[Review] Carcosa (Lotfp); The Measure of the OSR

Carcosa (2011)

Geoffrey McKinney & Chris Robert (Lamentations of the Princess)

Carcosa - Lamentations of the Flame Princess | DriveThruRPG.com

It’s time for another Retrospective. One of my earliest multi-part reviews was Geoffrey Mckinney’s Carcosa, a lovecraftian sword&planet hex-crawl set on the nightmare world of Carcosa, 153 light years from Earth, where mutated dinosaurs haunt the irradiated wastes and sorcerers invoke the Great Old Ones with obscene rituals fueled the sacrifice of their fellow man. I applauded its creativity and stunning creative vision at the time but lamented its sometimes lackluster execution, unworkable house rules and at times maddening incompleteness. Today I stand before you anew, with hundreds of reviews under my belt, and over 30 sessions worth of play reports, to proclaim the worth: Carcosa is still the best campaign setting the OSR has ever produced.

The genius of Carcosa is that it both exemplifies what D&D is all about while utterly changing its fundamental nature. Obscure corners and nuggets of Appendix N that had receded into the mists of history, beyond the veil of public awareness are regurgitated forth, revealing a terrifying chimera that will change the way you run a game forever. H.P. Lovecraft, R.E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs are fused with more esoteric authors like Clark Ashton Smith and whiffs of David Lindsey’s A Voyage To Arcturus to create a tapestry of squamous, atavistic cosmic terror. The decades of shame that followed 1974 are erased in one fell swoop and OD&D (RAW! PRIMAL! UNAPOLOGETIC!) surges forth. The inspirations extend to gaming from the dawn of the hobby as well. Wilderlands of High Fantasy is crossbred to Gamma World. And perhaps more boldly, ALL ELSE IS REMOVED. Elves, Spells, Goblins, +1 Swords, Dragons. Oozes, Slimes, Giant Worms and Fungus remains, draped in the alien colors of Dolm, Jale and Ulfire, which exist nowhere else. Something utterly new yet only a step removed from D&D that was. No player races, but 13 different colors of men, one race with transparent skin, sometimes affected differently by certain technologies or rituals but otherwise interchangeable.

By far the largest impact to the game is the removal of Wizards and Clerics, and the addition of The Sorcerer. Conventional Wisdom would have it that the game is unplayable or much diminished this way. In playing it one’s focus is suddenly drawn back to the essence of D&D, far removed from cool powerz. The Essence is Adventure, and Adventure is not a set of spells per day. Suddenly you realize the beauty of the intricate dance of encounter reaction, ration, torch, burning oil, dart and spear. Without reaction rolls and interaction the omnipresent random encounters, most of them lethal, reduce any starting party to zero in no time. Carcosa does not tell you this. Carcosa does not tell you anything. It is something you learn to understand, viscerally, by running it.

The Sorcerer class is itself an anomaly, a puzzling feature, integral to the world, its use left cryptic. By the arts of the extinct Serpent Men the Old Ones could be bound, tormented, summoned, invoked and banished. Ron Edward’s Sorcerer mechanics are applied to whiffs of The Book of Ebon Bindings. The ritual descriptions are needlessly explicit, and the author’s subsequent pussyfooting is lamentable but the rituals as a whole add to the atmosphere of stark, eldritch horror that permeates the setting.

This six-hour ritual can be accomplished only at the edge of a certain large pit in hex 0701. No fewer than 43 human sacrifices (of any sort) are required. The Sorcerer must cast the sacrifices one by one into the pit, which is magically transformed during the ritual into a hellish, suffocating tomb that crushes those within. At the ritual’s end, the Suckered Abomination will be imprisoned within a lightless extradimensional tomb. For every ten sacrifices in addition to the minimum 43, the Suckered Abomination’s saving throw has a penalty of −1.

What many people miss is that these powers are vast, suitable only for campaign play, no use in individual combats because of their lengthy preparation time and time expended in obtaining them, they serve to call up creatures that can reduce villages to dust or destroy rivals or gain Secret Knowledge. Knowledge, in a world that is cryptic and obtuse by design, is all but invaluable. The ingredients, sacrifices and locales that are required to perform these rituals can only be found in certain hexes and thus serve as an incentive for exploration. Only Banishment can be performed without performing atrocious acts. The drawback is that the Sorcerer must save or age prematurely, and often times far more. Invocations can bring death to the questioner, the Old Ones can gain a saving throw against many of the rituals, making them unreliable. Everything is fraught with peril. Only the most power-hungry Sociopaths would entertain using any of the non-banishment rituals, yet it is one of the few paths open to men in the perilous world of Carcosa. Besides the rituals, Sorcerers are identical to fighters with better saving throws (and larger XP requirements).

Magic is removed but the hole is not left entirely open. Characters with high attributes start off with psionic powers. I did a post about having to multiply the percentage chance of starting with psionic powers by 5 {link} if I was to see it during a game at all but the implementation is solid, simple and in the spirit of OD&D. ESP, Telepathy, Telekinesis or Mind Blast are simple abilities that can be used x times per day, no overcomplicated psionic combat or tables or modes or whathaveyou. Magic items are replaced with (mostly) limited use technological artifacts left behind by invading Space Aliens, laser pistols, grenades, iridium beams and Jack Kirby-esque suits of power armor, up and to entire fucking Tanks. There are some odd Lotus Powders, most of them poisonous, that bring sleep, suspended animation, death or mindless slavery. Most perilous and far less comprehensible, there are the artifacts of the Great Old Ones and the Primordial Ones, Gateways through Time and Space, Pools that spawn protoplasmic matter, Crystalline Chambers that can elevate one’s psionic powers to near Godhood, Mutation beams and other, stranger things. In your mind’s eye you can picture each artifact as an adventure location. A Guardian of Forever, worshipped by a tribe of degenerate Bone men with transparent skin. Carcosa never fails to inspire. Minor implements of sorcery, which give the Sorcerer a bonus to saving throws when performing the rituals or obviate the aging requirement, can be discovered throughout the vast hex map, as can brewers of alchemical healing potions (one need only obtain the corpse of a Spawn of Shub-Niggurath).

It is in many ways flawed. The bulk of the book is taken up by the hex crawl, which inherits some of the format of Wilderness of High Fantasy, for better or for worse. The entries by Chris Roberts ameliorate some of the flaws while keeping most of the good stuff, so you get the short evocative description while entries that are just a single monster or “Village of 270 Black Men ruled by “the Overking of All the Lands,” a chaotic 7th-level Fighter” are expanded until they become something more. It’s ultimately entries like this that make up Carcosa, as you will find no long-winded gazzeteer of the setting proper, it must be inferred from its individual components, something that actually helps to make it one’s own.

In a funeral shaft dug into a weathered hilltop is the forgotten grave of a long-dead Sorcerer. Clutched in the remains’ bony fingers is a stoppered vial filled with an oily green paste. Anyone who slathers this paste into his eyes and ears will enter a delirious fugue state for nine hours, during which time he communes with bizarre gods, as per the ritual The Mad Ensorcelled Inscriptions. At the end of this, a save vs. poison must be made to avoid blindness and deafness for 1–100 days

Village of 84 Black Men ruled by “the Padishah of Temporality,” a neutral 2nd-level Fighter. Visitors will be greeted warmly and treated to abundant food and drink, while the natives eat sparingly. The following morning, the villagers will demand an extravagant service in return for their generosity. Refusal would be unwise

A smashed and melted cyborg with a steel-coated human skull and a human brain lies paralyzed on the ground. It is deranged and can do nothing other than call down cryptic curses upon those it sees

Unutterable horror, futility, madness, death and degeneracy abound in this hopeless, barren place, dotted with crumbling fortresses, inhabited by villages of men in 13 different colors, haunted by abominations drawn from Lovecraft’s writings. The most common assailant is the Randomly Generated Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, its power going from nuisance to unkillable god-beast. Alongside it are Deep Ones, Leprous Tomb Guardians, Mummies and all the races of the Mythos, granted simple, psionic abilities if any but all the more deadly for it. On the top of the Pyramid are three of the Great Old Ones themselves, somewhat removed from their literary origins, vast collections of hit dice that few mortal weapons are proof against. There is always the possibility of uncovering a hidden Missile or Turret that might even take down these abominations but the possibility is slim. Robots, Mutant Dinosaurs, pre-historic creatures and the unique abominations conjured up by Sorcerers make up the rest of its bestiary. Little of our earth, not bird nor wolf, inhabits this awful place. These horrors are all encountered on the overworld, meaning in the beginning death can ensue from a single random encounter roll. It is quite possible to, say, run into 3 Dolm Worms with one’s 1st level party. This is just another part of the game.

The true mark of a good hex crawl is interconnectivity. Sub-quests abound. Hexes lead to other hexes. Refugees are encountered, travelers, madmen. Often times in Carcosa encounters lead to death or peril and fellow men are not to be trusted. The Sorcerers almost leap directly out of C.A. Smith’s work, tending half-human half-plant gardens, nursing hideous mutations, pronouncing curses or otherwise being assholes. Small enclaves of men worship giant worms, the old ones or sometimes other men. Always places are hinted at. The titular city of Carcosa, which stands by Laki Hali, is handled in a single sentence, as are many other entries.

An adventuring party of 3 lawful Red Sorcerers and their 6 Yellow Men guides is journeying southwest to hex 1408, where they intend to eliminate the local Sorcerer and destroy the Crown of Unspent Days. They welcome help from others, and they will share in any spoils. The Sorcerers are headed into a trap. Their guides will betray the group’s location and lead them into an ambush.

The largest challenge is assembling Carcosa’s component parts, which it gives matter of factly and without any attempt at context, and turning it into something that can be run. It requires a very fundamental understanding of what D&D actually is before it can even be attempted. It is not handled easily. Its components do not quite add up to a complete setting. And then you start running it. And slowly adding to it. Your mind starts assembling the disparate parts, adding house rules, modifying the content, trying to cope with the constant death, figuring out how to make adventures in this alien milieu. I went back to pulp comics, weird and pulp fiction, pre-tolkinian S&S and found the process extremely rewarding. This sort of cryptic incompleteness somehow contributes to the process of actually playing Carcosa, in a way that a more formulaic approach probably would not have achieved.

It is not difficult to find fault with the execution in places. There is the question of whether or not Specialists (or Thieves) are well integrated. The Lotfp framework works a little but some of it (domains, firearms, modern tech etc.) will be left on the cutting room floor. There is a needless adherence to the Wilderlands format that at times provides little value, the technological items are needlessly profuse with endless fetishistic random tables for generating them and the item section could have been expanded with more artifacts that were likely to see actual use. There are a bunch of silly dice conventions that you might as well ignore that basically mandate rerolling the hit points with every encounter. Ignore all of this, these are minor blemishes on what is, for better or for worse, the triumphant pioneer, the first true transformative setting to have come from the OSR. For the first time, we were exposed to something that used the traditional old-school framework that do something bold and visionary, uncompromising and challenging in a way that no other setting before it had even attempted. A rejection of the tired, sterile, water-down corporate McFantasy of the current year and a triumphant return to its pulp roots. Its incomplete nature enforces the house-ruling and tinkering that is the bread and butter of the OSR. It exemplifies the ethos and does so boldly.

For a first time GM Carcosa is likely to be too obtuse, cryptic and seem downright broken. But after you have done a few tours behind the screen, if you still yearn for adventure beyond our terrestrial sphere, where hope is but a curse and men prey on men and writhe and skulk like vermin in the shadows of greater powers, then I invite you, nay urge you, to travel beyond the Hyades Cluster and check it out.

Though McKinney would at times mention the Putrescent Pits of the Amoeboid Gods and ensure us that it would be coming out at some point we would sadly never see a follow up project. His other work has been unimpressive, the later modules set in Carcosa unremarkable and incorporating wizard spells, somewhat betraying its initial ethos. Lightning seldom strikes twice.

Carcosa is a massively important contribution from the dawn of the OSR and stands as a flawed testament to all that the OSR was about (insert joke about catpissmen here), for better or for worse. Ever will I cherish my campaigns in its poisonous wastelands, crumbling eldritch tombs and calcified starship wreckages.  

Final Verdict: *****

Postscriptum: Probably one of the intriguing things about Carcosa is it’s relatively sparse lists of inspiration. King Kong, Howard’s Worms Under the Earth, Moorcock’s while the Gods Laugh and Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, the list is barely adequate and incentivizes innovation in order to make sense of the disparate elements. I would be so bold as to recommend a few humble additions in order to help the suffering GM along.

Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier probably covers most of the psionic postapocalyptic weirdness. Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and Hyperborea are clearly influences even if they are not explicitly mentioned. I find A.Merrit is the best high-octane fantasy pulp author that helps you really grasp the pre-tolkinian pulp-fantasy and William Hodginson’s the Night Land for a high-tech odyssey across a far future earth wrapped in darkness and inhabited by nightmares to give you the proper sense of monstrous dread.  


27 thoughts on “[Review] Carcosa (Lotfp); The Measure of the OSR

  1. Thank you for the review and the list at the end. Carcosa captures me unlike any other book and it is, as you said yourself, enigmatic and cryptic. I wouldn’t know where to start. Print the LBB for all players and cross out all useless pages? Give them an empty hexmap they should fill in from there? Pick a hex at random and prepare all in the radius around it? Plop the party in and ad lib from then on, sweating bullets? It’s this what stops my mind from dreaming of what would happen next everytime I see the horrid scene of the ritual on page 266.

    Oh, prince, I want to mention this also. There is another Carcosa Supplement titled Lost Carcosa: Supplement � (Sulfur) by Bogeyman Gaming. Supposedly it uses the same source material but takes a different interpretation. Perhaps it might be of interest to you? I thought about making use of it for McKinney’s but have not done more than think about it and mention it right here right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Drop em somewhere in the middle, give them a hook, do a little prep and make a dungeon or two but you are going to have to learn how to wing things from thereon out, that’s part of the charm.

      I didn’t know about that new supplement. I have given up trying to find a second Carcosa but it might be something I’ll cover at a later date. Thanks for the recommend.


  2. …as we fought our way past the vast valve leading from what I thought might be the engineering deck,a shining tetrahedron killed a hundred men merely by hovering over them quietly.Later still, a many-angled arm, pale as ice, reached through what seemed to be a hole or rip hanging in midair, and plucked up a dozen of us at a swipe:I saw the eyes of the man right to me as the hand closed on him.
    -Awake in the Nightland.

    Surprised you didn’t include Incompleat Nifft in your lineup.


    1. That’s Awake in the Nightland, by John C. Wright, I think the only ghostwriter I’d trust with doing a good job at a sequel to The Night Land after the craftsmanship he displayed with Null-A-Continuum.

      Vance is interesting for the tiny psychopathic enclaves but tonally its completely different. I haven’t checked out any Micheal Shea, though I feel I should.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You should! The first story of Nifft is an anthology of morbid abominations and terror filled scenery.

        Here is an excerpt:
        They blocked the bridge, bobbing and leering as the hounds were reined up in a scramble of paws. Stooped as these crones were, their height matched the Guide’s. They were huge in their stench too, charnel house mixed with the smell of a brothel’s slop room. Their eyes were flat and opaque, like glazed snot in the wrinkled cups of their sockets. They all had torn-out patches in their hair, and what showed was not scalp, but yellowed skullbone. Yet their faces were fleshed—wenned and warted. They wore grave-rags cinched with gallows rope at the waist. A glimpse through the robe of one, where a cancered breast showed a tumor-pit you could get your fist into, was enough to tell us that their rags were a mercy to our eyes. The fiercest of the three came forward, grinning. One of the hounds leaped on her with a roar. She gave it a clout to the skull with her fist that sprawled it shivering in the traces.


  3. Empire of the Pedo Throne…

    A. Merritt is the most Gygaxian of writers, a perfect blend of sorcery and super science, as the trope goes…an absolute must-read for all gamers. Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Kane’ books also have that blend of primitive humans, crashed spaceships, and Elder Races, and would fit in well with Carcosa.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaaah! Old ghosts come a haunting. Welcome back son.

      Your evangelical preaching got me into Merrit and I haven’t looked back since. Spectacular pulp author. Kane I’d be a bit hesitant about. It’s excellent S&S but the Gothic horror elements and the overal iron-age atmosphere don’t quite add up. I’d say Conan over Kane probably. Tarzan probably works too now that I consider it.


      1. I’ve been busy adventuring in a crapsack world. Thankfully, I only lost two friends to the plague so far, one a beloved mentor who introduced us younguns to the pleasures of Żubrówka before it was legal to sell in this country (the guy lived a John le Carré plot- boy when the Nazis rolled into Czechia, teen when the Soviets rolled in, pressed into service by the Soviet Navy, jumped ship and headed West), the other a diminutive-but-effusive restaurant owner who didn’t survive when everybody in his place got the ‘rona..

        Currently trying to figure out how to practice grappling while socially-distant, playing around with lengths of PVC to grab instead of limbs… gonna bring glory to the dojo!

        Regarding the Kane books, the only element I don’t like about them is Kane. Has there ever been a more ridiculous Gary Stu? I mean, even worse than Conan.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’d say most Sword&Planet or Hollow Earth settings could receive the Carcosa treatment. You just need to deny the players all the superstrenght/superintellect/supertech nonsense that the heroes of these stories usually start with, and have them survive the faction play without getting fucked too hard (a pressing concern if you happen to be on Gor). Barsoom, Almuric, Pellucidar or Tschaï, everything works.

        And I second Michael Shea. I’ve read almost every Dying Earth-adjacent novel and his and Gene Wolfe’s New Sun are the only ones I’d recommend

        Liked by 1 person

      3. @Biggs

        My condolences for your loss. I (and we as a country) have been fortunate in the Netherlands, but we are approaching the second wave so it is early days. Push ups and cycling trips to keep in shape.

        Kane worked for me as a sort of larger then life character, and there is an energetic sort of treacherousness to him that I enjoy. Wagner is skilled enough to let him get outmaneuvered fairly frequently, so the tension of the story is never let up. I don’t regard him (or Conan) as a true Mary Sue.

        Wagner reached his apex with Darkness Weaves, which is one hundred percent unadulterated awesome. The short stories are next, my favorite Cold Winds, followed closely by Darkness Weaves. Bloodstone is a slog and his repetitive use of the terms eldrich and ‘batrachian’ is eye-rolling, even if the concept is awesome. I still lack Night Winds and the Book of Kane in my collection, a shame it has entered collector’s edition hell, an irritant.


        It’s interesting how removing the super powers turns the Sword & Planet Adventure into a horror setting, where the protagonist is dropped headfirst into an alien world that he (at first) will likely be poorly acclimated too. I’ll give Shea a lookover based on your recommendations, when I get to it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Carcosa is what initially drew me to this blog. The science fantasy sword and sorcery on a lost planet was exactly what I was looking for, and I can even now see what an influence it has had on your own, and what lessons it has to teach. That razor’s edge between to much and not enough, where legends rise and nightmares are born under alien stars. I just wish more people learned these lessons about the emergent story rather than the tired and known outcome of a story game. Heroes should be made, emerging from tension, daring, and cleverness

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Man, glad to hear it. I think the biggest problem is that the brain is more inclined to treat D&D as a story because ultimately that’s the first thing it is associated with and so the most direct approach is to make something with a beginning and an end. Second problem is probably complex rulesystems make sandboxes difficult to set up so they wont be played as much.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s an odd sort of restraint to Carcosa that I don’t think I’d ever see you exercise. Cha’alt was great gonzo stuff, reminiscent of the fantasy of metal album covers. Part Deux in the review cue.


  5. I always think of carcosa as the only gonzo that was a “serious” setting. There was a whole wave of jamming mutants, dinosaurs, robot and aliens into d&d at the time it came out. I even ran a gonzo campaign for a while that was described by one of my players as “Adventure time mixed with Conan the barbarian” which sounds like most gonzo I’ve seen. The inherent silliness of gonzo is what kept it a beer and pretzels sort of style.
    Carcosa is different though. I’m not entirely certain why but while it has all the gonzo elements, it never feels like a slapdash stoner setting. Instead there’s a certain terror to imagining what it would be like to be in Carcosa. The mutants, aliens, moonscapes and clones, rather than beings silly, congeal into a unique atmosphere and that’s the real triumph of Carcosa to my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that Carcosa isn’t really gonzo. It comes close, having the right ingredients, but takes itself a bit too seriously to reach those heights.

      Personally, I love Carcosa… from afar. Aside from inspiration, there’s nothing that makes me want to run it. Having said that, Carcosa influenced Cha’alt. Maybe Cha’alt is a parody of Carcosa, fully realized and with a sense of humor.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. [Carcosa vs. Gonzo]
        I haven’t quite figured it out but its a combination of the treatment, which takes place without a hint of irony, and the restraint with which the gonzo elements are exercized. It would not have been hard to make Carcosa even more bizarre and to go full on Heavy Metal Magazine and it would have been a lesser work as a result of it.


        You use some of the same sources but the way it’s implemented is totally different, tonally and gameplay-ey. That being said, you have my blessing to produce as much Cha’alt as you damn well please, the only problem that, it being gonzo, you will have to rely on theatrics and spectacle to entice more buyers, as the gonzo approach is antithetical to consistent and complex world-building.

        You did the 2nd one already right (I know I know I’ll get around to it)? Why not do the third Cha’alt on the Tesseract inside Cha’alt? C’h’a’a’l’t’^3. An inverse Cha’alt, taking place on the inside shells of a hollow pyramid, 4 triangular dungeons, one to each side, with Hastur or Emperor Ming or whatever the fuck running the place (some sort of hindu deity superposition of several universal bad guys like Hastur, Skeletor, Ming, Dracula and Kevin Bacon). Components; a giant gameshow, a tractor-pulling death race on a moebius-strip, an MC Escher Gothic Castle and a section invaded by Terminators, with the penultimate level being based entirely on the movie Zoolander, and a 20.000 stretch goal that involves you getting whoever holds the copyright to officially acknowledge that level of Cha’alt as being canonical with the Zoolander expanded universe.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I like reroll all the hit dice, at least when I did it for players. It means the brave front line character cowers behind the others because he’s having a “bad day”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it sucks dick but different strokes for different folks. I kind of wonder what it would actually look like during the game, maybe it adds a sort of natural ebb and flow that could be intriguing but I feel abilities should remain pretty constant throughout the game since very little else is within the player’s control.


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