Deep Carbon Observatory (2014)
Levels 3 – 6 (?)
(Review contains spoilers, like any review worth reading)
DCO was recommended to me by the internet, an avid reader and close personal friend, tenfootpole bryce gave it a glowing review, my boss, several random passersby on the streets and Matthijs van Nieuwkerk devoted an entire season of The Wereld Draait Door solely to singing its praises, going so far as to barricade himself inside the studio and commit ritual self-immolation on a pile of what must be pretty rare hardcopies by now when the clamoring media big wigs had enough of yet another flagrant defiance of the original programming, which I think we can all agree is taking one’s love for elfgames a little bit too far. I mean Deep Carbon Observatory is great but not that great Matthijs. Jesus.
Dutchmen have a unique relationship with King Neptune. A large percentage of Holland is below sea level, wrested from Poseidon’s (or Umberlee’s) watery grasp by the girth of our dykes and the edges of our windmills. It was thus not without a small amount of trepidation that I approached Deep Carbon Observatory; a module set in a land suffering a calamity after the breaking down of a millenia old fantasy-Egyptian dam. An adventure that taps into deep-seated ancestral memories of the watersnoodramp of 1953. I brave it all for you, my drunken, demanding and frequently belligerent audience.
Deep Carbon Observatory is a very good indie-published adventure for characters of levels…3-6? (C’mon guys level indications are for the proles and all but just put them on there) by the undeniably talented Patrick Stuart and his scribblerrific cohort-in-crime Scrap Princess (Those with royal pseudonyms should not throw stones at those with royal pseudonyms and probably only at other people if one’s life or personal property is at serious risk). It was made with the Lotfp ruleset in mind (albeit vaguely) but there is no reason you could not adapt it for any other OSR game. After watching the deeply unnerving and not very informative trailer, we are ready to set off on an atmospheric quest into a disaster area to explore the ruins of a millenia old dambuilding civilisation and beyond, into an underdark that is as unrecognizable and wonderful as it is horrible and alien. Or in the words of Patrick;
“Once, long ago there was a Kingdom of unspeakable wealth that traded in dark wonders, secrets and death. And many of the strange things now on earth were theirs. They drew their power and magic from a place, and guarded it fiercely against all. Then, out of spite (somehow) as their kingdom slowly died, they hid their treasure palace in a lake, and set there: sleepless and indestructible guards. Everyone knows where it is, on the Lock, upriver of Carrowmore. No-one who goes there has ever come back.”
Bam! And we are off, fuck hooks. Where the shit do I start? We start off almost in medias res. As soon as the PCs arrive in the flooded border town of Carrowmore we get a list of encounters that take place simultaneously and branch off into a sort of cross-fertilizing flowchart from hell, immediately investing the PCs into the place. They will have to split up or choose who to save and who to lose. The encounters are brief sentences that evoke an immediately memorable scene that connects the PCs to shit going on and provides numerous hooks and quests. They are always scenes of human misery.
A grief-struck survivor wanders past screaming of ‘unclean meat’. Kon-i-Gut is insane. She knows about the cannibals in town, they will kill her soon.
A desperate throng about to become violent. An accusation of theft is about to turn into a lynching. The misunderstanding is clear to anyone not starving .
A bishop in rags totters on the roof of his church, staring upriver. Thrun Ruesie refuses to come down, he lost a lifesaving relic and will jump from shame without help.
The Carrowmore area is flooded, meaning just about the whole valley is covered in at least knee-deep water. Starvation is everywhere, and that means cannibalism, disease and giant fresh-water creatures (somehow infinitely superior to generic underwater monsters). The layout is confusing and the encounters should have been provided after the general overview of the area but this is a minor gripe. Another niggling annoyance; an adventuring party is introduced with all sorts of shiny tidbits in the description but this equipment is not statted out, an indicator of a sort of breezy sloppiness that will persist throughout the work. Same for the cannibals. A giant platypus has poison quills, what does the poison do? These are not crippling defects by any means but some concessions to simple utility would have been nice.
Another gripe, the Dam broke the day before the PCs arrived in the region. Are we to believe that people will starve and resort to cannibalism in disaster areas after a single day? Kind of a stretch.
Another excellent feature is a rival party of NPCs (a timeline for their shenanigans is provided IN THE BACK OF THE BOOK CONFUSING!), a murderous band of adventuring sickos with intelligent low-risk harrying tactics that will have to be raced for the location of the ruins. Each is equipped with unique equipment, lacks a charisma score (charisma is not avant garde!), about a paragraph of terse, evocative description (amazingly terse and evocative!) and the group as a whole is given intelligent and ruthless tactics involving zombie traps, sleep deprivation, using helpless innocents as bait, arrows with slow poison fired at night and many more dick moves. How and where they encounter the PCs is left up to the GM which is alright.
Then comes the map of the area, a hand drawn map with no indication of distance which is unforgivable in an adventure where time constraints are important. The Crows prefer to stay behind the foe (smart since that means all the difficult encounters are handled by the dumb heroes) but what if the PCs are slow and stupid?
Monsters random encounter table with treasure is again, sloppily not given procedures for the frequency of your rolls. Again, not a deal breaker, but sloppy. The monsters in this section are neat; giant crabs, giant pike, the bizarre and probably terrifying Turbine Golems that are the key to passing the next section of the adventure, giant horseshoe crab etc.
This section proper has plenty of interesting events along the way to the broken magical dam to keep you going. Two duelling wizards (both tossers), a windmill with a family beset by giant crabs, an encounter with two kids on a log that is essential to opening a room in the last section of the adventure and this;
4. d20 Toads the size of obese men. A field of toads the size of obese men. They have been feasting on bodies washed up on a ( 23) bank of dark mud. Bodyshapes can clearly be seen through their drum-tight skin. Some have burst. Drowned and undigested limbs poke out from their ruptured sides. The rest will try to eat you. They are fat, pale, and slow with corpses. If they take any damage a body may pop through their sides, killing them. (d6 bodies here.)
No treasure there. Fuck.
There is a possibility of getting a really neat hook (or simply stumbling upon it whilst traveling towards the dam) with a witch with nine lives who has already suffered eight deaths from drowning, burning, piercing, bashing, stabbing and various other deaths, and can only be killed in a novel way. A great opportunity for some player creativity.
Any magic items thus far have been unique and suitably atmospheric (e.g a cloth that allows perfect vision even in conditions of absolute darkness but which requires the life of an intelligent humanoid after 12 hours of use or the user himself will die, a sword that will protect its user from magical fear that causes great sadness only in the dead etc.). Good treasure too, a golden grave barque worth a shitton but so mired in the silt and river removing it will be fucking hard (which is Interesting Treasure Complication #5 on the list of decent adventure design).
The second section is the dam proper, with an entirely optional (!) tomb-cum dam section if our enterprising heroes are feeling greedy. They will find tantalizing hints and copious amounts of death. A mostly linear section with death traps, horrific canoptic guardians and little in the way of gold and some things in the way of information. If you want to motivate your players to keep moving towards the Deep Carbon Observatory, I guess this is not bad. Some knicknacks and silver pieces would have been nice. Encounters remain solid and atmospheric.
The valley proper also has a tonne of shit.
Rainbow coloured weeds droop rotting from the littoral zone. They overhang rich bandings of many-shaded stone, making a psychedelic halo of the valley like a veil. Sunlight gleams oddly in the steep valley-sides. Snatches of bright reflection. The floor looks like blue-grey mud. The sight is without sound and stinks like an airless tomb burning in the light of an unwanted sun. But, in the silence, movement worms. The whole place has the feel of a terrible revealing. Like a black sheet pulled back from a naked corpse.
Surreal, otherworldly, trippy as hell. Once again the map is useless. Fields of dead pufferfish that explode upon contact. A giant dead pike. Strange natives. A sunken army glowing at night with the light of dying anemones. An army of newt-men. No treasure. No random encounter tables. Sloppy.
Ever onward. The entrance proper is unveiled in the valley, a giant pit, with towers with great mirrors placed at distant point reflecting the sunlight into it from all sides, as though to keep something from escaping. Dare ye enter the otherworldly darkness below?
Ye dare indeed. A place of otherworldly wonder awaits, hampered by an awful map. It will take work to make sense out of it and it omits all distances. The concept of a three dimensional dungeon is great but it is very unclear. The vibe of otherworldly fear and wonder is communicated well, with a few bizarre exceptions that, depending on your mileage, may stray into gonzo or farcical territory. A stone tablet of dinosaur glyphs can conjure trans-temporal intelligent deinonychuses (think large velociraptors, the ones in Jurassic Park, which are not actually raptors, but deinonychoi) to your location, for example.
The rest is mindboggeling and creative and weird yet it somehow feels coherent. Dryads made of Salt Crystals. Murderous spider-silk geishas. Tox-men and slime ambassadors and ancient prisoners. Invisible moths. Nearly everything can be interacted with and provides opportunities for roleplaying. There is a bizarre sort of verisimilitude. The treasure is great. Strange ores that can be incorporated into one’s armor. Glass spheres that hold alien ecosystems. Structures of curved space with one-shot reality warping abilities. Bizarre and deeply disturbing Drow art. A mundane tome on Drow Psychology that can topple nations. It is an abundance, a veritable cornucopia of creativity. Nothing is boring. I would almost go so far as to say there is an overload, but it manages to balance out somehow. Sometimes it gets too caught up in its ooooh and aaaah and it spends too much time giving us random weirdness or tantalizing hints that ultimately mean little to the adventure proper.
Overall it is, however, great, and the pros outweigh the cons by metric tonnes.
This is an adventure unlike any other. And the Giant. Did I mention a Giant? The deep carbon observatory does not have many monsters, it has one big one. A deathly silent crawling giant with pliable bones that can squeeze through almost any space. It is intelligent and moves as a 15th level thief. It will kill you.
I salute Patrick and Scrapprincess on the successful re-imagining of the wonder of the Underdark. Deep Carbon Observatory is truly an otherworldly adventure unlike any other. It is somewhat unpolished and will need work to make it useful, but that should not stop you from checking it out. For the OSR I’d rate it second only to Slumbering Ursine Dunes.
Pros: Mind-boggeling odyssey into a realm of wonder and horror that holds perils never imagined and wonders undreamt of.
Cons: Sloppy and rough and desperately in need of an editor, meaning you will need to do some reading and preparation beforehand to actually make the thing work. Map is vague, encounter tables need specification.
Final Verdict: Unpolished and requires effort on the GMs part to make it functional. Nevertheless great. Evocative, Alien and wonderful. Art is scribbly and scratchy but somehow fitting. Manages to retain coherence at the edge of an event horizon of creativity. Also still very exciting and meant to be played not watched. Probably way too fucking weird to just throw in your homecampaign. A win for the OSR. 9 out of 10.