The Skinsaw Murders and what amounts to being the prologue
As I’ve noted, the second module in the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, The Skinsaw Murders is divided into seven discrete parts. These translate roughly into three acts by my reckoning, but your personal mileage may vary on this division.
At the outset, Sheriff Hemlock has deputized the player characters and sent them out to investigate the murders that took place at the Sandpoint Sawmill. Set on the banks of the river, only about 300 feet from the main action of the previous module, it’s one of the oldest buildings in the town. This is a pretty standard adventure hook to get the PC’s into the action straightaway, but as I’ve noted, most of the early signs point to them anyway. It’s only the fact that they’re the player characters that gets them off the hook.
From where I’m standing, this dumbs down the adventure a lot more than how I would have run things. There are more than enough sources for the ‘investigate the crime to clear your own name’ sorts of plots, and this would have been a perfect place for such a story. The first two sections of the module deal with the investigation of the heinous murder at the sawmill, as well as a previous unsolved murder, and there are enough red herrings that are suggested throughout these various clues to suggest a number of other suspects.
Make no mistake: The player characters are still the most guilty seeming people connected with the crime, and if the Sheriff wasn’t generally convinced of their innocence to the point of hand-waving the entire opening part of the plot, he’d have thrown them in jail immediately while he followed up the other leads. (Or let more murders take place. It could really go either way.)
Looking at it now, I’d probably have the Sheriff confront the player characters with the evidence outright, showing them how many signs point to their involvement. From there, I’d have him relent slightly in light of their role in the goblin attack and the subsequent tangle of plots that they dealt with in the previous module. There would also be some Diplomacy checks brought into play, just to see if they can come up with convincing enough stories. In the end, I’d saddle them with a couple of NPC deputies to tag along on their adventures, serving as back-up for any of the troublesome combat encounters and comic relief elsewise.
None of this would change the module considerably, and it would go a long way to iron out the problems with the adventure so far. Besides which, the NPC deputies could also serve as sources of information in a less ham-handed way than the Sheriff’s previous ‘As you know’ speech. And well, it would give them the autonomy that they needed to fully engage the plot and follow through on the investigation.
So, yeah. We might as well talk about the investigation, finally.
The first scene of the module is really pretty awesome. If the groundwork has already been lain down for the tenuous connection to the one victim, this can go a long way to reinforce the latent horror that goes with this. As it turns out, the killer struck the previous night, attacking one of the sawmill workers while he was on the night shift. The sawmill operator is hung on the wall, his body desecrated through some foul arcane ritual, and his girlfriend (the sister of the shopkeeper’s daughter from the first module) was apparently fed through the saws herself, the mangled ruin of her body still laying amidst the sawdust and wood. Honestly, it’s pretty horrifying.
Questioning various interested parties turns up mostly nothing, but there are plenty of interesting details to be found at the site. It turns out that whatever did this was likely an intelligent undead of some sort, as evidenced by the stink of putrescent flesh that hangs about the area.
From here, the Sheriff notes that there was another murder a couple of days previous, connected by the strange rune carved into the chest of the victims and the note left behind. This leads the characters towards a survivor that’s been housed in the local sanitarium.
And speaking of missed opportunities… There are a number of interesting subplots available at the sanitarium, but as a whole, the player characters could actually waltz in and back out without much trouble from the sinister factions that lurk therein. (And for what it’s worth, that’s what our characters did when we played. It’s actually one of the most diplomatic ways to resolve the investigation, thereby losing out on the ‘necromantic experiments being carried out in the basement’ subplot.) I could actually see flipping the adventure’s order around slightly to have someone manage to get the PC’s locked up in the place for their supposed involvement in the murders, where they’d be forced to escape and learn the place’s secrets as they do. There are zombies in the basement, foul medical experiments being performed in the wards, and even a pair of tiefling orderlies roaming around. All of this is generally available as part of the adventure, but unless the PC’s decide that the head doctor is unusually twitchy, they’re not going to be caught up in any of the weirder things that infest the asylum. And given that they’ve been warned about how the town is likely to ‘tear itself apart’ by the Sheriff, it’s unlikely that they’ll see anything suspicious about the guy’s general behavior. Hells, the Sheriff acts a lot more suspicious, to be honest.
The end result of the investigation at the sanitarium is that they learn a little bit about the murderer himself from the lone survivor, as the man recognizes the PC that the villain is obsessed with. It seems that the survivor was kept alive to pass on a message, which he manages to do, right before turning into a ghoul and attacking the characters. He tells them to make their way to the local haunted mansion, thereby setting up the meat of the adventure.
All in all, the investigation was pretty solidly done, but the sanitarium bit was way overwritten, given that it takes a seriously weird turn of luck to decide to investigate it any further than the situation requires. It was a refreshing change of pace from the usual D&D adventure, seeming more like a Call of Cthulhu session than the normal fare. They went back to this well for a number of scenes in the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (which owes more than a little to the old C of C archetypes), as well as returning to one extremely weird trope.
When the characters are nosing around in the mill, they find that the corpse of the mill operator has had his jaw torn off. The text notes that this makes it impossible to use Speak with Dead to get any sort of clues. The same thing happens in the beginning of The Haunting of Harrowstone to the characters’ patron, with the same note. It’s sort of a strange idea, being that the spell is well beyond the reach of the investigating characters (or their personal budgets, really) in both cases, but it follows that they’re making sure that there aren’t any shortcuts to be taken, I guess. At the same time, the next set of corpses that the characters have access to (the ones that lead them to the sanitarium) are not desecrated in the same way, so the shortcut could be taken at that point. I have no idea why it matters in one case but not the other. And it sets up the weird idea that the cannier mass murderers always manage to remove the ability of the corpse to speak, lest they be discovered. In fantasy worlds, the corpses are always mangled.