Monday, April 16, 2018

Carrion Hill Deconstructed

I had forgotten that while there are a few linked Darkmoon Vale modules, the D-series, as they call it, isn't really a series.  D was supposed to stand for Dungeon, indicating that it was primarily a Dungeon adventure.  The other codes were, for example, E for Event driven, W for Wilderness, LB for Last Baron, etc.  For the most part, there isn't really a series to the standalone modules, although there was a small series of sorts in the Darkmoon Vale: Hollow's Last Hope -> Crown of the Kobold King -> Revenge of the Kobold King -> Hungry Are the Dead.   You'd think given that there's only one small series, that I'd focus on it, but I had thought before I reviewed it that there were other series as well, and that I could do those first.  Given that there's not, I'm less inclined to concern myself with series, and just deconstruct modules that I'm interested in as I'm interested in them.  I probably should have done that from the get-go—I think I was drawn to the Darkmoon Vale stuff precisely because it was kind of a mini adventure path rather than because it actually was the one that I was the most interested in.  I was having a hard time breaking completely free of my old paradigm of deconstructing adventure paths and wanted to ween myself away from them, or something.

Dumb.

So, anyway, I'm not going to worry about deconstructing these modules in any particular order.  I'm just going to do them as I pick one up, re-read (or read for the first time, if I haven't yet) the module and do my little deconstruction song and dance here on the blog.  And of the standalone modules, it should maybe be a little unsurprising that the Lovecraftian-themed Carrion Hill was always one of my favorites.  One of the few that I actually read all the way through a long time ago too, actually.  Carrion Hill is directly Lovecraftian, and in fact, is almost a pastiche of Lovecraft's story "The Dunwich Horror".  There's some backstory to all of this, but most of it is needlessly esoteric; it's best just to know that there's an ancient shrine under the city of Carrion Hill called the Sunless Grove.  Some cultists mistakenly partially invoked a spawn of Yog-Sothoth, who now lurks under the city trying to finish "eating" the remainder of the cultists so it can regain its full strength (echo's of the Brendan Frasier Mummy here) and summon it's unearthy "father" Yog-Sothoth himself to town, which would be a global calamity if successful.  The PCs are in town (for whatever reason) to find it under siege, if you will, from the monster, and they have to help the outmanned and confused local authorities solve the problem.

In my opinion, the plot and set-up is a little contrived, but not moreso than most D&D modules, so it's probably not really worth complaining about. The module is best utilized if you can ignore the set-up, though, and work it into your campaign more organically.  Right off the bat, you can also see that the module offers an interesting semi-urban (it's really too small to be considered truly urban, I think) setting in the form of the town of Carrion Hill, which has a few unique elements to it.

PART ONE: THE SHAPE IN THE ALLEY
As the PCs walk into town, there's a crier calling for adventurers (sigh.  I know) as one of the very first things that they see and hear.  They make their way to the mayor's house, where he tells them that some invisible monster has attacked from below three times so far today, the captain of his guard has been killed, it's toppling over houses and leaving a residue of foul slime behind, and otherwise he knows little except "go to the location of the first attack and investigate!" (Why the mayor has such strong opinions on how the PCs conduct their investigation is unclear, except that of course it makes the module easier to write that way.)

Slipper Market, then, has a few bodies under a tent, and the guards are digging through the rubble looking for more.  Apparently the house attacked was a poorly known relative newcomer who mingled little with the locals.  Amid the rubble there's some clues to be found; a blood-soaked rune that might be identified as belonging to the cults related to Yog-Sothoth, body parts of the missing captain of the guard, a tunnel leading below that seems to be where the creature entered the building (but apparently not where it exited).  An old cultist camp and some dark creepers reside here; suggesting that the victim of the attack was, in fact, one of five cultists.

This continues down to the Sunless Grove, a natural cavern even further below.  Two older bodies of cultists are here, including the owner of the house that was destroyed, actually. Here, the PCs will find a ghoul who's spent the last couple of days eating the bodies here, and reading a copy of The Pnakotic Manuscripts that the cultists left behind.  Here they can also find clues that suggest that five individuals camped here, and otherwise start piecing together what's going.  In fact, they went so far as to leave diaries laying around, with their names and everything, although it is written in Aklo so as not to be too obvious.

Bringing the results of this investigation back to the mayor will cause him to charge the PCs with additional tasks—find and confront these cultists, see if they know of a way to banish the creature that they inadvertently summoned, or in a pinch, just kill them so it will be banished on its own accord (and they are, after all, cultists who endangered the entire city and caused the deaths of at least a few dozen townsfolk already.)

PART TWO: SLAVES OF THE VAT
Rupman Myre is one of the first cultists to be confronted; he owns a "middenstone vat"—some kind of local natural resource (fantasy unobtanium, basically) and has the sketchy business practice of manning his vat with zombies instead of regular workers, although he keeps this secret.  This is an interesting location; catwalks over bubbling vats, basically, which remind one sharply of how Two-Face and the Joker got their starts as freaks.  There's 8 zombies here, although alchemically treated to appear alive.  And then, of course, Rupman Myles himself, a panicked necromancer, who doesn't seem inclined to do anything other than fight the PCs.

PART THREE: ARODEN'S TEMPLE
Arlend Hyve is the next cultists; known as a scholar and historian who's lived in town for many years in a repurposed old church, he's actually also a master poisoner and murderer, who's explored the caverns immediately under his abode just a bit.  He's also panicked and is attempting to brew a poison that will kill the monster if it comes for him.  He also has four violet fungi (a very D&D-like "monster" living in his caves; he himself is a rogue.  Again; the module offers very little in terms of what to do with him other than kill him, same as Myre above.  They can also find evidence of some of the bodies Hyve has disposed of, including a missing guardsman.  He happens to have a sword on him that offers a bonus against aberrations, therefore, probably good for the final fight against the wayward spawn of Yog-Sothoth.

PART FOUR: MADHOUSE WHISPERS
Waldur Crove is the final cultist, and he manages an insane asylum (of course) in town.  Crove actually has somewhat of a plan to deal with the oncoming spawn; feed it lunatics from the asylum to distract it while he binds it with a scroll and then grills it for whatever secrets they think it will tell them.  Here, the PCs will face big, beefy, lobotomized orderlies, and violent lunatics who have been the victims of Crove's heartless experiments for some length of time.  In order to reach the cultist, the PCs will have to run the gauntlet of lunatics left out as bait for the monster, and the orderlies who are there to keep them in place.  They aren't particularly fearsome combatants, but there are quite a few of them.  There's also a derro torturer in the dungeons underground, who is an ally of Crove's, and a morlock who's the same.  Crove also has a chaos beast from another past experiment buried in a sinkhole here (basically, a shoggoth, although lower in power, maybe, depending on how you interpret shoggoths in your game.)  Crove is lurking here too, and is the most powerful (by a small amount) of the cultists, a "mystic theurge" best interpreted in another system as a sorcerer or warlock of some sort.

PART FIVE: THE CARRION HILL HORROR
The assumption is that the PCs confront and kill the remaining cultists, which keep the monster from sucking up their power.  The whole adventure is supposed to have a race against time vibe to it as they attempt to decipher the clues and kill the cultists before the monster does, who in the background will periodically be wrecking houses and whatnot as it looks for them.  There's a fair bit of discussion about how to tailor the interactions with the cultists, though, and the entire investigation overall, if you desire to make the module play out a bit differently, or the PCs dawdle, etc.  This monster is a CR 10 thing, usually beyond the capabilities of a 5th level standard party of D&D characters, but it suffers from 2 negative levels for each of the cultists that it hasn't killed and absorbed.  There isn't a specific place for confrontation here either, but it's assumed that it will barge in on the PCs at one of the locations listed above as they are dealing with the cultist associated with that location.

While the monster listed here represents Wilbur Whateley's monstrous brother, it does make reference to Wilbur Whateley type characters himself.


APPENDIX: CARRIOR HILL
The last few pages of the module is a brief description of the town, some maps, etc.  This kind of stuff is always useful, no matter what, and there are just enough unique elements to make this town memorable.

This is an interesting module in that it doesn't really focus on monsters, with the exception, of course, of the main monster that looms in the background and offers the final showdown.  It's mostly a race against time to piece together clues and then confront human NPCs.  Although a few other monsters were thrown in to give the module some color (the ghoul, the derro, the morlock and the chaos beast), for the most part, they are all pretty classic monsters that either hail back to old school D&D, and they are in fact all based on fictional antecedents that precede even the 1st Edition D&D stats.  The spawn of Yog-Sothoth is the only unique monster, and by unique, of course, I mean that it's adapted directly from "The Dunwich Horror".

Although I don't have one per se in FANTASY HACK, by slapping invisibility on either a dark young of Shub-Niggurath or a shoggoth, I'd be there, so there's no reason why I should make one either were I to ever run or adopt this module.

In terms of how I'd run this, other than to note that I'd prefer a more organic grafting into an ongoing campaign than presented here, I think it's relatively well done as far as this type of product goes.  A few minor issues I'd probably modify, though—the siege of the asylum reads too much like a classic dungeon crawl; why is it that the PCs penetrate the "lair" of an NPC to find him (predictably) sitting in his sanctum waiting for them to arrive?  I think the race against time nature of the adventure is quite clever, but I prefer a more slow burn tension for horror style modules, at least until the very end.  The entire module (or at least two thirds of it) reads like the climax to the module.  And finally, I think the mayor and others are too proscriptive.  They need to say, if anything, look we need your help and you'll need to figure stuff out rather than, we need your help because we're understaffed, so I'm going to send you go to do something specifically that I or my closest agents should be doing.  That stretches credulity, even if it does, admittedly, make the module easier to run and easier to present.  Any good CoC scenario by default tends to involve the PCs flailing about for at least a little while as they try to piece together what exactly is going on.  Having NPCs tell them exactly where to go to find out exactly what's going on reduces the investigation aspect of it, which is a key and integral component to a good scenario of this type.

But those are, relatively speaking, pretty minor issues.

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