Rebuilding the Skinsaw Murders, Part 2
Now that we know what went wrong with the plotline of Skinsaw, we can start trying to fix it.
One of the first parts that needs to be addressed is Aldern Foxglove himself, as this is something that needs to be built into the plot of the previous module. The cowardly and worthless parts of his character should pretty much be excised, as they don’t do any real justice to the plot and serve to weaken a lot of the ideas behind the module.
The characters meet him at the very beginning of Burnt Offerings, when they have to rescue him from a rampaging goblin that has started slicing up his hunting dog. I’d keep a lot of this encounter intact, but I’d make sure that there were some troubling details included in the scene, to hint at the murderous aspects of the man they’d come to identify as a serial killer a couple of levels later. Have the characters hear the yelping of his dog as it’s being killed off, and when the characters come running, they have to fend off the goblin champion as it charges the grieving Foxglove who’s preoccupied with his dead pet. When rescued, he effusively thanks the characters for their assistance and promises to make it up to them later. They assume that the blood spattered on his clothes is from standing near when his dog was sliced up, but later they find the corpses of several goblins that someone savagely killed with what appears to be a war razor… And during the boar hunt, he works on one of the characters with his obsessive angles, but they also notice that he’s a bit too interested in the gorier parts of the kill.
Most of the idea here is to keep the character interaction intact, while playing up the disturbing aspects of a serial killer’s personality. This needs to serve as foreshadowing for the character, so that when it’s revealed that he’s the one behind all the murders, it all makes sense.
The next most important NPC for the module is Sheriff Hemlock. His willingness to believe the characters flies in the face of any serious logic, but he needs to remain a solid ally of the characters nonetheless, as they will have to depend on him throughout the module. It’s not hard to find similar characters in TV and literature, but the Sheriff has to be upfront with the characters that they’re prime suspects in this entire matter. He’s not willing to accuse them outright, but he needs to keep them around while he investigates the murders that have started. Once he’s cleared them from being directly connected, then he will have to rely on them to help him.
This is where the plot of the module has to start being moved around. None of the specific encounter CR’s matter in this, since there will be a variance of difficulty anyway. When you consider the death trap that was the original end of the module, it’s easy to simply shrug and re-order everything.
The first consideration in this sequence is the idea of putting the haunted house scenario last. It’s the most powerful and interesting part of the module as a whole, and this is what the adventure needs to have as an ending. The module has to end as the house crumbles into the sea, and with it the secrets of a tormented family. Next, there’s the weirdly untouched connections between the sawmills and the scarecrows. These can naturally lead from one to another, as long as there’s some logic to thread them together. All that’s left figuring out what to do with the sanitarium.
All right. So the Sheriff has to remain an ally, but the characters need to be isolated from what’s going on so as to better clear their names from being connected with the murders. The easy way to do this is to borrow from a minor plot element from Ghostbusters II. When the plot has been unraveled in that movie, the main characters show up at the Mayor’s mansion, forecasting dire warnings of what’s about to happen. The Mayor doesn’t want to listen, so his assistant takes it upon himself to lock the Ghostbusters up in an asylum to keep them from going to the press. This is as elegant a solution as anything.
If one of the Sheriff’s chief deputies takes it upon himself to ‘move the prisoners’ to the sanitarium outside of town, the dire plots of that place can unfold around the characters. All it takes is a competent Rogue to slip out of the confines of a locked ward, and the characters can wander around as they see fit, running encounters with the ‘necromancer in the basement’, the tiefling orderlies, and the strange babbling fellow that is locked in the isolated ward. Naturally, he won’t reveal anything about Foxglove Manor (as this would shortcut the entire adventure), but he can lay enough clues about the Skinsaw Man and the Brotherhood of Seven that will become relevant later.
Once the Sheriff arrives to set them free, they will have been cleared of the murders that took place out at the barn outside of town, and they weren’t connected with the ones that took place the previous night at the sawmill, since they were safely locked up at the sanitarium. The Sheriff wants to keep a couple of deputies with the characters for a while anyway, but this is as much for their own safety as to watch them. The Sheriff is already overwhelmed by the current events, dropping a number of red herrings (new fears about goblins, strange lights offshore, an old drunk that is sleeping off a rant about ‘walking scarecrows’, etc.) along with the one interesting detail.
Investigating the sawmill will yield the same litany of clues as it originally did, but there will be a notation in the ledgers about trade with the sawmill in Magnimar. This will lead the characters to the Brotherhood of Seven (or the Skinsaw Cult, as you see fit to call them), with the connected trade and mysterious dealings. Since they would have heard about them from the sanitarium adventure, it’s a direct link. There can also be a bit of expanded lore with the cult itself, noting that devotees of the Skinsaw Cult are drawn to sawmills or something similar.
The revelations at the sawmill in Magnimar will lead them straight to Xanesha’s lair, where they will confront the weird flesh golem scarecrow. This will connect with the farmer’s tales, which is more or less just foreshadowing, as the characters passed through those farmlands on their way to Magnimar in the first place. The fight in the belltower will take place against the first version of Xanesha (simply because it’s that much more of an accomplishment), but they will have been warned by either Ironbriar (the corrupt justice) or someone less connected with the Skinsaw Men about how to deal with her. The effective way will be to lure her into the interior and drop a bell on her. (For my own purposes, I’d completely nix the Faceless Stalkers, as they generally add nothing to the adventure and make this whole sequence that much more difficult.)
Between what they learn at the sawmill and salvage from the wreckage of Xanesha’s lair, they’re led back to Foxglove Manor, as it’s directly connected to both. On the way back, they happen into the fields of horror with the scarecrow murders, resolving that as a sort of waypoint scenario. (There’s also the possibility of returning to Sandpoint first, at which point the risen victims will shamble forth as ghouls for another mini-scenario. This is a suggestion that gets floated in the Anniversary Edition, and it’s too good to not use in some way.)
Then finally, it’s on to Foxglove Manor and all the horrors therein.
The townhouse in Magnimar doesn’t add much in this rebuild, so I’m not sure if I would include it or modify it to make more sense in the next module. There’s a single encounter with Faceless Stalkers and a hidden stash of treasure, but neither of these does much to move the plot along in the re-ordering. The ledger that draws the group to the sawmill is no longer necessary, which makes this entire locale somewhat obsolete.
I think that covers the bases adequately enough, removing some of the weird aspects of the module flow. If nothing else, it fixes the issues that I had with the direction of the plot, and hopefully, it draws things together in a more or less organic fashion. I guess I’ll see what the next module offers, to see if there are additional elements that need to be illuminated. I don’t recall it having the same weird problems, but we’ll find out, eh?