This section concludes my perhaps overly detailed review of dreaded Carcosa. I was going to calculate what your actual chance is of starting with a psionic dude but I gave up halfway through when I figured out you get a chance of psychic powers starting from int/wis/cha 15, not 16. I have a theory that less then 1 in 100 characters would start with psychic powers if you roll 3d6 in order but proving it is going to take work and I do not like work.
The Monster Section of Carcosa is one of the better sections of the whole troublesome book. Within are described the various Lovecraftian horrors meant to plague its prospective players. We can subdivide the monsters into broad categories and evaluate each category accordingly, so we shall!
Part 1: Monsters cribbed from the monstrous manual. Carcosa utilises several monsters from traditional DnD that are suitably lovecraftian (i.e weird and gross). This part consists of oozes, giant ants, puddings, purple worms (dolm worms in Carcosa), dinosaurs (but mutated!), molds and slimes. Appropriate but nothing new, but then again that might be the idea. Forgiveable since they only compose a fraction of the monsters. Liches and demi-liches have been replaced with mummies and mummy brains (the brains are a pretty cool palette swap).
Part II: Monsters cribbed from Lovecraft. Most of the bestiary in Carcosa is directly ripped from Lovecraft. Some of the lore has been changed; in Carcosa, all classic Lovecraftian entities originate from Shub-Niggurath, which is a mistake in my humble opinion, as it dilutes the intricate weirdness and the mystery of Lovecraft’s grotesque menagerie.
You have your Primordial Ones(great old ones), Great Race(no lightning projectors which is a shame), Mi-Go, byahkee, Deep Ones, Frog Men, Spawn of Yog-sothoth(those are from Yog-soth-oth) and the spawn of Shub-Niggurath, which is a randomly generated monster. Since the latter happens to be the most common monster in Carcosa, planning and strategy have only limited use, which adds to the fickle, unknowable nature of the setting. Classic monsters are eschewed in favour of eyeless, amoeboid, betentacled grotesqueries. So far so Carcosa.
Stats for the Old ones are provided but they are so ridiculously powerful (59 HD, save or die, 8 dice of damage per round etc.) that I cannot see one prevailing over them with anything but an battalion of alien tanks or something. This is in keeping with the flavour of the setting, but it kind of begs the question why they are given stats at all, maybe for when your pcs get their hands on some Space Alien cosmic ray tanks? They also feel kind of samey, Yog-soth-oth and Nyarlathotep have been turned into giant tentacled monsters where room for some diversity of appearance was certainly present.
Part III: Unique abominations to be conjured and bound. Still very much in the spirit of the Lovecraftian, most of the unique abominations are interesting and varied. Giant Toad gods (Tsathoguaaah!), sentient piles of obsidean, creatures that exist only in darkness, violet mist clouds, a disease causing swamp thing, all are there to gaze upon and be terrified of. These are the best part of the monster section, inspired by some of the lesser known Old Ones though they may be.
The rest is a haphazard collection of space aliens, prehistoric giant monsters(think cambrium period not the jurrasic), giant ants and randomly generated murder robots/cyborgs. There is a very small chance to reprogram deactivated robots, with an equal chance of them backfiring and turning murderous.
This section is okay. The monsters are mechanically very similar, with very little interesting attacks, which is kind of a shame. They do help to convey the overall atmosphere of Carcosa however. I of course did my habitual
trip to xnxx.com OSR-cut-n-paste check with the 1st edition Deities & Demigods (the one with the Nehwon, Melnibonean and Cthulu pantheons), since that work is a noted inspiration for Mckinney’s Carcosa. While some inspiration has no doubt been taken from it, I could find no incidence of direct copy-pasting, therefore all is well.
The meat, bread and butter of Carcosa, the implied super duper setting. The alien, barren, nightmare-haunted landscape of dread Carcosa. It rocks but it is also very frustrating.
We do not get a massive gazetteer with population figures and general overviews but instead a hexmap with several hundred hexes, each with 2 encounters on them, often no more then a short paragraph meant to inspire prospective GM’s and provide fuel for much adventuring. This method is not dissimilar from the old Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and it is perfect for sandbox play. That sounds like you get a shitload of great encounters. Sadly some of the encounters are lame. I get that this is a result of the emulation of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy format, but in a product like this it is kind of wasteful. If you cut the chaff you find a bleak and deadly but very atmospheric and weird sword and planet setting, filled with awe, horror, bleak nihilism and pulp goodness.
On to the encounters themselves. I will provide examples of when Carcosa rocks super hard and when it wastes my time. I should point out the original edition of Carcosa had only 1 encounter per hex and
Geoffry* wrote up several hundred new ones for this edition. Most of these new ones are better and avoid wasting my time, which is great, so he deserves props for improvement at the very least.
Village/Castle locations: Carcosa’s men for the most part lack civilization and thus there is almost no organization beyond the village-tribe level. Occasionally, you will have a bunch of guys in a fortress (I’m guessing most of those fortresses will have been built by the now extinct Snake men). Most of the villages and fortresses are ruled by vicious autocrats with ridiculously pompous titles.
Example terrible encounter; Castle of 18 Bone Men led by a chaotic 3rd-level Fighter. While this is a terse encounter, its almost useless. It contains nothing to fuel the imagination. Even in the old wilderlands supplements they gave you more to work with, like technology level or some features.
Example bad encounter: Village of 270 Dolm Men ruled by “the Ocean of Mercy,” a neutral 8th-level Fighter. While this is still shit, the pompous titles give the brain something to work with. Still nowhere near sufficient.
Example Good Encounter: Village of 204 Orange Men ruled by “the Vault of the Mind,” a neutral 4th-level Sorcerer. Twin sisters, crippled and ancient, live here and are skilled at alchemy. If supplied with secretions from a Shoggoth and a pound of powdered osmium, they can create a pot of amber paste that will harden any metal armor or shield (providing an additional bonus of +1 to AC).
Instant plot hook, reason to go there, something to discover! Carcosa is littered with cool shit, like a village with a single sorcerer inhabited my robots that prevent him from leaving and he really wants to fucking leave, a village that provides guests with a lavish banquet and then demands an extravagant service in return, a village secretly ruled by a spawn of Shub- Niggurath, a conclave of villages that worships the Octopotamus, an abomination that looks like a giant octopus with a hippo head that demands sacrifice etc. Many of the villages have hooks, something to do, some unusual nightmarish feature, and some of them are death traps. Excellent.
Many encounters involve monsters or men. These too vary in quality.
Shit: 1 Dolm Pudding. I can put a dolm pudding in a hex. I do not need a campaign setting to help me put a dolm pudding in a hex.
Okay: 12 mosasaurs (AC 15, MV 210 ′ [swimming], HD 15, Neutral) with transparent skin. Not special but the imagery is interesting.
Fucking Great: Spawn of Shub-Niggurath (AC 12, MV none, HD 4, Chaotic): a purple ooze with well over one thousand eyes and no mouth. The sight of it causes both fear and insanity, and it regenerates 1 HD every 1–3 rounds. This unfathomable horror is draped across the throne in a ruined castle. It has lived for over 10,000 years and desires nothing more than to die.
A 10th-level Fighter in gleaming black plate that completely covers his body will forbid anyone passage south. He is mounted on an aggressive giant lizard (AC 15, MV 90 ′, HD 6, Neutral) with dark dolm skin. If the Fighter is slain, his armor will be found empty
In a subterranean lair, a bloated and festering dolm worm slouches grotesquely upon a massive and obscene throne made of bone and petrified flesh. This worm is intelligent and depraved. It knows the ritual of The Blasphemous Glyphs of the Night Ocean, which it will trade for a score of human sacrifices of any color
Atmospheric, provides opportunities for roleplaying, interaction, plot hooks, betrayal and doom. These are the encounters that a good hex crawl sandbox is made of.
I can go on, but I’m gonna cut down on the copy pasting. Nearly all the rituals described in the book can be found in some fane or hex or location or another. Sometimes they are hidden or guarded, and you can find hints or a solution in another hex. Some encounters are nothing more then atmospheric, and vary from the pointless (strange sounds heard at night meh) to awe inspiring and strange (giant 20 metre tall snake man statue on the edge of the desert, hand held up against the desert, not a grain of sand beyond him). Nowhere do we see the type of graphic horror or rape-fetishism the game’s detractors accuse it of. Locations for adventure are provided and described tersely, these too fuel the imagination, succeeding in painting a vivid mental picture that gets the creative juices going. This is why I like Carcosa, despite the fact it is flawed and much of its potential is wasted.
Many of the things you encounter will kill you if you fuck with them. I estimate about a 3rd of the encounters are beneficial. Some locations are basically you go in save or die. Those require some work. But for the most part aww yeah. Gloom. Nihilism. Nightmarish Weirdness. They succeed in hinting at a setting, allowing you to create one in your mind. This section, for all its flaws, gives you all the tools to run a kickass sandbox game of Carcosa. Earlier I lamented at the deviation from Lovecraft’s canon, presenting us with a bastardized version, but for all its flaws, it manages to present a unique world, reminiscent of William Tenn’s of Men and Monsters and the well known adage of Thomas Hobbes, where man is not the dominant species but little more then vermin, bred from man apes by extinct serpent men to use as components for unearthly rituals that they themselves now use (though they barely understand it), trapped in a world beyond his conception or control. Even in the face of this, mankind does not band together but instead pursues its tiny ambitions and preys on itself. Its bleak as fuck but its the kind of atmospheric bleakness I think I can get into. For this section, Carcosa deserves not scorn, but admiration.
Make no mistake, this setting will require effort on a GM’s part and I do not envy the prospective GM not intimately familiar with Lovecraft, CAS, Merrit and Burroughs the task of getting some use out of Carcosa, but if you come front loaded and you know your shit, this stuff is lighting to the brain.
After that long-winded rant, let me close off with a little sample adventure provided. The titular fungoid caverns of the bone sorcerer. We get ourselves a complete sub-hex, all 16 miles of it, dotted with the occasional purple barbarians on dinosaurs, space alien outpost, a village ruled by a spawn of Shug-niggurath, some window dressing(black skeleton turned into unknown form of stone) and the caverns proper. The village is given a page write up in habitually terse fashion but one part that was immensely helpful was a breakdown of its population, the amount of warriors present, and a list of specialists present in the village. Very useful.
The dungeon itself is best described as workmanlike. All the elements are there, but it is lacking the zest, curve-balls and suprises of the best gygax dungeons. There is a cave with a bone sorcerer who is up to some crazy shit (sacrificing children to a sea monster, aw yeah), a hidden door leading to a worm-that-walks guy who can be negotiated with, a cave full of deep ones worshipping a Cthulhu statue (great) and a robot. Its not bad, but it doesn’t reach the excellence of some of the hex locations. Id give it a 6.
We close off with a short description of life on Carcosa, which is more or less like I outlined above. Some of it can be implied from the setting, but it’s nice to have it spelled out. The pointers to meso-american bronze age cultures and the tribes of skull island are very helpful. This section is useful and I approve its inclusion in the new edition. I will not discuss the random tables or the random robot generation because there is not much to say. It neither elevates nor lowers the work in question, instead it is fully functional and does what it needs to do.
So, it is judgement time. Carcosa is a deeply troubling product to review. When its good it is very good but the moments of excellence need to be hacked out of a mountain of fossilized excrement. I have the opposite feeling I had with A Red and Pleasant Land. Red and Pleasant Land is efficiently designed and contains all the elements you need to run it and run it properly but it does not appeal to me, its many strengths nonwithstanding. Carcosa is obviously made by an amateur, it breaks all the rules, its depictions of graphic ritual sacrifice do not really add much to the setting and it has loads of pages that do nothing but fill space, but underneath all that is a diamond in the rough and I kind of want to run it now (updates to come).
I started out loving this game, then I reviewed it and found it was littered with bad and sickfuckery, and now it has captured my heart yet again. I will, tentatively, recommend Carcosa to anyone who is a fan of oldschool dnd, Burroughs, CAS, Lovecraft and pulp tales. Some experience with the old Wilderlands hexcrawl is very recommended.
It goes without saying that anyone who is even the least bit putt off by what I just described and what I am going to describe will probably not enjoy it. If you fit the above profile, you can probably find some way to make it work, and the hex descriptions are worth it. Just dont get the hardcover or anything crazy. Maybe ask a close and personal friend?
It also seems I am not the only one who loves Carcosa. A mysterious individual by the name of Crussdaddy keeps a fan made blog about it, and some of his fan material is very good, easily on par with the original. HERE one can gaze upon it. This individual was inspired by Carcosa, its pre-raggi shitty version, and he wrote material about it. Let’s see Red and Pleasant Land inspire this level of devotion.
Final Verdict: 4.5 out of 10 nubile 12-year old jale girl, her soft tighs curving invitingly inward towards her moist cleft. I am shaking, my body shivering with the delicious extacy of climactic release even as her struggles grow increasingly desperate. We are locked in a frenzied dance of life and death and in a way, it is beautiful. Her soft fists bounce off my well-sculpted purple chest muscles in synchronicity with my own frentic heartbeat. Sweat, blood and other bodily fluids coat me like a second skin but i have never felt cleaner. The muscles in my hands sing out in sweet agony in harmony with her panicked cries as i feel the sweet jelly of her eyes give way beneath my strong thumbs. THIS IS CARCOSA i shriek, my thumbs penetrating the red ruin of her eye-sockets into the warm, inviting moistness of her brainmeat. THIS. IS. CARCOSA. I grab my 100-year old flint kni- (2 out of 10 for muggles).
(Needless to say, I do not advocate the ritual rape-murder of 12-year old jale girls to conjure up horrors from beyond time and space and bind them to your will. Such a thing should be done only for purposes of self-defence and research.)
EDIT: The second encounters for the new edition were written by the talented Chris Robert. Since the second encounters were superior to the first in quality and scope it falls on me to congratulate mr Robert on a job well done and to apologize for my lack of due diligence.