Review of Supplement V: Carcosa
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  1. #1

    Review of Supplement V: Carcosa

    FULL DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of Carcosa in exchange for writing this review. I am a huge fan of old school D&D, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and the sword and sorcery genre. I am the target market for Carcosa and predisposed toward a setting that combines my favorites.

    Strange is the night where black stars rise,
    And strange moons circle through the skies,
    But stranger still is Lost Carcosa- Robert W. Chambers

    SUPPLEMENT V: CARCOSA
    Back in the disco 70s, Gary Gygax and his TSR crew published four supplements for the original Dungeons and Dragons game. Thirty something years later in 2008, author Geoffrey McKinney publishes the unofficial fifth supplement entitled Carcosa. Like Greyhawk and Blackmoor, this supplement presents alternate rules and a fresh new setting for your D&D adventures. Thanks to RPGNow, new players can discover the original D&D books on PDF without paying a king’s ransom and even better, there are free “retro-clones” like Swords & Wizardry, Microlite74, Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy available online that are 99% compatible with Carcosa. Fans of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, AD&D, and Castles & Crusades will have an easy time converting the new rules.

    Obviously, naming the book “Supplement V” invokes nostalgia. The booklet is 96 pages, measures 8.5 x 5.5 with a beige cardstock cover so Carcosa nicely matches the other OD&D books. The cover has an evocative image of a strange ruined city “of non-Euclidian geometry” under a pale green moon. There is no interior artwork except the two page hand-drawn campaign map in the center of the book. All the text is laid out cleanly with an easy to read font. It is clearly homage to the early days of DIY gaming where RPG fans produced supplements in their garage without any need for glossy art and slick pages. Instead, Carcosa rivets you with a raw vibrancy so missing from many current products.

    Carcosa is not Tolkeinesque high fantasy. This setting is far away from Middle Earth, Shannara or the Forgotten Realms of the Renaissance Faire. Carcosa is the twisted kindred of Conan’s Hyborea and Elric’s Melnibone. This setting is Swords and Sorcery, or better yet, Swords against Sorcery. The gameplay espoused in Carcosa is completely old school. If you are unsure what that means, google an article by Matthew Finch called A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

    From shambling man-apes, the Snake-Men bred the various races of humans
    to be sacrifices efficacious for their sorcery.

    Carcosa introduces the Sorcerer class to OD&D whose only magic comes in the form of incredibly powerful rituals to control a variety of weird and terrible Cthulhoid entities. The Sorcerer can banish, invoke, conjure, bind, imprison and torment these entities and force them to do his bidding. Ritual magic is complex, requiring many hours effort with strange implements at odd locations under the right astrological conditions. So instead of Magic Missile, you can cast The Ninth Tracing of the Measureless Void to gain forbidden lore from weird entities beyond the galaxy. The Sorcerer class can wear armor and use any weapons, just like a Fighting Man. His XP requirements are much higher so his level progression is slower. There are no elves, dwarves, hobbits, standard magic-users or clerics in Carcosa so character choices are limited to Fighting Men or Sorcerers. I am excited to tell you more, but first let us get clear about these rituals.

    Actually, let's not talk in detail about the rituals as they are both distasteful and fall foul of the grandma rule. Thanks. Plane Sailing


    The thirteen races tend to regard each other with suspicion,
    and the Bone Men are especially shunned by others.

    Carcosa is populated by humans, monsters and Cthulhoid gods. Humans are broken down into thirteen races, determined by the hue and shade of their skin. Yes, the Snake Men who created humanity made sure that your hero, his family and all his friends were color coded spell components for their bizarre rituals. There are Green Men, Red Men, Blue Men, Purple Men, Yellow Men, Bone Men, Black Men, Orange Men, Brown Men, and White Men along with three other colors Jale, Dolm and Ulfire that do not exist on our earth. Every skin color is deeply pronounced so a White Man is not a Caucasian or even an albino, but completely stark white. Oddly enough, humans of different colors can not interbreed and generally segregate themselves. There is no racial hatred, but considering the horrifying rituals that specify sacrifice of particular races, there is an understandable suspicion of strangers.

    Alignment is simplified into the character’s stance toward the Lovecraftian gods. Lawfuls oppose the Great Old Ones, Neutrals avoid them and Chaotics would aid them and may worship them. All other behaviors are outside the purview of alignment and characters of opposite alignments can mostly usually get along because few Lawfuls are truly active in their opposition and few Chaotics are casually open about their desire to serve Hastur the Unspeakable.

    There are no orcs in Carcosa. The only classic D&D monsters roaming Carcosa are the slimes, oozes and puddings Gary Gygax imagined during a bad case of sniffles. Instead, we get two dozen creatures with names such as Deep Gibbering Madness, the Violet Mist, and the Squamous Worm of the Pit plus the better known Cthulhoid horrors such as Deep Ones, B’yakhee and Mi-Go. Many monster descriptions include quotes from Lovecraft’s stories which add a fun authenticity. Rounding out the list are Sword & Sorcery favorites such as giant jungle ants, lake monsters, mummy brains entombed beneath radioactive deserts and misshapen phosphorescent dinosaurs. Oh, and a random table for mutations for extra variety. James Raggi’s Random Esoteric Creature Generator would be a great book to use alongside to create even more unique terrors.

    Many of their artifacts seem to be living things,
    Or a hybrid of living and non-living substances,
    Or perhaps even a third category other than life or non-life.

    Many sword and sorcery authors occasionally blend science-fiction elements into their stories. In this “Swords Versus Space Men” subgenre, both fools and heroes discover dangerous far future technology. Space aliens (think Grays from X-Files) have crashed on Carcosa and brought along a plethora of devices from Silver Age comics and Saturday matinees. There are random creation tables to make sure these items are downright weird, like a cannon that fires pulses of zirconium plus a random robot generator. Don’t forget the cyborg spawn of Shub-Niggurath! In my campaign, all alien tech would be made out of malleable nano-plastic without working parts or any metal. Plus, I would avoid mundane descriptions like “force field” or “space suit” to continually enhance the Great Unknown.

    The Space Aliens in Carcosa add a Gamma World aspect to the game, but they are not integral to the setting and easily omitted if you want a “pure” fantasy campaign. In addition to the Space Alien technology, there are the amazing artifacts of the Great Race and Primordial Ones. These range from benign Elder Signs to a crater whose fumes create gaseous monsters to the Spatial Transference Void which is “a hole in existence.” The price for attaining some artifacts makes Vecna’s Body Part Emporium look like an easy bargain.

    The book finishes with short descriptions of notable features within all 400 numbered hexes of the campaign map. These descriptions range from “0409: 2 of the Great Race” and “0615: Village of 340 Ulfire Men ruled by ‘the Unbearable Poignancy’, a chaotic Champion” to “1104: Deep rifts run for miles. Smoke continually rises from the invisible depths. Hideous, semi-human screams and chants can be heard far below.” If you get inspired by Judges Guild products, these brief notes may spark many adventuring ideas.

    They make me wonder. Are those two of the Great Race are always in 0409? If slain, do another two appear? Do they like each other or are they doomed to be trapped together by fate? What relationship do they have with the village of Green Men in nearby 0308 ruled by some warrior called “the Speaker of all Truths”? Since “the Unbearable Poignancy” is chaotic, is he (or she) already a mythos cultist? If so, which god? If so, what plans are being laid out for the village of Ulfire Men and do they know what their ruler is really planning? Hmm…which unspeakable ritual requires a whole bunch of Ulfire sacrifices? If these musings are fun for you, chances are good that Carcosa will be a worthwhile purchase.

    At the end of the day, I would love to play a campaign in Carcosa...with a few changes. It is one of the most engaging, creative and provocative fantasy settings I have read and certainly takes D&D light years away from the standards of dungeon-crawling. Remember Pat Pulling and her idiotic Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons crusade from the 1980s? She’s spinning in her grave because Carcosa is the sum of all her fears. My response is spin you wretched old hag!! And spin some more! Carcosa has several disturbing passages in its 96 pages, but for me this is greatly outweighed by its bounty of fresh ideas.

    Carcosa is available in both print and soon PDF. Visit the author’s website at Geoffrey McKinney's CARCOSA which has information on how to order the book. Also, Geoffrey’s blog has many discussions on the origins and evolution of his Carcosa campaign setting.
    Last edited by Plane Sailing; Monday, 20th October, 2008 at 11:27 PM.

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    You can also put in the review section of EN World. That would be useful, thanks.

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    I've edited out your unnecessarily detailed descriptions of offensive rituals. Remember the grandma rule. If you put your review in the official reviews section please restrict yourself to the edited version here.

    Thanks

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