Deep Carbon Observatory

dco
by Patrick Stuart
False Machine Publishing
Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Mid-level

The adventure takes players from a town devastated by an unexpected flood, through a drowned land where nature is turned upside down and desperate families cling to the roofs of their ruined homes, hiding from the monstrous products of a disordered world, through the strange tomb of an ancient race, to a profundal zone, hidden for millennia and now exposed, and finally to the Observatory itself, an eerie abandoned treasure palace, where they will encounter a pale and unexpected terror which will seek to claim their lives.

It’s been a year, time for a signal boost. Go buy this. What.The.Fuck did I just read! Go Buy this. You see, this is what commitment to a vision results in. Go buy this. Shit, now I have to think about how to revise my reviewing model to account for the disruption of my core ideas. Go Buy this. You are a fool if you are at all interested in any version of D&D, Pathfinder, etc and do not own this. You could probably fit it into Conspiracy X, CoC, or any of a dozen other genres as well. You bought it, right? No. I’ll wait. Go buy it. Some people deserve to make a good living from their work. Stewart is one of those. He marries creativity with purpose to a degree that makes it seem platonic.

The adventure has a couple of overland journeys, a couple of complexes/dungeons, and a nice hook/Transition To The Mythic World section. It’s light on mechanics and packed full of imagery, ideas, and gameable content. It channels the vibe that Raggi’s Lamentations adventures try to reach. There’s this sadness and … inevitability present in the adventure that just kind of grows and grows. There’s a river journey, so comparisons to Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now are inevitable. There’s this same sort of Passing By Weird Shit Should We Stop thing going on, combined with a melancholy.

The adventure abruptly starts. Just a few sentences and no real background. Everything you learn about what’s going on is revealed through the use of the encounters. This works SO well. A picture is slowly built up in your head of what’s going on and how it fits together. But the picture is incomplete. Blackness hangs around the edges. This emptiness demands to be filled and your brain works feverishly to fill in the gaps. By the designer providing less information, and working it in, you get a better picture in your mind of what’s going on. There are limits to this, of course. It works well for background and history and not so much in other areas. But it’s used here for great effect. The adventure alludes to things. It implies. It leaves gaps present that you subconsciously fill in yourself. I don’t want to imply in ANY way that the adventure is incomplete. It’s not. The information missing/alluded/implied is not critical information in any way. It’s the fluff that builds a world.

This adventure does what SlaughterGrid did so well: provide evocative encounters. There’s thing DM’s do when creating an adventure that involves minimal keying. Just jotting down a dozen or so separate lines on a paper. “Room 4. Dry well. 4 Ghouls” The home DM can do this. They created the adventure. That text prompts their minds to remember what “Dry well. 4 Ghouls.” means. It’s a shorthand reference to something deeper and more complex in the DM’s head. This minimal keying is terrible in published adventures. The people reading it have no idea what what “Dry Well. 4 Ghouls” meant to the designer. Many designers write up boring descriptions, or resort to a lot of text to try and describe the vision. What’s really needed though is a short burst of flavor. What’s the key to this encounter? By just providing that much, and doing in an evocative way, the DM’s head can, once again, fill in the rest. That’s what this adventure does, over and over again.

“A petty cleric, clutching a log, shouts “All is Lost!” Seltor Tem is the only survivor of his village. He has a key to his church. He will drown soon.

Perfect. P.E.R.F.E.C.T. This is exactly the sort of thing D&D encounters need more of. It’s memorable. It’s tersely described. It’s full of potential energy. As soon as you read this your brain starts to fill in the picture and the gaps. Stewart does this over and over again in this adventure. It’s wonderful and a joy to encounter. This is exactly the sort of descriptions that I’m looking for to riff off of.

I could gush, over and over again, about many aspects of the adventure. The beginning section has some hooks. I guess they are hooks. There is/was this mem in the OSR about the Mythic Underworld. The players needed to cross over some threshold during their journey to the adventure proper. They needed to understand that Things Are Different Now when they entered the dungeon. I think that’s what’s going on in the entire “hook” section of the adventure. You learn you’re not in Kansas anymore. Things are put in motion. Events happen that have repercussions elsewhere in the adventure. There’s a simple time and event mechanism going on that sets the mood and provides that crossing over. From there it’s up the river to find Kurtz, with ever more weird things being encountered. It’s Wonderful how it builds.

I wish I had the words to relate how good the encounters are. As you journey further into the adventure things get more and removed from the traditional Tolkein tropes. It takes the bizarre that was only hinted at, in things like Vault of Drow, and provides full glimpses in to it. Nowhere have the drow seemed more Drow-like than in this adventure. Magic and mundane items are unique and wonderful.

After gushing for two pages I’ll also feel compelled to hand out some lumps. Most importantly: the maps. Most of them are generally ok. I might recommend making the numbers a little clearer on them, by typing them or something. I promise it won’t impact the aesthetics much and the old bifocal crowd (like me) will appreciate it. The map has to be functional. It MUST be. You can also communicate with it creatively but it must fulfill the core purpose. The DCO map, proper, fails most at this. The upper left, the entire right, the upper middle section … Stewart or Scrap need to redraw that fucking thing and publish it. I would also mention two improvements with the NPC group. It’s quite nice they were included. Just a TAD more motivation might have been nice, but I can deal with that. What they really need is a 1-page summary. 1 page with the stats and a brief personality reminder for each. Everyone who runs this is going to have to create that in order to use it. You should have provided it. The full descriptions are good and should remain, the reference sheet is just a prompter to remember the bits burned in to your brain.

GREAT adventure. More than enough content, and the content is VERY easy to build off of.

You bought it, right?

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20 Responses to Deep Carbon Observatory

  1. badmike3 says:

    It would make a great one shot or con game, or a good CoC game. Most of the LotFP stuff would make great convention one shots, for that matter.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You’ve misspelled Patrick Stuart’s last name in your review. REPENT, Mr. Pole.

  3. It’s true, you have misspelt my name. It’s ‘Stuart’. Welcome to a very large club.

  4. Tazimack the Red says:

    Bryce has been mispelling everything since 2011. That’s why we love him.

  5. jeff says:

    Last night I almost picked this up on lulu with my other items using my 30% off, but was unsure. Your review was a day late.

  6. Sandra says:

    I’ve had use for some of the ideas in this (bought it when it came out) but I want to hear for people who have actually run it. It seems very difficult to run well — the timeline is one thing that’s weird. The cannibal table another; the various cannibals don’t look that different.

  7. Ishmayl says:

    I purchased this based on your review. I’ve read straight through it four times now, like a favorite novel. I currently only have the pdf, but am desperately awaiting the B&W physical copy I ordered alongside the digital. I just can’t stop reading it. It’s like traditional fantasy D&D meets Lovecraft meets Lewis and Clark meets the most epicly-worded-yet-simply-spun beautiful prose I’ve ever read in my life.

  8. lord of wolf -rayet star says:

    i liked it and it is probably one of my favorite recent buys but i think that crows are overdone. more bloody and rare would be better for me.

  9. Sandra says:

    Also… you say it’s “tersely described” when it comes to Seltor Tem’s entry. But it’s described in more detail a couple of pages further ahead. The vital information is so scattered. And the key is also important in another of the encounters.

    • Sandra says:

      I made an index card for every entry (with pointers to which other cards that follow, to replace the arrows isomorphically), and the back of the cards have the full entry and the front have the terse entry.

      • Sandra says:

        And now nine months later I’m finally running it myself. I hid Carrowmore at Tser Falls on the Barovia map in Curse of Strahd and after a dozen sessions in CoS (we’re absolutely loving CoS in practice after all my skepticism toward it), we went through the encounters in Carrowmore and they started the trek upriver. (They just, and this isn’t spoilery, but they just got the skiff out of the trees.)

        The index card method worked great, I was very glad I did it! My print outs were messed up so they were cut partially off and even with that, it worked.

        For example, I had a card labeled 8 -> 10, 11, 12. If the players chose to interact with that card, the cards they previously had a chance to interact with, the bad thing happens, and instead they can deal with 8 in peace and then they get cards 10, 11 and 12. They chose card 12, after that, they could choose between cards 14 and 15, they chose 15 but could interact with the character in 14 a little bit but too late to save the scrolls etc.

        On the front page of the cards I had pasted in the terse description, on the back side of the cards I had the full text from their entry in the books.

        I’m glad I made the cards. Bryce, there *are* some very terse entries in this book but the example with Seltor Tem (Selminimum Tem?) isn’t a great example since it continues on p3.

        So, the Carrowmore encounters worked OK, they thought it was a little harsh that they could only pick one but they were “OK, fine”, and a bigger problem was that it was not clear that some led to some others. (And I didn’t realize until after five encounters or so that this was the case). They went 1[then glancing at 2 & 3 realizing they were too late, grumbling about that]->4->8 [really grumbling that they couldn’t then also do something about 7]->12 [and checking out the consequences of 10, that some grave robber ran away]->15 [and talking for a while to 14 but not being able to recover the scrolls] and then flailing at both 17 and 18 until abandoning both. From their point of view, they had a choice of 1/2/3, 4/5, 7/8, 10/11/12, 14/15, 17/18. But they *never knew that their choices led to some and led away from others* not that that would’ve really given them more agency since, well, the middle column down the page you always have to see anyway, and the encounter’s aren’t really directly (short term) related although some are related.

        So from their point of view, they got 14 encounters thrown at them and they had a chance to choose five (or six, counting the last one that they gave up on) of them.
        I think it worked ok but not great.

        What I did was that I let the encounters breathe (after all, they gave up one or two others to chose it), RP it out, letting them influence that encounter, save those people, do something (they offered to bury the wife for example, and that’s why they’re going upriver.)

        Then they went away from Carrowmore and came back the next day and started the river trek.

        Now, this one I did /not/ know how to run well.
        Remember, Carrowmore had already come across as a stream of forced encounters (since they couldn’t see the arrows).
        Now we’re doing a river trek — it looks like my darling adventure structure, a map with cool encounters to find and explore — but it’s in practice linear. So a flood of encounters followed by another flood of encounters. (I mean, I ran it like any other map. But that’s what happened.

        The Crows were my biggest takeaway from the module the first time I read it but here I really had a hard time finding space for them and for the random encounters.

        I didn’t know when to roll for random encounters (in surrounding region I’ve placed it in it’s every 30 minutes (every sixth hex, the hexes are a quarter mile).
        I treated it as a dungeon sort of and rolled every 10 minutes of idling and no rolls while traveling, instead I’ve placed the landmarks very close to each other.

        The, hmm, let’s say “sealer” encounter and let’s say the “fools” (I *am* trying to not spoil, hence code names) were both interesting. (I messed up with the building in 3 and forgot that it was locked.) The encounters in number 4, the party decided to kill and that was pretty tedious for us.

        Encounter 5 was another tedious fight for us and then there was yet another fight after that, an interesting one for us but just a fight none the less.

        And that’s where we wrapped for the day, after encounter 6. on the river.

        I’m kicking myself for going away from our sprawling (but small and overwritten) Barovian sandbox into this flood of encounter after encounter in a single lines. There are choices to be made in the encounters, yes (though not really, in these fighty ones — the party is level 8 and is traveling with a big entourage of zombies and skeletons — that’s why they went to Carrowmore, they had heard rumors of ZVDL). The players are like “OK, let’s see where this goes… there’s a dungeon upriver, right? Maybe that’s better.” I was not as into it as I am when they’re in the castle, the village, or in the wilderness. The roads of Barovia, then the encounter’s they’re getting, that’s from tables. The river? Most of the encounters they’re getting are from the list of sites upriver.

        It’s coming across as very linear. I get my kicks at seeing what the players choose, how they interact with various gadgets or directions or NPCs.

        And their interaction with the first river encounter (“sealer”), that was very interesting (esp since they *do* have undead and immediately gave one of their skeletons the _____ and the given consequence ensued, very interesting).
        But they’re not being given visible choices between encounters or choices within the encounters *that they can see*. From their POV, they’re only doing the obvious thing (and their obvious thing aren’t always my obvious thing, but…) and then they are presented with new encounters that they don’t really see the connection between the previous encounter and the next encounter.

        And the river trek is playing out, from their POV, a lot like Carrowmore.

        • Sandra says:

          (I don’t want to make a thousand posts here but I just want to make things right.)
          I just talked to one of the players, he thought Carrowmore worked very effectively but he’s hating the river trek so far. But we’re only six encounters in on that.
          He is a difficult guy to read, he always is very engaged in the game and then later I ask him and I’m always surprised at what he likes and dislikes.
          He asked me to use the Carrowmore system for similar things in the future and I said I was thinking of mashing it up with the army battle system in A Red & Pleasant Land to get some feeling of front line calamity.

          • Thank you, Sandra. Yours is the sort of review for a game I appreciate. Too often I read reviews about fluff and crunch but hardly ever do I read about how it actually plays out. Seriously, most reviews are like book reviews rather than game reviews, and game reviews will tackle the complexity of running the game and offer illustrations how the GM can modify the system – like your cue card example. So I am sending you some love and hope to read more of you around the hobby. Thanks again.

  10. aspekt says:

    The descriptions here remind me of the best piece of advice for writing I’ve ever had: read Hemingway first; seriously, when you’ve got the draft done and you are ready to finalize, pick up The Sun Also Rises, and then read it.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I will post on a play by play running through this with my group…it played out very differently from Sandras above. A big part might be how you fill out the space between that is not described…

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