Check for Traps
Learning from the Masters, Again

Alexander Macris | 6 Apr 2011 14:00
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Welcome back, readers! It's been a longer hiatus than I expected or intended. But hopefully you've used your time off productively. Please raise your hand if you've started a new campaign based on the principles I've been outlining? Good, good. Those of you raising your hand can go run their game now. Those of you who aren't raising your hand, read on, because today's material will be what inspires you. This column, we're going to be learning from the masters, again - taking a look at Geoffrey Mckinney's Supplement V: Carcosa and Zak Smith's Vornheim: The Complete City Kit .

These two supplements, both designed for old school Dungeons & Dragons but readily adaptable to most RPGs, virtually demand to be reviewed together. First, both provide a setting - the ancient, alien world of Carcosa and the grim, grey maze of Vornheim, respectively. But more than setting, they both aim at providing a tool kit for gamemasters. Carcosa is a supplement for creating your own sword-and-planet weird tales, while Vornheim is a supplement for urban adventures in any fantasy city. Finally, both Geoffrey Mckinney and Zak Smith design with an impressionistic, minimalist style, providing a framework of rules that shows what the setting is like without having to paint all of the details.

The minimalist approach is intentional. Zak explains his philosophy explicitly on his blog as a guide for would-be setting designers: "I think if you want to give the world a setting, don't tell us, show us. RPG writers are good at writing rules - rules that simulate genres - so give us the setting in the form of rules (and monsters and items and all that) and nothing else." This philosophy has seen little implementation in recent years outside of a few products from the Old School Renaissance. Perhaps because so many buyers no longer actively play RPGs, most of today's RPG products are written to be read rather than played. But for the purposes of actually playing RPGs, the "show, don't tell" approach that Zak avows has substantial appeal. It's literally the difference between having to remember that the heraldic sign of House Drakomir was described on page 7 of the Society and Politics section as a green dragon on black - as compared to just rolling on the "Heraldic Signs" table when a noble shows up.

The Shadows Lengthen in Carcosa

Supplement V: Carcosa models itself after the famous supplements of the original Dungeons & Dragons game (those were Supplement I: Greyhawk, Supplement II: Blackmoor, Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry, and Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods, and Heroes). Even the format - an 8" x 5" pamphlet - mirrors those ancestral works.

Flipping through Carcosa, you will find 4 pages of character creation rules; 2 pages of psionics; 4 pages of alternative dice mechanics; 18 pages of sorcerous rituals; 21 pages of monsters; 10 pages of equipment; and 24 pages of map locations. You will find 0 pages on history, society, politics, major NPCs, or meta-plots. In short, it follows the "show, don't tell" method very closely! And this method works. Despite lacking any of the fluff text we've come to expect in setting supplements, Carcosa is among the most flavorful settings ever created for any fantasy game.

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