I am not yet done with Deep Carbon Observatory, though the end is near. My players are currently trapped deep within the Observatory itself; too afraid to descend the great titanium chain into the darkness and kept from returning to the hollow comfort of the surface by the ravenous malice of a naked, crawling giant. This is the culmination of about eighty hours of play during the last six months (almost an hour per A5 page - and that's not counting a lot of unrelated fucking around). This book is dense to the point of being obtuse. Nothing is repeated. Nothing is explicitly stated that can be inferred. In order to discuss it I am going to be blunt and obvious about content that is deft and clever and, I am certain, reveal my total misunderstanding of several core concepts central to Deep Carbon and life in general.
In case you weren't aware, Deep Carbon Observatory is a global research program and also a adventure module for DnDalikes by Scrap Princess - the author of the best campaign map - and Patrick Stewart - a man whose imagination is so great it is bound only by encumbrance rules. I love this thing. It has introduced myself and a rotating circle of about ten friends to Old School role-playing and we are having the best fucking time. The adventure itself involves an arduous trek up a flooded river, a small dungeon that is crawled in reverse, an empty lake and the titular Deep Carbon observatory itself - an empty, vertical dungeon. Within this broad framework there are a bunch of encounters, creatures and sad people that interact with their environment in interesting ways and can be used, dropped or remixed as the DM feels.
My players have been endlessly fascinated by these moving parts. They set up watches to study the habits of Turbine Golems, sat experimenting with the observatory lens for hours and have developed a completely incorrect theory about absolutely everything they've encountered. Some of the most affecting moments have come from their reactions to what are essentially set pieces - ending the life of a maggot infested giant eagle was a greater source of anxious debate than the time when they led an enraged golem into the middle of a defenceless town in order to get it off their trail.
Which is cool and all but Deep Carbon really shines in the tactical decision making that its free-form nature generates. There is a trick to destroying the Canoptic Guards, the dam is just waiting to be turned into a fortress, the Turbine Golems only attack under certain conditions and are slowly dying, the Giant is enormous but can squeeze his way through anything. It is elements like this, present throughout the whole module, and their jigsaw-puzzle presentation that make it so enjoyable to play, not just read. The module's main antagonistic force is presented as nothing more than a couple of stats, inventories, tactics and the instructions to hound players until their death. They are called the Crows. Though they wouldn't suit a short run of Deep Carbon very well, when running it with a longer time frame they are a great force to keep players scared and moving or terrified and hamstrung.
The best example of how Deep Carbon's crunchy encounters intersect with its modular environments is probably the Observatory itself. The Observatory is basically uninhabited but there are a bounty of creatures up on the surface that are eager to stream on down and mess it up. Which creatures these are and the timing of their entrance would hugely alter how the Observatory runs. The options for which aren't presented as a random table or chart, but rather as natural elements within the module. What's already in the observatory and what's going to be there soon, is entirely dependant on the actions of the players and the tastes of the DM, which I very much appreciate. Not even having finished my first run, I am already eager to play Deep Carbon again and see how differently the observatory plays with new player choices.
I have heard some grumblings about the lack of concrete distances in the maps but I really don't think that this is an issue. It's a feature. The timeline of the wilderness adventure is so tight that it pretty much demands you scratch it out and write your own expected times for the rival adventuring parties. Once you've figured out how long you want them to take to get anywhere, you can figure out the distance with whatever system you're using and mark it accordingly. I cannot imagine that any scale imposed by the module could be a better solution than this.
Speaking of the maps, the illustrations by Scrap Princess are excellent and extremely gameable. Her urgent penstrokes imbue Deep Carbon with an immediacy and excitement that it would be sorely lacking without them. Her visual interpretation of the people and creatures presented in Deep Carbon gives each its own powerful visual identity. Break each one of them down to nothing but a silhouette and they are still immediately recognisable. I have seen no other RPG visual design outside of Warhammer that is this ready to be turned into a physical, three dimensional thing. It is my professional opinion that Scrap should go right ahead and create a miniatures battle game (Planescrap Fantasy Battles?) that utilises her hand stitched monsters as miniatures and sell it for mad profits.
What really blew my mind about Deep Carbon is that this deadly adventure is the gatekeeper to Patrick Stuart's entire beautiful oeuvre of cave ramblings. Stuart is the king of the Underdark and the idea that the endless caverns beneath the world-crust are hidden and locked away at the beginning of Deep Carbon is crazy and amazing. You could look at all the content of the False Machine as being secret unlockable content - the reward for actually making it through Deep Carbon. As for me, I'll have to delete his blog from my reading list - my players refuse to go down there. I regret nothing.
There are a few issues. There's a doorway that leads east instead of west, there's a bit where the DM can ask their players if their characters have ever seen a brain before - which would be cute if flying brains weren't a monster they probably had to fight to get there - and other small things, but they are negligible. There are some random tables that can require lots of rolls that produce very similar results, and further playtesting on the part of the designers might have caused them to rewrite some stuff that works better on paper than it does in play. These instances are the minority, most of the random tables are useful and pretty much everything plays as well as it reads.
I'm in love. Though it is public knowledge that I have no idea what I'm talking about I highly recommend that you go run Deep Carbon so that you can come back here and talk to me about it. Deep Carbon Observatory is amazing and will probably remain the best adventure put out by the OSR until the collaboration between Arnold K. and I hits shelves.