Monday, November 24, 2014

Go Buy Deep Carbon Observatory... Go On Now... Get.

I have been searching for some time now for the perfect words to describe Patrick Stuart’s writing style, to encapsulate in brief his stunningly unique voice; in this, I have failed. However, I keep circling back to two words that I believe will suffice: poetic and ineffable.

Patrick has a way with words notable for both its brevity and hint towards expansiveness. “Kill them. Make them afraid. Explain nothing.” “The water of the river is ripe with life, over-full with predators. Pike and strange pale squid flit to and fro. Cuttlefish can barely be seen; camouflage flows across their pigmented skin like paint. ¶ Upriver, in the distance, rises a column of smoke or grey cloud. The only other signs to mark the sky are carrion birds. Columns of their moving forms make black signals in the grey air, sketching spirals over the accumulated dead.” 2 brief paragraphs, 5 sentences drown an entire valley and kill most of its occupants.

(The assonance, consonance, sibilance, and false rhymes conspire to give the paragraphs far more weight than they could hold at a glance. This prose is so full of prosody that it breaks like the damn and floods the mind with wild and sickening images.

The columns in the sky both mirror and presage the horrible column/ stalactite hanging down into the bleak, black void below.)

Less poetical things to note:

Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) is an 85 pg. adventure on A5-ish sized paper, perfect bound and soft cover. It is greyscale in its entirety. It is stunningly written by Patrick Stewart and evocatively illustrated by Scrap Princess. I was graciously awarded a copy for this review. DCO costs $10 Digital or $13.30 Dead Tree.

The adventure begins in the drowned city of Carrowmore where a series of terrible situations await the PCs. Much has been written about this introduction, and with reason. There are no good paths to choose. The best one can hope for is to save some few of these folk by intensely focusing on achievable objectives.

The manner in which this bewildering array of horribleness is presented is pure genius. That tiny bit of design alone is nearly worth the price of admission.

DCO then moves forward from the very real and very human tragedies of Carrowmore into a surreal and sodden landscape in which the barriers between water and land have been shattered. There are ruthless magical killers, giant lake fauna, ridiculous magi, floating sarcophagi, hydrological golems, corpse filled toads, and much, much more. Several sessions could be spent exploring the valley and the drained lake, depending on how goal-driven vs. curious the PCs may be.

The main show is the Observatory itself. The place feels as though it was produced through time by an esoteric and sadistic society operating under completely alien values to observe an even more alien existence below them.

In case you haven’t decided if Deep Carbon Observatory would be to your taste, here are a few more things from within this slim folio.

  • A result from an encounter chart: “A chunk of Ambergris in the hands of a corpse being attacked by a Giant Carnivorous Platypus.”
  • Slave Spells: “Reduce Scars… Ease Greif”
  • A core sample from a stratum of rock that is actually an infinite reduction of vampire bones.
  • An allusion to this.

There is much more that could be said, but I don’t want rob you of the adventure of reading or playing this thing.

About the Art:

It’s good. It’s all in Scrap Princess’s splintery style. That’s the sort of thing you love or you hate (or you feel another way about). I especially liked the By Frosens, the Neptunium Child, and the Pale Giant. Her style can be viewed here.

Also, the maps are fine, though could have been more clearly labeled considering the size they were ultimately rendered to.  I expect I’ll have no problem using the vertical map of the Observatory proper when I get a chance to run this thing. I’ve ran a few dungeons with only side view maps without any issue.

Oh I’m going to run this fucking thing. I just have to wait until my players level up some and are foolish enough to go to the Feywode. (DCO doesn’t really fit in Fantasy Colonial America, but would work just fine in fairy-land.) Judging by the stat blocks, I’d run this unchanged for parties between levels 3 and 6 depending on the cleverness of the players and the size of the group.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth:

Patrick has described the layout of DCO as functional; I believe this is a fair assessment. The utilitarian layout suits the subject matter well enough and everything you might need at any particular moment will be within a couple of pages. Ideally you wouldn’t need to flip more than one page. We'll really you wouldn't have flip around at all in a perfect book, but meh.

The copy I got seems to have a lighter greyish cover rather than the bolder blacks I’ve seen in other copies. All the art is similarly washed-out, which is a shame because I find that Scrap’s style looks best in high contrast.  Though I must add that none of this harms the usability nor my enjoyment of DCO.

Also, I don’t like many of the names. They’re a bit all over the place: some vaguely Mesoamerican, some vaguely Dutch, some just overwrought fantasy names. Really though, the names in a module are the thing I imagine get changed more than anything else, and Patrick’s choices here will work in just as many settings as they wouldn’t.

Overall Verdict:

Go buy this fucking thing… It’s incredibly good and very, very interesting.

As soon as I run it, there will be a play report. Until then,