Direbane is an abode to share artifacts, simulacra, histories, and other items of note related to ongoing years adventuring.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

I have this sense that some in the RPG developer community are still (in the year 2018) twisted up about this...

Friday, October 17, 2008 (Ha, 18 days before I made a decision to attend law school no less - ML)

(by James Edward Raggi IV)

"The good record review describes what the record means, not what the record is." - METAL Diamonds and Rust (1999)

"Summon the Amphibious Ones: 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." - Carcosa, page 31

Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa, audaciously labeled as Supplement V (and thus belonging directly to the 1974 version of D&D), has created a firestorm of controversy and moral grandstanding that has unfortunately overshadowed the content itself. This being the case, a thorough look at both the product, and the outrage, is warranted.

Carcosa exposes the failure of at least part of the "old school" community and why it is no different than the mainstream of gaming. Instead of being seen as a toolkit to use for ideas, as is the OD&D way, the book is being largely decried as morally bankrupt by people who, for the most part, have not seen it, and of those that have, are concentrating on minute details, or one bit out of many presented. Is the traditional (or "old school," or "grognard," or whatever) movement based on willful ignorance? Is it based on the inability to think through the unspoken meaning in source material? Is it based on the whitewashing of what existing game mechanics mean in game-world terms? Is it based on the rejection of verisimilitude in favor of mindless escapism and "adventure"? This sounds more like 4e than 0e to me.

Can it be that the traditional revival is not built on quality games, but rather the wish of its aging players to retain their childhoods? In addition to preserving the games they played, are they also wanting to preserve their juvenile sense of innocence and refuse to let their gaming tastes broaden with them? This whole thing really isn't about nostalgia after all... is it?

And the outrage... I expected it from the RPGsite, but I was rather disappointed to see if from Dragonsfoot. The amount of "this is sick!" "oh my god, awful!" "No right-thinking person would ever even conceive of something like this!" sentiments expressed is just... perplexing. As if real people were being victimized, or real people were being influenced to do anything untoward besides sit around and imagine very wild sci-fi/fantasy.

Worse than the morality police that take offense at fictional atrocities (which don't really happen) against people (that don't really exist) are those who seek to "protect" our hobby by trying to kill anything that might be noticed by outsiders. "The accusations will start again! It will be the Bad Times again!"


Those who seek to imprison our minds and define "good thoughts" and "bad thoughts" should be ignored in our daily lives, defied in our imaginations, and fiercely fought, in real life by real means, whenever they seek to limit us.

This fear of attention and censure and the horror at the idea that maybe, just maybe, we really are different because we pretend to be elves on the weekend, it needs to die. At once. Completely. Let your imagination go and damned be those that say no. We should welcome fights against imagination killers simply because it is the right thing to do. Those that stand up and dare to be targeted should be praised, not vilified.

But we, as a community, obviously haven't learned a thing from the controversies of the 1980s. Gamers of the 70s and 80s survived the persecution and ignorance and harassment only to grow up and become exactly what they once fought. Like the definition of becoming mature is being willing to embrace your parents' mistakes or something.

The problem with the 1980s attacks on D&D wasn't that they were wrong about the content - although the fact that they often were made it easy to totally dismiss them - it was the fact that the content of the game and the fictional environment of the game has absolutely no influence concerning the real-life mentality, ethics, or health of the person playing the game. People influence the game being played, not the other way around.

To be very clear: Nothing in Carcosa even suggests that anything within its pages is anything but pure fiction. The setting is an alien world, with aliens, and Cthulhu, and ray guns and tanks and people with transparent skin. It's all fiction.

And nothing in fiction can ever be as immoral or harmful as the real life censorship of ideas.
So then. Sword and sorcery, as a genre... what does it mean? Dungeons and Dragons and its mechanics and process of play... what do they mean? Are Carcosa's methods and details in line with either, both, or neither?

"A note about Sword & Sorcery gaming: The Swords & Sorcery genre of writing presented characters who were morally ambiguous, not fighting for the greater good, but scrabbling for power and money with only a few scruples. True, they usually had more scruples than the villains, but not by all that much... Swords & Wizardry is designed for the Swords & Sorcery genre, where the characters begin as a seedy band of tomb robbers and mercenaries. Along the way, these characters might become more respectable and morally conscientious as they gain wealth and lands . . . but they might not." - Swords & Wizardry introduction, by Matt Finch.

"The slaughter will continue until play improves." - Stuart "OSRIC" Marshall.

Then there are the jokes about not naming characters until third level since they often don't survive that long anyway. The comments about how D&D characters really aren't "heroes" as a default.

Really, what does that say about D&D?

What moral, civilized characters and plots do we get from Anderson (fornicating paladins, incestuous lovers, baby-napping, genocide, war brides, opposition to the White Christ), Howard ("Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is the wim of circumstance. And barbarism must ultimately triumph."), Vance (Cugel and the virgins, for just one example, the fate of Liane the Wayfarer for another, and many more charming tales), Lieber (Fafhrd is introduced by cheating on and abandoning his pregnant woman), Lovecraft (uncaring universe where mankind is but a speck and to have true knowledge of reality means to be a raving, violent lunatic)? These are core D&D sources.

And... for crying out loud. Carcosa. Robert W. Chambers. Hello? What were you expecting? 

Adventures in Fluffy Bunny Land?

In the D&D game itself, if we're going to ignore the precedent set by Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker's Book of Ebon Bindings (which Carcosa's author claims as his guidepost for what was or wasn't acceptable in his own work... how many are calling for the head of Barker, or at least demanding that gamers shun him?), let's see what wonderful things we can find there. Violence, death, and murder are a given. Stealing and thievery are right there in the rules as an activity of a core class. Mental domination and slavery are detailed as well (what exactly do you think is involved with a Charm Person spell?). Summoning extra-planar creatures is A-OK. Where do half-orcs come from? The assassin is right there as a playable class, and with that comes thorough discussions on the use of poison. Necromancy (every spell caster gets the ability to animate the dead!) is there. Evil exists as an objective, living force in D&D.

To those offended by Carcosa, how do you justify your involvement in a hobby that includes all of this, and draws from such depraved sources in the first place? Orc children are in the monster manual, but just because you abort them (sorry... "house ruling them out") so your players can more guiltlessly slaughter their entire race doesn't mean you're doing anything to eliminate moral issues from the game.

All Carcosa did was, in "modern cinematic" terms (gore hounds can go back to the 60s and 70s for prime splatter, so none of this blaming Hostel and Saw...), was show you what had previously been referred to but not revealed. What do you think was happening all the time in Melniboné? In Stygia? Hell, in the Temple of Elemental Evil? In Erelhei-Cinlu? Just because you try not to think about it doesn't mean somebody is mentally ill if they have.

Dungeons and Dragons, and everything done within the game, no matter how Lawful or Good the characters are, is ugly and brutish and repugnant when looked at through real-world morality. Deal with it or go do something else.

I like this. Carcosa presses contemporary buttons (without even intending to) involving violence, racism, rape, and children, and raises issues of "media responsibility." This is not a retro product. This is very modern and 100% confirmation that OD&D can be vital vibrant, and relevant here and now.

I think the real problem is not the descriptions of the rituals or any content whatsoever. The problem is an issue of character action in relation to player complicitness. And meaningful, intense play comes from engaging players. They must be taken out of their comfort zones and removed from autopilot D&D expectations. "Challenge the player" doesn't just mean logic puzzles and tactical difficulties. Morally uncomfortable situations excite the emotions, and for the quandary to be meaningful, the "wrong" (in real-word, or romantic, or heroic terms) choice must be a viable option. It must convey benefits equal to, or greater than, doing the obvious "right" thing. Heroism's first requirement is sacrifice, after all.

"Challenge the player" can confuse a player's involvement in who their character is both narratively and persona-wise. There should be no confusion - what players do in RPGs should never be confused with who they are or what they do in real life. Fiction. FICTION. FICTION.

And those modern hot-button issues... first is the fetishization of children. I'm not talking about the people who make sex objects out of children, but those who worry about it incessantly. Those who seek to protect children from every danger, real or imagined. Children are people, no more, no less. Short, ignorant people. They are not special. They are not different. In game terms, the helpless and victimized are villagers just as well as children. No difference.

And sexual violence? Reactions are completely out of whack. That recent South Park episode, showing George Lucas and Steven Spielberg raping Indiana Jones in scenes taken from Hollywood rape scenes (The Accused, Deliverance, etc), caused a stir. Yes, sexual violence is serious. I've been in relationships with people who have been raped. But it is not a sacrosanct subject beyond comment, examination, and fictionalization. Especially from a game and genre that often features mass slaughter. And that video I posted last week... rape happens in-game... and... it's a laugh! (you did watch the video, right?)

(the perception of sexual violence - against women and children, anyway - as being worse than other violence, and often being seen as worse than death - says something interesting about our society, doesn't it?)

And it's just the magic-users (or "sorcerers") that have to deal with such unpleasantness. Players have come to feel entitled to play a magic-using class in D&D that is completely divorced from the conditions or consequence that have traditionally afflicted such characters in literature (Faust!) or history (witch hunts!) or in source fiction (Lovecraft, Howard, etc etc etc). Magic, by definition, is transgressive. That players have traditionally gotten to present themselves in D&D as Gandalfy or Merliny is irrelevant. Many things can be done with D&D, and aping the way it's always been done completely defeats the purpose of doing anything new. We do want new, right? Not just more of what's already there?

It's a minefield, but the truth is, the controversy comes from snippets of text taken out of their home environment. The people raging haven't read it. They've read a review.

So what is Carcosa?

It is a 96 page booklet for use with Dungeons and Dragons (the 1974 edition), formatted and published to appear as one of the original books. However, it dismantles and reconfigures the D&D rules for its own purposes. The "OD&D is a toolkit" philosophy has been used to great effect here. Only the core rules are necessary, as Supplements I - IV are not used here.

There are but two classes in Carcosa. Fighting Men (standard from D&D), and Sorcerers. Sorcerers are a new class which cast no spells (so the entire traditional D&D magic system does not exist in Carcosa), but rather perform rituals, which all involve summoning, controlling, or dispelling Great Powers, which are taken from the Cthulhu mold.

Immediately, on the page the sorcerers are introduced, the downsides to their magic is described. The rituals are quite unreliable, and performing the rituals ages the caster a random number of years. Doing these things harms the sorcerer.

Then described are the races of Carcosa, which are pretty much all men, but color coded 13 different ways, including with colors that don't exist in real life.

A two-page new psionics system is then described.

Then it really gets wild. New ways to throw and read dice are introduced. Hit points are rolled at the beginning of every combat, and it is randomly determined what die type is used every time! That's right, if you have six hit dice, you never know if you'll be using 4-sided, 12-sided, or whatever sided dice to determine your hit points. And the monsters use this same method as well. It looks to be close to impossible to determine who might win a combat... there are so many variables that won't be determined until that combat starts.

Damage in combat is similarly random. For every die of damage done, you roll every die type, with the 20-sided determining which of the other dice is to be actually used. The fundamentals of the game are being completely redone in Carcosa.

"The above system of rolling hit dice and damage dice gives an overall average of 4.5 hit points per die. The system allows for greater uncertainty in the game. Cthulhu has 57 hit dice. Perhaps the players will be lucky and Cthulhu will get mere 4-sided hit dice when they attack. Or perhaps the lowly peasants will get lucky and have 12-sided hit dice when the greedy player characters attempt to rob them of their few copper pieces. In short, many hit dice do not necessarily mean many hit points, and few hit dice do not necessarily mean few hit points. Characters can be hopeful even against monsters with high numbers of hit dice, and at the same time cautious about attacking even those with only 1 hit die. Only after combat ensues will anyone (either players or referee) know what sort of hit die everyone involved gets to roll for that combat.

The same idea holds for doing damage. From round to round one’s weapon will be doing different ranges of damage. On some rounds, he will be reading the 4-sided die. On other rounds, he will be reading the 8-sided die. Etc. The pitchfork held by that lowly peasant could do as little as 1 point of damage in a given round, or as much as 12 points of damage."

Then on page 14 begins the descriptions of the rituals. There are 96 of them, all formatted identically to the example at the head of this review, and it takes up about 19 pages. Here is another example:

Obstruction of the Suckered Abomination: In an exposed outcropping of rock in hex 1103 is a layer of white crystal. A handful of it must be powdered fine for use in this one-minute ritual which can succeed only when the sun is visible in the sky. The sorcerer must get close enough to the Suckered Abomination to throw the powdered crystal upon it, which will drive it back to its unknown lair.
As you can see, not all of the rituals involve human sacrifice, but most of them do. It is important to note that every single ritual, no exceptions, involves dealing with these Lovecraftian powers. You aren't slitting throats to cast Magic Missile and you're not being an evil bad guy for the purpose of Cure Light Wounds. It's all Deal-With-The-Devil stuff. Sorcerers are Bad News. Just like in the source fiction.

You can also note here that the components for the spells are very Carcosa-specific (we'll get to the hexes and the map in a moment). This system can't simply be lifted out of Carcosa into your own campaign without some work.

Page 34 brings us the monster list. This, too, is Carcosa specific... the standard D&D monsters do not appear (save for oozes and purple worms). Heading up this list are Cthulhu, Hastur, Azathoth, and Nyarlathotep, just to let you know what you're getting. The pantheon of Lovecraft and friends is here. The most numerous creatures in the world of Carcosa are the Spawn of Sub-Niggurat, with every stat randomly determined. I would have much preferred to see bell-curve tables here than straight rolls (2d10 instead of d20, for example) so some results would be rarer than others, but it creates quick stats and can be used for any OD&D game.

(my Creature Generator is better for this purpose though, so nyah!)

Then the magic items of Carcosa are described. Guess what? Throw out your existing magic item tables, because none of them exist. And in fact... no magic items exist at all. All of the "magic items" are technology left behind by space aliens! Seriously... the section is labeled "SPACE ALIEN TECHNOLOGY," and cannons and tanks and Microwave Radiation weapons are possibilities. There's also various types of lotus powder. And a list of 94 elements which each has a different effect (half damage, two times damage, etc) on one of the 13 different races available for play. There are Black Pudding projectile weapons!

Miscellaneous items fill out the "magic" items table, including battle armor, projector shields, and... the Random Robot Generator! Some weird "artifacts" fill out the section.

Next up is a page of possible mutations, and then... it goes to the hex map. "400 encounters on an outdoor hex map with an area of 34,880 square miles" is what's advertised, and that's what is here. I haven't seen the map myself (I have an electronic copy that was sent to me for review purposes; my physical copy is on its way across the ocean to me) but the encounters are quick and succinct. A few examples:

0113 On moonless nights a sourceless sound like the rattling of bones can be heard.

0210 Village of 180 Blue Men ruled by “the Omnipotent Blue Emperor”, a neutral 12th-level Lord

0507 A cliff runs for several hundred feet along the seashore. Twenty feet below the level of the water a large door has been built into the side of the cliff. Within is a chamber holding a submarine built by the Space Aliens, which can hold up to twelve men. It is relatively simple to operate

0915 Amongst the forest is a stand of several dozen trees that are warm and supple to the touch. They moan from small mouths and ooze deep purple ichor. A sorcerer who kisses these small mouths and drinks of the ichor will be thrown into an ecstasy lasting for 8-12 hours. He will come to himself with the knowledge of The Oozing Column ritual.

Yeah, that's how sorcerers learn their rituals... but yeah, 400 of those, detailed in the book, and we're done.

That's one wild ride. Cthulhu! Space aliens! Ancient Serpent Men! Sandbox Hex Map Encounters! Drugs! Robots! Color-Coded Human Races! Mutants! Dinosaurs! Species 23750! Psychic powers! Mummy brains!

And yeah... evil sorcery rituals. Kind of seems... mundane now, knowing what it's piled together with, doesn't it?

Carcosa is an amazing book in every way. It stays true to its source material, embodies the creative and daring spirit that makes this hobby possible at all, eschews artificial limits of commercialism and public opinion and expands what it can mean to play Dungeons and Dragons. No OGL or other license used.

"Imagine the hell out of it." A little slice of hell has been imagined. Happy now? But this imagination is both the entire value of the book and the obstacle for use. It parallels ideas found in Empire of the Petal Throne and the Arduin Grimoires, is a cross-genre mash of fantastically vibrant and completely crazy ideas, and it completely blows the doors off of the contemporary understanding of what D&D is. If this book does not excite your imagination, nothing will.

But... it's all quite campaign-specific. Each of the previous supplements was more modular, with each of the components able to be used or not as the referee wished. Didn't like (the original) psionics? Or hit locations? Or a class? Use it or don't. But Carcosa makes that difficult... the entire new magic system is tied into the monsters and the setting, and the monsters and items and such are of such a specific flavor that importing them into your game could be difficult. The psionic system here should be easily portable, in addition to the rather revolutionary handling of the dice, and various other matters... but there is a large amount of material that you simply will not be using (or using only with a lot of work) if you are not using the Carcosa setting. That, more than any "objectionable" content, may be what holds this back from reaching a lot of people.

So that's Carcosa.

Don't like it? Think it's in bad taste? Not useful?

Then do it better yourself. McKinney showed us his vision of D&D. Now show us your Supplement VI.

(and with that... LotFP: RPG blog will officially accept product for reviews. If you have a product of interest, and just reading this blog will tell you the scope of what "of interest" would mean, I'm interested. Everything submitted will be reviewed. As long as it's a print product. Email me for contact information.)

No comments:

Post a Comment