Rebuilding the Skinsaw Murders
As I’ve said, I really like a lot of things about The Rise of the Runelords. I like the way the path starts, with small town people that have to come to grips with a larger outside world. In particular, this works on number of levels, introducing the world to the players even as it’s being revealed to the characters. I like the sort of ‘everyday horror’ that comes into the path as the plots are slowly brought to light. Few groups give that much consideration to goblins, as they’d worn down over the years to be little more than bundles of minor experience that were necessary for the slow and careful climb out of 1st level. And I absolutely love the serial killer / haunted house / cult of murder plots woven through The Skinsaw Murders.
They just don’t make a lot of sense, really. Especially not in the order that they’re presented in.
Looking it all over, I’m not really sure where the blame for this lies. I have the feeling that Richard Pett’s decision to break the module’s plot up into separate and discrete segments didn’t help, but I think the blame lies slightly closer to home with the vague indifference that most GM’s tend to put on actual plot development.
And I’ll be the first to say that I’ve done this. And gods know, the GM that ran Runelords for us certainly did. To say that he put in a half-assed effort on a number of aspects of the series would be to put it mildly. Some times, he didn’t do much more than simply skim the relevant parts of the module in order to throw dice. It’s what happens. None of this excuses the fact that there needs to be some serious work done on the module to make it good. And it honestly surprises me that no one at Paizo thought to re-order or revise the module when it came up to be printed for the 5th Anniversary hardcover. I’m guessing that there wasn’t enough truly critical feedback that addressed this, else they might have thought to do so.
That’s the thing, though. Most GM’s are content to simply point the characters at the next obstacle, no matter how poorly thought out the plot that led there happens to be. If nothing else, there’s the assumption that the module writer has done most of the heavy lifting for them already, so they can simply read the boxed text and toss dice. And that seriously starts to fall apart with some of the problems that are inherent in Skinsaw.
So let’s take a look at the problems we’ve already looked at for this module.
First, there’s a problematic character shift with the Skinsaw Man himself, Aldern Foxglove. The backstory has him murdering his wife through the driving forces of Lust, Envy and Wrath, all of which are fed by the corrupting influence of the ancestral manor that he’s been trying to restore. And yet, when he shows up in Sandpoint, it’s because he’s a raving coward that can’t bear to go back to his haunted house. The intro text talks about his streak of violence, but he shrinks away from a rampaging goblin and watches it kill his hunting dog.
Next, we have the Sheriff, who is either wildly corrupt or ravingly incompetent, depending on which way you want to look at it. I know that his actions are predicated on the idea that the player characters are the heroes of the module and above reproach in all things, but it makes less than no sense. And it doesn’t help that he failed to get anything useful out of one of the suspects and has to rely on the characters to do his work for him. The PC’s are literally the ‘meddling kids’ in this equation, and everyone’s okay with it. When the Skinsaw Man leaves notes to the effect that he’s only following the orders of one of the characters, that should be enough to raise a couple of red flags on the spot. But it doesn’t.
Next, we have the interesting possibilities with the sanitarium, most of which arises from the inclusion of extra material brought into the Anniversary Edition. As written, the module would unfold much the same way that it did in the original publication, and there’s an entire ‘necromancer in the basement’ subplot that virtually demands further examination. And something needs to be done with the ordering of this part anyway, given that the logical outcome of the visit to the sanitarium has the characters ready to set out for the haunted house immediately. The module wants to send them out into the scarecrow fields before they’re allowed to look into actually dealing with the serial killer.
The plot then sets the characters at the haunted house itself. This isn’t a problem, but my feeling is that the creepy decaying manor should be the final act of the module, rather than the middle. It’s a vast, sprawling dungeon complex with mystery and haunts and a legacy of evil that covers multiple generation. What follows it are essentially three rather basic encounter areas with much less interesting developments. Yeah, Xanesha (in original form) will slay the adventuring group outright, but she’s not half so plot crucial or interesting as the serial killer himself.
From there, the characters end up in another sawmill, but honestly, it has nothing to do with the sawmill that they started the plot in, so it could have just as easily been a warehouse or similar. It doesn’t make any relevant sense to have a parallel like this without any actual payoff. The two sawmills aren’t rivals in any way, no gruesome murders on the premises are able to connect them, and they aren’t even implied to do any business with each other. The module doesn’t even try to tie the sawmill together the whole ‘saw’ bit with the Skinsaw Man and Cult and Murders.
Similarly, there’s a scarecrow in the lamia’s tower that has literally nothing to do with the scarecrows that form one of the better and more evocative encounters of the middle of the module. Here’s another chance for something interesting to happen with the thematic content, and it ends up just being a fight on the way to the final battle.
And finally, there’s the final battle. It’s pointed out that Xanesha’s tower is on the verge of crumbling at any second. There are bar bets to be won on this basis. When we played through this final battle, we tried to exploit this idea to bring the tower down on her as a means of defeating the otherwise impossible encounter. It was only through extensive badgering of the GM that we managed to do anything of the like, and even that was trying to appeal to his experience with Exalted, rather than anything that was built into the text of the adventure.
So where do we go from here? Excellent question. Now that I’ve identified the problems, we can start moving parts of the plot around to build something a lot better.