Deep Carbon Observatory (OSR)
This adventure clocks in at 90 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page blank, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 85 pages, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (or A5), meaning that you can fit up to 4 pages on a sheet of paper.
So, this adventure assumes LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) rules and statblocks are provided – minimal ones for monsters (armor noted as analogue for armors, HD, HP, move and damage noted), and detailed ones for the Crows. Who or what are the Crows? Well, for that, I need to get into SPOILERS so please indulge me and wait a second.
Really cool: The adventure sports a timeline that spans multiple pages from 10.000 years in the past, up to the future – accounting for the horrific, surprisingly cataclysmic consequences that await, should the PCs fail herein. The module is intended for a low or mid level party – however, I’d strongly suggest running this with a group of approximately 3 – 4th level at the very least; 5 would also work; level 7 would probably make the module too easy. Anything below 5th level will result in copious amounts of PC deaths. A well-rounded party is pretty much required – this is NOT an easy module.
There is one component about the book, which, much like the prose, will be truly polarizing. This component would be the artwork. See that cover? I stumbled over it, and it haunted me. It basically demanded I buy this, creating a strange resonance. Scrap Princess has a unique aesthetic, and what some may consider doodles, I consider to be frantic and somewhat genius, vibrant and alive. The same goes for the isometric and sideview maps provided…which may also constitute one of the few detriments here.
I adore the maps, I really do – but they are hard to use at the table. While there are really cool fan maps (link at the bottom of my review on my site) provided, I cannot take these into account for my final verdict. This is not a module that you can run spontaneously. It requires careful deliberation and some map-drawing from the referee – unfortunately, we also get no key-less, player-friendly versions of the maps. In light of the unique style of these, this is a pity – I’d have loved to hand out progressively these as my PCs explore. Anyhow, if you’d need an analogue – where most LotFP-books, in aesthetics, hearken to Metal subcultures, this book, to me, reminded me of avant-garde, dark music – Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Thorofon and the like, before Industrial aesthetics were subsumed into mainstream; it’s a bit like one of Joel Lane’s (R.I.P.) more frantic slipstream weird fiction short stories turned to a module.
The artwork, btw., is so important here, for I have rarely seen an example where artworks and prose engage in such a suitable fusion; Scrap Princess’ artwork feels like a perfect externalized visualization of Patrick Stuart’s prose. One final note on the artwork: While suffused with color, the PoD print version, alas, is b/w – I did not consider this to be a detriment, as I focused on the print version.
The prose herein, for once, is worthy of the moniker. To give you an example: “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.” One can see why some readers consider this adventure to be “grimdark” – a palpable sense of finality, of decay and endings, suffuses this book; but at the same time, there is beauty, and even humor, to be found within. I have scarcely seen prose used this well in an adventure – even the brief, staccato-like interludes of sentences like those employed here in the example, are chosen deliberately.
The adventure indeed manages to generate utterly unique images, visuals and moods – it has been a long, long time since I was this engaged when reading anything regarding modules – in fact, I found myself compartmentalizing the reading experience, slowly digesting the visuals evoked. This is dark, but it is a resplendent, ephemeral darkness that stands, wholly, on its own.
All right, this much regarding formal categories. However, one should also note that this adventure is also pretty diverse regarding the challenges faced. We begin with a catastrophe of vast proportions….and to discuss it, we have to go into the SPOILERS.
Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion – you do NOT want to SPOIL this one.
All right, only referees around? We begin this module with a crash. Literally. The dam has burst. Carrowmere lies submerged, and a 1-page flow-chart of things that happen, that can happen…and they are a panopticon of the myriad tragedies that can accompany within the context of such a catastrophe. 18 diverse encounters set the stage for things that range from the tragic to the wondrous. Food and theft, covert cannibals – some of these come with read-aloud text, traumatized folks that can only speak in denial and third person…there is, indeed, darkness and despair here – but there is also a wealthy man, who offer a fortune for the one thing he doesn’t have – a narrative that provides closure for the catastrophe.
However, PCs can’t truly dawdle; they only ever get to see a slice of the true dimension of the catastrophe (which means that this module does have a replay value!) – unbeknown to the PCs, at least for a while, there are the Crows. The Crows are a truly wicked group of psychotic adventurers; these rivals come fully stated, with excessively discussed and unique background stories and magic items, make for fantastic foils and also can act as a kind of timer. Per default, their progress is swift and methodical, though referees can adjust this factor, somewhat akin to “Better than Any Man,” without much issues. Echo By Frosen, for example, believes she can smell distrust; a nasty dwarf who stole a bow from a soul of a traumatized thief, whose body he trapped in a box beneath a glacier…oh, and he has no less than 6 different signature poisons…including liquid dyslexia. Zolushika Von Der Linth, the groups magic-user, has a unique snakewood staff and a displacement doll…oh, and the group gets detailed notes on tactics and “principles,” with nasty tactics noted. One of the best rival adventuring groups I have ever read.
Beyond Carrowmere lie the Drowned Lands – a wilderness trek up the stream, where gigantic pikes, a cow-sized killer platypus, house-sized horseshoe crabs and worse loom – including the turbine golems, once in charge of the dam, with polyhedral dice-shaped heads. These guards are doomed to fall, though – sooner or later… Beyond the diverse encounters available and the small stories and surreal components that are introduced here, we move to the first dungeon – the damn. As the PCs make their way past the remnants of a culture long gone, they can meet things in jars, berserker library-golems and strange beings…and then, the PCs witness the glory of the profundal zone, the second wilderness area.
Once flooded by the watermasses kept in check by the dam, we enter a land of wonder, of sub-aqueous landscapes, wondrous and dying under the glare of the light and exposure to air, where semi-intelligent, child-sized newts roam and fiendish-black bogmen, carapace’d in crystallized gold await confrontation. Ultimately, a huge, manufactured wound in the earth looms – the eponymous Deep Carbon Observatory.
Now, I did note before that doom looms if the PCs dawdle – the item that will threaten to break asunder the nations is not the primary “treasure” – it’s but one item left here, which, in the wrong hands (read: Those of the Crows) can result in tremendous ills…but there is more to be found within: Shriveled, desiccated myconids, spells of use for slaves (not statted – but reduce scars, hide sorrow, ease grief…speak a specific language…), hydraulic ooze-prisons, weighting stations with impossible weights (souls, innocence years, minutes of fear…), ray-reflecting materials, chambers housing tox-men that can create toxins lethal to anything or everyone, salt dryads, a hall of shells…there is so much wonder within this dungeon, it exceeds the amount of unique rooms and ideas found in some series (!!) of adventures! There is so much creativity here, a simple description of a geological sample made me smile with glee…and come up with a whole campaign-angle. “Ultra-compressed and tectonically warped bones of billions of vampires. The space between vampires is actually more vampires.“ (Yes, these little flourishes, weird and humorous, are intentional. Told you that this has a sense of humor!)
How could they be sustained? How did they meet their doom? It’s just a throwaway line, but much like the majority of this book, it is inspired. But how does this observatory work? Azimoths (kudos for the pun!) – moths that use infinite fractal compressions that annihilate awareness of space around them, creating a blind spot – the direction in which the moth flaps, ceases to exist for the observer, as the mind simply edits out that slice of space. The observatory uses these moths to look through the infinity of rocks, focusing the perspective of the user on the space between the edited components. This concept is amazing. Strange structures that change your position in relation to reality, clocks of geological time and a 3-page “you see”-table for spontaneous weirdness, 10 odd books…and there is the Giant. Immortal, white, creepy – caked in dust, capable of compressing into smallest regions, this thing is horrid, extremely powerful, and adds a great survival-horror angle to the exploration of the observatory itself.
Editing and formatting are pretty good on a formal level; on a rules-language level, it is a bit basic, but does unique and creative things with these components. Layout adheres to a smooth one-column b/w-standard. The artwork, as noted before, is amazing and just as polarizing as the prose. I love it. Do you like the cover? Then you’ll like the interior artwork. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. I do own the PoD-version, which, while more grey than black, is a nice softcover…and this one is definitely worth owning in print. The maps, while aesthetically pleasing, are pretty tough on the GM – the excellent fan-made maps are highly-recommended for the final dungeon; still, as noted, I can’t include them in my rating. We do not get a proper player-friendly version of the maps, which is a tragedy of sorts as far as I’m concerned.
So, here’s the thing. To my knowledge, this is Patrick Stuart’s first book. Seriously, for this book alone, I’ll be eternally grateful to Zzarchov Kowolski, who btw. commissioned this module.
Let me spell it out, with abundant clarity:
Deep Carbon Observatory is a masterpiece. It is raw; it is not easy to run. It’s not convenient. I wouldn’t recommend this for novice referees. It’s also no happy-go-lucky fantasy, so if that’s your cup of tea, you probably won’t like it. The map support is absolutely not up to the ideal, aesthetics notwithstanding. This, alone, should cost this adventure a star.
Deep Carbon Observatory is, however, one of the best and most inspiring instances of incredibly concise, filler-less adventure-writing I have ever seen. There is more inspiration in some of the non-sequitur lines within than in a lot of whole adventure-series, heck, in whole mega-adventures. It is raw, but its unbridled creativity, its vast ambition, its, at the same time, nightmarish and gorgeous, funny and sad vistas stuck with me. They remain with me beyond reading, beyond playing. It delivers, in spades, a sense of jamais-vu, a distinct authorial (meant in the truest and most well-intentioned sense of the word), uncompromising vision of something that is wondrous, weird…alien, even…that is strange and UNIQUE. Much like the eponymous observatory, one almost feels like this book is a lens, like its pages are suffused with Azimoths, blending out the surroundings while allowing us a glimpse at a world that had me craving more.
There is no adventure like this in my vast collection of roleplaying modules.
If you haven’t already, get it. This is ART, yes, but it is also a MODULE; and these components, for once, are not in conflict with one another. Yes, this can polarize; perhaps you’ll hate it for its clunky rawness…but you won’t be left shrugging your shoulders. This demands being engaged, it can’t *not* elicit a response.
Deep Carbon Observatory belongs into the library of every ardent fan of RPGs; if you even remotely enjoy the unconventional and weird, if you even remotely like dark material, then consider this to be a top priority indeed. This module was released 2014, and had I known about it back then, it would have made my personal Top Ten list. I consider this to be one of the best adventures I have read in the last 10 years. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in old-school gaming, this is well worth getting for the incredible density of truly creative ideas – which, ultimately, no reviewer would be able to replicate and convey. I, at least, can’t – I have merely scratched the surface of what makes this fantastic in the truest sense of the word.
So yeah, 5 stars + seal of approval, in spite of the map-issue. I’d give it 6 if I could.
You can get this masterpiece here!
The top-down fan-maps of the final dungeon can be found here!