Thursday, November 6, 2008

REVIEW: Carcosa (Part 3 of 4)

In this part of my review, we come to the meat of the matter: the sorcerous rituals that are both an important part of Carcosa's feel and central to the reasons why many have denounced this book and its author. By and large, I am going to refrain from commenting on the controversy itself (that comes in Part 4 tomorrow). However, I will offer up my own opinions about the content and presentation of the sorcerer class and its rituals that go beyond simply reporting the facts. I believe it's the job of a reviewer to do just this; otherwise a review is nothing more than an extended advertisement for the product under review. Like everything else on this blog, the opinions I express are my own, meaning they're subjective and, in some cases, intensely personal. I don't think that compromises their validity in any way, but I would caution anyone reading what follows against taking what I say out of this context or ascribing to it a universalism I do not claim. I'd also like to reiterate that my review will continue to be of the expurgated version of the book, not the original. I do this out of respect for the sensibilities of many who find the original's content too abhorrent even to read reference to.

As noted in Part 2, Carcosa includes only two character classes, the fighting-man and the sorcerer. The sorcerer is a wholly new character class that functions in most respects exactly like the fighting-man, with which it shares weapon/armor choices, hit dice, and attack progression. The class has a different Prime Requisite (Intelligence), a different experience point table, and a different saving throw progression, however. The end result is that the sorcerer is a fairly "robust" class, generally able to hold its own in a fight, which sets it apart from the OD&D magic-user. The reason for this robustness is that, while a sorcerer is able to wield magical powers -- the aforementioned rituals -- no sorcerer begins with a knowledge of such rituals, which must be discovered through play. In addition, rituals are very difficult and dangerous to cast. The class thus seems to have been built on the assumption that it needs to be able to survive on its own without recourse to rituals, which cannot generally be cast quickly or without proper preparation, thereby rendering their utility in combat situations nil.

The description of the sorcerer class notes that there are six types of rituals -- banishing, conjuring, invoking, binding, imprisoning, and tormenting. All of these rituals, except banishing, require human sacrifice and lengthy ceremonies to perform, in addition to esoteric components and paraphernalia. Furthermore, performing rituals can be quite dangerous to the sorcerer, since the entities upon whom a ritual is cast get a secret saving throw against it, modified by the level of the casting sorcerer (higher-level sorcerers are more likely to be successful). If a ritual fails, the sorcerer likely has no idea why or, worse yet, that it has failed at all until the entity exacts its revenge upon him for his folly. In addition, the casting of every ritual (again, except banishing) requires a save vs. spells to avoid unnatural aging of between 1 and 5 years.

I'd like to make a couple of comments before moving on to the rituals themselves. First, I like and appreciate the general tone McKinney is trying to evoke here. It has a strongly swords-and-sorcery flavor: magic is dark, dangerous, and physically taxing. The book even notes that sorcery owes its existence to the extinct Snake-Men, which highlights its utterly alien and inhuman character. All of this clearly separates it from OD&D's approach to magic, never mind all subsequent approaches in D&D. That's not a bad thing necessarily, but, again, I think it makes the "Supplement V" moniker seem even more inappropriate.

Despite this, I believe the sorcerer character class is largely superfluous. I think Carcosa could simply have posited a single character class and made sorcery an "extra" that some characters might learn and others might not, since the acquisition and casting of sorcerous rituals is in no way tied to the sorcerer class mechanically. That is, there is nothing inherently "sorcerous" about the sorcerer; one could conceivably play a sorcerer that never learns or casts any rituals whatsoever. I don't believe that, as written, the sorcerer follows the same logic as all other OD&D classes and that sits poorly with me.

I suspect that the sorcerer class exists for one of two non-exclusive reasons. One reason is the inescapable drive every D&D gamer has to create his own classes. The early issues of The Strategic Review and Dragon are littered with new classes; it's an impulse as old as the game, so I can't entirely fault McKinney for possibly indulging in it, even if I feel he offered up a less than ideal example of a new class. Another reason -- the more likely one, in my opinion -- is that McKinney wanted to "segregate" sorcery mechanically in some way. That is, he may have wanted to make it the exclusive province of a small sub-set of possible characters rather than an option available to any who takes the time and effort to learn its secrets. That's not an unreasonable desire, particularly given the nature of sorcery, but I don't think there's much warrant for it and I think, given the themes he seems to want to grapple with, it actually weakens Carcosa by including the sorcerer class. I'll return to this in Part 4.

The actual listing and descriptions of sorcerous rituals accounts for approximately 20 of Carcosa's 96 pages -- one-fith of its total verbiage. While I think it would be disingenuous to claim, as some have, that these 96 rituals ought to be reckoned the source and summit of the entire book, I do think it's worth paying careful attention to them, Given that they occupy only slightly fewer pages than the gazetteer of the campaign map, this doesn't strike me as unreasonable. Likewise, it's these rituals rather than the sorcerer character class itself that are what has stirred up so much controversy and I think, in all fairness, that this controversy was warranted. Note that I said the controversy itself was warranted, not necessarily the ways in which any particular person chose to involve himself in the controversy. I think it's fair to say that much of the furor directed at Carcosa was grossly over the top and not based any actual knowledge of the text itself. I simply can't condone such knee-jerk knownothingism, despite my own strong reservations about the content of this section of the book. There's plenty of reason to be concerned about sorcerous rituals, but I believe those reasons ought to be presented rationally and backed up by actual knowledge rather than hearsay.

So, why the concern? Carcosa makes plain, from the start, that sorcery, with the exception of banishing, requires human sacrifice. That pretty clearly means that it's, by most definitions, an evil activity. At the very least, it's an activity whose practitioners clearly place the possibility of personal power above the value of human life. Had Carcosa left it at that, as it does in the expurgated version, I suspect there would have been much less controversy surrounding the book. Human sacrifice is an abhorrent practice; I have no qualms about saying that without any qualifications or reservations. However, it's also (I would hope) a fairly abstract practice for most of us. That is, we all have read about ancient cultures like the Aztecs who indulged in human sacrifice, but such practices are long dead and of no direct relevance to our daily lives. Now, of course, we all "know" about human sacrifice from pulp stories and movies. It's not at all uncommon for evil priests and sorcerers to sacrifice -- or at least threaten to sacrifice -- human beings to their demonic masters. This is very much part of the genre and I believe that McKinney was right to have included it in Carcosa; to have left it out would have been to betray a good portion of the source material on which it draws.

On the other hand, I feel McKinney erred in two important respects in his presentation of sorcery, one general and one specific. Let me handle the specific error first, because it's the one I think people have mistakenly latched on to as the more significant one. The expurgated version of the text includes no information about what the sorcerer must do to cast the ritual beyond the specific implements and/or components (and/or location) he needs to do so. The original version of the text, however, goes into some detail about the type, number, gender, and age of the human sacrifices, including, in some cases, how the sacrifice must be dispatched to effect the ritual. Some have fixated on a few specifically abhorrent examples and used them as a springboard for denouncing the book and its author. I agree wholeheartedly that many -- indeed almost all but the binding rituals -- are, in their unexpergated versions, unpleasant to read and think about. I don't think anyone, least of all Geoffrey McKinney, disputes this. What I think is at issue is whether or not a roleplaying game book ought to been written and published that includes such graphically violent acts.

I am inclined to agree that Carcosa gains nothing thematically by the inclusion of the descriptions of such acts. Singular are the examples in the source material that come even close to the level of moral turpitude these rituals require. I am unmoved by the notion that genre emulation demanded it. One would search in vain, I think, for anything resembling these rituals in the writings of the great pulp writers. Likewise, games such as Call of Cthulhu have long included a wide variety of sinister spells and rituals that make clear that any who cast such magicks are abominable and did so without the need for this level of detail. I know the argument has been made that the detail -- which is, I hasten to add, presented very clinically and without any salaciousness or sensationalism -- makes the rituals all the more obviously evil. It's an interesting argument, but it's a crude and unsubtle one that would have us believe that shock is the best (only?) tool available with which to make a moral point. I simply don't think that's true.

At the same time, I think it's patently ludicrous to anyone who has read the text to brand either Carcosa or its author morally repugnant. As presented in Carcosa, sorcery is ugly; it is, quite literally, painful to read about, to look at. To criticize its inclusion solely because of this ugliness, though, runs the risk of reducing morality to mere esthetics. Now, I actually believe there's a primal connection between our sense of esthetics and our moral intuitions. I believe that the revulsion we feel when reading about human sacrifice has a strong moral component. There's a reason why we use many of the same words to describe something that is unatractive and something that is immoral. The weakness I see in much of the criticism of Carcosa is that it never gets beyond that revulsion and, in the process, validates the mistaken notion that, because it elicits such a powerful feeling of distaste, it is in fact succeeding in what it was intended to do: to shock you into hating sorcery and sorcerers.

This brings me to the broader error I feel McKinney made in his presentation of sorcery: there are no significant disincentives, mechanically or otherwise, to being a rat bastard sorcerer. Let's look and see. There's a chance, as we know, that anytime a sorcerer casts a ritual that he might age unnaturally. So what? This is pure color, with no mechanical effect; there are no rules, either in Carcosa or OD&D, on what happens if your character ages 10, 20, or 50 years. There's also a chance that, if a ritual goes awry, the sorcerer might find himself the meal of the creature he's trying to summon/bind/whatever. Again, so what? There's a chance that any adventurer, regardless of his morality, will die by engaging in his typical activities. In a game like OD&D, death isn't exactly a moral indictment of one's actions; it's simply a fact of life that, like the rain, falls upon the just and the unjust alike. We don't even have recourse to the tried and true D&D "solution" to such questions: look to alignment. There is no objective alignment system in Carcosa that can label this or that act evil absolutely. Instead, we have an "allegiance" system that implies that a Chaotic character -- a servant of the Great Old Ones -- can engage in "noble" behavior regardless of his dedication to bringing about the will of monstrous entities bent on the destruction of human life. All Carcosa can muster when it comes to censuring sorcery is the "ick factor." Sorcery is evil because it makes us feel uncomfortable to think about what a sorcerer must often do to partake of it. That's it; that's the extent of the disapprobation of sorcery. I hope I'm not alone in feeling that's inadequate.

Above, I indicated an affinity between Carcosa and swords-and-sorcery literature and so there is, but I think it's truer to say that the book takes more inspiration from the works and worldview of H.P. Lovecraft. I say this because S&S literature typically takes place in a corrupt world and corruption implies a substratum of goodness that can't be found either in Lovecraft or in Carcosa. What we have instead is a bleak world where might makes right and the best one can hope for is that one's doom comes another day. I think there is merit in roleplaying in such a world, but I also think, when you consider the way that sorcery is described in the unexpurgated version, you are left with an unrelentingly unpleasant place, one that is all too easy to caricature and to denounce.

One of the many virtues of the Call of Cthulhu RPG is that it does not provide much (or any) detail of the horrific things cultists do in the name of their alien gods. Likewise, it shows that the wages of sin are far worse than mere death -- that the loss of one's humanity, the ability to connect to other men, is terrible curse. And, by taking place in a familiar world we all know and understand, we can immediately find things worth fighting for, things that keep us from acquiescing to the inevitable conclusion of Lovecraft's worldview. Carcosa in its unexpurgated form has none of that and, even in its expurgated form, it is still a harsh, cold place. In this respect, it is utterly unlike anything else ever produced in the D&D tradition.

Part 4 of 4 appears tomorrow, probably later in the day, given its length.