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Where in the world is Carcosa?

January 30, 2012 4 comments

Flailsnailing around the multiverse with Skeree the Bonewoman this past week has taught me a whole lot about Carcosa. Which is a good thing, because neither Geoffrey McKinney nor Jeff Rients (whose chargen document she’s made out of) told me much about the culture, society or worldview of your average Carcosan. So Skeree’s been defining all that on the fly, to give her a basis for her actions, attitudes and potential skills and to help her avoid being just a walking axe, trailing around after the other PCs with no motivation of her own.

So I’ve learned she can track and survive in the wilderness and she’s heard about the cats of Ulthar and all sorts of other unexpected stuff.* And a funny thing’s been happening – as she tries stuff out and gets flashes of insight about, say, how medieval Europe is like/unlike her blasted post-cthulhupocaplyptic home, she makes the worlds she passes through a bit more Carcosan, as DMs pick up the cues. Who knew a 15th century Roman cat sorcerer would speak Debased Yuggothic? Well, now we do, and it’s because Skeree cursed his feline army and they understood her.

Skeree – and Roger Burgess’ Zharillia – have also been telling me about what the point of a Carcosa game is. Because I’m convinced that, like CoC and rather less like DnD, it has one, or at least a strong theme – based around the sorcerers and their predations. And I think I’ve found a historical analogue for it, which can fill in the blanks like Dickensian London fills in the blanks of GURPS Goblins.

Carcosa is the West African hinterland – Niger – during the Atlantic slave trade.

The sorcerers, enemies of all mankind, traders with agents utterly inhuman and malign, are slave dealers. They cause despair and suffering for all. And yet people still bring them sacrificial victims, betraying their neighbours for the promise of a little temporary security, despising all but their own little enclave because that makes it easier to sell everyone else out. The different colours of men of course reflect different tribal identities, and they make a nice, solid basis for distrust, so that cutting the Flash Gordonian knot – convincing them all to work together against their common enemy – becomes a fitting challenge for a good, long campaign.**

So. If we pursue that thought – and if we posit some Cthulhuvian uses for Carcosan victims other than as sacrifice fuel – then Carcosa should be plumbed back into the Mythos network and there ought to be (unpronounceable) colonies somewhere out there where our unfortunates wind up. And there ought to be runaway settlements – maroons, not unlike Carcosa itself, which offer some temporary sanctuary, below the radar of the Inhuman Master System, and maybe even underground railroads, if anyone will help a poor half-monsterfied bone brother out.

And suddenly I’m thinking I really should dust off all those books about the Haitian Revolution – which is, after all, the great granddaddy of most of our horror tropes – possibly the very Matter of Horror as we understand it; the spectre of our white colonialism falling down before a black Spartacus revolt, combined with the spectre of the rational project failing before the Chaotic Hydra. Zombies? Madness in the face of disorder? Cannibalism and were-creatures and voodoo and amok possession and the killing jungle and hearts of darkness? It all starts in Haiti.

So if I do run a Carcosan-themed game it’ll be mashed up with Barsoom – if only because ERB’s yellow and blue men are too good to pass up – and it’ll owe as much to De Laurentian Flash and Bollywood as to Lovecraft and McKinney. But most of all it’ll be a Haitian slavery and revolt game – maybe in glittery drag – and it’ll lead to harder questions about trust and despotism and violence than Flash or John Carter ever have to face.

* EG: Carcosa has no money – all transactions are barter, and there are no fixed exchange rates. Precious metals are unknown – there is jewelry, but it’s valued purely on appearance: nobody cares if it’s real gold or not. You test magic and batteries with your tongue. Trophies taken from your enemies are vital for establishing your credentials – and therefore leveling up…

** even without the complexity hinted at above, the optimistic We Are All One Flashian campaign can keep getting revived as new sorcerers – or even texts or artifacts – can bring the old disease of division right back again.

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More bad news for Carcosan PCs

January 26, 2012 2 comments

Not only are drunken priests all up in our labs breakin’ shit and melting our faces off, not only are we sacrificial foie gras for alien spoonbenders and jellies, now it turns out we’re also the latest decorative fashion.

Right after the dimensional gates* opened and some pioneering Carcosans got themselves into Renaissance Europe, and those crazy Europeans got themselves their first look at our sweet Jale and Ulfire and Dolm men, you better believe they wanted pigments in those colours, for making pictures of demons to scare their god-men into line (go figure – always with the demons, amirite?). And guess what? Turns out if you render a Carcosan down into their essential salts, that’s exactly what you get – jale and ulfire and dolm powder – and those European painters are mixing that up with egg yolk and oil and frescoing it all over their churches or baptisteries or hymnals or hourbooks or what-all shit. And most of the time if you try to undo the ritual and bring back your buddies you get onlie the liveliest awfullness because the painter’s cut the pigment with who knows what else and most of it’s back in his studio or it’s been hawked to some other client or somebody snorted it because they thought it was goddamn ulfire lotus powder or something.

Brothers and sisters, this has got to stop. First we need once and for all to root out the sorcerers and stop selling each other as sacrifice ingredients – it’s not cool, and it just leads to everyone losing their kids and resenting each other. Then we need to unite against this new threat, and not sell each other out to paint suppliers and doll manufacturers (cuz you just know what’s gonna happen when Mattel get to hear about this). We are men! Not art materials!

* whale flails, nails frail sail, prevails, bails. Can this possibly be completely unrelated?

on reverse-engineering subculture into product

January 23, 2012 2 comments

My thoughts are a little addled after belatedly reading Jeff Rients’ long and strange journey through the gother-than-goth* novelization/RPG hybrid Wraeththu. Please bear with me while I try to give voice to the terrible idea that is even now taking shape in my mind.

The relevant pullquote is: you play posthuman glitterboi hermaphrodites with psychic powers. Which could be kinda David Bowie in The Hunger but the longer quotes from the published flavourtext make it sound both more earnest and more absurd: spurning the society that had bred them, rebelling totally, haunting the towns with their gaunt and drug-poisoned bodies… The Wraeththu hated mankind. They were different; on the inside and on the outside.

That reminds me of how much I hate White Wolf’s assumption that, even if you yourself aren’t a mopey post-punk, your characters must be, because they’re Whatever-Supernatural-Thing-We-Just-Reinvented-So-Now-It’s-Current-And-Edgy.

So then I read Scrap Princess‘s proposal for a google+ RPG campaign – SPECIAL MAGICAL PRINCESS ADVENTURES:  a 80s girl cartoon/sailor moon mash up campaign where you play like magic girls, sassy androids, crime solving rock stars and intrepid girl detectives in todays world, which underneath its veneer of banality lurks crime! intrigue! Monsters! evil fruity space bastards with, like, the best hair!**

And once I’d stopped giggling in delight it hit me: these two are horns on the same goat. They are games based on subcultures – on the urges of fandom – rather than strictly on inspirational works. And of course late 70s metalhead Frazetta D&D is another subcultural subcreation: you play some creature off an album cover not necessarily because you love Eddie in particular but because it speaks of a certain attitude toward the world, a tribal affiliation. And then the games wind up explaining and mythologizing this fandom entity.

With me so far? OK. What if you made this pathway to creation absolutely deliberate? What if you started with a subculture and then set out to define a game world from it? What if, moreover, you took some massive study of subcultures – like, say, Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno – and set out to develop whole fantastical cosmologies based on it? What are Gothic Lolitas actually trying to be? That entity is your character, with appropriate mystical powers. Exactly what is that quality that distinguishes Eastern European fantasy from everyone else’s? Slave-Leias, Kirk-Spockers, extreme knitters (more current examples? I’m really not the person to be writing this)… you are all tribes. You will have splatbooks detailing own distinctive gameworlds. Just as long as you can be marketed to, we’re good. Except maybe this guy.

Hmmm… have I just reinvented Unknown Armies? I don’t know, I haven’t read it.

* The author’s (not the game designer’s) website will tell you more than I would wish to. For some idea of the game mechanics from Jeff’s book-length review, do an in-page search for “So how do I cast a spell?”
** Description continues: The absurdity of the world is played straight and slightly sinisterly , a pastel shaded hell , a monster every week, the school mates not returning to class and noone notices, they land men on the moon but a black space castle hovers over Tokyo and is ignored. You fight so hard to make the world right, but the world isn’t right at all.
You have great hair and
your friends try and steal each others boyfriends and girl friends and everyone goes to your concert and the teacher doesn’t flunk you and the mermaid returns your calls and you cut a dog man cyborg in half on a cruise ship tour

and you watch the sunset and things are good and your a hero and you can’t stop crying but
some fruity flying bastard with weird hair
just started putting people to sleep with evil fruit, and
then we tried to stop them and they turned
the store manger into a laser potato
and then we beat them to death, and the store burned down
, and we only saved a handful of people
and they are still in comas and no-one has noticed what so ever and it happens every goddamn week and my cat talks to me and I’m friends with dracula and breakfast is pills and vodka and I’m failing school because I can’t sleep because of all the post traumatic stress going on, but the cat tells me I’m gonna be ruler of a magic kingdom one day and I’m so tired

Really, it’s worth signing up for G+ just for that. For full details on the proposed game sign up to google+ and ask Scrap Princess or, easier and less risky on the GoogleOwnsYourMind front, email her or comment on her blog

FINALLY: happy Chinese New Year. Apparently it’s Year of the Water Dragon, which just happens to be my favourite Pokemon.

Hello Google+ folks, here is a quick idea of what this blog is about

January 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Laziest of all lazyposts – the page of links to previous posts!

Some of these are too old to show up in the list of links over on the left side. Still, if you’ve been reading here for a while you can probably skip this post. Divided into themes perversely irrelevant to the OSR hivemind:

Moby Dicks: are Cthulhu; fly in the sky (Timor Tom); feel pain too.

Monsters are treasure: Formless Spawn of Azoth; Githyankifying mail; Matt Kish’s monster manual;

Why Pokemon deserves a space on your gaming shelf: Endless attack fountain; Carcosan men + monsters matchup table

DnD Tourism: An observation on the Sea of O’Sr (ancient Greece isn’t many 72 mile hexes); Haut Koenigsberg; The Alchemist’s Baths; tunnels under Provins, France; Roman tombs; Kerguelen as Hyperborea; What’s the weather on Mongo?

Adventure Seeds: one sentence adventure pitches; Coelomia, island of secrets; Sir John Soane, megadugeoneer; Heidegger’s Necronomicon;

Rants: five new sexes for your campaign; Why CHA is POW and should be the basis for magic; to haters of DnD’s big gold pieces; why I hate “pseudo medieval.”

One sentence adventure pitches

January 20, 2012 3 comments

1. To fight the shoggoths you have to become one… and then find a way to get the humans to work with you.

2. Your dad built an empire but now he’s been assassinated, so you, the dissolute playboy, are thrust onto the throne.

3. King Narai is dead and a war of spies begins; you are anyone in Ayutthaya during the ensuing political free-for-all – Chinese, Persian, French, Dutch or English merchant-adventurer-ambassadors, Samurai royal bodyguards, Thai royal hopefuls, funerary architect-acrobats, members of Phaulkon’s secret service… (Local colour and history abound in this one, but since the political map is being redrawn right at the moment the adventure starts, you don’t need any prior knowledge of it to play).

4. The Navy’s sent a squadron to help the new governor of the Bahamas crack down on the buccaneers, and here you come into port with your very first prize in tow.

5. “You must rescue the princess! But the witch’s curse has destroyed all our weapons! Take this gelatinous cube and a potion of Feather Fall instead.” (yeah, I know. That’s three sentences. It’s still not as bad an abuse of the rules as #3. And there’s worse to come.)

6. You are rough-and-tumble pirate-peddlers, making a living off inter-island trading and raiding, when the Dutch show up in their floating fortress, offering to buy all the nutmeg and cloves you can supply. How will you treat with these red-hairs, who are looking around for a place to plant their castle? What about when not one but 20 floating fortresses show up? The long form of this pitch is Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, by Giles Milton; as a campaign it could take on a 200 year sweep and expand to fighting off the Europeans and the Qing, forming a league of islands, even building a new, seaborne Islamic or Fukienese Empire to rule the waves right out from under Britannia.

7. When the soldiers came they killed your whole village and you were driven into the hills. There you found nature spirits, who agree to help you if you help them. Now you can fight back against the soldiers, but take care not to pique the curiosity of the emperor’s sorcerer-viziers. This spirit-medium game looks like vodou* or kami worship or ma khi on the outside, but is secretly Pokemon reskinned. Who understands the spirits best? Who knows what, in the end, they want?

8. Bad guys are planning to seize the world’s oil chokepoints, and you have to stop them! Or maybe help them? Or seize them yourself? Nothing is clear in this globetrotting, port-hopping, Bond-Cthulhu exploration of the high finance and criminal underworld that runs international shipping.

* crazy but true: textedit wants to autocorrect vodou to voodoo. So it knows both words and considers one of them correct?

Zak’s questions prompt confession. Plus – what’s missing from Carcosa

January 19, 2012 8 comments

So first, Zak’s 23 questions – and noisms’ responses – provoked some deep soul-searching in me. I find I can conceal the truth from you no longer. You see, I’m really not so much a gamer as an ex-gamer. Worse, this here blog is what James Maliszewski has called the most decadent activity imaginable: it’s me talking about games rather than gaming. With all the attendant implications that I really don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m just blowing hot air, and so on.

I hang my head. If you want to just go, now, I’ll understand. I actually haven’t gamed at all since, um, 2002? The last time I ran anything at all was 2000 and the last time I ran anything semi-regularly… 1995 or so.

The good news is, I should be playing again for the first time in a decade tomorrow, provided the internet gods permit. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I barely remember any rules from anything, having always been pretty much a free-forming improv queen.

Noisms wrote about gaming being his secret shame. It’s mine, too, but not gaming was also my secret shame. Phew, feels good to get that cleared up… ahem…

Still here? I appreciate it. I’ll try to do better, promise.

So. I bought Carcosa! And I was surprised and confused by what it contained and did not contain! But among all the startling do-it-yourself, slacker! omissions, one stood out for me:
why and how would you choose a colour for your character?

So here, in direct contravention of SOPA and PIPEWEED and all they stand for, is my answer: the Men and Monsters Type Matchup Table.

Our familiar 13 types of Men are joined by their not-so-good buddies, the Amphibious Ones (or “frogs” for short), Deep Ones, Space Aliens (in trad. grey) and Mi-Go (who are strangely not so smart in this iteration of their story – strap on those brain cases, guys!). The table tells you how much damage each of these types will do to the others using sorcery, psionics, contests of raw will or any other means that doesn’t come in ultratech or battleaxe form. So for instance jale men can pretty much laugh at purple men with impunity, since they’ll only suffer half damage from their attacks, but they’d better be careful around blues, greens and whites, who all inflict double damage. And thus we have a reason for some folks to team up with others, or tolerate them around the old watering hole, and maybe some basis either for genocidal colour-wars or a new era of mutual understanding… against the oranges (misspelled oranj here, because the font didn’t work any smaller).

But what happens in the black squares? Glad you asked. Any time an attack of this type hits, roll 2d6:

2 – not only the particular creature attacked but also all other creatures of the same type in 3d6 yards radius receive the same effect (good or bad)
3 – the attack rebounds upon the attacker, at double strength
4 – the attack goes through at triple strength
5 – no effect
6-8 – attack goes through as normal
9 – defender becomes preternaturally slippery – AC and dodge improved radically. Attacker moves as if in treacle. Lasts 1d3 rounds
10 – bizarre weather effect (tornado of feathers, eyeballs) sweeps attacker and defender up and deposits them 2d6 yards away, or on a 2 or 12, that many yards straight up
11 – attacker and defender exchange bodies. Nobody else notices
12 – attacker suddenly realises defender is his long-lost soul brother. Defender unaffected

Coelomia: island of secrets. For the Sea of O’Sr

January 17, 2012 7 comments

From a ship, Coelomia looks like a low, rocky sandbar or reef, or possibly the mouth of a crater, with a shallow warm water lagoon in the middle.

  

It could easily be mistaken for the South Pacific island of Tabuearan. Outside the ring of visible land there’s a steeply-shelving, fairly smooth undersea reef that prevents large ships from approaching closely. Small boats or Viking longships with shallow draft, however, can row right into the lagoon, where the water is warm and the bottom is soft and sandy.

The only building on the island is a bamboo-and-palm-thatch hut, belonging to a crazy, muttering, Ben Gunn type castaway wizard. Apart from sunning himself on his balcony and unsuccessfully trying to brew potions out of kelp, the wizard tends a set of wide, shallow rock-pool-botanical garden of coastal and aquatic plants behind his house.

The wizard is harmless, and once he’s got over his fear of the adventurers he’s a mine of information about the island. The first thing he’ll tell the PCs is that he wants to rescue his friends but he can’t. Then he’ll show them some giant snail shells with membranes over the openings – these can store a couple of minutes worth of air, and allow for deep-sea diving. Then he’ll want them to try his potions (hoping to find one of water breathing). Finally he’ll get around to telling them the island’s secret, the reason why he and his friends came to it.

The island is actually a giant mollusc, or maybe two molluscs joined together.


The “lagoon” is a mouth with a ridge of stony, barnacled, tree-lined shell around it. The lagoon’s sandy bottom is the body of a giant snail-like thing loosely covered with sand and seaweed. This snail thing is connected to another that combs the sea floor for curiosities. The creature passes any indigestible curio it finds on the sea floor (bits of shipwrecks, Atlantean kingdoms) up to the mouth to get washed out by the waves, or to be rifled through by opportunistic murderhobos. Like the wizard and his friends.

So you could pan for treasure! But there’s a couple of complications. First, there are the crab-men – strong, violent and beautiful, with pearl-encrusted shells. They look like Kabutops, but covered in mother-of-pearl. Mechanically they’re like these guys. Those crab-men have taken to swiping all the treasure that gets washed up in the lagoon. The wizard has an uneasy truce with them – they let him live on his end of the lagoon, but they won’t let him in their end, where the floor of the lagoon shelves down into an opening deep into the mollusc shell – where they’re keeping the treasure.

And there’s another complication. The wizard came here as a member of a party of adventurers: where the others came for the gold, he had heard legends that an ancient and wise creature lived on the island, a creature that knew the way to paradise. The wizard brought a bunch of tools with him for exploring the island, including potions of water breathing, a diving bell, and a working magical submarine. He had to stay topside to power a ritual, to pump air into the sub. The rest of the gang went deep into the shell. And never came back. The wizard’s confident they aren’t dead – he tried casting Speak With Dead and although he got plenty of responses, none were from his friends. So he wants to know what happened to them, what they found, and what they did with his sub.

What the wizard doesn’t know is that deep inside the shell there’s a series of chambers, some filled with water, others with air. His friends did indeed make contact with the mythical creature – the mollusc, natch – in a small chamber right in the centre between the two great bulbous shells, where they found strange tubes that allowed them to mind-meld with it, and they are slowly being coccooned in pearl themselves. Mind-melding with the mollusc has some advantages – it allows you to control the crab-men telepathically, it feels really good, and it lets you into the mysterious and very slow-hatching plans of the mollusc, and of the party, who are now part of the same mental entity. It’s also very dangerous: breaking someone out of the mind-meld can hurt them, and anyway they won’t want to come away because they’re happy.

Indeed, the wizard’s friends are happy, and peaceful as long as nobody offers them violence, and willing to talk to strangers. They don’t care much about mere gold and jewels and rayguns and what have you. They’re looking for some special magical treasure, which the mollusc has been slowly amassing for years. They might be persuaded to help get the submarine for the PCs (using the crab-men), or drive the island to some useful location, or whatever you want. Maybe someone could try to mind-meld long enough to steer a crab-man to the sub, and then try to leave the meld to take control of the sub. But they emphatically do not want to be rescued, and they don’t want the wizard to join them in the meld – maybe they suspect he has some ulterior motive, maybe they realise their condition is a curse as much as a blessing, maybe they just don’t like him.

Past the mind-melding chamber there’s a narrow squeeze – too narrow for the previous party’s abandoned diving bell, but not too narrow for an unarmoured adventurer and a bag of potions of water breathing (emergency supply in the diving bell, which is probably still in the next chamber just past the squeeze). Beyond and below that, the chambers open out again into a crab-man settlement, with a whole city of crab-men hanging in ropy pearlescent strands off the bottom of the lower shell.

And tangled in the strands, the sub. Getting to the sub has one more complication – pressure.  The bottom of the shell is deep enough to cause serious pressure problems for human divers (I don’t know how deep that is – look it up. I’m going to say about 100 feet).  You could polymorph into a squid, perhaps. If you were confident crab-men didn’t love them some tasty squid. Or you could try to get to the sub quickly, since high pressure diving is all about time.

There’s plenty of treasure for a violent and uninquisitive party to take out of the island, but most of what can be reached easily is not very convenient: you could kill and loot the crab-men for as much mother of pearl as you can handle, provided you don’t mind it coming in foot thick slabs – that sort of thing. The crab-men also have a few valuables squirreled away in the top couple of interior chambers, hidden in a mighty tangle of everything the sea bottom could possibly provide. But to get to the sub, or the major treasures of the crab-men’s city, you’d have to get inventive. And to unlock the real potential of the island you’d have to get friendly with the mollusc.

Different campaigns will want the sub to have different possibilities and limitations. I picture it like a small version of the Nautilus from the classic Kirk Douglas 20,000 Leagues – big enough for 5 adventurers and their equipment, and capable of operating just as long as the wizard can sustain his continuous-air-making ritual (supplies enough fresh air for the crew and to power a small turbine for propulsion. The ritual must be conducted under an open sky – which is why the wizard can’t go aboard – and has a maximum range of 1 league).

Regarding the challenges of underwater adventuring, Harry Potter provided several magical solutions (gillyweed, which provokes a partial Deep One polymorph, outright polymorphing into some seaborne species, bubble-head charms, buddy-breathing with mermaids*). If needed the wizard could have developed anything from potions to a really long rubber hose. He does have a collection of diving-bell-like apparatuses around his hut, which he has grown out of nacre. These all have the disadvantage that they’re nearly impossible to move on land, being extremely heavy and having rough outer surfaces. Once in the water they become more tractable.

* OK, that last one is not canonical HP. But I bet there’s a fanfic.