Friday, November 7, 2008

REVIEW: Carcosa (Part 4 of 4)

I got into D&D in late 1979, just months after the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, which led to many an urban legend about kids being led astray by the game and into activities that resulted in their deaths. I remember the ludicrous Chick tract, Dark Dungeons, which first appeared in 1984. I also remember seeing Gary Gygax subject to the irresponsible yellow journalism of 60 Minutes in 1985. During those years, I attended both a Catholic elementary and high school, at which I regularly played Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs with my classmates, often in the presence of priests, sisters, and other teachers. Only once in all those years did anyone ever assert that the game was in any way "Satanic" or unfit for being played by a good Catholic boy like me and the teacher who did so was widely recognized as a nut, particularly by the priests of my high school.

I am convinced that the reason why I never ran into any trouble as a result of playing D&D was because, if one took the time to read its rulebooks or to watch someone play the game, one would quick discover that, beneath it all, it's built on a remarkably traditionalist moral structure. That's not to say that all D&D characters are untarnished heroes. As I've argued at length in this blog, the game is in fact at its most coherent when the PCs are rogues (with or without hearts of gold). But the assumed roguishness of most characters doesn't banish the possibility of there being good or evil. Like the gunslingers of the best Westerns, the PCs are individuals who use barbaric methods to fight "barbarians" on behalf of a civilization that, by the barbaric nature of their own actions in its defense, they must be excluded from. This kind of tension can only exist in a world in which morality isn't treated as subjective or an agreed upon convenience.

It's here that I think Carcosa is most troubling to me. The book presents a barbaric, brutal world, one crying out for "good" barbarians to rise to the defense of a civilization in which they cannot take part. Unfortunately, the distinction between a good and a bad barbarian is largely meaningless in the setting the book describes. Morality is mostly arbitrary and relativistic and the primary check on immoral behavior is revulsion. I think, in a world as bleak as Carcosa, where the Great Old Ones and their servitors carry the day, there's a need for more than that -- some moral absolutes against which to judge the actions even of tarnished heroes doing what they think they must, no matter how unpleasant, to hold back the fall of night for just one more day.

Had the book been more clear on this rather crucial point, I suspect that many, though not all, of the criticisms directed toward it would have been rendered impotent. The only reason why the intemperate invective and over-the-top denunciations rang true is because -- and this applies equally to the expurgated and unexpurgated versions -- Carcosa presents a world in which morality has no meaning except as a lie agreed upon. I think, in this respect, the book is probably a truer presentation of Lovecraftian horror than even the much-beloved Call of Cthulhu, which has tempered the grim vision of its inspiration with slivers of hope. There is no hope on Carcosa, at least none that I could see. It's an uncompromisingly nihilstic world and I can't blame anyone who reacts negatively to it. Indeed, I suspect that at least some of the loathing Carcosa has generated is a reaction to this rather important aspect of its presentation.

That said, I find it hard to become incensed by the book. The almost-clinical way that McKinney treats sorcery and its rituals is not the approach of one who either condones or derives some perverse pleasure from describing its vile practices. I think McKinney was incredibly naive to have assumed that he could adopt such a clinical approach and not generate controversy. Even if we did not live in times such as we do, the anonymity and distance of the Internet make it all too easy to engage in high dudgeon about things of which we know little. I'd wager that not one of McKinney's fiercest critics has so much as read more than a couple of sentences from Carcosa and I think that's a shame -- a shame, because, despite it all, this is a powerful and original work of the imagination and it deserves to be discussed, both because of what it is in itself but also because of what it says about the current state of the old school renaissance.

What it says to me is that the old school community is, at this time, too insular and inbred for its long term health. I noted earlier that I felt Carcosa too closely imitated the format of OD&D and I think that's true. I believe McKinney might have presented his ideas more clearly had he not adopted the laconic style of the little brown books and its supplements. At the same time, I'm not sure the old school community really is interested in doing much more than rehashing the past, forever plowing the same creative fields.

Even more disappointing for me, I think, is how the controversy surrounding this book revealed how much old schoolers had forgotten about their own history. There are a handful of things in the unexpurgated version of Carcosa that turn my stomach, but the history of the hobby reveals many earlier products that include things as bad as these and yet I have seen no denunciations of them. I suspect that's because, in this one case, the oft-made criticism that old schoolers wear rose colored glasses when looking at the past is correct. If one were to take an honest look at the things gaming has sometimes coughed up in the pursuit of "verisimilitude," "genre emulation," or "grittiness," you'll find that Carcosa is not unique, never mind uniquely perverse.

All this said, I still wish that an unexpurgated version had never been released. I don't believe that the added detail -- about two pages worth of text in total -- makes the book "stronger," unless by that one means it strengthens the generally nihilistic tone of its setting. I'm just not sure why one would say (or want) such a thing, given that, even without those details, Carcosa is a nasty, brutish setting rather unlike anything ever before offered for D&D.

And that brings me to my final criticism of Carcosa: its claim to the subtitle "Supplement V." As McKinney would have it, Carcosa is the product of an alternate universe, one in which TSR published this book as a supplement to OD&D rather than ending the line and moving on to AD&D. I find this alternate universe implausible for a number of reasons, not least of which being that Carcosa could never have been published in the 70s and it's not primarily because of its content. In form, Carcosa has much more in common with 2e era boxed campaign settings than with OD&D supplements. Not only does it actually present a setting, something no OD&D supplement does, but it also replaces large chunks of the OD&D rules rather than merely providing additional options from which to choose.

Even more significant, I think, is that Carcosa demonstrates a sensibility alien to OD&D. Certainly it draws on many similar sources, but the specific inspirations from which it draws are ones that I have a very hard time imagining ever being attached to D&D, at least in "official" form. Carcosa is a product of very dark fantasy, far darker than the most significant influences on Gygax and Arneson and probably even far darker than almost any fantasy published before the 1990s. Except in its presentation and its self-identification, Carcosa just doesn't feel like an old school product to me, or perhaps it's truer to say that it's a very "postmodern" old school product. By this I mean only that it's a product that is in many ways a commentary on its inspirations as well as a product of them.

That's not a bad thing in and of itself and goodness knows the old school could use a kick in the pants to help it get beyond forever rehashing the "good ol' days." It's possible that, for all its flaws, Carcosa is a happy fall, an occasion for all of us involved in this community to consider what it is we like about the old school and what we think it has to offer us still in 2008. Having watched the reactions in various quarters, I think that, for many grognards, what they want is familiarity and nothing more. Again, that's not a bad thing in and of itself, but I don't think Carcosa can or should be faulted for being unfamiliar, for being willing to do something different than present yet another vanilla fantasy.

At the same time, the mere fact that Carcosa does something genuinely new and different is not enough to free it from criticism. There is, as I hope I have shown throughout this review, much to criticize about Carcosa, both in its content and its presentation. Yet, there is also much to praise. It's a strong but deeply flawed work and I'd like to think that Geoffrey McKinney might take to heart some of what has been said here (and elsewhere) and rework Carcosa into something that allows it to reach its fullest potential. He's already shown he listens, given that he produced an expurgated version, and I think that version makes plain that Carcosa loses nothing by being less explicit in the awfulness of sorcery. I also think that the book would benefit greatly by disentangling itself from OD&D. As written, Carcosa reminds me more of something like Empire of the Petal Throne or Arduin, which is to say, it's really its own game, despite some superficial connections to the OD&D from which it sprang.

On a personal note, I cannot conceive of ever using Carcosa as the basis for a roleplaying game campaign. It's much too bleak and amoral a setting for me and it's too far removed from the D&D traditions that I hold so dear. I am, however, glad to have had the opportunity to read the book, as it's given me the occasion to think carefully about a number of issues that have been swirling in the back of my mind over the last year or so. I haven't come to any conclusions about all of these issues just yet and I may never be able to do so. That I am thinking about them at all is partly due to Carcosa and I find it hard not to be grateful for that, at least. I hope the same is true of many others who have read this frustratingly creative work. I know that future posts to this blog, as well as future old school projects of mine, will benefit from ideas sparked in thinking about and critiquing Carcosa. Few products can say that -- even fewer published in the last 10 years.

Final Score: 3½ out of 5 polearms