Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Five)
My, how times have changed.
Way back in 1980, TSR published Deities & Demigods as a supplement to 1st Edition AD&D. It was meant as a broad survey of various pantheons drawn from world mythology, but knowing their audience, they included mythology that was drawn from the source material that Dungeons & Dragons itself was based on – namely information culled from H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, Fritz Lieber’s Nehwon stories, Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga and the King Arthur legends. None of this would have been a problem, had Cthulhu and Elric not already been licensed to be made into RPG’s by Chaosium. TSR had wrangled out the permission to print them, so long as they included a credit in the text to Chaosium for allowing them to use the likenesses. The second and subsequent printings of the book removed the two sections, shortening the book and making the original printing collectible.
With the passage of 30 years has loosened the copyrights on Cthulhu related material, to the point that Cthulhu now seems to appear everywhere as a sort of call sign to anyone interested in eldritch horror. Steve Jackson has Cthulhu Dice and a variant of Munchkin, Fantasy Flight has the Arkham Horror boardgame, and Wildfire has CthulhuTech for the cyberpunk stylings, Cthonian Stars for a Traveller vibe, and The Void for a non-Traveller version. These days, it’s sort of everywhere you look.
And with the Carrion Crown path, the Cthulhu Mythos makes its way to Golarion.
Strictest sense, Paizo had referenced it in Trial of the Beast, with the theft of the Seasage Effigy. (I swear, the number of times I wanted to mispronounce it as the Sausage Effigy…) Referenced in that module as a ‘grotesque statuette of murky green stone’, it was something of a unfulfilled maguffin, standing as the reason behind the apprehension of the Beast of Lepidstadt and not actually being seen again until the end of Wake of the Watcher. There were references to the Plateau of Leng in both Rise of the Runelords and Legacy of Fire, and an ancient cult of Yog-Sothoth was noted in Kingmaker. But in this path, they pulled out the stops.
Wake of the Watcher opens up with the advice of adapting the Carrion Hill (yet another Carrion-titled module; Wes Schneider notes that they need to find other words in one of the forewards) module to serve as a waypoint between the end of Broken Moon and the first act of this module. Geographically and thematically, it makes a lot of sense to do so, but given the Cthulhu-based action of Carrion Hill, it ends up being a bit of a double whammy when it comes to overloading the Lovecraft adventures.
Carrion Hill is a solid enough module, about half the size of a normal Adventure Path installment, insofar as actual module text goes. The characters arrive to find the aftermath of a smallish cult’s activities in summoning up that which they could not properly put down. The characters are tasked by the mayor to investigate and clean up the mess, cycling through locations like an ancient shrine to darkness, an abandoned church and an asylum. There are some wonderful visuals in the module, but it’s meant for a one or two night run, so it doesn’t delve into the madness as much as a longer module might. There’s a final confrontation with a creature culled from Lovecraft’s archives, but most of the module is spent avoiding that particular fight.
From there, the characters move on to Illmarsh, the Golarion stand-in for Innsmouth, complete with their very own version of Devil’s Reef, here called the Tern Rocks. The characters wander around the town, investigating vaguely on the auspices of the mayor, up to the point that he disappears and is never heard from again.
Illmarsh has some interesting set-pieces for the characters, but for some reason, it felt like there were a couple of missed opportunities in the adventure. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth was a place of subtle dread, where the outsider was uniquely aware of his standing in the inbred and isolationist community. Illmarsh was supposed to be something of an inversion of this idea, but there was never much that spoke of conspiracies or whispered warnings outside the windows. There was a bit of a subplot of extra children being offered to mysterious ‘neighbors’, but there wasn’t any real build up to the fairly obvious reveal.
In comparison, there were quite a lot of strange and unsettling events that were to take place in Ravengro, the town in the shadow of a haunted prison where the path started. There’s nothing of the sort to liven up Illmarsh for the time the characters spend there, even though Harrowstone Prison had once housed a famous serial killer from the very town. If nothing else, I would have wanted to see some sort of closure about that in the text, just as a callback.
In the course of wandering around the town, the characters manage to topple the evil cult that has held sway over Illmarsh for some time and learn of the sinister principles that the town was originally founded on. The ancient and decaying mansion on the edge of the swamps allows for a certain amount of flavor in the module, but it’s more of a historical waypoint than much of a diversion.
The final dungeon comes in the form of the caverns beneath the rocks, where the local version of Deep Ones hang out. For whatever reason, Paizo chose to build out skum for this purpose, being that kuo-toa are considered brand identity of Dungeons & Dragons. I would have assumed that sahuagin would have worked well enough, but this is the point where only grognards venture, so I’ll quietly back away.
There’s a strange subplot about the Mi-Go corrupting the rites and worship of the Dagonite skum, which could have been interesting in a longer scope, but here it has the unfortunate effect of derailing the adventure for the hardcore Cthulhu aficionados. Not only does the module (especially in light of the inclusion of Carrion Hill) try to pack in way too much from the established Lovecraftian lore, but the idea that Deep Ones could be turned from the face of their gods pushes the narrative into unacceptable zones for some. On a meta-narrative level, the Mi-Go are forced into the text of the adventure to allow the PC’s to catch up. For that purpose, it makes sense. Otherwise… not so much.
There are a lot of aspects that I liked about both Carrion Hill and Wake of the Watcher, but in the end, it was trying to do far too much and failed to pull off the necessary parts. Looking back at it now, I think I would simply change the motivations of the Deep Ones and have them betray the Dark Riders that had come to them for assistance. It’s not as narratively dramatic as a Mi-Go incursion, but it ends up being much less intrusive.
As a note, this may be my final retrospective on the Carrion Crown Adventure Path for a little while. Our weekly game has taken a hiatus from the module series, and further discussion of the path would be based on my reading of the text, rather than the experience of running it.