Friday 18 September 2020

Condensation in Action 9: Carrion Crown

As I try to get back into the groove of blogging again, I thought one good way to do it might be via another Condensation in Action post. I find these useful as mental exercises: looking at someone else's material and thinking about what I'd keep and what I'd cut, and why, is helpful practise for my work as a writer and GM of my own adventures. As usual, this post will take a massively bloated Pathfinder adventure path and hack it down into something that someone might actually be able to play. This time, the series in my crosshairs is Carrion Crown. 

Previous Condensation in Action posts can be found here:

Carrion Crown was Paizo's first attempt to do a proper horror-fantasy campaignIt's set in a mock-Eastern-European region which was clearly meant to be Pathfinder's answer to Ravenloft, and the whole campaign walks the PCs through a sort of 'greatest hits' version of the pop culture horror canon. Book one: ghosts. Book two: Frankenstein. Book three: werewolves. Book four: Cthulhu mythos. Book five: vampires. Book six: fantasy undead. 

All Adventure Paths are uneven, but Carrion Crown is extreme. Part one is a good low-level dungeon crawl in a haunted prison. Part six is a good high-level dungeon crawl in a haunted church. Almost everything in between is incoherent rubbish: one contrived fight scene after another with only the most tenuous tissue of railroaded plotting to hold them together. In this post, I'm going to be channelling my own inner Frankenstein as I cut out the best bits and try to stitch them together into NEW LIFE...

The Backstory: This adventure is set in a desolate region that was ruled, centuries ago, by an infamous necromancer called The Whispering Tyrant. The Tyrant was eventually defeated in battle, and his haunted stronghold, the Gallowspire, was left to fall into ruin. The whole region has had an evil reputation ever since.

Recently a young aristocrat named Adivion Adrissant, whose two main interests were necromancy and genealogy, discovered that the Tyrant's line was not extinct, as had previously been thought: he had a living lineal descendant in the form of one Count Galdana, a local nobleman. Upon learning this, Adivion came up with a terrible brilliant plan: using the unique magic he had researched, he would call the Tyrant's soul down through the generations into Galdana's body, allowing him to learn sorcery from one of the greatest necromancers in history! To help him gather the necessary reagents, he used his charisma, wealth, and connections to gather a small cult of debauched followers. Calling themselves the Whispering Way, they believed that the returned Tyrant would make them kings and queens in exchange for their assistance with his resurrection.

Adivion's plan required four specific components: the ectoplasmic essence of a powerful ghost, the heart of a werewolf alpha, the magic from a powerful holy item, and Galdana himself. Ever impatient, Adivion has sent his followers out to grab all these at once, hoping to rush through the Tyrant's resurrection while he is still young and beautiful. The consequences of these none-too-subtle acquisitions have destabilised the whole region... which is where the PCs come in.

The Hook: The default starting point is for the PCs to be passing through Ravengro, when the locals beg them to investigate their haunted prison. However, given that Adivion's actions have pretty much thrown the whole region into chaos, the PCs can start from just about anywhere, as all the threads connect to one another in the end. 

Harrowstone: The ruins of this infamous prison stands on the edge of the town of Ravengro. Once a place for the imprisonment and execution of the region's most notorious criminals, it burned down fifty years ago in a fire started during a prison riot, and has been abandoned ever since. It is also famously haunted, which led the Whispering Way to pick it as a good site from which to acquire the ghost essence their ritual required.

The Harrowstone fire claimed the lives of guards and prisoners alike, and ever since the ghosts of Harrowstone have existed in a kind of stand-off, with the ghost of the prison warden acting as jailer to the ghosts of his prisoners in death just as he did in life. Unfortunately the Whispering Way grabbed the warden's ghost in an ectoplasmic siphon, and now the murderous ghosts of Harrowstone are on the brink of breaking out. Only the ghost of the warden's wife, Vesorianna, stands between them and freedom.

Ravengro: Everyone in this town knows that something terrible is happening. Everyone's got stories to tell about nightmares, hallucinations, episodes of missing time, and poltergeist activity. Everyone blames the ghosts at the old prison, but any locals who go near the place get chased off by skeletons. As Vesorianna's hold over the ghosts weakens, the manifestations of the haunting grow more extreme: torches flame up and cause house fires, zombies shamble from the cemetery, screaming flaming skulls hurtle through the sky by night. The letter V starts turning up on buildings, daubed in blood: then, a few days later, the letters VE, and so on. (This is the work of the Splatter Man: see below.) If the haunting isn't stopped before he spells out the whole name VESORIANNA, then the ghosts of the prison will burst their cage and the whole town will be abandoned amidst mass spirit possession and indiscriminate poltergeist activity. The people will beg (and, if necessary, bribe) the PCs to help lay the ghosts in the prison to rest.

PCs who do some investigating can discover that the town's troubles began shortly after the arrival of a group of travellers who stayed a few days, supposedly in order to 'study the local landmarks', before riding on to Lepidstadt. (These, of course, were the Whispering Way cultists who abducted the warden's ghost.)

Approaching the prison: The prison graveyard, where executed convicts were buried in unmarked graves, has collapsed into a sinkhole, and mud-dripping skeletons of the vengeful dead will come staggering out to drive off those who come too close. Once these are defeated or bypassed then the prison ruins can be entered, but poltergeist activity within is rampant: floating brands try to burn intruders, hurtling scalpels fly around the prison infirmary, rusted chains fly up to bind and strangle, etc. Most dangerous of all is a rusted furnace containing the bones of a prisoner burned alive by sadistic guards: now his bones burn eternally, and the furnace lashes out with great tongues of flame at anyone who approaches. If his bones could be cooled (e.g. by throwing water on them) the furnace would go out. Vesorianna's ghost waits beyond, haunting the way down to the cells below.

Vesorianna's ghost. I'm sure there's a totally legitimate in-universe reason why the damage to her clothes persists but the damage to her skin does not.

Vesorianna: Like her husband, she died in the fire. Now she tries to hold back the teeming ghosts in the dungeons below, though her grip is weakening. She will tell PCs that the ghosts do not regard her as the true warden, and will thus not obey her, and begs them to retrieve her husband's badge of office from the dungeons beneath. If they tell her about the bloody letters in town she will realise that this is the work of the Splatter Man, and plead with them to stop him before he finishes spelling out her name. If the PCs can return her husband's badge to her, then she will take her place as the new warden of Harrowstone and force the ghosts of the prisoners back into their cells. However, if the Splatter Man finishes spelling out her name before this happens, she will lose all her power and become a mere wraith wailing around the ruins of the prison. 

Vesorianna saw the Whispering Way cultists who abducted her husband's ghost. She can describe them to the PCs, and tell them they spoke about heading to Lepidstadt next, but won't volunteer this information unless they help her with the prison situation. 

The dungeons: Here most of the prisoners died in their cells, burned by fire, suffocated by smoke, or crushed by rubble from the collapsing prison - but not before they got their hands on several of the prison guards, who were decapitated by the Lopper. (See below.) Now the ever-burning skulls and skeletons of the murdered guards roam the corridors attacking trespassers, in two separate patrols: one of headless flaming skeletons, and one of flying burning skulls. The cells are also haunted by the ghosts of four notorious criminals - the Lopper, the Piper, the Mosswater Marauder, and the Splatter Man - which each haunt a different part of the cells, and will attempt to stop the PCs from recovering the warden's badge of office.

The Lopper: A mad axeman who was imprisoned in the prison's oubliette. Now his axe-wielding ghost pops out of the oubliette to try to decapitate anyone nearby. Completely fixated on his axe, which can be found elsewhere in the prison: anyone wielding it can wound him, and destroying it banishes him.

The Piper: A serial killer who dosed his victims with paralytic poison, then used his pipes to call flocks of tame stirges to suck their blood. His ghostly piping has called stirge swarms to his section of the prison ruins, where they now nest, and if anyone approaches his bones he will pipe a tune that causes their muscles to seize up and blood to trickle out of tiny bleeding holes in their body. His pipe is still locked in an evidence locker in the warden's old office, and destroying it ends his haunting.

The Mosswater Marauder: Crazed by the death of his wife, this man murdered several people and smashed their skulls to pieces, convinced his dead wife could be revived if only he could find a piece that exactly matched the missing fragment of her skull. Now his ghost roams the prison whacking people with its ghostly hammer, accompanied by the floating, ghostly, incomplete skull of his wife. He has obsessively collected and reassembled every skull in the prison (apart from the flaming ones), and his cell is full of them. Destroying these skulls will banish him.

The Mosswater Marauder.

The Splatter Man: In life, a crazed serial killer with a gimmick - he would taunt his intended victims by writing their names in blood on walls and objects, then arrange for their deaths in apparently random (but extremely messy) accidents. Now he's a ghost, and causality runs the other way around: if he writes someone's name on something in blood, then that object will catastrophically break / fail / collapse when they come close, harming or killing them in the process. He keeps a herd of rats around for this very purpose, telekinetically draining them of blood. The strongest of the ghosts, he's sometimes able to slip past Vesorianna's guard and possess random villagers as they sleep, forcing them to write letters in blood on the walls of buildings in the town. If he finishes writing her name then her power will be broken, and he and the other ghosts will be free. His ghost haunts the torture chamber where the warden was murdered during the original prison riot, and where his rusted badge of office is still to be found. (No shortcuts on this one: the PCs are just going to have to run the gauntlet of his splatter traps to get the badge. Clever PCs can protect themselves by using fake names while in the dungeons, as he has no supernatural means of learning what their names are, and only a real name will trigger his traps.)

Lepidstadt: This large university town is currently in uproar. Everyone knows that the nearby swamps have been haunted for years by a hulking monster, the so-called Beast of Lepidstadt, who is blamed for dozens of murders and disappearances: but a few days ago the creature, which turned out to be an intelligent flesh golem, was caught breaking into the university archives! Now it's been captured and is being held for trial - and subsequent execution, as soon as they can figure out a way to actually kill it.

PCs who investigate the affair will swiftly realise it doesn't make much sense. When the monster was captured it was wandering around in a state of addled confusion, randomly smashing things, but if questioned it seems alert and articulate. It didn't break anything on the way in, heading instead for a single cabinet and smashing it open, and only afterwards began its random rampage. The seastone idol that the targeted cabinet once contained is now missing, even though everything else the Beast smashed is clearly present (albeit in pieces). And the Beast itself claims to have no memory of the entire affair, and also denies being responsible for any of the other murders it's been blamed for, claiming that it's been living peacefully in the swamps ever since it was first abandoned by its creator. (This isn't quite true - it has a bad temper and has killed a few people who antagonised it over the years - but it is innocent of the murders it's being accused of.) 

In fact the Beast was mind-controlled by the Whispering Way into carrying out the robbery, using the machine at Castle Caromarc (see below). They used the Beast to steal the idol, which they needed to trade to the Deep Ones at Ilmarsh, and then left it behind to take the blame. The last thing the Beast remembers before his memory blank is seeing a group of men approaching. PCs who come to Lepidstadt from Ravengro will be able to match them to the descriptions of the men who stole the warden's ghost. The Beast promises to help the PCs find them if they can help save it from execution.

Investigating the murders: The murders that the Beast is being tried for were actually committed by a pair of body-snatchers named Vorkstag and Grine, who have mastered a horrible technique for disguising themselves using preserved and flayed-off human faces. There are two main charges: a string of disappearances at a village in the swamps, and an arson attack on an asylum which stood on an island in a nearby lake. 

  • The village was targeted by Vorkstag and Grine because of the preservative qualities of its soil. They emptied its graveyard one grave at a time, and when demand outstripped supply they started murdering locals. Their first victim was a local poacher whose face Grine wore in order to infiltrate the community, and the actual murders were carried out by Vorkstag wearing the face of a horribly deformed man, ensuring that any witnesses would be led astray. The villagers still boast of how they drove the 'Beast' out of their boneyard, but a careful search of the site will reveal a secret stash containing medical tools and the poacher's preserved and flayed-off face. If the tools are shown to local manufacturers of medical implements, they can identify them as part of a bulk order sold to Vorkstag and Grine Chymical Works.
  • The asylum doctor had a two-way deal with Vorkstag and Grine, buying bodies from them in bulk for his own medical research while selling them the corpses of his own more physically unusual patients. He eventually became suspicious about exactly where all these fresh corpses were coming from and tried to break off the deal, at which point Vorkstag put on his monster face, killed the doctor, and burned the place down. Witnesses report seeing the 'Beast' fleeing the scene, but a careful search of the burned-out ruins reveal hidden dissection rooms below, and charred but still legible account books showing regular payments to and from Vorkstag and Grine Chymical Works. 
The Chymical Works: Vorkstag and Grine are still very much in business, running a horrible chemical company that supplies the university laboratories with all sorts of chemicals and compounds derived from human corpses. Their tightly-sealed compound, notable for the foul black smoke that pours day and night from its chimney, is staffed by freakish and horribly acid-burned workmen. Within, alchemical zombies float in pools of ice-water below the chemical works proper: these wretched creatures retain their intelligence only as long as Vorkstag and Grine give them regular alchemical injections into their brains, which they use to retain their loyalty. (If the PCs can steal the relevant chemicals and a box of syringes for them, they'll turn on Vorkstag and Grine in an instant.) In a locked room hangs a wardrobe full of flayed-off human skins, and a stack of hatboxes containing flayed-off human faces, which Vorkstag and Grine use for their horrible disguises. One of these is the deformed face that people at the village and asylum misidentified as belonging to the Beast, which should be enough to clear its name.

The skin wardrobe. Ewww.

Castle Caromarc: If the PCs save the Beast, it will tell them that the men who controlled it must have done so using the machines of its creator, the reclusive Count Caromarc. If they don't save it, then as it is dragged off to execution it will roar and bellow that its 'father' Count Caromarc will never forgive them for this, which should point them in the same direction!

Caromarc built the Beast years ago as a substitute child, after the death of his son. Unfortunately he liked the idea of being a father much more than the reality and soon got bored of it, leaving the neglected Beast to wander off into the swamps: but he recognised that having a nigh-indestructible golem on call might still be handy, so before it left he built a machine, the Bondslave Thrall, which allowed him to seize control over its body remotely from the comfort of his own castle. (The Beast has no memory of what it does while under the control of the machine.) The Whispering Way tried to recruit Caromarc, but when he rebuffed them they locked him in a cage to starve and used the Bondslave Thrall to force the Beast to steal the seastone idol from the university for them. Caromarc barely ever leaves the castle anyway, so his disappearance has not yet been noticed by anyone else.

Castle Caromarc has two main guardians. The main castle is roamed by a clattering hook-clawed apparatus that attacks anyone not accompanied by someone wearing the count's livery: fortunately uniforms can easily be looted from his various dead guards and servants. The count's private rooms - his museum, library, and laboratory - are protected by a blind flesh golem, accompanied by a fluttering cloud of six mind-bonded homunculi: these act as its eyes, allowing it to see six different places at once, but killing them all will leave it blind and easy to evade. Caromarc himself is locked inside a cage in his own lab, which has become the web-swathed nesting place of his latest creation, an awful human-spider hybrid monster released by the Whispering Way on their way out. He would have long since died of thirst were it not for his faithful mute homunculus, Waxwing, who sneaks in every day with meals of crumbs and water under the cover of its ring of invisibility. Waxwing will invisibly observe the PCs as they move through the castle, and will attempt to guide them up to the lab to free his master. The Beast has no desire to return to the castle, but clever PCs might locate and use the Bondslave Thrall to force it back there to fight Caromarc's guardians on their behalf. 

Count Caromarc: If the PCs save him, Caromarc will be hugely grateful, and will happily tell them about the Whispering Way. He knows that they came to Lepidstadt from Ravengro, and that some of them were planning to take the stolen idol to Ilmarsh, while others headed for the Stairs of the Moon in the woods nearby to seek out the local werewolves. He also recalls them discussing some kind of plan involving the nearby city of Caliphas.

The Stairs of the Moon: A ruined shrine deep in the woods, now used as a meeting place for the local werewolves. A band of Whispering Way cultists led by Auren Vrood (see below) ambushed the local alpha here, killed him, and stole his heart for their ritual: Auren then went on to Feldgrau, while his assistants carried the heart to the cult's leaders at Renchurch. Now the two leading werewolf packs - the Prince's Wolves and the Demon Wolves - are engaged in a civil war over who should be the next alpha, much to the consternation of the humans in the nearby villages, who are terrified by all the howling from the woods at night. PCs can pick a side in the battle if they like, or just interrogate a random werewolf to find out what's going on and then leave them to fight it out.

Feldgrau: Two decades ago, the people of this remote village were massacred in a petty war. The only survivor was a boy named Auren Vrood, who lived for in the ruins years as a traumatised scavenger before being found by Adivion Adrissant, who was on a bit of a dark tourism kick at the time. Adivion adopted Auren and taught him necromancy, and now he's returned to animate his slaughtered community as skeleton warriors to take revenge on the world in general. The werewolves know full well that he was involved in the murder of their previous alpha, and as soon as their civil war is settled they'll descend in force on Feldgrau to avenge him, even if it means fighting through Auren's nascent skeleton army. Auren is stubbornly loyal to Adivion's cause, but he's also rather unhinged, and PCs can potentially learn a lot about the Whispering Way's various plans in Ravengro, Lepidstadt, Ilmarsh, Renchurch and Caliphas by secretly listening to his ranting, goading him into making Evil Villain Monologues, etc. 

Ilmarsh: This town is under the protection of Deep Ones in the nearby bay, who watch over it in exchange for regular sacrifices. The Whispering Way came here because they needed a powerful holy mace, the Raven's Head, which was lost beneath the bay centuries ago. The Deep Ones agreed to retrieve it in exchange for the return of their seastone idol, which led the cultists to stage their break-in at the university. They've since picked up the mace and headed on to Renchurch via Caliphas.

PCs visiting Ilmarsh may want to amuse themselves by raiding the local not-so-secret temple to Dagon, or by exploring a ruinous manor house in the swamps nearby which houses the town's leaders: its foundations incorporate an ancient and unholy stone circle, and it is guarded by an ambibious marsh giant who serves as the Deep Ones' champion. They probably won't want to explore the underwater lair of the Deep Ones themselves, which is in any case guarded by a giant octopus. All they really need to do is kick in enough doors to learn that the Whispering Way carried the idol here, swapped it with the Deep Ones in exchange for something powerful from beneath the sea, and then left for Renchurch via Caliphas

The Stupid Fucking Vampire Subplot: So there are these three witches, right? Except one of them is about to get burned at the stake, so she distributes her consciousness into a massive swarm of spiders and they all run off into the mountains. And while they're up there they find this accursed immortal knight called Konas, who is just a suit of plate mail armour with blood constantly seeping from between the joints, and they magically control him into working for them. And then they meet Adivion and I can only assume that he was really fucking high at the time because he's like, hey, why not use your magic blood knight to make addictive strength-boosting blood potions for vampires and then use them to make some young vampires murder some old vampires and then we'll have an army of vampires and that'll come in useful, somehow, I guess. So now the city of Caliphas is full of vampires killing other vampires and the PCs might want to look into that at some point. If you only cut one part of the whole adventure, make it this one.

Caliphas: This large and decadent city has been thrown into consternation by the mysterious recent disappearances of some of its palest and most fashionable citizens, including the sinfully sexy Adivion Adrissant (who has, of course, left for Gallowspire to resurrect the Tyrant) and the ludicrously wealthy Count Galdana (who was abducted by Adivion). The other vanished notables were just vampires murdered as part of Adivion's shadow war. PCs looking into these disappearances will soon be sought out by Quinley Basdel, a dhampir thief whose vampire mother was among the victims of the recent killing spree. He can confirm that all the disappered other than Adivion and Galdana were old high-ranking vampires with plenty of mind-controlled spawn, all of whom are free now - but while the PCs will probably instantly suspect the spawn, the city's vampires have never even considered the possibility, because vampire spawn are normally unable to act against their own makers. Even a small amount of investigation by PCs without these particular blinders will reveal that the spawn were the killers, and that they've all been making regular visits to a winery outside the city ever since: this is where the witches give them the addictive bloodbrew which boosts their physical and psychic strength, allowing them to overcome the mind control of their sires, and encourage them to pass it on to other spawn like themselves. The witches currently have a small army of vampire spawn bloodbrew junkies coming and going from their winery by night, which is attracting some attention among the local population. 

The Winery: If the PCs raid the winery they'll find the two still-human witches, Aisa and Hetna, in there making bloodbrew potions using the blood that constantly leaks out of the accursed blood knight, Konas, while their spider-swarm sister, Oothi, acts as lookout, watching through a million eyes. They also have a sideline in distilling vampire essence from all those murdered vampires, with the objective of making potions of youth for their human patron, Countess Carmilla Caliphvaso, who owns the winery. Aisa and Hetna are absolutely terrible at OpSec, and their winery is full of incriminating (and rather spicy) correspondence between them and Adivion about the plan to resurrect the Tyrant, the cult's base at Renchurch, their activities in Ravengro, Ilmarsh, and Lepidstadt, etc. Konas is slow but borderline-unkillable, but killing Aisa and Hetna will break their control over him and allow him to flee back into the mountains to sulk for another few centuries, causing all the vampires junkies to die in agonising withdrawal pangs once the bloodbrew supply runs out.

Konas. From dark knight to vampire drug factory.

Renchurch: This ruined church, deep in the wilderness, is the stronghold of the Whispering Way. (If the PCs befriended the Beast or the werewolves, now would be a good time to call in their favours!) It is haunted by the ghost of an ancient heretic, the Grey Friar: steeped in centuries of evil, the Friar sees Adivion as a bit of an idiot, but is willing to work with him in the hope of bringing his old buddy the Whispering Tyrant back to the world. Adivion has stashed the kidnapped Count Galdana here, and the Grey Hermit is preparing him for his transformation by slowly leeching his mind and soul away, reducing him to a blank slate ready to be overwritten by the Tyrant's spirit. 

The church is guarded by a pale, crooked-bodied, three-armed giant in a black robe, as well as by a host of ghostly monks, the slaves of the Grey Friar. If the alarm is raised, the ghosts will ring the great, cracked bells, and waterlogged corpses will come lurching from the monastery pond, reduced to bog mummies by centuries in the earth. The nearby graveyard has been desecrated so many times that very earth has become furious, and now seeks to devour anyone who steps on it unless they obviously come to repair its tombs and rebury its plundered bones. (Clever PCs can use this against their enemies.) The iron doors of the church are built from hundreds of rusted, cursed swords, which snap outwards to decapitate intruders unless deactivated via a hidden switch nearby.

As PCs enter the church, its unholy power will wash over them: whispers fill their minds, weapons rot and rust, armour tarnishes, and holy symbols suddenly become loathsome to the touch. They will be stricken with nausea, and those who succumb will find themselves vomiting up floods of flesh-eating beetles that promptly try to eat them alive. The church is also guarded by a terrible undead wolf with human hands instead of paws, whose gaze causes sickness, and whose proximity induces crippling weakness and fatigue. Fortunately for the PCs, these supernatural security features have rendered the Whispering Way cultists within so complacent that they spend most of their time snorting mummy dust and inhaling ectoplasm from hookah pipes, and are consequently unlikely to mount any kind of effective defence. The one asset they do have is a giant life-draining lens that they use to turn human captives into ghouls, which they will attempt to deploy in battle as a potentially powerful but extremely inaccurate weapon. Once they are defeated, the way to the catacombs will be clear.

Renchurch Catacombs: Here bloated ghouls, created by the lens above, gorge themselves on corpses. Stuffed human heads line the walls: when intruders approach they begin gulping convulsively, sucking all the air out of the room, requiring PC to move quickly to destroy them before they suffocate. Sinkholes in the ground flood unpredictably with icy water mixed with worms, dead flesh, and bones. Side-rooms house the ghosts of dead necromancers who act as tutors to the cultists, and a collection of skulls and jawbones: matching a skull with the right jawbone allows the spirit trapped within to speak, but attaching the wrong jawbone just results in maddening chattering sounds that will bring the ghouls running. In the deepest subterranean shrine the Grey Friar himself hovers over Count Galdana, draining his life-force away by inches, surrounded by unholy ever-burning flames: these are piled high with the charred bones of all the human sacrifices burned within them, which will animate and leap out as flaming skeletons to defend the shrine from intruders. If these are defeated, the Grey Friar will simply vanish, letting the PCs take Galdana rather than risk his own immortal existence for the sake of Adivion's plan.

If saved, Galdana will gradually recover from his ordeal, but the ritual components the PCs have been tracking - the werewolf heart, the ghost essence, and the Raven's Head - aren't here. By interrogating Galdana, a captured cultist, or one of the talking skulls, the PCs can learn that Adivion took them with him to Gallowspire, where Galdana was meant to be brought for his final transformation.

Adivion in his stupid tryhard necromancer outfit. What a loser.

Gallowspire: Once the stronghold of the Whispering Tyrant, this tower stands in the middle of a ruined city of sulpherous sinkholes, impaling gardens, and pavements of skulls that turn to bite the feet of anyone who tries to walk upon them. It is surrounded by a perpetual storm of screaming spirits, and two giant zombie knights guard the gate. Countless rusted hooks hang from the tower on the ends of chains, with impaled bodies dangling from them - these are, of course, animated, and will swing out to grab at anyone who comes within reach. Adivion, being a massive drama llama, is sitting right on the top of the tower with the ritual components around him, practising his evil villain speeches and waiting for his followers to bring Galdana to him.

As soon as Adivion sees the PCs approaching the tower, he will realise that the game is up. Instead of waiting for Galdana, he will use the prepared ritual on himself, naively assuming that his own necromantic talents will be enough to keep the spirit of the Whispering Tyrant under control. The result will be a bit like locking a wannabe teenage Satanist in a room with Vlad the Impaler, and by the time the PCs get to the top of the tower Adivion will be in a pitiful state, screaming and pleading and babbling as his body disintegrates under the impact of the Tyrant's assault from within, his voice intermittently drowned out by the roars and whispers of the Tyrant himself. He's not part of the Tyrant's bloodline, and he hasn't been properly prepared for the transformation, so the result will never be more than a massively-imperfect synthesis of his own collapsing body with the Tyrant's undying will. Even that adds up to something pretty dangerous, though, so the PCs should really kill him before the Tyrant manages to integrate himself any further...

Aftermath: The death of Adivion means the end of the Whispering Way, and the end of the line for its various accomplices. The estates of Adivion and Countess Carmilla will be seized, and the grateful Count Galdana will see to it that the PCs are generously rewarded from both these funds and from his own vast personal fortune. If the PCs retrieved the skulls from beneath Renchurch, they will also be in possession of an incredible unliving library of magical knowledge, much of it otherwise lost to the ages. Equipped with such knowledge, they might even start speculating how to bind or banish the ghost of the Whispering Tyrant for themselves....


  1. The D&D 3e “adventure path” beginning with Sunless Citadel and ending in Bastion of Broken Souls is a good candidate for this treatment I think! Each one is about 38 pages, with everything from great old school dungeon crawl to sloppy railroad investigation, and one pointless side-jaunt to help some giant bat-people

    1. Huh - I read Sunless Citadel years ago, and quite liked parts of it, but never realised that it was the first part of a series. I'll have to look them up. Were they any good?

    2. I think Sunless Citadel is good (three factions and a tree grown from the stake in an evil vampire) and Forge of Fury is excellent. You can really see the effect of them being written in the early days of the new edition in Forge, with it's multiple dungeon entrances, mix of faction types, and non-skill-based trap detection. A roper encounter in particular (which, as a helpful sidebar explains is meant to be clearly telegraphed) is designed to teach players to retreat from fights and think of lateral solutions, and set off years of loud complaints on forums for its lack of encounter balance.

      The middle few seem to be scene-based investigations, and I've only skimmed one of them, The Standing Stone. It's got a goofy scheme involving a village of animals that have been turned into people and is designed to trick the players in kind of a dumb way ("ah, you assumed that villagers handing out quests were Good did you? Well that was actually the ghost of a paladin, don't you look foolish now!") but it's at least specific?

      Of the later ones I've only read Nightfang Spire, which would be a good dungeon if you dialed back some of the filler fights and features the return of the vampire from dungeon #1, now somehow un-staked. I don't know if the climactic adventure is good but it's got a big red dragon gorging himself on the souls of the unborn, so feels like there should be something you could work with, you know?

    3. Would second this! Been a solid 2.5 years since one of these was published, but I love reading them.

  2. Brilliant! Maybe the Stupid Fucking Vampire Subplot could be made relevant via tying it in to the other plots more? Make one of the generic villains part of the vampire group, or make the witches somehow involved in the fires at the prison, or some such. If nothing else, more connective tissue from one part of the adventure to the other would be useful!

    1. It really would. Believe it or not, the published version links them together even less: each adventure is almost completely disconnected from the rest, linked together by nothing more than an NPC at the end of each of them saying 'by the way, those guys you're after went that way'. (Why the PCs are supposed to care so much about all the nonsense they keep blundering into along the way is beyond me.) I considered cutting the whole section, but on balance I liked the spider-witch and the blood knight enough to keep it. If I ever ran this I'd make the whole subplot strictly optional, though.

  3. I always thought that Second Darkness and Serpent's Skull looked very intereating, but like all adventure paths I believe, they seemed to bog down very quickly after the second adventure.
    Do you think they might be interesting to cover?

    1. Hang on, I've read those. Let me dredge my memory.

      Serpent's Skull part 1 would be a good stand-alone adventure if you cut all the pointless bloat. Parts 2 and 4 were filler. Parts 3, 5, and 6 could be condensed together to make a decent 'lost city' adventure, and might be worth a post one of these days.

      Second Darkness I found disappointing. I did swipe a few of the Underdark bits for my own game, though.

    2. I played Serpent Skull with my local group using an open table format and I basically concur - the best part was the 1st module, and the 'lost city' sections had promise as a sandbox except that they were terribly written as sandboxes and basically required the DM to do almost all the work.

      Shortly after the campaign ended I found your site and all the deconstructions and pretty much agree with all the points you make when you pull, poke and prod at these things. I also stopped playing PF.

      I'd still be interested in your SS treatment, though.

  4. Oh my god these names. Gallowspire? Harrowstone? Ilmarsh? THE SPLATTER MAN?

    (Ravengro I'll give them - sounds like something you'd buy at a pet store if birds grew in pots.)

    Do you think you'd ever run this, even in condensed form?

    (I was going to suggest trying a condensation on one of the FFG 40K campaigns, but I'm not sure it'd be worth it, even as a palate cleanser. Mayyybe Haarlock Legacy.)

    1. I kept thinking that, too. 'RAVEN-GRO! For GROWING RAVENS!'

      Run the whole thing? Nah. I run wide-open, go-anywhere, do-anything sandboxes, so even condensed adventure paths aren't very useful to me. But I swipe individual bits and pieces from Pathfinder APs all the time. In this case Harrowstone and Renchurch are the best bits, so I'd probably just drop them onto two random hexes in a larger hexmap, and leave it up to fate and the PCs whether they ever actually got used in-game...

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Isn't -gro an attempt to capture the sound of frantic coughing made when elbowed in the ribs? As in

      Traveller: "What is the name of this place?"
      Villager 1: "Ravengroughghoughgrough..."
      Villager 2: "Excuse me. What my colleague was about to say was (glowers, rolls eyes) Ravengro, and certainly not any other more famous but copyrighted name beginning with Raven that you may have expected that sentence to finish with."

    4. Worryingly plausible. And kinda meta, given Ravenloft's own naming practises.

      'Did I say Vlad? No, I meant, um, Strahd! STRAHD the Impaler! Totally different guy! COPYRIGHTED ORIGINAL CHARACTER PLZ DON'T STEAL!'

    5. I would watch the heck out of a B movie called "Curse of Vlad."

    6. Who could forget the infamous Vlad von Tsarovich, lord of Castle Ravencroft

  5. I've always enjoyed these exercises. Maybe some day i will try my own hand at it.

  6. To my eye this seems less sandboxy than many of your other condensations - you've taken a collection of disparate substories embedded one-dimensional time, and replaced them with a set of disparate substories embedded in two-dimensional space, that the PCs can move between in a sequence of their own choice, but it's still pretty clear where one part ends and the next begins.

    I think that may be intrinsic to the idiom - the tropes this sort of horror is drawing on existed separately before they were amalgamated, so when you put Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc into the same world the edges don't quite join up.

    I liked Ravenloft's solution - a setting divided up into realms, each of which was a single trope, with actual visible-IC boundaries between them. The Secret World did something similar, with different tropes being handled by different quests and questgivers; Stephen Hand's Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (Moonrunner, Dead of Night and Legend of the Shadow Warriors) also played in the same idiom, and again kept their tropes fairly separate.

    I guess the fact that this subgenre genre is so tightly linked to stories that both the GM and the players know, and know how they're "meant" to go, and that run more on narrative logic than on internal logic, possibly makes it a tricky match for OSR-style emergent play?

    1. You're probably right. I did consider ripping it right open and scattering the contents across a map to make a sandbox, but it would have been a pretty rubbish sandbox. Just undead and cultists over and over again, hanging around doing nothing. At least the plot, rudimentary though it is, means there's some kind of *point* to the whole thing.

      I'm not sure the issue is genre, though. A different kind of adventure could have had body snatchers and ghosts and vampires and werewolves and witches and necromancers all bouncing around the same city at the same time. (In fact, it sounds like an ordinary Wednesday night in the Old World of Darkness.) This AP was just written to be very, very episodic, with each faction coming complete with an implied storyline, which made it very hard to turn into more than the sum of its parts.

    2. Whenever I've offered PCs scenarios where they recognize how the story it's clearly referencing is "supposed" to go, they've invariably delighted in messing with it (which is exactly why I do it).

      It really does sound like the problem here is poor execution, rather than genre choice.

  7. honestly idk if I'd ever run a "restore order to a prison" sort of deal these days given how much we know now about the sins of the private prison industry. feels equivalent to a "restore order to a slave plantation" scenario, honestly. if anything, I'd flip it around so the intended goal is to allow the prisoners to escape... but with all these caricaturized ghosts of serial killers that probably wouldn't work either...

    1. Well, actually reopening Harrowstone is clearly not on the cards: the only question is just how dangerous a haunted ruin it's going to be. But, yes, I can see PCs being uncomfortable with propping up even a ghostly version of the prison system. I guess the compromise would be to make Versorianna the new warden, and then make her promise to use her new authority to release all the ghosts other than those of the four serial killers. That might feel more like actual, positive change.

    2. Maybe one way you could change the situation would be to make it a three-faction deal? The normal prisoners (rightfully) believe their sentences are done and they deserve freedom, Versorianna doesn't want to let any of the ghosts out (herself included) ever under any circumstances, and the serial killers just want to kill as many people and/or other ghosts as possible.

  8. I'm wondering what happens if Adivion succeeds in summoning the Tyrant into Galdana's body. Do he and his buddies actually get to become kings and queens? Does the Tyrants resurrection provoke a response from bigwigs in the area?

    1. The Tyrant probably picks a handful of Adivion's most sociopathic followers to be his new henchmen, then murders the rest of them (including Adivion) as the embarrassing liabilities that they are. Then I guess he'd start secretly rebuilding his Evil Empire: seeking out old catches of magic items, reaching out to surviving undead allies, that sort of thing.

      I'm sure that any nearby states, churches, magical orders etc that got wind of his resurrection would want to clamp down on him with extreme prejudice. Last time it took a whole crusade to get rid of him - no-one wants to have to go through all that again!