The Alexandrian

Review: Carcosa

January 25th, 2012

Carcosa - Geoffrey McKinneyPart of my general dissatisfaction with Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa is certainly due to a difference of opinion when it comes to methodology.

First, whether we’re talking hex keys or dungeon keys, I’m extremely skeptical of key entries that consist of nothing more than a list of monsters. This is particularly true of published products, and yet a depressingly huge number of Carcosa’s key entries consist entirely of things like “17 Diseased Guardians”, “13 giant lizards”, and “5 Mummies”.

It’s bland and it’s boring. It’s also virtually useless.

Unfortunately, this generally remains true of Carcosa‘s key even when more details are proffered. For example, massive chunks of the book consist of, “[Settlement type] of # [type of human] ruled by [insert title], a [alignment] [level] [class].” (For example: “Village of 400 Green Men ruled by ‘the Peerless Will,’ a neutral 8th-level Fighter.”) And even more are dedicated to describing the particular physical characteristics of various Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, all of which were generated using the charts found at the back of the book with no additional creative thought applied whatsoever.

And that, ultimately, is probably the biggest indictment against Carcosa’s hex key: Virtually all of it could have been more usefully rendered as a half dozen random tables.

Second, even when the hex key shows greater creativity, it usually takes the form of material which is non-actionable during an actual game session. For example, hex 2004 is keyed:

A Brown Man, dressed in immaculate white robes fringed with golden embroidery, rests quietly by the side of the path. He acknowledges with a barely perceptible nod. It would be wise to return this show of respect with a dignified bow or curtsy.

… or what? He’ll attack? He’ll shed his skin and reveal himself to be a Spawn of Shub-Niggurath? He’ll curse them? He’ll turn out to be a demi-god? He’ll betray them to their worst enemies?

The argument can, of course, be made that the purpose of the key is merely to serve as a creative seed for the GM. But, if so, why is McKinney so delightfully enamored with the words “cannot” and “never”? Let’s proffer hex 2105 as an example:

Drums, the clash of war cymbals, and the deep clangor of a mighty gong can be heard coming from the desert. The sounds taper and crescendo with the bluster of the wind, but their source can never be found.

Even if this wasn’t the umpteenth time I’d read some variation of “there are mysterious sounds and you can never figure out what they are“, you can’t try to defend half the hex entries by saying “just ideas to develop” while the other half of your hexes are trying to stifle the development of those ideas.

I recognize that many of these elements are historic qualities of classic hex-based supplements like the Wilderlands. But Carcosa is a particularly bland and repetitive instantiation of the form, and I also think 1976 was a long time ago. Similarly, while I may find Palace of the Vampire Queen a fascinating historical oddity and revolutionary for its time, anybody trying to sell me a dungeon designed like that today is not going to win my applause.

TO THE GOOD

One point of particular interest in Carcosa are the sorcerous rituals. These have received a good deal of attention because many of them require specific vile acts in order to perform them (murder, rape, and so forth), but that’s largely a tempest in a teapot. (Although the critics would lead you to believe that they’re graphic snuff pornography, the reality is that the vile acts — while specific — are not detailed or described in any sort of lurid detail. If rape or violence against children are trigger words for you, you should probably avoid this book. Otherwise, you’ll find more graphic stuff in a Clive Barker, Jacqueline Carey, or Stephen King novel.) What I actually find interesting about the sorcerous rituals is that they provide an innovative method for motivating and directing the exploration of the hex map.

For example, the Approach of the Farthest Rim, “can be performed only in the lost fane in hex 2401″. Whether the PCs are trying to stop a sorcerer performing this ritual or playing villains attempting to complete the ritual for themselves, this kind of specificity will drive them out into the wilderness of Carcosa: They have to find that fane. In fact, even if the ritual is not being performed (by the bad guys or the PCs), learning the details of the ritual inherently provides a hook: What else might be inside the fane?

That’s a clever structure for delivering scenario hooks and I’ll almost certainly be lifting it in the future.

In a similar vein of derived utility, the random charts for Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, Space Alien Armament, Random Robots, and Mutations are all fairly well done.

All of this, unfortunately, is fairly brief in character and scarcely justifies the purchase price for Carcosa. Which regrettably brings us…

TO THE FURTHER BAD

Overwhelmingly, my disappointment with Carcosa stems from the lack of anything truly weird or creative in the setting. The book bills itself as a “Weird Science-Fantasy Horror Setting” and I was expecting a creative burst of the unique, the bizarre, and the alien. What I got instead was “9 Tyrannosaurus Rexes”. (And, no, occasionally adding the words “mutant”, “radioactive”, or “fungoid growth” to the tyrannosaur doesn’t actually make it notably more interesting.)

Adding to the supplement’s weakness is the extremely questionable quality of McKinney’s house rules. Basically, the book starts by detailing a lengthy system in which you use a d20 roll to randomly determine what type of dice you roll before rolling them (d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12). If you squint hard enough, you can almost have this make sense for Hit Dice (which McKinney has you re-roll at the beginning of every combat), but when he goes on to do the same thing with weapon damage (so that every time you make an attack you roll one of every die type and then use the d20 to determine which of the other dice count) all you can do is start backing away slowly.

Unfortunately, you won’t be quick enough to avoid the next page where he lays out the statistical analysis which demonstrates that, on average, all of this extra complexity and dice rolling has virtually no effect whatsoever.

And then there’s a whole related mechanic where you have to keep track of multiple hit point totals for each character… But I digress.

Finally, although other options are proffered, the supplement largely bills itself as a place to run full campaigns. (The book even includes an introductory adventure.) But there’s no place on Carcosa that’s accessible to new characters. Virtually every keyed encounter in the book is aimed at mid-to-high level play. (And most of those seem to be heavily inspired by the Tomb of Horrors “save or die… actually, screw it, just skip the save: you’re dead” school of design.)

For example, the starter adventure is set in hex 2005. Despite being specifically and explicitly aimed at 1st level characters, this module includes random encounters with 10 HD monsters. (And the hexes immediately surrounding hex 2005 are no better: Hex 2004, for example, contains five aggressive 10 HD monsters. If you follow the standard hexcrawling practice of automatically triggering the keyed encounter when the group enters a hex, anybody who strays too far north during the intro adventure is going to get TPK’ed.)

IN SUMMARY

There’s really no question that Carcosa is a truly gorgeous volume. Lamentations of the Flame Princess have lavished the volume with fantastic illustrations by Rich Longmore; the paper is thick and luxurious; the binding is superb; the layout and cross-referencing are superb. (The PDF is somewhat flawed by the decision to de-synch the page numbers and make it unreadable on e-readers and tablets, but this is somewhat compensated by the encyclopedic cross-linking.) It even comes with a cloth map, which — as an old fanatic of the Ultima computer games — is a decision I absolutely adore.

But, ultimately, all of this glitzy extravagance surrounds a hollow core. Most of the book is nothing more than rote mediocrity, large chunks of the rest are unusable in any form, and, when all is said and done, you will come away with nothing more than a dozen or so decent ideas that might be useful if you polish them up a bit. That’s a good showing for a blog post, but for a $40+ supplement? It’s a disappointment.

Style: 5
Substance: 2

17 Responses to “Review: Carcosa”

  1. Dustin says:

    I mostly agree with your assessment of the new Carcosa, but would add to the second to last sentence:
    “That’s a good showing for a blog post or a charming homemade digest selling for $10 (or whatever the original Carcosa sold for), but…”

    One point where I disagree is where you talk about 10 HD monsters being encountered by 1st level characters. I like having some “unbeatable” monsters poised to wreak havoc on weak characters. Of course, the DM should give PCs opportunity to detect and avoid confrontation with these baddies. Or, better yet, it may force the players to devise a plan for evading or bringing down these epic monsters.

  2. migellito says:

    Well.. I hate to say it, but that’s pretty much what I thought the first time I read through Carcosa a few months ago. The text is (as far as I know) completely unchanged from the original paperback release. I could see this really neat world hiding under the surface, there’s no denying that. The thing is, if I’m using a pre-made setting instead of something I made myself, why would I want it to hide at all? It’s like a bare outline for a setting. Another thing I have a problem with (and this goes for Isle of the Unknown as well, unfortunately) is the perfectly uniform density. Exactly one interesting thing per hex. No more, no less. Well, hey, I can put whatever else I want in there or leave out some… yeah, true… but the part that’s done is just the basic framework. Why would I want to pay someone to roll on the random table at the back of the book and fill in the key with that for me?

    Now, in spite of all this, I do really like the feel of his stuff. I just wish he’d finish it. Either that or just charge me a couple bucks for a few pages of tables.

  3. Doodpants says:

    Pardon my ignorance due to lack of experience with suppliments of this type, but I had a bit of trouble following what this post was actually about, because I thought a “hex key” was a tool used to assemble furniture. :-)

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    @Dustin: Oh, I quite agree that having the occasional encounter with creatures that are “out of their league” is quite healthy for the players (for all sorts of reasons; including the fact that they’ll occasionally figure out a way to slaughter the poor thing and feel legitimately awesome about themselves).

    But there’s no area of Carcosa where 1st level adventurers can successfully adventure while occasionally encountering some tough opposition. At best, as in the intro adventure, it’s opposition that’s too tough 50% of the time or more.

    @Migellito: I believe he’s actually doubled the number of keyed entries in the new release (there are two entries per hex instead of one). I never got a copy of the original, so I don’t know how many of the “new” entries are actually just more “12 Tyrannosaur” stuff.

    @Doodpants: Are you familiar with hex maps? Here’s a random example.

    Just like you key a dungeon by numbering the rooms and then writing an encounter for each numbered area (producing the dungeon key), you produce a hex key by numbering the hexes on the map and then writing a keyed encounter for each hex.

  5. CrusssDaddy says:

    I wrote most of the additional 400 hex descriptions for the LotFP version: for each hex, the first description is from the original edition and the second description is new. The Brown dude in hex 2004 is actually Pai Mei from Kill Bill, so the “or what” is probably pluck your eye out and then laugh at you. The clamor of drums that cannot be found is also mine, so don’t blame Geoffrey for that — having things that are immune (despite appearances to the contrary) to PC interaction lends itself to weirdness in my mind, but I understand if your reaction is different.

    Is the standard hex-crawling procedure for 10 mile hexes to automatically trigger encounters when entered? I thought for big hexes like that, it was much more likely that the DM would only assign a certain chance that PCs stumble upon a given feature, or maybe must be guided there/hear a rumor to automatically trigger them. For the ‘Fungoid Gardens’ adventure, where the hexes are Judges Guild scale 704 yards, I think automatic triggering makes more sense, but 10 mile hexes are huge… you could miss a large town in a hex that large.

  6. richard says:

    Thanks for writing this. I’m halfway through a thorough read and although I’m feeling odd twinges of the excitement I’ve heard from others, I’m failing to discern the brilliantly evocative etc etc. Jeff Rients’ character creator tells you more about your Carcosan PC than this whole book does. So there are 13 races of men. But all we know about them is their colour and the fact they don’t mix with others (so the party will probably all be one colour anyway). I’ve been playing a Carcosan character this week in G+ games and it’s fun but it really brings home how thin the setting is. Characters from other campaigns can go to confession, they have countries they know and important histories, they know something about their gods and demons and magic and institutions. For my Carcosa PC I have none of that. If I don’t make it up then she’s just an odd-looking fighter, and no ODnD character should be “just” a fighter.

  7. noisms says:

    Thanks for this – it’s definitely the most informative review I’ve read of Carcosa.

  8. Ken Rutsky says:

    Based on the dice roll system and the weird “playtest report” on Dragonsfoot that went into great detail about a couple dice rolls in game, I don’t believe the author ever really ran a game in Carcosa before it was published. Your pointing out the lack of adventure opportunities for low-level characters strengthens that suspicion.

  9. HDA says:

    Justin, this is the first review of Carcosa I’ve seen that does not:

    a) give out blowjobs like candy, or

    b) scream “won’t someone think of the children??”

    anyway, thanks for this informative review. I like reading your blog because you give us clear explanations and analysis of WTF is going on.

  10. SB says:

    I thought the original “Supplement V: Carcosa” booklet was really interesting. It took the old OD&D template and aesthetic and went in a very different direction, a campaign full of hopelessness and dread. The tone tended to match up nicely with much of the Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith literary works. It was a very specific product that appealed to a very specific audience: DIY OD&D fans who enjoy odd science fantasy. And it was rightfully successful in those quarters.

    I haven’t seen the LotFP version of the book. My guess is that now it has been removed from much of the context which made the original so charming. I’m sure that LotFP did an excellent job with the art and design, but with a product like Carcosa, the original “Little Brown Book” style digest paperback with no art was probably the perfect presentation. I think something like a $5 pdf, $8 digest of the original would have maintained the right amount of lo-fi DIY weird brilliance.

    It reminds me of an underground rock band that gets a record contract with promotion and gloss and everything goes…wrong.

    The dice conventions may have been weird and unplaytested, but I think that there were a number of new rules in the Supplements that are guilty of that. I thought they were interesting, but not for me. Like most of Blackmoor.

    “For my Carcosa PC I have none of that. If I don’t make it up then she’s just an odd-looking fighter, and no ODnD character should be “just” a fighter.”

    How would the rules dictate how she is not “just a fighter”? She will be just a fighter only if you play her as such. This is OD&D. The burden falls upon you.

  11. Akiyama says:

    I have the pdfs of both the original and the new Carcosa, and I much prefer the original. The original has 94 pages and the new version 275 pages (booklet sized, in both cases), but as far as I’m concerned, the new version will be no more useful than the old version.

    The extras you get in the new version are:

    Nice artwork
    Stats for some common D&D monsters like Green Slime
    Double the number of hex descriptions. The additional hex descriptions were originally published as a free pdf “Strange Sights of the Doomed World Carcosa” by Chris Robert
    The adventure “Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer”, which was originally published in Fight On! issue 4
    Encounter tables

    What you don’t get:
    A description of the city of Carcosa
    An adventure suitable for first-level characters
    Advice on running a campaign set in Carcosa
    Anything genuinely new, other than the artwork

    I can’t see myself running a campaign in Carcosa, but I think there’s some useful and inspirational stuff there – the monsters, the rituals, and the random tables. Somehow it seems more useful when presented in under 100 pages!

    There is a published adventure for Carcosa, called Obregon’s Dishonor. It’s for 6-8 characters of levels 4-6. There is also a free supplement to the original called the Carcosan Grimoire which is a real grab-bag of random stuff by lots of different people. Carcosa: Supplement V + The Carcosan Grimoire works for me – there’s an “Arduinesque” 1970s OD&D vibe about Carcosa and I like that – but the new Carcosa is disappointing because there’s nearly three times as many pages, and I wish they’d taken the opportunity to expand the setting in a meaningful way.

  12. Akiyama says:

    I think what I’d really like to see for Carcosa, is John Stater (Nod) and Patrick Wetmore (Anomalous Subsurface Environment) collaborating on a decent-sized sandbox-style introductory adventure for the setting, with maps by Dyson Logos and illustrations by Stefan Poag . . .

  13. Head of Vecna says:

    I find it odd that the author of Curious Items has a problem with Mysterious Sounds: “…if nothing else, they will serve as a reminder to character and player alike that the worlds in which we game are places of pervasive magic, ancient history, and limitless wonder…” This seems to be exactly what CrusssDaddy was trying to accomplish.

    You also use “never” a number of times and seem enamored with the phrase “may never be solved” which appears 2 times in a list of 101 items. I haven’t done the math, but is there a statistically significant difference in the percentage of hexes in Carcosa whose description includes “never” or “cannot” and your use?

    The true nature of many items described in 101 Curious Items is impossible to determine without further fleshing out by the GM, the rest merely “provide the seed of untold adventure.” If a GM can’t look past a description, the concept of “seeds” is useless anyway.

  14. Justin Alexander says:

    I find it odd that you paid $40 for “101 Curious Items”. Who the heck charged you that much for it? ;)

  15. Head of Vecna says:

    I didn’t pay $40 for 101 Curious Items, nor did I pay $40 for Carcosa. I didn’t buy Carcosa because of reviews I’ve read and valued (including yours) which do not make me wish to buy it.

    If I had paid for Carcosa, I’d have known how the answer to my question. This question wasn’t rhetorical and your glib response doesn’t answer it. Whether or not I paid for 101 Curious Items or Carcosa does not invalidate what I see as a dissonance between what you say and do. :winking strawman emoticon:

  16. Justin Alexander says:

    Quick update: The PDF file has been updated so that it’s presented in single pages and has the page numbers properly synchronized.

  17. trixbat says:

    Carcosa – excellent physical presentation, but the game is TOO much an old school game. It throws away its potential horrific sorcery atmosphere with a silly mish-mash of tropes like grey aliens, space men and so on.

    It’s like the B-movie monster-mash version of the sources it tries to emulate and live up to. It is good for a silly, not-very serious alternative to old school D&D with a dash of Gamma World, but its efforts to create an atmosphere of dark fantasy or horror in the classic tradition (Dreamlands, Dying Earth, Clark Ashton Smith etc.) is spoiled by a slap-dash approach to the setting itself and a tin ear for setting design.

    It DOES strongly convey a 1978-era Old School wackiness – not weirdness, but wackiness – reminiscent of All the Worlds Monsters, Arduin Grimoire, and so on – kind of the same thing you’d get if you decided to “spice up” your OD&D game with some dark magic occult rituals from Empire of the Petal Throne supplements. This is an authentic Old School approach, but I think it is a does a disservice to the potential of the setting, and also poisons the water for similar works that might have a greater degree of coherency and atmosphere. It does look pretty and have great PDF design.

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