Delving into the plots of the Skinsaw Murders
So, in the very first boxed text for the module, we get this particular gem from the august Sheriff, who is asking the recently returned characters for help in the newest atrocity to befall the sleepy community of Sandpoint. Naturally, his actual deputies are worthless to help, and the player characters are the only ones that can handle themselves in a stand-up fight. As of the end of this module, they’ll also be several levels higher than the Sheriff, assuming that they survive the events herein.
“Some of you doubtless remember the Late Unpleasantness, how this town nearly tore itself apart in fear as Chopper’s slayings went on unanswered.”
I thought I’d beaten this horse enough already, yet here we are again.
There are a lot of problems with this summation, not the least of which is the cavalier way that the first module went about handling ‘The Late Unpleasantness’ nor the fact that it’s termed as such. Here we have the death of one of the most important women in town, the death of the spiritual leader of the town and his half-celestial adoptive daughter as his church burned around him, and a serial killer stalking a tiny community. All in all, about thirty people that were killed off in a town of about 1,200. If this is what the townsfolk want to call ‘unpleasant’, then I shudder to think what they would have to experience to call it an ‘atrocity’ or worse.
Secondly, I have a personal hatred of using the ‘As you are all aware’ trope in any form. Perhaps it’s too many years of reading William Gibson and George Martin, but the idea of putting this in a work of fiction is abhorrent. Actually using it in an adventure is several orders of magnitude worse. There’s no reason to pull this off, as it exists solely to inform the audience of something that the characters themselves are achingly familiar with. In the context of RPG’s, this sort of exposition is particularly disempowering, as it either points out a weakness on the part of the GM to be able to get this information across any other way or the simple unwillingness of the adventure to spend the time to make this event meaningful. And when the essence of the game is that it’s a small and intimate setting where such details could come to light organically, it rings really strangely.
Finally, this is the first point where it’s intimated what actually happened in the aftermath of these crucial events. Out of curiosity, I went back to the GM-only text in the first module where the background of the adventure is laid out for the sake of tying it all together. It goes over how the triggering of the Runewell caused everyone in town to wake up in a momentary wrath from horrific nightmares, which then immediately faded. There were the three exceptions, whose actions set the stage for the plot of Burnt Offerings, but beyond that, it was just a case of bad dreams.
Which has an interesting permutation, now that I think about it. Desna is the patron goddess of Sandpoint, as far as the whole chapel and festival go, and she is specifically detailed in conjunction with Varisia in general. And yet the goddess known as the Tender of Dreams wasn’t able to protect her priest or her faithful from the effects that caused bad dreams. I’m not saying that this is a mistake on the part of the writers, but it has some sinister undertones that deserve to be explored further.
So anyway, we now find out that the awful events that took place five years back were enough to set the town at the edge of being torn asunder from internal struggle and outcry. Either that or the Sheriff is something of a hysteric in comparison to the rest of the town, who chose to term the deaths of so many people as ‘unpleasant.’ Honestly, I’m figuring that, if I were to ever run the modules myself, the Sheriff would take on a number of characteristics drawn from Sheriff Bronson Stone from Scooby-Doo.
Once the soliloquy boxed text is finished, Sheriff Hemlock then produces a bloody piece of parchment that ties one of the player characters to the murder, referring to them as either ‘Master’ or hinting at a fatal love affair that seems to exist between them and the murderer. He then advises them to cover up the murders as best they can while they are set to investigating the goings-on. If they refuse to deal with the investigation, he will eventually offer them money to make the murders stop happening. And by the way, there’s a rune that’s been carved into one of the victim’s chest that is identical to the necklace that one of the characters is undoubtedly wearing.
I’m really not sure how to parse any of this out in a way that makes coherent sense. Sure, we know the characters are innocent, since they’ve been out killing goblins and saving the town from certain ruin. Mainly, we know this because we’re playing them, and killing people at the sawmill would have gotten us some experience points, right? But aside from the metagame aspects of the whole situation, this is a particularly bizarre set-up for an adventure. Maybe the characterization of Bronson Stone isn’t quite sinister or insane enough to encompass Hemlock’s motives. Because if this were any other situation than a gaming module, the characters would end up behind bars before they had the chance to protest. The evidence is actually pretty clear. Only after the second set of murders took place with the accused securely under wraps would anyone believe that they had nothing to do with it.
The connection between the necklace and the rune is an especially interesting one that the module specifically tries to avoid drawing too much attention to. At the end of the first module, Nualia is wearing a strange medallion around her neck. It’s a magic item that offers a +1 bonus to all saves and allows the bearer to cast False Life once per day. (On this item, it gives the person 1d10+3 hit points for up to three hours or until used.) It’s way too powerful for a low level party to ignore, since it adds a significant amount of survivability to whomever is wearing it.
The thing is, the GM wants the characters to wear these damned things, since it allows the titular Runelord to spy on them as he sees fit. Since he doesn’t show up until the final module, it gives him plenty of time to become familiar with the ways and methods of the group, as well as an insight into how they’re foiling the various plots. As such, this particular opportunity to sow discord is glossed over.
In the end, the characters go on to investigate the horrific murders that took place at the sawmill, simply because the plot demanded it. But to be honest, the Sheriff seems pretty sketchy in the way that he chose to handle it. I can only imagine how any of this would have gone, were the default assumption of generally Good-aligned characters weren’t firmly in place.