Monday, 13 April 2015

Carcosa Expanded Edition - Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Carcosa - Lamentations of the Flame Princess, RPG, Geoffrey McKinney, Review
Author: Geoffrey McKinney
Price: $37.95 (From Noble Knight Games)
Format: Print + PDF
Page count: 275
System: Lamentations of the Flame Princess (implied)
Year: 2011

Note: This post contains content that some may be sensitive to. Please be advised. 

Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa caused a stir when it was first released in 2008 (self published). Clearly situating itself within the Original Dungeons & Dragons paradigm, Carcosa referred to itself as 'Supplement V'. It was the aspects of Carcosa's content more than anything, that caused the controversy. Whether or not this reception was founded, I will leave up to the reader's discretion. I am of the opinion that censorship need only exist in the format of a warning (which is exactly what this product comes with), thereafter the consumer should be able to make an informed decision of the product's merits or shortcomings. That being said, I can completely understand why some felt the way they did about this product, as quite clearly this text falls well outside the realms of 'normal' Dungeons & Dragons. The version that I am reviewing is the Expanded Edition published and released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

The Good
This book comes with a warning: 'For Adults Only!' Like many Lamentations of the Flame Princess products, there is no intention to pander to generic tropes of fantasy role-playing, and in my opinion this is the real strength of the publisher: they are willing to push the envelope of what D&D can be. Like any good art, this is a necessity. Role-playing games are a 'creative' endeavour, thus I do believe the hobby requires artistic integrity for continued development. This is particularly necessary to avoid stagnation (though of course there are appropriate ways to achieve this goal).

The cover and binding of Carcosa is elegant. It is a soft faux-leather/material and is very aesthetically pleasing. It contains an enigmatic illustration of a watery city, spired and illumined with a green moon-like orb, and clusters of green star-like dots. The artwork reminds me strongly of the old pulp tales, though stylistically it is dissimilar. It is the intrigue of the illustration that emanates a distinctly pulpy aura. It is successfully mysterious. The back of the book has neither illustration nor words, and the spine presents only a curious symbol, similar stylistically to the cover illustration. Both cover and spine are devoid of words or title, thus the reader is forced to open the pages to extract the book's identity. It is reminiscent of Lovecraft's Necromonicon and is extremely thematic to the text - being a grimoire of forbidden knowledge. 

Carcosa Extended Edition Map - LotFP Geoffrey McKinney RPG
Lurid purple maps are within the front and back covers: one is of Carcosa's overland geography, the other details one particular hex. While bright and flamboyant they again dwell securely within the palette of the book, following the green, purple and black colour scheme. The maps are a big improvement (in my opinion) to those featured in Isle of the Unknown, both in clarity, thematics and practicality. I like them. 

The other illustrations within the book vary from intriguing to somewhat repulsive. One image in particular I find hard to look at: it depicts a vat of naked humans, bearing expressions of both misery and fear on their faces. They are being ignored by a stern sorcerer intent on sacrificing them, and a prodigious entity above him to whom he makes the sacrifices (see below).

 Carcosa - Lamentations of the Flame Princess Geoffrey McKinney Illustration Inside
Others illustrations depict monstrous beings, fight scenes between denizens, prodigious cauldrons filled with strange substances, dinosaurs, aliens and technology, fungus and weird structures. In sum the artwork is very well executed, save for that one image that is personally too much for me. The layout, like most Lamentations of the Flame Princess products is exceptional. I value the precision of the font size, and the sparseness of words on each page. It reads more like a guide and less like a scholastic textbook, as other RPG products are wont to do.

Besides appearances, the content is consistently creative. I find it a marked improvement over Isle of the Unknown, resulting in a clearer, cohesive, and more considered work. The introduction makes it transparent to the reader that 'Carcosa is not Tolkien, high fantasy, or mainstream fantasy'. Good! The literary inspirations are crystalline, citing Lovecraft, Howard, Carter and Moorcock. The book continues with dice conventions. Carcosa departs markedly from conventional D&D (or whatever you're running) as far as dice rolling is considered. Instead, monster and PC hit die vary encounter to encounter, as does the amount of damage one deals. Handfuls of dice are rolled, rather than the few one may normally utilise within a game. There are tables for measuring this, and the mechanics are fairly clear (if slightly superfluous). I asked Geoffrey about the rationale for this mechanic recently on Dragonsfoot. His explanation was that he had purchased a large quantity of dice and needed to create a mechanic to use them. As they say, 'necessity is the mother of invention'. I'm unsure at this stage whether I would use this approach, but thinking about it, it could add some uncertainty and ambiguity to match the theme of the setting's hellish and esoteric landscapes. Characters within Carcosa may only be fighters and specialists (similar to a thief), and a new class: the sorcerer. The latter can fight in armour and utilise weaponry as a fighter, but have access to the hideous rituals within this tome. 

The psionics system within Carcosa is simple and effective, though I personally would increase the % chances for characters to potentially possess these abilities. Besides this minor nitpick I prefer McKinney's implementation above other systems I've seen. Following the psionics section, other aspects of Carcosa are detailed, such as lotus plants and their effects, various technologies of enigmatic purpose, and an adventure 'Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer'. Sorcerous rituals are detailed within this book too, and generally require an ingredient that must be gathered from a certain hex, and most require the sacrifice of human beings. These types of entries - the sacrifice, the worship of appalling entities, and the overall mistreatment of humanity was where much of the controversy stemmed. I can see why, as again, some people veer well away from these themes. My own games can be pretty macabre, but these descriptions were occasionally off-putting. At times I did feel squeamish reading through some of the ritual descriptions.

Carcosa - Lamentations of the Flame Princess Geoffrey McKinney Illustration Inside
The monsters are clear and inventive. There was nothing out of place or tacky about the monsters (unlike Isle of the Unknown). I would definitely use them within my games. The hex descriptions contain two points of interest. For those running a hex crawl these points of interest are exactly that: interesting. Again I must make a comparison to Isle of the Unknown where many of the hexes were essentially useless, rendering a hex crawl therein nigh impossible without some serious intervention. Hexes detailed in Carcosa are much more compelling. It makes me want to run an adventure or two in Carcosa immediately. You can literally conduct a hex crawl with this product. The end portion of the book describes 'humanity on Carcosa' in addition to tables, mutations and a robot generator. All good stuff.  

The Bad
While there weren't any significant shortcomings to this work, I do feel like the sorcerous rituals became somewhat repetitive. Yes, okay, we need to sacrifice some green men, or yes, we need to find some maidens and slaughter them between a black stone, etc. I find this overall repetition recurrent within McKinney's work - one idea is hashed and rehashed repetitively. In Isle of the Unknown the repetition was that 'everything is unique' (until nothing is unique), in Carcosa it's that 'everyone is really wicked, worships loathsome entities, and people get sacrificed a lot'. I found this repetition to be far more digestible in the current work because it fit the overall theme. It was without the kitschiness Isle of the Unknown possesses. Carcosa is very inventive and compelling. McKinney should be proud. As I mentioned above, one particular illustration bothered me, but the warning on the cover is very explicit about the contents being explicit. I knew what I was getting myself into. Please let me be clear that this work is DEFINITELY NOT for some gamers. If you're into high fantasy, with elves, dwarves, halflings and gnomes living in basic harmony, replete with very obvious baddies and goodies this work may leave you reeling; no one is 'good' in Carcosa. Some of the themes and descriptions are pretty dark. In Carcosa Drizzt will think the Underdark was a vacation, Elminster will be devoured by the Old Ones and Tasslehoff will suffer a long and grizzly death, hopefully along with the rest of his kind (can you use Kender for these rituals?). 

Final Thoughts
Overall Carcosa is a commendable effort. McKinney's writing and creativity is noteworthy in this volume, while Lamentations of the Flame Princess' exceptional production values make this book a truly visceral experience. If the content of this review appeals to you thus far I would recommend its purchase. If you're bored by generic D&D fantasy, you'll probably find this work much to your liking. Conversely this tome is not for the faint-of-heart. It does contain horrific themes, and as such, may be off-putting to some.