Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Release Date: 12/14/2011
Get It Here: Troll and Toad
A few weeks ago, I reviewed the digital version of Lamentation of the Flame Princess’s fantastic setting book Carcosa. I was impressed with the digital version of Carcosa and gave it a fairly positive review. In the meantime, I received a hardcover copy of the book. When I knew a hard copy was on the way, I figured I could add a paragraph or two of content to my original review to discuss the virtues of the physical copy. Then it arrived in the mail.
It was sent to me in a plain white envelope, giving me no idea what was inside. I tore into it in my driveway as I walked from the mailbox to my front door, to find that it was not what I was expecting. While the height and weight are the same as the Vornheim hardcover, that is the only thing the two books have in common. Carcosa is thicker by a factor of 4, weighing in at 275 pages. The cover is soft leatherette with the silhouette of a city on the front. There is no title on the cover, with only a half jacket bearing the title and content warning. With the jacket removed, the effect is that of a long lost science fiction novel found in a used bookstore. Even the paper choice is appropriate, rough and thick with a smell evocative of used books and strange tales. I kept expecting to find a forgotten book mark or some notes in the margins, maybe even an illustration filled in with highlighter.
The book’s appointments are more important than I ever would have imagined for capturing the feel of Carcosa. The science fiction as fantasy setting feel of Carcosa, with its pulpy aspirations and bleak world view, makes perfect sense when presented in this format. I can’t help but feel like this is the best justification for buying an RPG book in physical form I have seen in a long time, even more than Vornheim. If there was an urban legend claiming Carcosa was a rare book sold exclusively through fanzine ads in the 70’s, I don’t know that I would have disbelieved it. The lack of obvious references to anything post-1979 makes for a truly immersive product. Even the most controversial aspects of Carcosa feel right in this context. Right or appropriate may not be the proper terms. The controversial material feels logical, in this context, instead of like transgressive shock content to titillate the OSR cognoscenti.
The art of Rich Longmore was a standout in the PDF, but it looks even better on printed page. His scratchy lines and abyssal shadows come to life on the yellow-tinged paper, in a way a computer screen could never give proper justice to. In concert with the excellent cover image, the vintage science fiction feel is maintained throughout. I am a big fan of the pulp aesthetic and the Carcosa hardcover does an amazing job of getting me into the mood. His consistently excellent artwork throughout makes Carcosa feel coherent in a manner that most modern or OSR products do not. The proto-Gamma World meets Lovecraft aesthetic brings to mind reading old RPG magazines and trying to fill in the gaps from adverts for unusual and obscure books. I can only imagine the culture shock of putting this book in the hands of someone raised entirely on Pathfinder and 4th Edition D&D. This is the old school rendered in the same handwriting it was 30 odd years ago.
Viewing Carcosa with a different set of eyes, my opinion shifted. The lack of detail with regard to the culture and civilization of the various tribes of man on fair Carcosa makes infinitely more sense when the influences are more clearly defined. That the races distrust each other, at best, and that the tech level hovers around Iron Age, save the occasional laser bazooka, is all that really matters. In the modern era of invented languages and every square inch of the game world mapped, it is almost revolutionary to have a sketch and some ideas to work from instead. That my Carcosa is not your Carcosa is an almost quaint idea, one I dearly miss. Properly used, a bit of randomness and entropy, which Carcosa has in spades, makes the setting more logical. This is a place where paying a Sorcerer a terrible price to sacrifice members of a rival tribe to summon or banish an Old One could be the only way to ensure your own survival. Good and evil never enter into the equation, this is about survival.
The original incarnation of Carcosa was bound to resemble the White Box D&D booklets and it was subtitled to match the numbering system. This bit of audacity did little good and I suspect it left some with a bad taste in their mouth. Carcosa is not a successor to the traditional D&D setting, and it doesn’t need to be. Carcosa is its own thing, a dark and unique setting with the flavor of Lovecraft and even stranger things. The Carcosa experience is one fraught with danger and madness, and that is just for the DM. For the right group of players, this might be the place they have been looking for, even if they didn’t know the name.