Before I left on holiday, I was reading through Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa and wondering what in the world I would do with it if I were running the game with my own group. It’s a dark, bizarre, fascinating mashup of odd subgenres. Carcosa squashes together:
- Sword & Planet adventure (think Barsoom, say)
- The Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos
- a dash of gonzo neo-Lost World (in the form of mutant dinosaurs)
- the classic grey alien and alien tech
… and those are just the mos prominent components. There’s also funky dice mechanics, a boiled-down-to-usability version of psionics, an alternate (and very creepy) magic system, and more.
Which is to say, there’s a lot to dig in the book and the setting. But there definitely are also things I’m pretty sure my own group would not dig—that alternate magic system is probably a couple of football fields too deep into true horror for some of my players—and meanwhile, I can’t help but feel that there are elements McKinney included but didn’t flesh out as much as I’d like in my own little Carcosa.
In an earlier draft of this post, I waded into a homily here about how mashups are derivative, and derivative works are great for RPGs… for the Referee, the player, and the developer alike. But, eh, I’ll save that for another post, and just focus on some further mashups and tweaks I’ve been considering for Carcosa. I’ll present those in the form of mashups, just for fun.
One feature of Carcosa is that the world is populated by a bunch of different “races” of humans, identified specifically by their color. This is literal: the black men aren’t African-looking, they’re pitch black. The Red men are scarlet, not just out of shape. There are even races of men identified by colors that don’t exist in our world (nabbed from David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus), like “jale,” “ulfire,” and “dolm.”
I can’t help but imagine “men” becoming a more flexible term in my Carcosa, including a range of bipedal, roughly hominid creatures. A race of Red Men hominins from somewhere way back up the chain of evolution, say—sort of mutant Homo habilis that developed giant braincases somewhere along the way. Or, you know, hearkening back to Burroughs, what if the Green Men were actually more like the Tharks of Barsoom?
I feel like other nonhuman races could be invented for the other colors: the Red Men could be more birdlike, the Jale Men perhaps amphibians resembling Deep Ones, and so on. One suspects that digging into theosophical cosmology (which anyway inspired Burroughs’ work) might provide inspiration with more bizarre humanoid races.
I know, I know, part of the cool thing about Carcosa as McKinney envisioned it is that it’s stripped down to one PC race (humans) and two classes (Fighter and Sorcerer). But that’s his Carcosa. My regular campaign also has no demihumans (though it does have some abhumans). For me, part of the attraction of Sword & Planet is a bunch of alien races jockeying for power and to survive their turbulent coexistence. I might limit the PCs to humans-like-Earthlings, but having the “racial” variants be more than skin deep thickens the sauce of the setting, in my opinion.
Speaking of which…
Since I probably wouldn’t use sorcerers, but I like the idea of a game world with no Magic-Users in the mainstream D&D sense…
Wait, would that make it a world with no magic?
Well, not quite. You see, Carcosa comes with a form of simplified, very-usable psionics, and that’s interesting to me. I never actually used psionics back when I played AD&D, mainly because it never felt like it would fit into any gameworld I was using. (I was a lot more averse to genre-bending in games as a kid; when it comes to fiction, I still am.) But I think in a sword & planet setting, it would be a perfect fit. That said, I’d likely want to do up a lot more psionic powers and fiddle a bit with the ones in the book, and would probably replace the sorcery system with a somewhat extended psionics system… which would be the primary mode of interacting with the Cthulhu Mythos deities liberally seeded across the face and depths of the planet.
But also, as a kind of surrogate form of spellcasting, I’d be really tempted to remix the concept of Isho and Dyshas from the long-lost Jorune game world. (Jorune is notorious for its in-game lingo, but Isho is basically a range of psychic energy-types that are infused into the world by its multicolored satellites. Dyshas are spell-like applications of that energy, basically like teachable psionics, only available to some of the world’s species.) Of course, remixing all that would be a lot of work, so I’d probably do my best to pilfer from others who’ve done some of the heavy lifting. (Here’s an example, one of many, but I would be working hard to simplify it. I like the idea of energy types being manipulated psionically, and characters having differing levels of facility with different energy types.)
I think this could add a really interesting element to the psionics system in an OSR game:
Jorune also suggests a few more interesting possible “races” of men for the world: “White Men” could be the pale, blind, psychically gifted Shanthas of Jorune, for example, and the Brown Men could also be some of those furry Iscin races. and a few other of the Jorune races could be introduced into the world, too. Probably not the human-animal hybrid Iscin races (which I’ve seen, somewhat fairly, referred to as furries).
Finally, I’ve been gtting interested in Gamma World again. I spent many happy hours in middle school running a Gamma World game for a very large and very enthusiastic group of players, including a lot of people who didn’t identify as gamers, but were all about wandering a post-nuclear-holocaust world as mutated plants and animals and Mad Max humans. For sword & planet, I can’t help but think that cartoon radiation and random mutations could be a great, wonderful addition to the world.
And wahddaya know, it turns out that was part of McKinney’s Carcosa all the way back! It’s less emphasized in the LotFP edition of Carcosa (the only one I’ve read, and hat only partway so far), but something McKinney discussed directly in long-ago posts about the setting: he includes mention of Gamma World mutations and artifacts, the latter playing the role that magic items do in plain-vanilla D&D…
I’d probably make a point of thieving from both 2nd and 3rd edition Gamma World at the very least: I have little interest in the dread table used for action resolution in GW3e, but I like its fuller treatment of mutations and the introduction of mutant, sentient plants.1 But Gamma World 2e would probably be easier to port over, and I’d be tempted to get GW7e, just for the mutation cards, except they might be too gonzo… so maybe I’d just have to master some card-making software and do up my own huge deck of mutation and tech/artifact cards. Besides the tech, and the radiation and mutations, I think Gamma World is a good model for the hexcrawl concept: I have to admit that I don’t really get hexcrawl as a game dynamic unless there’s some kind of built-in motivation beyond “find stuff, kill stuff!” but in a blasted, hostile landscape warped by war and radiation, survival is motivation enough.
I might even consider eliminating levels for PCs in this world, and instead having players advance skills specifically: improving a hit roll for a certain XP cost, or developing their psionic powers (or resistance to them), or whatever. Ha, I have a second-hand copy of Gamma World 3e sitting at a friend’s house, waiting for me.
So I guess that’s four great tastes that I think would taste great together: Carcosa, Barsoom-via-Theosophy, Jorune, and Gamma World.
JorBarCarGammaCosa? Maybe that’s too many flavors at once? I don’t know. But it is tantalizing…
I played Gamma World 3e extensively, but from what I hear it’s apparently a miracle I managed to make the rules work: here’s to the power of adolescent excitement, I guess?↩