[REVIEW] Deep Carbon Observatory (2015)
by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess
|Deep, dark, carboniferous|
Deep Carbon Observatory describes a journey through a land flooded and devastated by a natural and magical catastrophe, progressing from the human fallout in a coastal town and the surrounding countryside to the catastrophe site, then even stranger landscapes leading to a very old, very alien place revealed by the receding waters of a massive, ancient reservoir built by an extinct civilisation. Half Lovecraft, half Nausicaa and half Apocalypse Now, it delves into the heart of darkness, first within humans, then within increasingly more inhuman realms.
The module is a guaranteed campaign changer. The themes and revelations – which are very Lovecraftian without actually reusing Lovecraft’s stories or the Mythos – would upend any mediaeval fantasy campaign world, and aside from having severe consequences even beyond the cataclysmic destruction of the adventure area, put everything known about the setting in a new perspective. Suddenly, everything is different, and a lot of things you thought significant or personally important has been revealed to matter very little. Like Death Frost Doom, Deep Carbon Observatory would end as many campaigns as it would launch. Is this a bug or a feature? You will have to decide, and you’d better do it in advance. But if you go in, it will be memorable, although not necessarily in a way you’ll like.
Let’s make this abundantly clear: it is misery tourism pure and simple. Everything and everyone in the module is dead, dying, or at the very least going through a seriously bad phase. There is nothing the characters or the players can do to undo the catastrophe, very little to make the local situation measurably better, and absolutely categorically firmly nothing to alter whatever they discover about their world at the eponymous Observatory. Everything is relentlessly negative and depressive, sometimes to the extent it feels petty on the “unbelievably ancient man kept hideously alive by a dark device” level (or my personal favourite, “3d6 women lounge here, made of spikes”, which, to its credit, made me laugh). Sometimes it is funny in a wry way (“A Biopsy of the Tarresque [sic] – It didn’t go well”), but more often than not, it is just negative negative.
I don’t want to dwell too long on the ethics of fictional worlds, but there is something about this which bothers me on a personal level. It bothered me in the otherwise excellent Carcosa, and it bothers me in the premise and details of this module too. So many evils are visited on the hapless residents of this little corner of this fantasy world I don’t even know about that it somehow feels unjust. Of course, the existence of evil is the wellspring of adventure, but can you really make a difference at all? And are you in the wrong for exploiting their suffering for vicarious entertainment? Running the adventure, the players (and their characters) are faced with choices which test their morality to the limits. They can’t save and help everyone, and their actions are liable to result in even more evil than they started with – with inaction perhaps even worse. They will dirty their hands whether they become involved with the area’s kill-or-be-killed struggles, or leave it to burn and focus on their personal interests. Some will find that interesting. I’d probably just throw up my hands and find a good, stiff drink. This is personal, unenforced opinion: I don’t really want to play or run this adventure, but you might.
(found on the Ten Foot Polemic blog)
Then again, this is also an imaginative, fantastic adventure, one of the best about going into a strange and forbidding place full of things which will eat your face. You get to feel properly out of your depth, and that’s a rare feeling in RPGs (again, Carcosa did it, although in a completely different way). It is a proper, epic journey “up the river” (you could also say up shit creek), encountering weirder and weirder things as you progress. From disaster-struck human lands, you venture into a forbidden place governed by the dead, insects and fish, the fungal and the mineral realm, and things beyond the ken of humanity. Things get less and less recognisable, and by the time you are at your destination, it is like that expedition into the heart of R’lyeh, with Great Cthulhu looming somewhere around the edges. There are odd technology-as-magic things to encounter; grandiose remains of destroyed or extinct cultures; and an underground storehouse of strange wonders that drives home how utterly alien this past is, and how little they had scratched the world’s surface. It is Lovecraft’s cosmic imagination without the overused and increasingly tiresome Cthulhu chic polluting the Internet, and that is a welcome sight.
This imagination is also in evidence in the individual pieces that make up the module. There is probably not one encounter, NPC or item that doesn’t have a twist of some kind. It is all new – some sort of D&D in new clothes, or perhaps D&D visited by Geoffrey McKinney’s vision of Gamma World (see the post at Sep 22, 2006 5:50 pm or this one on human insignificance). They are little vignettes, but they fit together into a coherent whole. There is an evident interest in geology and natural sciences; a rarity in adventure design, which is used to develop rather imaginative encounters. If you like geology and think that book on minerals would make for a good Monster Manual, this is your module. I loved the geo-samples room, which is ridiculous, bizarre, and hilariously funny.
Deep Carbon Observatory is also fairly interactive (with slight problems): you can experiment with things, learn a little bit about them, and taken together, they work well as an adventure (which not all visionary products do). Although the nature of the upriver journey makes the affair mostly linear, there are enough decision points and dynamic elements (like a rival band of adventurers/assassins, and a “what happens if the PCs do nothing” section) to allow for variation and player engagement (although the decisions don’t truly make much of a difference in the long term). And of course, the Observatory is a very interesting dungeon on its own, presented from a cross-section cutout perspective, and describing 44 rooms filled with wondrous, sometimes incredibly dangerous junk (it is the rare example of the cabinet contents dungeon which actually works). Together with the 40 overland encounter areas, you have a lot of things to play with.
The text is mostly very well written. It never over-elaborates on superfluous details, and often manages to capture the gist of things with excellently chosen phrases. A formerly flooded valley, now revealed by the breakage of a monumental dam, has a floor like “one blue-grey bacterial mat”, or “rough-textured semi-flesh”. The spike women, actually a group of salt dryads have “hearts of black diamond”, “set within the chest like jewels”. The module crams a generous amount of material into a 86-page digest-sized booklet, sometimes communicating its ideas through terse descriptions, sometimes the implications which may develop from the encounter, and the occasional random table (these are uniformly excellent). The sketchlike art by Scrap Princess is a good accompaniment to the text. It works as illustration, and it works as something evoking a certain mood. It is good art in much the same way Erol Otus is good art.
I like the way the adventure is presented. Although it practically invites endless blather about which-ancient-civilisation-did-what-and-why, it doesn’t beat around the bush, and doesn’t even have the obligatory wasted pages on the “adventure background” (something dreadful has happened, now do something about it) or the “adventure hooks” (something dreadful has happened, now do something about it) – it starts in medias res, and proceeds with the action until it is over. Everything is in the context of an adventure, and almost everything gets as much detail as it needs to make sense of it. For dealing in such esoteric subjects, Deep Carbon Observatory is surprisingly straightforward, and its brevity makes it very GM-friendly.
It doesn’t always work. Beyond the misery tourism aspect, I have the suspicion a lot of the content and the tangents will never see the light of actual play; not in a campaign, and certainly not in a one-shot, where a lot of the module will amount to a weird inscrutable dungeon with weird inscrutable treasure. It is a classic, although not severe example of “hidden depth”. Hidden depth is not entirely wasted content, since it informs the GM’s perspective, and makes for something which exists and operates by its own logic, but probably cannot be fully comprehended by the players. But in the observatory proper, there is sometimes too much of it.
And that’s Deep Carbon Observatory. You can probably run a very good, very miserable, very odd adventure with it if your players are into that sort of thing, or at the very least, you can annoy them with random interjections of “But is it art?”
No playtesters were listed for this adventure.
Rating: **** / *****