Is Luke Gearing too powerful? Perhaps. Luke’s latest book for the Melesonnia Art Council is Acid Death Fantasy, and it’s kind of hot. A setting book for the award winning Troika. Luke asks the question, “can you distill a setting down to a list of backgrounds, a list of monsters, and a really boss cover?” Let’s find out!
This book describes a fantasy world reminiscent of Dune, Dark Sun, Carcosa, or your other favourite fantasy desert pastiche. A short introduction, a little over a page of text, sketches the world for the reader. It’s enough to give you a sense of what’s going on: there is an opulent mega-city, smaller sultanates orbiting it, water is rare, nomads stalk the desert, there is a jungle full of sentient apes, lizard men, rotting giant mecha, basically all the good stuff.
All the Troika backgrounds help shape the world. Some are brief moments of specificity, like the Coated Man, a knight of sorts, doomed to an early death while covered in a sheet of plastic armour. Others hint at the nature of world, like the Refugee of the Past, a person waking up in this post-apocalypse. Many will help shape your particular game or campaign, like the Deposed Sultan, whose possessions included an adversary, and the title of one of The Thousand Sultanates. Almost all the backgrounds ask questions of the player in a way I think is both simple and useful when starting an open ended game.
In the monster’s section we learn of a world where Freshwater Grub’s plot grand schemes and criminal enterprise, giant worms like in Dune travel the desert, Warflock stalk the desert committing banditry with laser guns, and the husks of great ruined mecha mark the land. Once again the world is detailed in broad strokes, sometimes with strange specifics, sometimes with elements that are very open ended.
But then it all ends! A small list of things to do with this setting and a simple sultanate generator and we are done. I would have liked to have seen the map of the setting described more, like the hex map of Carcosa. More random tables to flesh out hte setting, perhaps. But the approach he took is clearly purposeful, mirroring that of Troika itself.
David Hoskins’ art in this book is really great. I wish like Troika proper all the backgrounds were illustrated! I would would have loved to see art for a Coated Man, Dune Rider, or Narrowman Nomad, to name a few. The same can be said of the monsters. This is a terse book, so more art would help flesh out some of the details of the setting, though perhaps that would calcify things that were meant to be up to the GM to think about.
This book was £26 to my door—that’s like a million Canadian dollars. Honestly, for 36 Monsters and 36 Backgrounds it feels like a lot of cash. Right? But, it’s a full colour hardback book. And it’s good—hard to put a price on that. I mean, at this point I would get anything Luke makes. He’s a safe bet. I enjoyed reading this book. Now I have got to play!
For a little over a year I ran a biweekly OD&D game set in the doomed world of Carcosa. My goal was to play up the more silly and gonzo setting elements of Carcosa: the aliens, mutant dinosaurs, etc. Carcosa was the first setting I encountered that some how managed to communicate what it was all about, while leaving so much up to the individual GM to figure out.
One day I will make a zine for my Carcosa game, and when I do it’ll open with these quotes.
I have always been reticent about answering questions about Carcosa. There is no Single Ideal Carcosa to which other referees’ Carcosas must conform. I tried with Carcosa to lightly sketch (but in lurid colors) a weird world of nightmare. I want to awaken feelings of the weird and of horror and of awe with Carcosa, such that the referee can then use Carcosa to satisfy within himself and his players the deep desire for darkness and the weird.
I shudder to think of rules lawyers or canon lawyers playing their tricks with my books. The books are meant for the opposite use, the use of creative and imaginative referees who basically say when reading my books, “Ah, I see what you’re trying to do here. Let me finish all your sentences for you.” I never want to effectively tell a referee to sit down and shut up. — Geoffrey McKinney on ODD74
Of course anyone can do anything he likes with Carcosa. There is no One True Wayism about Carcosa, nor is there an “Official” Carcosa. My attitude towards my creations is that of Gary towards D&D in 1974, not Gary towards AD&D in 1982. — Geoffrey McKinney on Dragonsfoot
My words do not even pretend to be Official Carcosa. There is no such thing as “Official” Carcosa. There is only YOUR Carcosa. Do with it as you will, and may the Old Ones mutate your thoughts into an indescribable campaign. — Geoffrey McKinney on Dragonsfoot
Players, don’t get too attached to your characters, because the game isn’t about them—the game is about the warren. Individual rabbits are cheap and the continuity of the warren is everything. Death is explicitly on the table and will occur as the fiction demands, so breed early and often. Your kits are your legacy (and the pool from which you will probably draw your next character).
Think of the game as a generational saga rather than an heroic narrative. Although your characters may well be leaders, poets, and scofflaws, they are still at the bottom of the food chain in a world determined to kill them. Perhaps their children can finish what you so bravely started. Generational play is great fun, and having a strong connection to the warren as a living community pays great dividends over time. You’ll start to care about its health and goals, and build a mythology around the exploits of previous generations. And, despite all these lofty assurances, in the end making up a new rabbit takes only minutes. - Marshall Miller, The Warren.
The Warren is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about rabbits—picture Watership Down.1 I’ve tried to play it a few times with my daughter, though without much success. My daughter is a scaredy cat. She doesn’t like games with conflict or danger.2 Most RPGs aren’t particularly interesting without either.
The Warren is full of writing I could imagine being pulled right out of an old-school D&D book. Stories about rabbits are often stories about survival and horror. Watership Down is very much in this vein. Your rabbits struggle against the world, and many will die so others may live. One can picture running some real meat grinder games playing a by the book game of The Warren.
I’ve wanted to run a session of this game with people closer to my age for a while now. Bully Pulpit Games has published several “playsets” (basically very terse setting documents) to help kickstart games of The Warren. They’re all quite good, but sometimes it’s fun to make your own.
Of course anyone can do anything he likes with Carcosa. There is no One True Wayism about Carcosa, nor is there an “Official” Carcosa. My attitude towards my creations is that of Gary towards D&D in 1974, not Gary towards AD&D in 1982. — Geoffrey McKinney on Dragonsfoot
World of Carcosa is a playset for The Warren that is set in the doomed world of Carcosa. If you have been reading this blog you know it’s one of my favourite settings for D&D. I’m not sure what the Venn diagram is for people interested in Carcosa and people interested in a game about rabbits. Perhaps it’s very small. This is for my people!
I haven’t had a chance to run this playset yet. Buyer beware!
A brief recap of one of our games: “I thought my daughter might like a game about rabbits. She was sent out for carrots and narrowly avoided an owl! That was too scary, though, so she decided she’d just play the predators and the rabbit she made is now a turncoat working with the humans after eating a soup that made her evil.” A few weeks later I tried playing with her again: “In this session she is searching for cutie rabbits to also convert to evil. She also travels in an invisible bag carried by her human friend so foxes and owls can’t get her.” ↩
I had pitched the D&D campaign as Masters of the Universe crossed with Carcosa. Looking back at it now, i’m not sure that’s what I was ever really running. It was often goofy and light hearted, which I like, but without all the Masters of the Universe overtones I was hoping to inject. What I had been running, in hindsight, was a Western. Perhaps this is coloured by my reading a Blood Meridian, but it feels like the line between post apocalypse science fiction and the Wild West is quite fine. You have lawlessness, violence, and a collapse of societal norms and obligations in both. My players spend their time wandering a dangerous wilderness, visiting towns with their own rules of law. They go on missions escorting caravans, and hunt slavers for bounty.
Because I am so chronically underprepared, I went with XP for gold as the means of gaining levels. Rather than simply giving people XP for killing slavers directly, I gave my players gold in the form of a bounty in their home base. The end result is they travel the wastes cutting off heads to prove they have killed a vile Jale slaver. Gruesome, no doubt, but it’s all sort of abstract in the game. No one really dwells on the fact they are carting around a big bag of heads. After reading McCarthy’s book it feels far more dark and grizzly. It’s easy to project one story on top of the other.
Westerns are one of my favourite genres of film, but they aren’t what I had intended to run. When I pick up my Carcosa game again I need to think harder about what themes and tropes made Masters of the Universe the show it was. Also, I need to run a D&D game again.
As I mentioned in my last post, I ran Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer, the sample adventure in Carcosa, over the weekend. Because I was nervous about running a game at a convention, for strangers, I was perhaps more prepared than usual for this game. Going through the process of prepping for the game has caused me to rethink (some) of the opinions I had on what I want from an adventure, and what I should really be doing when I run a game.
I ran Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer more or less directly from the book. I think this remains one of the key things I want from any adventure. I have some modules where room descriptions are so long I could never hope to find pertinent information in their walls of poorly organized text. In contrast the Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer is neatly laid out, well organized, and terse. I had no trouble quickly parsing out what each room was about while my players were exploring. I’m never going to run anything that requires me to re-write it to use it.
To help speed things up during the game I made a little monster tracker for the dungeon: for each room with a monster I had the monsters stats, and the HP of each monster encountered. I rolled up the number of monsters encountered and the HP ahead of time, for any room where these numbers were random. This is the sort of handout that seems like it should be more common than it is. I can’t imagine when it wouldn’t be useful to a GM.
I also pre-rolled all the random encounters that would happen during the game, and made a similar monster tracker for those. During the game I let players roll a d12 to see which of the pre-generated encounters they hit. (I could have just had them encounter them in sequence, but I also like some surprise at the game table.) This was actually more handy than I thought it would be. Random encounters felt as seamless as expected ones.
The Sorcerer has two apprentices (1st-level Ulfire Sorcerers) who wear chain mail and are armed with swords (and one has a short bow and a quiver of 20 arrows). Neither knows any rituals.
The above is one of the room descriptions from the dungeon. I can read this to myself quickly and not stutter when players walk into the room. Well, until they ask me what else is in here. I don’t think I realized how useful some amount of (interesting) dungeon dressing is till I came across rooms like this while running the adventure. I’m not good at coming up with this sort of thing on the spot. (Or not on the spot, for that matter.) What I ended up describing when I ran the module wasn’t particularly interesting. I think a few extra words about what some of the rooms are like would go a long way to improving this module.
Do these two apprentices like each other? Do they like their master? Are they vain? Are they insane? McKinnon leaves this all up in the air. Like the rest of Carcosa it’s up to you to decide some of the finer details of the adventure. The relationships between everyone in the dungeon isn’t fleshed out. There is a Bone Sorcerer, his two apprentices, and an alchemist all operating within this dungeon, along with a tribe of Deep Ones: what is their deal? Again, a few more words here would again go a long way at the game table.
That said, I do think the approach McKinnon took here is reasonable. There has to be a trade off made when your goal is tweet-sized room descriptions. From reading what’s he has written online, I think he is more interested in providing GMs with skeletons and frameworks for adventure rather than something more richly detailed.
I shudder to think of rules lawyers or canon lawyers playing their tricks with my books. The books are meant for the opposite use, the use of creative and imaginative referees who basically say when reading my books, “Ah, I see what you’re trying to do here. Let me finish all your sentences for you.” I never want to effectively tell a referee to sit down and shut up. — Geoffery McKinnon on ODD74
Still, it does introduce more work for the DM. I made a sheet that listed each NPC and a couple words about them, just so I wouldn’t be ad-libbing when the players encountered someone. This wasn’t much work, and helped flesh out the dungeon a little bit more.
Running a convention game was a good experience, much better than I thought it would be. I had 4 small A5 sheets of paper with some sparse notes, but that was more than enough to help me feel like I was ready for most anything. In my regular game I prep the bare minimum I can get away with and still feel like i’m ready for a game. After running this convention game I can see that just a tiny bit more effort would probably improve my games immensely, and take away a lot of the stress I feel when I run a game.
You should do a post … having DMed several sessions, about what you find Carcosa brings to the table and what you’ve done to make it “yours?” — Cole Long
I write reviews for gaming books I never actually use to game, which feels kind of dumb but what can you do? Now with Carcosa I can actually comment on the book with insight from using it to run a D&D campaign.
I’ve ran 7 games of Original D&D game set in Carcosa. The original idea for the game was to mix in elements from Masters of the Universe into the Carcosa settings, but that hasn’t quite happened just yet. I’m really not familiar with most of the literary references that inspired Carcosa, which makes running the game “interesting”.
I wanted my campaign to start in a Lawful settlement. I had catalogued all the settlements in the game as a byproduct of working on my Random Carcosa web application. The highest level Lawful leader in Carcosa is 11th level and can be found in Hex 1011, along with a crazy robot.
Village of 270 Bone Men ruled by “the Swift and Silent Beginning,” a lawful 11th-level Fighter.
The unwary may fall prey to a deranged, spherical robot (AC 18, MV 180′, hp 25) with treads and retractable appendages, nets, self-repair, infrared, and long-distance vision. It will seek to abduct stragglers and take them to a small, hidden outpost to be shackled in close proximity to radioactive waste. Each hour spent thus requires a successful saving throw to avoid mutation.
I printed out some hex graph paper and drew the region around this hex, marking down the settlements and their allegiances to the battle between Law and Chaos. The official Carcosa map in the book is missing this information, which would have made it about a million times handier. Zak Smith drew in his Carcosa book, but I just can’t bring myself to do that.
There are slavers nearby in Hex [REDACTED] terrorizing the region, and so I made them the main threat in the game. I decided the town of Invak would offer refuge to former slaves. This would explain why a party of PCs would likely include people from the various races of Carcosa. Chaotic villages close to the slavers were likely to supporters, as were Neutral villages nearby. Villages closer to Invak would be against slaving. Invak would be a bastion of egalitarian and progressive thought, in another wise terrible world. The town to the South of Invak became a trading hub, liking Invak with a few other towns near by. In this way I fleshed out the relationships between the various villages in the area.
I answered Jeff Rient’s 20 Quick Questions about your Campaign, which helped me think more about what my game would be like. From an older blog post about Carcosa I knew “the Icon of Judgment” was the strongest sorcerer in the world. I made some rough notes about what his deal might be, but thus far it hasn’t really come up in play: mostly because I haven’t brought him up at all. The castle of Chaotic Orange Men North of Invak became a crazy cult running bizarre gladiatorial games.
I drew a map of the hidden outpost. It seemed like a good dungeon to begin the game with. Players would start shackled in the radioactive wastes. I introduced a small group of Bone Men, who were hiding out inside this outpost. They had imprisoned one of their members for [REDACTED]. The robot would only be ‘active’ at night, and would only travel through the wilderness, so the players wouldn’t have to worry about it unless they specifically tried to instigate a fight with it. There were also lasers, spawn, and other things that felt like Carcosa.
This was enough to start playing. I ran a session with Gus and Eric, two of the regular players from my Monday night D&D group, and things continued from there. I am constantly underprepared for each session we play, but things usually work out—for the most part.
Eero Tuovinen has done an amazing job with the layout of Carcosa. Carcosa is a well laid out book that works well at the table. I flip through it often looking up monsters, hex descriptions, and the like. Most everything is easy to find, and more importantly easy to read. McKinney has a very terse and direct way of writing that I like. He manages to be evocative without wasting too many words—usually.
In terms of helping you build a campaign, Carcosa brings barely any information to the table. The book succeeds in selling the idea of Carcosa, without really telling you that much about it. Are all the races identical besides their colour? Do they all share the exact same culture? Are their multiple languages in the world? What are the towns and villages like? What do people eat? What’s a GP in Carcosa? There are so many questions about the world that are unanswered. Explicit relationships between hexes are few and far between. This encourages the sort of brainstorming I did to get things going, but is also one of the big criticisms of the book: it all feels so random. I would have loved for some discussion from McKinney on how he explicitly organized and ran his game.
The big win for Carcosa is that I never feel like i’m doing it wrong. I never have to look something up so-and-so important NPC, or double check the date such-and-such event took place. Carcosa is a loose framework for building your own Carcosa. I’m not sure I have done that great a job of build my own Carcosa, but i’m hoping that I am not too far off.
Potions and poultices prepared by an experienced hand can temper the addictive and dangerous properties of the desert lotus, producing powerful restoratives. There is always a risk associated with the lotus, but they are perhaps greatly outweighed by the rewards.
Green Lotus Poultice
Restores a dCarcosa of hit points to a wounded character. Takes 1 turn to apply.
1d6 x 50GP
Green Lotus Potion
Ingesting this potion will restore 2dCarcosa hit points.
1d6 x 100 GP
Black Lotus Poison
A slower acting variant of the deadly Black Lotus Powder. Those ingesting this poison will die in dCarcosa days if they fail their Save vs. Poison at -6.
1d4 x 1000 GP
Jale Lotus Potion
This mind expanding potion grants the character d6 psionic wild talents. Each can be used once, over the course of the day, while the drug slowly works its way through the characters system.
2d6 x 200 GP
White Lotus Potion
Cures those afflicted by the effects of White Lotus Powder
1d10 x 100 GP
Blue Lotus Potion
Ingesting this potion fills a person with a deep sense of calmness. Characters are immune to all fear effects. This potion is a favourite of Sorcerers who wish to commune with terrifying Old Ones.
1d4 x 100 GP
Blue Lotus Poultice
Applying this poultice takes one turn, after which a characters skin will feel completely numb. Characters are immune to damage from extreme cold, heat, and acid. This effect lasts 9-12 hours.
1d10 x 100 GP
Yellow Lotus Powder
The powder distilled from the beautiful Yellow Desert Lotus produces the most horrific waking dreams when inhaled. Characters must make a Save vs. Poison or go completely mad, physically paralyzed, their mind trapped in a terrible nightmare.
1d10 x 100 GP
Yellow Lotus Poison
This poison is a powerful paralytic, usually applied to the tips of arrows and blades. Characters must make a Save vs. Poison or be unable to move for 1d6 turns.
1d10 x 100 GP
Bone Lotus Poultice
Applying this poultice takes one turn, and renders the character skin and organs translucent like those of a Bone Man. This effect lasts 9-12 hours.
1d6 x 50 GP
Bone Lotus Potion
Drinking this translucent potion will render the imbiber gaseous, allowing them to pass through anything that isn’t air-tight, and making them impervious to most attacks.
1d10 x 100 GP
Purple Lotus Powder
When mixed with other slow burning herbs and smoked this powder acts as a depressant, relaxing the mind and making its user completely open to suggestion for 1-4 hours.
1d6 x 50 GP
Orange Lotus Potion
Produced using the sweet nectar found within the buds of the Orange Desert Lotus, this potion grants super-human strength to those who drink it. Characters do an additional dice of damage when attacking with melee weapons. This effect lasts dCarcosa turns.
2d4 x 100 GP
Ulfire Lotus Poultice
Applying this poultice takes one turn, and leaves the characters skin feeling dry and rough. Characters gain an addition +2 to their AC and to their saving throws where applicable. This effect lasts 9-12 hours.
2d6 x 100 GP
Ulfire Lotus Potion
This potion is a powerful anti-poison, nullifying the effects of any lotus based poison or powder.
1d6 x 100 GP
Brown Lotus Poison
Typically applied to the tips of arrows, this poison instantly kills those who fail their Save vs. Poison.
1d4 x 500 GP
Dolm Lotus Potion
The character feels a quickening of their body and mind as this potion takes effect. Characters double their movement rate, and start combat at the top of the initiative order. This effect lasts 1d6 rounds.
1d4 x 500 GP
Dolm Lotus Powder
When smoked as a powder this lotus produces an unnatural lethargy (and euphoria) in its user. Characters regain dCarcosa hit points, but are unable to do anything besides lay around for 1d6 turns.
1d4 x 50 GP
Red Lotus Poultice
The restorative power of the rare Red Desert Lotus is without equal. Rubbing this poultice over a dead character’s body will restore them to life, assuming they fail a Save vs. Poison.
2d6 x 1000 GP
Red Lotus Potion
This potion fills the drinker with supernatural vigour that lasts 9-12 hours. If killed while under the effects of the drug the character will instantly return to life with dCarcosa hit points, as their body absorbs all the red lotus in its system. (This effect can only occur once.)
2d6 x 1000 GP
Each usage of a potion or poultice produced by a desert lotus apothecary has a 1 in 20 chance of producing a great feeling of a addiction in the user. All powders have a 1 in 6 chances of being addictive. Players who are currently addicted to what they have just ingested must take another dose (which grants additional positive effect) or be at a -1 on all rolls for the session. Using a desert lotus product more than once a session increases the chance of addiction by 1, 2, 4, 8, etc.
Apothecaries that work with the desert lotus will generally have a random selection for sale week to week, prices varying based on the availability of flowers.
The default setting for Carcosa is full of xenophobia. I wanted a list of reasons why a group of adventures of various races might be adventuring together. I started writing one, but got stuck fairly quickly. So, I asked my friends to help out. The good entries below were all written by people other than myself. They call that Gygaxian Democracy.
Why are we together?
Awoken from a lotus induced stupor you have fled from a sorcerer. I’m sure they want you back.
Escaped from Slavers! One day you will have your revenge on those bastards—unless they get you first.
Members of a traveling troupe of actors. You know one play, which you tweak based on your audience to play up on the local prejudices.
Members of a janissary regiment, put together by long gone—perhaps?—Alien overlords.
After years of wandering with your herd the symbiotic fronds were yanked out from the backs of your heads. Who knows how many years you lived as root heads.
Returned to Carcosa after being experimented on by the Space Aliens. Hopefully they don’t come looking for you again.
Cultists! (Must share a common alignment.)
Foundlings raised by Lawful spawn hunting illuminati.
The wrong coloured children of an otherwise homogenous village. Did they treat you well?
Refugees who have fled a natural disaster. Famine? War? God damn Aliens with laser guns?
Kidnapped orphans raised deep in the desert by a mad, but kindly, old couple.
Psychically summoned to a crashed space ship. You have no memory of the recent few months.
Members of a diseased community of outcasts. Everyone shares a common (mostly harmless) mutation.
Emerged from a sorcerer’s birthing vats deep within an abandoned complex. (Thousands of other pods full of replacement PCs available as well.)
Once from a religious community, where all members wore body obscuring clothes and lived as equals without colour based caste. After the sorcerer’s troops/raiders/slavers/shaggoths came that dream, and the obscuring robes and windings, have been cast aside.
A bad medicine show went through some villages a while back selling poisonous mutation causing ‘snake squeezings’. The adventurers are relatives of the slain, banded together to hunt down huckster and deliver ‘justice’.
All that remains of the local criminal underworld, driven out by an unspeakably violent new boss or spawn inquisitors.
Each character bears the same tattoo, which causes horror amongst village elders Carcosa wide. (The characters have no memory of when or how tattoo appeared.)
The former retainers of a group of strangely coloured people who spoke a weird language and claimed to be from another world called Dirt (or Earth or something like that). The original adventurers are all dead, but retainers continue to adventure together. Some continue to search for a portal to this world of Dirt, because there are no shoggoths there.
You each have vague memories of a past life as a White Man sorcerer, until you performed some ritual that split you into different facets of your core personality.
In the game I am running now, the players rolled a 3 when starting the campaign. So, they are all members of the acting troupe The Rainbow Connection. Their back story has been far more fun than I had thought it would be.
Thanks to Stuart P, Brendan S, Evan W, Gus L, and David R and everyone else for their ideas and suggestions.
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.
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 ate 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 ate that brain … table.
I Shouldn’t have Ate 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 is 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 characters 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.
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.
There isn’t much proper religion to speak of in the world of Carcosa. Some people worship the Old Ones and their spawn, others ancient technology. No one is worshiping otherworldly benevolent beings. There are certainly no centralized religious organizations.
Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
Characters begin in the town of Invak. One can find most standard equipment for sale in the town in a large shop run by “the Infinite Keeper”. The Brown Men village of Jahar to the South may have other items that are trickier to track down. Trade caravans run between the two towns.
Where can we go to get plate mail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
You are unlikely to find anyone in the region who knows how to produce plate mail, let alone the metal you would need to produce it. “The Ocean of Humility” in Invak may be able to fashion something out of leather. Most people have little idea how to fashion useful armour that fits people, let alone monsters.
Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?
The most evil of all the Purple Men, “the Icon of Judgment,” is known throughout the land for his mastery of sorcery. He rules a small village protected by advanced weaponry and battle armoured soldiers. The Old Ones yield to his will.
Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
You know of no greater soldier than “the Swift and Silent Beginning,” the leader of the Bone Men village Invak.
Who is the richest person in the land?
“The Icon of Judgment” is said to possess vast amounts of wealth.
Where can we go to get some magical healing?
Nowhere. Sorcery is only used for evil and wickedness.
Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?
The desert lotuses can heal the sick and dying. Of course, they can also kill you.
Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
There are no traditional magic-users, and sorcerers are definitely not forming guilds: they are two busy harvesting each other for fuel for their spells.
Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
“The Falling Flower” is a Desert Lotus Apothcary who lives in the village of Invak. He operates a small stall in the ex-slaves quarter of the town. He may be addicted to the lotuses he sells.
The nearest sage you know of is “He of the Air,” who lives in Jahar.
Where can I hire mercenaries?
The town of Invak maintains an informal standing milita. Most of the men and women in the town have served. For a little money it won’t be hard to find people willing to have an adventure.
Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?
Most people consider magic wicked. You are best to hide any sorcerous tendencies you may have. On the other hand, no villagers are likely to complain about a person carrying a weapon: it’s rough out there.
Which way to the nearest tavern?
This Way to Death in Invak serves fermented drinks and is the place to go for all sorts of shadiness.
What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?
A large spherical hunter-killer robot stalks the wastes around Invak at night. No one knows who created it or for what purpose, but it has been stealing away men and women for as long as anyone can remember. Few have encountered the machine and lived to share their tales.
“The Swift and Silent Beginning” will pay for proof of any killed slaver or spawn.
Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?
Occasionally a town and its leader may get bold and try to expand their reach or power: this rarely ends well for anyone involved. There are currently no large scale wars of note.
How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?
A castle of Orange Men to the North run a gladiatorial arena of sorts: there are no prizes and the winners of the games are fed to the Spawn of Shub-Niggurath the Orange Men worship as a god.
Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?
Maybe, but they are secret.
What is there to eat around here?
In Invak people subsist off the meats and eggs of the various lizards that make their home in the wastes, along with mushrooms and all sorts of strange roots. There is nothing good to eat anywhere.
Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?
The Elder Signs, rune inscribed stones that keep the Old Ones at bay, would probably be quite handy.
Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?
Few creatures are interested hoarding treasure on Carcosa besides the various races of Men. Of course, it’s not clear what anyone actually does with their piles of gold and jewels: Carcosa is a crap hole world with nothing good to buy.
I wrote this up some time ago for a Carcosa campaign I may never run. Brendan of Necropraxis suggested answering these questions as a way to help new players quickly get a sense of what’s up with your particular game of D&D. I haven’t ran a game since I was a little kid, but if I did it’d probably look like the sort of games I’ve been playing since I got back into old-school D&D.
Ability scores generation method?
3d6 in order, just like God intended.
How are death and dying handled?
If your hit points drop below or are equal to zero make a Save vs. Death Ray and Poison: success indicates your character is merely unconscious, completely incapacitated until they can get a full week of rest; failure indicates your character is oh-so dead. If you roll a natural 20 on your saving throw roll, your character not only survives, but is invigorated by his near death. In this case your character re-rolls their HP for the session.1
What about raising the dead?
The ancient snake-men may have had a ritual for raising the dead, though it is currently lost to the ages. Perhaps intrepid adventurers may uncover such a spell, though I am sure the costs to cast it would make death look like the better choice.
How are replacement PCs handled?
Roll up a new character and we will jam them into the game somehow. It’s handy to have henchmen for such a situation.
Initiative: individual, group, or something else?
Individual: roll a d6, high roll goes first, your dexterity score is used to break ties.
Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
Yes: a 1 is always a miss, a 20 is always a hit and you deal the maximum damage for the attack.
Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
Of course: helmets shall be splintered! 10% of hits that would damage a character will be to a character’s head. If the character is wearing a well made helmet it will shatter protecting them from the blow.
Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
Yes, targets would be chosen at random when firing into the fray.
Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
You will probably want to avoid some fights.
Level-draining monsters: yes or no?
Hells no: they are the worst.
Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
Yes, but hopefully that won’t feel stupid. What’s the point of a Save vs. Death Ray if you don’t have death rays in your game?
How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?
Strictly! Bust out that spreadsheet, asshole.
What’s required when my PC gains a level? Training? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
Leveling happens during down time. There is no need for special training.
What do I get experience for?
Finding treasure, killing monsters and terrible people, freeing slaves, stopping sorcerers, exploring the wilderness and anything else I can think of.
How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
Yes, the more the merrier. Morale is handled using the obscure rules hidden within OD&D. When a morale check is required roll a 2d6, adjusted by a retainers loyalty, the higher the roll the better.
How do I identify magic items?
Characters may encounter ancient magical snake-men artifacts, or the great technologies of the Primordial Ones or the Great Race. Chances are nobody in Carcosa will know what’s up.
Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
Can I create magic items? When and how?
It is possible, through some long lost terrible sorcerous ritual that’s probably not worth the trouble when you can just go hunting for laser guns.
The world described in Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa is very open ended. The Dungeon Master must extrapolate from the brief descriptions in the book what their version of Carcosa will look like. It’s a big change coming from the overly detailed TSR-era campaign settings like Dark Sun. McKinney stresses in the book and in interviews there is no canonical Carcosa.
Jeff Rients of Jeff’s Game Blog has a list of 20 questions he suggests Dungeon Masters answer. The goal is to provide players with information about their game, but avoid boring them with too much detail. These questions also provide a simple approach to world building: answering them would flesh out enough of the game world to start playing quickly. This is a simpler alternative to playing J.R.R. Tolkien when it comes to this sort of thing.
The 4th question in this list asks, “Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?” I could of course make up my own mighty wizard, but there is one described ever so slightly in Carcosa that is perfect for the role:
0614: Village of 500 Purple Men ruled by “the Icon of Judgment,” a chaotic 16th-level Sorcerer who is immune to age, infirmity, and contagion. The village has an array of impressive defenses, including several high-technology cannons and a handful of battle armored warriors. Vast riches are rumored to be stashed within the village’s vaults.
This fellow comes to us from Chris Robert, who provided the additional hex descriptions in the expanded edition of Carcosa. An immortal chaotic 16th-level sorcerer protected by a bunch of Mech Warriors? That’s what I’m talking about.
Now, I am left wondering if all Purple Men evil. Carcosa doesn’t provide any clues. Their are 13 races of men, but there is nothing particularly interesting about any of them. Besides being different spell components the races of men are all interchangeable. I’d like to make them more interesting and unique, but I’m not sure how to start just yet. Perhaps this is the sort of thing to let the players sort out.
Re-reading Carcosa confirms my initial feelings about the book: I am a huge fan. Whenever I read Carcosa I want to play some D&D.
A Green Man cyborg (AC 18, MV 60’, HD 6, Lawful) leads a battalion of 3-12 soldiers armed with an assortment of Alien weaponry. The cyborg will repair any Alien technology Lawful PCs may possess, and will attack any PCs who make their allegiance to the forces of Chaos known. He is searching for his adopted daughter.
Citadel of 98 Red Men led by “The Ram”, a Lawful 4th-level Fighter. “The Ram” is a behemoth of a man, never seen without his indestructible helmet.
Spawn of Shub-Niggurath (AC 14, MV 120, HD 6, Multiple Alignments [intelligent]): An Orange humanoid with a smooth hide and 3 heads. One head is humanoid (and Lawful), one head is robotic (and Neutral) and the last head is bestial (and Chaotic). When first encountered, or whenever the creature is under stress, roll a d6 to see which head is currently in control of the beast: 1-2 - the humanoid; 3-4 - the robot; 5-6 the monster.
A Jale Man Sorcerer (AC 16, MV 120’, HD 8, Neutral) wearing a Red breast plate sits on a giant Cthulhu shaped throne, alone at the lowest levels of the Cavern of the Time Lords. He may share his knowledge of Carcosa with those who seek him out.
Spawn of Shub-Niggurath (AC 14, MV 120’ / 160’ [Flying], HD 6, Neutral [intelligent]): A Brown avioid with a feathered hide and a toothed mouth. There is a 4 in 6 chance that when encountered the beast will be in flight.
A squat Purple Man Sorcerer (AC 12, MV 90’ / 120’ [Flying], HD 2, Lawful) in flowing robes and an over sized hat is in the process of botching the ritual The Glyphs of the Ebon Lake.
1 Sabertooth Tiger (intelligent).
A Blue Man (AC 16, MV 120’, HD 2, Lawful) with a cybernetic augmentation that allows him to extend his head several meters above his body is surveying the wilderness. He is armed with a bright yellow mace and can not be surprised.
A damaged Alien vehicle, with 4 tank treads instead of wheels. Characters with an intelligence of 16 or more may attempt to repair the machine, with a cumulative chance of 10% per week of succeeding. (i.e after ten weeks the tank will be repaired.) It is large enough to comfortably transport 12 men.
Village of 366 Brown Men ruled by “the Silver Fist,” a Lawful 6th-level Fighter. The Silver Fist rides into battle on cybernetic horses and wields a mysterious purple sword.
A foreboding grey castle sits empty save for its custodian, an Orange Woman 18th-level Sorcerer. The castle is circumscribed by a bottomless chasm. A single bridge leads to its imposing doors shaped in the visage of a skull. The sorcerer will not leave the castle, and is immortal and invulnerable while within its walls. She will aid all those who actively seek to defend Carcosa from the forces of Chaos.
What appears to be a simple rock is in fact The Starseed, a source of unlimited power. At any given time there are at least 1-6 high level sorcerers actively searching for the artifact.
A White Woman (AC 14, MV 120’, HD 4, Lawful) is locked in battle with a Deep One. She fights with a large wooden staff and is searching for her mother.
1 Orange Mastodon. The beast may shoot acid from its trunk 3 times a day.
A beautiful young woman, an astronaut from Earth, lays wounded in a recently crashed spacecraft. The ship is damaged beyond repair.
Village of 130 Dolm Men ruled by “The Master of the Universe,” a 1st Level Fighter. He wields a magic sword in battle: on command the sword grants +20 HD, and the saving throws of a 20th level Fighter. Only those chosen by the powers of the Grey Castle may hold aloft the magic sword.
I quite liked Carcosa by Geoffrey McKinney. I enjoyed it so much I wrote a very long review of the book split over several blog posts. To make sharing the review with other people easier I’ve collected links to each blog post below:
A Bone Man (AC 3, MV 60', HD 1+1, Lawful) and a Jale Women (AC 9, MV 120', HD 1+1, Neutral) explore the badlands in search of alien technology for their war tribe.
A party of 2-8 inter-dimensional travelers search for their lost companion. They are armed with turn of the century firearms: pistols & shotguns. They are cautious around and distrustful of any natives of Carcosa they encounter. They will however aid anyone who agrees to help them find their friend.
3-18 red orbs can be seen floating in the distance.
2 Unquiet Worms make their home in the shade of a disabled alien tank. Within the tank, two dead aliens lay mummified in their spacesuits. Sufficiently intelligent creatures can restore the tank to working order after 2-6 turns of experimentation.
Trails of small insects converge on the rocky husk of a massive dead insect. Within an inter-dimensional traveler to Carcosa lays shackled to the ground. Insects crawl in and out of his body. A sorcerer and his minions are in the middle of casting the ritual Canticle of the Crawling God. They will summon the Crawling God in 1-3 hours.
You may use the following table to restock the hex:
3-18 red orbs lay inert on the ground throughout the badlands. If investigated characters must make a Save vs. Poison or develop a random mutation.
The Crawling God crosses the badlands trailed by a sea of insects.
2 Unquiet Worms feast on the remains of a small party of adventurers. On the bodies can be found: pistols, shotguns and worthless foreign currency.
A Bone Man rides through the badlands on an alien tank. He is accompanied by an inter-dimensional traveller to Carcosa. Within the tank is a small cache of books describing sorcerous rituals and the dead body of a Jale Woman.
With that in mind, here are 16 new hex descriptions for your Carcosa game.
An Orange Man 1 dressed in furs hunts a band of mutant men. He is armed with a whip and accompanied by 2-12 giant beasts and dinosaurs; these creatures are under his complete control.
Spawn of Shub-Niggurath (AC 18, MV 120, HD 3, Chaotic): a blue arachnoid with two red eyes and a toothed mouth. It currently entangled in a grappling hook and 100' of rope. An orange laser pistol can be found in its belly.
1 Deep One.
Village of 278 Yellow Men ruled by “the Evil Queen,” a Chaotic 9-th Level Sorcerer.
A humanoid robot (AC 16, MV 90', HD 4, Chaotic) guards the remains of a crashed alien spaceship. He is armed with a sword and a laser pistol. His 3 large eyes rotate about his head. He can not be surprised and will react with hostility to all who approach.
A Blue Man Cyborg with a metal jaw and a robotic hook arm (AC 18, MV 90', HD 4, Chaotic) commands a group of 6-36 Blue Men bandits armed with bone weapons. The bandits demand the players hand over any metal items in their possession, which their leader will proceed to eat. The Cyborg earns +1 to hit for each piece of metal he consumes; this effect lasts one day. (When encountered he has a 0-3 bonus to hit.) His hunger for metal can not be satiated.
A hulking Blue Man (AC 15, MV 120', HD 6, Chaotic) with unusual red hair wields a cursed two handed sword. (This character wields the sword one handed, carrying a shield in the other.) Any character possessing the sword is compelled to eradicate all white men from the world; with each white man they kill their hair turns a darker shade of red. The sword is -1 to hit, but +3 to hit vs. White Men.
Monastery of 56 Brown Men ruled by “the Golden Hand,” a Chaotic 5-th Level Fighter.
Village of 156 Green Men ruled by "the Dragon," a 4th-level Sorcerer. The Sorcerer's research has left him disfigured: he has the scales and tail of a lizard, and is cold blooded.
Spawn of Shub-Niggurath (AC 18, MV 90' / 120' [swimming], HD 3, Neutral [intelligent]): an orange anthropoid with scaly skin, two yellow eyes, and a toothed mouth. One of its arms is an oversized claw. In its other hand it carries a green mace.
A large bird of prey stalks the players. After 1-3 hours it will turn and fly off into the distance. The bird does not attempt to hide its presence.
A disfigured two-headed mutant man lays face down in the ground. His body is half purple & half blue. Characters who investigate the body must make a Save vs. Death Ray each turn or suffer a random mutation.
A Purple Man hangs limp from a tree. He is pierced head to toe by spikes. Two tridents lay near his lifeless body.
12 Black Men led by a putrid smelling Sorcerer (AC 18, MV 120', HD 3, Chaotic) are in the middle of casting Manifestation of the Putrescent Stench. The Sorcerer is armed with a laser pistol and wears a bright orange alien space suit.
4 Snake Men attempt to repair a time machine. The Snake Men and their collection of high-tech gadgetry are incomprehensible to characters with an intelligence score less than 18.
A massive snake shaped citadel coils around the peaks of a craggy mountain. Within 22 Bone Man are led by a Chaotic 16th-level Sorcerer. He is planning the total conquest of Carcosa.
1507: On a lifeless island of black stone stands the alien city of Carcosa.
A silhouette of this city is featured on the cover of Carcosa. The city is only mentioned once in the book, in this description. It’s certainly an evocative sentence.
Carcosa concludes with a tour of its world via a hex map and descriptions of those hexes. As has been a running theme in my reviews of the book1, the details of each hex are quite terse. Geoffrey McKinney continues to say the bare minimum needed to convey anything at all about the world he has created. There is definitely something old-school in this sort of presentation.
Each hex description includes two possible things the PCs could come across. The first description is written by McKinney, and was the only description presented in the original booklet version of Carcosa. The second set of descriptions were created by fellow gamer and fan of the setting Chris Robert; he had previously published these descriptions as a free PDF, Strange Sights of the Doomed World Carcosa.
McKinney’s descriptions are very matter of fact. There is a village here; there is a disgusting monster there. Occasionally he will hint at something sinister or exciting, but it’s just a hint. Robert’s descriptions are somewhat similar in tone, but are a bit more varied in their execution. I can imagine coming up with my own set of encounters, using Robert’s take on things as a good example of how to proceed.
The hex descriptions of Carcosa can be split into three types of encounters: villages and citadels, spawns of Shub-Niggurath, and the “weird”. That last category is broad, clearly.
402: Here looms the great and extinct black volcanic Mount Voormith’adreth, honeycombed with weird and outré caverns, and beneath which bubbles and heaves Shub-Niggurath.
This is a pretty important place in Carcosa. It’s home of Shub-Niggurath, the creator of almost all the important species on the planet. Spawns of Shub-Niggurath are one of the most common creatures encountered on the planet. This little passage is all that McKinney dedicates to their creator’s home.
1610: Village of 370 Red Men ruled by “the Lover of Peace,” a lawful 5th-level Sorcerer.
This is your typical village description: here are some men and this is their leader. You can often get a sense of what the village will be like based on the leader’s alignment and title.
1609: Citadel of 83 Bone Men led by a chaotic 6th-level Fighter.
Some times descriptions are even more terse. Who knows what this village is like? The village is 6-12 miles from the citadel. Maybe there is a relationship there? Carcosa encourages thinking like this.
1513: Ulfire Mold.
The tersest hex description possible? The alternate encounter for this hex, by Robert’s, is a bit more meaty.
1513: The undying and practically invisible brain of a chaotic Bone Man Sorcerer lies shallowly buried in the reeking fens of this hex. It is eager to find new flesh, though discriminating enough to consider only a fellow Bone Man as an acceptable vessel. Any Bone Man coming with 100′ of the brain must make a saving throw vs. magic. Failure indicates that he is compelled to unearth the brain, tear his own brain from his head, and replace it with the Sorcerer’s brain. If this occurs, the Sorcerer will take the first opportunity to escape to his secret lair in hex 0715, there to resume his experiments into the forbidden.
There are lots of interesting little encounters to be had throughout Carcosa. Even if you weren’t interested in running a game in the settings there is definitely stuff one could steal here.
The book concludes with a short adventure and random tables to aid a DM in running a hex crawl on the planet. The adventure is presented as a keyed dungeon and a mini hex-crawl. Besides wandering monster tables, we also get a table for creating alien technology, one for making spawns of Shub-Niggurath, and one for making random robots.
If it’s not clear by now, I really liked Carcosa. The book is physically fantastic. It’s definitely worth buying for Rich Longmore’s art alone. His illustrations of the setting are incredible. The pictures i’ve used in my reviews are a small sampling of the stuff in the book. The fact the material itself is also quite good was a nice bonus. I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. I had no real interest in hex-crawl adventures, Lovecraft, weird sci-fi in my fantasy, or half the things that Carcosa is all about. McKinney has done a great job in sharing the things that he likes about D&D. You should buy this book already.
As I have mentioned in previousposts about Carcosa, Geoffrey McKinney seems to be working quite hard to say as little as possible about the nature of his “official” game world. There is very little exposition about Carcosa’s history, people, culture, etc. Each section of the book reveals a little bit of Carcosa’s story. The books bestiary reveals the most about the setting, hinting at the nature of the world and some of its history.
The vast majority of the monsters discussed in the bestiary are unique. They are crazy grotesque beasts one might find in a H.P. Lovecraft story.1 The gods of Carcosa are for the most part absolutely terrifying. These creatures have stat blocks and descriptions, like your typical kobold or goblin, so they are ready for your players to battle to the death. I mean, why give a monster hit dice if its not meant to be killed?
A few these monsters reside in particular places (hexes) in Carcosa. In the PDF version of the book, this is mentioned in their description.2 In the hardback you only learn of their home on the planet when reading through the hex descriptions later in the book.
Here looms the great and extinct black volcanic Mount Voormith’adreth, honeycombed with weird and outré caverns, and beneath which bubbles and heaves Shub-Niggurath. – The description of Hex 0402, Carcosa
Of all the old ones that reside on Carcosa, Shub-Niggurath appears to be the most important. Two of the races mentioned in the first section of the book, The Great Race and the Primordial Ones, are spawns of Shub-Niggurath. In addition, 4 other races mentioned in the bestiary are his children, so to speak. The most typical monster found on Carcosa is a Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, which can appear as almost anything. (A disgusting mutant tree? Why not. A horrible giant fish? Of course.) There is an appendix at the back of the book that contains random tables to help the DM with generating these spawns. This one monster description provides a lot of clues into the cosmology of Carcosa.
The remaining monsters of Carcosa provide further insight into what’s happening on the planet. One of the few non-unique monsters are dinosaurs. Of course, this being Carcosa they are expected to be of a crazy mutant variety. Similarly one finds giant jungle ants wandering from hex to hex. Lakes in Carcosa are likely home to to giant lake monsters. These sorts of beasts paired with the descriptions of the 13 races of men hints at a King Kong style world.
As mentioned at the start of the book, there are space aliens. From their description we learn that they originally crash landed on Carcosa a millennia ago, but since then they have established bases and come and go as they please. It’s their presence and their technology that makes the world a little bit less King Kong and perhaps a bit more Flash Gordon.
There are all sorts of slimes, puddings, and oozes similar to those encountered in your typical game of D&D, but with a Carcosa twist. Many of the unique monsters discussed in the bestiary are also some variation of disgusting ooze-like thing with tentacles. If it’s not a giant-mutant-monster it’s probably a creepy slime.
The illustrations by Rich Longmore really bring this portion of the book to life.
The bestiary ends with a brief description (without stats) of the long extinct snake-men. Here we learn some more of the history of Carcosa.
For tens of millions of years the civilizations of the Snake- Men were mighty upon the planet of Carcosa. They delved deeply into the arcane mysteries and laid the foundations of the systematic practice of sorcery. From shambling man- apes the Snake-Men bred the various races of humans to be sacrifices efficacious for their sorcery. At the height of their powers, the Snake-Men destroyed themselves by releasing ultratelluric forces impossible to control.
What else is there to say?
Finally we get to the hex descriptions, which is what it’s all about.
As I had mentioned when discussing the sorcerer rituals, each set of rituals deals with one of these unique monsters. The two sections work together to provider a fuller description and background of the monster in question. ↩
The level of cross-referencing in the PDF is one big advantage it has over the physical book. Figuring out how everything fits together is much easier when browsing the PDF. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
I have since learned on Google+ that this style of presentation was used with Judges Guild Wilderlands modules. ↩