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Sunday 1 June 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Carcosa

Ok, fuck it. Let's do this thing.

This is a review of Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa, a setting and heavily-modified OSR game published by LotFP.  The particular version I'm reviewing here is the Second Expanded Edition; which is a very nice hardcover book (very close to being almost as stunningly pretty as the otherwise-awful Isle of the Unknown, also written by McKinney and published by LotFP).  Its about 275 pages long, very nice paper and apparently quite good binding; it has a half-dustjacket with some promotional blurbs about the book, and the interior front and back covers feature colour hexmaps; the rest of the art interior is black and white. On the whole, the production values of the book are extremely high.

Now, after the savaging I gave "Isle of the Unknown", and given that I've already expressed my distaste for the fairly infantile "edginess" of Carcosa (which the current reading has done nothing to abate), you might expect that this review would be a bit of a slashfest itself; however, I do have to admit that certainly, in comparison to "Isle", Carcosa has some redeeming qualities from a purely objective point of view.  That's not to say that as a whole, it isn't still a flawed and even troubling work.

There's nothing in here that indicates anything near a work of genius, but as a setting Carcosa is certainly far more coherent and usable than Isle.  It could be playable as a sandbox that wouldn't completely suck. It also has far more material than Isle which is actually potentially useful and even interesting for OSR gamers to take and use in their own games even if they have no interest in running Carcosa as a whole.

So let's take a more detailed look at this thing.  The jacket blurb says "Carcosa is a science-fantasy roleplaying game setting with a sandbox approach"; that's true enough. This certainly is a sandbox: a very decent size collection of several hundred ten-mile hexes, each of which are detailed in the book with two encounters per hex. The back inside cover takes a single hex (hex 2005) and blows it up into its own map of 700-yard hexes, which are detailed in depth as an example of how a GM could elaborate on any single hex.  This is given its own chapter; where not every single hex is detailed as before, but rather areas within the map are detailed with their particular encounters and groups.  There's some coherence to the setting, though again, do not expect great sophistication.

The setting is directly inspired by the Cthulhu mythos, and particular by the Carcosa stories; the world is the alien world where the City of Carcosa is found.  Do not expect any great detail about the city itself however, in fact it is hardly mentioned. It's square in the center of the map, but absolutely no further elaboration is given about it; in fact its entry is so tiny I almost missed it.  There's also a great deal of material that you'd expect from Sword & Sorcery, material you'd expect from Conan-style fantasy, plus some space aliens, dinosaurs, and high technology. In other words, it has all the potential ingredients for a great gonzo setting, except charm.

Although theoretically compatible with LotFP (and by extension to pretty well any OSR system), Carcosa also features its own variant rules to the standard D&D game.  There's only two classes provided in the game itself: fighter and sorcerer. There's none of the standard demi-human fantasy races; instead, there are 13 different races of humans, including Green Men, Orange Men, Purple Men as well as transparent Bone Men, and also "Jale", "Dolm" and "Ulfire" men (which are one of many affectations in the setting: Jale, Dolm, and Ulfire being three colours that don't exist on earth). Statistically, none of these races are any different from the other; nor is any information provided as to any cultural differences with the sole exception that Bone Men are particularly shunned by other races and Jale Men are said to be more adept at sorcery than the others (though again, neither of these statements are in any way matched with any mechanical basis).  The end result is that "by the book", the races all just blend together without anything to really make them special (except maybe the Bone Men); of course, a GM might go to the trouble of trying to create cultural differences for himself, but as I've noted before this strikes me less like some kind of great stand for homeruling and more like laziness on the part of the writer. In other products, ones that genuinely do encourage the GM to "fill in the blanks", some framework or structure is provided; here there is none in this matter.

What we do get are some pretty weird mechanical changes.  Some of them (like the magic system) are at least justified by the setting itself to some extent.  Others, however, seem pretty arbitrary.  The biggest one is probably the fact that in many situations the book tells you to "roll x dice", and instead of having a fixed die to roll (e.g., 2d8 or 4d10), you are supposed to roll on a table to see what type of die you roll!  Most unusually, instead of having stable hit points, or indeed even hit dice, the book expects player characters to roll for their type of hit die every single time they go into battle, and to roll their hit points for that particular battle.  What this means is that a 5th level fighter might end up having 5d12 hp for one battle, or 5d4 hp for the very next battle; worse still, this means that in one encounter our fighter might have 60hp and in the very next battle, for no particular reason, have 5hp. I find this pretty absurd and pointless; it certainly doesn't help emulation.

Standard weapons also do "1 die" of damage, meaning that you never know until a battle begins whether your trusty longsword (or bow, or dagger) will do 1d4 or 1d12 damage.  The author's defense of all this is that it "increases uncertainty" in the game. Well, it certainly does that; but to what useful end?!

The magic system for sorcerers is utterly non-vancian.  Sorcerers begin play with no spells at all, and must find their spells in the course of play. All spells are in the form of rituals of some kind or another; these are divided into various types: banishing rituals dispel entities, conjuring summons them, invoking allows one to contact powerful entities to gain knowledge (or, one would assume, make pacts of some kind), binding forces entities to obey the caster, imprisoning confines entities to a certain space, and tormenting causes great pain to bound entities.  Each of these rituals are then applied to specific individual entities, and on some occasions require very specific material components (with the specificity varying from needing a gem worth x gold pieces to needing some ingredient found only in one particular hex of the map).  Of these, ALL rituals except banishing require some kind of human sacrifice (specific to each ritual). Every time a sorcerer casts a ritual (other than banishing) they must make a saving throw to avoid aging between 1-5 years.

In short, the magic system is fucked.  Aside from banishing, most other forms of magic are both too impractical and serve little purpose.  Yes, well, conjuring up a monstrosity and then binding it to serve you; fine.  But talking to entities? The implication is that they're all totally inhuman and utterly insane. There seems to be nothing to be gained.  Even the conjuring/binding combo is insanely impractical in terms of what it demands.  
And of course, there's the moral element of the human sacrifice; particularly as each ritual is very specific about just what type and how many sacrifices are required; most are something along the lines of "two ulfire youths, one male and one female, must be sacrificed" or "sixteen bone men"; but there's also quite a few that involve children, including babies being thrown into pits, another ritual where 101 children are cast into a pit, a young girl (age 9-14, if I recall) having molten metal poured on her naked body, and of course the now-famous case of an 11 year old girl being raped 11 times and then strangled to death.

Seriously, this is troubling shit.  McKinney has been known to give two different apologetics for this: first, that PCs are not meant to be sorcerers.  I can admit now that the sorcery system is extremely unappealing from a PC point of view; most of the spells are of the "Cthulhu-calling" variety that seem mostly pointless, so you could say that there'd be little interest for most players in portraying a Sorcerer.  Yet on the other hand, its one of only two classes, and in the book the only one that's actually stated out (it being assumed that fighter is no different in any meaningful way from whatever other version of D&D you want to use; presumably LotFP).

The second apologetic is that none of this is to be seen as lurid, voyeurish fantasizing on the author's part, but is rather meant to simply be "atmosphere" for a sinister and terrible world. In his defense, McKinney compares himself yet again to another old-school great, M.A.R. Barker, who had some fairly gruesome magical rituals in his Tekumel setting.

Now here's the thing: Tekumel is a classic of Old-School setting; and just like McKinney's claims that "Isle" is in the style of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, the suggestion that his Carcosa is like Barker's Tekumel pretty much falls flat.  Tekumel represents pretty well the opposite of everything McKinney has argued for: it is a sandbox setting but with an intricately detailed and majestically sophisticated setting (however weird and problematically complex it may be to understand).  The gruesome rituals Barker's setting used were in the context of that complex setting.  Meanwhile, McKinney chooses to have hardly any detail at all about his setting's background, societies or cultures while going into intricate lurid detail with his magical rituals and their grotesque human sacrifices.

Now obviously, I can't really say whether McKinney's interest in this is somehow personal, or if its really a mercenary tactic to bring attention to his setting, or just the product of a very sophomoric perspective on what's "cool".  It reminds me of all those would-be comic-book artists who read Watchmen and entirely missed the point, thinking that what made Watchmen great was its "dark" style and superficial violence.  If McKinney can really boldfacedly compare Carcosa to Tekumel, it means he's entirely missed the point of Tekumel or what makes it such a classic.

The whole product smacks of a desperate and very adolescent obsession with being "edgy" for its own sake, as though this is a substitute for good setting design, for interesting encounters, for actual 'horror' genre-concepts, or for quality adventuring fodder.  Now, all that said, I can't really condemn stupid mindless fun; there's a lot to be said for that.  It's only the pretense that this is somehow "adult" (in any sense other than inappropriate for children), that there's some kind of real craftsmanship or even genius, or some kind of sophistication of themes in the presentation of gore-for-its-own-sake.  In other words, its the fact that Carcosa (or rather, its author) doesn't seem to want to just admit how stupid it is that gets to me.

Were it to have more of a sense of self-awareness of its own stupidity, were it imagining itself a little less Barker or Chambers or even Moorcock and instead realized it was a little more Gwar, it would probably be a lot more tolerable.  Of course, I'd still rather it skipped the child-torture and murder.

To carry on, there's a lot of stuff that's in some ways redeemable about Carcosa from the point of view of what could be recycled for general OSR use. There's a fairly-decent set of psionic rules (again, with a bit too much randomness: its fine that there's a random chance of having psionics at character creation, but rolling each day to see what powers you have that day seems pretty silly to me).  The alien technology and technological artifacts are quite good, and could easily be used in any other gonzo-type setting.  There's also about 36 pages of bestiary, which include many of the Cthulhu Mythos classics (Mi-go, Nyarlathotep, deep ones, shub-niggurath, even great Cthulhu himself), as well as a variety of other monsters, oozes, and a variety of weird creatures.  These are only roughly statted out (in some cases not even detailing what type of damage they do with attacks) and given brief descriptions, but they're complete enough that they could be usable by any OSR GM worth his salt.  The back of the book includes material with random tables for creating individualized Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, Space Alien Armaments, Random Robots, and Mutations.

The descriptions of the hexes of the map and the focused description of the single sample hex take up the bulk of the book, and there are several interesting encounters and material to consider there.                      

So again, and very much unlike "Isle of the Unknown", there's certainly things I think are usable and redeemable about Carcosa. But if what you want is truly weird or "dark" sophistication, you won't find that here.  Had it taken itself less seriously, Carcosa could have been a decent enough "Heavy Metal"-esque gonzo setting, but it fails in that sense from lack of humour.  Its like if one were to meet some kind of motel janitor insisting he's a Satanic High Priest: he's deadly serious about how dark and powerful he is, while everyone but himself sees him as just kind of pathetic; in the same vein, it's very hard to take the "vileness" of Carcosa seriously.  But of course the problem there is when you take a glimpse of said janitor's notebook and see just how fucked up his fantasies really are, the feeling shifts from pathos to disgust. 

In conclusion:

The Good: there's quite a lot of material in Carcosa that a skilled GM could steal for his own games.

The Bad: While several orders of magnitude better than Isle of the Unknown, the sandbox setting of Carcosa is still very far from a masterpiece; its quality varies from repetitive, to mediocre, with a few smatterings of very-interesting sprinkled literally about. Also, the notion of "roll a die to see what die you roll", including "constantly variable hit points" is just dumb.

The Ugly: The setting's thematic content is sophomoric and adolescent; and not even that spectacular kind of adolescent-ness that you see in settings like RIFTS (which is a work of art worthy of the Flemish Masters compared to Carcosa).  Carcosa is closer to the Rob Liefeld school of totally superficial "exxxtreme" pseudo-intensity.

The Truly Ugly: the detailed Child Murder Rituals.  Enough said.


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  1. Wow. This is a real product?! Wonder who is buying this stuff. Sounds disgusting and juvenile.

  2. I bought it when I bought LotFP. I didn't know about it and was curious. It wasn't a good buy.

  3. Well, I own it, I've used it, and I've reviewed it on Not your usual fantasy RPG setting, but I thought it was pretty fucking awesome! Definitely not for everybody, though.

    I do like what RPGPundit said about a sense of humor. Carcosa lacked that. Also the Satanic High Priest janitor analogy was very amusing. Hahaha.

  4. Some notes: McKinney said that in pulp works, sorcery is always evil, ergo evil on Carcosa. He said that if he were to power-game as a player in Carcosa he'd play a sorceror, but only use the banishment rituals. (Since they get a save, the other rituals are too risky.) In the original campaign, however, the players did use the murderous rituals (without dwelling on them: "We do what needs to be done."). As for asking the Cthulhoid entities questions: they asked them for information about other rituals. :)

    I've never played in the setting, but it seems that lots of other people do indeed take a "GWAR" angle on the thing.

  5. Yeah, so what he's said as PR and what he actually does in his campaign (and tells the crowd he thinks will be receptive) are two different things.

    I agree that a lot of people take the "GWAR" approach, because really to play this thing straight would just be sad.