Monday, October 19, 2009

Carcosa: a capsule sort-of-review

Geof McKinney's Carcosa (the expurgated version) showed up in the mail on Friday, just as I had ordered. Nice, smooth and swift delivery in the mail. I have been meandering through the text as part of my regularly scheduled procrastination (even though I needed to finish my portion of a grant proposal, five articles, two short papers and a first draft of some survey questions this weekend, I only managed to read 4 articles, skim one, and finish the grant proposal piece -- I need to do a lot of work tonight and tomorrow night....)

This is less a review than a quick set of impressions.

First, it's fascinating to see such a different vision of similar genre stuff that Geof has compared to, say, my Athanor, Blair's Planet Algol, or even Melan's Fomalhaut. Carcosa is simultaneously Gamma World-level gonzo gaming and a grim sort of heavy-metal (both the magazine and the music) world of brutality ahd occult carnage. Its ideosyncratic use of Cthulhu mythos as it appeared in Gods, Demigods and Heroes and Deities and Demigods contributes a lot to the gloom-and-doom sensation, as does its general conceit of showing a world which began as a laboratory for Lovecraftian snake men but has since become run by the former guinea pigs, who now have limited access to the science and sorcery of their former masters, even though that spells certain disaster. The implied hopelessness and grimness of the world is very at odds with its almost-sword-and-planet feel, which gives it some interesting tensions.

Second, there is a lot here I just won't use, and that doesn't bother me. Carcosan sorcerers and the sorcery here is interesting, flavorful, largely foolish to use, and not of interest for me to GM for any length of time, largely because I can't get into it enough. Not to say it isn't good, but like the use of magic in Call of Cthulhu, it represents magic that is either a trap for greedy players looking for power, or rare acts of desperation for desperate PCs who have no better tools to save their hides.

McKinney's use of alignment is good -- and clearer than the usual law/chaos dichotomy. His psionics system and mutations charts I like. The former is a bit random for me, the latter a bit more crawling-chaosy for me, but both have a nice flavor that fits the original D&D rules he is playing with. I may end up using his random robot table, and some space alien technology for Athanor, though, and his view of other alien technologies may be fodder for my own campaign.

The random die mechanic is odd, and I'm not sure I like it. The rolling of hit dice before combat and using hit dice rather than hit points as the measure of current health between fights is either crazy or brilliant, and I'm currently leaning toward the latter, but not sure I would want to commit to that for Athanor. In Carcosa, though, it seems to make a crazy sort of sense and fit the sense of random fatalism that runs through the supplement.

His hex map key is vastly entertaining, and will have me revisiting my own Athanor hex map. He needed some wilderness random encounter tables to really flesh it out, though.

While I appreciate his presentation of the work in the style of an original edition supplement, down to layout style and font choice, the choice to do this is a bit of an odd choice. It has too much world-specific stuff to be like Supplements I-IV, but it lacks more current design elements for published campaigns like political maps, history, overviews, etc. It's neither fish nor fowl, and while the grab-bag nature of the book is entertaining, this often leaves me with a sense of having on the one hand too much of McKinney's world for me to make it completely my own, and too little for me to play in McKinney's. This isn't a major fault-- I might say the same of some of the Wilderland supplements, City-State of the Invincible Overlord, or even the original Empire of Petal Throne -- though EPT has this problem far more than Carcosa does. And we made due in the day, and Carcosa has enough for a DM to muddle through, reading between the lines in this setting and throwing in his or her own brand of weirdness. It's not as if th setting isn't gonzo enough to fit almost anything into.

Overall, Carcosa was entertaining and inspiring, if only to see how much weirdness can still be crammed into the Old-school framework.