Thursday, December 1, 2011

Carcosa: What Is It?

Men of 13 Races fight for life and power, ignorant of their common past.

When other tools fail, Foul Sorcery is wielded without compunction.

Enigmatic and inhuman Space Aliens have crash-landed on the world.

Psionic Warriors turn the tables on the uncaring Great Old Ones with Strange Technology from the stars and beyond time’s provenance, risking Blasphemous Madness and worse to tame the Hostile Planet and push back the darkness... for a time.

CARCOSA is a weird science-fantasy horror setting compatible with traditional fantasy role-playing games. It includes:

  • a new character class: the Sorcerer who summons and controls Cthulhoid entities
  • a new form of magic, including 96 sorcerous rituals
  • an easy-to-use psionics system
  • dice conventions
  • dozens of new monsters
  • tables for the random generation of spawn of Shub-Niggurath
  • 5 colors of the desert lotus
  • countless high-tech weapons and items of the Space Aliens
  • Random Robot Generator
  • technological artifacts of the Great Race and of the Primordial Ones
  • mutations
  • 800 encounters on an outdoor hex map with an area of 34,880 square miles
  • the Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer introductory adventure
  • and more, all extensively cross-referenced and indexed!
Carcosa was originally released as a homemade 96 page booklet in October 2008, intended as Supplement V to the "original fantasy role-playing game published in 1974." This new printing is thoroughly reorganized and expanded and illustrated, no longer claims a direct tie to that game, and is presented in a 288 page deluxe hardcover format.

Here are some reviews for the original Carcosa release:
Dragonsfoot reviews by Korgoth, Melan, Spinachat
Grognardia Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Jeff's Gameblog
Some King's Kent

When Carcosa was released in 2008, it quickly became the controversial topic in old school gaming. As a fan I think the controversy was rather ridiculous (not liking it, fine, not buying it because of such content, fine, being outraged by a wholly fictional work to the point where you insult the writer and rage against those who weren't themselves outraged is silly), but even today people verbal take shots at the author in passing (and the book's been out of print for over a year!) so I think a thorough discussion of the portions of the book causing the controversy is in order.

The controversy is due to I believe just four rituals (out of 96 rituals, all of which take up 33 pages in a 288 page book - 18 out of 96 pages in the original edition) in the book, all dealing with dry descriptions of torture.

My own feeling about this is that these ritual descriptions are, if not absolutely essential, then at least overwhelmingly effective at communicating the absolute horrific and alien nature of Carcosa more than all the laser guns and mutant dinosaurs. It makes sorcery forbidden and dangerous in a way we're always told it should be in genre fiction and gaming flavor text, but never seems to be during actual play. It takes the perhaps too-familiar Lovecraftian bestiary and marries it to a magic system that many find beyond the pale. It is, in most situations, unspeakable.

They are not integral parts of play (refs and players must actively choose to make them part of their games), the text does not glorify or condone the acts either in the game or in real life, and nothing suggests that anyone should do these things or be OK with others doing them in real life.

As the publisher of the new version of Carcosa, I realize this will cost me some sales. But that's OK. Carcosa is not for everyone. Nothing is for everyone. Better to stand by the author's vision and intent than censor it or water it down scrounging for every last possible sale.

While I don't believe these disclaimers and warnings will prevent the controversy from flaring up again (argument and outrage pretty much dominated every single discussion about it a few years ago - which is why I spend so much time on it here), I can at least do what I can to get the word out to make sure that people who really would be truly bothered by this sort of thing don't spend their money on it.

Carcosa is the real deal, fearlessly imaginative, with everything dialed up to 11. The wondrous and fantastic, as well as the icky stuff.

Unsure if it would be distressing to you? Here are the author's own words about the whys and wherefores of Carcosa sorcery, including the text of the ritual that caused the most outrage:

Why Carcosan Sorcery Is the Way It Is

Carcosa will not be to everyone’s taste. I certainly have no quarrel with anyone who does not buy it. This post is to explain why I included the level of detail regarding the human sacrifice necessary for most sorcerous rituals on Carcosa.

Carcosan Sorcery is literally INHUMAN.

Humans did not create sorcery. The Snake-Men did. The (now thankfully extinct) Snake-Men originated tens of millions of years before man. These ophidian beings were not only literally cold-blooded, but they were also without emotion or pity. Imagine the eyes of a snake endowed with calculating intelligence, but no conscience whatsoever. These intelligent and amoral beings deeply studied the arcane aspects of existence, and in so doing discovered that a certain measure of control could be exerted over the very powerful Cthulhoid beings infesting both the world of Carcosa and the universe. This control could best be achieved with bloodshed. Snake-Men sorcerers, over countless millennia, honed and perfected their sorcerous arts. This included breeding the sub-human man-apes into the thirteen races of men, so as to be the most efficacious of sacrifices.

The Snake-Men subjected these hapless humans to the most horrific and degrading of fates in pursuit of sorcerous power. So please note: Carcosan sorcery (with its human sacrifice, rape, and torture) was created by an inhuman race that regarded us as we regard laboratory rats. The Snake-Men had as much sympathy for a human baby being sacrificed as we do for our veal dinner.

There is a grim justice in the ultimate fate of the Snake-Men: “At the height of their powers, the Snake-Men destroyed themselves by releasing ultratelluric forces impossible to control” (p. 111 of the expanded Carcosa book). In short, the Snake-Men paid for their sins. They were destroyed by their own sorcery.

Most Carcosan Sorcerers are EVIL.

In swords & sorcery literature, most sorcerers are evil. That is also true on Carcosa. Most sorcerers are reprehensible, disgusting, shocking, cruel, perverse, etc. Only a very few are otherwise, and they generally limit themselves only to the rituals of banishing (which do not require human sacrifice).

“Sorcerers Never Prosper,” or “Sorcery Doesn’t Pay”

The dangers inherent in sorcery are such that precious few sorcerers live to a ripe old age. Most eventually get destroyed by the Cthulhoid entities they conjure and/or attempt to control. Like the Snake-Men, sorcerers pay for their sins. And what the Cthulhoid entities do to sorcerers is a lot more painful than what sorcerers do to their sacrifices.

“So how can I use this kind of sorcery with explicit violence in a game?”

The explicit details can serve these two functions:

They make sorcerers GREAT villains for the player characters to slay. As a player I find it so much more satisfying to slay “the sorcerer who raped and killed adolescents” than to slay “the sorcerer who did some very bad things (details undisclosed)”.
They make PC sorcerers think twice before performing a sorcerous ritual. Several times in my Carcosa campaign, a PC sorcerer would be researching how to (for example) bind a certain Cthulhoid entity, and upon finding out the inhuman things required, DECIDED TO CEASE HIS RESEARCH. (“That price is too high.”) Many players will balk at sacrificing human NPCs when faces are put upon those NPCs, and when horrific details are given for what has to be done to those NPCs. Many players will refuse for their characters to kidnap an 11-year-old White virgin, rape her, and slay her. However, if the requirements of the ritual were vaguely worded (“requires one human sacrifice to be tormented and slain”), fewer players would balk. If the descriptions of the sorcery in Carcosa were less explicit, player character sorcerers would be more likely to engage in human sacrifice. The explicit language actually reduces (though it does not eliminate) the frequency of PCs sacrificing humans.

“Just How Explicit Is the Book, Really?”

M. A. R. Barker’s The Book of Ebon Bindings (published in 1978) was my model. Prof. Barker’s book is full of unflinching, clinical detail of human sacrifice, torture, and rape. Neither his book nor mine has the attitude of “Kewl! Blood and sex! Yeah!” Let us compare two passages from each work:

From the section on how to summon Gereshma'a, He of the Mound of Skulls (pp. 28-29 of The Book of Ebon Bindings): "In each of these three spaces let sacrifices be bound: in the northern pentagon a male human, in the western a female, and in the eastern an infant of not more than seven years...Then shall the evocator praise the Demon Lord and make the sacrifices. The infant shall be held head downward, and its belly shall be slit with the Ku'nur [the jag-edged sacrificial knife of the temple of Sarku]. When the blood is drained, the body shall be flung outside the diagramme."

From the ritual of The Primal Name of the Worm (p. 65 of the expanded Carcosa): “This one-hour ritual requires the sorcerer to stand in cold, waist-deep water and to there drown a Jale male baby. He must rend the corpse with his own hands and spill the blood upon a stone taken from the phosphorescent cave in hex 0607.”

From the section on how to summon Ka'ing (p. 66 of The Book of Ebon Bindings): "[T]wo of the evocators shall go to a female sacrifice, and while one engages in sexual congress with her, the other will slay her with a garrote made from her own hair. Then the other female sacrifice shall be treated in the same wise, and thereafter two female evocators shall perform the same act with the two male sacrifices, save that the garrotes shall be of the hair of the evocatresses instead."

From the ritual of Summon the Amphibious Ones (p. 70 of the expanded Carcosa): “This eleven-hour ritual can be completed only on a fog-shrouded night. The sorcerer must obtain the root of potency found only in ruined apothecaries of the Snake-Men. The sacrifice is a virgin White girl eleven years old with long hair. The sorcerer, after partaking of the root, must engage in sexual congress with the sacrifice eleven times, afterwards strangling her with her own hair. As her life leaves her body, 10-100 of the Amphibious Ones will coalesce out of the mists.”

As one can see, the level of detail and its clinical character is very similar in The Book of Ebon Bindings and in Carcosa. If Carcosa “crosses a line,” then it merely crosses a line that was already crossed 30 years earlier by The Book of Ebon Bindings. I regard M. A. R. Barker as one of the Five Great Men of FRPGs (along with Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Bob Bledsaw, and David Hargrave). Prof. Barker’s credentials are impeccable. I am confident that I am on safe and appropriate ground when I use his publications as a guide.

In the end, it’s all merely a game, fantasy, and words on paper. None of it is real.
So if reading descriptions of imaginary aliens doing horrible things to other made-up aliens on a planet 153 light years away from Earth for the purpose of influencing fictional slime/tentacle monsters is truly distressing to you, do not buy Carcosa.

(A final note: By request, a month after its original release, Carcosa was also made available in an expurgated edition, removing the most-complained about elements from the book. After the outcry and the requests for such a thing, after all was said and done after two years of the original edition being on sale in both versions, less than 15% of the book's total sales, including print and PDF, were for the expurgated version. LotFP will not be publishing an expurgated version.)

Get ready everyone... it's going to be another interesting ride.

Any other questions you have about Carcosa?


  1. What can you do with Carcosan sorcery? Will these Cthulhoid entities you summon with vile deeds bestow you with power of some utility, or is it more like Pokemon, where pretty much the only thing you can do with your summons is to have them fight each other? Does the range of utility compare with eg. traditional D&D spellcasters, who can not only destroy things, but also transform and create?

    The question naturally occurs, considering the horrible price of sorcery. Paying those sorts of prices for the sake of mere destruction truly is a chump's game - which fits the genre just fine, of course.

  2. Those rituals created all that fuss? They're not as graphic as I was expecting. Different tastes I guess.

    On another note: any chance of a preview of something from the book? A ritual, or monster, or something to wet the appetite?

  3. Preview spreads from both Carcosa and Isle will go up tomorrow.

  4. no longer claims a direct tie to that game

    Is the new Carcosa designed for LotFP: WFRP, or is it more generic?

  5. Carcosa uses the LotFP AC scale and saving throw categories, and that's about all that ties it specifically to my game.

  6. "Prof. Barker’s book is full of unflinching, clinical detail of human sacrifice, torture, and rape."

    Is the serial comma also used throughout the text of the book?

  7. Pretty brilliant that two of the Expurgated Rites are now enshrined forever & verbatim in the product FAQ.

    Can you remind us in greater detail WHAT'S NEW? I see the page count zoom and think, ugh, more padded stat blocks and fan fiction. Surely that's not the case!

  8. Not really seeing how any of that is worse than the lurid descriptions in books like Malleus Malleficarum. On top of which, it's made pretty clear that it's the fact they've been engaging in this kind of stuff that means sorcerors need killing.

  9. What's new from the original edition:

    New intro
    400 added hex descriptions/encounters (from Chris Robert's Strange Sights of the Doomed World Carcosa document, revised for this publication)
    Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer added
    Humanity on Carcosa section
    Random encounter tables
    Added reference tables and index

    Plus extensive reformatting. You'll see what this looks like tomorrow.

  10. Big fan of the original work. Looking forward to this very much.

  11. "What can you do with Carcosan sorcery?"

    There are six types of rituals. Here I'm quoting from pp. 12-13 of the book:

    Banishing rituals dispel entities so that they flee from the Sorcerer.

    Conjuring rituals summon entities. Note that these rituals typically do not grant the Sorcerer any control over the conjured being, though sometimes it will arrive well-disposed towards the Sorcerer.

    Invoking rituals contact mysterious entities, typically to obtain information from them so that the Sorcerer can obtain the knowledge necessary to perform other rituals.

    Binding rituals force entities to obey the Sorcerer. Unless otherwise noted, the Referee rolls a die to determine how many days a ritual of binding is effective. The Sorcerer will know the result 50% of the time, and the other 50% of the time he will not know how many days the entity will be bound to him.

    Imprisoning rituals keep entities confined to a certain space. This confinement can typically be ended only by a Sorcerer freeing it with a ritual of conjuration.

    Tormenting rituals cause great pain to entities
    imprisoned by a sorcerous ritual.

  12. "Is the serial comma also used throughout the text of the book?"


  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Nothing wrong with a serial comma. I use it all the time in some genre fiction and I've never had an editor complain. It's a stylistic thing. The development of "full-stop-short-sentence Nazism" is a recent development. Due in large part to the reduced attention span of modern readers. Write to your audience. As much as we joke about gamer ADD, most of the games target audience (Old School gamers that grew up reading tales of things from beyond the veil) will be entirely comfortable with this style of writing. After all, it fits the genre.

    Anyway, back to my main point:

    That's it?

    That's what the fuss was about?

    I wasn't part of the OSR scene back in 2008 so I missed Corcosa entirely first time around, but I still hear the odd comment about how outrageous it was. Hell yes, the subject matter in those rituals is disturbing. But the number one rule of fiction writing is "show, don't tell".

    A ritual that requires the molestation and sacrifice of two virgin males and two virgin females: that's telling.

    The examples Raggi provide are showing. If your PC's walk into a scene where you see that described, you're going all out, balls-to-the-wall to take those bast**ds down. Dead henchmen, dead PC's scattered from here to Sunday, your group is NOT going to be leaving that room while any one of those sorcerous scum-buckets is still alive.

    That's action

    That's adventure

    That's excitement.

    Players will talk about a session like that for years.

    Contrast THAT reaction with a likely reaction from the same group of players given a "Dumbed-down" description in line with the 2nd edition "don't upset the religious nutters" years:

    GM: Four cowled figures, are chanting while poised above four naked human adolescents: 2 male, 2 female. The naked humans are chained to stone slabs carved with brown-stained runnels leading to a drain on the floor. No-one looks up as you enter. The victims appear to be drugged.

    Player A: So they've got four naked people tied up to sacrificial alters?

    GM: Yeah!

    Player B: Crap. I don't think we can handle a fight like this guys. Our fighters are low on hit points and I'm all out of healing. Four sorcerers? Just how tough is that going to be?

    Player C: Yeah, good point. have they seen us yet?

    GM: No, their pretty much intent on their unspeakable acts of horror and depravity.

    Player A: Okay, tough luck for the victims. We bug out, tool up and come back later.

    Even if they'd stayed to fight, it would have been with a much reduced sense of the drama, urgency, tension and outright desperation of a low hit point party faced with some murderous piece of filth raping a dying girl while his buddy strangles her and two laughing women look on.

    Damn, that would get my blood boiling. It would get any-ones blood boiling. If you don't want to desperately charge in and put a stop to that sh*t, you're not human.

    And yes, putting a stop to that sh*T by walking away from the gaming table is a totally viable option if that scene is too intense for you.

    That said, if your DM has allowed you to sit at his table without knowing how graphically brutal this setting can be, You'd be quite justified in punching him out.

    Personally, I don't see anything inherently wrong with this level of violent horror, provided everyone at the table is playing with informed consent. I've seen worse -a lot worse- depicted on album covers.

    Note: Edited for spelling and grammar prior to re-posting.

  15. Brian, there is no need to justify the serial comma to me. I hate people who do not use it and wish there was a Torment Serial Comma Omitter spell I could use on them.

  16. Never thought for one second that I had too. I just like to rant on my pet topics every know and then, just like everyone else.

  17. Yeah, Carcosa is a dark and disturbing place. Like their inhumane Sorcerers and the eldritch gods they summon, even their humble little commas are quite... "serial." *creepy grin*

  18. I'll buy Carcosa. I may try to run Carcosa.

    And my players will do everything in their power to desecrate, rape, murder, befoul, and ruin. Because they are trolls. And I really don't know how to dissuade them. :-(

  19. @Jim

    You monster. . .

    of the awesome publications!

    Keep up the good work.

  20. So what if you want to play a heroic sorcerer like N'Longa of Solomon Kane stories? Wrong game or possible?

  21. I do believe that none of the Banishing rituals require sacrifices.

  22. I will be girding my loins (a very small task, assure you) for game and for the upcoming battle to defend it from the prigs and prudes.