The Second Act of The Skinsaw Murders
When I was a kid, one of the local stations liked to rerun certain features at certain times of year. We had It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas, The Wizard of Oz in the spring, and around October, we got Dark Night of the Scarecrow. I had always assumed that Scarecrow was a movie that was rebroadcast from a theatrical release, but it turns out that it was a made-for-TV feature that simply got dusted off and brought back out occasionally. Also, it was apparently one of the first ‘killer scarecrow’ movies ever made, attracting a number of quality imitations over the intervening years from its premiere in 1981.
The second act of Skinsaw starts with a ‘killer scarecrow’ adventure, as a lead-up to the haunted house scenario, and given my adoration of Dark Night of the Scarecrow as an impressionable child, I was suitably thrilled.
This is not to say that it makes a whole lot of sense in how it fits into the broad scope of the campaign, mind you, but that’s just sort of a given at this point. The last section ended with the characters confronting this module’s version of Renfield to Foxglove’s erstwhile Dracula, with the fairly obvious clue that they need to head in the direction of the old Foxglove Manor, as that’s where the murders are originating from.
This may just be me, but my assumption is usually that, if the players know where they need to go next, they’re going to be packing their stuff and heading off in that direction. I don’t assume that they’re going to be hanging around the Sheriff’s office, waiting to see if any more work comes their way in the mean time. And yet, that’s pretty much what the module assumes is going to be the sequence of events.
I guess I could allow for the Sheriff stopping the player characters as they saddle up to head out of town, but that almost makes the Sheriff that much more incompetent in his methodology. “Oh, by the way, it just occurred to me that maybe someone should investigate these murders over here first. I mean, you guys went off to investigate these murders at the Sawmill, right? And then those murders that happened outside of town, too. So, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble…” (It doesn’t help that the Sheriff admits that he hasn’t had any luck with any of the suspects and relies on the PC’s to actually get anything done.)
This hook comes in the form of Farmer Grump.
Yeah. Seriously. It’s his actual name, not the moniker that’s been foisted upon him by local kids. And he’s portrayed as being a drunken lout whose inane babbling keys him as either outright crazy or so inebriated as to be a little more than a public nuisance. Naturally, the Sheriff takes his story completely seriously and sends the PC’s out to see what all has happened.
This is the point where I think the red herrings should just simply take over this Adventure Path. An old drunkard comes shambling into town, talking about scarecrows that walk? Sure, send a team. The little girl down by the river thinks she’s seen a dragon swimming upstream? Send the PC’s to look around. The old woman on the edge of town that has 27 cats and talks about ‘the eyes in the woods’ that are coming to steal her butter churn? Have a character or two spend the night.
So anyway, the old drunk finds his way into town, spins a meandering tale about how he saw the walking scarecrows eat the neighbor’s dog, and the Sheriff panics, sending the characters off to learn the truth. Of course, there’s nothing in the way of distortion or prevarication in the old drunk’s story, so the reality actually has walking scarecrows that eat dogs.
I think my problem with the residents of Sandpoint is that they’re so dreadfully earnest.
The adventure itself is very well done, to the point that it has a lot of traumatic potential. The characters are sent to a remote farm outside of Sandpoint that has been taken over by ghouls. The underlying plotline is that Lord Foxglove, the NPC that was introduced in the first module, has become a ghast that is busily sacrificing people for a far greater purpose. He’s behind all of the recent murders around Sandpoint, and he’d made a point of killing a number of people in these local farms. Naturally, they rose as ghouls and have been making trouble since.
What makes this adventure so wonderfully horrific is that the ghouls that have taken over these farms have started seriously playing with expectations. Some of the victims have been strung up on frames to serve as scarecrows as they transform into ghouls. This means that the PC’s will encounter them as undead, murderous scarecrows that attack if anyone gets too close. It also means that, if the characters get a little too proactive in dealing with these particular abominations, they’ll end up killing the still living victims as they struggle to free themselves from the ropes that have suspended them on the frames.
You can guess what happened with our particular playing group.
As it turned out, the Ranger that was rapidly succumbing to Wrath started chopping down the suspected ghouls as we encountered them. Most were ghouls, some were just straw-filled mannequins, and one was … well, it bled when it was cut down. And the GM made certain that he realized the import of his actions. The other characters publicly reassured him that there was no way he could have known the difference and that they didn’t blame him for what happened, but privately they knew that it was only a matter of time before the character’s self-loathing started to overtake him.
So all in all, it worked very well.
This section has a number of extra hooks to move the action in any number of separate directions, from a number of other locales offered in the original module to a sort of ‘zombie attack’ scenario for Sandpoint, where the various victims rise as ghouls to lay waste to the town. There are some pretty inspired ideas, but in the end, they’re just ways to delay getting to the old haunted house that the characters need to deal with sooner or later.
Once again, I think this would have been better suited were it to happen earlier in the module, since it serves mainly to heighten the tension and crawling horror about what’s coming next. Being that it happens immediately after the characters have a clue as to where they need to go next, it just feels like they’re being delayed from finding a solution to the problems that are plaguing their home town. Were I to run this, I’d likely have it happen before they got to the sanitarium, as the interview they manage to have there is far too important to happen until they’re ready to brave the horrors of Foxglove Manor.
As a minor correction, I’ve been basing much of my review off the Anniversary Edition of Rise of the Runelords, which has some supplemental material. The original module spent very little time in the sanitarium, with the new revision adding enough extra plot to make the place large enough to spend a session or so investigating. While I like the new plotline of the sanitarium and its necromancer in the basement, there aren’t a lot of new hooks to ensure that the player characters actually end up finding out what’s going on. In fact, there’s a good chance that it would play out in much the same way that the original module did.