Review: Deep Carbon Observatory Review Reprise: Storytelling as Information Design
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on September 05, 2021
Tagged: dco patrickstuart scrapprincess osr
Patrick and Scrap are currently running a Kickstarter for the follow-up adventure to Deep Carbon Observatory, Demon-Bone Sarcophagus, so now seems as good a time as any to talk about their work. This is easy to do, as I’m planning on running Deep Carbon Observatory (Remastered) tomorrow, it made its way from the UK to me via my brother after a good long while. When I first reviewed DCO it was simply from having read it. I have more thoughts now as I prepare to run the module and talk to other people about their experiences doing so.
Deep Carbon Observatory came out in 2014. It featured a layout that be called serviceable at best. My friend Alex ran the module a couple years later, using that original version of the game. He wrote about the inaugural session on his blog. Our conversation about how to run the game transitioned into one about the game more broadly.
From a “usability” standpoint [the original DCO] is middling to poor. The maps are hard to read, the info design is unambitious. But Patrick knows that good storytelling is a way of organizing information by sheer virtue of being interesting enough to remember. Honestly I think it’s a shot across the bow of most conventional wisdom on module writing. — Alex Chalk
I have written about how Patrick reveals information to the reader seemingly at the same pace it would end up being revealed to the player, something I think makes his books as engaging to read as to play. It’s a very unusual approach to module writing, one I don’t think anyone else follows. The remastered edition of DCO does more work to help orient the reader, but for the most part you are thrown right into the deep end.
Patrick instructs you to read the whole god damn book before you run the adventure. Maybe this is actually a really obvious thing to do with a book, but I think a lot of thinking around information design in modules is rooted in the ideas coming out of the one-page dungeon contest: you should be able to look at a particular spread and have all the information you need to get the job done. The remastered edition brings this sort of thinking to DCO, but like Silent Titans, there are key facets of the module that won’t reveal themselves to you till you get to the end of the book. In DCO Patrick coyly describes the backstory for the module with the sub-heading, “in case of Speak with Dead, use this.” This timeline is exactly the sort of thing that you’d find in the introduction to a typical OSR module.
Patrick wants you to approach understanding a module the way he does: by reading the whole thing. You’ll need to read it all at some point anyway: why not at the start? And so I did, and then felt some panic about how I would even run all of this. There is so much going on in DCO: there are the Crows, the Witch, a cannibal cult1, so many NPCs, the dam and its golem guardians, the actual Deep Carbon Observatory, etc, etc. Jesse Abelman told me to chill out: he ran the module straight from the book!2
The layout of the [new] book was great, I could easily find anything I needed so I barely did any prep between sessions. That said, I’m not surprised it was easier to run from the first edition than expected. I had the same experience with Silent Titans. I think Patrick is so good at creating juicy gameable situations and encounters that everything else almost doesn’t matter. Whatever difficulty there may be in stitching those things together because of how the book is designed is balanced by the actual content. — Jesse Abelman
Jesse’s experience mirrors my own using Silent Titans. DCO feels like there is a bit more going on across the whole module, so I’m curious to see how it plays tonight. With Silent Titans I would lean on Patrick’s writing a lot to describe the scenes, sometimes reading his prose straight to the player. (Some real OSR blasphemy, I know.) Alex mentioned doing the same to me when he was running DCO: “Another thing I’ll say about DCO is I often struggle to improvise description, but I felt I was able to tune into its voice and channel that in describing situations.”
Patrick and Scrap’s books are sometimes maligned for being more art project than gaming artifact.3 I asked Patrick about this and he felt while Scrap and him can sometimes be quite out there and imaginative, they are both keenly aware that what they are making is for a game. If one of them forgets, the other will remind them. Reading their works you can see they are fixated on the game, in a way I sometimes feel other OSR writers forget: things are gonzo, but in the service of nothing.
Judging by my own bookshelf, a lot of adventures are written, read, and never played. As someone writing modules, it’s likely important to appreciate this fact, and try and make something that manages to be compelling even if it only ever sits on a shelf. But there is more going on here: solid adventures inject their ideas into your head as if they were your own. DCO is easier to run because its elements are so compelling. The writing is not simply fanciful or an attempt at post-modern storytelling: it’s all in service of the game.
Cannibalism features heavily in seemingly every book Patrick writes. What does it mean? Can you psychoanalyze a man via his adventures. A topic for another blog post, perhaps. ↩
You can watch Jesse run DCO for members of the Guantlet community on YouTube. ↩
The conversations around Fire on the Velvet Horizon sometimes felt like they missed the point. Each of those monsters is an adventure. They are all clearly designed with the game in mind, even if Scrap and Patrick aren’t smacking you over the head with hit dice and encounter powers. ↩