May 30, 2023

Supplement V: Carcosa

For the unaware, Carcosa features magic rituals requiring sexual violence, sometimes against children. This is discussed below in the abstract. A version was created with these egregious aspects removed, although I’ve not read it myself.

I have often said in conversation that Supplement V: Carcosa (McKinney, 2008) is one of the most personally inspirational RPG works I’ve ever read. Known for its controversial takes on magic, adult content and (unfortunate) re-release under LotFP, much of what makes it so utterly compelling and strange are often ignored. This is my small effort to address that.

The imaginative scope of Carcosa is huge. Despite pulling so heavily upon the Cthulhu Mythos, the result feels utterly removed from the centre of gaming, dominated by elves and elves-with-a-twist. Furthermore, this scope is more than ad-copy, or a gesture towards a larger idea never quite demonstrated - it is executed upon, creating something directly useful in-play. You don’t need to run through a set of generators to build out the world - that work has been done for you.

Yet there is still work to be done - the hard and interesting work of interpretation and integration. Many of the hex-entries are minimal to the point of listing only a creature and how many of them are present. The prospective referee (or reader) must consider what an encounter with 389 Jungle Ants looks like. There is little thought or concern towards encounter design - by and large there is none. Instead, the facts of the world are presented, rendered in the most prosaic way possible, a flat register for a world so hostile, so alien to humanity - founded upon predation and blasphemous ritual.

These rituals - must discussed for their foul nature - directly tie the magic of the setting to the actual geography and inhabitants of Carcosa. That so many feature sexual violence, sometimes against children, is not only an aesthetic choice (of dubious value) but a statement as to what power means in such a world. Humanity, let alone human decency, must be discarded to wield the terrible powers of the alien gods sharing this living hell with you. I’ve seen defences of these rituals as just for the bad guys” - I do not think this is the case as such. Presenting the path to power and leaving it up to the player to take those steps is far more interesting. It is worth noting that none of the rituals (on my reading) to defeat, banish or ward off the terrible creatures require such actions - only those who would summon and command the creatures need leave humanity behind like this. Beyond this element, many of the rituals require the gathering of reagents from specific hexes in the campaign world, and may only by learnt by strange actions taken in forgotten fanes and grottos beneath the watch of statues depicting inhuman deities.

The lack of editorialising gives Carcosa strength and dangerous ambiguity. In a space where known shitheads lurk and peddle their works, detailing such awful material raises hackles - justifiably. For those willing and able to take this work and think-with and through it, it has much to teach. This is no mark against those for whom the topics are intolerable - we all have our own tolerances.

This is why I keep coming back to Carcosa. It provides few answers, but gives ground to raise questions. It is a book for thinking-with, its incompleteness inspiring and demanding work from the reader, or Referee. Whether you think this is good or just my personal preference is up to you.

Question-raising is both a technique and a stance. Even if the answer” (according to the author) is contained within the work, by creating distance between them we invite the reader to develop their own answers. When (if) they discover our answer, they are then able to disagree, to synthesise the two, or reject both and find another, novel answer to the questions raised in the text. Questions beget questions. Examples of this can be seen in using generators to ask questions (e.g. Traveller planet generation) rather than provide answers (e.g. SWN planet generation). There is an intersection here too - encounter tables answer the question, what is here” but also raise the question why?”.

Previous post
Wolves Upon the Coast Grand Retrospective 2 It’s been about two years since I started selling Wolves Upon the Coast Grand Campaign, and about 10 months since the last retrospective. I’m not
Next post
Inhuman Violence 2 As is the nature of horror media, it’s time for sequel. I’ve been running a Delta Green campaign using Violence for a little while now, and I’ve run