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Carcosa’s interesting ambiguity

For me, one of the main differences between Call of Cthulhu and Carcosa is that in the former when things get too crazy your investigator gets taken away from you, but in the latter you keep playing.

…I find that a really interesting challenge, because the threat of the investigator becoming unplayable defines a clear line in CoC – a pale that, if you go beyond it, has no interaction on the other side. And that seems highly appropriate to its brand of bleak, atheistic horror. It defines a bright line between the PCs and the monsters, but more than that, it reinforces the difference, fundamental to CoC, between the tiny pocket dimension we call “reality” and the inconceivable universe beyond it.

So if you take that pale away, do you also take the horror away? Is it actually possible to roleplay through the horror of going outside the Normal?

I’ve considered, several times, running a game for PCs that are Cthulhu monsters such as shoggoths and byakhee and mi-go, but the game I imagine for them is pretty much straight SF, maybe a kind of Damned Star Trek where you’re forward agents for a less unified Borg or East India Company (the other alternative is comedy, but I prefer to let that emerge as a result of player actions). Such a game would avoid the question CoC suggests, though: if you become a monster, and keep playing anyway, does that really mean you are now a monster (either Vampire-style – you’re supposed to feel that you are a monster and struggle with your monstrousness –  or Kafka-style – you are greeted by all as a monster regardless of how you feel about it) or does it mean that monsters are now simply PC races?

Carcosa strikes me as a setting where this question remains usefully unanswered, ambivalent, undecided.

I contend that here, Carcosa’s ambiguity is different from the default anything-goes ambiguity of DnD – in the latter there might be a bit of inter-player theatre for a session while people get used to the idea, but ultimately the line between PC and NPC is stronger than any in-game-world line between monster races and PC races. So now your fighter is a byakhee? A flying fighter that causes fear? Awesome – you just won’t be able to come into town to spend your treasure, but that’s OK.

Maybe it’s because the sorcerer rules in Carcosa challenge the reader to decide what the pale is going to be in their game. Maybe it’s in particular the interplay I see between Carcosa and CoC, where in playing a sorcerer you do what CoC disallows – you play a cultist – but Carcosa presents me with a novel puzzle. I genuinely don’t know what it would mean to play a monster in Carcosa.

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  1. May 15, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Interesting insight, though I wonder if the difference between D&D and Carcosa is intrinsic to D&D or merely instrinsic to how D&D is commonly played.

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