Why has it taken me so long to write a review of Carcosa? It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for months…taunting me. I have yet to run the thing. Every once in a while I take it off the shelf and read a random selection of text for amusement.
If nothing else, it will be interesting. Carcosa is a Weird place. Yes, that’s Weird with a capital ‘W’. In case you’re coming into this blind, here’s the 411: a long time ago, Carcosa was run by a race of serpent men. These serpent men were clever blokes, clever enough to bioengineer 13 races of men subdivided by the color of their skin. There are the basic colors: Black Men, Blue Men, Brown Men, Green Men, Orange Men, Purple Men, Red Men, White Men, Yellow Men, and Bone Men (‘bone’ meaning ‘transparent’ – you can see their skeletons through their translucent meaty bits)…and then there are the freak colors: Dolm Men, Jale Men, and Ulfire Men. These last three are completely fictitious colors (which seem to have been cribbed from David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus), although the author has provided some descriptive text from Arcturus to help us imagine them.
The sense impressions caused in [an observer] by these two additional primary colors can only be vaguely hinted at by analogy. Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful, and jale dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous.
Why, you might ask, would these serpent-men go to all the trouble to hand-craft 13 separate races of mankind? To sacrifice them, of course! But here’s the best part: they’re not just sacrificing them to appease your run-of-the mill dude in the sky who makes wheat grow every summer. No – they’re sacrificing them Cthulhu and his cosmically-evil buddies. Now, long after the snake-men are gone, some of these men have taken up the practice of Cthulhu-worship and are now sacrificing each other to appease their dark Cosmic Masters.
Oh, and did I mention the dinosaurs? Not ordinary dinosaurs, mind you, but crazy mutant-lizard things twisted by millions of years of evolution spurred by the sheer awfulness of the Carcosan landscape.
Still not weird enough for you? How about Space Aliens? Like, total flying-saucer riding aliens who have seeded the planet with mysterious technology from beyond? So in Carcosa it’s totally possible to play a pterosaur-riding Jale warrior who fights shoggoths, sorcerers, and robots with a laser rifle. How freaking awesome is that?
Carcosa is designed to be played with James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess or any Basic D&D derivative. The author, Geoffrey McKinney, has pared down the available classes to two: Fighters and Sorcerers. Fighters do exactly what you’d expect – kill all the things. Carcosa doesn’t include any class-specific notes for Fighters, so they’ll function according to the ruleset you use to run the campaign. Sorcerers are given their own class XP and Saving Throw table, as well as an additional rule: Unnatural Aging. Carcosan Sorcerers lifestyle exacts a heavy price – whenever they perform a ritual they must Save vs. Magic or age anywhere from 1 to 5 years. Considering the nature of Carcosan rituals (more on that later), it’s not likely that Sorcerers will be performing them left and right, but Carcosa lays it all out: being a Sorcerer is a bitch.
Carcosa PC’s are strictly limited to playing humans and despite there being 13 flavors of humans, they are all identical….no stat bonuses or hindrances, or race-specific abilities. It’s a tad disappointing this wasn’t opened up a bit, but I presume most LotFP or OSR players are inveterate tinkerers who will circumvent this at their whim anyway.
One of the more controversial additions to the setting is the conceit of randomized Hit Dice. At the start of each fight, each combatant rolls on a chart to determine the kind of Hit Dice they will have in the fight. This is as true for a lowly 1st level Fighter as it is Cthulhu…so you could end up with a measly Bone Man with 20-sided Hit Dice vs. Cthulhu with 4-sided hit dice. Now granted, since Cthulhu has 57 Hit Dice, it’s still not going to end well for the mysteriously brawny Fighter…but he might get a lick in before being reduced to paste. As I said, Carcosa hasn’t hit my table yet so I have no idea how it works out – I suspect it makes fights schizophrenic and crazy, which in my mind equals fun…but as in all things YMMV.
McKinney has also included a rudimentary Psionics system – I don’t use the term ‘rudimentary’ as a pejorative. I actually like the fairly simple system and limited set of powers and given the requirements to be Psionic (you’ve got a 12% chance if all your non-Physical stats are 18), it’s pretty unlikely that many of your players will hit the brain-powers jackpot anyway. Like the Hit Dice system, Carcosan Psionics are randomized – in this case, they may employ 1d4 of the eight available abilities, with the number of uses per day being determined by level. Again, gonzo but fun.
Carcosa as a setting is designed as a massive old-school hexcrawl. The book includes two hex maps, one detailing a large swathe (34,880 square miles, to be precise) of the Carcosan landscape (with the actual city of Carcosa more or less at its center), the other being a blown up section of one of those hexes tied to an adventure setting titled Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer. Each hex is treated two to text callouts pointing out an interesting feature to be found within, one written by Geoffrey McKinney and another by Chris Robert. Some of these are quite short and others fairly detailed. Each one could provide a seed for one or more evenings of adventure, although most would require a bit of legwork – or improvisational mojo – by the GM to make them work. Some of the hex descriptions work in synergy with other hexes or things in the book; for example some Sorcerous Rituals demand an object or resource located in a specific hex…players could be working for the Sorcerer to recover it, or trying to prevent him from obtaining it. Frankly there’s a ton of stuff here for an enterprising GM to use. Some people have complained about the limited detail, but I actually prefer the way Carcosa is presented. Rather than exhaustively detailing every power faction and important NPC in Carcosa, the book serves as a template for your own creative efforts. How does that village of 310 brown men in hex 1411 feel about the cliff-dwelling Mi-Go in hex 1410? The book doesn’t say – and I’m glad for it. Give me too much detail and I feel like I’m spending as much time reverse-engineering someone elses work to make it mine as I would if I’d have written it all myself. Yes, Carcosa requires a little sweat, but it’s a good kind of sweat.
The adventure section Fungoid Garden of the Bone Sorcerer is essentially a more detailed version of what you get with the larger-scale hex map – this isn’t a linear plot device designed to walk players and DM’s through Carcosa, it’s an open hexcrawl subdivided into several discrete locations. There’s a wandering monster table included to harass players who haven’t been given the proper amount of misery and a detailed map of the Fungoid Gardens and a monster lair. There’s no overarching plot describing why the PC’s would want to seek out the Bone Sorcerer – again, that’s left up to the GM and Players to decide. Mostly it seems to alleviate some of the work of dropping your players into Carcosa.
An Addenda section at the back of the book provides some helpful resources for running Carcosa. There’s a short 3-page essay entitled Humanity on Carcosa which details some of the typical social structures among Carcosan humans. Random Monster Tables provide a means of foisting hurt on the PC’s. Spawn of Shub-Niggurath provides a detailed method for creating random (and crazy-freaky) Cthulhoid monstrosities to terrorize your players – which nicely dovetails with James Raggi’s own preference for non-bestiary critters. Space Alien Armament allows the DM to generate tons of random Alien weapons to litter the landscape. Random Robot Generator does exactly what it says on the tin – it provides a number of charts for creating randomized robots for the PC’s to encounter. A Mutations table delivers plenty of options for amusement if Players dawdle too long in radioactive areas. Finally there’s a handy Sorcerous Rituals Reference Tables section which breaks down the Rituals by function and tells you where to find them.
And speaking of Rituals…
I suppose it’s almost impossible to discuss Carcosa without mentioning it’s primary cause for infamy, namely the horrific content of its Ritual Magic system. Whatever you may have heard about Carcosa, it’s probably true. There are horrible, horrible things to be found within these pages. Some of the rituals require torturing and murdering children…which is a foul thing. I won’t belabor the arguments for or against the inclusion of these acts in a roleplaying supplement, suffice to provide my own take.
First of all, the majority of the Rituals in Carcosa, though icky, are far more benign than the ones which require child sacrifice. Many of them require no violence whatsoever, and only a select few reach the level of evil that I described above.
Secondly – we’re all grown boys and girls, here. If we see objectionable things, we can avoid them at our discretion. The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, which (unlike Carcosa) you can purchase at any suitably-sized bookstore, is filled with stuff that makes Carcosa look like a Sunday School Primer. I know because I’ve read it. I can’t argue that some of the more vile things in Carcosa lead to a healthy gaming environment, but neither is it likely to poison the entire hobby. Carcosa is a niche product, primarily of interest to a niche (OSR peeps) of a niche hobby. You can argue (and it has been argued) that some of the stuff in Carcosa has a precedent in M.A.R. Barker’s The Book of Ebon Bindings, but I’m not sure that’s even necessary. There’s no need to quote precedent to justify the terrible things McKinney has put forth in Carcosa – if you don’t like it, avoid it. It’s that simple.
Now that that’s dispensed with, a few words on the book itself.
In short: it’s beautiful. Seriously, this is one of the most attractive gaming books in my collection. The cover is perfectly evocative, featuring a silhouette of the alien city of Carcosa below a sky of green stars and moon. It only gets better on the interior. The maps, located in the endpapers at front and back, are a treat – some might say they lean toward the sloppy, but I rather enjoy the insane, hallucinogenic quality of the crazy purple and green color palette. It’s suitably reminiscent of some of my worst nightmares. The interior art, by Rich Longmore, is outstanding. His black and white pen and ink work is both masterfully executed and horrific – I’m reminded of some of the more exotic stuff from the Creepy and Eerie magazines of my youth…which is a very good thing. Finally, the layout by Finnish game designer Eero Tuovinen (Zombie Cinema) is crisp, clean, and useful. Better yet, the .pdf is a work of art – fully indexed and cross-referenced, if you can read .pdf’s on the fly via tablet, you won’t feel gypped if you have to settle for the .pdf. Carcosa is a unique product from a unique publisher. James Raggi deserves credit for pushing for Carcosa’s publication and handling it in such a stellar manner. Depending on your DM-ing style it may not be your cup of brew, but there’s nothing else quite like it on the market today.