Learning from the Masters, Again


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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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.



Vast is Vornheim, the Grey Maze

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, says author Zak Smith, “is not about Vornheim. It’s about running Vornheim, or any other city, in a fantastic Medieval setting.” This focus on providing content that’s useful for gaming, rather than a sociology textbook on a fictional setting, sets Vornheim apart from any other city supplement I’ve purchased.

That said, Vornheim does not leave fans of Zak’s campaigns (well-known from his blog and video show) without the details they crave. Maps and descriptions for major landmarks such as the House of the Medusa, the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, the Library of Zorlac, the Palace Massive, and the Eminent Cathedral are all provided, as is a regional gazetteer of the area surrounding Vornheim and a five-page overview of the city. The real meat of the kit, however, lies in its rules and tables.

Here you’ll find rules for city navigation and urban “dungeon crawls,” geomorphs for rapidly generating floorplans, rules for pricing items, rules for libraries, rules for urban chases, and tables to randomly generate aristocrats, books, shopkeepers, encounters, fortunes, and more. Among the best are the “I Search the Body” table, which holds treasures such as “a satirical deck of cards depicting political figures of 10 years ago,” and the Legal Situations table, with outrageously medieval punishments such as the “trial by biography” in which the defendant must recite his life story to the jury, and if they judge him to be a good and useful person, he goes free. There’s also rules for “God’s Chess” (a method of using ordinary chess to represent strategic city maneuvering), a variety of taverns and tavern games, several random building generators, and more. I have to date only enjoyed the PDF, as the print version is only available on pre-order, but the print version is definitely a must-have. Many of the components have obvious physical utility, such as a map labeled with building names that lets you just drop dice on the map to determine which buildings are present in any neighborhood.

In addition to being crammed full of useful game mechanics for urban play, Vornheim is also crammed with great explanations of the philosophy of its mechanics. For instance, most settings will urge the GM to fill in the gaps; in Vornheim, Zak explains why: “Any detail of the rules or setting left unexplained has been left that way because it’s not important to the character of the setting, and the GM should interpret it however s/he feels will distribute maximum fun.” The book is almost as useful as a zen primer for improvisational Gamemastering.

If you are running an RPG campaign that has any cities at all, Vornheim has a lot to offer – you can begin using it in your campaign right away; and as a student of Gamemastering you can study its construction to learn how to create flavor in the game rather than the meta-game. (Oh and the art’s pretty good, too. They got some fancy fine artist to do it who exhibits in galleries and museums).


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