Carcosa

By on 10 December 2012
Carcosa

Carcosa is a weird science-fantasy and horror setting for the original fantasy role-playing game, written in the main by Geoffrey McKinney, and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Carcosa is not a traditional D&D setting, evidenced by the fact that it puts a whole bunch of D&D’s sacred cows to the las-sword.

  • There are no demihuman races likes elves or dwarves.
  • There are only 2 character classes, the Fighter and the Sorcerer.
  • The laundry lists of spells like Magic Missile and Cure Light Wounds are all gone.
  • There is no bestiary of well-known monsters.
  • There is no shopping list of magical items.
  • Humanity is at the bottom of the food chain, pretty much.

The setting still cleaves true to the essence of Old School D&D play, so exploration and party-based player-versus-environment challenge-oriented gaming is still the focus of play.

Carcosa replaces the void created by the slaughtering of those D&D tropes with lashings of zarjaz weird science-fantasy horror. Many of McKinney’s influences are obvious: the Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird stories is readily apparent in the Great Old Ones that roam the planet surface; the scattered tribes of Coloured Men scraping a meagre existence recalls the planet-and-sword vibe of Burrough’s Barsoom; the fabulous vistas of Jack Kirby’s New Gods and Mighty Thor tales are evident in the descriptions of the Space Alien cities; I’m even seeing a little of the punk aesthetic of 2000AD’s Judge Dredd, most especially those of the progs set in the Cursed Earth.

Carcosa

Renaissance Faire-style Forgotten Realms this ain’t.

The system bits target the publisher’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess role-playing game; your battered D&D Red Box and retroclones like Swords & Wizardry and Crypts & Things will work just fine too. (The ascending Armour Class used throughout is likely the biggest change you’ll have to make.)

It’s A Setting

I’m too darn old to be bothered reading someone else’s setting, remembering the names of this city-state and that kingdom. Less is most definitely more.

Happily, in just a handful of digest-sized pages, McKinney tells us all we need to know about bleak and brutal Carcosa, a planet 153 light years away from Earth, orbiting a star in the Hyades Cluster.

Long ago there were some Serpent Men. They bred thirteen races of Men with outré skin colours to use as components in sorcerous rituals meant to summon and bind protoplasmic Mythos entities from beyond time and space. Fast forward a few thousand years and the Serpent Men are long gone. Their creations, the wonderfully coloured Men, now scrape a meagre existence, preyed on by the Old Gods that crawl across Carcosa and enslaved by ambitious Sorcerers who wield the incredible technology of the Space Aliens who conduct unfathomable experiments from low orbit.

And that is all she wrote… and that’s a good thing. The planet of Carcosa is bleak as all heck and filled with evocative zarjaz that I can build on and make my own. Game on sisters, game on!

What Do You Do On Carcosa?

Carcosa remains a setting for Old School fantasy role-playing games like Moldvay D&D, so you’re gonna do the same kinda things that you usually do in games of that ilk.

Instead of assembling a party of dour dwarves to delve deep into a decrepit dungeon in search of plundered gold, your party of Blue Fighting Men is going to broach an ancient alien spacecraft buried deep in jade craters in search of Ruby Ray Death Lances.

Instead of those dwarves being ambushed by long-nosed trolls and fireball-flinging lichs, your Blue Fighting Men are going to duke it out with protoplasmic horrors from beyond the stars and cruel Sorcerers firing railguns from the backs of Dolm Worms!

Zarjaz!

Carcosa bundles a sample adventure, The Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer. This is golden because it gives us insight into what McKinney considers a representative experience. McKinney takes the entry for Hex 2005—“In a rocky defile is a wide crack in the earth, out of which a cool, steady breeze blows.”—and develops it into a village and dungeon, complete with keyed encounter areas, treasure, and monsters. There are plenty of monsters to hack and slash, wicked cool Space Alien technology to loot, and soul-blasting secrets to cozen from the titular Bone Sorcerer.

The Hexes

A third of the book is devoted to a hex key detailing a ~35,000 square mile portion of the planet surface. Each hex merits two terse entries detailing something of note in that hex, such as a settlement, a person or creature, an artifact of the space aliens, or other zarjaz science-fantasy stuff like that.

Carcosa Spread

Here’s the pithy hex entry for the city of Carcosa:

1507: On a lifeless island of black stone stands the alien city of Carcosa.

The weird science-fantasy colour in many of the entries is lightly brushed on, the intent being to spur your imagination rather than be an exhaustive detailing of Carcosa. The approach minds me of the punchy Oracles from In A Wicked Age, one in which you’re encouraged to make things your own.

If you’re game to take a seed of inspiration and improvise with it, then Carcosa might be your bag. If you’re looking for a setting that’s fleshed out in detail, Carcosa ain’t it.

0715: In a small cave stands an altar to Hastur. In front of the altar is a Red Man punished for daring to blaspheme He Who Must Not Be Named. The Red Man is completely petrified save for his eyes and his brain. His mouth is frozen in a scream. After centuries in this state, he is quite insane.

Mandinga, that there’s colder than a cripple’s nipple on Pickle Night.

Disappointingly, a whack of the entries are of the form “A {settlement} of {X} {Colour} Men ruled by {Descriptive Name}, a {Y} Level {Alignment} {Class}.” These entries are thin gruel; while you can tease situation out of them, it’s unappealing work. These entries would have been better replaced with a few random tables.

Adults Only?

The belly band wrapped around the Carcosa hardcover warns that the content is “For Adults Only.” It’s not kidding.

Plenty of the rituals for summoning Mythos entities require human sacrifice and worse. The text is explicit in detailing the procedures required for the evocatively named rituals, some of which feature rape and torture as preludes to sacrifice; the ritual of The Accursed Sounding of the Void involves “complex and intricate” tortures with instruments of “black opal”, casually noting that “the sacrifices need not be killed, and can be reused.” Nasty.

Thankfully there’s no requirement to dwell on such material in our games. The explicitness is enough to cast Chaotic Sorcerers in the role of unambiguous baddies, and there’s satisfaction to be gained from searing the face off a Chaotic Sorcerer with a ruby ray death pistol.

It’s A Toolbox

Much of the other content of Carcosa is supporting material. You can cherry pick the material and rules as you like, import bits and bobs into other systems, and customise the setting by scribbling in the generous margins. Game on!

  • A table of random mutations.
  • A simple, and pleasingly random, psionics system.
  • Tables for randomly generating Space Alien Robots.
  • Tables for randomly generating spawn of Shub-Niggurath.
  • A smattering of extant Space Alien technology, such as ray guns and force-fields.
  • Thirty gruesome sorcerous rituals for summoning, banishing, and torturing Mythos entities.
  • Sample descriptions of Great Race and Elder Thing technology, all given a suitably Carcosan twist.
  • Variant, and optional, approaches to Hit Dice and damage to better emphasize the risky nature of Carcosan existence.

Space Alien Battle

Presentation

Carcosa comes in two formats, a 288-page, A5-sized hardcover and a PDF. Both feature a useful table of contents and index.

The hardcover is a beautiful book. The cover is a tastefully restrained affair featuring a stamped silhouette of the city of Carcosa on subdued brown background. The cover material has a pleasant wee “give” to it when you squeeze it. The heavy paper sports a pale and sickly blue-green background, easy on the eye and nice to the touch. Raggi really raises the bar for “hobbyist” production values with this hardcover.

The PDF is a corking example of the form, top marks to Eero Tuovinen. Hyperlinks are abundant, making the PDF easy to navigate. The PDF is also thoughtfully layered: it’s trivial to turn off the page background and illustrations before printing to save on printer ink. I’d diggetydigdig to see more publishers taking the approach that Carcosa has with its digital offering.

Rich Longmore’s scratchy black-and-white illustrations contribute nicely to the bleak and brutalist theme of the setting. Some of the illustrations are wonderfully busy in a manner reminiscent of Russ Nicholson’s style, and there are shades of Simone Bianchi too in places: the battle scene on page 250 where humans unleash the power of space alien ray guns is spot on.

Where Can I Get It?

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You can buy this product from DriveThruRPG/RPGNow.

About Pete Douglas

Pete Douglas is a colonial with a great line in belted coats. Indie Pete is the name he scribbles on sign-up sheets at UK conventions, where the lad runs RPGs ranging from the hippie and sexy—Love in the Time of Seid—to the homespun and heartwarming—Mouse Guard. Late 30s, 5'10", sober, LF a dish for STR, plate spinning, and mutual basket appreciation.

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