Thoughts on The Skinsaw Murders
The second module in Rise of the Runelords takes place in roughly the same locale as Burnt Offerings, just outside the town of Sandpoint. At the end of that module, the characters returned to their homes, content in the knowledge that they’d won out over the menace that had disrupted the Swallowtail Festival and cast their community into chaos with the dire plots. Scaled, as it is, for the lower level challenges, the module only dealt tangentially with the larger dooms that made their way toward Golarion, coming in the form of smaller adversaries whose motives were manipulated by larger, hidden powers.
I’ve spent most of these reviews looking back over the plots and remembering my own perception as a player as I try to reconcile with the way the plot threads connect. As such, my outlook is colored by that of Vyvenya, the young and innocent Priestess of Desna. Even though I’d read the modules at some point in the past, it was little more than a skim of the contents, allowing me to immerse myself into the plot as though it were completely unfamiliar. (And to be honest, with the volume of text that I read in a given year, it’s hardly surprising that I lose track of plot details on a given module.)
This is a lot of why I’m nonplussed by the lack of detail that I ended up experiencing when we ran through the game. I’d taken on Vyvenya’s eyes to experience her world, and finding out that she’d missed crucial details seems odd to me now, given how carefully I tended to pay attention. For me, the Runelords path is less about the vast, intricate plot that poses such a threat to Golarion and more about the ways in which is shaped this small town girl with small dreams and aspirations. (And yeah… I spend a little too much time in my characters’ heads. It happens.)
Looking back from the perspective of the 5th module in the series, The Skinsaw Murders happened to be where it all changed. This was the module where the carefree beliefs about returning to normal lives got sheared away, and the characters had to admit that their innocence was collectively lost as a result. After the events herein, they couldn’t go home again.
This also holds the strange distinction of being the module where entire parties are routinely killed off, if the Paizo forums are any indication. I’ll have to do a closer comparison of things when I get to that point, but the end of the module sets the party against a ludicrously powerful and well-prepared foe that has a solid chance of wiping out anyone who happens by.
The module is divided into seven distinct parts, but several of these sections fall away, leaving much less of a lasting impression on my recollections. For my purposes, the adventure comes together as a fairly effective haunted house excursion, with supporting material to lead the characters into the set-piece and a sort of resolution to follow. The fact that the adventure doesn’t end as the characters flee the ancient mansion only serves to reinforce my general impression of unevenness.
When we started into the module, our adventuring party was still somewhat in flux. The main core had stabilized, more or less, with a Cleric, a Druid, a Ranger, a Witch and a Sorcerer. The Alchemist’s player had been thrown out for cheating, and another player was putting together a Rogue of some sort. There were rumors of another player, but for the time being, those were mere rumors. Party cohesion was relatively low, despite the generally common origin, and most of the characters had wildly differing agendas. In a lot of ways, the abject horror that they would witness in the course of the module actually went a long way to hold the party together a little bit better.
As I’ve noted, the common origin that we’d tried to weave between the Cleric, the Ranger and the Sorcerer largely fell flat. The Sorcerer’s player, for whatever reason, had taken to playing any and all RPG characters are little more than terrible frat guy stereotypes, opting to focus on his personal vanity and superficiality to the point that the rest of the gaming group began to question what sort of personal issues were being worked out. The guy playing the Ranger had opted to make the two characters into brothers, but he’d taken the interpretation of Ranger Favored Enemies to a much greater degree than anyone had previously considered. His character was obsessed with murdering goblins, so much so that it started bleeding over into other areas. There was talk of dual-classing the Ranger over into Barbarian for the sake of actually getting a benefit for his rage issues.
I’ve already touched on the fact that my Cleric, the young Priestess of Desna, had her domain abilities made useless by the Witch’s Hex powers. And without the domain abilities having any real effect, she was shunted toward the back of the group simply to heal. This was about the point where I opted to run a couple levels of Fighter, simply to bring her utility back to the fore. Given that the party was heavier on spell casters at this point, it only made sense, and the general effect was to offset that imbalance.
In the mean time, the Druid was a basic low-level Druid. He made solid use of his Animal Companion to make up for the rough deficits of being a low level character and shifted focus towards a Shaman build to make use of the greater benefits. Naturally, this delayed his ability to shapeshift, so the Animal Companion took on a greater import. This would become a core focus for the character, to the point that it is generally assumed that he would eventually just forget that he was originally human at all.
And the Witch? Well, she went on being a Witch. Her player was prone to missing weeks, so my in-character annoyance was diminished by not having to be upstaged regularly.
When the sixth player finally showed up, his Rogue was something of an afterthought, and its fairly immediate death by mischance surprised no one, including himself.
These were the characters that we had in front of us when we first stepped into the module. And by the time we were done with all that took place, only a couple of characters would still be standing. None would be unchanged by what went on, and with the combined player attrition, a couple of them were simply killed off or written out anyway.