The Underlying Madness of the Skinsaw Murders
There’s an interesting sidebar in the first printing of The Skinsaw Murders, where the writer, Richard Pett, talks about how the adventure was specifically broken into discrete parts to better be adapted to other purposes by the reader. He had the idea that the plotline could be used as vignettes, if need be, plundered for other campaigns and adapted into unrelated adventures. It’s an interesting idea, I’ll grant, but it lends itself to the weirdly choppy nature of the broader adventure. The seven parts are separate enough that the thread that pulls them together seems inadequate for the job at points.
The first part of the module concerns itself with the recent murders at the local sawmill, a dire enough event that the sheriff deems it necessary to pull in the newly minted Heroes of Sandpoint for the task.
There’s an odd quote related to an older game that I find myself relating back to. The gist was that they could box up all of the material for the game, but the true experience required that they include the game designer with every set, just to properly convey the spirit of the game. I feel like that’s happening here. In order to experience the game the way that it was originally presented, we’d need to have James Jacobs on demand.
So, remember back in the first module when there was the series of events leading up the larger plot? The characters had distinguished themselves in battle against the goblins and saved the town from worse horrors, and in the logical aftermath, they’d had to deal with the basic cleanup of the adventure’s opening. There was the fairly horrific bit with the ‘monster in the closet’ that turned out to be one of the surviving goblins, which was immediately followed with the wholly off-key seduction scene in the basement of the general store. It’s sort of played for laughs, and it’s sort of used to accumulate Sin Points for the broader themes of the Adventure Path.
There’s also a fairly meaningless aside that’s included with it, talking about how this daughter of the shopkeeper is going after one of the player characters, but her older sister is the subject of gossip around town. It mentions that the sister is involved with one of the men from the sawmill, and this is what the shopkeeper’s daughter uses as an excuse to secure the PC’s help, as her father is ‘distracted’ by these rumors. When it turns into a scene from a Friday night sitcom, this detail is largely lost, as it was obviously just a ploy to get a character alone.
Except that it isn’t. The opening of this module has the PC’s sent to the sawmill. And one of the murder victims is none other than the older sister that was referenced earlier.
Like so many details of this module series, there are things that become obvious in retrospect and would have been played up more dramatically, had the GM only known that such seemingly unimportant details would later become relevant to the plot. As a player, I only vaguely remembered the shopkeeper in general, as the scenario was just another in a series of weird background events that served as a buffer between more important happenings. These modules push the idea of the familiar nature of the community, but most of this is built into backstory, rather than explored over the course of the adventures. I can’t fault Paizo for this, given the limited amount of space that they have to work with, but it seriously underscores the need for GM advice to take on these aspects for their own games. Had we spent more time in the town, outside of the requirements of the main plot events, there might have been a greater sense of the way everything fit together.
To delve into social theory and gratuitous German, Sandpoint is presented as a proper Gemeinschaft sort of social construct, where the strictures of the adventure reduce it to a Gesellschaft construct. It’s expected to be the former, but it honestly plays like the latter.
In the same section where the players first hear of Katrine Vinder, the girl they must now investigate the murder of, they also make further acquaintance with a character by the name of Aldern Foxglove. In the context of the module, Foxglove is saved from goblins by the characters when one kills his dog (the barking alerts the characters to what’s going on) and leaps to attack him. When they save him, he gratefully thanks them, inviting all concerned out on a boar hunt later on. He makes a point of buying each character a horse from the local stables as part of his repayment for his life, and in the midst of the various tangled plots, it’s sort of a nice respite from everything else. Foxglove is becoming obsessed with one of the characters as the hunt goes on, but compared to the goblin atrocities that take place on either side of this encounter, this has the potential to come across as infatuation.
Hells, he could be standing under the characters’ windows with a retinue of bards (the local equivalent of Lloyd Dobler’s boombox), and it would seem harmless compared to a goblin eating your father’s face off. Maybe that’s just me, though. Who’s to say?
This is where a lot of the adventure’s internal logic falls apart, though.
All right, so bear with me for a moment. When you first meet up with Foxglove, he’s being menaced by a single goblin commando (which equates to one level in Ranger, if you’re that interested) that’s riding the goblin version of a worg. Another three goblins emerge from hiding to chop the dog into so much stew. It notes in the text that Foxglove is cowering behind a rain barrel, even though he’s actually a leveled character. Granted, it’s Aristocrat 4 and Rogue 3, but this is also part of the extended first encounter of the adventure, meaning that Foxglove is one of the highest level characters in the entire town. The Sheriff himself is only a 4th level Fighter in comparison. The PC’s are still solidly at 1st level, likely to stay there until they’ve finished dealing with Tsuto in the basement of the glassworks.
So already we’re dealing with a sort of weird situation. This guy’s more than capable of trying to defend himself, given the odds. He’d probably get wrecked in an extended fight, but there’s certainly no reason for him to be cowering and watching his hunting dog get killed. (And yeah… that was pretty much a cinematic death, rather than one that made a lot of sense.) And in The Skinsaw Murders, the opening background section talks about how fearful and weak he is, being that he came to Sandpoint in the first place to avoid visiting his ancestral home.
As such, we’ve been reinforced with the idea that Foxglove is weak and sort of useless. At the same time, the text is delving into how he’s got a mean streak, has already murdered his wife in a momentary fury and is ruled by the sins of Lust, Envy and Wrath. Other than the notation about his growing obsession with one of the PC’s in Burnt Offerings, there’s nothing to build up just exactly what’s going on with this guy in the context of the first adventure. He’s been sold as being sort of weird and worthless, but somehow, it’s supposed to make sense when he turns out to be one of the main villains of the entire module.