Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: Carcosa (PDF Edition)

Can't you feel the pure EVIL emanating from the cover art?
The wait is over fellow slasher-flick self-abusers! Jim Raggi at Lamentations of the Flame Princess has just released the new-and-improved Second Expanded Edition of Geoffrey McKinney's immortal (and infamous) Carcosa! This time, there is no censored "Expurgated" version for the faint of heart. Now we are made to stare into the bottomless abyss of Lovecraftian horror and witness all the blood, guts, gore, ritualistic rape, human sacrifice, and tentacles (Oh! So many tentacles!) that goes with it.

This should be fun!

I heard about Carcosa as I was just getting into the OSR phenomenon and just as the "controversy" surrounding the First Edition was dying out. In full accordance of the Streisand Effect, I purchased a .PDF copy directly from Geoffrey McKinney. At the time, I wasn't sure what I was getting into, but I soon discovered that I was greatly impressed by that little document. It showed me that it didn't take much work to replace the bland, boring, "traditional" RPG fantasy setting and replace it with something weird and wonderful. I desperately want to purchase the hardcover version of this book. However, with shipping costs figured in, it's just a little out of my price range at this time. (I'm only a poor, underpaid, corporate grunt.) Therefore, I'm reviewing the .PDF edition available from LotFP as well as from

For the uninitiated, Carcosa was originally a fictional city created by Ambrose Bierce, later expanded upon by Robert Chambers, and eventually incorporated into H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. In McKinney's version, Carcosa is a planet located somewhere in the Hyades star cluster. The setting is an amalgam of Lovecraft, Howard, and Burroughs, as primitive--and multi-colored--humanoids struggle to live, thrive, and survive on a hostile world surrounded by dark sorcery, powerful alien technology, and creatures from beyond the veil of space and time. McKinney does not bog down the reader with reams and reams of flavor text, giving the GM just enough background story to get started and make Carcosa their own.

The first portion of the book is dedicated to setting-specific rules. This new edition of the rules are designed to work with Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, but with a little tweaking, can be used with any version of the Gygax/Arneson fantasy game, either original or retro-clone. Humans are the only race available. However, they come in a myriad of skin colors from candy-apple red to transparent with only the bones showing beneath! The only two classes available to the player character are the traditional Fighter and a new class: The Sorcerer. Sorcerers operate just like a Fighter, but has the capability of casting blasphemous rituals (more on those later). Along with new magic system, any character also has the potential of possessing psychic powers depending on their INT, WIS, and CHA scores.

One of the more unique rules in Carcosa is how character hit points are determined. Under these rules, hit points are not generated on creation and the hit dice used are not "fixed" per class. Instead, at the start of combat, all characters and monsters not only roll to find out what their hit points will be that round, but they all must determine what type of hit dice they'll be using. Therefore, in one combat it's possible for a player to need to roll d12s to determine hit dice in one encounter, but blow their roll and have to roll d4s the next. These rules throw a bit of randomness into the game where the party has to wonder if it's really worth fighting that swarm of monsters or band of tribesmen or try a more diplomatic approach.

Now we get to the part of the book that caused all the ruckus the first time around: Sorcerous Rituals. Forget the usual Vancian magic you find in most fantasy games, the rituals found in Carcosa are designed to conjure, torment, bind, imprison, or banish the various monstrous deities found in the setting. Many of them require components that are found at various locations, but all of the rituals, except for spells of Banishment, require human sacrifices that usually must be tortured and/or sexually violated in hideous ways.

Now, if you find the rituals horrific and very unsettling, GOOD! (Also, congratulations! You're not a sociopath!) They're supposed to be. In the tales of Howard and Lovecraft, magic was the pursuit of the mad and depraved. It was something that the protagonists did not use lightly, if at all, and you could be sure that it very often had some nasty side effects. These ceremonies are usually meant to be witnessed by the party before they swoop down to dispatch the insane NPC summoner-of-all-things-chaotic and save the swooning damsel/s. "Good" sorcerer's might try to stick the the Banishment rituals; however, a clever GM could easily create a "lesser of two evil's"where the party must decided whether the lives of a few humans are worth the destruction of everything.

Along with some original monstrosities, the bestiary is full of various creatures that will appear familiar to any Lovecraft aficionado: Deep Ones, Mi Go, Shoggoths, Yithians, Nyarlathotep, etc.. However, McKinney has his own unique interpretations on these terrors, so Mythos fans should not expect anything that's purely "canonical."

The digital edition of Carcosa is perhaps THE most impressive example of PDF technology I have ever seen: Locations on the map are linked to individual hex descriptions, ritual are linked to the various monsters they affect and vice versa, there are links to monsters and rituals in the text of the included adventure. It makes the document incredibly easy to navigate and reference.

The Addendum section includes tables for creating alien weaponry, generating new monsters, disgusting mutations that can afflict your PCs, and others madness. Also, McKinney included his introductory dungeon crawl campaign Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer. Since I always try to avoid reading any scenario or campaigns until I've decided whether I'm going to run them or play in them, I won't review that portion at this time.

Carcosa is a dark, morally ambivalent, and unsettling universe, full of wonders and terrors, that is not for immature or the closed-minded. I would not recommended it for new gamers who are just getting into the hobby, and I would certainly not recommend it for kids (unless they're that rare kind who is wise beyond their years). In other words, it's the perfect setting for adults who have grown tired of the bowdlerization of the hobby since the Satanic Panic and who hanker for an campaign that doesn't treat them like a child.

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