Wednesday, November 5, 2008

REVIEW: Carcosa (Part 2 of 4)

In this part of my review of Carcosa, I'm going to discuss what might be called the book's "non-controversial content." Approximately 20 of Carcosa's 96 pages pertain to the new sorcerer character class, its game mechanics, rituals, and a few random related bits of text found elsewhere in the book. I shall specifically look at that content in Part 3 tomorrow. This leaves the remaining three-quarters of the book as the subject of the present post.

I'd like to begin by commenting on the physical qualities of
Carcosa. The book is identical in size and general appearance to the volumes of OD&D and its supplements -- clearly no accident, given that it bills itself as "Supplement V" (about which I shall comment in Part 4). Geoffrey McKinney obviously went to some effort to imitate the look of OD&D, right down to the typefaces and the color of the cardstock used for the cover. The imitation isn't quite perfect, however, and I hope I can be forgiven in later using this "almost-but-not-quite" quality of Carcosa as a broad metaphor with which to critique the work as a whole.

As already noted,
Carcosa is 96 pages in length, making it about a third again as long as the lengthiest OD&D supplements. What I find interesting about this is that, despite its advertisement as "Supplement V," Carcosa takes a very different tack than all of its predecessors. Instead of being a rules supplement -- though it does present many new rules -- about one-third of its text is devoted to a description of a campaign setting. In this respect, it differs quite significantly from both Greyhawk and Blackmoor, neither of which give the reader much information about the campaign settings from whom they derive their titles. Carcosa even includes a hand-drawn map -- "Carcosa Campaign Map One" -- in the centerfold of the book. It details an area covering 160 by 218 miles and includes a wide variety of terrain types and landmarks, all of which are described in the last 25 or so pages of the book.

Carcosa's imitation of OD&D isn't limited to its physical qualities. The internal organization of the book follows that of OD&D's supplements. Thus, there are three sections -- "Men & Sorcery," "Monsters & Treasures," and "Adventures in the Underworld and Wilderness" -- that correspond roughly to the three volumes of OD&D. I personally find this degree of imitation infelicitous, both because the original OD&D supplements are not exactly models of clarity and because there are so many other places where Carcosa doesn't imitate its predecessors that it gives the entire book the textual equivalent of the "uncanny valley" phenomenon. I'll speak more about this in Part 4.

The first section notes that there are only two character classes in the world of Carcosa, fighting-men and sorcerers, the latter of which I won't discuss now. Fighting-men are presumably identical in their game mechanics to those in OD&D, although this is not stated explicitly. The planet Carcosa is also home to thirteen races of Men, each one possessing a different skin color. These colors range from black to yellow, with three new colors -- two primary and one additive -- unique to Carcosa. These additional colors are derived from David Lindsay's 1920 novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, a novel that was an important influence on C.S. Lewis in the creation of his own Space Trilogy. Unlike the poem by Robert W. Chambers that begins this book, I'm not entirely sure what to make of this reference to Lindsay, who was, by all accounts, an unusual thinker who had Gnostic sympathies. There isn't much evidence of outright Gnosticism in
Carcosa, but I do think it reveals its author as someone who is well versed in the "weird tale," that predecessor of horror and fantasy from which so much in our hobby sprang.

Alignment in
Carcosa is very much in line with Jeff's Threefold Apocalyptic Alignment System. That is, alignment answers the question "whose side are you on?" rather than more specific moral/ethical matters, since the book notes that "all behaviors, including the most noble and altruistic as well as the most vile and despicable, are found amongst all three alignments." Thus, where one stands in relation to the Lovecraftian Great Old Ones -- who epitomize Chaos -- determines one's alignment, not whether one is a good person or not. This approach has deep roots in the h0bby and I am sympathetic to it in some ways. That said, by removing any hint of moral/ethical considerations from alignment, I believe McKinney squandered an opportunity to deflect at least some of the criticism directed toward him and Carcosa.

Carcosa presents a psionics system that is far simpler and also far less extensive than that of Eldritch Wizardry. High ability scores in Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma each grant a cumulative percentile chance to a character to possess psionics. If a character does indeed possess psionics, he gains access to 1d4 psionic powers each day, the type determined by the referee and not necessarily consistent from day to day. How often a character can use a given power is determined by his level. Psionic powers range from telepathy to mental blasts to mind control -- eight powers in all, most of them similar to existing magic spells in use. I'm very ambivalent about these psionic rules. While they are indeed simple, their centrality to the setting -- most Carcosan monsters have psionics -- means that players will quickly feel the need for their characters to possess them, which will necessitate higher and higher ability scores, which isn't a very OD&D approach. In addition, there's too much randomness involved, even for me, so much so that I think using the rules as written might prove tedious.

Unfortunately, tedious randomness seems to appeal to McKinney, who introduces a number of new dice conventions into
Carcosa, such as variable damage and hit dice. That is, whenever the rules call for rolling dice, a table is consulted to determine which sort of dice is rolled. That means that sometimes your weapon will deal 1d8 points of damage per hit and sometimes 1d12 (or 1d4). Likewise, your character's hit points will fluctuate wildly for every combat, with a new total being rolled using whatever dice type is indicated by a separate roll. Granted, these rules apply equally to NPCs and monsters as to PCs, but I can't quite see the point. Although McKinney goes to some length to explain that this approach "allows for greater uncertainty in the game," what I fear it does is fetishize the importance of randomness in old school gaming to the point of parody -- "Greetings! It's a" *rolls dice* "pleasure to meet you!"

The second section begins with descriptions of the monsters of Carcosa. Most of the usual D&D monsters don't exist in this setting. Replacing them are a wide variety of beings, most of them drawn from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, along with a handful of others unique to this book. This section is one of the strongest in the entire work. Not only does it give the reader a new context for familiar Lovecraftian entities, which goes some way toward restoring them to their original place as objects of horror and revulsion, but it also does a superb job of illustrating that a singular, well-conceived monster is a far more powerful a concept than an entire race of them. Thus, we get descriptions of beings like the Lurker of the Putrescent Pits and the Desiccating Slime of the Silent Halls rather than hordes of orcs, bugbears, or even traditional D&D demons. In this way, Carcosa is very much in line with pulp fantasy traditions, which rarely presented entire monstrous species but instead relied on unique abominations to challenge their protagonists.

Also described are numerous "sorcerous items," which completely replace the magic items of OD&D. Among these items are numerous types of lotus flowers, each if which has an effect after ingesting or inhailing powder made from their blossoms. Carcosa also freely mixes science fiction with fantasy and makes no apologies for doing so. Consequently, there are numerous pieces of "Space Alien technology," items used by the mysterious race of Gray-like beings called simply the Space Aliens. The effects of some such technology is determined by random rolls (see a pattern?), although there are examples that have definite and consistent effects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is also a random table for generating Space Alien robots and basic rules for re-programming them. Rounding out this section is a collection of items created and used by Lovecraftian beings like the Great Race and the Primordial Ones. These items largely do not rely on random tables to determine their effects and are better for it, instead being unpredictable and possibly deadly without being purely whimsical. For my money, they come across as far more interesting and usable than things like the Space Alien tech.

The third and final section of the book consists of two unevenly sized sub-sections. The first is a percentile table of mutations that characters or creatures might gain as a result of being exposed to the weird radiation of Carcosa. These mutations are almost wholly deleterious in nature. The second sub-section is a hex-by-hex gazetteer of the map included in the book's centerfold. Each and every one of the 400 10-mile hexes included on the map gets at least a short entry -- "12 mosasaurs with transparent skin" or "Village of 310 Green Men rules by 'the Jade Emperor,' a neutral Myrmidon" -- and many include much lengthier ones. It's here, I think, that Carcosa really shines, because what McKinney has done is present to us a dark and mysterious alien world, fraught with danger and damnation -- and all through a series of succinct, spartan entries that leave plenty to the imagination of the individual referee.

Even more remarkable, to my mind, is that Carcosa doesn't feel quite like any of its obvious inspirations; instead, it is very much its own world, even if it does recall Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique and Hyperborea, Lovecraft's Dreamlands, Howard's Hyborian Age, and even the Silver Age comics of Jack Kirby (among others). To call it a pastiche doesn't quite do it justice, but to say that it is wholly original would also be inappropriate. If I had to single out a virtue of this book it's this: the ability to call to mind a myriad of pulp fantasy influences without aping any one of them in particular. That makes Carcosa seem at once familiar and original -- quite the feat after so many years of gaming supplements having been published!

What is unfortunate, though, is that this same approach wasn't applied as consistently to the presentation and content of the other two sections of the book, which frequently suffer from being much too imitative and derivative of OD&D and its supplements but without the soul that animated those creations. That is, Carcosa knows all the words to the old school songs, but it can't carry the tunes. That's not intended to be a dismissal of the book, but I do think it's important to realize that, even without the contentious questions I'll take up in Part 3 tomorrow, Carcosa is a flawed, problematic work. It's a bold but uneven book and I suspect that has probably benefitted unduly from its notoreity. By that I mean that, had controversy not swirled around Carcosa since before it was even published -- not that I was aware of this, parochial eremite that I am -- I doubt it would have been lauded as highly as it has been. I rather suspect that at least some of its boosters do so out of a sense that they're standing up for some important principle or other.

I won't address the question until Part 4, but I'll say now that I don't think Carcosa is a well-executed enough product to be worthy either of comparisons to the original OD&D supplements or of denunciation as if it were one of the most despicable RPG products ever written. It is, I think, a book bubbling with the naive enthusiasm of a college freshman reading Plato for the first time and believing he now has deep insights into life, the universe, and everything. There is merit in that enthusiasm, not least of all a reminder of things we jaded older men might have forgotten in the years since we were naively enthusiastic about something. But there is also ignorance and foolishness and I don't think it's improper to dwell on these flaws, particularly in light of how it has been received in many quarters.