Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Strange and Wonderful Bleakness - Deep Carbon Observatory Review

deep caRbon observAtory

I have read Patrick of False Machine’s Deep Carbon Observatory, an adventure, or setting, or even campaign. The module compares favorably with other contemporary offerings, such as the better LOTFP modules, but has its own approach and unique feel.  The adventure focuses on a riverine expedition in a sort of point based sandbox, suddenly flooded by the collapse of an ancient dam.  Rumors of mountains of ancient gold beneath the recently collapsed dam’s (now drained) lake have presumably drawn the party, as they have other (horrible) NPC treasure hunters.  Beyond the dung-ages horror of a flooded and starving landscape is an upriver journey through a variety of creepy nautical monsters (crabs, cuttlefish, pike, frogs) all subtly warped and horrifically described.  The journey leads to the dam, its dying guardian golems and ultimately a lake bed of ancient and unnatural weirdness that hides the “Deep Carbon Observatory” itself.  The observatory is an entrance to the Underdark, and not Gygax’s glowing mushrooms and petulant Drow Underdark, but False Machine’s utterly alien, beautifully psychotic Underdark.

A Suitable Cover
Broken into four rough sections (A town, a point crawl, the dam/lake, and the observatory) Deep Carbon has plenty of room for adventure, and the only limit on this is the presumed success of a very nasty NPC party if the PCs don’t push onward at a furious pace.  I like the scale of the adventure, especially because so many of the individual vignettes presented are compelling enough that I think a group of players could enjoyably spend at least a session on many of them.  This makes me ambivalent about the NPC party, who while one of the best (ok one of many wonderful) elements in the adventure could act to force the players’ hands.  The NPC party and its place in Deep Carbon Observatory is also somewhat hard to pin down without some page flipping, but that's a minor concern, and their inclusion creates a powerful and compelling enemy for the party.

Ultimately Deep Carbon Observatory is a thought provoking and wonderful adventure, almost novelistic in its scope and strangeness.  The author drops magnificent ideas and imagery haphazardly on every page of a quality that many adventure designer would convert into an entire campaign. Additionally there are some novel approaches to town encounters in the first section of the adventure that are thought provoking as a means of creating tension, and cause and effect without minimizing player agency.  Sadly Deep Carbon Observatory suffers a bit from a slavishness to the DIY aesthetic and a lack of polish, but other than some aggravating page transitions this is easily ignored. Additionally, the module’s scope makes it feel fragmentary (perhaps unavoidable given its size) at times and it repeatedly includes the lamentable sin of confusing maps. 

The reader of Deep Carbon Observatory will need to tease the story out of the text and tables that the adventure immediately pours forth.  There is an ancient dam at the head of a river that is rumored to hide the valuable secrets of an ancient civilization. The adventurers arrive at the river mouth in the aftermath of the dam’s failure, meaning that the lost treasures are now free for the taking, but that the region is devastated.  The flood has created complications, mainly masses of desperate, starving refugees and a drowned land covered in strange monstrous life. The town of Carrowmore is dying in a frenzy and walking into it the party will be confronted with a series of situations that they will need to resolve. 

The mechanic here is worth mentioning, as it appears useful for creating scenes of wild energy and action where the party is only a small part of a larger situation (like a battle perhaps).  The events of Carrowmere are provided as three columns of encounters, each of which will evolve if the players don’t intervene.  Stepping into Carrowmere the party will find all three before them (a man dragging a his dead wife from the river, a drowning priest swept from upriver, and a raft of wailing children about to be lost in the flood).  How the players interact with these events will have consequences in the adventure, introduces individual NPCs (the ones whose plight is ignored tend to die) and provides rumors, hooks and clues. The hopelessness and human scale of the situation is also noteworthy, as regardless of player actions some bad events occur. I want to point out that human scale here as it runs through the adventure. Dragons of Despair, and Dragonlance in general, has a similar apocalyptic feel, but fails partially because it remains at the level of epic heroism, and uses human tragedy as background dressing.  Deep Carbon Observatory never does that and the characters will make moral choices that feel very real but are ultimately tragic.  For example, saving a 5D8 orphans and a school teacher in Carrowmere has no positive effect, except perhaps to drain character resources, but I don't see many players who won't be drawn to do it. A latter example involves a roc, dying in a horrible fashion, and while it can be saved, the giant predatory bird remains a giant predatory bird.

Navigating the tragedy of Carrowmere, the party will obtain a boat to head up the overflowing river.  The flooded land is blanketed with various strange and grotesque point encounters, my favorite being a field of giant toads, so bloated from eating the drowned that they will burst open if struck forcefully. This encounter is typical of the adventure, a very visual description of a strangely bleak and horrific event, written in an economical and evocative way, with only a bare stat line and a simple situational rule or two to set the scene.  Encounters and descriptions might seem perversely terse at first glance, but the information is sufficient and the minimal writing so rich that any GM could run these encounters. The paucity of stats and mechanics might also benefit Deep Carbon Observatory, as it seems easily adaptable to other systems, and its focus on interactions other than combat with both monsters and desperate NPCs might appeal to people who play some of the more modern variations on tabletop roleplaying.  A Torchbearer conversion of Deep Carbon Observatory for example might result in something so weirdly horrific and bleak that it would transcend that system’s meta-game with wonderment and sadness.

After wandering the drowned lands and uncovering some mysteries there is a dungeon tomb filled with ancient guardians, traps and strange treasure, followed by another small point crawl across the reservoir beyond. There are factions among the former lake dwellers to help or hinder and the remnants of an ancient civilization to marvel at. Among these relics is the entrance to the Deep Carbon Observatory, a giant stalactite that juts into the under dark, and once acted as a trading post/scientific exchange between the surface and the deep empires of Drow and dark dwarves.  The observatory has many secrets and every room contains strange and wonderful things to plunder, interact with or avoid. I am intentionally limiting my discussion of this section (and the rest of the module) because reading Deep Carbon Observatory and discovering its bizarre, compelling encounters page after page is a great deal of fun, made more enjoyable by piecing together the mysteries involved.  It might be worth noting that the title of the module is taken from an international science project that seeks to understand life and energy cycles in inhospitable places such as the depths of the ocean and interior of the earth.

Deep Carbon Observatory is filled with evocative and wonderful writing.  The setting is strange and bleak, but in such a novel way that it doesn’t feel clichéd.  Deep Carbon Observatory compares favorably with the better of the LOTFP adventures but lacks the feeling of a slasher or horror movie that these adventures can sometimes give, focusing on the weird and strange more than the gory or horrific - It creates wonder and tension rather than fear and anxiety. Yet, even with this tone, Deep Carbon Observatory is relentlessly bleak, and while the players may do heroic deeds, saving some of the troubled people of Carrowmere in the long run, during the course of the adventure there are many tragic situations where the players assistance will provide little help and deplete their resources to almost no benefit.  Not everyone can be saved, and saving some will ultimately lead to greater trouble.

With the quality of the writing and evocative encounters it is no surprise that the treasures, traps, monsters and especially the magic items within Deep Carbon Observatory are of great quality.  I especially enjoyed the magical items as they are unique, inventively useful, and not extremely powerful. The art, by Scrap Princess in her unique scribbled style, is also great and while it won’t appeal to everyone, it certainly compliments the writing and general sensibility of Deep Carbon Observatory. 

Monster design in Deep Carbon Observatory is generally excellent, using a few standbys, especially undead, and reskinning or creating new monsters for almost every encounter.  Notably these aren’t full designs of strange beasts, but largely simple descriptive tweaks with minimal stat lines and an occasional special power.  Such monster modifications are great, as they provide enough uniqueness to keep the players wondering about what they face, but don’t demand incredible descriptive skills of the GM.

Despite my affection for the creators of Deep Carbon Observatory it has troubles.  I don’t want to make these troubles into anything big but I want to address them out of fairness to future buyers.

First, there is something a bit goofy about Deep Carbon Observatory’s layout.  I don’t mind the giant text and oddly sized pages so much, or even the fair number of typographical errors (I have a fair number of that sort of flaw in my own PDFs, but then mine are free).  The real problem is that Deep Carbon Observatory’s design is sometimes hard to use.  Part of the issue is that there is so much and such varied content, but part is poor design choices and execution. Finding things within the PDF is hard, and while in actual play this might not matter so much as players will move slowly through the adventure in distinct sections, the module definitely demands a great deal of GM prep to run to keep the sections and sessions of play part of a whole.  Each five pages/three encounters might provide a session of gaming, but these fragments need to be placed within the module’s larger context and the text largely fails to facilitate this.

While the problems of layout and usability are minimal, the maps provided in Deep Carbon Observatory are frustrating and flawed.  Nicely drawn in the style of pencil sketches, largely isometric and evocative enough to provide an overall sense of the keyed location, they are nearly impossible to read because of size and because the keying is hand drawn in the same sketchy style as the rest of the map.  This itself would be forgivable if the maps weren’t attempting to visually describe complex areas, spanning multiple levels and with many traps that depend on location and space. The elevation map of the Observatory itself is pretty, useful and interesting, but difficult to read, and a lack of a supplementary traditional ‘top down’ maps turn it, and the other dungeon areas, into chains of rooms and encounters that are hard to connect together as a meaningful whole.  This may be a general problem with complex, vertically interesting maps, but Deep Carbon Observatory doesn’t make much effort to solve it.  

Maps are important in published adventures as by reviewing them and placing the keyed locations in context with each other the GM can understand the flow of the module, the purpose of and interrelations within it and perhaps an ecology.  These factors allow adaption and pacing at the table, and without them a module can become a string of unconnected encounters. As a general theory I think isometric maps are rarely ideal, because despite their appearance of 3D it is hard to actually layer multiple levels atop one another without creating an unreadable and tangled mess.  Isometric maps look great, but only really seem to work for relatively simple structures or those with widely placed rooms and in almost all cases an isometric map is best supplemented by a traditional top down map.  Similarly, elevation maps are very useful at defining the interrelation of complex vertical spaces but they don’t allow much detail or depth on the individual levels unless they are coupled with more traditional maps.  I do hope that Patrick and Scrap Princess will provide a supplemental map pack for Deep Carbon Observatory, because this would greatly improve the module, and such maps are not hard to make or difficult to find artists for. 

While I may complain about certain aspects of Deep Carbon Observatory, most of these are technical or design related.  I don’t want to minimize my complaints because my frustration with these shortcomings is enough to make me think it would be hard to run this adventure without a great deal of work, but at the same time Deep Carbon Observatory represents the best of the contemporary DIY/older D&D scene.  It is imaginative, evocative, presents haunting wondrous imagery, demands that the players make ethical decisions with consequences, and provides many opportunities for participatory world building. The clumsy editing and layout are completely forgivable in this light, even charming (what is the Dex of the sinister NPC leader? You decide!), but I still I simply cannot forgive the lack of good maps, especially in light of the complex spaces Deep Carbon Observatory thrives on. None of these errors matter, because I have absurdly high standards for paid published content, and because Deep Carbon Observatory is some sort of beautiful Frankenstien’s monster grafted from: B4-Lost City, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Death Frost Doom (albeit where the party can actually prevent the final horror – they won’t but they might).  The module wins me over, and even if I can’t run it (not because of its flaws, but because of my own entrenched campaign settings) I can plunder it for so much amazing content: magical items, npcs, treasure, monsters, location imagery, and an approach to tension building town encounters.  What I mean is, buy this thing if you want to make you game more interesting, because reading it will give a GM ideas, even a GM who finds the vanilla new 5e content proper and compelling.


  1. Good review. Very informative, as usual.

  2. I haven't actually read Deep Carbon yet, but it's on my pickup list. Some of the things you mention as "problems" here - specifically vague/obscure maps and an overall "story" that needs to be picked out of the tables/descriptions - these sound like deliberate design decisions. It occurs to me that the idea is simply to play the module, letting the decision points, random events and "fill in the blanks" ad-libbing by the DM create the actual story. Maybe your gaming group is supposed to finish it?

    1. It may be a design decision, but I think it's a poor one and I'd prefer to view it as an oversight.

      On the 'story' issue, it's not that there isn't an underlaying tale to discover and many mysteries to unravel - it's that the modules design makes it hard for the GM to know what's related to what else without a very careful read and the creation of a large set of notes. In the desire to move straight to content there is a skeleton of sense that abandoned and hard to reconstruct.

      The maps, sure one can draw one's own, but why use a module if one is drawing one's own maps? I feel strongly on this one, decent maps are one of the most useful items in a module, and the ability to 'read' them helps put all the keyed descriptions in place.

    2. I agree. I can understand leaving some of the adventure open to allow GMs the option to flesh out and put their own touch on the adventure but if is disjointed or unclear in its presentation to prospective GMs, then it definitely is a problem.

  3. Any plans to review the recent Blue Medusa adventure/module?

    1. I've read it, but it doesn't really move me to write anything. It's good though - very Zak S. with Pat's writing. Lovely design, but a bit more of the pan-dimensional fun house with exuberantly weird then the weird Apocalypse Now mixed with Prometheus and dripping with tragic weird sadness that DCO delivers. So yeah Blue Medusa is a good project if one needs some weird ideas or a good mega-dungeon, but it leaves me sorta shrugging about what to do with it beyond enjoy reading it.

  4. Solid review. I haven't delved too far into DCO, but I was hit with the initial feeling that you describe ... like, 'what is the deal overall?'

    Seemed to me that the book is one part adventure and one part Art. Capital A. Sort of a meta approach to design where you do need to work at understanding the scene(s) and how things are related.

    Not a bad thing at all, but definitely not an easy-to-absorb book. Looking forward to digging in at some point.


  5. Finally ordered and read through this. My main takeaway is there is no way I could run this, as written, for any group I've ever played with. There are so many pieces of information that are described for the GM, but the players have no way to gain that information - to me, a capital design sin. It's almost as if, as one commenter above mentioned, it's a work of Art for the GM to decipher and turn into his own work, than as a template for play. By way of example, the Azimoths - there's nothing of lore for them, and since you can't see them, and your mind deliberately ignores them, there is no way for the players to know that they exist, or why they exist, or who named them, etc...

    What this leaves me with is a book of random room/trap/encounter ideas, written in almost a stream-of-consciousness manner, which may spark some thoughts about putting some of those ideas into my game. But as it's primarily a sandbox scenario, as written I can see my players coming into a room or encounter, looking around, shrugging, and saying "huh - why do I care about this?" and moving on to the next area. Since a lot of it is seemingly random, without connection or purpose, it's up to the GM to take and flesh out a reason for these things to be where they are, and for the players to care.