Review: Carcosa's vile black magic
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 03, 2012
Carcosa is an impressive piece of writing, but people seem to get fixated on the small portion of the book that is filled with all sorts of rape and human sacrifice. Wait, what?
Magic in the world of Carcosa is (literally) all about the Cthulhu monsters. The planet is apparently filled with Cthulhu monsters of one sort or another. You can summon them, torment them, commune with them, and banish them. There’s no Magic Missile. There is no Fireball. If you want to play a character who shoots stuff at people you will need to find some laser guns.
Flip through the sorcerer rituals presented in Carcosa and it’s a sea of human sacrifice. When I first read the book I quickly skimmed this section and decided it wasn’t worth looking at in detail. The descriptions can be repetitive, clinical, and a bit of a downer: kill these Green men; rape and kill this Blue woman. Magic in Carcosa is evil and generally unpleasant. A whole chapter saying as much seemed unnecessary.
The only spells that don’t involve sacrifice are the rituals that exist to banish the Cthulhu monsters. This suggests one option for playing a lawful sorcerer: only cast banishment spells. I had assumed this was done on purpose, that McKinney didn’t expect players to actually use the spells outlined in the book, that they would be reserved for evil NPCs. In a recent interview I learned this wasn’t the case. In his home game he did have players who ran around the planet rounding up men and women to be sacrificed all the while looking for rare ingredients for their spells. That’s definitely a departure from traditional D&D.
There is another level to the rituals that is easy to miss because they are so repugnant. In Carcosa the rituals are another way Geoffrey McKinney shares his fantasy world with us. They hint at quests to embark on, monsters to fight, and sorcerers to vanquish.
Many rituals mention specific regions (hexes on the map) of Carcosa. They might discuss some rare ingredient that is required for the ritual that can only be found in a particular hex. They might mention a monster that can only be found in a particular place. Often times a ritual’s description of a hex is more detailed than the hex description itself. The description for hex 1513 is, “Ulfire Mold.” (I mentioned the writing was terse, right?) If we look at the ritual that binds the Fetor of the Depths, we learn that there is a “vile cave in the swamps of [the hex],” which is where that spell needs to be cast. The description for hex 416 is “7 Giant Frogs.” Looking at the ritual that conjures the Fetor of the Depths we learn that this hex contains the subterranean lair of the monster. Here I’m looking at two random rituals that relate to one of the old ones. This sort of thing happens throughout the chapter. There are numerous examples where the ritual description adds a whole other layer to what otherwise might sound like a pretty boring hex in Carcosa. This is all easy to miss if you dismiss this chapter as I had initially.
When Carcosa was first released it was mired in controversy because of this section on sorcerer rituals. The warning on the not-quite-a-dust-cover of Carcosa is no joke. The book is filled with depictions of vile black magic: buyer beware. Some of the ritual descriptions are particularly disgusting, but that is clearly the point. McKinney never explicitly tells us, “magic in Carcosa is evil.” Instead he shows this to the reader by outlining what it costs to cast a spell. Some people might not care one way or another about killing fictional alien space men, so McKinney goes the extra mile when it comes to some of the rituals: there is rape, killing babies, torture. These things are all upsetting, but Carcosa isn’t about a real place where real people are committing real crimes. The way these rituals are described is not gratuitous. As far as I can tell, McKinney isn’t trying to come off as edgy by mentioning a sorcerer needs to kill a baby to cast a spell; he’s not trying to express his anger towards women by mentioning a sorcerer needs to rape and kill a women to cast a spell. If you read Carcosa it seems clear that McKinney wants you to close the book knowing that magic in his world is evil. I think he succeeds here. Reading anything more into this section of the book is disingenuous.
If you skip ahead in the book you can read about aliens riding dinosaurs and shooting laser guns. How are people taking anything in this book that seriously?1
As with the sections that proceed it, the chapter on sorcerer rituals subtly reveal more about the world of Carcosa. There is a lot about the rituals that is left unsaid, leaving a lot of room for a dungeon master and players to make them and the world of Carcosa their own. I should add that the hex descriptions that come later in the book do mention potions and other magic items that perform the same function as some of the sorcerer rituals. This presents another avenue for players to conjure and torment monsters without some of the unpleasantness associated with doing so the traditional way. One can imagine quests that involve trying to reproduce a ritual via some other means.
And yeah, there are crazy mutant dinosaurs on this planet. They deserve their own blog post. My epic review of Carcosa will continue.
I submitted two questions about the controversy around these rituals for an interview of Geoffery McKinney that was being conducted by Gamerati. The first, “Has the controversy surrounding Carcosa had any influence on the subsequent writing you have done, or did it have a chilling effect on your work?” was answered with what amounts to a “No.” The second, “Have you read any criticisms of the rape and other controversial parts of Carcosa that you felt were interesting, valid, etc. (As opposed to shrill, knee-jerk, etc.)” was also answered, more or less, in the negative, and touches on the point I raise about not taking the work too seriously. ↩
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