This massive campaign setting/hexcrawl clocks in at 283 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 4 pages of index (VERY USEFUL!), leaving us with 274 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
It should be noted that the inside of the covers, respectively, contain gorgeous full-color hex-maps – inside the front cover, we get an overview, while inside the back cover, we gain an in-depth hex-crawl of one such hex, highlighting the sheer VASTNESS of Carcosa. As you can surmise, I actually own the hardcover, namely the second printing, which was provided by a generous patreon for the purposes of reviewing it at my convenience. I subsequently based my review mainly on the print edition, though it should be noted that maps etc. are all included in the pdf-version. The print-version’s pages btw. have a very nice greenish-yellow, unhealthy-looking tint that is not consistent throughout the book; some sections are almost grey, some are greenish, some a bit more yellowish…this book looks almost alive, and in a twisted, twisted way. (And no, to my knowledge, there is no system behind these colors, at least none I could make out.) It should be noted that the pages are formatted for the A5 (6” by 9”)-size of paper, so, if your eyesight’s good enough, you can squeeze up to 4 pages on a regular sheet when printing this, but honestly, I’d suggest getting print here.
All right, so what is this book? Well, if you’re not as well-versed in the OSR-scene, this book can conceivably be called one of the most influential books in that area, a book that imho defined how many of the different weird settings out there have been designed. For one, it is an incredibly hackable book – while there are rules herein, they are very rules-lite. As in: S&W, LL or LotFP look complex and detailed in comparison. These rules generally tie in with the setting and supplement it in several ways, but can, for the most part, be exchanged, tweaked or ignored – it is a vast plus of this book that pretty much nothing herein really requires that you use it with the rules presented within; adapting this to an OSR-setting, 5e or PFRPG just requires a bit of statting and that’s it – the draw here lies within the idea, at least for me.
But let me start the review-proper the same way the book does:
Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
-Robert W. Chambers
If you can read these lines sans a shudder, sans them gnawing into your brain, then kudos – to me, these lines are very much like a song that encapsulates the themes herein. That being said, the tone evoked here is grim; and while Carcosa is intended for mature audiences, it is actually not necessarily as dark as you’d imagine.
Let me elaborate: Carcosa is a world, where no elves or other Tolkienesque critters exist – instead, there are different races of men, with varying skin-colors that range from obsidian-black to translucent and also encompass the colors yale, ulfire and dolm -and yes, these are somewhat explained…and our inability to properly conceive them just adds a perfect piece of flavor to the proceedings.
Rules-wise, Carcosa assumes AC 12 as basis and an ascending AC and calls, at various times, for the random determination of dice to roll: Basically you roll a d20 and the higher you roll, the higher the dice you’ll use – minimum d4, maximum d12. This procedure is used for combat as well, and, surprisingly, for hit points: You roll hit dice number of dice each combat anew: So one combat, you may be really tough…and during another…not so much. When hit dice are depleted, they are taken by the referee, which simulates, to a degree, wounding. It should come as no surprise to the adept number-cruncher that this system generates rather swingy performances; while this may fit to the opium/fever-dream-style haze that makes up so much of this setting’s flair, it proved, at least for me and my group, not rewarding and was pretty much the first rules-component to get kicked out.
Carcosa, at least as written, knows three alignments – Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic, and they don’t say anything about ethics: Lawful characters are generally opposed to the Great Old Ones, Chaotic characters generally serve them. That’s it. Simple. Speaking of simple: Carcosa knows a staggering 2 classes: Fighter and sorceror. And no, sorcerors don’t get to fling spells – instead, sorcerors can find rituals to enslave, banish, torment or otherwise interact with the Great Old Ones…and yes, conjure them. Basically, they have their very own ritual engine, but more on that later. Each ritual, just fyi, carries a risk of unnatural aging…with the exception of banishment rituals.
If you have very high mental attributes, you also have a small percentile chance of having access to psionics – there are 8 such powers and a d4 determines each day how many he has available. Psionics may be used 1/day, plus an additional time per day at every odd level, capping at 5 daily uses at 9th level. Rules-lite fans may applaud the lack of range for mindblasts and similar options, but personally, I prefer the crisp clarity of LotFP, S&W, LL, etc. – in short: The powers are not very well codified from a rules-analysis perspective. If you have access to another psionics sourcebook, I’d suggest using that instead, as what is here can be considered to be an afterthought.
Thankfully, this is the point where the rather subpar components of the rules-section end, for we receive precise effects various lotus-types…and space alien technology.
It is here that I feel I should talk about what Carcosa is: Do you know this mythic age of snake-men and weird skies that Sword & Sorcery novels like to allude to? Where everything was at once alien and advanced, yet almost stone-age primeval? That, to a degree, is Carcosa. The Great Old Ones roam the world, Shub-Niggurath’s endless spawns inhabit the vast fields of Carcosa and entities are broken to the will of mortals, heeding their destructive call…if they do not break the mortals first. Carcosa is also a land where basically a science-fiction space alien civilization once crashed, with relics of strange devices, crashed ships, remnants of their tech, all littering the fields. This is, to a degree, a science-fantasy setting.
At the same time, Carcosa is a land of grotesque protoplasmic colossi, of dinosaurs and savage things, of civilizations with wildly diverging developments, held together by mastery or lack thereof of the mighty Great Old Ones; the technology of the mysterious Great Race representing another aspect of tech, namely the cthulhoid one, where technology is hazardous, extremely mighty and not made for humans. with flavorful artifacts like the spatial transference void, living monoliths and fecund protoplasmic pits begging to b inserted into any game, regardless of rules employed. So that would be the first aspect I’d very much consider a must-scavenge component.
The second would be the aforementioned sorcerous rituals – a total of 32 pages is devoted to these, all denoting their function in a handy formatting decision. Called The Lurker Amidst the Obsidian Ruins? You may need to torment the entity with “The Oozing Column” to get it to do your bidding! Here’s the thing: Many of these rituals require rare and evocative components, some are tied to specific locales and…non-banishing rituals require often absolutely atrocious deeds. Control over these entities requires absolutely horrendously vile acts that should make such decisions very much a difficult endeavor, the obvious dangers of failure none withstanding. This may also be one of the reasons this is denoted as adult content…but if you do look for a concise collection of vile rituals for bad guys to use in your game, look no further than here – the chapter is twisted gold, gleaming in an unhealthy yale!
The next 36 pages of content are devoted to a massive bestiary of entities – from protoplamsic oozes to the Great Old Ones, we get stats for all of them…at least the basics. You know, Hit Dice, AC, No appearing and alignment as well as move rate. Psionics are noted, where applicable and the brief respective texts note special abilities and the like. Amazing: Great Old Ones that can be conjured, tormented, banished, controlled etc. also note their respective associated rituals, which makes this section, layout-wise, surprisingly user-friendly. Big kudos there! While the classics of the Mythos are included, I personally enjoyed the new ones featured herein more intriguing – the Shambler of the Endless Night or the Putrescent Stench, for example.
Now, I did mention that this was, beyond a campaign-kit, basically a colossal hex-crawl, right? 120 pages, to be more precise. Let that sink in. Even if I wanted to provide a highlight-reel here, I’d frankly not be capable of properly depicting the vast amount of adventures to be had in this massive section; these pages literally provide enough potential gaming material for YEARS. Even if your players will never set foot on Carcosa, this section once again proves to be a thoroughly compelling, amazing collection of the strange and wondrous. 20 sample spawn of Shub-Niggurath, a primer on humanity in Carcosa and random encounter tables complement this section before we arrive at a massive Spawn of Shub-Niggurath-generator…and, similarly scavenge-worthy would be the impressive space alien tech generator, the robot generator…and have I mentioned that the book actually codifies the different sorcerous rituals by use in its own appendix?
Editing and formatting are top-notch and really impressive, particularly for a book of this size. Layout adheres, as mentioned before, to a greenish/yellowish sickly page-color and a 1-column standard, with really evocative and copious original b/w-artworks by Rich Longmore. If that sort of thing annoys you, let it be known that bare breasts, human sacrifice and the like can be found among the artworks – never in a gratuitous manner, but yeah – this is a book for adults. The cartography by Robert Altbauer in full-color is amazing and the purple tone chosen for the ground further enhances the sense of weirdness. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, with detailed, nested bookmarks. The hardcover print-version is obviously made to last and with its sickly green cover, fits the theme rather well.
So, have you figured it out? Carcosa is a radical departure from fantasy dipping toes into ” a bit” of mythos; it’s also a radical departure from anything even resembling Tolkienesque fantasy and oh boy, is it better off for it! Carcosa reads, even nowadays, like an inspiring breath of dolm air, as Geoffrey McKinney weaves a yarn like a near-death fever-dream, like an opium-haze; horrific and enticing, suffused with a primal beauty, but also a land of savage horror, where colossal power may be gained by those willing to commit atrocities…at least until they are devoured. Carcosa is majestic in its imaginative vision and in the sheer detail it offers – it should come as no surprise from the above that I was horribly unimpressed by the rules-aspect of this book and frankly wished it had simply used one of the big OSR-rules-sets.
But then again, that is not how I’ll ever use this book. Yes, I’ll run Carcosa as a setting sooner or later, but for now, all of its ideas have this uncanny tendency to worm their way into my games, regardless of system employed. The rituals, described in horrid detail, the entities, the artifacts, the locations that are sure to invade PC-dreams of even those not on this planet…there are very few books that have ever managed to influence me…and other creative folks, to this extent.
I am late to the party, I know. But I’ve written this review mainly to showcase not the flaws of this book, but to highlight its indisputable value, regardless of system or even genre used. Heck, you can have a great change of pace while running a Traveller-game by having the PCs crash there! And yes, you’ll see “Someone has obviously read Carcosa” in quite a few reviews to come – this book’s influence transcends system-boundaries and, to an extent, genres. Heck, it spawns adventures left and right! Kort’thalis Publishing’s “The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence“, for example, just BEGS to be inserted into Carcosa…or act as a gateway to this wretched, wondrous place. Carcosa exists n a weird flux between fantasy, science-fiction, space-opera, horror and sword and sorcery and manages to sit there, upon this metaphorical Lake Hali of systems, confidently, proud, majestic…and utterly, utterly weird.
In short: This is a piece of gaming material that should imho be part of the collection of any self-respecting GM that can handle the mature themes, which may be dark, yes – but to me, the setting never felt that way. Instead, my prevalent feeling was one of wild-eyed wonder…and there are not that many books that can claim having accomplished this. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, unsurprisingly…with one caveat. If you’re looking for hard rules, if you’re not looking for something to hack apart and make your own, then this may not be as useful for you; in such a case, detract a star. Everyone else should, at the very least, check out the pdf of this ulfire gem of a tome.
You can get this amazing, inspiring book here on OBS!
Want the print version? You can order that one here!