Tuesday, November 4, 2008

REVIEW: Carcosa (Part 1 of 4)

Although I am occasionally long-winded, I have never before written a multi-part review. But then I have never before reviewed a product that's elicited reactions as strong as those directed toward Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa. Calling itself a "book of rules options for the original fantasy role-playing game published in 1974," Carcosa is a staple-bound 96-page book modeled on the little brown books of OD&D. McKinney even boldly calls the book "Supplement V," a move that's aroused almost as much comment as its content.

In this first part, I won't be speaking about the content of Carcosa except obliquely. Instead, I'm going to make a few things clear, both about the subsequent parts of this review and the reasons why I am writing it. Let me tackle the second part first: why am I writing this? First and foremost I am writing this review because, like its content or not, Carcosa is a major product of the old school renaissance. Nothing quite like it, either in subject matter or scope, has yet been attempted; that alone makes it worthy of my attention. Secondly, the controversy surrounding the book's content is also worthy of comment. I've said many times that the old school community is small, niche-y, and rather staid. When something comes along that stirs up the pot, for good or for ill, I don't think it ought to pass without discussion. Finally, I think it'd be irresponsible of me to duck reviewing Carcosa. The fact is that I rarely refrain from weighing in on topics of interest to the old school community, but I largely did in this case. Rather than risk offending someone, I abstained from saying much of anything. I regret that decision and am now stepping up to do what I ought to have done several weeks ago.

The remaining three parts of this review will each touch upon a different aspect of Carcosa in some depth. Part 2 (appearing November 5, 2008) will examine the non-controversial portions of the book and evaluate them in the context of OD&D and the larger old school renaissance. Part 3 (appearing November 6, 2008) will discuss sorcerous rituals, the section of Carcosa that's at the heart of the controversy surrounding it. Part 4 (appearing November 7, 2008) will be my conclusions about the book, the controversy it generated, and what it all means for the old school community. I've chosen to take my time in reviewing Carcosa, because, from what I have witnessed, it's a book that practically invites caricature, both by those who love it and those who hate it. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that I believe Carcosa to be flawed book, chief among its flaws being its presentation, which, in my opinion, goes too far in imitating the form of its illustrious predecessors without also imitating the ethos that informed them. In the interests of evenhandedness, however, I want to be sure there are no misunderstandings about what Carcosa is and is not, as well as what it contains and does not contain.

As to its content, my review will be of the expurgated version. I have read both versions of Carcosa and I will occasionally make broad references to how the two versions differ. However, I will not go into any detail, since I wish to make this review as palatable to as many readers as possible. As I have already noted, discussions regarding Carcosa are already quite heated as it is and I have no interest in contributing to the acrimony. My goal here is to be as dispassionate as possible, while at the same time being as critical as possible. Whatever else it is, Carcosa is firstly a roleplaying game supplement and my review will proceed from that assumption, even if I will often make digressions into other areas. My feeling, though, is that neither praise nor condemnation of Carcosa is reasonable without first carefully examining its actual contents and I intend to do just that in the next two parts of this review.

A word of warning: I know that many people have expressed strong negative feelings about Carcosa, its author, or both on other blogs and other forums. Again, I don't believe I am giving anything away by saying that I too have expressed strong misgivings about the unexpurgated version of the book. That said, I believe that one can express one's dislike of something without descending into irrational vituperation. Consequently, I will not tolerate such behavior in my comments. Feel free to express your considered opinions of anything I've written in my review, but please do so in an intelligent, respectful manner. Anything less than that and I will delete your comments. I see no justification for ungentlemanly behavior here, regardless of what one thinks of the book. If one is unable to comport oneself appropriately, then I ask that one refrain from reading these entries or commenting on them. Thanks in advance.

Update: I didn't want to have to do this, but it's already pretty clear to me that allowing comments at all was a mistake. I've already had to delete several comments that didn't abide by my instructions and I anticipate that there will be more before too long. It's a pity and a shame, because I had hoped this extensive review would be an occasion for discussion, but such is not to be. Henceforth, neither this entry nor parts 2-4 will allow comments. I may consider reopening comments on these posts at a future date, but that won't be for some time. Comments will remain open on other entries. If anyone decides to use other entries as an opportunity to comment on anything relating to Carcosa when it is clearly not relevant in my opinion, I will delete your comments and, very likely, any future comments you make on any other post for a very long time. I am intensely disappointed at how quickly things took a turn for the worse here and I will not tolerate it further.

You have been warned.