wouldn’t have mattered. And as I was to find out, it would have made more sense for that character to have played a follower of Desna. Admittedly, the larger part of this came from a confluence of events that took place uniquely for my particular playing group, but enough was set in motion by what happened in Broken Moon that it started seeming weird.
First off, one of the random encounters on the way into Shudderwood involved caravan of Varisian travelers (your basic in-setting Gypsies) who ended up robbing the party for some scattered valuables (including the cleric’s silver holy symbol). At the time, it hadn’t meant anything, but I poked at the cleric about how she’d forsaken the Varisian faith. Then there’ s a fortune telling that takes place at Ascanor Lodge, where the Varisian Madame (as in, brothel) is on hand to offer a Harrow Reading. All right. Nothing big there. Just serves to reinforce the mood.
The big event took place at the Stairs of the Moon, the abandoned temple that has been claimed by the werewolves of Shudderwood. If the characters manage to find the ritual and reconsecrate the temple to Desna, they’re granted an audience with Desna herself. This takes the form of a prophecy of coming events (what to look forward to with the next three modules), a permanent stat boost, and having their eyes turn silver due to being in the presence of a goddess. Even without the previous events, this sort of shook my cleric’s faith in Pharasma. It didn’t help that the former midwife – not a lot of call for that while foiling the plans of an insidious cult – had spent weeks on the road, traveling from place to place. (For those unfamiliar with the setting, this is the hallmark of a proper cleric of Desna. A life on the open road with little more than the stars to guide her by.)
Finally in Illmarsh – near the beginning of the fourth module – another fairly unlikely happenstance cemented the Desna connection. The cleric managed a critical hit on a fairly powerful monster, and since I was using the officially licensed Pathfinder Critical Hit Deck (mainly used for situations like this), it pulled the effect of shunting the monster and whatever it was holding into another dimension. Unfortunately, it was holding the cleric at the time. The cleric offered a joking suggestion about where she was likely to end up. I shrugged and narrated the cleric’s arrival in the realm of Desna herself, whose servants handily dispatched the adversary in question and sat down to have a heart to heart with this rather confused cleric of Pharasma.
Knowing the need for a cleric of Pharasma to wield the minor artifact found in Wake of the Watcher, I allowed the cleric to be converted over to a new worship, while still holding many of the precepts that had carried her this far. (In short, I allowed the player to model this through a sort of Pluralist Feat, where the cleric retained some vague connection to Pharasma while taking on the trappings of a follower of Desna.) When I’d played in a Legacy of Fire game, the paladin had taken a 3.5 Prestige Class that essentially required this sort of set-up, blending Sarenrae and Iomedae in-setting to be able to satisfy the requirements.
In the long run, it made for a really interesting character, as the cleric wrestled with her faith and tried to make sense of the higher destinies in place. It’s just frustrating when there’s really good flavor for one goddess, only to have another one show up in the same series. The same thing happened in Legacy of Fire with a fantastic opening at a monastery to Sarenrae, with a set-piece in the same module that details a shrine to Nethys. It seems to be a conscious choice on their part, but it is a bit weird.