Review – Deep Carbon Observatory, by Patrick Stuart

I am a little late to the party on this one. I purchased this module based on Bryce Lynch’s review. I’ve read straight through it multiple times now, like a favorite novel. I ordered the physical copy as well as the digital – while awaiting the physical copy, I read the pdf on my phone, on my kindle, on my Nexus, and on my laptop. Then when the book arrived, I took it on vacation and read it multiple times. 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.

This module was written by one Patrick Stuart, an RPG blogger who is part of the OSR movement, and also has some fascinating analysis and breakdowns of Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur.” Stuart has a way with words that I find captivating, engrossing, possibly even spellbinding. Seriously, when I said before that I can’t stop reading the book, I meant that.

Just as important to Stuart’s writing, is the art. Scrap Princess is an artist like no other, whose chicken-scratching-angry-minimalistic style is the perfect fit for the book.

So first things first, this adventure is HUGE. I don’t mean long, and I don’t mean it’s a megadungeon (though it is a very big dungeon) – I mean that the adventure states and implies an entire world, even universe, to set your setting in. This is not so much necessarily an adventure, as it is a campaign starter. It is a way to set the mood and tone of everything that will come. There is so much insinuated backstory in the People of the Reeds and their dead kings. There is an entire ecology never before explored, that of the newly-drowned-and-recently-drained lands, filled with cuttlefish, eels, giant crabs, and their predators and prey. There is a history and story of the underworld unlike anything I’ve ever read.

And then even when you’re done with just the material, just the text of the adventure, Stuart supplies a timeline that hints at a future, both dark and magnificent, and filled with adventure possibilities. This basic timeline that ends the book (in a chapter titled, “In Case of Speak With Dead,” which by itself has so many hints and suggestions as to the mood and timbre of the adventure – Stuart is saying, “We’re not supplying the PCs with ANYTHING, but if they’re smart enough to try to talk to the dead drow on the pedestal, they may learn something useful.”) provides immediate followup story ideas, as well as a drawn-out diagram of Things To Come. And these things will happen if the PCs don’t follow up on them, or if someone doesn’t rise to stop them. Or maybe they’ll happen anyway. Either way, there’s a lot to do after this adventure.

The story does not present itself in the traditional way of adventures. Most adventures have PCs going from point A to point B, rounding up clues, and those clues will lead them to point C, and so on and so forth. In most published adventures, the stories are second to the action, and usually wouldn’t even exist without combat in between the scenes. NPCs exist for the purpose of aiding the PCs, and story elements are introduced just to move the PCs along. This is not the way of Deep Carbon Observatory.

Instead, we (the players AND the GM) are fed the story one little piece at a time. All we (the players AND the GM) know at the start is that there is smoke to the north, and the town of Carrowmere has been recently and drastically flooded. How did it happen? Who or what is responsible? And what does it mean? These things we slowly piece together over the 90-ish pages of the adventure, and even in the end, a lot is left to the imagination.

The way that NPCs are presented in the beginning is more like a dozen little scenelets, than just a list of people to interact with. They are set up is in horizontal rows, each row with three scenes, which then lead to new scenes. Stuart recommends giving each row only d4 minutes before moving one. This means The PCs cannot save or even talk to everyone. The world keeps moving. Each scene happens whether or not the PCs interact with it, and most of what’s happening is dark, sad, and leaves little hope for the people of Carrowmere. For example, this is one of the first opportunities PCs have to interact with the people of Carrowmere:

A petty cleric clutching a floating log shouts ‘all is lost’. Selminimum Tem is the only survivor of his village. He has the key to the church. He will drown soon.

This says all the PCs need to know on whether or not they will act on the scene. Maybe they don’t care about one drowning man (especially when there are multiple drowning children nearby?), or maybe they just cannot get to him in time. Either way, he will drown soon. Beautiful.

This brings me to my favorite part of the entire adventure, which I briefly mentioned in my introduction – the prose. Stuart’s writing is lovely. It is filled with a dark, morbid simplicity, with little embellishment. Not that he needs it. His descriptions say not only everything that needs to be said about a scene, without cluttering the book with superfluous text, but also approach a sort of literary beauty in their directness. Take this, from a possible encounter about halfway through the adventure:

The Roc Bridge The Roc’s bowed wings make a beautiful but alien bridge across the churning water. The body of the bird twitches slightly, devoured by whatever lies beneath. Looking down, you see leeches, sized like men, feeding on the bird. Not yet fully dead its head lolls half sunken and gasps. The ‘bridge’ will be consumed in d4 hours. It may be possible to save the Roc. It will not be grateful if you do.

“It will not be grateful if you do.” Will the bird attack, in death-approaching delirium? Will it scream in pain, cursing the PCs for “helping” it? Will it die in agonized silence, its large eyes fading, yet staring balefully at its would-be saviors? We don’t know. It’s an option the PCs have, they can attempt to save, or they can simply use the roc as a bridge, quickly thereafter forgetting about the life of a creature they used as nothing but utility.

In fact, the entire adventure has that same mournful quality to it, which is fitting both due to the disaster that has recently rocked the region, as well as Stuart’s typical writing style.

The module is great. I have only one real criticism, and I’m not bringing anything new to the table here, but the maps leave a lot to be desired. The final dungeon has a relatively complicated layout, and while stylistically, the drawing of the observatory is a perfect fit, practically, it makes it very hard to tell where to go and what leads where. The same can be said for the region maps as well. The two outdoor maps work well enough (though a slight bit more detail would be nice), but the map of the dam is pretty hard to follow, and some of the descriptions in the text don’t quite seem to match up.

Either way, this is a module everyone should at least read, and many people should play. It is well worth your time to do both. And in doing so, you’ll contribute back to the community and people like Patrick and Scrap to continue doing what not only they love, but what the RPG community needs.

Purchase it here