The Player Characters of my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game might well be going to doomed Carcosa. (Of their own volition, mind you, to find a magical McGuffin to retrieve some of their companions from an extra dimensional trap. I’d never force such a thing on them!)
I’m very excited about this, as I find the setting compelling and crazy. And unlike many who find the material morally repulsive and too dark, I see it as a chance for PCs to step up to the plate with moral certainty. The thought of a bunch of 17th Century Europeans leaving a time of religious and political confusion and ending up on an alien world where Sorcerers cast rituals involving human sacrifice seems to me the perfect setup for a pulse-pounding pulp novel.
If they go, I expect they’ll stay a while. I can withhold the McGuffin as long as I’d like, after all. But more importantly, I’d like the time on Carcosa to have a political dimension to it. The human clans and communities of Carcosa are fractured, frightened, and weak in the face of the monsters and magic that surround them. My game plan is that to retrieve the McGuffin they both have to figure out where it is and then claim it. To do this they’ll have to build a political base. They’ll have to gather allies, become leaders, forge a small army, conquer neighboring communities, and build a bigger army. All along the way they’ll be doing quests to gather artifacts and to impress the locals and gain their loyalty. All in all, they’ll be doing a run on the pulp fantasy arc of adventurers-becoming-rulers (see: Conan, John Carter, et al.) I’ve always wanted to run something like this. I just never expected it to be in weird-fantasy-cience-fiction-mythos setting. But this is all just more bacon, as far as I’m concerned!
If this all goes as planned, I’ll probably be using the Starvation Cheap mass combat rules. They’re written for the SF setting of Stars Without Numbers, but can be abstracted to any setting. They take into account the quality of troops, equipment (which will matter in the alien artifact-strewn setting of Carcosa), and the possibility of heroic action on the part of troops, so I think they’ll do the job nicely.
Page three of Carcosa reminds us:
Carcosa is not Tolkien, high fantasy, or mainstream fantasy. It is equal parts horror, science-fiction, and swords & sorcery. It is H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Robert E. Howard’s “Worms of the Earth” and “A Witch Shall Be Born,” Lin Carter’s “Carcosa Story about Hali,” and Michael Moorcock’s “While the Gods Laugh.”
Over at Save vs. Total Party Kill, Ramanan Sivaranjan asked Geoffrey McKinney, the author of Carcosa, for a reading list of Carcosa inspirations. McKinney replied with the following, more complete list:
Of the pure Lovecraft stories, read these:
- The Call of Cthulhu
- The Whisperer in Darkness
- At the Mountains of Madness
- The Shadow over Innsmouth
- The Shadow out of Time
Of Lovecraft’s revisions, read these:
Read the original five Elric stories by Moorcock:
- The Dreaming City
- While the Gods Laugh
- The Stealer of Souls
- Kings in Darkness
- The Flamebringers (later retitled The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams)
Read R. E. Howard’s:
- Worms of the Earth (a Bran Mak Morn story)
- The Shadow Kingdom (a Kull story)
- A Witch Shall Be Born (a Conan story)
If you can find Cthulhu Mythos stories by Lin Carter, read those.
I’ve read lots of Conan stories, but no Kull or Bran Mak Morn. So I grabbed the respective anthologies of the heroes. Last night I cracked open Kull: Exile of Atlantis and read The Shadow Kingdom.
I found this:
Clang! clang! clang! sounded the silver hoofs on the broad, moon-flooded streets, but otherwise there was no sound. The age of the city, its incredible antiquity, was almost oppressive to the king; it was as if the great silent buildings laughed at him, noiselessly, with unguessable mockery. And what secrets did they hold?
“You are young,” said the palaces and the temples and the shrines, “but we are old. The world was wild with youth when we were reared. You and your tribe shall pass, but we are invincible, indestructible. We towered above a strange world, ere Atlantis and Lemuria rose from the sea; we still shall reign when the green waters sigh for many a restless fathom above the spires of Lemuria and the hills of Atlantis and when the isles of the Western Men are the mountains of a strange land.
“How many kings have we watched ride down these streets before Kull of Atlantis was even a dream in the mind of Ka, bird of Creation? Ride on, Kull of Atlantis; greater shall follow you; greater came before you. They are dust; they are forgotten; we stand; we know; we are. “Ride, ride on, Kull of Atlantis; Kull the king, Kull the fool!”
And it seemed to Kull that the clashing hoofs took up the silent refrain to beat it into the night with hollow re-echoing mockery; “Kull-the-king! Kull-the-fool!”
I’ll be honest. I did not expect Howard’s King Kull of ancient Atlantis to be as moody as Macbeth on a bad night!
What I’m loving about Kull is that he’s so uncertain. He has conquered and become king of a foreign land–but that only means he’s a ruler of a land of which he will never really fit in. He’s done what he set out to do, and now questions its value. He possesses a sense of history and scale, and that only makes him more alert to the strangeness of his time and of his land.
And what strangeness! Imagine a writer really pulling off how weird it would be to be a mortal an in a world of hidden snake-men cults and ghosts of dead kings wandering the palace catacombs. Howard pulls this off! Kull doesn’t shrug this stuff. It gives him an existential vertigo. What is the world he assumed the world to be, and what is only an illusion hiding common terrors he knows nothing about begins to eat at him.
Valusia–land of dreams and nightmares–a kingdom of the shadows, ruled by phantoms who glided back and forth behind the painted curtains, mocking the futile king who sat upon the throne–himself a shadow…
And what, mused Kull, were the realities of life? Ambition, power, pride? The friendship of man, the love of women–which Kull had never known–battle, plunder, what? Was it the real Kull who sat upon the throne or was it the real Kull who had scaled the hills of Atlantis, harried the far isles of the sunset, and laughed upon the green roaring tides of the Atlantean sea? How could a man be so many different men in a lifetime? For Kull knew that there were many Kulls and he wondered which was the real Kull. After all, the priests of the Serpent went a step further in their magic, for all men wore masks, and many a different mask with each different man or woman; and Kull wondered if a serpent did not lurk under every mask. So he sat and brooded in strange, mazy thought ways, and the courtiers came and went and the minor affairs of the day were completed, until at last the king and Brule sat alone in the Hall of Society save for the drowsy attendants.
I love the paranoia Howard establishes here. I’m glad I’m reading this material. It is certainly providing inspiration for feelings and sensations I’ll want to impart to the players when their characters travel to Carcosa.