Check for Traps
Learning from the Masters, Again

Alexander Macris | 6 Apr 2011 14:00
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Consider, for instance, hex 2402: "Partially buried is the petrified skeleton of a 120-legged creature over one mile long." Right next to hex 2402 is hex 2401: "Inside a 3 mile diameter impact crater is an airless and sunless waste. No matter what time of day, the sun is never visible within the crater. Ten times more stars can be seen than on the clearest night, and the stars do not twinkle." The map of Carcosa is filled with hundreds of intriguing locations like this - 400 to be exact. This is a setting whose story unfolds through exploration in game. It's a game book that's meant to be played, not read.

The same "showing, not telling" feel is true for the character classes, rule mechanics, monsters, and treasure. The supplement includes among the best psionic systems I've seen for any version of D&D, with the opportunity for psychic powers based on the character's Charisma and powers ranging from mind blasts to telepathy. Every aspect of the mechanics keeps the setting in mind. Telepathy, for instance, notes "telepathic contact with an Old One is foolish, and the referee will probably require a saving throw to avoid madness and/or horror."

The monsters, which include such entities as the Desiccating Slime of the Silent Halls, the Squamous Worm of the Pit, and the Crawling God, simply ooze flavor. The Unquiet Worm is a favorite: "Sometimes, the worms that feed on a dead sorcerer's brain will assimilate the sorcerer's memories and sorcerous and psionic powers. Such worms swell to thrice their normal size and assemble in a horrid, vaguely humanoid shape that walks as a man. Unquiet worms retain all of the dead sorcerer's knowledge, but fight as 4HD monsters."

Some might say Carcosa oozes a little too much flavor. When originally released, Carcosa was severely criticized for its graphic sex and violence. In particular, many of the sorcerous rituals call for exceptionally vile deeds, such as murdering children to Cthulhoid gods. An expurgated edition released in 2008 purged most of the graphic violence but even the expurgated edition would provide ample ammunition for Chick Publications. The brutality of Carcosa didn't bother me much; perhaps too many years of studying the ancient history of mankind has left me desensitized to the awful things we can do to each other. But if your sensitivities are more delicate, you may want to seek out a kinder, gentler setting for your inspiration. Warhammer Fantasy, perhaps.

If you don't mind R-rated brutality, though, there's much to be learned in Carcosa about the mechanics of setting design - and a lot of great gaming in a small package.

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