I Believe Mandy Morbid

Yesterday, Mandy Morbid, former partner of the RPG writer Zak Smith, a.k.a. Zak Sabbath or Zak S. posted the following on Facebook. It is a testimony of domestic abuse from three different people and a harrowing read. Content warnings apply. I see no reason not to believe this post. While the conversation around Zak has in the past been muddled by misinformation, misdirection and his opponents’ methods including death and rape threats to Mandy, this rings clear and true.

Zak is the author of the award-winning OSR works Maze of the Blue Medusa and A Red and Pleasant Land, the writer of the blog Playing D&D With Porn Star which I removed from my list of blog links prior to writing this post, credited as a consultant on Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, and a co-writer of the White Wolf mobile game We Eat Blood and All Our Friends Are Dead. He’s also an abuser who needs to be cut out of the industry and the community for the safety of everyone.

I am quoting Mandy’s post in full.

Please feel free to share this widely, on
any platform you have.

Dear Zak Smith, aka Zak Sabbath

I know posting anything about you or this publicly will get me labeled “angry”, “crazy” or a “liar”. Despite that, I still need to speak. As a warning, there will be potentially triggering descriptions of abuse, violence and sexual assault to follow.

What I want to convey is my grief. And my shame. There is so much of it. I think when women come forward to talk about their abusers people strip them of their grief. And I am not okay. And I should be angry but I can’t be because the shame is too great. Because the abuse had me taking responsibility for everything and it’s very difficult to stop that after all these years. Everything was always my fault, the problem was me–but it wasn’t.

Eleven years is a long time. I was twenty one when we met in person the first time, and a month later, 22 when I moved in with you. It’s difficult to organize my thoughts about everything that happened, everything that went wrong over a decade.The abuse came in cycles where there were times you seemed to idolize me (in hindsight there was a twisted, sexist, infantilizing angle to the “idolizing” because it was always about my body and not me as a person). There were other times when you tore me down, made lectures that went in circles of manipulation, or fits of rage where you’d scream that I was useless and worthless and slam doors or throw things at the walls. You tore me down to manipulate me, and to get your way.

As time went on you learned you could threaten me in various ways. Killing me if I ever got pregnant and didn’t have an abortion started as a joke but you repeated it so frequently it was clearly a warning. Kick me out if I didn’t want to have as much sex, or lesser reasons.

When we would go out, you would rate the women you were watching, making sure I could hear it. You would see a woman and comment that she was attractive, until you saw she had “small” breasts. Then you would say to me “why do they even make them like that? What’s the point?” As though I automatically would agree with you about a woman’s worth being dictated by the size of her breasts. And how was that supposed to make me feel about myself? You would know that I would not want to start an argument on a nice evening out–finally I was feeling well enough to be out with you and I would ruin it? No. Even in the face of rude or disgusting comments about other women I would stay silent.

I am ashamed. I was often silent because I wanted to keep the peace. To keep you happy. You see, I did know how to make you happy. I am ashamed I did it because I rationalized that was love. You pressured me to find and groom other women sexually. As I grew sicker, and my physical limitations grew, you were more concerned with your own needs than my illness. Eventually, even, you took my doing this for you, and me, for granted.

I saw you mistreat women we were with together, and again I was silent. I choose you over them and I am deeply ashamed. And when it was me who was being mistreated I often didn’t even register it as such because the first time it happened was so traumatic. You told me I wasn’t allowed to stop or say no to sex or fooling around if we’d already initiated it.

I was young and this was during the first few weeks we lived together and no one had ever taught me about consent. You were extraordinarily angry I had stopped, your hands were clenched into fists and they were shaking. I was programmed to accept it, and you always just kept telling me you loved me even if your behaviour never really proved it.

Then you started with the online gaming arguments nonsense, and that put a real crack in our bond. In the beginning I felt genuinely protective of you, my provider, and of course that was my very strong trauma bond. I didn’t know better, and I just thought I was caring for the person I loved. Callously, you exposed me to death and rape threats and you then never took the distress this caused me seriously, you were in no way sympathetic to the very real stress these disagreements caused. You enjoyed it. And you gloated over the harm you caused other people. (It was extremely unattractive.) You just used those threats we received as an excuse, used me and my marginalized identities as shields in your continuing misbehaviour online.

That Tumblr post defending you was posted in my name, but you were the one who wrote it. The long one you always referred people to. I feel more shame that I let you use my name, my identity in that way. I feel shame that when people noticed it probably wasn’t written by me, we called them sexist. After that Tumblr post I told you I was done being involved in any of your arguments online. You really didn’t like that. You forever afterwards accused me of “never saying anything” when you were dealing with the shit you’d stirred up.

I am so ashamed you let me get dragged into your awful trolling behaviour. One time you had a screaming/throwing fit at me (“useless,” “worthless,” “no one cares about me”) because I didn’t want to retweet something to a big gaming company you were mad at. This was all abuse. That you continue to behave so badly online disgusts me, and I am ashamed that I helped you to hurt or damage others online. I am sorry that I have contributed to the abuse, and I am ashamed that your abuse pushed me to think that it was okay to do.

This behavior is what created the cracks in the narcissistic façade that you built up for me. Seeing the behavior that you normally directed towards me being directed towards others started to open my eyes towards what you were doing to me.

It was then that I slowly began to reassess how you treated me. This process started very slowly as I was extremely ill. And needed to focus on my health and I couldn’t shake my life up too dramatically.

Over the next two or three years my faith and trust in you completely failed. You let me down over and over. And I came to terms with the fact that I had been a trophy wife all along, an object that was owned, not a respected or loved partner. Towards the end you weren’t even trying to keep that mask you wore in the beginning on you were just straight up cruel and cold and abusive and there were no reprieves of loving or sweet acts, it was all gaslighting and narcissism gone unchecked. And there was a lot of my grief and shame at that time. Because I tried so hard to make it work anyway.

I thought if I loved harder, if I loved more I could save us but it was futile because you were already done with someone who wasn’t spending all their energy on living to please you as I’d formerly done.
I’ve grown up. I want to live my life for me. My values and morales don’t align with yours–I’m ashamed I was complicit in your misogyny and supportive of your online abuse (whatever my reasons).

I only began to register the pain and damage done to me by this relationship in the last year we were together and in the year and half since I’ve left. I have PTSD. I am doing my best to focus on healing, and since leaving both my mental and physical health have improved. I’m not okay yet, but I am improved. People can see the difference in photos. Rebuilding a life after a decade of trauma takes time but I will get there.

After this I am including statements about Zak from Jennifer, a long time friend and lover of Zak’s and mine and Hannah who was also involved with us and lived with us briefly. Jennifer was spending time with Zak before Zak and I met, and Hannah was assaulted by Zak.

CW description of sexual assualt

Jennifer’s post was originally posted to her facebook and she’s given me permission to reshare it here:

Hey guys, this is a heads up for anyone who is friends with Zak Smith or likes his page. This is somewhat out of the blue but he’s been posting more in the past year or so and I keep seeing some of you interact with him or just liking his posts, and thinking: You wouldn’t be doing that if you knew him better.

To get to the point: While he comes across as a fun person who is super cool with everything and leads such a compelling and interesting life, and I considered him a good friend for a significant amount of time, he’s also someone who has habitually abused and assaulted women. He talks negatively about them when they’re not around, and also says really degrading things to their faces. He will aggressively pursue sex and rely on the fact that most women are hesitant to reject a man in a quasi-sexual situation due to safety concerns and social conditioning. Especially when he has presented himself as caring and trustworthy. But I’ve also seen him physically take women and start fucking them, ignoring their lack of enthusiasm or freeze of shock. He will navigate kink spaces and take someone’s presence there, of general involvement in bdsm as implied consent to assualt them. And he is fully aware of what he does, he has described a sexual encounter to me as, I quote, “raping a 12-year-old”. The person in question was not underage, but so massively uncomfortable that this was his most apt description. It didn’t make him stop.

He’s really good at being so blasé about everthing that you doubt what happened or compartmentalize it, then move on. He’s also good at talking the talk and walking the walk of being the progressive liberal artist and author who is just so open about having done porn and living his sexuality uninhibited by social norms or whatever. He can be pretty manipulative and resorts to gaslighting.

This post might seem unnecessary at best, and like slander at worst. Especially considering I haven’t even personally seen him since god knows when. It’s based on my own experiences with him, some dating as far back as 2005, and the fact that almost every mutual female friend has similar experiences, up to this day. Ultimately I’ve seen him do so much fucked up shit that when I hear anything by another woman I immediately believe them without a shadow of a doubt. And yes, I’m ashamed I didn’t speak up sooner. Often things only start falling into place after time passes and you see things for what they are, and when they are confirmed by others who have had similar experiences. By the time I really fully grasped the magnitude, being vocal would have meant intruding on and hurting people who didn’t deserve it, with little discernable good to come out of it.

Basically if you know me and trust me, believe me and maybe reconsider your support of him and his art. Besides that I’m not asking you to do anything. And I don’t benefit from any sort of outcome in any way.

I’m posting this to a curated audience; if you see this I trust you to at least not create drama. If you don’t believe me, I guess just ignore this post? Although I’d prefer if you removed yourself from my list then too. I don’t want this to reach him because I don’t want to deal with the fallout. I want people to know this to make a better informed decision about who they associate with. The last I heard of him was a few months ago, after he saw that a friend had confided in me about him, and he slid into my inbox with some disingenious bullshit about how sad he was about that situation, trying to influence my opinion. I ignored it. If something like that happens again I will obviously know that someone on this list blabbed and will pretty much delete and block anyone it could have been. Please don’t make me deal with all that trouble. Thank you.

And here is Hannah’s account:

Back when I first knew them, I lauded Manda and Zak as a perfect couple. I would see them only once every few years, and when I was with them, they seemed happy. It wasn’t until I was with them for an extended period of time that I thought things seemed off. I used to take Zak’s general demeanor towards women as joking. Eg, “if I talk to my girlfriend and her friend about their feelings, will I get a threesome out of it?” But now I think that’s how Zak actually feels. At first when I kept hearing him say the phrase “chin up” to Manda, I thought he was just telling her to stay positive, but in actuality he didn’t like it when she had a tiny double chin when looking down. (Like all humans at that angle.) He also told her things like “You don’t need glasses, its more important for you to be pretty than it is to see” and “If you can’t even have sex, what good are you?” It was not a joke. For a long time I tried to see the good in him, and hoped that he would change his behaviours once Manda confronted him about them, but he didn’t seem to understand that he had done anything wrong. She told him she felt more like a doll than a human, outlined what things had upset her, and wanted to work towards a better relationship. He acted ignorant about things he had said or done, and then threatened people when anyone talked about him. (Which is why I was afraid to write this for a long time. I still am.) There was also a strange incident when we were first hanging out together during which he asked if I was into kinky stuff, to which I replied yes. He proceeded to slap me and choke me against a wall, in public. Now, in a bedroom setting, with clear boundaries and consent, it would have been fine, but out of the blue and in public, it was not okay at all. Years later, I mentioned this to a mutual friend as something that made my uncomfortable, and when Zak found out he made a half-hearted apology attempt. I don’t think he actually felt bad, I think he just didn’t want me to tell anyone else. I tried to stay friends with both of them for a little while, but after hearing more about what he said/did to Manda, I couldn’t keep him in my life anymore. She is one of my best friends and one of the sweetest people I know. I don’t understand people who say they “can’t take sides” on something like this.

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Review: Death Love Doom

I now interrupt your regularly scheduled Ropecon report with a review. It’s the newest Lamentations of the Flame Princess release, Death Love Doom, written by James Edward Raggi IV! It was released at Ropecon, I picked it up on Friday and read its 20 pages during the next two days, while I was lounging about behind the RPG desk. It’s in black and white and has the covers separate from the pages in that old-school style, with maps on the inside covers. The inside illustrations are by Kelvin Green, for which I am grateful.

This is because Green has a cartoony style, especially compared to some of the other illustrators for LotFP. The reason this is important is that apparently Death Love Doom started with James thinking up scenes from the sickest gorno his mind was capable of and then phrasing that into art orders. The module was written around those.

The end result is that Death Love Doom is not for everyone. If it had been illustrated in a more realistic style, it would be for even fewer. I’m not exactly sure it’s even for me. Some of the artists he asked turned it down after seeing the art descriptions. It’s labelled for ages 18 and over, and for very good reason. Also, in the preface, James tells that the entire module is a metaphor for his divorce with his first wife.

So of course, being the sensitive and mature gentleman that I am, I figure that kind of emotional mess completely justifies the blood and guts and pussies and cocks and dismembered children.

Just be glad I have no art to illustrate this entry with. However, that’s enough about the gore. Is there anything else to this work?

Well, I wouldn’t be bloody writing up a post about it if there weren’t. Once you wipe away all the blood and entrails, you have a rather good haunted house adventure, with a compelling, tragic backstory that the players actually have a chance of finding out (not easy, but it doesn’t have to be).

Like usually with the OSR stuff, there’s no plot as such, just a few hooks that might get the characters interested in exploring the Bloodworth Estate, some miles outside London in 1625. There’s just the backstory, the location, the villain and the adversaries.

Wiping away all the blood might be inadvisable, though, since, well, it’s a horror adventure. The horror in Death Love Doom comes from the blood and guts, and removing them would diminish the impact of the adventure. There’s even a page about how to run the adventure and deliver the horror. James has an enviable skill of writing horror adventures in such a way that just reading them drives a chill down my spine. Death Frost Doom is similar, in this respect, and the two modules share a thematic link.

So, Death Love Doom is a good adventure. It’s also not for everyone. If you like the films of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento and can sit through Cannibal Holocaust and Hostel, this will probably be right up your alley. If not, you may want to give this a pass.

You might want to check with the players, too.

Death Love Doom isn’t yet actually available for purchase currently, but the estimated release date is August 8th, along with The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time. I paid €6 for my copy at Ropecon, so even if you find it not to your liking (and you have been warned), you won’t have dashed your offspring’s hope of ever attending college.

LotFP Grand Adventure Campaign Comes to an End

The Grand Adventure Campaign on IndieGoGo ended a couple of days ago. 19 adventure writers on 19 adventures, throw ’em at the wall and see what sticks. Seems four of them did, and it was a tense finish. The glorious four were Jeff Rients with his Broodmother Sky Fortress, Vincent Baker with Seclusium of Orphone, Kelvin Green with Horror Among Thieves and Dave Brockie with Towers Two.

Unfortunately, my own Red in Beak and Claw wasn’t among them, with its decidedly unimpressive showing of $470. There is light at the end of the tunnel for it, though, and it may yet emerge from the dark recesses of my hard drive upon an unsuspecting world. I was, incidentally, interviewed on Jennisodes about the project and the other stuff that I do, and I only now realize I never linked the interview here. It’s because it came out while I was at Finncon in Tampere at the time, and followed that up with Ropecon in Espoo. For me, the convention also ate up the entire preceding week in all sorts of preparation and promotion. Basically, I spent 11 days straight doing a convention, and when I’m that deep in, it’s very hard for me to focus on anything else.

Anyway, they tell me it’s a good interview, which I cannot objectively determine, but I had fun doing it, which probably counts.

The campaign, then. Was it a success? I don’t know. Was it a failure? No.

Four out of 19 isn’t much, and I think six funded campaigns—a rough third—would have made it an unqualified success. I mean, nobody seriously expected all of them to fund. That was never the point. It would have been awesome, but it would also have been an unrealistic expectation. A more interesting question is whether they were the “right” four, and on that front, at least, I have no complaints. Vincent Baker was one of my favourites to begin with, along with Anna Kreider, Richard Pett and the Finnish contingent. It’ll be fascinating to see what someone coming from a completely different gaming background will do with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. To me, that was always the coolest thing about the campaign, and hey, it delivered. Well, will deliver.

Those two posts about Red in Beak and Claw that I promised… you’ll get them, but they’ve been postponed for now. Next up will be a flood of convention reporting and commentary on new releases, including this one little thing called Death Love Doom

Red in Beak and Claw

So, that IndieGoGo campaign is still running. Well, crawling, more like. Anyway, still ongoing. Red in Beak and Claw, the “Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds” adventure, will be released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess if it meets the $6,000 funding goal. At this point, I thought it might be useful to reflect on how the hell does one utilize The Birds in the context of a fantasy adventure role-playing game. The film is not noted for its dashing feats of derring-do and epic heroism. It’s not, in a word, D&D. It’s a bit more LotFP, but still not there.

Indeed, I’ve never even seen an adventure based on The Birds for any game, which strikes me as odd since it’s such a well-known film and reimagining movies and novels as RPG adventures is a time-honoured tradition of the hobby. I own something like three or four takes on Heart of Darkness alone and my Living Greyhawk adventure Bright Sun, Black Lion owes a heavy debt to Smokin’ Aces.

Incidentally, Wuthering Heights would make a totally awesome game. (Anyone ever tells you it’s a love story, don’t date them. It’s not. So very, very much not.)

Anyway, the thing about The Birds is that the main characters in it are victims. They don’t have a whole lot of agency in the story regarding the bird attacks. They can run, they can hide, and they can escape. It makes for classic cinema and it can also make for a very good roleplaying session. However, that roleplaying game is Call of Cthulhu. In D&D fantasy, even one as horror-oriented as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the PCs need something to do beyond survival. That’s what they’re trying to do anyway, all the time. Besides, problem-solving and doing stupid things like running towards the blood-curdling scream are core assumptions of the game. So, the PCs need something to do beyond running away.

Not that they won’t be doing a lot of that, too. At least the smart ones. Fighting a flock of a thousand murderous seagulls is a losing proposition. Granted, if you do wear a suit of full plate armour, you’ll be more or less invulnerable but even then you can’t actually fight and win. It’s perhaps better to visualize the bird attacks as a sort of natural disaster rather than an enemy in this respect. However, unlike a natural disaster, in Red in Beak and Claw, the player characters do have the chance of stopping it.

Before the characters can stop it, though, they must first figure out what is happening, why it is happening, and how it can be stopped. There are clues in the village of Graypiers, and a quick, smart and capable party of adventurers can figure it out before it’s too late. There are people who know parts of the story and if someone were to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, the whole ugly picture would be clear. I hope the picture will be interesting enough. I am deliberately steering away from the whole “secret sins of the village elders” thing here. As a bonus, a wizard did not do it!

Of course, this requires the people in the know to be alive to tell the party, and even if the characters themselves are bold adventurers decked out in full plate, impervious to the beaks of anything smaller than a roc, the rest of the villagers won’t be. The clock is ticking, the schedule is tight, and people are dying.

Next week, I will describe the system used to adjudicate the bird attacks as well as the village of Graypiers, which may be a deeply strange place but hopefully, one worth saving.

Red in Beak and Claw at the LotFP Grand Adventure Campaign!

It has begun! Possibly the craziest thing I’ve seen James do yet (and I’ve known him for some years), the July Grand Adventure Campaign gathers together 19 adventure writers from diverse backgrounds to write modules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. I am one of them, and if the $6,000 funding goal is met, my adventure Red in Beak and Claw shall be unleashed upon the world, and with art by Jason Rainville!

Red in Beak and Claw, as you can probably figure out from the blurb, is informed by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I, for one, have never seen an adventure module inspired by the film, but in case someone’s already done it, I’ll have to do it better. There may also be some Children of the Corn in there somewhere.

The campaign itself is megalomaniacal in its scale. There is a terrible beauty to the sheer size and variety of its contributors. There are indie game designers, a Nordic larpwright, a rock star, bloggers, OSR writers, veterans of D&Ds classic and modern alike. It is a testament to the lightness and flexibility of oldDungeons & Dragons that game designers from such diverse backgrounds can pick up the ruleset with little prior experience and feel comfortable working with it.

Apart from me, there are three other Finns in the lineup: first of all, there’s Ville Vuorela of Burger Games, for whom I translated Stalker. The art for The Dreaming Plague will incidentally be done by Juha Makkonen, I who I worked with on Roolipelikirja. Then there’s Mike Pohjola, Emmy Award -winning author, larpwright, game designer and I can’t even remember what else, with his adventure I Hate Myself for What I Must Do. This is also the man who wrote a roleplaying game using fortune cookies instead of dice, and I advise you to expect the unexpected. Last but not least, there’s Juhani Seppälä, of the blog Blowing Smoke, with his module Normal for Norfolk, that started out as a campaign he ran for James that James has been pestering him to write up ever since.

This is also my chance to get that Richard Pett adventure I was so cruelly denied last time around. Get to it, people. Just… fund me first, okay? At the moment, to my great perturbation, I seem to be in the lead, too…

Last Hours at Hand for LotFP IndieGoGo

As I write this, there are less than 20 hours to go until the end of the LotFP IndieGoGo campaign. The amount raised is now nearly $14,000, and Jim has declared the Kenneth Hite adventure funded! Now is your opportunity to pledge! Perhaps you’ll be lucky and a last-minute rush will get us over the Mentzer line as well…

I’m mildly disappointed that my adventure didn’t get funded and even more disappointed that Richard Pett’s didn’t, but so it goes.

Jim has also announced another series of campaigns in July for even more adventures by a different set of writers, some of them very interesting.

Diana Jones Shortlist Announced

The shortlist for the coolest of all gaming awards, the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming, has been released, and it’s got me, at least, very excited. For one thing, I’m actually familiar with more than one item on the shortlist. Indeed, I have reviewed two of them on this blog.

I am not familiar with Burning Wheel Gold and I am cynically suspicious of the mechanics in Risk Legacy that require you to destroy parts of the game, but the other three on the list are strong contenders. Crowdfunding services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are nothing short of revolutionary, especially for an industry like ours.

However, it’s the last two books on the list that have me all excited. First, there’s Vornheim, written by Zak S. and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It’s a remarkable work that delivers in its compact form as complete a city product as the classic boxed sets of the 1990s. Though the book acknowledges its position within the genre of D&D fantasy, it refuses to be shackled by its tropes and gives them its own weird fantasy spin. Vornheim is full of clever ideas in both content and presentation, and an Award delivered to Zak would not be a misplaced one.

My personal favourite for the award is Nordic Larp, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, published by Fëa Livia. Frankly, I must confess to being quite surprised it made the shortlist—not because it were not deserving, but because it is a niche product detailing the exploits of a relatively small group of gamers quite far away from Gen Con. It is heartening to see that mere geography is not an obstacle to such deserved recognition. Nordic Larp shines a light on a gaming culture very different from the one that engages in heated debate over the new edition of D&D on RPG.net or EN World. It’s an exceptional, challenging culture, often provocative, sometimes strange, sometimes frightening, but always fascinating.

And it’s a damn beautiful book.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Stalker RPG, Self-Aggrandizement

It is time for some commercials!

As you may know, I translated Stalker RPG for Burger Games, and the game was finally released in PDF back in March. Now, Burger Games finally got a print-on-demand option worked out that they’re happy with. Additionally, the PDF’s price has been lowered to €14 (which translates to about $19.30). The PDF is available on DriveThruRPG, and the PoD book can be purchased from Lulu, for an eminently affordable €29.90. For a refresher, here’s J. Tuomas Harviainen’s review of the game. Additionally, here’s a thread on EN World where I discuss the system in some detail.

Another project I’m involved in is an IndieGoGo drive from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Ostensibly, it’s for printing hardcover versions of the rulebooks. Actually, it’s about getting game writer luminaries such as Kenneth Hite, Frank Mentzer, Jason Morningstar and Zak S to write LotFP adventure modules. Oh, and me. I’m not sure what, exactly, I am doing in this esteemed company, but if you throw enough money Jim’s way, we can all find out together when I pen him a 32-page adventure module. “Enough money” in this case means $105,000.

Okay, it’s probably not going to happen unless someone throws in $7,500 for a Drooling Fanboy pack with my name on it (which is also probably not going to happen, but I’d love to be proven wrong), but guys, I want that Richard Pett adventure. If I don’t get my Richard Pett adventure, I will be very disappointed. Also, I want the stuff that comes before Pett, too. Seriously, the writer of Fiasco and Grey Ranks doing old-school D&D? Gimme! Never saw anything by Kenneth Hite that I didn’t love, either. And there’s Frank Mentzer, the man who gave us Bargle!

Also, since the man behind the project is Jim Raggi, you know he won’t skimp on the production values. These adventures, when they get made, will be small works of art.

Review: Isle of the Unknown

Along with Carcosa, last Thursday saw the release of Isle of the Unknown, a 125-page full-colour hardcover setting book. Like Carcosa, it is written by Geoffrey McKinney and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it is a sandbox setting.

The pages of Isle of the Unknown are liberally sprinkled with art, from small monster pieces by Amos Orion Sterns to the full-page magic user illustrations by Jason Rainville. It is laid out in a clear, readable fashion and is nice to look at. Unfortunately, the full-page pieces have printed out rather dark, which is clear when comparing them to the PDF version, which looks much nicer.

The PDF is not as nifty as Carcosa, in that there are no hyperlinks in the text or the map, but what it does do better than Carcosa is pagination. While Carcosa’s page numbers do not match up from page to PDF due to each page spread being counted as a single page, this has somehow been fixed in Isle of the Unknown. I have no comprehension of the wizardry required for such feats, but evidently it can be done. This is the one thing that Isle of the Unknown does better than Carcosa. Mind you, the lack of hyperlinks in Isle of the Unknown is not as bad a thing as it might be in another type of book, because the only thing you would want hyperlinked is the hex descriptions, all of which are easily accessible via bookmarks.

The two books are good examples of how PDF publishing should be done in general. You have all these interesting options to increase usability that the dead tree edition is lacking, so why not use them? I think the bare minimum should be an option to turn off background art so stuff can be printed without wasting any printer ink, a liquid that, by weight, is more expensive than human blood, crude oil, or gold. At least nobody is trying to peddle us files without bookmarks anymore, though I own a few examples like that as well.

Ruleswise, it’s old-school D&D and ought to be compatible with pretty much whatever version you want. Armour Class is expressed in terms like “as leather”, so you won’t even need to figure out whether it’s counting up or down or where the starting point is.

The Lay of the Land

Isle of the Unknown is a sandbox setting. We have an island, slightly under 35,000 square miles in size, divided up into 330 hexes, each of which covers the area of some 86 square miles. Each hex has something of interest. Broadly speaking, these can be divided up into monsters, magic-users, statues and towns. The latter are of the least interest, at least to the writer, and we’re only given population figures and perhaps a plot hook for each.

The book’s setting defaults to a sort of medieval Mediterranean. Architecture and statues are described as Greek or Roman, a few NPCs referred to as Turkish or Arabic and references to the real world are abundant. However, as the preface explains, everything can be changed easily, which is also why no proper names are given. Nearly all of the clerics on the island are described as wearing red surcoats with white crosses, which is how the Knight Hospitallers used to dress at one point in their history. Incidentally, the introduction also mentions that “the societies, flora, and fauna of this predominantly mountainous and wooded isle resemble those of the French territory of Auvergne circa A.D. 1311,” where the Hospitallers controlled a grand priory. While I am not certain and there’s a woeful gap in my education here, I suspect that McKinney is trying to work in a reference to Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne. I wonder if reading the stories would give some sort of context to the isle and its weirdness.

Anyway, the three other things this island has in abundance. Weird monsters! I haven’t counted, but I think there are over a hundred different monsters on the isle. These range from giant parrots that are on fireand humanoid swans with human faces on their chests that shoot strength-draining feathers to a vaguely lizardlike creature that “looks like a slightly elongated raspberry”, and koalas with suction cups. All of them are illustrated, which is nice, since some of them (like the raspberry thing) would be really difficult to visualize otherwise. They don’t have much in the way of context or ecology or any sort of explanation. That’s all up to the GM. What matters is that they’re there, they’re weird, and most of them are hostile.

Then there are magic users. Here and there, scattered across the isle, are secluded magic users with strange and unique powers. They are mostly not hostile, and indeed, fighting them is almost certainly a losing proposition. Not all of them are illustrated, but thirteen of them are illustrated in a series of zodiac-themed, full-page art pieces that I like very much. They are also weird.

Finally, there are statues. Scattered across the isle are mysterious magical statues with strange properties. Some of them are hot to the touch, some of them grant blessings, some of them stand a good chance of killing you. The only illustrated statue is the one on the cover.

There isn’t much in the way of history or background to the isle and its high strangeness, just a list of legends that may or may not be true. The hexes do not exist in vacuums, though, and construct small implied stories of their own. For instance, the villagers in this hex consider the forest in that hex a taboo and may get cross if the PCs go there. Such detail is sparse, however.

In conclusion, Isle of the Unknown is a very good-looking book. It’s an interesting sandbox setting, though the weirdness wanders into the realm of absurd comedy a bit too often to remain effective. The cartoonish art style of the monsters does not exactly help. Still, a capable GM knows what to keep, what to drop and what to adjust, and though it is not explicitly mentioned anywhere, I get the feeling that the setting isn’t even meant to be used straight out of the book.

For a full disclosure, I received my copy from the publisher as thanks for helping him unload the pallets of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown, and am probably strongly biased.

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.