Posted by: NiTessine | December 16, 2011

Review: Carcosa

So, it’s finally here. The anticipated reprint of Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, finally came out yesterday, after all sorts of printing and delivery delays.

The wait was worth it.

What we’ve got here is a 288-page, A5-sized hardcover. The art by Rich Longmore is black and white, but the maps of Robert Altbauer are in glorious (and a bit garish) colour. In addition, the pages themselves are subtly coloured, with faded hues of green and purple playing in the margins and behind the text. It does not, I should hasten to add, hamper readability, but makes the whole book seem more like some sort of alien grimoire. The layout is clean, the art is good, and the book is overall a very stylish package. It also has a lovely smell.

There’s also a PDF version available, and it’s one of the best gaming PDFs I’ve seen. It’s layered for printer-friendliness, bookmarked, and linked up the wazoo. Even the map hexes are linked to the pages where they are described. This is excellent work, and I’d like to see it become the industry standard, though I don’t have much hope of that happening. Neither Posthuman Studios nor Paizo, who otherwise know their PDF work, have gone quite this far with their stuff (Posthuman doesn’t have links, Paizo doesn’t have layers). This is how you take advantage of the electronic format, kids. The only complaint I have is that since in the PDF a single page spread counts as a single page, the page numbers on the book and the PDF no longer match up.

What Is It?

Carcosa is a setting and rules supplement for your old D&D game or retroclone. Its native system is LotFP’s house system, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, but pretty much all retroclones are more or less mutually compatible anyway and there’s no reason this wouldn’t work in your campaign of Labyrinth Lord or Mentzer’s Red Box D&D (though like all most retroclone stuff, this one uses the ascending Armour Class [starting at 12, as LotFP’s does]).

The genres of the work would be the weird tale and sword & planet. The influences it names or suggests include Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Howard’s Worms of the Earth and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, and, of course, Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow. I am also reminded of other things – Jack Vance, August Derleth, Lord Dunsany, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otso Ilmari – though I’m pretty sure that last one is not numbered among McKinney’s inspirations, no matter how unconscious or indirect.

It is like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, if Expedition to the Barrier Peaks had been horror. There are no demihumans in the world of Carcosa, just 13 races of men, each a different colour, from green to white to black to new colours like dolm, jale and ulfire, from A Voyage to Arcturus, though also evoking The Colour out of Space. There’s a very good reason this book doesn’t have colour art outside of the maps. It’s gonna make painting miniatures tricky. There are no magic items, just the technological armaments of the Space Aliens. There is no magic missile or sleep, there are the Blasphemous Glyphs of the Night Ocean and the Ninety-Six Chants of the Leprous One.

The book starts with a few unconventional dice conventions. Under the Carcosa rules, whenever combat begins, everyone first rolls from a chart what their hit dice type will be for this combat and then uses dice of that type to roll their hit points. Your hit dice might be d12s in one fight and d4s in the next. The same is true for Shub-Niggurath. Damage is determined every round in a similar fashion. This is rather quirky, and there’s also a suggestion on how to handle things if you elect not to use these rules. It seems like combat in Carcosa is unpredictable and deadly business.

Then there are a few new rules for characters, including the sorcerer class, which is basically same as fighter, except they can use rituals. Incidentally, Carcosa uses only two character classes – the fighter and the sorcerer. No clerics, no magic-users, no demihuman races. The book doesn’t even use specialists (LotFP’s name for the thief class), but mentions that they will not violate the tone. There are also a couple of pages of psionics rules. Characters with high enough mental stats have a chance of being psionic, which is rolled at character generation.

What there is not is a lot on the setting itself. There are no historical timelines, just mentions here and there that Space Aliens (described like they Greys) have a colony on the planet, the human races were created by Snake-Men untold millennia ago and that the Primordial Ones (Lovecraft’s elder things) manipulated the civilization of Carcosa until someone let the shoggoths out and everything went to hell. There is also very little on the human races, though it’s mentioned that the natives in Peter Jackson’s King Kong are at about the proper level of sophistication.

Oh, and alignment determines only how you stand in relation to the Great Old Ones. Lawful is against, chaotic is for, neutrals try to avoid the whole business.

Then there’s the magic of Carcosa. Spellcasting takes the form of rituals, and all rituals are for summoning or controlling the gods and monsters of the world. There are 96 different rituals in the book, all with names that drip purple prose, such as The Sixth Undulation of the Tentacled One or Serpentine Whispers of the Blue-Litten Pillars.

So, magic in Carcosa applies to the Great Old Ones, and was developed by the Snake-Men. This means it’s Bad Stuff. Pretty much everything that is not a banishment ritual will require human sacrifice, all described in a clinical and detailed fashion, like this: “The Sorcerer must find or dig a large pit with walls and floor of coal. The sacrifices—101 Dolm children—must then be bound and flung into the pit. The two-hour ritual requires the Sorcerer to don the above-mentioned armor and climb into the pit and slay each sacrifice with an obsidian axe. Afterwards he fires the pit.” (The Primal Formula of the Dweller) And there are worse rituals. Like, Josef Fritzl kind of worse. “We could illustrate this ritual but it’d then become illegal to sell or possess under obscenity laws in several major markets” kind of worse. The cover sleeve for the book says “Warning: For Adults Only! Contains explicit descriptions and illustrations of black magic and violence.” It’s not kidding.

The rituals are surprisingly uncomfortable reading, and really drive home the point that people who deal with the tentacled stuff are evil. They are to be opposed. Then there are the banishment rituals for putting down that which (hopefully) someone else has called up and for the most part require no sacrifice whatsoever, though Banishment of the Lightless Chasm, for driving off the Squamous Worm of the Pit, requires you to kill a snake.

It’s charming how naturally you can get a campaign concept and a motivation for your characters just from the spell list. There’s nothing in the book about how adventurers fit in the world or the society (as far as it exists), or what sort of adventures they should or could have, but such things flow naturally from the spell list. I mean, unlike in most D&D settings, where adventurers are outsiders from society and regarded as strange and dangerous people, in Carcosa going out to kill sorcerers is actually a sane and rational reaction. This, to me, is the strongest horror element in the setting.

After the rituals, we get monster stats and descriptions. Carcosa has its own interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos. Here, Azathoth dwells in the centre of the planet and the races of B’yakhee, Deep Ones, the Great Race, Mi-Go, Primordial Ones and Shoggoths are all spawned by Shub-Niggurath. Cthulhu is still imprisoned in sunken R’lyeh, though. This section also features long, descriptive quotations from H.P. Lovecraft, which I approve of. Yes, you can fight Azathoth. No, you’re not likely to win.

The largest section of the book is the sandbox itself, 400 hexes’ worth of the planet of Carcosa. One of the hexes being ten miles across, this translates to 86 square miles per hex and a total of 34,880 square miles, or slightly larger than the country of Jordan. Each of the hexes has two points of interest described. For an example, let’s take hex 0115. It contains the following two points of interest: “Castle of 6 Jale Men led by a chaotic 7th-level Sorcerer” and “A handful of curious and ancient roadways crisscross the withered heaths of this hex. The roads appear to be made of huge slabs of granite skillfully pounded into the earth. They glow with a soft light in darkness. Any attempts to remove the slabs will fail.”

There’s loads of stuff the PCs can run across and that the GM can build their own plots around. Who is that sorcerer in the castle and what’s his agenda? No idea, it’s the GM’s job to make something up.

Carcosa has a presentation I feel is very typical of old school D&D. You’re presented with a lot of stuff, but very little in the way of advice on how to use it or what to do with it. While it works for your normal Tolkien and Howard fantasy since everyone already knows that stuff, I think that more outré material such as Carcosa could have a bit more hand-holding. Fortunately, the writing is good and positively dripping with atmosphere and inspiration, which eases the Game Master’s job in this respect – and, well, you don’t need to specify that the people who are sacrificing children to call up tentacled abominations from beyond the stars are the bad guys.

We are also given an introductory adventure called “The Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer”, which details, over 20 pages, some of the points of interest in hex 2005. The titular Gardens, of course, are a dungeon.

After that it’s some helpful tables for random encounters, random robots, Space Alien armaments, spawn of Shub-Niggurath and so forth, as well as reference tables for rituals.

My Thoughts

Carcosa is a very good book. Apart from being extremely well put together, it is written in an evocative manner and brings the setting to life despite not really detailing it much. It conjures up images from films like 10,000 B.C. and Salute of the Jugger. It’s a primitive, post-apocalyptic world, where people are preoccupied with survival and appeasing gods whose existence leaves no room for doubt. And they hate you, personally.

It is a weird and terrible place. A bit of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, a bit of Vance’s Dying Earth, a bit of Burroughs’ Barsoom, perhaps shades of Gor in the mixture of high technology and Stone Age culture. Unlike the modern man of Lovecraft’s tales, the mankind of Carcosa is acutely aware of their cosmic insignificance, though probably unable to articulate it.

This is excellent work. If you have an interest in old school D&D and aren’t put off by the more extreme material in the rituals section, you really have no reason not to buy this. I can’t really find anything I could consider an error or mistake or a bad idea. Even the lack of real setting information kinda works to the book’s advantage. It really is an alien, unknown, perhaps unknowable world. There is a sense of mystery and wonder. I am usually not a fan of such bare bones sandboxes, preferring something more akin to Paizo’s Kingmaker adventure path, but damn if this isn’t good enough for me to make an exception. And seriously, that PDF is a thing of beauty.

In the interests of full disclosure, I know James Edward Raggi IV, the publisher, and received my copy of the book (As well as Isle of the Unknown. And pizza.) from him as thanks for helping him unload the four cargo pallets of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown (I feel like Satan’s little helper). In other words, I’m probably biased as all hell. I’ll try to do Isle of the Unknown over the weekend, but no promises.


Responses

  1. Interesting and informative review! One of my fave things about Carcosa is that it’s Supplement V from an alternate dimension where Swords & Spells was replaced by this at the end of Original D&D’s heyday. I think I’m gonna get the hardcopy soon.

    One quibble(or rather, two related ones)in your overview, though: you say ‘there’s no reason this wouldn’t work in your campaign of Labyrinth Lord or Mentzer’s Red Box D&D (though like all retroclone stuff, this one uses the ascending Armour Class).’, but Labyrinth Lord doesn’t use ascending AC, and neither do ALL Retro-Clones! Perhaps you were thinking of Swords and Wizardry, often conflated with LL. The other pre-eminent RCs, Basic Fantasy and the commercial Castles and Crusades, being based on 3.X, do. And, of course, LOTFP WF/Grindhouse uses a modified version of Ascending AC, beginning at 12 instead of 10.

    Hope this wasn’t overly pedantic, but I didn’t want potential players to be confused about this (admittedly minor) game mechanic.(Some people hate traditional AC with a passion!) Thanx!

  2. Ah, thanks for the corrections. Edited them in. I can never keep the retroclones straight…

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  4. […] names punch archetypal buttons. Dark names sound like they “should be real” (“Carcosa,” “Gondor”). xkcd and Cthulhu defy your brain to even hold them in your head as […]

  5. Carcosa – excellent physical presentation, but the game is TOO much an old school game. It throws away its potential horrific sorcery atmosphere with a silly mish-mash of tropes like grey aliens, space men and so on.

    It’s like the B-movie monster-mash version of the sources it tries to emulate and live up to. It is good for a silly, not-very serious alternative to old school D&D with a dash of Gamma World, but its efforts to create an atmosphere of dark fantasy or horror in the classic tradition (Dreamlands, Dying Earth, Clark Ashton Smith etc.) is spoiled by a slap-dash approach to the setting itself and a tin ear for setting design.

    It DOES strongly convey a 1978-era Old School wackiness – not weirdness, but wackiness – reminiscent of All the Worlds Monsters, Arduin Grimoire, and so on – kind of the same thing you’d get if you decided to “spice up” your OD&D game with some dark magic occult rituals from Empire of the Petal Throne supplements. This is an authentic Old School approach, but I think it is a does a disservice to the potential of the setting, and also poisons the water for similar works that might have a greater degree of coherency and atmosphere. It does look pretty and have great PDF design.


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