Sunday 5 July 2015

So I Ran Deep Carbon Observatory

... and my players want to go back?!

Usually I'd start this off with a few choice quotes from my players, but I got 7 sessions out of this with potentially more if they return.
Instead, here's a list of where characters and retainers died.
  • Davril Burtey of Thujin Vale, Level 1 Magic User. Saw two wizards dueling on a sunken bridge. Jumped into Wall of Fog, shanked one in the back but was thrown into the water where he was attacked by a giant 3-metre pike. Managed to put out its eye before being devoured. Rest of party booked it out of there when his familiar erupted into a smoke demon.
  • Wit "Simon" Tamdoun, Level 0 Lovable Urchin. Tied to a rope and sent diving down into the river to inspect a suspected golden boat. Accidentally used as bait for a giant 3-metre pike with one eye which dragged the skiff into greater danger.
  • Dwain William Arthus Remus Froide (aka D.W.A.R.F), Level 2 Dwarf. Lowered on a vast chain into the infinite blackness beneath the earth. Attacked and eaten by a giant bat creature after an hour of descent. He never saw the bottom.
  • Labradoodle, Labrador 1/Poodle 1. Thrown at living tapestry woven from silk and bones because dogs eat bones. Dog's bones added to tapestry in short order.
  • Titus DeCosta, Level 2 Cleric. Crassly asked a bunch of skinny chemical ladies where the nearest treasure was. They snarkily replied that he could find it by jumping off the nearby ledge into infinite blackness. To my incredulous amusement, he believed them.
  • Jack "Danger" Wilbur, Level 1 Fighter. Fought chemical women to avenge Titus' death. He fought well despite being occasionally charmed, but was slain when their burning chlorine fingers turned his heart to glass.
  • Fungonius, Level 5 Cleric. Asked toxic beings from the elemental plane of poison to coat his blade in a poison so virulent that it can kill anything is touches. Accidentally released said toxic beings and exploded in a cloud of poison so virulent it can kill everything it touches. They were very embarrassed by this and shouted their apologies to the rest of the rapidly fleeing party.

So what's the deal?

You probably already know the content because if you read my blog you likely move in the same RPG niche-in-a-niche as me and so own it. 
If you don't, please read a review from one of those scrubs who reviews something without running it first. Ha ha.
But really, do. I don't want to retread old ground and other people review things way better.
Oh shit some people did run it before reviewing it.

So after that you will know that it is four main areas, the flooded town of Carrowmore, the more widely flooded area before the Dam, the no longer flooded area behind the dam, and the eponymous dungeon at the end.

It is basically a humanitarian disaster zone filled with wacko giant animals and crazy people. Everything will kill you so stay in the goddamn boat.

This is my favourite monster text in the world.

The Writing and Art.

You've got to talk about the writing if Patrick is writing something.
And the art if Scrap is drawing something.

These are both things you must get to appreciate them.
I would show my players a picture of a giant killer platypus or a newt man and they would say "it looks like a child's drawing" or something to which I wanted to say "Do you not SEE the FURIOUS ENERGY in these penstrokes!? Do you not FEEL the lines STRUGGLING TO ESCAPE THE PAGE?!?" but obviously this is an in-crowd thing.
Patrick's writing is often difficult to parse in the heat of play, to the point where I would often miss something or fill in a gap only to find myself having to paper over contradictions later. Luckily I had read the thing a bunch of times but you still miss stuff.
But it is really nice to read and jams PSYCHIC ENERGY into your head. Reading through the book the first time there is no overview or explanation of events so your first reading is the same experience that your players get when they're playing through the thing.
If I wasn't into his writing already I'd probably find it irritatingly difficult to parse.
I think that's an in-crowd thing too.

I like it and you likely like it and if you don't like it you are not part of the social clique and thus likely too ill-bred to take part in a discussion of Stuart's work. Harrumph.

Anyway, you've definitely got to give it a good read before you run it for real. It's dense and hard to parse but there isn't ever a wasted word. Everything is beautiful desolation and sadness.

Back to the art, it's scribbly and Scrappy. I like this because I appreciate stuff where it's close enough and you have to fill in the blanks with your brain.
Somehow wooden jenga blocks create a more realistic dungeon environment than the most badass modular terrain. Same thing with these things. The golem looks like a scribbly motherfucker but he's big and blocky and imposing and that's enough.
It's the same amount of detail as the players need in their heads, basically. I'm a fan.

The only thing is THE MAPS. Other people have said the maps but THE MAPS.
It's actually all fine and usable. No scale, but I didn't actually notice that myself! My Drowned Lands were big enough to get from Carrowmore to the Dam in half a day or so by boat. Especially boat pulled by horse until horse is eaten.
BUT THEN. The Observatory dungeon itself. Room sizes don't line up being the main thing, there are descriptions that imply a much bigger room than shown. I kind of messed up the first room due to accidental map problems, and made the mistake of demarcating the room then looking at its contents.
I stuck with the side view rather than go the top-down route
For a game with a fair amount of gameplay based around depth, we haven't really cracked the 3D space problem yet. That's not Scrap's fault though.

See? Perfectly workable!

Things that make this thing special

So the main thing with this module is how fucking awful it is to get to the actual dungeon.
This is so abnormal as to be almost unique. At least as far as I know.
Most times there's an outside-dungeon area detailed it's a hex map around the dungeon with a few landmarks and factions based on the dungeon's factions and the occasional joke encounter.
Here the players were like "Dungeon full of ancient treasures? Let's go!" and found themselves slogging through the worst place in the world. Every time someone suggested turning back others said "we haven't even reached the dungeon yet!".

Deep Carbon Observatory is typified by its complete lack of shit-giving. The dungeon is completely unrelated to all the stuff happening in the valley. The creatures in the overworld are completely unrelated to the dungeon. This isn't "goblins are attacking the village please clear the goblin dungeon", it's "the dam broke and now everything is horrible and you are part of the problem".
To get to the dungeon you've got to slog your way through a mile of grim yet impersonal horror. Everything is starving or will starve. The people, the animals, even the immortal golem guardians of the dam. Things are terrible but they don't care whether you think they're terrible or not. They just Are, and here's you trying to make a quick buck off the situation maybe while also hopefully not spending any time rolling up a new character.
This fits my M.O. perfectly, by the way.

Another thing that doesn't give a shit about you is the giant. When you get to the actual dungeon this fucking giant follows you around squeezing through passages and being a scary fucker.
My giant pretended to be a freaky frieze that moved about when the players were in another room, until someone got close to inspect him and he tried to scoop them up and gobble them.
My players rolled impeccably with this guy, but damn were they scared.
My favourite tactic was to have the giant form a tube with his hand atop a ladder hole. When someone climbed up the ladder I'd say something like "The rung holes stop, and now there's a lumpy rippled stone tube going up to the top. There's sort of three regular striations you could climb quite easily though so it's no big deal" and IT WAS THE GIANT'S HAND THEY WERE CLIMBING INTO.
This worked twice (two separate sessions) but the players rolled annoyingly well and the giant killed nobody.
They killed him with one of their hyper-poisonous crossbow bolts "blessed" by the Poison Dimension's Tox-Men in exchange for their freedom. Now there is no giant but there are three naive and curious beings formed of the platonic ideal of poison down there. They promised to give the players a head start of one year before they emerge to explore the world which is like the 15th player-created apocalypse scenario in my campaign.

Just look at this fucker.

Another fairly special thing is the Crows who are a rival adventuring party.
My players sped through the area so fast that they only saw fleeting glimpses of the Crows in the distance, it was when they emerged from the dungeon that they encountered them properly.
I played them as real dicks, Hooloch stood out in the open atop the wall where nobody at the bottom could hit him and chatted obnoxiously to gain information.
This was my downfall since someone critted him with a crossbow bolt made out of super-poison. My bad. At least Ghar Zaghouan got someone with the eye-bolt that allows him to see out of their eye.
If my players had been slower I would have started smacking them with the Crows but there was no need.

There's also a sequence of events at the end which tells you what will happen in the ensuing weeks, months and years if the players don't stop it.
It's basically Raggi-level your-world-is-fucked events, but at least it's over a few years so your players can totally try to stop it.
This is all good, adventure-generating stuff.

A final thought - everything is very scientificy.
The dungeon is not properly magic, it is mainly deep and warped fantastical science. You've got core samples of strata showing a geological layer of compressed vampires and women wearing robes of chlorine. If you kill said women an Elemental of "high atomic weight" pursues you.
And in terminology terms, from the Profundal Zone to Insolation, I needed to whip out Wikipedia a few times just to look things up.
Nobody glimpsed the weird stuff through the telescope (yet?) but I think the Underdark here could be typified as deeply fucked.
Actually Deeply Fucked would be a fantastic name for an Underdark/Deep Sea module.

I had the giant's face look like this.

Stop rambling! Was it fun in play?

Yea it was great fun.

The opening choose-the-least-worst-option thing worked incredibly well. Everything the players did was balanced out by at least one horrible thing happening that they couldn't stop.

The drowned lands were good because everything in the water would eat them and was probably giant. There was no potential recourse to stabbing things.
I love the witch. The witch is amazing. I had the children all yell out "Nooooo!" and things like it's a kid's show, all the while their parents patted them on the heads and said "quiet dear" and tried to bargain for food and passage back to town for their children.
All the while the witch slid under the water, making ripples in the black corn.
The players spent a good while thinking of how to kill the witch and eventually just said "fuck that, I'm not messing with this chick" and rowed away.
On their way back they discovered half the children and parents on the roofs had blank, dead eyes and stared silently at them as the party drifted back in. They gave their spare skiff to the non-creepy parents and kids, spent another good while thinking of how to kill the witch, then said "fuck that, we're still not messing with this chick" and rowed away.
If (when) this comes back to bite them, at least they'll have some foreknowledge.

They baited the golems around the place for a while but didn't want to attack, so they climbed the dam and got in that way. Pursuing golems were forestalled by skillful use of oil and some lucky rolls.
That means they never entered the dam itself.

The profundal zone behind the dam was quieter. After the constant we're-gonna-die of the drowned lands, it was almost relaxing.
They ended up not helping the People of the Reeds vs the Kapeks. I had the Reed People with shitty weapons, sort of long umbrellas made of reeds that they'd ordinarily use to just push the Kapeks off their floating reed houses.
The Kapeks themselves had no weapons, just gummy bites and tiny claws.
The players watched from their camp in a sun-scoop as the two ancient peoples slowly fought to the death like tired octogenarians.

Later they emerged from the dungeon to find the Kapeks had won and the surviving Reed People had been driven back to their ancient chieftains. I had the chieftains be bumbling and confused and amazed by modern technology and apparently unable to understand that the village was threatened. The Reed People said they had lost their souls.
The players tricked the Reed People into thinking that the Halfling had given a chieftain's soul back by mind-controlling him into marching across the river and assaulting the reed village.
"Finally, we did something to help people!" said one player.

The Dungeon itself is awesome. I've already talked about the giant, but there is a dense profusion of cool stuff here.
It is like a funhouse dungeon that ties together. Everything is wacky but related to the fallen underdark empire theme.
There are no truly empty rooms and each place speaks of what this facility might have once been.
They'd barely explored the smaller stalactite before getting out of there alive, but they completely understood that this is all weird shit from deeper underground that they could barely comprehend.
It helps that the minor treasure they took (silk bales, diamond hearts of salt dryads, bags of heatproof ceramic, a mining machine that runs on blood) was worth more than any treasure hoard yet seen.

Being chased by the giant was a lot of fun (for me) and basically God That Crawls 2.0 for them. Luckily the group composition has changed significantly since I ran God That Crawls last year so it was a new experience. The giant was shutting them off from a known exit, rather than chasing them as they tried to find an exit, so I think this is the superior being-chased-by-an-amorphous-horror experience. Plus a man shaped thing that wants to eat you is for more horrific than an amorphous goop that wants to eat you.
I enjoyed the Salt Dryads a whole lot. I figured that they'd act nicer towards people with higher charisma, but apparently everyone's an uncultured oaf in the party at the moment. Persuading a character to jump to his death was possibly one of my finest moments, the fact that a terrible elemental will now be hunting them down for the hearts (which they've already sold) is even better.

The Tox-Men in their sealed glass container were fun. I had a pressure-sealed hatch in the floor that allowed them to exchange stuff with the players, and they totally wanted to explore the world and begged the players to let them out. Any object they touch turns completely to poison, so a player exchanged 20 hypertoxified crossbow bolts for a promise that he'll open their escape hatch as long as they give the party a head start to get out.
"A year? How about a year?" they said, and the players were all "oh awesome we were going to say an hour but that's much better." 
If you touch a crossbow bolt directly you have to Save or Die. Anyone pierced by a bolt explodes into a cloud of noxious green gas, no save.
Another player tried to exploit them by making them turn his sword into super-poison, but they thought he was letting them out and got exploded into poison himself. C'est la mort.
Can you tell I enjoy dangerous monsters that talk?

Final Scores:
7+ sessions of play
Average of 0.7 PC deaths/session.
2-3 apocalyptic scenarios inbound.

It is good and you should run it.


  1. Loved every word of this -sincere thanks for posting it!

  2. this is funny and useful and i like it.

  3. Seriously considering running this in a Traveller campaign.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I was reading this again just now and was cackling.

  6. that bit where the player was climbing into a giants hand is such an amazing moment

    1. Yea! I loved that. The look on their face was the beeeest, especially when it happened to somebody else a session or two later.

      You might be pleased to know that it's almost been a whole in-game year since DCO, and it's still having ripple effects.
      The remaining Crows are still showing up occasionally to dick with the party, in between Zolushika's brotherless climb through the ranks of the local government. The Carrowmore mercenaries are showing up and being ruthless killers, and soon the Tox-Men will leave the dungeon and start being the opposite of eco-tourists.

      Life is good.

    2. I got the pdf a couple days ago and was totally excited to run DCO. This blog post has elevated my thrill and anticipation. Also, I am stealing that wonderful idea of the giant's hands and the ladder.

      Btw, how did they get past the giant if he was blocking the exit? I can't imagine they killed him!

    3. They did actually! The Tox-Men turned some crossbow bolts into ultimate poison, then they shot him in the foot as he was crawling away and he exploded into poison.

      I was impressed!

  7. Had a session of DCO today and these poor fools are just sat at the bottom of the dam, depressed, unable to commit to any action. They're scared of trying anything. THis module has brought out the most pathetic aspects of my group. What fools! What FOOLS!

    Whenever you see this, answer me this question: how high did you make the dam? I went for just under 600 ft. I'm so fucking pissed off with them right now...

    1. I can't remember actually! Probably similar?