There was a recent flare up of the never-ending culture wars regarding the removal of the, somewhat provocatively titled, Tournament of Rapists rpg supplement from RPGdrivethru (the largest online tabletop rpg distributor) after a shrieking horde of
12-year old children SJWs forgot to take their anti-depressants that day, causing them to overlook the fact it was located in the adult section of the site and its content was so puerile and silly as to be worthy only of contemptuous laughter, and deciding that they were in fact in charge of what everyone got to like. They were right, Drivethru folded like an especially timid poker player, the content was removed and in all probability they will add an inappropriate content button to the site so you can report anything that coincides with a massive release of cortisol for when you forget to take your anti-depressants whilst browsing for rpgs online in the adult section. At least our children will be safe right? And speaking of assaults on civilization by twisted, degenerate abhuman freaks that resemble normal humans only in the broadest of terms, let us take a look at Carcosa, before that too gets banished the fuck out of Rpgland. Frankly, if Tournament of Rapists was eligible for banning, Carcosa does not stand a chance. But we will get to that later.
Carcosa was originally published independently by creator Geoffry Mckinney in little grey books in a format modelled after the Original D&D brown books. It was even given the hubristic secondary title of Supplement V, and was meant as an expansion to OD&D. It generated admiration and outrage in quasi-equal measures, for its unique take on dungeons and dragons on the one hand, and its graphic descriptions of human sacrificial rituals involving rape and murder on the other hand. It is a deeply flawed and troubled product, and yet I stand in awe of it. Eventually an expurgated version was offered to placate those faint of heart, and thus all was sort of well, accusations of pedophelia nonwithstanding. Naturally, James Raggi IV, purveyor of edginess and shock-jockey of the OSR, eagerly scooped up Carcosa and convinced Mckinney to jump aboard for a new, illustrated, chocolate-and-fudge coated expanded edition for his retro-clone Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Of course it was unexpurgated. This is it. I am reviewing this. I am reviewing it in one fell swoop so I have added chapters for your convenience, so you may rest your wearied eyes and take coffee breaks.
Part 1: Introduction and General Overview.
The PDF edition is 143 pages. The art consists of stunning black and white sketches that illustrate the alien horror of the alien world of Carcosa. The choice of black and white sketches is a sensible one, given the fact Carcosa has several colours that do not exist on our planet(Ulfire, Dolm and Jale, inspired by The Voyage to Arcturus by David Linsay). I normally do not pay overmuch attention to art, but this is good art. This communicates and helps us visualize the alien world that is described within.
So what the fuck is Carcosa? Carcosa is both a campaign setting and a Dnd variant. The reason I call it a variant is because it changes OD&D (and by extension Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the system this edition is ostensibly based on) in such a radical fashion it significantly alters the core gameplay in a pretty interesting way that might not be to everyone’s taste.
Carcosa takes an page from the old Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign setting by hinting at a setting, rather then describing it in encyclopedic detail. There are some general guidelines but most of the setting must be inferred from its monster, ritual, item and hex location descriptions. This was a tradition in ye olden days, and should come as a welcome change for those GM’s that prefer terse, evocative description over exhaustive, lengthy detail. I myself prefer more context and detail, but Carcosa gave me enough to work with to envision my own runnable version of it without necessitating unseemly modification to the original source material. So you ask again, what the fuck is Carcosa?
Carcosa is an alien planet, located in the Hyades cluster 153 light years from earth. It’s primary inhabitants are not elves, dwarves and other creatures transplanted from the works of Tolkien, but rather men of 13 different skin colours remniscent of Burrough’s Mars (Red, Black, transparent, Ulfire etc.), aliens, mutant dinosaurs, oozes and various lovecraftian horrors culled from the works of Lovecraft(gee…), Smith and Carter*. There are no wizards or clerics, only cruel sorcerers utilizing the barely understood and dangerous Sorcery of the extinct Snake-men allowing them conjure, control and banish the plethora of eldritch abominations that stalk this benighted realm. Also you have alien technology, lotus dust and psionic powers. Bitchin’.
We start off on the wrong foot, with a retarded dice house rule that amounts to randomizing the type of die you throw for everything, using a d20. So the number of hit points your character has and the number of hit points an enemy varies considerably with each encounter. The damage varies with each blow. This is meant to create greater uncertainty. That sounds retarded, and it is. Fortunately, the dice rules are easily ignored and bleed off but 5 pages of the overal product, pages that could have been used to flesh out the 13 differently coloured men-races and give them some mechanical benefits or drawbacks or something. All we get now are notes that these differently coloured men cannot interbreed, Jale men are reputed to be the best at sorcery and everyone hates Bone Men.
Class conventions are something else. You are restricted to either Sorcerer or Fighter(the game mentions you opt to allow selection of the Specialist(thief) class without altering the flavour overmuch, but I suspect the class was made optional because the Original Dungeons and Dragons did not have a thief class). The Sorcerer has the same attack bonus, weapon and armour proficiencies and hit dice as the fighter, but he requires more xp and his saving throws are superior. What further differentiates the Sorcerer is his Sorcery! that allows him to conjure, banish, imprison, bind and torment hideous abominations(I am reminded of Ron Edward’s Sorcerer game**).
All of these rituals except banishment rituals require human sacrifices, which tells you what kind of dude a sorcerer is likely to be. In addition, all the rituals have a chance(save vs spell to avoid) of aging the sorcerer by several years, and most of the rituals allow saving throws from the abomination in question and often pose tremendous danger to the ritualist, making sorcery an extremely potent but unpredictable weapon. From this we glean the average sorcerer is not cautious like the wizard, but an utterly ruthless and power-hungry sociopath, willing to pay any price in body and soul to achieve his aims. Think not Rialto or Gandalf but more along the lines of Elric with dead Cymoril’s blood fresh on his hands or the corrupted sorcerers of Howard’s Conan or Clarke’s Zothique.
Every Sorcerer begins play with zero rituals, thus the burning need to explore the world of Carcosa in search of rituals, components and delicious sacrifices will be a significant driving force behind a campaign (or this is how I interpret it at any rate). I cannot help but feel an opportunity has been missed by restricting the Sorcerer to rituals alone and think they would have benefitted from some other pulpy abilities like hypnotism, unnatural strength, curses or turning into gaseous form or something. As it stands the Sorcerer seems a little weak, and given the perilous nature of the rituals is unlikely to last very long. Then again as written, almost nothing will last very long in Carcosa.
To further add to the harsh and callous nature of Carcosa, alignment rules have been
retardified simplified. You are either Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic, and this only relates to how you view the Great Old Ones. Lawful characters would oppose the great old ones, Chaotic ones would aid them. Voila. They explicitly mention that all behaviours, both noble and vile, are found among the three alignments. A harsh, nihilistic, amoral world where few things matter. Aight.
We finish up this interesting but uneven section on a positive note. Rules are given for psionic powers. Really simple, elegant rules. Everyone with a high Int, Wis or Cha has a chance of getting psionic powers at 1st level.*** These powers vary from mind control to remote viewing or ESP (pulpy psi powers). They are randomly determined each time you rest, and can be used more often per day as you increase in level. Simple, effective, fun, adds to the setting’s gonzo flavour.
Part II: Equipment.
The equipment section is a mixed bag. Rules are given for various Lotus dusts with effects ranging from lethal toxins to suspended animation or zombification (the Voodoo kind). Carcosa has no magic items as such(some occult items in the hex descriptions later on, like a crown that prevents the aging from sorcerous rituals), but instead provides us with the technology of the grey-like space aliens that have crashed on Carcosa a long time ago. Alongside Sorcery we can now add various beam-weapons, laser-guns, bombs, powered armour, force fields and rocket launchers to our extra-mundane arsenal. But wait there is more!
We also get artifacts of a more lovecraftian nature built by the Great Race or the Primordial Ones, such as gigantic crystalline psionic amplification chambers, guardian of forever-esque space-time portals, and giant organic cloning machines or shoggoth factories. Most of these artifacts are barely comprehensible to humankind and subsequently very dangerous to use. Some of them are just horrifically dangerous and provide no benefit to any human user. Some of them are worshipped as deities by mad cults. Awesome.
Nevertheless I must bitch. I feel an opportunity has been missed in setting down some guidelines on mundane or weird equipment for Carcosa. Given the fact that Carcosa does not appear to have human organization above the level of a village (screaming hordes of blood-crazed naked Azatoth worshippers do not count) I feel a paragraph or so discussing the technology level would have been helpful. Would humans living on the tribal level really use a monetary system based on coins and precious metals? This is a nitpick though, since plausibility is not really high on Carcosa’s list of priorities, only dazzling imagination and sickfuckery.
Next up: Delicious Controversy!
*Mckinney mentions Moorcock’s While the Gods Laugh but neglects to mention Clark Ashton Smith, an unforgivable omission given the obvious inspiration taken from Smith’s work.
A horror-stricken man has already been half-transformed
into a fruit tree. He is rooted to the spot, and in two weeks
the transformation will be complete. At that time the
chaotic Blue 9th-level Sorcerer who conjured the arboreal
thing that caused the man’s transformation will arrive
with his sensual Purple lover. They plan to feast on the
exotic dolm fruit that the tree will bear.
A dead give away, Mckinney.
** Ron Edward’s is the spiritual liege of narrative-focused story-games and in his proto-story game Sorcerer you play a ruthless magic-practitioner with the power to contact, summon, bind, torment, banish and contain demons.
*** And not a very high chance. The percentile chance is cumulative, and a hypothetical sorcerer with 18 int, wis and cha has 12% chance of gaining psionic powers. I should note that the decision of giving the highest percentile chance of getting psionics to charisma was a sound one, since Cha is often the dump stat. Wis and Int modifiers affect saving throws in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, so this is a good choice.