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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.

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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?

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.

The Final, Fatal Battle of the Skinsaw Murders

For a lot of groups, The Skinsaw Murders ended up being the last module in the series, as the final encounter was enough to destroy most challengers.  The internet, particularly the Paizo forums, are awash with stories of how the Lamia Matriarch was enough to annihilate their PC’s, often without suffering serious damage at their hands.  There were support groups to talk about the kill counts of Xanesha, the Wanton of Nature’s Pagan Forms.

Yeah…  I should just stop right there.  This was another of the writer’s attempts to puff up the name of something beyond what it could reasonably bear.  Much like ‘The Misgivings’, it’s one of those nonsensical bits that never quite worked.  There’s no flow to the nickname, and even if it did roll off the tongue, it doesn’t fit with anything about the character.  Sure, Xanesha does flit around the Magnimar underground to casually sleep with guys in her human form, but that only covers the ‘Wanton’ bit.  She’s not particularly pagan, largely unnatural, and she has exactly two forms that she can shift between.  Whee.

I feel like Peter Serafinowicz’ character from ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy.’  “This is Xanesha.  She’s also known as ‘The Wanton of Nature’s Pagan Forms’.”  “Who calls her that?”  “Herself, mostly.”

Anyway, where was I?

Xanesha holds an interesting place in Pathfinder lore, in that she’s an almost certain kill in her original form in the second module.  It’s so bad that most people consider it a better idea to substitute her sister, the Lamia Matriarch from halfway through the next module, instead, as that would be a marginally more fair fight.  And as it happens, Lucrecia doesn’t have a dopey title that she insists on calling herself.

As originally written, Xanesha is disastrously powerful, well-prepared and has complete tactical superiority.  She’s got a solid repertoire of spells available, high mobility and can answer any threat that comes after her.  All in all, it takes an overprepared part of characters and a bit of GM grace to take her down in her original form, especially when you consider that the party has already faced two fairly difficult combats on the way up the tower.  They revised her down to a much more manageable level with the Anniversary Edition, which is likely the result of player feedback and careful consideration on the part of the Paizo editors.

The original scenario has the characters find enough clues to lead them to an abandoned clock tower beneath an ancient Thassilonian bridge.  The backstory for her character has her sent by Karzoug (the Runelord that the module series generally refers to) personally, with other sisters sent across the breadth of Varisia to continue his bidding.  Her job is to harvest sacrifices for his power, which is generally meaningless at this point in the Adventure Path’s progress.  Her sister shows up in the next module, although her role in Karzoug’s return is just as murky.  (For most intents, the broad scope of the plot doesn’t start to make sense until about Module #4 or thereabouts.)

Once at the clocktower, the characters face off against a powerful flesh golem in the guise of a scarecrow, have a cinematic climb up the winding stair of the crumbling edifice and come face to face with the creature that’s been manipulating a cult of murderous thugs for her own ends.  And in the original version of the adventure, this is where they meet their untimely end.

All Paizo spellcasters have a tactical outlay of spells, with an order for them to be cast.  During the characters’ ascent of the tower, her minions made certain that she was aware of the approaching threat by dropping a massive bronze bell on them, with the hopes of either killing them or driving them away.  When Xanesha hears this, she casts the following spells on herself:  Fly, Mage Armor, Shield, Mirror Image, Haste, and Invisibility.  She’s starting out with a solid 26 AC, and this spell kit bumps that up to 35 AC.  She also drops Silence on a spare piece of wood within her rooftop lair, thereby shutting down any spell support that the party manages to bring with them.  She also activates False Life and casts Divine Favor, which enhances her hilariously powerful spear.  (Because of her weapon focus with the spear, it has a x3 Crit modifier, with a threat range of 19.  If it gave her Reach, it would be all over for anyone who happened by.)  She also has Spell Resistance and a stack of spell-like abilities with DC 20 saves.

Suffice to say, there’s a reason that most parties died to her deadly caress.  She’s a CR 10 creature that is facing 7th level characters.  Her ability to Fly gives her an immediate advantage, the Silence pretty well covers the entire area of the battle and she even goes to the point of casting a Major Image to keep the party off-balance.

The revised version of Xanesha removes almost all of the advantage that she had in the original version, lowering her hit points and armor class as well as taking away all of her spell kit except Invisibility.  She’s still a CR 9 encounter, after the two CR 7 encounters that had to be dealt with on the way up the tower, but in comparison, this is almost a cakewalk.  Also, given the slight power creep in converting characters from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder, I’d have to think that she’s a challenge, but not an unreasonable one.  The original version was just so much death.

I figure I’ll wrap up the rest of The Skinsaw Murders with one more post, but I’m already looking at taking a break from blogging for a little while after next week.  I’m not sure how much of a hiatus I’ll be working with, but next Thursday marks my third full month with this blog, which makes for a clear point to put things on hold.  I’ve been managing to update daily since the middle of March, and by the time next week rolls around, I’ll be able to figure out how much verbiage I’ve put into these updates.  I aim for 1,000 words per post, with unfailing daily updates, so that should put me somewhere above 100,000 words overall.  Not a bad mark to have managed.

In the mean time, I figure I’ll be able to update as I can, but it won’t be a daily thing.  There are too many other things that need my attention at the moment, so this is the gig that has to go to the back burner.  Hopefully, once the real life aspects iron themselves out, I can go back to regular updates.

But that’s not until next week.

Entering the Third Act of the Skinsaw Murders

So, when we last saw our intrepid heroes, they had escaped the ruin of Foxglove Manor (improbably known as ‘The Misgivings by the locals) as it fell in upon itself, breaking into pieces as it fell from the cliff it had so precariously been perched upon, its foul influences now cleansed from the Varisian Coast.

Or at least, that’s how we ended it.

I’ve been wracking my brain in the last day or so, trying to figure out why the writer chose to leave the house more or less intact when the characters finished with the haunting and the ghastly serial killer who had been so fatally warped by its unwholesome influences.  All right, so you have an old manor house filled with a myriad of decay and ruin, that no one in the surrounding area wants anything to do with.  As the characters were to figure out in the process of their adventures in the house (as in, they have to find this out to pick up the next thread of the plot), the last contractors were a cult of murderers that worshiped the god of murder and secrets.

To borrow from Kevin Smith, are these really the guys you want to have plumbing a toilet in your house?

If the house doesn’t crumble into the sea, the characters are sort of stuck with it.  I can’t imagine too many characters that would voluntarily move into a house with such history, unless they’re the kind that is jake with serial killers, the occasional murderous cultist, and a legacy of pain and terror that has been fused into the walls since the death of the original family by misadventure.  Most Good-aligned groups would want to burn the place down, just to be done with the damned thing.  At that point, it’s a better idea to just have the action sequence of fleeing the house as it falls to pieces around the characters, escaping as it finally destroys itself.  At least then, it’s dramatic.

And for me, this is where the adventure should have ended.  I keep going back to this idea, where the confrontation with Aldern Foxglove, the friend and ally established in the first module, is revealed to be the dreaded Skinsaw Man that has been murdering people around Sandpoint.  But it isn’t, and I find that weirdly unsatisfying.

Instead, the characters are drawn to Magnimar, the teeming metropolis to the south, built on the ruins of an ancient Thassilonian city from thousands of years before.  They’ve discovered notes on the Skinsaw Cult that has been the source of Foxglove’s specific murders (he’s been directed to kill particularly Greedy individuals, which feeds the main purposes of the end villain of the Adventure Path), and they’ve got the key to Foxglove’s townhouse in Magnimar, where they can search for more clues on the larger conspiracy.

Following the trail to Magnimar, the characters quickly discover specific notes that will lead them to another sawmill in the area, where payments from Foxglove are apparently dropped off periodically.  (What’s interesting about this part is that there is a single encounter and a single puzzle, but the module sees fit to include a rather detailed map for the GM to use.  I realize that this is for the sake of combat, but even so, this seems fairly extraneous.)  From there, they find themselves at the home of the Brothers of the Seven, also known as the Skinsaw Men.

The cult’s headquarters is a pretty straightforward series of encounters.  It’s a working sawmill, which adds some detail to the events, but it comes down to a room by room dispatching of low-level cultists as the characters look for the man in charge.  Somewhat unusually, the head of the Cult isn’t actually behind the series of murders, as he’s been played as a cat’s paw by another manipulator.  This has the effect of allowing the PC’s to negotiate with the head of a cult of murderous thieves, once they manage to dispel the Charm Person he’s been laboring under.

It’s an interesting idea, but at the end of the day, he’s still a cultist of the god of murder and a corrupted city justice as well.  I’m not really sure why the players are given the option of sparing him.

In some ways, I would love to play the module with wholly Evil characters calling the shots.  There were options for this all through the early parts of Savage Tide, and it seems like the focus of the game would be wildly different with this series, even though it would seem to take a fair amount of jiggering to get the outcomes to make any sense.  With the now-empty manor house and a cult of murderous thugs on your side, the characters would be quickly rising up in the world, I would guess.  It just makes you question why they’re killing off the established villains in the first place.  Is it a case of professional rivalry or something?  Was the Skinsaw Cult encroaching on the home turf of the player characters?

Good ends up being the default setting in these modules, but there are strange edges where it seems like the writers were willing to throw a bone at the occasional Evil character that wandered through.

As it shook out for our group, we actually had two Evil characters as part of the adventuring group by the time they reached the sawmill.  One was the Pride and Lust aspected Sorcerer who’d been driven mad by the revelations of the house and its various haunts.  At this point, I had taken over the character for my own use, not wanting to lose the main operant spellcaster from our regular group.  Another player had built a rogue, who was immediately lost to suicide in the manor, who was then replaced by a wizard.  That player hadn’t made it that week, so the character was more or less being played by another person, who’d decided to play the Evil version.  (When the Wizard’s actual player was in attendance, he ended up playing the Wizard as Evil, so it didn’t really matter.)  And the Ranger was going closer and closer to Evil, simply because he was becoming more intent on his anger issues while he was losing his sense of remorse for the accidental murders he’d committed earlier.

The effect this had was that the various horrific loot that the characters were amassing as a result of fighting a cult of murder wasn’t being thrown away or sold to shopkeepers.  This meant that the various razor-aspected weapons were being used regularly, as were the enchanted masks that highlighted the flow of blood in a living creature.

So, yeah.  There’s a lot of neat toys to be had in this module, but most of it only has utility to the most depraved and antisocial members of a given group.  Good times.

The Misgivings of the Skinsaw Murders

Somewhere, I think there’s a pun or bit of clever wordplay or even an inside joke that explains why Paizo chose to title the ancient Foxglove Manor the way it did.  Calling a house ‘The Misgivings’ is an interesting idea, but it really seems forced, no matter how they pass it off otherwise.  I love the idea of the named manor house, and the concept of the shunned haunted house that the locals whisper various myths and legends about intrigues me.  I’m just not sure that I buy this particular appellation.

Here.  Try it out for yourself:

“I hear there’s some foul happenings up at The Misgivings.”

“According to the farmer, there were strange lights at The Misgivings.”

“And to this day, no one who has ever spent the night at The Misgivings has been heard from again…”

Personally, I can’t take it seriously, as it varies between seeming like the name of an intrusive married couple that tries to throw fancy parties on every occasion, just so they can bring out their fondue pots, or the world’s worst sort of holiday.  “What are you having for Misgiving Dinner?’  “Probably ham.”

And yeah, it’s sort of a petty quibble in the broad scheme of things, compared to some of the other problems I’ve had with the Adventure Path thus far.

As adventures go, however, it’s really pretty good.  This is your standard haunted house scenario, filtered through the D&D or Pathfinder lens, with some fascinating ideas at the core of things.  The history of the house recounts the failed attempts of its founder to ascend to lichdom, only to fail dramatically in the final stage.  This serves to give the house itself the weird powers and locales, explaining away the supernatural effects in the dungeonpunk era that the module was written in.  Any other era of gaming would likely have left the origin of the house’s powers intact and mysterious, rather than trying to make sense of the process required.  I don’t begrudge this, though, as it’s a really neat idea that I’d be tempted to make further use of later.  Namely, the house itself functions as a truly bizarre form of pseudo-lich, with the essence of the aspirant fused into the structure of the house itself and corrupting all that cross its threshold in one way or another.  To be honest, I’m surprised that this didn’t end up back in Carrion Crown, since they’re fond of recycling ideas, and there was an entire module devoted to the idea of liches in general.

With the house as its own distinct entity, Paizo found themselves with a new mechanic (which did show up in Carrion Crown) in the form of Haunts.  Haunts exist as a form of spiritual trap, differing only in the way that they have to be disarmed and dealt with.  Haunts went on to play a huge role in the haunted prison scenario of Harrowstone that opened the Carrion Crown series, and it’s interesting to note that they underwent minimal modification over the years.  A Good-aligned Cleric is still the best way to deal with any of these horrors, and without such, they become extremely dangerous particularly fast.

They’re also very evocative of the haunted house motif, offering a quick and simple method to populate a locale with supernatural effects.  On a meta level, I loved the idea, even if they ended up largely destroying most of the party that went to investigate the horrors of Foxglove Manor.  (See, even there, it would sound pretty ridiculous to term it as ‘The Horrors of the Misgivings.’  It really doesn’t work.)

The haunts work to play out the events that brought the ruin of Foxglove Manor.  One room has the characters reliving the death of the villain’s wife, another sees her in better times as she dances in the parlor, where a third has a long dead murderer contemplating the weight of his actions.  As each image flits past, the characters are forced to play through the sequences that brought the fall of the family, bearing their wounds and horrors as the images work to drive them mad.

These traps were what brought our character party to downfall, as we moved through the decaying halls of the manor house.  The Sorcerer who was consumed with pride and lust was attracted to the haunts that dealt with the death of Foxglove’s wife, some months back.  As each event played out, he was driven progressively closer to madness, as he saw the death of beauty and the betrayal of love.  (The original player was out of the area when these events took place, and this was what made it interesting, as he wouldn’t have bothered to explore the ramifications of the haunts on his character’s psyche.  As it happened, he was actually very irritated that his character might have to experience anything that wasn’t as shallow and superficial as he’d hoped.  He left the group for unrelated reasons, but it ended up being for the best in the long run, really.)  In the end, his mind snapped, and he found himself with a Nick Cave inspired outlook that ‘All beauty must die’ in his madness.

Another character, the erstwhile Rogue that one of our group had recently made up, ended up finding himself utterly overwhelmed by the desperate thoughts that another room evoked, plunging a sharp stake of wood into his throat as a means of suicide.  This was doubly unfortunate, as the character had joined the group for the sake of the expedition to Foxglove Manor, and he managed to live for a single session only.

The Druid became obsessed with the concept of transformation, something that eventually leveled out into being convinced that his true form was an animal form rather than his original human shape.  This persisted all the way through the character, however, so it became less of a derangement than just a defining character trait.

In the end, the scenario details the madness and betrayal that brought the end of the Foxglove family, hearkening back to Poe’s House of Usher as it does so, talking about the decay and mold that persists throughout as symbolic of the decline.  The module provides ways to cleanse the house of the influence of the original master of the house, whose spirit is infused with the very structure of the place, but it misses the obvious mark by having the manor remain intact once it has been exorcised.

For our purposes, once the foul influence had been destroyed, the foundations of the cliffside mansion began to shiver and crumble, as the only motive force that had kept it intact was now gone.  In a mad panic, our characters fled the roaring destruction, emerging into the first light of dawn as the house fell away, breaking on the rocks below as it slid into the sea.

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.

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.

Delving into the plots of the Skinsaw Murders

So, in the very first boxed text for the module, we get this particular gem from the august Sheriff, who is asking the recently returned characters for help in the newest atrocity to befall the sleepy community of Sandpoint.  Naturally, his actual deputies are worthless to help, and the player characters are the only ones that can handle themselves in a stand-up fight.  As of the end of this module, they’ll also be several levels higher than the Sheriff, assuming that they survive the events herein.

“Some of you doubtless remember the Late Unpleasantness, how this town nearly tore itself apart in fear as Chopper’s slayings went on unanswered.”

I thought I’d beaten this horse enough already, yet here we are again.

There are a lot of problems with this summation, not the least of which is the cavalier way that the first module went about handling ‘The Late Unpleasantness’ nor the fact that it’s termed as such.  Here we have the death of one of the most important women in town, the death of the spiritual leader of the town and his half-celestial adoptive daughter as his church burned around him, and a serial killer stalking a tiny community.  All in all, about thirty people that were killed off in a town of about 1,200.  If this is what the townsfolk want to call ‘unpleasant’, then I shudder to think what they would have to experience to call it an ‘atrocity’ or worse.

Secondly, I have a personal hatred of using the ‘As you are all aware’ trope in any form.  Perhaps it’s too many years of reading William Gibson and George Martin, but the idea of putting this in a work of fiction is abhorrent.  Actually using it in an adventure is several orders of magnitude worse.  There’s no reason to pull this off, as it exists solely to inform the audience of something that the characters themselves are achingly familiar with.  In the context of RPG’s, this sort of exposition is particularly disempowering, as it either points out a weakness on the part of the GM to be able to get this information across any other way or the simple unwillingness of the adventure to spend the time to make this event meaningful.  And when the essence of the game is that it’s a small and intimate setting where such details could come to light organically, it rings really strangely.

Finally, this is the first point where it’s intimated what actually happened in the aftermath of these crucial events.  Out of curiosity, I went back to the GM-only text in the first module where the background of the adventure is laid out for the sake of tying it all together.  It goes over how the triggering of the Runewell caused everyone in town to wake up in a momentary wrath from horrific nightmares, which then immediately faded.  There were the three exceptions, whose actions set the stage for the plot of Burnt Offerings, but beyond that, it was just a case of bad dreams.

Which has an interesting permutation, now that I think about it.  Desna is the patron goddess of Sandpoint, as far as the whole chapel and festival go, and she is specifically detailed in conjunction with Varisia in general.  And yet the goddess known as the Tender of Dreams wasn’t able to protect her priest or her faithful from the effects that caused bad dreams.  I’m not saying that this is a mistake on the part of the writers, but it has some sinister undertones that deserve to be explored further.

So anyway, we now find out that the awful events that took place five years back were enough to set the town at the edge of being torn asunder from internal struggle and outcry.  Either that or the Sheriff is something of a hysteric in comparison to the rest of the town, who chose to term the deaths of so many people as ‘unpleasant.’  Honestly, I’m figuring that, if I were to ever run the modules myself, the Sheriff would take on a number of characteristics drawn from Sheriff Bronson Stone from Scooby-Doo.

Once the soliloquy boxed text is finished, Sheriff Hemlock then produces a bloody piece of parchment that ties one of the player characters to the murder, referring to them as either ‘Master’ or hinting at a fatal love affair that seems to exist between them and the murderer.  He then advises them to cover up the murders as best they can while they are set to investigating the goings-on.  If they refuse to deal with the investigation, he will eventually offer them money to make the murders stop happening.  And by the way, there’s a rune that’s been carved into one of the victim’s chest that is identical to the necklace that one of the characters is undoubtedly wearing.

I’m really not sure how to parse any of this out in a way that makes coherent sense.  Sure, we know the characters are innocent, since they’ve been out killing goblins and saving the town from certain ruin.  Mainly, we know this because we’re playing them, and killing people at the sawmill would have gotten us some experience points, right?  But aside from the metagame aspects of the whole situation, this is a particularly bizarre set-up for an adventure.  Maybe the characterization of Bronson Stone isn’t quite sinister or insane enough to encompass Hemlock’s motives.  Because if this were any other situation than a gaming module, the characters would end up behind bars before they had the chance to protest.  The evidence is actually pretty clear.  Only after the second set of murders took place with the accused securely under wraps would anyone believe that they had nothing to do with it.

The connection between the necklace and the rune is an especially interesting one that the module specifically tries to avoid drawing too much attention to.  At the end of the first module, Nualia is wearing a strange medallion around her neck.  It’s a magic item that offers a +1 bonus to all saves and allows the bearer to cast False Life once per day.  (On this item, it gives the person 1d10+3 hit points for up to three hours or until used.)  It’s way too powerful for a low level party to ignore, since it adds a significant amount of survivability to whomever is wearing it.

The thing is, the GM wants the characters to wear these damned things, since it allows the titular Runelord to spy on them as he sees fit.  Since he doesn’t show up until the final module, it gives him plenty of time to become familiar with the ways and methods of the group, as well as an insight into how they’re foiling the various plots.  As such, this particular opportunity to sow discord is glossed over.

In the end, the characters go on to investigate the horrific murders that took place at the sawmill, simply because the plot demanded it.  But to be honest, the Sheriff seems pretty sketchy in the way that he chose to handle it.  I can only imagine how any of this would have gone, were the default assumption of generally Good-aligned characters weren’t firmly in place.

The Underlying Madness of the Skinsaw Murders

There’s an interesting sidebar in the first printing of The Skinsaw Murders, where the writer, Richard Pett, talks about how the adventure was specifically broken into discrete parts to better be adapted to other purposes by the reader.  He had the idea that the plotline could be used as vignettes, if need be, plundered for other campaigns and adapted into unrelated adventures.  It’s an interesting idea, I’ll grant, but it lends itself to the weirdly choppy nature of the broader adventure.  The seven parts are separate enough that the thread that pulls them together seems inadequate for the job at points.

The first part of the module concerns itself with the recent murders at the local sawmill, a dire enough event that the sheriff deems it necessary to pull in the newly minted Heroes of Sandpoint for the task.

There’s an odd quote related to an older game that I find myself relating back to.  The gist was that they could box up all of the material for the game, but the true experience required that they include the game designer with every set, just to properly convey the spirit of the game.  I feel like that’s happening here.  In order to experience the game the way that it was originally presented, we’d need to have James Jacobs on demand.

So, remember back in the first module when there was the series of events leading up the larger plot?  The characters had distinguished themselves in battle against the goblins and saved the town from worse horrors, and in the logical aftermath, they’d had to deal with the basic cleanup of the adventure’s opening.  There was the fairly horrific bit with the ‘monster in the closet’ that turned out to be one of the surviving goblins, which was immediately followed with the wholly off-key seduction scene in the basement of the general store.  It’s sort of played for laughs, and it’s sort of used to accumulate Sin Points for the broader themes of the Adventure Path.

There’s also a fairly meaningless aside that’s included with it, talking about how this daughter of the shopkeeper is going after one of the player characters, but her older sister is the subject of gossip around town.  It mentions that the sister is involved with one of the men from the sawmill, and this is what the shopkeeper’s daughter uses as an excuse to secure the PC’s help, as her father is ‘distracted’ by these rumors.  When it turns into a scene from a Friday night sitcom, this detail is largely lost, as it was obviously just a ploy to get a character alone.

Except that it isn’t.  The opening of this module has the PC’s sent to the sawmill.  And one of the murder victims is none other than the older sister that was referenced earlier.

Like so many details of this module series, there are things that become obvious in retrospect and would have been played up more dramatically, had the GM only known that such seemingly unimportant details would later become relevant to the plot.  As a player, I only vaguely remembered the shopkeeper in general, as the scenario was just another in a series of weird background events that served as a buffer between more important happenings.  These modules push the idea of the familiar nature of the community, but most of this is built into backstory, rather than explored over the course of the adventures.  I can’t fault Paizo for this, given the limited amount of space that they have to work with, but it seriously underscores the need for GM advice to take on these aspects for their own games.  Had we spent more time in the town, outside of the requirements of the main plot events, there might have been a greater sense of the way everything fit together.

To delve into social theory and gratuitous German, Sandpoint is presented as a proper Gemeinschaft sort of social construct, where the strictures of the adventure reduce it to a Gesellschaft construct.  It’s expected to be the former, but it honestly plays like the latter.

In the same section where the players first hear of Katrine Vinder, the girl they must now investigate the murder of, they also make further acquaintance with a character by the name of Aldern Foxglove.  In the context of the module, Foxglove is saved from goblins by the characters when one kills his dog (the barking alerts the characters to what’s going on) and leaps to attack him.  When they save him, he gratefully thanks them, inviting all concerned out on a boar hunt later on.  He makes a point of buying each character a horse from the local stables as part of his repayment for his life, and in the midst of the various tangled plots, it’s sort of a nice respite from everything else.  Foxglove is becoming obsessed with one of the characters as the hunt goes on, but compared to the goblin atrocities that take place on either side of this encounter, this has the potential to come across as infatuation.

Hells, he could be standing under the characters’ windows with a retinue of bards (the local equivalent of Lloyd Dobler’s boombox), and it would seem harmless compared to a goblin eating your father’s face off.  Maybe that’s just me, though.  Who’s to say?

This is where a lot of the adventure’s internal logic falls apart, though.

All right, so bear with me for a moment.  When you first meet up with Foxglove, he’s being menaced by a single goblin commando (which equates to one level in Ranger, if you’re that interested) that’s riding the goblin version of a worg.  Another three goblins emerge from hiding to chop the dog into so much stew.  It notes in the text that Foxglove is cowering behind a rain barrel, even though he’s actually a leveled character.  Granted, it’s Aristocrat 4 and Rogue 3, but this is also part of the extended first encounter of the adventure, meaning that Foxglove is one of the highest level characters in the entire town.  The Sheriff himself is only a 4th level Fighter in comparison.  The PC’s are still solidly at 1st level, likely to stay there until they’ve finished dealing with Tsuto in the basement of the glassworks.

So already we’re dealing with a sort of weird situation.  This guy’s more than capable of trying to defend himself, given the odds.  He’d probably get wrecked in an extended fight, but there’s certainly no reason for him to be cowering and watching his hunting dog get killed.  (And yeah…  that was pretty much a cinematic death, rather than one that made a lot of sense.)  And in The Skinsaw Murders, the opening background section talks about how fearful and weak he is, being that he came to Sandpoint in the first place to avoid visiting his ancestral home.

As such, we’ve been reinforced with the idea that Foxglove is weak and sort of useless.  At the same time, the text is delving into how he’s got a mean streak, has already murdered his wife in a momentary fury and is ruled by the sins of Lust, Envy and Wrath.  Other than the notation about his growing obsession with one of the PC’s in Burnt Offerings, there’s nothing to build up just exactly what’s going on with this guy in the context of the first adventure.  He’s been sold as being sort of weird and worthless, but somehow, it’s supposed to make sense when he turns out to be one of the main villains of the entire module.