Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Carcosa Review

Note: this is a review of the PDF version of this product.  My physical copy has yet to arrive, and I will update this review once it does.

I first became interested in the OSR about the time Carcosa was causing a big stir.  As such, I associate the two things very closely.  Despite the fact that I had never seen the product, Carcosa in its own way showed me that D&D didn’t have to be about blue nosed hobgoblins and color coded dragons.  Instead, a D&D setting should be an idiosyncratic amalgamation of the creator’s influences and preferences.  I’ve tried to do this with all of my projects since starting this blog, and its greatly affected the development of the Dark Country even if the two settings don’t look anything like each other.

As such, I was delighted to hear that James Raggi was going to be reprinting Carcosa.  I never got the chance to purchase it the first time around, and I knew from his Grindhouse boxset that Raggi was capable of extremely high production values.  This seemed like the most opportune time to see what Geoffrey McKinney’s world was all about.

I have neglected to explain what Carcosa is thus far in the review because I believe most of you reading this already have a pretty good idea.   Still, I suppose I should give some introduction to the product before I essay to review its contents further.  Carcosa is a controversial science fantasy setting that is heavily based on the works of H P Lovecraft with a dash of Jack Kirby.  The reason for its controversial nature is likely to be well known to all of you, but it will be discussed below.

The PDF itself is very attractive, though the choice to essentially put two pages on a single page can get a bit clumsy, and often causes the background image to look unsightly.  I imagine this isn’t a problem at all with the physical book.  The art is usually excellent, though a few pieces are too busy and are difficult for the view to correctly interpret.  On the whole though it is an attractive pdf, and it lacks the long loading time similarly attractive pdfs often suffer from.

The contents themselves are, for the most part, excellent.   The two most controversial parts of the book are actually presented fairly early on.  The sorcerer class and its associated rituals are what caused the largest part of the kerfuffle when I first heard about Carcosa.  On the one hand, the rituals appeal to my “crossroads and dead goats” aesthetic; however, I must admit that I was a bit more disturbed by the most infamous ones than I thought I would be.    In particular the Summon the Amphibious Ones ritual was especially disconcerting, and I think it’s rather illustrative of the tension I felt when reading the rituals.  On the one hand, I enjoy playing casters – even evil ones.  It would be hard to say that Philip the Bloody is a nice guy.  Also, in case my regular readers haven’t noticed, I love frog monsters.  So one would think that the two would mesh well and I’d have an evil sorcerer that could summon frog things, and that is what you get.  However, the human cost of the profane ritual required to get some frog minions is so disturbing that I could never play a character that would do such a thing.  This is the intention.  I don’t think McKinney is the depraved degenerate some accused him of being, but instead he’s trying to make the evil sorcerer truly evil.  Carcosa is ultimately a horror setting, and horrific it is.

The other controversial aspect, though it’s considerably tamer than the rituals, is the dice conventions.  While I haven’t tried them in play, they look as though they would be a bit too fiddly at the table.

However, even if one removes these controversial elements, there is still a lot of stuff left in this book.  There are alien technological artifacts, different kinds of lotuses and their uses, a whole plethora of monsters, tables for generating random ray guns and random robots, a simple psionics system, and of course the setting itself.  If one is interested in science fantasy gaming using an OSD&D-type rule set, I cannot recommend these sections of the book highly enough.  The monsters are a wonderful mix of Lovecraftian horrors and weird, lurching slimey things.  The psionics system seems easy to use, but might be a little too randomized for some tastes.  This is easy enough to house rule without changing the whole system.

The hex descriptions vary in quality, and sometimes in format.  Often, villages are given approximate population figures, but other times they are not.  The overall effect, while possibly a bit uneven, goes a long way toward preventing the development of a “canon” Carcosa.  The DM will have to do a bit of work to bring the setting to life, but McKinney has provided a consistent enough vision to make this both easy and enjoyable.  I found myself particularly drawn to the Silken Conclave precisely because the population figures had not been expressly stated for those hexes.

The map for Carcosa is a not the most attractive one in the world.  This has less to do with the specific rendering of the map and more to do with the sketchy nature of the original.  It’s serviceable enough, and the use of purple helps establish to the viewer that Carcosa is an alien world.

Ultimately I’m glad I purchased Carcosa.  I’m generally a fan of weird science fantasy sorts of settings, and it will definitely help me with much of the legwork for my Uz setting.    For that matter, the setting itself seems interesting enough that I may run it with minimal changes, though I’d likely use more conventional dice mechanics.  Carcosa is an excellent product and the Lamentations of the Flame Princess version has production values to match this excellence.

I give Carcosa 4 out of 5 stars.

Note: I have not included Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer in this review.  I found flipping back and forth between the map and the text in the pdf a bit tedious and I want to wait until I get my physical copy before I pass final judgment on that adventure.


  1. Cool :) I've had the old Carcosa for a while now. Really, the only thing I wish was different is that the hex key is too unfinished for my taste. In lots of places, it's the sort of thing I'd write down as reminder notes for a setting of my own, most of the flavour of which is in my own mind. For the price, I'd like it fleshed out more.

  2. I believe that I like to own a copy of this new edition of Carcosa but it is just not in my budget at the moment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. I was rather dissatisfied, reading through the book (in pdf) because of its extremely skeletal handling of almost all aspects of the setting (not quite as dissatisfied as The Alexandrian, but still undersold).

    But... that paltry skeleton has set me thinking, and thinking, and thinking. Why, really, does a game want 13 colours of men? The colour issue alone has sent me off in half a dozen different directions. So the lizard-men are gone but the place still has dinosaurs. Hmmmm.... So the men were bred for ritual use and the place looks like a blasted wilderness - where's the economy that built it and the robots and so on? How long has it lain fallow, and when will its masters be back?

    For years I've loved CoC and Flash Gordon and thought, idly, of trying to put them together. I think Carcosa and the forthcoming Warriors of the Red Planet might be exactly the connective tissue I've been missing.