Home > Uncategorized > How brightly-coloured should Carcosa be?

How brightly-coloured should Carcosa be?

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.

  1. April 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    I think a lot of good rpg settings like Carcosa (and, if I can be granted “good” for the sake of argument, my own Weird Adventures) or the implied setting of D&D are fundamentally incoherent if you put them under a microscope. However, they have a lot of cool thematic dots that you can select the ones to connect to make a wide range of pictures.

    This is a strength that more coherent setting like Middle Earth or a realistic historic setting have to sacrifice.

  2. April 27, 2012 at 5:46 am

    Mr. Trey, that is just an elegant way of phrasing it–connect your own dots to make your own picture. Perfect.

    And here are a series of words I never thought would come out of my mouth: “I NOW WANT TO PLAY A GAME SET IN ETERNIA SOOOOOOOOOOO BADLY.”

    • May 2, 2012 at 12:37 pm

      I feel your pain. A MOTU game would be awesome.

  3. April 27, 2012 at 7:35 am

    Trey, that is really well put. Thank you.

    And I’ve been really enjoying Weird Adventures. I’m on this big flying islands and cyclopean rocketships kick right now, but I’m planning a review soon when I’ve had a chance to give it some real thought.

  4. April 28, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I love those Masters of the Universe paintings.

    Totally agree with you regarding not getting the gonzo and science fantasy elements of D&D much when I started playing. In the 90s I was, however, pretty into the steampunk, final fantasy, etc blend that was just then gathering steam (and is really just another version of science fantasy, I think). In the 2000s that led to settings like Eberron, which, while it doesn’t speak to me personally, I think will function for people that grew up on much like MotU etc functions for people of my generation (and perhaps yours?).

    Carcosa is so versatile because the themes and imagery are essentially a blend of Barsoom and Lovecraft. Thus, one can take it more toward the Barsoomian and make it slightly more lighthearted and heroic (though Barsoom is still a ruined and violent planet) or more towards the Lovecraftian, where it becomes even darker and more hopeless, the presence of ray-guns notwithstanding.

    I hope you’re not suggesting that the spectre of realistic feudalism has no place in D&D though, because I think that certain aspects of Greyhawk, if not the whole of Greyhawk, fits that description pretty well. Really, I think there is a spectrum here, ranging from pseudohistorical medievalism at one end, to Greyhawk, on to Blackmoor, and then terminating around Carcosa. Perhaps Eternia is past Carcosa? No need to be dogmatic about classifications in any case.

    Also, check out this post on He-Man:


  5. May 7, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Hey Richard, that’s funny you should talk about MOTU; the first time I read Carcosa I thought “this place would be a great for doling a He-Man or Thundarr campaign!”


    • May 10, 2012 at 3:11 pm

      It took me quite a while to get there – maybe because first I was thinking “hey, this isn’t Carcosa, it’s Leng” and then I was trying to squeeze it into a Dunsanian mould and then…

      …there’s a lot in there. I’m afraid I’m going to be talking about Carcosa for a while.

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