Edit: Robert Parker’s essay on Carcosa = Masters of the Universe is here. It is better than mine, and it was he who first got me thinking on these lines (although at the time I wrote what follows I had not read his essay). Recommended. OK, so here’s my contribution…
I don’t want to see Carcosa go authentick.
When I first played DnD I didn’t get it. That’s not completely my fault – Vance, Lieber, even Howard weren’t on the fantasy and science fiction shelves at my local bookshop. Instead Tolkien and his imitators were. And Tolkien’s delightfully grounded, authentickally mythickal, pseukdo-historickal type of fantasy was what I knew. And DnD had elves and dwarves and hobbits (yes dammit hobbits) and orcs and goblins and chainmail and platemail and swords and shields and bows and so I mistook it for Tolkienian Fantasy.
And so its non-Tolkienian elements often seemed jokey or stupid or devaluing to me, like TSR didn’t understand how authentick this fantasy business needed to be, if it hoped to be taken seriously (I was a weird, intense kid). When I saw Bracers of Defense I deliberately thought “plate for thieves” instead of Wonder Woman – and I thought it really hard, exactly because I could see Wonder Woman out of the corner of my eye the whole time (and TSR were just fine with that, too: they didn’t set about disabusing me of my moneymaking misconceptions. It would’ve been easy to put lightsabers or rayguns or Klingon fighting barbecues or Holtzman shield generators on the weapons list, but they didn’t. Instead they printed magazine articles about “realism” and historical assassins’ guilds*).
And so all that stuff which didn’t fit a Tolkienian idea was as far as I was concerned a set of in jokes to which I was not privy. And I know that this is a common lament in the OSR.
Now it’s 30 years later and I think I kinda do get it, but because I spent a good 20 of those years looking the wrong way, there was a lot I missed – that I dismissed out of hand.
So. Carcosa. It’s not a Robert Chambers game. Giant Evil Wizard nailed it, I think, when he talked about its B-movie aspect. But of course it’s not really Carcosa Wacky Races either. Despite my own cartoon splatbombs thrown at McKinney’s setting, I understand and like its squicky, dark, doom-laden (but not Elrician), down-at-heel, hopeless, Lovecraftian edge. I want it to be serious and thoughtful and full of difficult choices and ready for grownup themes (not merely “adult content”).
But what really intrigues me about the setting is how it straddles different tones – how it can veer serious or haplessly tragicomic or gonzo or weirdly historically relevant. I like it on that cusp. Actually, I think maybe the best way to respect it, to take it seriously, is to recognise that it’s not CoC – that it makes no decisions for you about how you might play it. That actually it deliberately doesn’t give you the ammo to turn it into something that can be worshipped.
So it’s with the deepest and sincerest respect for all that Carcosa can be and mean that I now share a realization, which hit me like a thunderbolt last week:
Skeletor is a bone sorcerer.
Why is his body musclebound and his head a skeleton? Because his flesh is all there, but transparent.
And he belongs in Carcosa. No I don’t mean that Carcosa is really a He-Man setting, or that I want my Carcosan opponents to adopt Skeletor’s cackle or his ludicrous villainous schemes or that I really want to play Masters of the Universe and will bend Carcosa to fit this fever dream. Instead I mean Carcosa can stretch to cover MotU – it can serve to ground material of that level of lunacy, to make it meaningful, to give it a dramatic frame so that you can actually game it and have serious fun.
Also he has the wickedest set of Wacky Racer rides evar. Check them out:
Masters of the Universe, in short, is one possible Carcosa (especially if you flip over the old master-slave dialectic there), lurking somewhere under the surface alongside Poe and Conrad and Pelsaert and Spinrad and Boorman and Golding. And it took Geoffrey McKinney, Jeff Rients and Earl Norem to make me see it.
After all, where but Carcosa would you expect to see this?
*and still today, among these enlightened people of the OSR, the spectre of realistic feudalism in DnD lingers.
Turn one is off and running! In no particular order as they weave drunkenly over the starting line, down the hill and across the plains to the ship’s graveyard, we have:
– Joan of Shark, trying to keep her Car-charodon from leaping right out of its fishbowl [Justin Davis]…
– El Diablaser, burnin’ up the witches Rob Zombie style in Dragula, mooning and flashing the other racers [Stuart Robinson]…
– Eribotes the Argonaut and Dekapente the rollin’ monkey, in the steam-powered Turtletank [John Cater]…
– Poison and Keek, the handy hairy humanoids, riding Li’l Growler, the blood-bespattered baby [Anthony Pastores]…
– Rahu the Deathless and the skittery Scorpion Beast, under the Amazing Fizzing Tent [Kasper Blomdell]…
– The Ayatollah of Racin’ Rollahs in the Whippin’ Snappin’ Ekranoplan, dragged by Fetish Dino [Chris Robert]…
– Sweph, bumbling high priest of the Swinging, Sliding Sea-bull Shrine [Chris Koeberle]…
– Oogah the Pantless on his radium hog, The Hate Beast, with Snoo the mechanic hanging on pillion [Jeff Rients]…
– Haakon the Bone Viking and Red Ed on the Bellowing Blessed Brian [S Pate]…
– Thora Dejis in the Bone Machine – she seems to be riding all alone [Adam Thornton]…
– Zanadan the see-thru man and Ignatz on the Vincent Black Boathull [Jeremy Duncan]…
– Jumping Geretta on her trusty moldy Vroat [Jesse Moore]…
– Grampy and Mary, treadin’ out the Grapes of Wrath in their old Model A [John Stater]…
– Ugg and Chaz in their dragon skull dragster [Reynaldo Madrinan]…
– Renard and Moon Boy on Devil Dino [Robert Parker].
The old nemesis of Sky Men, the sorcerer Chixi’lu, has been spotted in the plain of glass, north of the Otrar wastes.
Do not approach or attempt to communicate with this extremely dangerous creature. The skald Rebennak has seen him, in his yellow belts of choison, melting men like butter and swirling them into marker-poles for his Lords.
Even the Aristocrats of Urumji were powerless against his depravity
Signs you may be approaching the Scourge Chixi’lu:
– sudden appearance of ritual cast-offs: soulless, mindless women, generally missing one foot, hand or eye;
– giant twisted, horned excrescences grasped up out of the Blessed Warm Plain;
– terrible destruction and grief caused by his summonings.
Avoid him! Shun his Mark! Report his position to Sky men!
That is all.
In Carcosa Wacky Races it’s not just the vehicles that are crazy, jury-rigged and untested – the rules are too!
Here’s everything you need to know in order to play –
The good news:
Each turn you decide what you’re going to do, write in your orders and hope. Your goal is to advance in the racing (like “marching”) order and finish the race at the front. The race will run for 6-8 turns, so if you’re at the back at the end of turn 4, you’ll have to get creative.
You do that by (a) going at a higher SPEED than the rest; (b) ATTACKing the other racers with your weapons/pets/vehicle/fists; (c) messing them up with dirty TRICKS.
All these actions are contested rolls – I roll a D6 for each participant in the action, the one who scores higher gets their wish.
But you can choose to add bonuses to your rolls! As high as you like! Just write in your orders: +3 SPEED and I will know to add 3 to your SPEED roll. Or +1 TO HIT and I will add that.
Possible actions are:
– Go Faster! (add bonuses to your SPEED roll) – at the end of each turn I calculate the marching order after rolling the dice – equal scores means more than one player in the same march position. Everybody starts in the same race order position, natch.
– Hit someone! You can shoot at or ram a vehicle in the same march position as yourself, or one rank before or behind. Roll TO HIT, they contest with a roll to which they add their AC.
– Pull a trick! You have to narrate these in your orders. Try stuff out, ask questions. I may give you one piece of advice letting you revise your trick before the turn is resolved and we see what happens. Anyway, everyone gets to save vs your trick, adjusted by its sneakiness, according to some obscure set of highly complex calculations.
The bad news:
Each turn there are also MISHAPS. You save vs. mishap by rolling below 10 on a D10. Easy! But every action you take adds +1 to your MISHAP roll. And every +1 you add to any of those actions adds +1 to the MISHAP roll. So let’s imagine you say: SPEED +3! And SHOOT Eddie-the-motorbiking-zombie +3! Well, that’s +7 on your MISHAP roll (a total of +6 for bonuses, +1 for the action of shooting). So now you have to roll a 1 or 2 to avoid a mishap yourself.
And mishaps get worse, the more drastically you fail your MISHAP roll. Best case, every point you fail by reduces your SPEED by 1. Fail it badly enough and the mishap interrupts whatever else you were planning to do, because you were so busy shooting, dodging and taping gelignite to those tumbleweeds that you didn’t see the cliff. Get way up above “failed by 5” and I get to use not only my own bad-news-for-vehicles mishap table, but also the Arduin crit tables and/or other OSR death and dismemberment fun.
Simple? That will never do. Here, have some needless complications:
Maneuvers, a special kind of action
You can also declare a maneuver for the turn instead of/as well as a + to SPEED. Each maneuver has pluses and minuses built in, but it does not cost an extra +1 mishap to declare.
1: shields up! +2 AC, +2 MISHAP. You may attack forward only.
2: hunker down! +1 SPEED, +1 AC, no attacks, +2 MISHAP. You stretch out long and low, taking advantage of cover at the cost of being less able to see hazards in your way.
3: riding tall! The opposite of hunker. -2 AC, +1 TO HIT, -1 MISHAP.
4: sling out the anchors! You automatically drop back one position, but take the vehicle behind you/previously together with you by surprise. +3 MISHAP, but +4 TO HIT.
You can in general only attack vehicles in the same position as you, or one position before or behind. Unless you come up with some smartass plan.
1: fire cannons! Can hit the chassis (for HP damage), the power supply (for speed/special damage) or the crew (that’s your PC and anyone else along for the ride). Vehicles take HP damage equal to the amount by which you defeat the target’s AC on the contested roll.
2: ram! +3 MISHAP to both cars, and the car with less AC takes the difference in AC as damage. And you can use any special ramming attacks, chompers etc.
3: grapple! If you declare a grapple that’s the only attack you can do in the turn. +2 MISHAP, and the grapplee gets to save each turn to get free. Vehicles grappled together average their speed and add together their MISHAP penalties, and each rolls each turn for a MISHAP while grappled. So why would you do it?
4: hoik! Because after grappling you can board the enemy, and once boarded you can try to sling the enemy driver right out of their vehicle (STR vs STR contest). Adds an extra +3 MISHAP. Following the hoik attempt, melee ensues (yup, this is where being high level is an advantage).
There are several attacks that might lead you to crawl around the outside of your vehicle as it careens through vindictively spiky canyons. Say which character is trying an EVA. They’ll have to save or fall off in the event of a mishap.
Once the HP are gone, all further damage prompts an automatic roll on the mishap table. The amount of damage acts as a modifier.
Have to be run on a case-by-case basis.
Oh right. Every turn there will be Special Conditions on the track, maybe obstacles to deal with, choices to make, wandering monsters, hitch-hikers, stuff like that. The lead vehicle obviously encounters these first, which may slow them down some. Any and all special stuff is of course fodder for using in TRICKS, aside from being hazardous all by itself.
Terrain is classified as SMOOTH or ROUGH – in general wheeled vehicles are faster on the smooth, legged/weirdo vehicles are faster on the rough. Rest assured, the Carcosa Wacky Races track will not relentlessly favour one type of vehicle.
Wait are you running Pure and Proper First Edition Carcosa? Shouldn’t I be re-rolling my hit points every round and…
Not quite exactly, no. It’s mix-n-match Carcosa. If this goes well you may get to see more of the not-quite-Carcosa world. But for now just chill, go with you instincts, and know that you know as much as anyone else does.
Where’s the chargen? What’s an ekranoplan?
By way of background, inspiration and, you know, just in case you don’t know what a Zil is and are afraid to ask: here are some pictures…
A whole bunch more of the same ekranoplan here. Takes advantage of “wing in ground” effect, which you’d think wouldn’t be such a good thing.
Doing it right:
…that’s from Herb DeGrasse’s gallery of movie cars.
Doing it wrong:
…Carcosan road signs.
EDIT: this here is a real life grease monkey.
This is what he made when his 2CV stopped working while he was driving across the desert.
…driving across the desert, in a 2CV. I’m guessing he’s Int 15+, but Wis 5-.
Edit again: this is a work in progress – as things come up, like Rey’s awesome technowiz character class, I will be modifying this template. If you have a grease monkey built to an old scheme you like better FEAR NOT you can still use them, but it might be an idea to grab the version of the rules you prefer…
Grease monkeys have no religion, no special faith in technology and no idea why they can put machines together and they work, where other people try and get garage art. They’re just handy with a spanner.
Fighting, saves and level XP are all like a Lab Lord thief. Maximum armour = chainmail. Any weapons are allowed.D4 HD, a spanner and a manic grin in place of a secretive smirk.
Instead of the usual raft of thief skills, grease monkeys get the following:
– Find/disarm/build/rearm traps
– Build insane McGyver contraptions of the player’s devising – this based on Rey’s technowiz (with my mods forthcoming)
– Ghost through the machine (hide and sneak at full speed in awkward, high-cover environments, like the guts of a giant machine (or a jungly swamp) for instance.
At 3rd level add Pick Locks.
At 5th level add Brachiate (swing through hanging vines/fuel lines/tentacles at double normal speed, only if unencumbered. Wait, what use is that? How often do your games involve hanging fuel lines anyway? I mean you could do it all the time if you had web-shooters like Spidey! Duh. Grease Monkey. Invent some)
But how good are they at all this? NEW MECHANIC (mechanic):
To fix a machine, identify what’s wrong, or make simple devices you essentially “hit it with your spanner.”
Tasks/machines/inventions have a difficulty rating, which works exactly like AC (Awkwardness Cwoshent? ‘Ardness to Calibrate? “Ang on a minute, if I just give it a quick Cick…”?).
The grease monkey achieves their task by overcoming its AC. THAC0 is 20 at first level, thereafter you add your level as a bonus to rolls. Which means they progress a bit faster than LL fighters hitting stuff with axes, and meteorically faster than LL thieves. And that just means you DMs get to set them monstrously difficult machine-building tasks and that’s that. Fighters work up to killing dragons, grease monkeys work up to fixing F22s. Thieves keep trying to break into chests and getting poisoned. Simple.
To make a brand new gizmo… is hard work. First, specify what you want it to do and agree with the DM “if this were a magic user spell, what level would it be?” In general to make a machine that replicates an MU spell, you should be at least high enough level to cast that spell, if you were an MU.
Then the DM will figure out the cost to build, exotic ingredients, fuel to make it work etc. Then you have a quest to do. Then there are rolls to see if it works and how much maintenance it needs every time you switch it on and what quirks it has and so on.
A grease monkey can invent one brand new device each level. Once they’ve invented it they can make more, but it costs materials, time and is naturally limited by how often experimental Frankenstein devices break (very often, requiring hours of repair. Almost as if they were Vancian spells, in fact).
Given the right parts, time and fuel, every grease monkey from level 1 can make a dangerous rattletrap motorbike/mad max deathwagon (AC 2), something to blast “ride of the Valkyries” out of it (AC 7), and a one shot, liable to blow your own head off type flamethrower (AC 5). The one-gizmo-per-level restriction is for stuff like “passwall” (AC 1) or “lightning bolt” (AC 4, requires 5th level) or “cure medium wounds” (AC 0 – really, how would you do that?) machines.
The LL thief XP table for convenience:
2nd level requires: 1,251XP
Per my house rules, to get above 8th level you have to “cheat” somehow – take on a demonic contract, become a lich – you set your own trouble and play through it with a willing DM. So everyone of “name” level has at least one dark secret.
So Giant Evil Wizard and I stormed a brain and this is what fell out:
Carcosa [is about] riding a triceratops hell-for-leather into a field of soon-to-be-dead robots … using robot blood to warpaint your Triceratops like the side of a mid-70’s conversion van. Carcosa is the weird uncle transdimensional neighbour of Mad Max World. It’s like Wacky Races on PCP. Plus, all the best hot rods run on high octane sorcerer blood.
Then Jeff Rients said The prospect of racing a Mad Max style dune buggy across an electroradiant hellscape makes me giddy.
You can bring whatever lunacy you’ve invented because flailsnails, but at minimum the home setting will have Carcosan dinosaur riders, Mad Max desert buggies, Tharks on Thoats and carnival floats. Race, fight and dirty trick your way into the lead, try not to become food for the hemogoblins. The track will run across the radioactive Plain of Glass, through Mike D’s Desert of Dead Gods and up and down canyons that just might be monster gullets/cloacas.
– the race will be over in 6-8 turns and the prize will be Grand Yet Mystifying;
– your character may die, mutate, get incorporated in the landscape and or reified/deified along the way. Really, it’s gonna be potentially deadly regardless of your level. If you want to roll up a character just for this, may I suggest:
What else you will need:
Roll up a vehicle (below). All vehicles can take at least 3 people, big ones can carry up to 6.
You automatically get one henchman if you don’t bring your own – a grease monkey who builds your ride (chargen right at the end of this post).
You can also choose to take a local Sky Man guide** along with you to keep you from getting lost and warn you about what’s coming up on the track. The downside: he comes with a kerosene-powered backpack radio, which bypasses all armour if it blows up. The upside: he can use that radio to contact his buddies further up the track, if you ask nicely.
Roll on the following tables, or make up your own craziness* and I’ll assign you bonuses and penalties by return of email.
Where do you ride? D10
1: A sweet black Zil or Caddie chassis, or if you want everyone to know you’re the good guy, then a Ford Mustang. +1 AC, +1 speed on smooth track or -1 in the rough, 8 HP
2: classic Mad Max dune buggy, with pipework spaghetti all over. +1 speed on the smooth, -1 in the rough, 10 HP
3: an ekranoplan nose-cone or hammered-together rocket booster +1 AC, +1 mishap, 12 HP
4: a coracle. Or a wickerwork howdah or open-top Baba Yaga hut. +1 speed, -2 AC. Counts as “stripped down.” 4 HP
5: a throne mounted on a titanium pipe and bamboo gantry, held together by hope. +1 speed, -2 AC, +1 to hit, +1 mishap. Counts as “stripped down.” 2 HP
6: the bony carapace of some giant creature – zaratan skull? Upturned Anklyosaurus back? Turtle shell? You choose. +1 AC, -1 to hit, 12 HP
7: a Vincent Black Lightning. Or if that doesn’t stir your juice, one of these motorbikes right here. +2 speed on smooth, -2 on rough, 4HP
8: The Bone Wagon. Or hell train. You choose, either way it’s clearly possessed by some really angry spirit. +2 AC, +2 mishap 14 HP
9: big, black altar stone. Looks like a Styrofoam movie prop but really hurts if it hits you in the shin. You cling to it for dear life, ironically. 16 HP
10: giant robot controlled by jumper cables sticking out of its trepanation hole. +1 AC, +1 to hit, +2 mishap, save on crit mishaps or it gets control over its own limbs again and you’d better watch out. 10 HP
What makes it go? D10
1: wheels and gas-o-line. In a poorly-sealed container, so bad mishaps can yield pretty orange fireballs +1 speed on smooth, -1 on rough
2: thoat. You choose if you sit atop or behind, but be warned, they kick +4 HP
3: skids and a giant everglades propeller, powered by compressed gas. See 1 above: save vs blender on bad mishaps.
4: Cameltrain – a giant 10-legged mutated camel with no head. Creepy. +2 HP
5: Soulburner: safe, clean, eerily silent energy that requires one sacrifice every 1d4 turns or it stops. Sacrificial process is your call.
6: Dinosaur. Can bite at ramming distance, but can also go wild on a bad mishap. Good luck. +6 HP
7: Giant spider crab. Skittery. Prone to attacking other vehicles for food +5 HP
8: gas-powered hovercraft – inferior to the soulburner in almost every way. +1 mishap, -1 to hit and pretty orange fireballs – but -2 damage from ramming.
9: wheels and rocket juice! Once during the game you can jump! Leaving a big black smudge on the track. During that jump you get +8 speed, +6 mishap, -2 AC (exposed underbelly). At the end you have to save or leave a big red smudge.
10: old-fashioned Mongolian ponies that won’t mess up your home campaign. With razor-sharp teeth. +3 HP – or giant landshrimp/trilobites that do exactly the same job.
What keeps the sun off? D10
1: Buddha brolly. Delightfully cool and colourful.
2: nothing at all. If you think you should have a roof, it’s missing.
3: Viking shields. +2 HP
4: gull-wing doors torn off defunct 80s sportcars +2 HP
5: tailfins torn off MiG fighters. +1 AC, -1 to hit +2 HP
6: an upside down boat. Rusty but solid. And hard to see around. +1 AC, +1 mishap (cannot increase AC over +2) +4 HP
7: pintle mount: you can target multiple other vehicles in a turn, but -1 to hit and +1 mishap for every target after the first.
8: fluttering ribbons. They’re supposed to bring good luck.
9: war banners. Double as lances in a ram, for +2 damage
10: hang-glider. Can try to use it as a last-ditch save vs death for one character, but that’s about it.
How do you recognise it in the parking lot? D10
1: live opera singer hood ornament. Knows the Deus Irae from Verdi’s Requiem, sneers at you if you ask for Ride of the Valkyries. Bellows and bites when you ram.
2: stripped down like a hot rod: +1speed, -1 AC overall
3: Bulked up like a tank: -1 speed, +1 AC
4: hard to look at. Maybe it’s the blinding mirror finish, or the op-art spiral paintjob, or the giant sloth skulls or the hypnotically-swaying fuel leads. -1 to hit, +1 AC
5: wildly bouncy shocks. -1 to hit, -1 speed
6: stringpunk jury-rigged trash-heap. +2 mishap, but also +2 on critical saves.
7: loaded with extras – like Scrap Princess’ “useful devices:” can be used as your wild hallucinatory visions demand, or as weapons for +1 in a ram.
8: Bronze trireme ram. Because they’re badass. +3 when ramming.
9: Nasty spiky bits, like Roman chariot wheels, or circular saws or Alien mouths-in-mouths. +1 when ramming
10: varmints – could be anything from rats to grasshoppers to seed shoggoths. 1 in 6 chance of +2 mishap each round.
The following weapons can be found lying around the junkyard:
Radium guns and gatling guns
Then there’s the weapons pit. This is guarded by a ferocious, giant dino-dog, sneaky glassworms and a robot snake. You can try your luck up to 3 times, risking your grease monkey’s neck, and in full cognizance of the fact that you won’t always get what you want… Tell me how many times you’re trying and how much risk you’re taking, I’ll tell you what you bring back. Roll a D20 for the “I’m going in but I’m not losing sight of the exit” table, or D12 for “I am in so far over my head and I don’t even know what these metal abortions might have been back when they worked” table.
Everyone gets the old favourites – oil spray and smoke out the back, shooting while doing bootlegger turns, kicking up dirt, thumbtacks – but beyond that you should invent these yourself. Email me with your ideas of misleading roadsigns or explosive hitchhikers or collapsing bailey bridges. All tricks come at a cost, usually of raised mishap risk. No you don’t get to know what that is ahead of time.
And last of all: the Grease Monkey, a race-as-class special to Carcosa Wacky Races
Full rules for these denizens of the junkyard are over here. For chargen purposes what you need to know is: write “grease monkey” on your charsheet. And a name. 3D6 in order as usual. d4 HP, specify whatever fetid covering you want up to chainmail. You get a free spanner/wrench and screwdriver and can also roll on Jeff’s What Went Wrong for equipment, background and sexual orientation, should you so desire.