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Friday, 7 September 2012

Lovecraftian Fantasy


It is due to a matter of simple copyright, but Dungeons & Dragons never truly explored a fantasy infused with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos. The only time that it really ever did was with the first edition of Deities & Demigods, and that was to present the “gods” of the Mythos as a pantheon, complete with write-ups and stats for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. In subsequent editions of this source book, this content was removed as its inspiration, the works of H.P. Lovecraft were not then in the public domain. With the passing of the millennium, they are now in the public domain and ready to serve as inspiration for an array of RPG writers who since the publication of Call of Cthulhu in 1981 have steeped themselves in the “Cosmicism” of both his fiction and the RPG it inspired. Thus the Mythos has appeared in what is a classic just ten years on – Green Ronin Publishing’s Freeport Trilogy for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition (and others) – as well as increasingly so in support material for the successor to Dungeons & Dragons, 3.5, Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Carrion Hill is an example of this. Published in 2009, it is an adventure for four characters of fifth level written by Richard Pett, an English author who has written innumerable adventures for both Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and whom I had the pleasure of editing for his contribution to Goodman Games’ Age of Cthulhu Vol. V: The Long Reach of Evil. That contribution was indeed his first adventure for Call of Cthulhu, the quintessential RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but it was not his first that involved Lovecraftian investigative horror. That was Carrion Hill.

Carrion Hill is itself a wind and rain sodden city looming up out of the swamps of eastern Ustalav, located on the southern bank of the Kingfisher River. It has a long, dark history having been occupied by one flock of worshippers after another, many of them devoted to even darker gods. The original inhabitants were even worse, all of them vile and depraved cultists of the Old Gods. Except to the singularly sinister scholar, such information has long been forgotten, as has the existence of a network of tunnels, temples, and tombs that run deep under the city. This morning though, something rose from those depths, an irruption that caused buildings to implode and left the surrounds as little more than slime slathered scree. The cream of The Crows – the city watch – is already missing, having come to combat the cause of the calamity, so what is Carrion Hill’s mayor to do if he wants to delve to the bottom of this catastrophe.

Enter the player characters. They are tasked to investigate these upward attacks from below whilst the Crows attempt to keep the peace and prevent the citizens of Carrion Hill from panicking and fleeing the town. The adventurers’ delving uncovers dastardly doings deep underground – cultists have summoned something that they should not have done, and now it is loose! Armed with the evidence of the cultists’ doings, the party must track both them down and discover a means to end the explosive eruptions of the summoned thing before it is too late. So far, so much like a Call of Cthulhu scenario…

Well, no, not really. Carrion Hill is after all a Dungeons & Dragons – or rather a Pathfinder Roleplaying Game adventure. The emphasis is more on combat than investigation, with the adventurers encountering and facing the surviving cultists one-by-one in mortal combat until they have acquired the knowledge and means to end the thing’s tentacular thrustings. These encounters are actually quite small and they can be done in any order, providing the heroes with a degree of free action. All the whilst being chased by the thing that the cultists summoned, of course. That said, impinging upon said degree of free action is the unstoppable nature of the thing – at the party’s expected level, it is unstoppable, so the party has no choice but to determine a means of stopping it. Were they to going charging in without tracking down any of the cultists – essentially the combative equivalent of conducting research and an investigation in Call of Cthulhu – the player characters would be dead.

Physically, Carrion Hill is as well presented as you would expect for a release from Paizo Publishing. Both of its art and its maps are done in full colour with both being pleasingly attractive. In addition to the adventure itself, Carrion Hill includes four pre-generated player characters and a two-page appendix describing the city of Carrion Hill and its history. The information given easily allows the GM to place the city in Paizo Publishing’s campaign setting of Golarion or drop it into one of his own devising.

As the author of the adventure states, Carrion Hill is the first adventure from Paizo Publishing to draw explicitly from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Thematically, both dwell on matters of madness and decay, but the adventure lifts elements wholesale from the fiction, most notably the thing threatening the city and a certain tome. Its inspiration is Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” though to be fair, only the latter half of the story, and to be fair, the combative nature of the latter half of the story is better suited to the combative play style of Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and so does not jar with what would otherwise be a more investigative scenario.

Thus it is not truly Lovecraftian, for the heroes of the adventure can only die rather than have their sanity torn asunder. It hews to the heroics of its core genre, even despite the addition of the horror elements. That said, the adventure would well in other fantasy settings, perhaps even the Dreamlands themselves, or the Ditlana built cities of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. For the most part, releases from Paizo Publishing have always meandered towards dark fantasy as a genre. With Carrion Hill, both the author and Paizo Publishing fully embrace it, presenting a well written, grim, horror bent adventure.