The new and improved defender of RPGs! Let's do this thing. The particular version I'm reviewing here is the Second Expanded Edition; which is a very nice hardcover book very close to being almost as stunningly pretty as the otherwise-awful Isle of the Unknown, also written by McKinney and published by LotFP. Its about pages long, very nice paper and apparently quite good binding; it has a half-dustjacket with some promotional blurbs about the book, and the interior front and back covers feature colour hexmaps; the rest of the art interior is black and white. On the whole, the production values of the book are extremely high. Now, after the savaging I gave "Isle of the Unknown", and given that I've already expressed my distaste for the fairly infantile "edginess" of Carcosa which the current reading has done nothing to abate , you might expect that this review would be a bit of a slashfest itself; however, I do have to admit that certainly, in comparison to "Isle", Carcosa has some redeeming qualities from a purely objective point of view.
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Please take care of yourself and your mental and emotional health by turning back now if that discussion may be upsetting to you. Thank you, and have a great day! I've probably started, deleted, and restarted this review a dozen times since I began this blog. Carcosa is a complex book, and it's complicated for me, at least to review adequately.
I have a few conflicting feelings about some of the book, and because of that I think about this book a lot. Like, very regularly. That alone is probably a testament to Carcosa and its author, one way or another. But regardless, it has been a challenge to properly put my final thoughts down on paper when my thoughts are still busy all these years later. No more restarting this article, though - let's give it a go, once and for all. Carcosa is a setting book for use with your preferred OSR system though you could also play it in 5E with some numbers work, I am sure.
It was originally produced by Geoffrey McKinney in , and won big in when it was reprinted in a "complete" format by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Carcosa generated considerable controversy when it was released, and has continued to do so over the years since then.
James Raggi IV of LotFP has often invited controversy, or at least never shied away from it, so it is no surprise whatsoever that the book has been a successful part of the generally excellent Lamentations lineup for years. The world presented in Carcosa is Lovecraftian and horrifying. It is violent and barbaric science fantasy, sort of like a sword and planet pulp world viewed through a kaleidoscope of carnage and unforgivably dark magic and ancient evils and a complete lack of morality. It pits the players against a harsh and unyielding world where they are an endangered species by default, where a happy ending is extraordinarily unlikely.
The setting is extremely interesting. It is a brutal place. It is so incredibly grim, so unyieldingly horrific and agonizingly unpleasant and hostile to life that it seems practically hopeless and pointless to fight the uphill battle to improve it at all. Yet, that's exactly what you do.
The rewards for doing so are not commensurate to the task. The world of Carcosa is dangerous, malevolent, sad. It is fascinating to read about, but running a game there is a bizarrely tall order unless you are fully committed to the gimmick of an amoral or cosmically immoral universe being made aggressively clear over and over.
It is a place where the magic is awful beyond belief, but possibly necessary depending on the threats faced to encourage its use. Visually, Carcosa is good. It's not incredible, but it's good. Rich Longmore's art is perfectly suited to the grim science fantasy, pulp-influenced world of Carcosa, and the decorative pieces framing pages throughout are terrific.
The intricate detail and style of his work is really appealing to my eye and honestly I'd love to see many more books with his art. If Chance Phillips happens to read this - I want to see Rich draw pictures for a future Phantasmagoria zine. Make it happen! I really appreciate what Rich added to this book.
It is clean and you can read it, but it is not as sharp as so many of its fellows and at the table it lags behind other books. Carcosa is held up as a Very Important Book by some more for its content than its design, to be clear and so it is hard not to hold up against other Very Important Books and find it very much an artifact of the past.
I can't tell you how it would stack up in under scrutiny with other releases from the same time frame, but looking at it regularly in the years since and looking at it freshly as I write today, it is simply perfunctory, and not particularly efficient at that.
Let's talk about the meat of the book: Geoffrey McKinney's world, his words, his creativity. First, the good parts, because I want to stress their value. McKinney is a gifted, if verbose, author. His descriptions of things are rich; they invade your mind and are easily visualized.
This is a gift surprisingly few authors in role-playing games actually possess, though the DIY indie scene is very lucky to have many of those who have it. The world of Carcosa comes alive with ease through Geoffrey's writing, and it is very difficult indeed to walk away from this book without your mind running wild. It is thought-provoking and unique. As I mentioned above, it is a huge testament to this book and to Geoffrey McKinney as an author that I have thought about this book very regularly - at least weekly, if not more - ever since first reading it the better part of a decade ago.
I think about it a lot, and that's because Geoffrey writes incredibly well. Also to this book's great credit is the imagination of it all.
There is a scale to the imagination behind this setting which is more Lovecraft than Greenwood. It is less about the concerns of generations of elves and favored wizards and wholly approachable, comprehensible gods in a structured system; instead, it is much more about the sheer immense age and inescapable, unfathomable old dread of the universe encapsulated in a place where alien brutality is the norm because that is simply the norm everywhere.
It is a huge setting, with a cosmology and level of nested detail which focuses far less on the accessible and far more on the overwhelmingly hostile. These themes aren't necessarily my favorite themes, but the scope of it, and the comprehensive way McKinney develops and describes it, is second to none.
There's no way to honestly discuss the content of Carcosa without addressing the proverbial elephant in the room. The book's extensive ritual magic section is riddled with graphic instances of torture and sexual assault, at times directed toward minors. It's uncomfortable to read, and though I am personally very far from a wilting flower on the subject of violence, even I wince at some of it.
At various times, since reading and rereading this book over the years, I have felt it to be gratuitous and probably avoidable.
At others, I've felt that the setting's inherent horror and inhumanity, and specifically the evil and repulsive nature of magic itself, could never dispense with such visceral reminders of the dangers of powers which at best might be the lesser of two evils depending on the threat it may be interdicting. At no point in my back and forth would I have wanted, or tolerated, outside opinions censoring Mr.
McKinney's work. But I have indeed had this back and forth, and I believe I've settled: it is uncomfortable, it is gratuitous, but it is unique and it is consistent and it is immersive, and above all it is unquestionably effective at evoking the desired gut response to the vile nature of ritual magic in Carcosa that the setting demands. It is unforgettable and makes the setting similarly unforgettable. Presuming this was Geoffrey's goal, which I think is a reasonable presumption, he achieved it in spades.
Many have very specific, rare components even without counting those which require very specific sacrifices This makes the magic feel tied to the world, and therefore forces the characters to be tied to the world. In the one-shots I've played in Carcosa, more than one was predicated entirely on casting or preventing a ritual.
These are the easiest hooks in the game. More games should make use of this sort of integration of mechanic and hook. One criticism I hold toward this book is the bizarre lack of detail for the namesake city itself. Carcosa, for those who are somehow unaware, is a fictional city invented by Ambrose Bierce and later borrowed and expanded upon by Chambers and Lovecraft.
It is an alien, mysterious place. For a book titled Carcosa, there is a surprising lack of the specific city of Carcosa. The book manages to set the stage for alien, unnatural adventure nonetheless, but it leaves a puzzling gap.
I feel like you write a book about Carcosa, you need to include at least some reasonable amount of Carcosa itself. You wouldn't write a book called Castle Greyhawk and not include Castle Creyhawk. It's a strange omission. Another criticism is the hit die mechanic. There is no way I'm going to reroll every player's hit dice at the beginning of each combat.
Am I missing out on some sensory experience the author intended? Some swingy danger necessary to enjoy the setting? I don't think so. From where I sit at the table, it adds nothing to my enjoyment of the game. I recognize this is purely subjective, but then again, what about my reviews isn't?
For those unaware, the book instructs you to roll on a table to determine which hit dice size to roll, and then you roll as many of those dice as your character has hit dice and total the results to determine your HP for that combat.
You do this at the start of each battle for each character. I must convey strongly: hard pass. I can't be sure I understand the rationale, but anything that removes sense of progress, lengthens or complicates combat, and makes things unpredictably swingy beyond the normal randomization of to-hit and damage rolls seems questionable at best to my tastes. I also find some of the hexmap keys listed in the book to be quite boring, and questionably useful.
At times a random monster encounter table would be more interesting and more valuable than the provided keys. Others are, by comparison, tons of fun; some are exciting enough to launch a campaign all by themselves. I do not recall how I felt about this when I first read Carcosa in or so, but in the years since, as I've reflected on the book, I've grown less and less satisfied with the keys overall and wish as much time had been spent making them exceptional as was spent making the ritual magic impressive, arcane, obscure, and unpalatable on purpose.
When I read Carcosa, I find myself drawn into the innate horror of the setting. When I contemplate running a long-term campaign there, I find my enthusiasm wanes a little. I'd need a lot more fluoxetine to manage that. Because of this, I feel like Carcosa is best suited to one-shots or short campaigns, and probably contains more than it needs to and some of what it has would probably be stronger if it were edited down to focus on that style of play, yknow?
I feel like Carcosa is something best stripped for parts - because there are so many absolutely brilliant surges of unrestrained imagination in it - rather than played straight. Have a magic mirror teleport the party here and make them stop a ritual or perform a ritual to solve a problem in order to get back.
That kinda thing. As I said, reviewing and rating Carcosa has been an unbelievably difficult task for me. I have struggled with this article since I began this blog. On some days I would think I'd wind up giving it a perfect score for its imagination and the quality of its art and writing. On other days I would give it a much different, harsher score for trying too hard in some places and not quite hard enough in others.
Easy for me to say, I suppose; I didn't try to write an entire setting from scratch! I try very hard on this blog to be objective in my subjectivity , to be honest, and to review products I would recommend and enjoyed reading.
Carcosa (RPG setting)