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An overdue update, with an unrelated discussion of campaign advancement…

So much for October, I guess.

Suffice to say that the last month has been one of weird obligation and unforeseen activity.  As I have hinted on a couple of prior occasions, I’m in the process of looking for a new place to live, and many of those birds came home to roost in the previous several weeks.  Nothing is precisely set into stone at the moment, but it bears noting that I am in the midst of packing up my library against the eventuality of having to get it shipped.

As such, there wasn’t any available time to sit down and hammer out the requisite number of words to satisfy my own loose definitions of blogging.  In some ways, I’m glad that I had already cut back from my daily schedule of updates, as that would have been a rather abrupt shift.  That doesn’t mean that I’m not vaguely mortified by my lack of maintenance, but at least there’s less comparative damage.  In the interim, I’m hoping to be able to offer slightly more timely updates, if only for my own standards.

Right now, there are only two games that are being run in my immediate circle, and as I have come to expect, I’m running both of them.  The first is the ever-present and close to finishing Carrion Crown campaign, which has been ongoing for about three years at this point.  I have to assume that I’m approaching some sort of record, at this point, given that the entire campaign is structured to be finished within a six month timeframe.  Yay, me.

There’s an odd tendency that I’m noting within Pathfinder (as a result of where we’re at in Carrion Crown), which I will have to pay closer attention to.  Having run about half of Savage Tide, as well as played to a similar point within Rise of the Runelords, I’ve started to suspect that there is a tipping point around 12th level when modules start to ramp up the presence of casters as the primary foes in adventures.  With Savage Tide, it happened with the kopru Cleric in Golismorga, which immediately followed up with a sorcerer in the early part of the next module.  In Carrion Crown, the Witches of Barstoi that show up in Ashes at Dawn offer a similar threat.  And Runelords had Sins of the Saviors, which offered a whole variety of casters to bedevil the player characters at that point.

The reason that I bring this up is that it seems to offer a sharp uptick of difficulty in the module series, one that I hadn’t been particularly expecting.  Most of the foes in the modules were able to be dealt with in a more or less martial way in the lead-up modules, so springing a heavily tweaked caster on the party seems like a bit of a shift.  As a player, I know that I hadn’t been ready for the tactical spellcraft that had been assumed to be in place for the fifth module of Runelords, and it’s fairly evident that none of my players, in either Carrion Crown or Savage Tide were up for the task.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I should feel about these narrative shifts.  I mean, on one hand, it is logical that the foes should ramp up in difficulty as the modules progress, but by and large, it’s something of a sudden change.  In the first ten levels, it doesn’t feel as though there is a great deal of caster presence.  A case could be made that lower level casters aren’t nearly as much of a threat, given the limited scope of spells and the relative lack of hit points and saves.  But the few exceptions that I can bring to mind show me that they can be used effectively (the first thing that occurs to me is the main villain of The Varnhold Vanishing in Kingmaker), but otherwise they seem to be either absent or largely ineffective.

Looking back over the early parts of Carrion Crown, I see that my perceptions were out of whack.  All the way along, there has been a proper representation of spellcasters, in one form or another.  In Haunting of Harrowstone, there were a couple of foes within the ranks of the ghosts, but the spells were more utilitarian or basic damage than anything else.  In Trial of the Beast, the main sorcerous adversaries were Vorkstag and Grine, the masters of the chymic works, and again, most of their base repertoire was defensive in nature.  In the first half of Broken Moon, the master of the lodge offered the only mystical interference, and with the exception of Black Tentacles and Stinking Cloud, none of it was terribly remarkable.  In the second half, the climactic battle with the necromancer only offers a challenge if he’s been given a number of rounds to prepare.  Otherwise, his spells in combat are meant to keep him away from combat.

Continuing on, we find ourselves in Wake of the Watcher, where there are a sizable number of clerics wandering around, but most of them are multi-classed, which limits their repertoire.  The cultists in town can only cast 2nd level spells, which limits their utility, and even the head cleric who shows up slightly later only has a couple of truly inconvenient spells at his disposal.  The fungal oracle and the deep one cleric that show up in the final section have a better range of ability, but only the fungus is able to do anything interesting.

All right, so there is a fair representation of spellcasters through the module series.  Given this, I have to assume that there were a fair selection of them in Savage Tide and the others.  So it isn’t a problem of absence.  That drops it over onto being a problem of not being an overt threat.  And as such, something changes over somewhere around 10th level, the point where 1st Edition D&D suggested that the adventurers retired.

Back when I was living overseas, one of the resident GM’s there had noted that he hated running a campaign much past 10th level.  At the time, it had taken me aback, given my general outlook.  I assumed that most campaigns died around that time (as was my experience) due to player apathy, time constraints or similar ideas.  Whenever I had run a proper D&D game, it flamed out somewhere in the 10th~12th level range just as a matter of course.  To have someone want to intentionally kill the game at that point fascinated me.

Without deeper study (it’s late, and I’m running a fairly notable headache; in the same breath, if I don’t finish this in some manner, it will languish alongside the half-dozen other entries that I’ve been working on), I have to think this is the point where the game itself kicks over into more nuanced play styles.  Sure, I’ve played some form of D&D for about 75% of my actual life, but it’s a complex enough system that I haven’t tried to take it apart to study the raw numbers.

So, as it stands, there’s more to consider in this whole bit, insofar as spell utility is concerned and how much of a threat a spellcaster of a given level ends up being.  Alas, it’s not a question I can immediately answer in a single entry.

Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Five)

My, how times have changed.

Way back in 1980, TSR published Deities & Demigods as a supplement to 1st Edition AD&D.  It was meant as a broad survey of various pantheons drawn from world mythology, but knowing their audience, they included mythology that was drawn from the source material that Dungeons & Dragons itself was based on – namely information culled from H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, Fritz Lieber’s Nehwon stories, Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga and the King Arthur legends.  None of this would have been a problem, had Cthulhu and Elric not already been licensed to be made into RPG’s by Chaosium.  TSR had wrangled out the permission to print them, so long as they included a credit in the text to Chaosium for allowing them to use the likenesses.  The second and subsequent printings of the book removed the two sections, shortening the book and making the original printing collectible.

With the passage of 30 years has loosened the copyrights on Cthulhu related material, to the point that Cthulhu now seems to appear everywhere as a sort of call sign to anyone interested in eldritch horror.  Steve Jackson has Cthulhu Dice and a variant of Munchkin, Fantasy Flight has the Arkham Horror boardgame, and Wildfire has CthulhuTech for the cyberpunk stylings, Cthonian Stars for a Traveller vibe, and The Void for a non-Traveller version.  These days, it’s sort of everywhere you look.

And with the Carrion Crown path, the Cthulhu Mythos makes its way to Golarion.

Strictest sense, Paizo had referenced it in Trial of the Beast, with the theft of the Seasage Effigy.  (I swear, the number of times I wanted to mispronounce it as the Sausage Effigy…)  Referenced in that module as a ‘grotesque statuette of murky green stone’, it was something of a unfulfilled maguffin, standing as the reason behind the apprehension of the Beast of Lepidstadt and not actually being seen again until the end of Wake of the Watcher.  There were references to the Plateau of Leng in both Rise of the Runelords and Legacy of Fire, and an ancient cult of Yog-Sothoth was noted in Kingmaker.  But in this path, they pulled out the stops.

Wake of the Watcher opens up with the advice of adapting the Carrion Hill (yet another Carrion-titled module; Wes Schneider notes that they need to find other words in one of the forewards) module to serve as a waypoint between the end of Broken Moon and the first act of this module.  Geographically and thematically, it makes a lot of sense to do so, but given the Cthulhu-based action of Carrion Hill, it ends up being a bit of a double whammy when it comes to overloading the Lovecraft adventures.

Carrion Hill is a solid enough module, about half the size of a normal Adventure Path installment, insofar as actual module text goes.  The characters arrive to find the aftermath of a smallish cult’s activities in summoning up that which they could not properly put down.  The characters are tasked by the mayor to investigate and clean up the mess, cycling through locations like an ancient shrine to darkness, an abandoned church and an asylum.  There are some wonderful visuals in the module, but it’s meant for a one or two night run, so it doesn’t delve into the madness as much as a longer module might.  There’s a final confrontation with a creature culled from Lovecraft’s archives, but most of the module is spent avoiding that particular fight.

From there, the characters move on to Illmarsh, the Golarion stand-in for Innsmouth, complete with their very own version of Devil’s Reef, here called the Tern Rocks.  The characters wander around the town, investigating vaguely on the auspices of the mayor, up to the point that he disappears and is never heard from again.

Illmarsh has some interesting set-pieces for the characters, but for some reason, it felt like there were a couple of missed opportunities in the adventure.  Lovecraft’s Innsmouth was a place of subtle dread, where the outsider was uniquely aware of his standing in the inbred and isolationist community.  Illmarsh was supposed to be something of an inversion of this idea, but there was never much that spoke of conspiracies or whispered warnings outside the windows.  There was a bit of a subplot of extra children being offered to mysterious ‘neighbors’, but there wasn’t any real build up to the fairly obvious reveal.

In comparison, there were quite a lot of strange and unsettling events that were to take place in Ravengro, the town in the shadow of a haunted prison where the path started.  There’s nothing of the sort to liven up Illmarsh for the time the characters spend there, even though Harrowstone Prison had once housed a famous serial killer from the very town.  If nothing else, I would have wanted to see some sort of closure about that in the text, just as a callback.

In the course of wandering around the town, the characters manage to topple the evil cult that has held sway over Illmarsh for some time and learn of the sinister principles that the town was originally founded on.  The ancient and decaying mansion on the edge of the swamps allows for a certain amount of flavor in the module, but it’s more of a historical waypoint than much of a diversion.

The final dungeon comes in the form of the caverns beneath the rocks, where the local version of Deep Ones hang out.  For whatever reason, Paizo chose to build out skum for this purpose, being that kuo-toa are considered brand identity of Dungeons & Dragons.  I would have assumed that sahuagin would have worked well enough, but this is the point where only grognards venture, so I’ll quietly back away.

There’s a strange subplot about the Mi-Go corrupting the rites and worship of the Dagonite skum, which could have been interesting in a longer scope, but here it has the unfortunate effect of derailing the adventure for the hardcore Cthulhu aficionados.  Not only does the module (especially in light of the inclusion of Carrion Hill) try to pack in way too much from the established Lovecraftian lore, but the idea that Deep Ones could be turned from the face of their gods pushes the narrative into unacceptable zones for some.  On a meta-narrative level, the Mi-Go are forced into the text of the adventure to allow the PC’s to catch up.  For that purpose, it makes sense.  Otherwise…  not so much.

There are a lot of aspects that I liked about both Carrion Hill and Wake of the Watcher, but in the end, it was trying to do far too much and failed to pull off the necessary parts.  Looking back at it now, I think I would simply change the motivations of the Deep Ones and have them betray the Dark Riders that had come to them for assistance.  It’s not as narratively dramatic as a Mi-Go incursion, but it ends up being much less intrusive.

As a note, this may be my final retrospective on the Carrion Crown Adventure Path for a little while.  Our weekly game has taken a hiatus from the module series, and further discussion of the path would be based on my reading of the text, rather than the experience of running it.

Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Four)

When I left off a week ago, I was finishing up the details of Broken Moon, the third module in the Carrion Crown series.  The characters work through the mini-dungeon of the Stairs of the Moon, either negotiate with the various factions of werewolves that use the ancient temple of Desna as a moot, and head off for the final confrontation.  The main villain of the Shudderwood part of the adventure has been dealt with, and the full agenda of the cult becomes the next item to deal with.  As the characters learn, a necromancer has set up shop in an infamous battlefield, raising the dead to build an army for the cult.

There’s a bit of a strange subplot that runs through Broken Moon, in the form of one of the guests of Ascanor Lodge.  Where the lodgemaster is the primary adversary, there’s a vaguely clownish NPC that the characters have to deal with, an aristocrat that’s obsessed with hunting werewolves.  For the most part, he’s there for flavor, but he can help the characters with introducing them to the other guests.  And being an aristocrat, he’s mostly incompetent when it comes to actually hunting werewolves.

When the confrontation at the Stairs of the Moon takes place, he’s summarily pushed to the background while the PC’s take care of the main plot.  Off screen, he ends up getting infected with lycanthropy and promptly abducted by some of the ‘evil’ werewolves.  When he next shows up, he’s a full werewolf, chaotic evil, and willing to take the characters apart for the sake of his new werewolf brethren.

Being Paizo, there are notes on how to resolve the encounter without killing the aristocrat, curing his lycanthropy, casting atonement, and letting the guy go on his way peaceably.  Which would be all fine and good, were it actually possible to cure the lycanthropy.  The module makes a special point that there will be a four day lag between the point that this NPC contracts lycanthropy and the characters will next encounter him, which makes the actual cure that much more problematic.  Since the most opportune window of treatment has passed, the simpler cures like wolfsbane are assumed to be no longer effective.

As a side note, I’ve been going back over the details of curing lycanthropy, and it seems like the methods are weird holdovers from earlier editions.  If the afflicted character is treated within a few days of being infected, they can be cured by using a 3rd level spell, cast by a 12th level cleric.  If not, they need to be cured by using … a 3rd level spell, cast by a 12th level cleric.

Maybe I’m missing something, but there’s seemingly no penalty to waiting on a cure.  Or more to the point, there’s no real incentive in trying to get a character cured within the first few days of infection, other than the story-based bit of not having the character rampage and savagely kill innocents.  Yeah, that’s bad, but this is D&D we’re talking about.

For my part, I loosened up the rules a tich, offering the players the ability to work some Diplomacy checks while talking their friend down from his rampage.  They managed to distract and subdue him long enough for the Cleric to work her magic and run him through a Remove Disease and a longer ritual to Pharasma for an Atonement.  Being that the characters were a mere 9th level, there was no way that they could swing the high level Cleric stuff without a long and protracted journey into town.  They were already on a timetable, and it seemed unnecessary to saddle them with a weird moral choice they didn’t have the time or resources to monkey with.

Again, this goes back to my contention that the characters in the scenario need to make a conscious choice to be good.  If their options were to kill their friend or agonize over the decision to kill their friend, I wasn’t going to put them through that particular Hobson’s Choice.  They should have the ability to be heroes, even when the adventure isn’t written to let them.  Besides which, his role as an ally of the characters seemed a lot more interesting than having him brought back into the plot as yet another werewolf to kill off.

The village of Feldgrau has some interesting plot elements built into it, many of which remain unseen by the player characters themselves.  This is a peculiar habit of Paizo writers, to the point that I’m left to assume the editors insist upon such elements.  In Kingmaker, for example, there’s a bandit leader that shows up in the very first encounter that’s likely to be killed off when the PC’s set up an ambush.  In the text of the module, he’s given a paragraph of deep and intricate backstory, revealing his life of petty crime while serving as a city guardsman, the wife and children that he abandoned when he fled the city one step in front of the local constabulary and the broad motivations that he’s currently working towards as a minor bandit leader.  It’s pretty interesting stuff, to be honest, but there’s no real good reason for this much detail on a guy that, in all truth, is probably going to be killed off before he has a chance to say anything to the player characters.

There’s a similar case in play with the final necromancer villain in Feldgrau.  The module details how the character has been broken by circumstance, recruited into the ranks of the cult that’s behind all of the main motivations in the Adventure Path, and how he’s finally come home to enact a strange sort of ironic vengeance.  And there’s almost no way for the heroes to learn anything of this.  Our group has jokingly decided that the Pathfinder exclusive spell, Blood Biography, exists to detail out all of the hidden module text, just so it isn’t wasted space.

For the purposes of the module, I made a point to use bits of biographical details as the shuddering aftereffects of the audience with Desna, an encounter that offered a bit of prophecy to foreshadow the the events of the second half of the Adventure Path.  With the weird arcane magic that had come to infuse the environs of Feldgrau combined with the residual divine aura of Desna, I revealed the tragic backstory of the necromancer in abrupt cut scenes.  It was a bit strange, but it held up as a cinematic technique.  And if nothing else, I was able to make use of some of the extra text within the module.

The module ends with another series of disjointed scenes, a scattering of images pulled from the memories of the now dead necromancer.  For the first time in the module series, the characters have a sense of the larger plot that’s taking place, with something of a final goal to look towards.  Admittedly, they’re still fruitlessly chasing the Dark Riders that have been a couple of steps ahead of them thus far, but it’s something, at least.

Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Three)

This is actually turning out to be a longer review than I had anticipated.  If only I were paid by the word.  Or paid at all, really.  Such is the way of things.

Broken Moon is a pretty good module, overall, but it feels a bit like it’s two adventures packed into one volume.  Most of the adventure deals with the exploration of the Shudderwood, Ustalav’s great dark forest of doom, with a segment at the end that deals with recent history of Ustalav in the form of an extended zombie encounter.  In the main part, the characters are reluctant guests at Ascanor Lodge, from whence they start doing their research and trying to pick up the trail of the recently departed cultists.  Outside the walls of the lodge, werewolves prowl the night, unsettled by the events of the previous week.  One of their leaders has been slain, and it has thrown the delicate balance of the tribes into turmoil.

Were I to run this module series again (entirely possible, given), I would probably stall the action at Ascanor Lodge for a while, building it into a deeper sort of plotline.  There’s a lot of fascinating potential in being within the grasp of the scenario’s villain, even while he tries to manipulate the characters to do his dirty work and get them killed off in the process. There’s plenty of interaction within the frame of the module for dealing with the various NPC’s that dwell at the lodge, but these characters could have deeper motivations and red herring subplots to expand their role in the larger adventure.

There’s also a lot of stuff that could be done with a closer exploration of the Shudderwood itself.  In context of the module, there’s essentially a couple of encounters on the way to the lodge, an encounter based on one of the main NPC’s of the lodge itself, and then a rush towards the confrontation at the abandoned temple in the woods.  Having run Kingmaker, I could easily see adapting the hex-by-hex wilderness campaign to the Shudderwood.  The opening encounters of the region hammer in the understanding that this place is dangerous, and a couple more mysterious ruins on the way to the temple would nicely underscore that.

The big set-piece dungeon of the module is the abandoned temple to Desna that now serves as the central meeting place for the werewolves.  It’s an interesting commentary, as Desna’s the goddess of the moon and stars to begin with, and some of the werewolves are Varisian (the pseudo-Gypsies of the setting who generally worship Desna), but there isn’t a lot that’s done with it otherwise.

It does raise a strange complaint that I have about the module series as a whole, however.

Each of Paizo’s Adventure Paths dedicate themselves (in the extra, non-module material) to illuminating specific regions, monsters and gods of Golarion.  In the absence of a sister magazine – as they’d had with Dungeon and Dragon – they have to use the available space to build their setting.  It had been a very helpful feature in Dragon, and it’s a great way to give the players and GM a little more material to work from, rather than waiting for the next hardcover world guide or having to reference a number of various softsplats (like the particular nation guide, deity guide, etc.) for flavor.

For Carrion Crown, the deity guide focuses on Pharasma.  In the setting, Pharasma is the goddess of morticians and midwives, death and rebirth, fate and prophecy.  Given the amount of undead in the setting, a god that abhors the undead is a logical choice.  When I was running the campaign, naturally, one player was playing a Varisian cleric of Pharasma to keep in setting.

The problem was, until the end of Wake of the Watcher (the fourth module), it wouldn’t have mattered.  And as I was to find out, it would have made more sense for that character to have played a follower of Desna.  Admittedly, the larger part of this came from a confluence of events that took place uniquely for my particular playing group, but enough was set in motion by what happened in Broken Moon that it started seeming weird.

First off, one of the random encounters on the way into Shudderwood involved caravan of Varisian travelers (your basic in-setting Gypsies) who ended up robbing the party for some scattered valuables (including the cleric’s silver holy symbol).  At the time, it hadn’t meant anything, but I poked at the cleric about how she’d forsaken the Varisian faith.  Then there’ s a fortune telling that takes place at Ascanor Lodge, where the Varisian Madame (as in, brothel) is on hand to offer a Harrow Reading.  All right.  Nothing big there.  Just serves to reinforce the mood.

The big event took place at the Stairs of the Moon, the abandoned temple that has been claimed by the werewolves of Shudderwood.  If the characters manage to find the ritual and reconsecrate the temple to Desna, they’re granted an audience with Desna herself.  This takes the form of a prophecy of coming events (what to look forward to with the next three modules), a permanent stat boost, and having their eyes turn silver due to being in the presence of a goddess.  Even without the previous events, this sort of shook my cleric’s faith in Pharasma.  It didn’t help that the former midwife – not a lot of call for that while foiling the plans of an insidious cult – had spent weeks on the road, traveling from place to place.  (For those unfamiliar with the setting, this is the hallmark of a proper cleric of Desna.  A life on the open road with little more than the stars to guide her by.)

Finally in Illmarsh – near the beginning of the fourth module – another fairly unlikely happenstance cemented the Desna connection.  The cleric managed a critical hit on a fairly powerful monster, and since I was using the officially licensed Pathfinder Critical Hit Deck (mainly used for situations like this), it pulled the effect of shunting the monster and whatever it was holding into another dimension.  Unfortunately, it was holding the cleric at the time.  The cleric offered a joking suggestion about where she was likely to end up.  I shrugged and narrated the cleric’s arrival in the realm of Desna herself, whose servants handily dispatched the adversary in question and sat down to have a heart to heart with this rather confused cleric of Pharasma.

Knowing the need for a cleric of Pharasma to wield the minor artifact found in Wake of the Watcher, I allowed the cleric to be converted over to a new worship, while still holding many of the precepts that had carried her this far.  (In short, I allowed the player to model this through a sort of Pluralist Feat, where the cleric retained some vague connection to Pharasma while taking on the trappings of a follower of Desna.)  When I’d played in a Legacy of Fire game, the paladin had taken a 3.5 Prestige Class that essentially required this sort of set-up, blending Sarenrae and Iomedae in-setting to be able to satisfy the requirements.

In the long run, it made for a really interesting character, as the cleric wrestled with her faith and tried to make sense of the higher destinies in place.  It’s just frustrating when there’s really good flavor for one goddess, only to have another one show up in the same series.  The same thing happened in Legacy of Fire with a fantastic opening at a monastery to Sarenrae, with a set-piece in the same module that details a shrine to Nethys.  It seems to be a conscious choice on their part, but it is a bit weird.

Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Two)

The first entry in my review of Paizo’s Ravenloft-inspired Adventure Path, Carrion Crown, dealt mainly with the first two modules of the series, The Haunting of Harrowstone and The Trial of the Beast.  In the interest of space, I cut the first review at that point, not wanting to spill into the 4~5,000 words range.  I probably could have dealt with all six modules in the adventure path, but there are some outlying issues that I wanted to touch on as I went along.

In the first entry, I touched briefly on the metaplot of the Adventure Path.  Being the larger, overarching plot of the module series, the metaplot is pretty important in the long run.  It gives the characters a reason to follow through on their investigations, and it does what it can to string the different events into a coherent whole.  Since each of the six individual modules are written by different authors (something that remains in force for all of Paizo’s AP offerings, extending back into the days of Dungeon Magazine), the metaplot is often the only way that any of the scattered narratives can be brought together.  It can’t be an easy thing.

The reason I say this is because there are some notable rough patches in some of the Adventure Path plots.  There are points in some of them where narratives are sort of tacked on, and other points where abrupt shifts in tone seem to take over.  I’m not laying blame on anyone with these, as it’s what is going to happen with this many thousand words and the strict deadlines that Paizo is working with.

To its credit, Carrion Crown avoids a lot of specific missteps in the way it comes together.  The worst sin that can be lain at its feet is the exuberance in which the path switches between monster genres.  And for the sake of covering the necessary ground, that can probably be forgiven.

The way that the modules follow the metaplot, in the mean time, can be called into question.  Starting early in the second module, the characters are presented with a strange, unsolvable mystery.  When the Beast of Lepidstadt is apprehended, it had aided in the theft of a mysterious statue.  From there, the modules progress forward, never giving any hint to the players about why this particular maguffin is important, until a footnote at the very end of the fourth module brings the statue back into the hands of the characters.

In the mean time, the characters are supposedly hot on the trail of a pair of ‘dark riders’ (sadly, not Ringwraiths) who always manage to be one step ahead of anything the characters do.  About the third time it happens, it starts to seem comical.  They get to the forest?  Just missed them.  They find the ancient shrine to Desna?  Oh, sorry.  They end up at the war torn dead fields of Feldgrau?  Whoops, you should have been here about 20 minutes ago.  And so on.  As with the statue stolen from Lepidstadt, there isn’t any closure brought to this until the end of module four.

There’s an interesting note in the final module of the series, where the editor, Wes, talks about integrating the main villain into the larger plot of the series.  His suggestion (based as it is in classic horror movie stylings) has Adivion Adrissant take an active role in taunting the player characters all along, leaving notes and clues for them with the various cultists that he knows they’re going to kill.  He laments that he hadn’t managed to include this at the outset of the path but suggests that it might be a good exercise for the GM who has time for a little prep and the entire modules series in front of him at the time.

And really, it’s a great idea.  Personally, I would go a step further and have the character of Adrissant show up here and there in disguise, making conversation with the characters at the bar or in passing on the street, but that’s just my own personal take on things.  It would go a long way to smoothing off the rough edges of having the cultists able to elude the characters for three full modules.  (Four, if you bring in the standalone Carrion Hill module between Broken Moon and Wake of the Watcher.)  It also gives the GM a better interplay than the taunting missives that Adrissant leaves for the heroes.

So, at the end of the second module, the characters are given a bit more information about where to go next and sent forward to stop the larger plots in play.  Where the first module only hinted at the conspiracy, the second module confirms it and makes it clear that the player characters are about the only people available to investigate.

The third module has them head into the wild, bucolic woods in search of cultists.  The main area is the hunting lodge for rich idiots, with various incursions into werewolf politics as the driving force of the first half of the module.  The characters have to deal with the plots of the human villain, as he covers up his involvement with the cult that serves as the AP’s primary villain and the characters have to defuse a strange tangle of werewolf politics.

This is another thing that seems weird about the Adventure Path, as a whole.  There are some specific points in the series where the heroes are expected to help the monsters, rather than hunt them down.  This becomes particularly evident in module five, where most of the interplay in the module takes place with vampires.  Given that a vampire hunter character archetype is pretty likely in the scope of the module series, this is probably going to end up being frustrating.  To their credit, the module takes this into consideration, with ways to complete the plot once all of the damned vampires have been staked, but really…  it diminishes the module and the way that it’s meant to be played.

Similarly, module two has the characters run ragged to keep Frankenstein’s Monster from being executed.  Weirdly, there’s quite a bit of sleep deprivation involved in that module, given that the characters have to ride out into the wilderness to investigate and then return to give their testimony the next morning.  This sequence is where the Lesser Restoration spell hilariously becomes the Pathfinder equivalent to Red Bull.

The final verdict, for whatever reason, is that the monsters are less monstrous and evil than the humans that walk amongst them.  Even the war torn fields of the dead in Feldgrau are largely the fault of the people in the setting.  Maybe this is why so many horror movie creatures feel like settling in Ustalav.  They’re not the ones to be feared in this dark and horrible land.

Oddly though, this concept does not touch the player characters themselves.

You see, in Ravenloft, much of the flavor of the setting was the constant temptation towards evil.  And if a character took any steps towards actually fulfilling the evil thoughts that swirled around them, they would be rewarded by the dark powers that governed Ravenloft.  At first, it would a be a minor thing, offset by a minor drawback, but the nature of the rewards would become progressively more powerful.  And the drawbacks would slowly become debilitating curses, an outward sign of the corruption that gnawed at the heart of the hero so tempted.

While I was running Carrion Crown, I felt that the characters had to make a conscious choice to fight back against the evil that surrounded them.  The problem with this was that there wasn’t any mechanical reason for the players to hold to this.  Granted, this was a single Adventure Path with very little spare room left over, but the Ustalav setting book could have dealt with it, as could have some other source.  I always felt the temptation of the dark powers was a necessary part of Ravenloft’s feel, so having it missing from the latter day homage felt weird.  Then again, my Star Wars games always had a heavy Dark Side presence, so it may just be me.

Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part One)

Ah, Ravenloft.  If there was one game supplement that I could blame for most of my evolution as a gamer, it would be the original boxed set campaign setting from 1990.  It opened my eyes to how subtly horror could be handled in a game system that expected heroes to be able to stand up to any obstacle.  In a lot of ways, the tips it offered were ways not to work creeping dread upon the characters, but on the players themselves.  Uncertainty, unease, and deliberate forms of misdirection all came together to put the players off balance and start second-guessing their actions.  These are all great techniques that have served me well over the years.

Carrion Crown was Paizo’s love letter to the greatest campaign setting ever wrought.  Even their product description on the Paizo website hints at their obvious homage, as it opens with speaking of ‘the mists’ of the dark land itself.

The action opens with a funeral on a rainy day, the characters having traveled to the dreary town of Ravengro to bury their collective mentor, Professor Lorrimor, who is likely a stand-in for Ravenloft’s Rudolph Van Richten.  Naturally, the good professor died under mysterious circumstances, and in the midst of coming to town to pay their respects, the characters are drawn into the plot.

As far as set-ups go, it’s a classic one.  A funeral in the rain, a weeping daughter, and a small, desolate town in the shadow of an infamous prison, its stone walls now lying in ruin.  The prison, naturally, is haunted, and the ghosts of the worst serial killers in the history of Ustalav lie in wait, their tortured souls seeking to escape the prison that held them in life.  (As a side note, being the worst murderers in the history of Ustalav is really saying something.  This place is a regular horrorshow to begin with, and these four ghosts somehow made it to the top of the list.)

As a standalone module, this is a pretty solid offering.  The characters are working against a ticking clock, as the ghosts, disturbed from their rest by the workings of the Adventure Path’s larger metaplot, are slowly worrying away at the bonds that hold them in the prison.  If they’re able to escape before the characters can put them down, the town stands to be destroyed completely.  There are plenty of spooky happenings in the town, as well as on the grounds of the prison, which offer a sense of foreboding to the proceedings.

What’s interesting about Harrowstone is that the module borders on impossible if the party doesn’t have a cleric on staff.  And if they do, many of the encounters become startlingly simple.  Being that the bulk of the module is made up of ghosts and haunts (the ghostly equivalent of traps; these are actually really neat ideas that deserve to be used a lot more from here on out), a simple Channel Positive Energy will take care of a lot of the encounters.  More than a few of the areas in Harrowstone involved the cleric of Pharasma stepping through the door, using a Channel, and the rest of the characters looking around for loot.  Without the cleric, the characters have to use a number of workarounds to deal with the absurd number of apparitions.

As far as the metaplot goes, there’s enough to connect it with the larger plots of the Adventure Path, but not enough that it becomes intrusive.  Essentially, the characters can discover the traces of cultish meddling that’s behind the unquiet dead, and they’re dutifully sent along to the next city on the cult’s list by the good professor’s daughter, carrying books to the professor’s friends in the next module as part of the will.

Each of the modules in the series deals with a different horror trope, which is an interesting mode to explore all of the different genres of horror.  The Haunting of Harrowstone, as the first module, deals with ghosts.  From there, we get to the setting’s version of Dr. Frankenstein and his creature in The Trial of the Beast, as well as the Golarion versions of Burke and Hare.  The third module, Broken Moon, throws together werewolves and zombies, where the fourth, The Wake of the Watcher, goes all Lovecraft-inspired.  Ashes at Dawn involves both vampires and hags, where the final module, Shadows of Gallowspire, fuses more haunted house motifs with a stock of liches and, oddly, what seems to be a throwaway reference to Hellraiser.

Paizo Adventure Paths have a tendency to be a bit … uneven … in tone, and Carrion Crown is no exception to that.  The decision to include every available horror genre was a brave on the editor’s part, but it had the effect of making Ustalav seem a whole lot weirder than it may have needed to be.  A lot of the strange inconsistency of the setting can be hand-waved away with requirements of the plot, but at least with Ravenloft, there was an in-game reason for all of the various horror tropes to be thrown in a pot with each other.  With Ustalav, it seems like they got some sort of special tax breaks for moving in.

To their credit, they tried to make the different adversaries in the different modules seem like they kept out of sight from normal people and hid in the shadows as necessary, but about the fourth or fifth time that happens, it seems like someone would notice all the damned vampires.  (Yeah, a Lost Boys reference.  Why not?)

The second module has a serious Call of Cthulhu vibe to it, as the characters are called on to investigate the weird happenings that have been pinned to the Beast of Lepidstadt, who is on trial for a series of murders.  And one rather incongruous theft.  The set pieces to the investigation are well done, as is the presentation of evidence at the trial.  The defense attorney is incompetent, to say the least, and it’s up to the players to do the heavy lifting.  There’s a couple of interesting subplots that can be built as they wander around a decent sized city, but once they’ve finished the main investigation, it’s off to the mad scientist’s sprawling castle for the final showdown, after which they’re on the road again.

The first module was fine in how it handled the metaplot.  From Trial of the Beast onward, it seems like the player characters are constantly one step behind the evil cultists.  This can work, depending on the gamemaster, but it can also become pretty frustrating, pretty quickly.  Especially when it is the main driving force behind the plot for about three or four modules.

Trial of the Beast is also where it starts to diverge pretty heavily from standard D&D expectations.  The characters are thrown in a module with Frankenstein’s Monster, and they have to do everything in their power to make sure that he doesn’t get thrown in the Wicker Man to burn.  (Yeah, they did that.)  And it’s only a weird bit at the end that gives them the chance to actually fight a flesh golem, almost as an afterthought.  In Broken Moon, there’s a heavy political vibe, where the characters are sort of nudged in the direction of navigating their way through the different factions of werewolves, and in Ashes at Dawn, the module really, really wants the characters to avoid killing all the vampires they run into.  (This is especially noted in the foreword of the book, where the editor laments the natural tendencies of all D&D characters ever.)

And rather than overload the general attention span of any current or future readers, I might as well split this review into sections.  I’ll post more on Carrion Crown tomorrow.