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Tabletop Review: Carcosa

Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Pages: 275
Cost: $21.25
Release Date: 12/14/2011
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Violence is only notable in RPGs when it is either absent or overwhelming. The threshold for sex being notable is lower, but not so much as it was pre-Vampire: the Masquerade. When I first encountered the name Carcosa, it pertained to one small element, the presence of torture, rape, and human sacrifice. Based entirely on reputation, one would expect Carcosa to be something horrifying and soul-crushing along the lines of F.A.T.A.L. With a little research, it became obvious to me that this was simply not the case with Carcosa. When Lamentations of the Flame Princess sent me a digital copy of the new edition of Carcosa, I made a pact with myself to approach Carcosa without prejudice and to rate it on its own strengths and weaknesses.

Honestly, I find much of the controversy about Carcosa‘s content to be hypocritical. Black Sabbaths and dark rituals have always been an implied part of classic fantasy, even if the trappings of such rituals have been left intentionally vague. I have yet to play a fantasy RPG that did not involve hacking and slashing sentient beings to bits with assorted and sundry instruments. A D&D session without bloody combat and staggering amounts of carnage would be the exception, not the rule. For players and DMs to suddenly get squeamish about ultraviolence in their campaigns strikes me as more than a little hypocritical. I have personally witnessed holocausts in the name of staying in character, with nominally good characters massacring humanoids because of differences in culture and skin tone.

Carcosa is not a rulebook. In fact, it is assumed that you will use it with your preferred flavor of D&D. In my case, that means Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying Grindhouse Edition, but it really is fielder’s choice on this one. There are rules, many of which are interesting, but you need the girding of a full rulebook. The first edition of Carcosa bore the full title “ËœSupplement V: Carcosa‘, indicating that this book could slide right in alongside the classic first four volumes of D&D. I can just as easily see someone using Carcosa with OSRIC or even GURPS. There are monster stats to adapt, but otherwise Carcosa is light on crunch and is very adaptable. Using it as an alternative Dimension Book for Rifts would require a couple hours of hunting and picking through the Conversion Book and maybe Aliens Unlimited. Damn, that sounds like a fun campaign to run.

Carcosa is not a fantasy setting, at least not one like you might be used to. Carcosa takes place 153 light years from Earth and has as many science fiction trappings as traditional fantasy elements. While not post-Apocalyptic in the traditional sense, the world of Carcosa feels more like Conan meets Gamma World than Forgotten Realms. There are no elves here. The lack of clerical and wizardly spells alone makes Carcosa stand out from the bulk of RPG settings. There is a palpable pulp science fiction feel to the whole book, content and artwise. Treating Carcosa like John Carter of Mars or Hyboria makes a lot more sense than trying to shoehorn it into the modern fantasy milieu, of which it is obviously not a member.

Carcosa is not for the faint of heart. The content that started the shitstorm in the OSR scene four years ago, when Carcosa was first published, is still here. No matter what you might say about Carcosa, you can’t deny that Geoffrey McKinney is unflinching about his writing. Whether that turns you off or not is a matter of personal choice. I hate to belabor the point, but human sacrifice and the pursuit of power at all costs are not new tropes in fantasy role-playing, but they may seem out of place in this more sanitized era. Forcing a party to choose between the lives of a few innocents or an untold multitude of potential victims is a tantalizing plot point, but also a plot that may make some uncomfortable.

What Carcosa is, exactly, is a bit harder to put a finger on. Carcosa is a world with no clerics and no magic-users. Even thieves, Specialists in Lamentations of the Flame Princess parlance, are not present. The common fantasy races, the elf, the dwarf, the Halfling, are all unaccounted for. What Carcosa is, really, is a completely different animal from the majority of fantasy settings. When taken in small doses, Carcosa feels disjointed and odd. Taken as a whole, however, Carcosa is a truly fascinating setting. The character and flavor of the place must be seen from a bird’s eye view. There is so much going on that I fear many will get lost in the individual oddities instead of seeing the whole clockwork of madness presented.

The only two character classes are the Sorcerer and the Fighter. Fighters are the same combat workhorses as usual. The Sorcerer is a conceit of the Carcosa setting, the only people who can use magic in Carcosa. They fight like a Fighter, but they also speak the language of extinct Snake-Men and can use the Rituals that made this book so famous to begin with. Since they fight the same as a Fighter, you may wonder why a player would bother playing with a Fighter. The only reasons I can think of involve player motives instead of character concerns, as some players will be put off by the Rituals of the Sorcerer. Actually, I take that back. The Sorcerer is a lot of character for a player to handle and I completely understand choosing the Fighter for character reasons. As the first chapter points out, there is no reason not to insert the thief/Specialist class into Carcosa, though I would use them in moderation. I like the idea of using a Fighter who adheres to the limitations of the Cleric (no bladed weapons), but lacks the magic powers. The beauty of Carcosa is that this is a perfectly acceptable choice for a DM to allow.

The biggest hurdle to jump when it comes to Carcosa is not the content. I suspect that anyone who has played D&D more than once has encountered scenarios as bad as or worse than anything in this book. I think the issue instead is a two-fold bit of cognitive dissonance. First, while human sacrifice and rape do occur both in fantasy literature and in many campaigns, they are rarely codified as they are here. Having them presented in a matter of fact way as part of Rituals that a PC may use is a difficult concept for many. Personally, I am not upset by this, but I am not thrilled by it either. Secondly, I think that marketing the first edition of Carcosa as a supplement to the original D&D, and this one as a generic supplement for OSR games, is a mistake. If Carcosa was a self-contained game, then the massive difference between Carcosa and the default D&D setting would be less obvious. Since so much of the bath water is thrown out, including the races and most of the classes, why not throw out the baby, too? Strangling and rending the baby with your bare hands is optional.

Using Carcosa as written, the races are the biggest change to character creation. Instead of the Tolkienesque archetypes, there are 13 different colors of humanity. Most of the colors are as you would expect, like Black, Brown, Red, Blue, and Yellow, but there are 4 that are a little different. Ulfire and jale are additional primary colors that only exist on Carcosa. Ulfire is described as “wild and painful” and jale is described as “dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous”. Dolm is the described as the green to jale’s red, but no other description is given. Then there are the Bone men. Bone men are transparent, save for their bones. Yeah, I’m not sure how that works, either. Not that it really matters. The Races of Men in Carcosa do not get much in the way of description, aside from appearance. It is said that they distrust each other and that they never interbreed. Otherwise, you are on your own.

Psionics, the redheaded stepchild of D&D powers, is more common in Carcosa. Based on their Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, each character has a percentage chance of being Psionic. The Psionic system as presented here is much smoother and easier to use than the old school one. Even if I never use any of the other rules presented in Carcosa, I will be stealing the Psionics system.

Then there are the Rituals. The Rituals are what has given Carcosa its infamous reputation and are the biggest break from D&D norms. Instead of memorizing spells and casting them, ala Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, Rituals are elaborate combinations of chants and actions that can be used to conjure, bind, or banish the Old Ones. It is the conjuration Rituals which require human sacrifice. This is where I think the Carcosa shitstorm is overblown. Conjuring ancient evil into the world is rarely the action of a PC group, but instead is something to be prevented. I would not be comfortable with a player group gathering 63 humans to sacrifice unless there are outrageously extraneous circumstances. On the other hand, if the PCs wander into a settlement and discover that an 11 year old girl has been abducted, the Sorcerers in the group would know that a rival Sorcerer is attempting to summon a group of Amphibious Ones into the world.

The bestiary is one of Carcosa‘s real strengths. The various Dolm Worms, Mummies, and Space Aliens fill the world of Carcosa with danger and weird. Combined with the monster creation rules in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Carcosa provides a nice spectrum of monsters for PCs to slay, banish, and bind. Any world that needs stats for Cthulhu and dinosaurs is a world I want to play in. Once again, there is plenty here to steal for other campaigns.

The bulk of the book is taken by the Hex Descriptions. For every ten mile wide hex on the map, there is a description of what occupies it. These encounters vary widely, from villages full of orange men to skulking cultists seeking to conjure their fallen god. This is where the real spirit of Carcosa lives. This is a sparse, deadly world, one where danger is in the wind and ruins are crawling with shadows.

There are no magic items of the traditional sort. Alien devices fill the role of magic items and do so with aplomb. The random appearance of hand grenades or cyborgs in a game that is nominally fantasy instead of science fiction is something I greatly appreciate. While there are only a couple of pages dedicated to the gadgets of alien nature, there is plenty to use. Much as with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I appreciate the space given to DM imagination instead of having everything written as canonical law.

The Introduction is very clear that Carcosa is a living document and that the DM is not handcuffed to any one aspect of the setting as written. Don’t like the Rituals as written, disregard them completely or tone them down. Hell, make the Sorcerer class exclusively NPC and the Ritual issue goes away. For DMs who really want to challenge the limits of their players, there are definitely ethical questions to be explored in the world of Carcosa. Whether or not someone is comfortable with the implications of this world is for them to decide.

The first thing I noticed was the interior art. Rich Longmore is responsible for all of it and the results are fabulous. The whole book feels consistent because of this. Longmore’s languid ink work maintains the classic D&D aesthetic of Carcosa. The robots are suitably bug-eyed and strange of limb and proportion, the aliens appropriately weird. There is much to admire here, with details hidden in every illustration. My only regret is that my copy is a digital one, as I would love to have the hardcover to throw in my bag alongside the Lamentations of the Flame Princess boxed set and Vornheim hardcover.

Ultimately, I think comfort and offense have nothing to do with appraising the worth of Carcosa. What matters is the quality of the material presented. On that criterion, Carcosa is a very troubling product. If one wants to run a game of D&D completely divorced from the tropes that practically define D&D, then Carcosa is about as far as you can go. There is much worthy content here. The Psionics and Monsters and Alien Technology sections justify the asking price alone. Personally, I would love to spend more time in Carcosa, exploring a world rife with conflict and mystery. The only content that could be considered offensive is contained within the Rituals and the implementation of those Rituals is a matter personal choice. For my money, Carcosa is an experiment worth participating in.