Carcosa is not Tolkien, high fantasy, or mainstream fantasy. It is equal parts horror, science-fiction, and swords & sorcery. It is H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Robert E. Howard’s “Worms of the Earth” and “A Witch Shall Be Born,” Lin Carter’s “Carcosa Story about Hali,” and Michael Moorcock’s “While the Gods Laugh.” — Carcosa, pg 3
I have read almost none of the source material that inspired Carcosa. As I am now in the middle of running a campaign set in that world, I thought I should try and remedy that—if only so I can better understand what a Cyclopean City might look like or what the hell a Primordial One is all about. Since we live in an age where you can basically ask anyone anything, I thought I’d go right to the source and ask the author what specific books he recommends one read to get in a Carcosa frame of mind:
Of the pure Lovecraft stories, read these:
The Call of Cthulhu
The Whisperer in Darkness
At the Mountains of Madness
The Shadow over Innsmouth
The Shadow out of Time
Of Lovecraft’s revisions, read these:
Out of the Aeons
Read the original five Elric stories by Moorcock:
The Dreaming City
While the Gods Laugh
The Stealer of Souls
Kings in Darkness
The Flamebringers (later retitled The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams)
Read R. E. Howard’s:
Worms of the Earth (a Bran Mak Morn story)
The Shadow Kingdom (a Kull story)
A Witch Shall Be Born (a Conan story)
If you can find Cthulhu Mythos stories by Lin Carter, read those.
Hopefully someone else will find this list handy. It seems like a good fantasy reading list even if you aren’t interested in Carcosa.
It’s been almost a year since I last checked in with all my Kickstarter projects. I continue to be a bit more wary about what I back, but mostly because I’m trying to buy fewer RPG books in general. My sense is that most people starting Kickstarter projects now are more mindful about being better prepared before undertaking them, and buyers are more cautious in general when it comes to parting with there money.
Dwimmermount’s development seemed to really pick up steam this year. Updates were frequent as Alex Macris started working on editing and revising the bulk of the text in the book. So after a lot of ups and downs for all involved, I received my copy of the book in October. It’s a beast of a book. Gus from Dungeon of Signs has written a thorough review of the thing. Domains at War also arrived at the end of the summer, which I think clears Autarch of all their crowd funding obligations.
James Raggi still owes me a few more books, though I have a bunch on the way from Finland as I type this right now. I’m sure he wants to tie up all these loose ends as much as I want him to. As I mentioned last time, the fact everything he produces transforms into something much more fancy by the time it makes its way to me certainly helps stifle any frustration I may feel here.
Several kickstarters I backed since my last report have already shipped. LotFP Free RPG Day 2014 and No Salvation for Witches from LotFP wrapped up on time. (Though NSFW ended up shipping their physical books late to coincide with the release of a Red and Pleasant Land and the other new books from LotFP.) Servants of the Cinder Queen arrived on time and was a lovely little adventure. The physical copies of the two DCC RPG modules I backed are still being put together, but they grew in scope due to stretch goals. I don’t expect them to be particularly late, and I have PDFs of many of the books already. And of course Scarlet Heroes RPG by Kevin Crawford would arrive on time.
The only big miss for myself this year has been backing The Great Kingdom. The project looks amazing, but has been sued by the people making another D&D documentary. God damn it.
Sorcerer’s in Carcosa are creepy and despicable, and the magic of the setting is totally horrific. I had originally assumed no one would want to play a sorcerer in the game I was running because they are quite villainous. Since everyone is using my random character generator to make characters there is a 20% chance of anyone playing ending up with a sorcerer. There are currently two in my game.
It only took two sessions before one of my players turned to cannibalism. The goal was to learn some sorcerous rituals, and eating the brain of your rival sorcerer seemed like as good a way as any.
Running Carcosa has been fun and lighthearted thus far—seriously.
Eating Sorcerer Brains
Sorcerers may attempt to learn new sorcerous knowledge by devouring the brains of other sorcerers. This isn’t an ideal way to learn ritual magic, but sorcerers are often quite secretive about their sorcery, and reticent when it comes to sharing what they have learned.
The player should roll under their constitution score. Success indicates they have learned some new ritual(s). The number you succeed by indicates how many rituals the player learns, which are selected randomly from those the dead sorcerer knew. Those who fail this check should roll on the I shouldn’t have eaten that brain … table. Brains need to be harvested and eaten as quickly after the death of the sorcerer as possible: impose a penalty of 1 to the roll for each minute that passes after the death of the sorcerer.
Players who are not playing sorcerers, but decide to eat a sorcerer’s brain, should just go ahead and roll on the I shouldn’t have eaten that brain … table.
I Shouldn’t have Eaten that Brain
Maybe you ate it wrong? No ill effects, but you have learned nothing.
Your stomach feels terrible. Moments later you are on your knees retching. The character is completely incapacitated for one turn, and making a fair amount of noise.
That’s just not sitting right: you dry heave for one round and feel woozy for the rest of the day. The character is at -1 to all attack rolls and dexterity checks.
The brain acts as a mild hallucinogen. The character has a 1d6 penalty to all Wisdom and Intelligence checks for the rest of the day.
The rituals trapped within the sorcerer’s brain are too much for your body to bare: you collapse on the ground as your body spasms. The character takes a dCarcosa of damage.
You hear voices in your head? Or maybe your stomach? The sorcerer’s personality has survived within the ritual magic burned deep within his brain. The character’s decision making is impaired while his mind fights to push out the invading id: the DM may request the character re-roll any die rolls (when doing so will be most annoying) if the player fails a Save vs. Magic. This effect lasts for the remainder of the session.
I started writing what follows weeks and weeks ago. I have been waiting—impatiently—for A Red and Pleasant Land, the new D&D supplement by Zak Smith. It’s here now, which makes dragging my feet to post this seem particularly dumb.
Several weeks ago I attended OSRCon 2014. I saw some familiar faces and met some new people. The event was low key and a lot of fun. There are lots of old school gamers in Toronto, but we rarely meet up.
The game began as many do: a rich and mysterious benefactor promised the party riches beyond their wildest dreams if they would perform a series of tasks:
Clear out the knothole dungeon (an abandoned hangman’s post).
Map as much of Castle Cachtice as possible.
Ruin the hatter’s trial (“not guilty”).
The characters could make sense of the first task, as they were aware of the the location of the dungeon. The others were confusing: there is no Castle Cachtice and they had no idea who the hatter was. Still, what player is going to say no to tremendous wealth—especially when you are playing a one-shot?
Since this was OSRCon we began the adventure by carefully searching the area surrounding the entrance to the knothole dungeon. A dice roll later and the specialist had discovered a tiny key. Satisfied we were safe enough, we ventured down into the dungeon. We moved cautiously, coming upon a room with 3 dead bodies: two man sized, and one halfling sized. A few more dice rolls and we had discovered a few more curiosities.
As players we quickly realized that this module featured a pretty great “I Search the Body…” table. As the game progressed we could see that a lot of the work Kiel was doing as a GM in this game involved working with random tables and interpreting their results for us. Since he didn’t have an actual book, but a giant ream of paper, this would sometimes slow things down as we waited for him to find his place or look up a result.
This sort of thing can be a lot of fun if the players understand what’s going on, and the delay adds something to the game. Rolling for random treasure is enjoyable because there is some anticipation about what you might find. We were making the rolls as players, so the flow of the game rested with us. By the time we finished futzing around with our dice Kiel would be ready to read off the results of our roll. On the other hand, when Kiel was rolling on random tables himself he doesn’t have this wiggle room and any delay stands out. I suspect he would have been fine had he added a few more post-it note bookmarks to his binder of paper. There seemed to be a few tables he was using regularly in the adventure. (An actual book is also much easier to flip through.) Depending on what tables were being consulted, rolling results before the game or simply reading the tables as lists might work as well to speed things up. I don’t think anyone found the delays particularly distracting. Most of the game moved smoothly so anything that didn’t is noticeable.
Re-reading the above, I was curious just how much or how little preparation work Kiel did for this session. So, I asked him: “I actually ran that adventure with almost no prep. The first knothole dungeon before the castle was randomly generated on the spot.” Impressive! I thought Kiel was using a table here or there, that I was catching every instance of him looking stuff up. Apparently I was just catching those moments where he wasn’t looking things up fast enough. Amazing. I’d have never guessed that first dungeon was something he hadn’t written up ahead of time. Of course, this books isn’t going to automatically make you better at improvisation and ad-libbing, but it certainly seems to be a good game aid to support that style of DMing.
We explored the dungeon, ended up “through the looking glass”, briefly met the Red Queen, and did manage to sabotage a trial—mostly, anyway. A lot of crazy stuff happened in between, but I really don’t want to spoil this setting for anyone else. There are a few elements of A Red and Pleasant Land that are so much fun when you first encounter them I would feel bad if I ruined that experience for anyone else who plans to play in this setting. I participated in the play tests that were happening when this book was in development, and it was a great experience because I knew almost nothing about what Zak was working on beyond the fact it was set in an Alice in Wonderland world. There is another big literary influence on this work, but I feel like not knowing what it is makes that reveal in the game all the more fun.
Kiel ran a great session. It felt very much like something he would run crossed with something Zak would run—which makes sense I suppose. Zak has a very distinct style to his conception of D&D, and it really shines through in this setting. It’s a testament to the work he has done here that the adventure Kiel ran and the adventure Zak ran during the playtest both had a similar vibe to them. Zak’s game didn’t feel anymore genuine or official than Kiel’s.
All in all I have played 4 different sessions set in this world. As a player I have nothing but good things to say A Red and Pleasant Land.
At the start of 2014 I decided I would finally run a game of D&D, rather than always being a player. It was a sort of gaming New Years resolution. If you read this blog you can probably guess what I wanted to run: a game set in the doomed world of Carcosa! I started writing up rough notes for where the campaign would begin, and fleshed out a small region within the larger world map for players to explore. I then sat on those notes for 8-9 months.
Deciding what to run and how to run it wasn’t that difficult. My main stumbling point was getting over myself and actually running a game. I hadn’t DM’d anything in probably 20 years, if not longer. It seems weird to feel apprehensive about an activity little children do without much fuss. I’d talk about running a game, eventually, and leave it at that. Until yesterday.
Being on the other side of the DM screen was a strange experience. I didn’t find it as stressful as I had thought it would be. Because everyone I normally game with was busy it was just me and two players, Eric and Gus, but that was probably for the best. I found the logistics of managing players was probably easier. I decided to run an OD&D, a system so poorly fleshed out you don’t really have to worry about playing the game wrong. The nice thing about our group is that we all have a rough sense of how to play an OD&D game, and make the same sorts of assumptions when playing. The adventure we were playing was one I made myself. That familiarity with the material probably helped the game run smoothly.
I think the session went well enough, but I have been trying to reflect on what I need to do better. I want to run a Carcosa game with a healthy dose of He-Man, but this first session lacked anything that would suggest a Masters of the Universe vibe. I don’t think I did that great a job highlighting what makes the world weird. The dungeon I had made was supposed to seem mostly empty, with the big reveal being, “oh shit it’s actually full of Bone Men!” I think the actual result of the session lacked that critical, “oh shit.” From the game side of things, I need to firm up when I roll for random encounters. I was too inconsistent here, sometimes letting the players search without consequence or travel through larger chunks of the dungeon unmolested.
All in all it was a lot of fun. In hindsight there was really no way it wouldn’t have been. I think the people you play with really make or break this stuff.
Zak from D&D with Pornstars suggested another way to use [The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time] that would work quite well: “Like Tomb of Horrors, it could be considered a ‘go in, get killed, make a new PC, act with metagame knowledge, do it right this time’ situation.” To take this idea a little further, you could have characters killed during the course of the adventure simply wake up again somewhere in the valley. This would keep with the spirit of the module and makes a lot of the screw-you traps seem less harsh. — A footnote to my review of The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time
Thulian Echoes is the latest adventure Lamentations of the Flame Princess, written by Canada’s own Zzarchov Kowolski. The adventure takes place on an island, its central feature a crazy death-trap dungeon. In an attempt to make the death-trap dungeon less of a screw job, Thulian Echoes is meant to be played through twice by the same set of players. The second play through will hopefully be more successful than the first, as players will know the lay of the land.
Why would players run through the same adventure twice? The central conceit of the module is that the characters find a journal outlining the travels of a band of adventures who all (probably) died horrible deaths within the island’s dungeon thousands of years ago. Assuming players decide to investigate this mysterious dungeon they are given pre-generated characters and play through the events of the journal. It’s the D&D equivalent of a flashback in a movie, I suppose.
The dungeon itself is a weird small complex created by a wizard—of course. There are lots of moving parts and puzzles for the characters to mess around with. There are plenty of ways for player characters to die. A giant machine is central to the whole dungeon, and will likely be a source of fun, confusion, or death for the players. A passage from the main dungeon leads to an underground wilderness that the players may choose to explore as well. This portion of the dungeon is run completely abstractly: there are no maps. There is a destination the players can reach if they venture ‘downwards’, their route to this place will lead them to have several random encounters. This is a pretty simple way to do an exploration of a vast cave system. It could probably be fleshed out more if your players were into fighting Devolved Elder Things. Another passage leads to the wizard’s laboratory and sanctum, where the players may encounter the wizard himself.
Another layer of twists make the second play through hopefully as fun as the first. The present day setting will change based on what the players do during their flashback adventure. I was reminded of Chrononauts a little bit: if this happens and that happens then in the future the world is run by dinosaurs. (Well not quite, but that’s the general idea.) The adventure presents each named location as it exists in the past. This is then often followed by a section for Consequences, which lists what the things the players might trigger in the past, and Present Era, which lists what the location may look like in the present day. I’m curious how tricky all of this stuff is to keep track of during a game session. I suspect a DM would want to split up the past and present run-throughs with a short break at the very least. This is probably an adventure that works best printed out and marked up as the game progresses.
Art is by Kelvin Green, who has illustrated several LotFP modules (including his own). He has a cartoony style that is often at odds with the images being depicted. This module isn’t particularly “gross” as LotFP modules go. I enjoyed all the artwork. The cartography is by Jason Thompson, notable for doing all those cute map walkthroughs of famous D&D modules. (I actually would have loved if the official map for the module was such a walkthrough, but I suspect that wouldn’t work printed in an A5 book. Those drawings are massive.)
The 5th Edition Player’s Handbook takes the Basic D&D rule book Wizards of the Coast has made available online for free and expands upon it in both breadth and depth. The core rules for the game as presented in the free PDF are unchanged. What you are paying for is more of everything else: more races, more classes, more spells, more backgrounds, and options like feats and multiclassing. People who find the Basic game a bit lacking may enjoy all the additions to the game found in the Player’s Handbook.
Basic D&D includes the 4 races found in Original Dungeons and Dragons: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. The Player’s Handbook adds 4 more races, and a few sub races. Dragonborn are the first new race. When I played 4th Edition everyone wanted to be a Dragonborn: our group included two, and without fail there was always a little kid playing a Dragonborn at D&D Encounters. In the old-school D&D scene they seem to be viewed as the Jar-Jar Binks of playable races. I’m not sure how they are presented here will change that sentiment. The other new races are Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Half-Elves and Tieflings. The Drow are included as a new sub-race for Elves, presumably so everyone can play Drizzt Do’Urden. With the exception of Half-Elves, which feel like more of the same, the other races are distinct enough to be interesting additions to the game. They are similar enough to how they have been presented in earlier editions of the game to be instantly recognizable to old players. Whether you want to use them all depends on how Mos Eisley you like your D&D.
There are 12 classes in the Player’s Handbook, 8 more than presented in the core rules. The new classes are the Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Sorcerer, and Warlock. Unlike 4th Edition, the classes do for the most part feel quite different from one another. They all generally have some weird quirk or feature unique to them. Many of the classes overlap in their additional features. The Paladin, Fighter, or Cleric can all be used to model similar character archetypes, so the choice of which to use will probably come down to what features of those classes you are most interested in exploring: each would play quite differently.
The classes in 5th Edition all begin for the most part with a handful of things a new player needs to worry about. Each time a new level is gained there may be another new feature that the player can now use. Each class generally has at least two paths one can take when they reach 3rd level that further specialize the class along some theme. These specializations are also used in a few cases to split classes up into an easy mode and a hard mode. For example, in Basic D&D Fighters only have the option of choosing the Champion martial archetype when they reach 3rd level. The Champion has very straight forward features and don’t really make the class more complex as you gain levels. In the Player’s Handbook there are two more choices: the Battle Master and the Eldritch Knight. The Battle Master learns maneuvers as the character levels up, and has a pool of dice that can be spent to execute those maneuvers.1 This would probably be a good choice for someone who likes playing fighters, but also wants to play a character with a lot of moving parts. The Eldritch Knight is a Fighter crossed with a Wizard. This would be a better choice for someone who is interested in creating the sort of magic wielding fighter they might have read about it in a book.
There are three different spell casting classes: Wizards, Warlocks and Sorcerers, and each has a different vibe, and slightly different mechanics around spell casting. Wizards have spell slots, and can learn an unlimited number of spells. Sorcerers have a finite number of spells they can learn, but have spell points they can spend to augment the traditional casting system of 5e. Warlocks also learn a finite number of spells, but then have Warlock invocation and features related to the diabolic pact that grants them their powers.
Paladins, Rangers, Bards and Druids can all cast spells as part of their core class features. As mentioned above, Fighters can become Eldritch Knights which grants them access to magic. Similarly, Rogues can become Arcane Tricksters. So, with the exception of Monks every single class can cast magic spells without even needing to resort to multi-classing. I’m not sure i’m a fan of that: it seems like there is way too much magic all over the place. I assume this is to allow for a wider variety of characters without requiring the plethora of classes found in 4th Edition.
I enjoy playing OD&D where there are only a handful of classes, and if you want to be a Ranger you just make a fighter and give him a bow. That’s going to feel lacking for many people.2 With 5th Edition, characters are far more complex than they were in earlier editions of the game, but are much more straight forward than those found in later iterations. I think Wizards of the Coast has done a good job here. The complexity of the character classes increases over time, slowly, for most classes, and there are several classes that are clearly meant to be played by new players—like those presented in the basic rules
In the old-school scene you often find people sharing their home brew character classes. I think 5th Edition has enough breadth you can probably cover all sorts of character types simply by using the Player’s Handbook by the book. Where I suspect we will see creative efforts directed is making new races and sub races, and making new backgrounds—which probably deserve their own post.
This is actually similar to how the Fighter was presented in one of the earlier play test packets. The most notable change (and improvement) is that the manoeuvres as written now aren’t so reliant on the use of a grid in combat. ↩
Based on how OD&D grew with each new booklet, playing just four classes got boring for players at the time as well. ↩
Basic D&D is more or less all I wanted in terms of 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It’s nice and simple. Still, I wanted to give Mike Mearls and his team a high five for all the work they have done so I picked up a copy of the new Players Handbook yesterday. One aspect of the book really jumped out at me right away: damn there is a lot of art in this thing.
The team behind 5th Edition must have blown a sizable portion of their budget on art. This thing is overflowing with artwork. It’s rare to go more than a handful of pages before hitting a painting. Everything is in full colour. There is a bit too much of that “single character posing” artwork that seems to be most common in new RPG books, but on the whole I like this book’s art. I wish they had credited which artists painted which pictures. Maybe that’ll be something that ends up online, one day.
One nice change of pace compared to RPGs books of yore: women seem to be represented in the art more or less equally. In fact, there might be more girls than boys in this book. There’s also much more variety in terms of how people are represented in general. Suck it, White dudes in armour: we’re coming for you!
How was this feat achieved?
Hire lots of women. And hire gay dudes. And hire every kind of person because they make a talented version of every kind of person. They exist.
That is the sole and only answer that is fair and that will get us good work while sacrificing neither of the real priorities here.
Hire women (50%!) and let them do whatever they want. Don’t hire men and tell them to make work that does not appeal to them. Don’t hire a writer and ask him to write a world he will not want to play in. Hire a woman and ask her to do whatever.
Zak Smith has a great blog post about this (obvious?) idea from a couple years ago that’s worth re-reading. Unless i’m bad at guessing gender, it looks like 4 out of the 6 art directors for this book were women. I can’t imagine any other route to get to this book and its art that doesn’t involve women being directly involved in its production.