A Tangent from Burnt Offerings
The other day, I was talking over my review of Burnt Offerings with one of the other people that had played through the module with me. He occasionally reads this blog, and when I was discussing the finer points of the plot arc, he was largely unaware of how it had all fit together. His Druid had joined the group later, about the time that we’d gone into the glassworks (and about the time that we kicked the Alchemist’s player out for reading the module and lying about it), and he’d wondered if any of the crucial information was something that he’d missed out on due to prior absence. It would be tempting to pin the blame on our GM, as the information was available in the module (and since I’d been to all of the game sessions, I would have been aware of anything that had been passed along), but since the same thing happened with the other GM’s that I’d seen run the module, I can’t legitimize that blame.
Sure, there could have been some sort of method to pass the information to the players, but it’s not something that the module directly encourages. When I was running Carrion Hill, I made a point of adding more of the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff into my narrative, calling it ‘The Visitor’s Guide to Ustalav’ as I told them about the dismal nature of the towns and the reputations of the local serial killers. But I’m not going to say that this is how everyone should run their adventures.
It raises an old point of discussion, which I’ve never gotten a definitive answer about. Is a module supposed to be run as it was originally written? Or is it supposed to be a launching point for different ideas on the part of the GM that’s running the damned thing? How close is the text supposed to be adhered to?
There really is no good answer to this. At best, I think there’s a decent amount of fuel for people to argue either side constructively. There’s the outlook that the module’s writer had a specific idea in mind when he sat down to sketch out the adventure’s narrative, and the further you deviate from that, the worse off the adventure becomes. While many GM’s feel that they’re capable of publishing bestsellers, the honest truth is that these people are being paid for this and their work passes at least one editor, if not a scattering of playtesters, before it ever sees the light of day. (On the other hand, I will have spent close to 9,000 works picking apart one module, so it’s not to say that there isn’t some sort of improvement that could be made.)
And just to restate it, I really do like Rise of the Runelords as an Adventure Path. I recommend it to anyone. But nothing is perfect, even the things I like.
I’ve spent a good portion of my time as a GM remixing modules and adapting parts of them to bigger and better sorts of ventures. I’ve run Call of Cthulhu scenarios using Phoenix Command. Which is Hugh Hefner’s favorite RPG, by the way. (Seriously, look up Phoenix Command on Wikipedia. Also, when the main writer couldn’t make it as an RPG writer, he went back to his day job at NASA. There’s two pieces of trivia for your day.) I’ve run Torg as an X-Files game. Hells, I’ve even converted the bulk of Fallout to be able to run it with Deadlands: Hell on Earth.
So, for my purposes, any given module is just a starting point, from which I can launch my own stories. But that’s not what modules are supposed to be, as a product. They intimate that they can be run, straight out of the box, without any heavy math or careful planning. The idea is that they’re a pre-made thing, for when you don’t have time to sit down and plan out the intricate plots and detailed encounters. (Insert microwave dinner metaphor here.)
And that’s what’s bothering me about Burnt Offerings, as much as anything. The GM has access to the requisite info that he needs to pass on to the players, but it isn’t presented in a way that easily points to doing so.
Within the context of Burnt Offerings, there are a number of details that are fairly crucial to understanding just why the events of the module took place. Some of them are revealed to the characters as they work their way through the encounters, but there are some that just get swept away as things move to a new adversary.
Thus far in the module, we’ve seen the following things take place: The town of Sandpoint is attacked by goblins. In the process of trying to defend the town from goblins, the player characters are made into local heroes. In the days following the attack, the local innkeeper vanishes, ostensibly to meet with her brother and father. When trying to investigate this, the characters discover that the innkeeper’s brother orchestrated the attack. He also tried to kidnap his sister to serve as a sacrifice, stole the bones of the priest that was killed in a fire five years back, and killed the man that raised him (and that he believes killed his mother). And if the characters investigate the tunnels underneath the town, they discover an ancient shrine and a weird artifact called a Runewell. And finally, they figure out that there’s a further plot that’s being hatched at a goblin community outside of town.
What’s missing from this is the actual villain and why she matters.
There’s a notation in the journal of Tsuto (the murderous half-brother of the innkeeper) about Nualia. It turns out that Nualia was, until about five years ago, the town’s good luck charm, more or less. A young half-celestial that was being raised by the old priest, she was regarded as being blessed by the goddess Desna, and the townsfolk had all manner of strange folkways that they ascribed to her heavenly nature. Then, when ‘The Late Unpleasantness’ swept through town, she murdered the priest that was raising her, burned down the chapel and faked her death.
As a side note, there’s a really weird attempt to turn the adoration of a small town into a curse, where a character like this is made into an outsider by the very fact that she’s highly regarded. It’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t really work for me, as written. It seems too pat of an explanation, as though it’s just an excuse to make a fallen aasimar into a cursed and blasphemous villain of repute. Perhaps it’s because the Chaotic Good stylings of Desna, the wandering goddess, seem at odds with the heavy handed piety of the adoptive father, as this serves as much of the impetus for the character’s fall from grace. This may be my own interpretation, both of how Chaotic Good and the judgment of Desna work, but it seems like there’s just a bit too much of a Catholic vibe to the whole thing.
Anyway, none of these details about Nualia show up anywhere in the text that is available to the players, even though they’d easily remember her for her unearthly beauty and the tragedy of her death. This has the practical effect of having her revealed at the main climactic battle, and the players look up confusedly as they ask who the hell she is. She’s supposed to be this great, tragic figure whose descent into madness was fueled by loneliness and despair, as well as her general proximity to both a Shrine of Lamashtu and a Runewell of Wrath, but there’s nothing that the players would have learned that sets this up. At best, her appearance gets some form of an ‘As you well know…’ speech to try to fill everyone in on why this is all so important.