Review: The Mysterious Carcosa
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on June 24, 2012
Carcosa, by Geoffrey McKinney, is ostensibly a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons. Carcosa was originally released as a stapled booklet entitled Dungeons & Dragons Supplement V: Carcosa. Both the name and its form were a homage to the original 1974 D&D books. As I understand things, McKinney would print off copies of Carcosa on his laser printer when he got an order for the book. When his laser printer broke he stopped selling Carcosa. This re-release by Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a much grander affair. As a physical object Carcosa is nothing short of perfection.
Carcosa describes a fictional alien planet of the same name. I’m used to campaign settings of the 2nd Edition variety, where anything and everything a dungeon master could possibly need to know about a place and its people is revealed. For example, I have a very good sense of what the fantasy world of Dark Sun is like from reading all sorts of splat books. If you approach Carcosa expecting that same level of detail you are going to be sorely disappointed. The world of Carcosa is hinted at obliquely. That’s not to suggest the book is light on material: it is both dense and terse.
Carcosa opens with a discussion of various changes to the D&D rules. In the world of Carcosa there are no non-humanoid player characters. There are instead 13 races of men, each identified by a different skin colour. Three of these colours don’t exist on Earth: ulfire, jale, and dolm. (And here skin colour is quite literal: a Blue man is blue like the dance troupe.) There are only two classes players can play on Carcosa: fighters and sorcerers. The difference between the two is that sorcerers can cast rituals1 that were devised by a long extinct race of Snake-Men.
There are no magic items in the world of Carcosa. Instead one finds all sorts of crazy technology scattered over the planet. The book presents example artifacts from: the space aliens, the Great Race, and the Primordial Ones. The technology of the Great Race and the Primordial ones is so foreign to humans that most people will have no hope of understanding what an item does or how to use it. (Mechanically, you need an INT score of 17 to have a 5% chance to use one of these artifacts.) I should point out that at this point in the book, there has been no real discussion whatsoever about space aliens, the Great Race, or Primordial Ones.
After reading this opening of the book, which is something like 30-40 pages long, you do have some sense of what the world of Carcosa is like despite the fact McKinney has explicitly said very little about it. We have a blighted world where humans are clearly the weakest in a long line of civilizations that have inhabited Carcosa. There is a gonzo sci-fi element to Carcosa: your characters might encounter space aliens in their travels, and the plater’s only hopes for “magic” weapons come in the form of space bazookas and ray guns. There is also a Lovecraftian undercurrent to to the world and its people. Everything you learn about Carcosa in this opening section of the book is gleamed through sideways glances.
Carcosa really comes alive in the sections that follow. The bestiary helps the reader visualize what populates the world of Carcosa now. The hex descriptions are often single sentence affairs, but they too give some colour to the world. The sorcerer spells are almost all tied to particular Chuthulu-esque monster found on Carcosa, and often discuss specific hexes in the world. I found how deeply interconnected these three sections of the book are surprising. I haven’t encountered another D&D supplement structured this way.2
I have so much more to say about Carcosa, but we have to stop somewhere. For now, anyway.
Oh, the rituals. They deserve a blogpost to themselves. They seem to be what people fixate on when they first read (or hear about) the book. Not that I can blame people for that, I suppose. ↩