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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Deep Carbon Observatory, Session 1: Report and reflections

Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers for Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess's OSR module, Deep Carbon Observatory. Read on at your own risk.

If you want to skip the session report and get right to my reflections, they're the last section of this post.

Dramatis Personae

Ben as 6th-level elf and drag queen Arkadia Valentine
Brett as Vincenza, 5th-level Thief
Jenny as Kira, 3rd-level Thief
Visitor Alli as Nurse Joy, 1st-level Halfling


Arkadia has been cursed with terrible ugliness for like a year now since she looted a strange-looking vase from the manse of the late, three-bodied wizard Sophia Thrice. A consult with an oracle a few months back revealed the curse could be lifted by returning the vase to the treasure vaults north of Carrowmore from whence it came, many millennia past.

The party arrives in Carrowmore to find it just recently flooded and still very much in chaos. They immediately split up to see how they can help. By which I mean Arkadia saves a priest being carried downriver on a log, and then begins pestering about whether there's any gold in his church. The devout Selminium Tem wants nothing to do with her until she pops a Charm Person, and then happily accepts her offer to help see if his church is still standing.

Kira and Nurse Joy rescue a raft of children and the elderly from being swept away and are rewarded with a story of a terrible witch. They also catch the roustabout Wit Tamdour trying to pick their pockets, but Kira takes a liking to the starving boy and promises him a snack once they catch up with Arkadia, who has all the rations in her bag of holding. Nurse Joy drives off a shifty man claiming to be the godfather of a weeping boy who can't find his parents. Unbeknowst to her, or in fact anyone, the man is a cannibal.

Vincenza spends most of her time hanging out with old people. She promises one to take the body of his wife, Sorla Ghyll, to their family tomb upriver. To Hans Gokgul, bereaved of his entire family, she promises to find the reason behind this terrible tragedy in exchange for "wealth and riches beyond counting".

With help from Selminium, Arkadia manages to keep a bishop from throwing himself into the water. He's mourning the disappearance of his church's sacred spoon, which she promises to find. Little does she know it hides in the pocket of little Wit Tamdour.

Meanwhile Vincenza, Kira, and Nurse Joy intervene in a standoff between some armed adventurers and the town's Baroness, Stary Hrad. The adventurers are easily driven away, but not before their leader, a tall man in a bronze eagle breastplate, introduces himself as Alfredo Jahn, and vows to meet them again. Hrad thanks the party with a skiff. She'd like them to prove (impossibly) that there's no treasure to be found to the north. The party pays no heed to the strange scouts looking on from up the hill.


The party reunites. Despite their efforts a lynching has occurred and scrambling survivors were speared away from a passing ship. The ship now stands in the middle of the river, with rafts coming and going to buy unspoiled food at exorbitant prices.

Liking Kira and the party's food, and accustomed for a life of vagrancy, the thief Wit Tamdour asks if he can join them. Kira delightedly accepts and promises to make a great thief of him. Together these six set off to look for Selminium's church. Ben reminds me he has a roach-man slave named Christopher Walken. Seven then. The sun is already low when our heroes leave Carrowmore, throwing bright orange spots on water otherwise too clotted and muddy to reflect. Embalmed and tied to the front of the skiff, Sorla Ghyll serves as a figurehead.

In an hour's time the church is spotted, on its side and dragged a distance from its original place but otherwise very much in one piece. With Selminium's key Vincenza is able to open the main door and rig up a rope to grant the party entry and moor the skiff.

The church is flooded a few inches deep - the chapel's crystal dome has shattered, letting in some water, but the promontory on which the church is stuck prevents it from sinking too deep. Selminium declares a miracle as he rushes past the toppled pews to the still-intact altar and begins checking up.

Arkadia, impatient, asks what he is doing. He says he's checking on the church's treasures and refuses to say more. Upon urging he refuses to share them. Vincenza, impatient, shoots him with an arrow. He dies instantly.

Young Wit decides he's fallen in with the wrong crew and makes a run for the skiff. As he scrambles up the sideways wall to the church door Arkadia sends an arrow into the wall just above his hand, startling the boy and sending him toppling back down. She threatens to curse him if he tries to run again, and Kira promises him he's safe.

The party, ever murderers-hobo despite their overfilled bank account, get to looting the altar. The spoils: some wafers and a few vials of holy water. Arkadia and Vincenza test the holy water by throwing it at each other. Wit elects once more to flee.

By the time Arkadia and Vincenza have drawn their bows the boy is already up the wall. Before they can nock them he tumbles back down - a crossbow bolt lodged in his forehead. Vincenza hurries out to see where it came from, but it is quite dark by now and her torch only shows brown water.

For some reason they decide to sleep in the church.


Vincenza, possessing an amulet of sleeplessness, sits watch on the open church door, now a kind of landing. Arkadia sits the first watch her, for reasons unclear to me. Below, Kira and Nurse Joy sleep on pews, the corpses of Wit and Selminium soaking on the floor nearby.

An hour or so in, Joy is woken by the sound of scuffling coming from the darkened far end of the church. A figure moves in the slats of moonlight from the windows above.

In hushed tones Joy wakes Kira. The moonlight strikes metal - a shoulder plate. Kira rises. Now the light shows a crest shaped like an eagle. The figure is Alfredo Jahn. Kira calls to him. He breaks into a run in her direction.

Hearing the commotion Vincenza and Arkadia look in. Arkadia casts Light on a sconce at the far end of the church. The man is stands backlit, a towering black silhouette haloed in cyan. Vincenza hits him with an arrow while Joy yells at him to back off, all courage despite her stature. Kira, twice her height, uses the distraction to hide.

Jahn starts tearing the church apart in search of Kira, flinging aside entire pews that land with terrible clattering. Joy sneaks up with her knife, sinking it in the back of his armour but not his flesh. To her surprise, a knife-cut sits just beside hers, this one deeper and caked with dried blood.

Vincenza runs out to see if there are more attackers, but slips and falls in the water. Before she can climb out, four more hands grab hold of her from below. She is saved by a Telekinesis spell from Arkadia, who lifts her from the water (thanks in part to a previous incident that left the Thief weighing little for her size).

After some fighting Jahn is dispatched, although it becomes clear that he had already died once. Kira, hoping to give him a proper rest, cuts off his head. The party resumes their uneasy sleep.

Another zombie appears a few hours later. He is quickly taken out, and it is determined that he must have crawled in through the broken dome. A wall of pews is made to block further incursion.

And yet another couple hours later a terrible clatter comes from the dome. Something is trying to tear apart the wall. Frustrated, unrested, and squinting in the morning light pouring in through the ceiling, the party decides that perhaps they ought to give up on getting much sleep in here.

To be continued.


This is a mid-level party who cut their teeth killing a three-bodied wizard, sinking the ship-fort of a pirate king, and hacking their way through the haunted halls of Rappan Athuk. They have some serious power at their disposal. There isn't much that scares them, as was apparent this session.

Therefore it pleases me immensely to have gotten so much mileage out of an encounter with a single zombie. The identity of the zombie, the party's previous dealings with him, and the setting of the sideways church in a flooded wasteland made for a compelling situation despite the fact that it wasn't actually very dangerous. DCO gives you a lot to work with in that respect. The relationships between people, places, things, and events, are expertly communicated with surprisingly little work. I was continually surprised by how nicely ideas seemed to find their place in the adventure as I introduced them, despite few explicit explanations of that sort of thing. Players had questions and I could work out answers based on what I'd read and seen. I'll return to this a lot, but it speaks volumes to quality of writing and artwork in this module.

Deep Carbon Observatory has a very different tone from the party's previous adventures. I've never felt so powerful and deep a mood from a game book before, and my main concern for this session was getting it across, in order to help calibrate the players' expectations. I focused heavily on environmental descriptions, and on the surrealness of the events transpiring. I think it came across, and they seem to realize they're dealing with a different kind of beast now. The hirelings and priest were casualties of that transition, and the players are now worried about those same characters returning as zombies.

When I first read DCO I had trouble getting my head around the Crows - a band of murderers intent on destroying the party, having some impressive resources to do so, as well as a preference for secrecy. Running it now I love them. There's a table for determining how they behave, but their tactics are so pointed and purposeful that it often makes more sense just to choose. In my mind the zombie incursions served the dual purpose of information-gathering and rest denial. The great thing about The Crows is they let you use a certain amount of discretion in applying pressure to your players, but with a context and detail rich enough that it doesn't feel arbitrary. It's good, useful game writing.

The crossbow bolt was more or less a warning shot - a signal to the party that they aren't alone. It hasn't sunk in yet: they think the water is creating the zombies. I consider this confusion a good thing too.

The usability issues flagged by a few reviewers were real, but didn't really bother me. They mostly had to do with reading the maps on the fly, and I was able to hash it out by pre-empting that and drawing my own. It is one of those modules where you should read the whole book before running, if possible. There are certain subtle connections and cues that become a lot more meaningful (and therefore gameable) if you read ahead. My prep, beyond reading the text, involved printing out the flowchart for Carrowmore, redrawing the first wilderness map with my own annotations, and printing out the encounter table and monster stats on a single sheet. My prep took about 4 hours and I have one, maybe two more sessions to go before I'll need to do any more. That's about 3 hours of D&D per hour of prep. I consider that pretty good.

I also found it helpful to read over James Young's DCO post-mortem and Daniel Davis's guide to running the module. I also listened to some of the latter`'s actual play recordings as I prepped.

I expect I'll also be rereading chunks of the module before each session - not to refresh on the content, but to tune back in to the mood. The writing is concise but doesn't lack in pathos, and there are strong tonal cues that I think are useful to get across, as they help the players get a better sense of what kind of situation they're dealing with. A couple times I found it best just to read from the book, though there's no boxed text. I think there's actually a lot to be learned from DCO in terms of how to convey tone for DMs - more on that as I continue through it.

This was a good session.

(If you missed the link above and want to check out Deep Carbon Observatory for yourself, you can get it here.)