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Carcosa, from Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Cool Stuff You Can Steal from This Book

Carcosa [1], from Lamentations of the Flame Princess [2] (LotFP), is a weird product. I often like weird things, and I like this one. As a physical artifact, it’s a beautiful book — easily one of the coolest looking gaming books I own. It’s subtle, understated, creepy, and its design is entirely fitting given the subject matter.

What is it?

Carcosa is a multi-genre sci-fi, horror, and swords & sorcery setting compatible with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy, and by extension with most old school and OSR games (D&D, AD&D, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Crypts & Things, etc.). It’s flagged for adults only, and that disclaimer is appropriate.

It’s a sandbox setting (a hex crawl), with 400 10-mile hexes, each of which features two entries (so 800 in total). It’s also a toolbox full of stuff that can be used whole cloth, dropped in piecemeal, or tweaked to suit your needs, and given its mixed-genre nature that means you can potentially use it in all sorts of games.

When I was asked if I wanted to write about Carcosa, I jumped at the chance. (I received a complimentary print copy.) I own most of the LotFP books, the LotFP Grindhouse Edition [3] boxed set is awesome (and its Referee book in particular stands out, as it’s one of the best GMing guides I’ve ever read — doubly so for old school advice), and as a big Cthulhu Mythos fan I liked the idea of seeing Geoffrey McKinney’s take on Carcosa.

The more of the book I read, the more I started to think about all the different bits of it I could steal for current and future games. Carcosa is a tremendous source of inspiration for GMs running all kinds of games, and it’s a neat book to pick up and get lost in — something I find very useful as a GM.

The controversy

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the element of Carcosa most likely to disturb people: Carcosa includes dark rituals that can be performed by PCs which involve child rape. When the book came out, it was the subject of a great deal of controversy largely because of this element.

Personally, I think those rituals are there to drive home the horrific nature of the setting; they’re not presented in a salacious way, and this isn’t F.A.T.A.L. I don’t think they need to be there (the other rituals are plenty horrific), and personally I wish they weren’t, but I’m a firm believer in free speech whether I agree with what’s being said or not.

Ways to use Carcosa in your games

Right up front, the author calls out the toolkit nature of the book and highlights five ways to use it: whole cloth, as a setting the PCs are transported to, for a one-shot, as a source of bits and pieces, and as inspiration. I’d like to try it more or less as written for a session or two — it’s pretty gonzo in a dark way, and it would be a fascinating world to explore.

But what interests me most about it is what I can steal and stick straight into other games. Here’s what jumped out at me.

1. Use it as a blighted realm your players will want to escape as soon as possible

Whisk the PCs to Carcosa — equally appropriate in a Call of Cthulhu game as in a fantasy RPG — and they’re going to want to get home just as fast as they can. Carcosa is nuts. There are 400 hexes on the map (see below), and each one features two points of interest; in most hexes, one of those POIs is something awful that wants to eat you. The other is probably a sanity-blasting dungeon, alien artifact that may fry you where you stand, portal to the depths of space, or something equally bizarre and dangerous.

Make the PCs need to get from Point A, where they appear/land/fall from the sky, to Point B, somewhere reasonably far away, and then just run the book as written. Here’s what they’ll be running across:

2. Steal the rituals

Carcosa’s rituals are nearly all focused on banishing, binding, or tormenting the Lovecraftian monstrosities that inhabit the place, and the rituals would fit nicely into Call of Cthulhu, horror-tinged D&D or sword & sorcery, or even a modern game like Dark*Matter depending on the direction you went with them.

The rituals are very, very dark. As presented they’re the only magic in the game world; there are no spells in the D&D sense. Using them will change the tone of a generally non-horror campaign and enhance the mood in a horror game.

They all have deleterious effects on their casters, they don’t always work, and they often involve making tough moral decisions. Is it better to let the God of the Primal Void wander around doing awful things or to sacrifice nine human beings in a ritual to banish it? For the right group, that choice will make for one hell of a session.

Using the rituals, or a subset thereof, necessarily means using at least some of the monsters (unless you avoid all monster-related rituals, but those are the majority of them).

3. Steal the monsters

Carcosa includes monster entries for most of the Cthulhu Mythos in LotFP format; these are compatible with essentially any old school or OSR game, including D&D up to 2nd Edition. If Lovecraftian horrors aren’t your bag, there’s plenty of other stuff to choose from.

My personal favorite are the mummy brains. Occasionally, as a mummy of at least 18th level with an 18+ Intelligence rots away in its tomb, its brain stays vital and alive. And it thinks, and uses its magic to explore other realities, and over time becomes a truly awful villain.

In Carcosa, they can cast any ritual in the book without performing all of the (usually awful) ablutions involved. This makes them tempting allies for the PCs, but man would a mummy brain ally be a two-edged sword. Outside of Carcosa, they’re just an awesome gonzo villain — and one your players likely won’t expect.

4. Cull the best of the hexes

With 800 write-ups, even setting aside the shortest ones, there’s a ton of inspiration in Carcosa. Here are four of my favorites — things I’d happily drop into an old school hex crawl:

(Hex 0109) A dense network of odd trenches and carved fissures mark the earth for several miles. If diligently mapped, or viewed from a height greater than 1,000′, they appear to form the script of a long-forgotten language.

What does it say? What’s the language? Is it a clue to something the PCs are searching for? Is it a spell? An invocation to summon a god?

(Hex 0202) All that is visible of an abandoned and buried base of the Space Aliens is an intermittently blinking orange light.

A big base? A small one? Is everything inside it broken and ruined, or is there crazy alien tech the PCs can steal? Is the base actually a dungeon, a la the Barrier Peaks?

(Hex 0715) In a small cave stands an altar to Hastur. In front of the altar is a Red Man punished for daring to blaspheme He Who Must Not Be Named. The Red Man is completely petrified save for his eyes and his brain. His mouth is frozen in a scream. After centuries in this state, he is quite insane.

I can see my players spending a good hour just trying to interact with this guy, then deciding what to do about him, and then leaving the cave thoroughly creeped out.

(Hex 0911) A long line of 282 Jungle Ants marches determinedly southwest, seeking the jungle in hex 0413. They will attack only those who molest them.

Most of the POIs are described this way: briefly but evocatively. It’s a feature if you like to improvise and be surprised by what happens in the game, and a bug if you don’t. I love to improvise, so this is a great format for me as a GM.

5. Read for inspiration

This is probably my favorite aspect of the book: It’s easy to pick up, hard to put down, and I find it nigh impossible not to get inspired about something I’m working on while I’m reading it. I found myself getting out of bed, heading into my office to make a quick note on my computer about a cool idea I didn’t want to forget, and then going back to bed to read on several occasions.

Carcosa has Mythos monsters, new colors not part of our spectrum (jale and ulfire), dinosaurs, robots, space aliens, fell sorcerers, hideous monsters, weird phenomena, pervading bleakness, a twisted landscape — the list is long. It’s a packed book, and it doesn’t tend to linger on details. It’ll drive some GMs nuts, but I like that approach because it sketches just enough to fire my imagination and then leaves the rest of the imagining to me.

On the whole, Carcosa [1] is a neat book full of peculiar stuff; I enjoyed reading it, and I can see plenty of it making its way into my games.

It’s an intentionally weird book that has a place in my collection alongside things like Black Dog’s Spectres (which features some of the most disturbing art I’ve ever seen in a game), Vincent Baker’s kill puppies for satan (wherein you kill puppies, for Satan), and the old WFRP Realm of Chaos books, with their sex and blood and demented mutants.

If you’re curious about the man behind Carcosa, Geof McKinney, Game Knight Reviews [4] recently did an interview with him that’s available on YouTube [5]. If you have questions about the book, I’ll be happy to answer them in the comments.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Carcosa, from Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Cool Stuff You Can Steal from This Book"

#1 Comment By schlake On June 25, 2012 @ 3:19 am

How much is this sourcebook like the literary Carcosa? Or does it just share the name but none of the background?

#2 Comment By SmokestackJones On June 25, 2012 @ 6:32 am

Great review, Martin. I just finished an interview with Geoffrey for the Save or Die podcast and he’s made me even more enthusiastic about using the book whole (with my own tweaks, of course – I’d scale back the Cthulhuoid aspect and push the gonzo, sort of a Gamma World on steroids).

Oh, and one correction: the banishment spells are the only ones that don’t require some sort of sacrifice.

-SJ aka DM Glen

#3 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 25, 2012 @ 7:47 am

[6] – Funnily enough, I know almost nothing about the literary setting. I’ve never read any Chambers, my best guess for who would have authored it.

The actual city of Carcosa in the LotFP Carcosa is not described in detail. The meat is in the rest of the setting.

#4 Comment By SmokestackJones On June 25, 2012 @ 8:16 am

The setting of the supplement is the planet Carcosa, which was inspired by Lovecraft’s stories (and, by extension, his inspirations – Ambrose Bierce’s story An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Robert W. Chambers’s book The King in Yellow).

-SJ aka DM Glen

#5 Comment By lomythica On June 25, 2012 @ 9:17 am

So, when will the Gnome’s start working on a set piece and scenarios book?

We have Masks for Characters, Eureka for plots.. Soon to have Never Unprepared for preparing our sessions.. What about set pieces, inspirations, and interesting localles? That would be really cool in my opinion. It would offer a complete set of game mastering tools for complete game creation, all from one publisher.

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 25, 2012 @ 9:45 am

[7] – “So, when will the Gnome’s start working on a set piece and scenarios book?”

This idea came up internally towards the end of Masks production, and has been kicked around a bit on our mailing list as well as suggested by Gnome Stew readers over the past year.

Now that Never Unprepared is almost out the door, I’m ready to start considering Engine Publishing’s next project. A setting book is on the list to consider — the logic behind producing one, as you point out, is pretty compelling.

Honestly, when we first started talking about it I just didn’t find the idea exciting enough. With our other books there’s been an immediate hook that sank its teeth into my brain; personally, I need that kind of motivation to fuel the 10-12 months that have gone into developing each of our longer books.

So the TL;DR version would be that we’re thinking about it, but not ready to commit to doing one yet.

#7 Comment By eryops On June 25, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

Sorry. I can find no excuse to justify rape in general or child rape in particular in an RPG book. I just don’t need to pretend to be an elf that does these things. I’ve also lost what little interest I have in LotFP, if shades of rape *have* to be in there for this to be a ‘great’ game.

#8 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 25, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

[8] – As noted, I don’t think they need to be in Carcosa, and that has nothing to do with why I think thIs is a good book for GMs or why I love LotFP (the game, somewhat confusingly named the same thing as the company).

I can certainly understand your viewpoint, though. I made a point of calling out that element because I thought it would be an important consideration for some of our readers.

#9 Comment By KnightErrantJR On June 25, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

Yeah, I’ve been hearing nothing by good things about LotFP from a lot of people I read on the internet, but I have to say, I’m kind of off the bandwagon now. That content is a non-starter.

However, I do thank you for mentioning that content, Martin.

#10 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 25, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

[9] – FWIW, you won’t find child rape in LotFP: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, which is the actual RPG for which Carcosa is a supplement. You will find adult content, however, mainly in the form of disturbing artwork, but the game itself is a very tight second-generation OD&D retroclone that takes things in its own directions. It’s a dark game with excellent rules.

In fact, if you’re curious about it but want to avoid potentially disturbing artwork, the no-art version of the core rules is a free download here (on the right side): [3]

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 25, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

Irony: Checking headlines to find the FBI has busted a nationwide child prostitute ring, and then off to Gnome Stew for more lighthearted fare, only to read this.

There’s no reason to include such explicit material when there are so many ways to imply or dance around the subject. As a gamer and a parent, I’m puzzled as to why someone though it should be included. My initial (admittedly uninformed) reaction is to call it a lapse of judgment.

Good sandbox books are worth their weight in gold. It’s a bit disappointing that this one will be passed over by potential customers because of the authors’ decisions.

#12 Pingback By Friday Knight News – Fired Up Edition: 29-JUN-2012 | Game Knight Reviews On June 29, 2012 @ 5:01 am

[…] Martin Ralya @ Gnome Stew seems to have discovered Carcosa‘s weirdness recently. But instead of running away screaming, he’s come up with a great list of five ways you might get inspiration from the oddness in its … […]

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On January 9, 2013 @ 10:43 am

At the risk of picking off a scab, I’d like to correct an impression that has formed in some people’s minds regarding the content of this book.

I own this product (bought with money), and can categorically state that though the “offensive” material is mentioned, it has no prominence nor is it glorified. It has been pointed out to me that there has been *far* worse stuff published for the Conan RPG, far more graphic and, in my opinion, gratuitously so – and for the same reasons.

Hell, I’ve seen (and own) much worse stuff put out by White Wolf, seriously f-ed up stuff I wouldn’t let my teenager near on a bet, that made me wonder at the mental state of those who wrote it. I am not kidding about that.

On Carcosa (and in the world of Conan) the bad chaps who do the bad stuff are supposed to be vile and repulsive, not role models. No player is instructed to rape a child for Azathoth’s sake. The spell in question is an object lesson in why sorcery should be avoided by the PCs at all costs, intended, upon learning the details, to induce the very feelings of repulsion in the players that the posters here claim to feel.

It is, in other words, a carefully studied game effect, not an instruction book or exhortation.

To all those voting with their feet, I might ask why they are willing to subscribe at all to a hobby that in its most generic form glorifies the grisly mutilation killing of anything and anyone at the drop of a hat for purposes of grand larceny? Vivisection until death? Aren’t our standards of what is and isn’t acceptable vis-a-vis imaginary actions a tad double?

I include myself in that judgement, of course, having swung a broadsword at someone with depraved indifference to their wellbeing on numerous occasions – at least, I pretended to. No-one got hurt and I wouldn’t dream of doing it for real.

Which is, of course, the point.

This was and is a non-issue. If you’ll take my advice you’ll save your chagrin for real – as in not made up and happening in a fictional place – stuff. We have plenty of that for you to direct your outrage at (See: any newspaper of late).

It is your money to spend where you will. But if you’ve been dithering because of the fuss in the postings here, at least you are now a little better informed on the subject.

#14 Pingback By Black Gate » Blog Archive » New Treasures: The Haunted Land of Carcosa On January 13, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

[…] Carcosa map pic by Martin Ralya, from Gnome Stew. […]

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On February 3, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

Side note: Jack Shear of [10] is [11] with creepy, disturbing stuff that doesn’t involve the sort of grueseomeness that’s involved in some Carcosa rituals. It’s good stuff, too.

#16 Pingback By Friday Knight News – Fired Up Edition: 29-JUN-2012 | Gamerati On December 4, 2015 @ 11:07 am

[…] Martin Ralya @ Gnome Stew seems to have discovered Carcosa‘s weirdness recently. But instead of running away screaming, he’s come up with a great list of five ways you might get inspiration from the oddness in its … […]

#17 Pingback By The Books of September-December 2015 On March 6, 2016 @ 6:37 am

[…] well, the controversy is mentioned in this review, for example. Or this section of this extended, multi-part […]