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.
I have been using ascending AC for my OD&D Carcosa game. Players roll a d20 to hit, add their attack bonus, and try and score higher than their opponent’s AC. An unarmoured combatant has an ascending AC of 10; plate armour and a shield confers an AC of 17. It’s a much simpler system for adjudicating combat in my opinion. People know if they have hit or not without having to look at a table, and the arithmetic is all quite straight forward.
What follows are the tables from the first OD&D book MEN & MAGIC redone so they work with ascending AC. (I am certain I am not the first person to do this, but there wasn’t an obvious hit when I looked on Google.)
The attack bonus progression for the Fighters is:
And for Magic-Users:
Monsters use the following table.
up to 1
up to 2
up to 3
up to 4
up to 6
up to 8
up to 10
The tables are simple enough to make. In a descending AC system a first level characters needs to roll a 10 to hit AC 9 (an unarmoured person), which we determine by looking at the attack table in MEN & MAGIC. To hit that same character who has an ascending AC of 10 by rolling a 10 (or more) implies a 1st level character has no attack bonus. A 4th level fighter only needs an 8 to hit that same character, so their attack bonus is +2.
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.