Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Carcosa Problem: The Haves and the Have Nots... or, Humans Are Not Cool

When I got the original edition of Carcosa back in 2008, the view I had of the setting was one of primitive man armed with sword and vile sorcery making its way in a cruel, cruel world.

There were pages and pages of ray guns and technological marvels and all the things the Space Aliens, Great Race, and Primordial Ones have made.

Mentally I treated those things the same way I did most of the magic items and high level spells in D&D - almost background noise, stuff that I suppose is in the setting, somewhere, but nothing that will ever show up in a normal campaign.

But that's not right, is it?

Carcosa's Old Ones are meant to be interacted with, meant to be battled. That's why there are all those rituals, that's why the "gods" have combat stats, that's why there are all these rocket launchers and power armor, that's why there are these strange dice procedures... This isn't traditional D&D where you eyeball the monster HD and the PC levels and estimate how things might go.

And on a pure in-setting level, you have all these advanced races that ruled the world for aeons, most of them are still around here and there. There's a lot of this stuff to be found.

I think to decide that the PCs won't ever really take on Cthulhu, or that they shouldn't ever drive a tank, or that the rituals should be assumed to only be used by NPCs removes a little bit about what makes Carcosa special. It's making sane what was clearly designed to be utterly insane.

But humans are primitive on Carcosa. They can't make any of this cool stuff on their own.

To me this creates a power disparity on Carcosa. The haves and the have nots. Who has discovered and mastered some of this superior technology, and who has not?

And how to depict both the primitive nature of humans and the access some have to the advanced tech?

One thing we needed to get in there was a cyborg Spawn of Shub-Niggurath. Them wacky space aliens, right?

Talk about have-nots, Bone Men look like they don't even have skin...

I can't help but address something else as well. The 300 Carcosa pic that Rients first posted is cool and all, but there is a reason why that sort of thing won't be in the book:

We're intentionally avoiding it.

Geoffrey's art guidelines said that humans should be depicted only in certain ways (killing other humans in a ritual, getting victimized by a monster, looking up in horror at some horrible thing)...

"Carcosa is certainly not a planet in which adventurers 'pose for the camera.'"

These guidelines are obviously not unbendable, as Geoffrey approved these two pics here and they seem to not fit any of those things. But notice that humans are still second banana to other things in the pictures. The Bone Men are tiny in comparison to the beast in the second picture and one can imagine all it has to do is sweep a tentacle and the men are in a world of hurt. The humans in the first picture are completely obscured in technology, and the focus of the pic is the weird creature in the foreground.

In play, PCs are going to try to make their mark, do all the cool things, become powerful. A bunch of art showing how cool the PCs could be would be conveying exactly the wrong message though. The book's job is to communicate the setting. And on a setting level, humans just aren't that important in Carcosa. Yet.


  1. That's a problem? The forests aren't full of mostly benevolent wise partying-elders, the mountains are not honeycombed with greedy yet oddly reliable and generally helpful warriors, and quite green fields don't have pleasant plump little chaps sitting by their cottage doors enjoying a good pipe?

    Men (or anyone willing to talk with PC's) have yet to build great empires, there are no trustworthy roads and there isn't a local pub of note where PC's can sit and wait for adventure to knock on the door while they wait with drinks in hand. A very different place form the average FRPG setting indeed.

  2. The problem isn't with the setting, but in figuring out how to present it. :)

  3. If you've left the reader asking "Who are the good guys ?" You're on the right track.

  4. Good post, James.

    One of the things I wanted to do with Carcosa is make sure that the PCs don't have to wait till they achieve high levels to get the good stuff. In standard D&D, how long would it take for a magic-user to go from 1st to 18th level? Probably at least 5 years if you play every week. Probably at least 20 years if you play once a month. Some of us won't even be alive in 20 years. How sad to think that you won't get to experience a cool part of a game because you'll die of old age first.

    But in Carcosa, every single ritual, every single item, and every single psionic power is usable by even 1st-level characters. The players never have to think, "Man, that's a cool ritual. Too bad I won't be able to use it until 2013 at the very earliest." Instead they can think, "I could use that ritual RIGHT NOW if I only had the necessary material components. Let's plan an expedition to get those ASAP!"

    It was pretty bizarre for TSR back in 1980 to publish a 144-page book full of gods with combat stats, and then say, "But don't ever fight them." In Carcosa, everything with a stat is a totally legitimate foe. And even 1st-level PCs could conceivably take-out an Old One with the right planning, the right tools, and a good bit of luck. Conversely, even the most minor of Old Ones could eradicate a group of 20th-level PCs.

    Nothing is off-limits on Carcosa. You can do low-level slogs. You can do megadungeons. You can do continent-spanning quests. You can go toe-to-toe with the Old Ones. Whatever. It is a world of dark and weird science-fantasy for you to do with as you please.

  5. As far as leisure time activities go...Carcosa is looking like a REAL close second to sex, and I'm talking the GOOD kind here, with another real live person in the room with you and all that!

  6. Dammit, I want to DM Carcosa right now! Such a great setting with such elegant rules (specifically skills and encumbrance of which every OSR game could only benefit), and those terrific images I have in my mind, seeing the PCs wielding swords and rayguns while fighting horrific and alien monsters...

  7. I like Carcosa because it throws all the established conventions of traditional D&D fantasy out the window, and presents a world that is unique and exotic.

    TSR tried doing something that with Dark Sun, but executive meddling made it just a Dying Earth version of the AD&D multiverse. Yes, they made things different, but by the end of the day, you still have elves & halfing, useful magic items are still in abundance, alignment still dominates PCs' actions, and the killing & usurping of the Dragon Kings are strictly off limit (this was addressed in Dragon mag, and they scorn the player for "braking the setting").

    One of the frustrations I initially had with Carcosa was the lack of art. It talked about the different skin colors of people, but nothing about what sets them apart culturally - beyond the common use of purple prose for names and titles. ;P But it truth, I find the unambiguity refreshing and makes the setting more open-ended. As a DM, I could describe the setting (to my players) as a dark fantasy anime version of itself (grognards tend to get pissy over mixing anime and D&D, but they never seen anything like Bastard!!), or I can tell them that everyone is naked, save for for their faces, witch they cover with unique and elaborate masks and headdress.

    I find the setting to be like B2: Keep on the Borderlands, but without the safety of Keep, and the disputed tribal land that is the Caves of Chaos makes up the societies typically encountered by Carcosain adventurers.

  8. Well, you need picture of endgame stage "King Conan" sort of pic, posing as godkings on throne their advanced weapons at arms reach dignitaries offering PC's tribute.