PrinceofNothingReviews: Carcosa [Part I+II.]

[Campaign Setting]
Carcosa (2011)

Geoffry Mckinney & Chris Robert

Carcosa was originally published independently by creator Geoffry Mckinney in little grey books in a format modeled 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 pedophilia notwithstanding. 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 weird horror of the alien world of Carcosa. The choice of black and white sketches is a sensible one given the fact Carcosa has several colors that do not exist on our planet [1]. I normally do not pay overmuch attention to art, but this is good art. Every piece 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 GMs 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 colors reminiscent 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 [2]. 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 of your enemy varies considerably between encounters. 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 overall product, pages that could have been used to flesh out the 13 differently colored men-races and give them some mechanical benefits or drawbacks or something. All we get now are notes that these differently colored 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 flavor 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/armor 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 [3]).
All of these rituals except banishment rituals require human sacrifices, which tells you exactly 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 debased 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 benefited 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 behaviors, 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 [4]. 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 flavor.

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 the planet a long time ago. Alongside Sorcery we can now add various beam-weapons, laser-guns, bombs, powered armor, 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!

[1] Ulfire, Dolm and Jale, inspired by The Voyage to Arcturus by David Linsay

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

19 thoughts on “PrinceofNothingReviews: Carcosa [Part I+II.]

  1. If Carcosa has a defence it’s that it doesn’t immediately project the reader’s lack of discretion in sexual matters upon perusal of the cover. If I have something on my shelf and that something is called A TOURNAMENT OF RAPISTS that’s going to draw attention and I’m not sure how I’d go about justifying its presence there. Carcosa at least has pretentions to artfulness: an aesthetic of unrelenting despair in which everyone’s the victim of something more powerful and distinctly perverse. It’s staid and menacing the mood it’s trying to evoke is terror-gothic rather than horror-disgust. It quotes POETRY, for goodness’ sake, it can’t be that vile… but then, this is a question of taste. I don’t particularly like the Saw movies but I thought Event Horizon was brilliant BUT, and this is the killer, I’m sure there are some shrinking violets and shrieking mimsies out there who don’t see a distinction between them.

    All that said, I was looking back at the YDIS threads on Carcosa preparatory to writing a review of my own (you terrible bastard, you’re too quick for me!) and one thing that jumped out was the argument by Mike Jameson (Pretentious Fuck) that Carcosa is not something you’d want your underage daughters to take off the shelves and flick through. But then, what is? Do my second edition 40K books have to go because of that one full colour Blanche painting that had me retching as a ten-year-old? That’s ART, dammit!


    1. [Saw&Event Horizon]
      Event Horizon kicks ass and is 40k as fuck, the first Saw is a diverting thriller for those of jaded sensibilities.

      The comparison is apt actually. Tournament of rapists pulls no punches and decries its vulgar nature for all to see, but in the end its just DnD with a rape-coat of paint. I’ll grant you the shame-factor of owning it and having a friend see it is larger then any in the Lotfp catalogue.

      But…Carcosa gets way deeper into the playing the horrible sociopath-protagonist. The defence that the rape monsters are meant to be fought cannot be levelled by Carcosa. Sorcerers are a core-class and their existence is one of the driving factors behind the game. Thus PCs are fully expected to commit atrocities no less horrible then the enemies they fight. Playing Carcosa whilst only using banishment rituals is lame as shit.

      I think one of the problems with the position that art about disturbing subjects is alright but simple entertainment is not is that art is subjective, therefore someone can always argue in bad faith that something is or is not art and should be removed on those grounds. That and the outrage crowd is always rather unusually lenient when judging products of a similar nature made by their own side. Its naked partisanship really, therefore it should not be taken seriously or even engaged with.

      [10 year old]
      Pretentious Fuck is right, but not every product needs to be suitable for a 10 year old(Warhammer argument very apt). There is nothing wrong with putting some sort of indication on a product if it handles disturbing topics so little timmy won’t go into it expecting a fun new campaign setting for his lvl 2 ftr and ends up reading about raping children before stabbing them in the chest with a 100 year old flint knife so you can torture a rotting fungus monster or something.


      1. [Saw/Event Horizon analogy] Yes, I’m quite pleased with that one really. The terror/horror distinction is nothing new mind, it goes back to eighteenth-century gothic author slanging matches at the very least.

        [Art] Ah yes, the old “I don’t like this, this is not High Art, take it away so I can simply ignore it as unworthy of my falutin’ attentions” gambit. That’s the one, right?

        [Pre-adolescent] I can see that I failed to be clear in summarising Mr. Fuck’s argument. I am not talking about making every product suitable for a ten-year-old: that would be a very stupid thing to do. I am talking about the shelves in my house. If one of my missus’ small cousins were to rifle my bookshelves, as they are wont to do, and fetch down something like Carcosa or A Tournament of Rapists, I would have some explaining to do to them, their parents, and the extended family who’ve been good enough to accept me as their own. (Speaking entirely for myself, I wouldn’t really like to explain that I bought these things ‘to see how bad they really were’, because I wouldn’t buy that excuse if it came from someone else…)

        Nowt wrong with an Explicit Content sticker, although in my experience those attract rather than deter the Timmies of the world, and even if you say they can’t have it the little shits’ll be on /tg/ by teatime, downloading away. Still, it’s less about effectively protecting the children and more about saying “we warned them and you that this was some sick business, duty of care fulfilled”. Can’t blame the game shoppe for what goes on at your own kitchen table, can you?


  2. Ah… Carcosa, Skittles people racism on
    John Wayne Gacy‘s Barsoom.

    The setting should have been a lot more interesting than it is. The lack of mechanical differences between the different candymen and the half-assed, kitchen-sink implementation of the Lovecraftian elements made this less-than-appealing. I think it should have been more Planet Algol, and less creepy middle-aged pervert’s basement.

    If I were to create a dark sword-and-planet setting, I’d adulterate my ERB with some Leigh Brackett, CAS, Richard Corben, and Brian Aldiss, then lighten it up with a healthy dose of Thundarr the Barbarian and Masters of the Universe. As it is, Carcosa paradoxically isn’t smart enough, and it isn’t dumb enough.


    1. You and my spam filter have a troubling relationship.

      Nail on the head btw. I have defended Carcosa in the past but i find myself having to choke down those words rather hardly as i go through it piece by bloody piece. The best anology i can come up with is that Carcosa is like a functional rpg product that jumped off a building and you are presented with the remain-splattered pavement stones. There is cool stuff IN it, but as a product it is broken, even when compared to Wilderlands products from the early 80s.

      I dont mind the departure from slavish adherence to Mythos Lore but the solutions are simplistic(making every lovecraftian creature a Spawn of Shub-Niggurath is stupid, making both shoggoths and Primordial Ones spawns of shub niggurath removes the awesome flavour of having the primordial ones create shoggoths and life on earth originating as a by-product thereof).

      I don’t mind the basement, i mind the way the basement is presented. You can present atrocity with taste or you can hit people over the head with it, and this is the latter, not the former.

      That one where the moon is connected to the planet with giant fucking vines? I gave that one to my ex and i dont think she read it so i should get that back and read it.

      I myself would have added more pulpy powers for sorcerers so the class doesnt feel so half-hearted. I see your CAS(there is CAS in Carcosa, a lot actually) and raise you Hodginson’s the Nightland, Simmons’ Hyperion add more Star Trek the Original Series(some elements already in place) and the comics The Territory, Storm and Chronicles of the Trigan Empire. As novelised by Clive Barker. And then lighten it down. All the way down. Ia! Motherfucker.


  3. You and my spam filter have a troubling relationship.

    It only happens when I embed links… I link, therefore I’m spam.

    (making every lovecraftian creature a Spawn of Shub-Niggurath is stupid, making both shoggoths and Primordial Ones spawns of shub niggurath removes the awesome flavour of having the primordial ones create shoggoths and life on earth originating as a by-product thereof).

    Yeah, that is pretty dumb, but it’s a direct crib from the Cthulhu Mythos section of ‘Deities and Demigods’. He should have gone to the original source material, not a pastiche of a pastiche.

    I myself would have added more pulpy powers for sorcerers so the class doesnt feel so half-hearted.

    That would be easy to implement using the mutation tables. Stuff like creepy glowing eyes that cause opponents to save or have a -1 to hit penalty, or skin secretions that reduce fire damage would be cool.

    I think another HUGE weakness is the space aliens’ tech section, specifically the Periodic Table of the Armaments… I guess a molybdenum ray rifle would just be a really wonky particle-beam weapon, but the implementation just comes across as really half-assed. Would a lithium gun cure a target who’s afflicted by bipolarity?


    1. “Yeah, that is pretty dumb, but it’s a direct crib from the Cthulhu Mythos section of ‘Deities and Demigods’. He should have gone to the original source material, not a pastiche of a pastiche.”

      I remember seeing where geoffie said he was unfamiliar with Lovecraft and Cthulhu until seeing D&DG. I did a brief google search before apathy (and whiskey) kicked in, but came up empty, so I can’t support this with a link, but it was three or four years ago. Or less. Or more.

      Anyway, I don’t think he dug much further than that. Like, into the actual stories.


    2. Fucking internet connection ate my reply.


      Gamma World+Deities&demigods. To his credit, he has certainly read lovecraft, as Carcosa does not shirk from directly quoting him when describing the monsters.


      That works too, it would resemble the mutation table in DH a bit more, with mutations both beneficial and debilitating. I was referring more to pulpy sorcerer powers, autohypnosis, mesmerism, curses, Voice(think Bene Gesserit), turning into vapour or a giant snake, haunting someone’s nightmares etc.


      I didnt really cover the equipment section in great detail because there is just not that much to say. The giant tables for random lazors are sort of self indulgent and could be fixed by a simple 2 step lazor generation table. You dont need silly periodic table names to give it a veneer of SCIENCE(TM).


      1. [Lazors] Geoffrey does like using five stages where two would do, though. That Carcosa opens with those stupid, stupid, STUPID randomise-which-dice-you-use-to-deal-damage-this-round mechanics is telling. Carcosa is a masterclass in the atmospherics of doomed futility but in actual play terms the best thing in it are those two pages of psychic powers. They are, of course, deeply unlike every other set of psychic power rules I’ve ever seen, and unlike the rest of the material in the book: terse, functional, and restrained.


  4. [lazors]

    About dem psychic powers. Im halfway through the last part of the post but expect an update in this post soon. Im gonna try to calculate what your actual chance is of generating a character with psychic powers. My gut feeling says about 1 out of every 100 characters will have psychic powers. The bitter irony might be that while the psychic powers rules might be tight as shit, their actual impact on the game might be negligable. I shall keep you posted sirrahs.

    Excelsior. Good night and dreams of conquest upon all of you. Without your imput, i would be no Prince, merely a nothing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s