Thursday, 27 May 2021

Review: Deep Carbon Observatory (Remastered)

 From the drivethroughrpg:


The adventure is suitable for a lucky mid-range party, a stupid high-level party or an exceedingly clever low level party. It is difficult, with a meaningful possibility of character death. 

Players start in the town of Carrowmove, devistated by an unexpected flood, then travel  through a drowned land where nature is turned upside down and desperate families cling to the roofs of their ruined homes, hiding from the monstrous products of a disordered world, through the strange tomb of an ancient race, to a profundal zone, hidden for millennia and now exposed, and finally to the Observatory itself, an eerie abandoned treasure palace, where they will encounter a pale and unexpected terror which will seek to claim their lives.

Should you find them, and defeat their guardians, the treasures of an ancient culture will be yours.

At the final point of the Observatory is a glimpse of another world.


The basic setup of Deep Carbon Observatory is there is a strange underground observatory (more on this later) that was hidden at the bottom of a man made lake. The man made lake was formed by a dam built long ago, perhaps to hide the deep carbon observatory forever. The dam has recently broken flooding everything downstream, including a bunch of villages, and for the first time in what seems to be eons, the deep carbon observatory is exposed. 

On the surface Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) can seem to be a bit of a linear adventure. It's divided into three main parts: 

  • The beginning at the town of Carrowmore. 
  • Travel upriver
  • Exploring the Deep Carbon Observatory 
The town of Carrowmore is a chaotic place, basically a disaster relief area. It serves as an introduction where the players have the opportunity to encounter a bunch of different characters in different states of distress that potentially turn into competing parties who are trying to reach the DCO first. The adventure throws you into the thick of things this way and has you dealing with meaningful situations.

The river journey, which makes up about two thirds of the book is somewhat linear where the players are travelling up a meandering river encountering all kinds of things, including golems which ran the damn, people in distress due to the flooded landscape, and various strange creatures. They can become sidetracked multiple ways and learn more about the DCO as they do so. Additionally, they'll encounter the competing adventuring parties, the most prominent, the Crows.

The observatory is an adventuring site but one you kind of traverse going deeper and deeper until you arrive at the telescope at the bottom.

Despite it's linearity, DCO does what few other adventures accomplish or even really try. It gives a sense of the classic journey quest. I've blogged a bit about this before, there is a power in quests.

The closest thing I'd imagine DCO kind of plays out a bit like (I've only yet read it) would be Captain Willard's journey in Apocalypse Now. Where he's heading down the river in boat in the midst of the Vietnam war, heading into the heart of darkness to find the mysterious Colonel Kurtz.

There is the same sense of mystery, of journey, of danger, at the heart of DCO. All your characters may have reasons for deciding to explore down the river, trying to make it to DCO. But there is also that lingering sense of, we're doing it because it's there. Because it's strange. Mysterious. Powerful. Even if we don't quite know exactly what it is.

What makes DCO so captivating as an adventure, is that it tells the story of what happened not through words, but through encounters. Encounters that at times feel very D&Dish but also very strange. Kind of like a much darker version of Adventure Time. Patrick Stuart is really good at specificity, at detailing things in evocative ways that even if you've seen them before in other games, they feel unique and strange.

Even before you reach it, you know the DCO itself is powerful, as there are some powerful people also trying to get there first. Mainly, a rival adventuring gang called The Crows. They are probably more badass than the players' adventuring gang and if the players try to take them on unprepared or head first they're going to get slaughtered.

DCO is the best kind of adventure where it sets the board, the stage, and then lets you as the Referee and players move the pieces around. To riff off what happens. To try and subtly thwart the players in different ways. To make them consider their route, their approach to DCO and exactly what they are willing to do to get to it. 

It provides just enough of a goal and loose framework for the players (follow the river) to stop them from getting confused or lost. But has enough interesting situations that they come across to make them stop and evaluate how it'll fit into their goal.

The Observatory 

I want to spend some time talking about the observatory. It's kind of hard to explain. It's a downward facing telescope built into a giant stalactite in a cavern. It uses the strange properties of a type of moth that can distort space to peer into the earth through various layers of rock. Sounds weird? It is.

The strange (presumably underground) race that built it is even stranger. They seem highly intelligent and advanced in a technological sense. Overall what makes the observatory so interesting is that it really gets fantasy science/technology. Most fantasy science/technology tends to be some device powered by some magic crystals or some such thing. Basically a magical machine with a magical power source with magical powers. It doesn't feel scientific or technological, more just a handwave excuse to have some magical device.

DCO is different. It feels scientific. The principles it uses to work are reasonings based off the natural properties of this strange moth that can distort space. It feels technological in the sense that it's a device which is taking advantage of a discovered natural law in an intelligent manner.

This is what makes it so terrifying as a player. You begin to realize that whomever built the DCO is smart. Whether codified or not, they have some sense of scientific theory and principles, unlike everyone else in the fantasy setting. They are operating under an entirely different paradigm of thought. They are taking advantage of things in the setting in ways that even you, as a player, are probably not thinking of.

The DCO feels more like a Lich lair than any lich adventure or lich themed thing that I've ever read. There's a sense of cold intelligence to it, a sense of rationality, and at times, cruelty. 

You never meet the builders of the DCO (presumably the drow like race detailed in Veins of the Earth). You do get to meet the horrific giant they left behind in the DCO though.

But you really get a sense of them, these drow. That they're like how the drow were originally imagined before Drizzt Do'Urden became a thing and kind of ruined them. They're a race of highly, highly intelligence, highly cruel elves who live under the earth and you hope that's where they stay. As they are as capricious as they are inhuman. 

The Art and Layout

The art is by Scrap Princess. It's pretty amazing. That dark evocative scribbled look but also emblemic of classic D&D things and slightly cartoony. 

It's horrifying but at the same time if it were smiling almost like an adventure time character?

The layout is pretty good. Or well good in the sense that it's a book you can totally use at the table and a lot of attention has been paid to making it useable at the table. Aesthetically, it's a bit jarring, kind of Patrick Stuart doing his best at making a very useable book.

  • Best quasi linear adventure I've ever read. Really nails the format.
  • Rival adventuring party an awesome idea that can really turn things up to 11. First time I think I've seen it used so well.
  • Actually making an adventuring site feel ominous and kind of terrifying.

Buy if....
  • You want to run a cool medium length adventure that's dark but also weird and humorous at times (there is a giant platypus monster) and not just grim-dark.
  • You like adventures where you're going to have to make moral choices in tough situations. 
  • You're new to DMing. I think it would make a decent starting adventure. Make sure you read it over maybe twice but it's general linear journey is easy enough to grasp for you and your players. It's going to get a bit messy but that's part of being a DM.

  • I think now, after the kickstarter, it's only available in PDF. EDIT: apparently you can buy a print version here while supplies last.
  • It's not suitable for all ages.
  • It does take some time to fully read and digest although is definitely laid out nice enough to run at the table. You will just want to read it all first though.

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