Wednesday 1 February 2023

I have a new blog about weird old SFF novels

 Well, as you can see I haven't updated this blog in quite some time. I still play D&D but I don't get creative ideas for it in the same way that I used to. Instead I have started a new blog where I review classic sci-fi and fantasy novels, focusing on the strange and the obscure.

There is obviously a lot of crossover in interest between this and old-school D&D. Old-school players will particularly enjoy my writeups of Roger Zelazny's The Changing Land (a psychedelic wizard novel that seems to have drawn directly on D&D 1e) and Jack L. Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls (a bizarre sci-fi-fantasy-fetish mashup that manages to be videogame-like despite being written before videogames were really invented).

Check it out here:

You can even subscribe and have it delivered straight to your inbox, as is the new fashion!

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Pick Your Own Rumour

mice in a tavern swapping stories
David Petersen

I've never used rumour tables in my games, and I'm now realising that I probably should. They always seemed a bit dry and artificial to me, but I think they're important for fleshing out the world and giving players more options than just following the first plot hook that the GM introduces.

To make them feel less arbitrary, here's a micro-system that gives players a little bit of control over the rumours they get:

Each rumour has one word HIGHLIGHTED in its text. When PCs are in town, the GM reads out all the highlighted words and each player picks one. Their character hears that rumour. When the PCs return from an expedition, replace the known rumours with new ones and let the players pick again.

Example for my upcoming Mausritter game:

1. The frog village down the RIVER has not been heard from in several months.
2. Monks at the abbey of St. Ninian dug up a mysterious STATUE in their vegetable garden.
3. The ROSE Tombs contain strange treasures of mice who came before.
4. A vicious CORGI has been seen roaming the wilderland.
5. The dreaded cat, Tom-o'-the-Mount, has AWAKENED and left his underground lair.
6. The rat folk are mustering an army in the LAVENDER Hills.

Hopefully this will make the rumour process more interactive, give more hints about the world, and make players excited to return home and refresh the rumours. My gut instinct is that it's better to pick words that are distinctive but not necessarily the most informative. For the table above, FROG, ABBEY, TOMBS, CORGI, CAT and RAT might give the players more control, but it would make the process feel too much like just picking from a menu.

This system is not playtested, so I would be interested to hear feedback about it.

Thursday 7 May 2020

Through Night On Grim Parabolas

Ernie Button


The Home Worlds are like tiny jewels sprinkled on a vast black cloth. Around each world is a shell, upon which the stars, suns and moons all move, orbiting around the planet at the core. But outside the shell there are no lights, only the Nox - black and formless, the raw material of reality. Enormous gulfs separate the Home Worlds from each other, journeys so far that even light cannot reach.

The Home Worlds might have never known each other. But long ago, on each world, there came into being the Gods. From small thought-forms, ancestor spirits, and local deities, they gradually coalesced until each world had just one almighty God, an enormous egregore born from the longings of millions of mortals.

The Gods called out to each other across the Nox. With great effort they could communicate, but not affect each other directly. For a time they formed a cosmic pantheon. But then they reached too far. Across the cosmos they touched other minds -- the Gods of terrible worlds, where brutal empires had already devoured everything within their reach.


The Gods of the Home Worlds pulled back, but too late. They had revealed their existence to the Gods of the Red Worlds. Ravenous for new conquest, the Red Gods commanded their mortal subjects to build weapons that could cross the expanses of the Nox.

So the first stillships were created. They were self contained ecosystems, like giant terraria or tiny world-shells. They encompassed not only their own animals, plants and people, but also their own laws of magic and their own miniature gods. Everything they would need to survive eons in transit. When they were ready, the Red Gods flung their stillships across the cosmos, on parabolic arcs bound for the Home Worlds.

Such was the power of the stillships that if they reached the Home Worlds, it would be too late. So the Gods created their own stillships and flung them to intercept the invaders. The great war had begun. It has been going ever since.

Richard Bober


War in the Nox is conducted on the scale of millennia. Stillships maneuver around each other for great ages, then come together in brief flares of violence. Victory is decided not by who has the strongest weapons or the cleverest plans, but by who can maintain discipline and purpose on such a daunting timescale.

For every stillship lost in battle, many more are destroyed by ecological catastrophe, or overtaken by mutineers, or simply forget their purpose and drift off into the darkness. Since the first generation of ships, the Gods have learned much about how to sculpt societies for endurance over the long term. Overly rigid models tend to collapse easily. Military structures break down into bloodshed, while repressive theocracies often defect. The strongest stillship cultures are able to transform themselves repeatedly without losing sight of their ultimate goal.

Pasqual Ferry


To abet this, the Gods provide each stillship with mortal Heroes. While the miniature world is still being sculpted, the Heroes arise. Guided by the Gods, they take part in a ritual struggle imbued with mythic significance. This ur-myth is imprinted deep into the psyche of the people of the stillship. Once the ship launches, the Heroes are put into suspended animation. They will awaken only in times of crisis, when the stillship needs to be brought back to the right path.

Like all mortals, the Heroes' lives are brief candles. They must ration their days and years carefully, spending most of their time asleep. New Heroes can only be made in the crucible of battle against another stillship, when the ancient purpose is fulfilled and new myths may be born in the flames.

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Sourdoughs of Carcosa

Alchemy, in the D&D sense, is practically unknown on Carcosa. Potions generally do not exist. What fills the same niche is baking - a complex, spiritual and potentially dangerous practice.

Fungi on Carcosa are imbued with magical properties, particularly the brain-parasitic fungi from Yuggoth. Another branch of the same family tree (or family mycelium, rather) are the magical yeasts. Baker-shamans jealously guard their yeast starters, passing them down through generations. Under rare moons they come together in a bakersmoot, to trade and breed new strains.

On Earth, wheat has had an incredible impact on human culture. Arguably, wheat domesticated humans rather than the other way around. Some ancient alien theorists even speculate that emmer wheat was given to humans by extraterrestrials to jump-start agrarian civilisation. But on Carcosa, wheat is rare. Most human tribes are hunter-gatherers or fungal agriculturalists. Wild wheatfields grow only in remote locations, and those who know them keep them secret.

Yeasts and wheat come together in the alchemical ritual of baking. The resulting loaves can be consumed for a variety of effects, depending on the particular strain of yeast. Unlike potions, loaves take around 10 minutes to consume and are typically shared between a group of characters. Here are six samples:

1. Purple Nutbread. Made from kamut wheat, nuts and the yeast strain "The Incomparable Scion". Those who eat this bread together will be fused into a fleshy monstrosity, with all the abilities of all characters plus 1d6 beneficial mutations. They will dissolve from each other under the new moon, although sometimes ending up with mismatched limbs, eyes, etc.

2. Loaf of Fealty. Orange bread made from spelt and the yeast strain "Son and Daughter". To activate this bread, one person must break the loaf and drip their blood onto it. Those who eat the bread become bound to serve the one whose blood was offered. The eaters grow stronger, faster and more hale, while the blood-offerer becomes weak and sickly in proportion. These effects are permanent.

3. Cavitaceous Loaf. Pale grey bread, made from einkorn wheat and the yeast strain "Lacuna". Looking into a slice caused disorientation; there seem to be more holes than there should be room for. Eating it temporarily grants the ability to see round holes in all solid objects. Allows one to shoot enemies through walls, extract organs without breaking the skin, or hide objects in places where nobody else can reach them. Some shamans have gone mad after heavy use, and just before disappearing, raved about "the little ones" and referred to the extradimensional holes as "burrows".

4. Bone Bread. Made from emmer wheat, bone powder, and the yeast strain "Knowing the Gate". The eaters will temporarily gain the powers and knowledge of whatever creature's bones were used in the baking. Mixing different bones together risks terrible psychic scarring.

5. Jale Rye. Made from rye, jale lotus seeds, and the yeast strain "The Eleventh Eye". The baker pours their thoughts into the bread, encoding a specific vision in each loaf. Whoever eats the loaf experiences the vision. Expert bakers can create complex psychic realms. All who partake of the bread can explore them together.

6. Azure Purgative. Blue bread with dolm mould in its cavities. Made from emmer wheat and the yeast strain "Dolm Retriever". All who eat this bread will vomit copiously. Curses, enchantments, parasites and memorised spells will be purged from the body and thrown up. Curses typically manifest as bezoars or unpleasant polyps. The curse can then be transferred to another if they consume its physical manifestation.

It's said that potions are unknown, but this is not entirely true. A few shamans have developed what we would call a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, and which they more bluntly call "the infected fungus". They use this to create liquids with magical properties similar to the breads--a haunted kombucha for the wastes of Carcosa.

Saturday 2 May 2020

Carcosa is a Lovecraft Mega-Crossover

In my review of Carcosa I mentioned that it was like a Kingdom Hearts or Super Smash Bros style crossover for Lovecraft and his associated universes. It's got cosmic horrors drawn from Chambers and Derleth, impossible colours from David Lindsay, a psychedelic vibe from Clark Ashton Smith, dinosaurs out of E. R. Burroughs, and flying-saucer aliens born from 50s' UFO culture.

 "Kingdom Hearts" isn't quite right though - a more accurate analogy would be Disney's Once Upon A Time or CLAMP's xxxHOLiC. The difference being that in Kingdom Hearts, the tonal dissonance between different franchises is played up as part of the fun, whereas in Carcosa there is some effort made to unify all the elements under a single aesthetic.

So let's imagine - if McKinney had not been limited by copyright restrictions (and also, perhaps, his own taste for the classic and obscure) what else on the Lovecraft wavelength could have made it into the world of Carcosa?

D&D demon lords
The demon lords from early D&D seem like they could coexist quite easily with the Mythos deities. Demogorgon and Juiblex are particularly good candidates. On the other hand, more "human-seeming" characters like Iggwilv or even Orcus don't feel right to me. I think it's because they have too much agency. The cosmic entities imprisoned on Carcosa need to be either unconscious, unintelligent or uncaring about the fate of humanity. As soon as you add some schemers to the mix, they make the whole setting about themselves and wipe away that sense of potential I talked about in my last post.

Michael Moorcock stuff
It would be tempting to add Michael Moorcock's demon prince Arioch to the mix - after all, he was originally invented by R. E. Howard - but again there's the "schemer" problem. What I would love to use from Moorcock is the cursed sword Stormbringer. Just stick it in a rock somewhere on your map and see what happens!

STALKER/Roadside Picnic
The Zone (as it's depicted in the film) could be dropped into Carcosa. An area of spatial distortion that perhaps even the Snake Men didn't fully understand, left behind as trash by some paracosmic beings. Moving through it without proper precautions tends to get you cut in half by folds in the fabric of space.

My headcanon for Carcosa is that before humans were enslaved and bred into wacky colours by the Snake Men, they were the masters of a Dune-style space empire. Maybe they also built giant robots out of bits of dead Great Old Ones? And maybe some of these robots crashed on the surface of Carcosa? And maybe if primitive humans dig them up they could get them working again?

No Touch Kung Fu
The presence of psychic powers already gives Carcosa a thematic link to occultism and conspiracy lore. Follow the thread far enough and you can reach the world of wuxia movies and sham kung fu techniques. Humanity, who has forgotten their origins, can retrieve spiritual practices from the Akashic Records (with the help of psychedelic lotus seeds, of course). Techniques like water walking, sleeper holds and suspended animation are within reach of those willing to undergo punishing and bizarre training regimens.

The Book of Sand
I've always been interested in the relationship between Jorge Luis Borges and the pulp writers such as Lovecraft and Howard. They possibly weren't even aware of each other, and in some ways Borges is worlds apart - but some sense of a relationship remains, perhaps because of a shared influence from Poe. Anyway, here's a magic item from Borges:
He suggested I try finding the first page. I placed my left hand on the cover and opened the book with my thumb and forefinger almost touching. All my efforts were useless: several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as though the pages sprouted from within the book.Now search for the last page.” Again I failed; I only managed to stammer in a voice not my own:This cannot be.”
The Book of Sand contains words in an unknown language and mysterious illustrations, resembling the Voynich Manuscript. Its pages are infinite, and turning to the first or last page is impossible. Those who own the book eventually go mad, reaching a state where they cannot think about anything other than the book.

Also from Borges. If you have the time I highly recommend just reading the story, but here's the cliff's notes. Tlön is a fictional world, created by a conspiracy of philosophers to be enchantingly realistic, detailed with "the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant". As humanity becomes obsessed with Tlön, it overtakes our own reality (metaphorically in Borges, more literally in Grant Morrison's take on the subject.)

How does this fit into Carcosa? Well, in such a violent and degraded world, the creation of a work of refined imagination is all the more challenging. Disciplines such as linguistics, sociology and geometry are just as arcane as the rituals of the sorcerors. The writers of the Encyclopedia of
Tlön rule over a city-state whose every activity is bent towards achieving the creation (or re-creation) of their masterpiece. Much like a cult, they inspire devotion in their followers who believe they will be able to escape Carcosa and enter the more refined imaginary world of Tlön.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Review: Carcosa, by Geoffrey McKinney

Carcosa is my favourite RPG book that I actually don't like at all. I am obsessed with it, but really I am obsessed with the idea of it. I love the premise, the overall aesthetic of the thing. I love the uneasy mixture of genuine horror and pulp nonsense, of grotesque violence and gonzo comedy. I love that it's basically a Kingdom Hearts/Super Robot Wars-style crossover of every Lovecraft-adjacent author ever. I love the sense of intense potentiality in the setting, the feeling that over the course of a few sessions your players could very easily seize godlike power, or trigger an eldritch apocalypse, or just die of sepsis in a ditch.

What I don't love is anything that's actually in the book.

Once you start reading the details, all you find is one limitation after the other. McKinney created a wonderful playground for the imagination, but it seems like he didn't actually want to play there. Consider this quote from the section on "Artifacts of the Great Race":

Humans, however, find it almost impossible to use these outré objects. Only humans with an intelligence of at least 17 can even possibly do so. After each month of continuous study, such a human has a 5% (non-cumulative) chance of understanding the item well enough to make some use of it.
In other words - here's a bunch of cool stuff, but it's statistically improbable that any of your characters will ever be able to use it.

Or the section on sorcerous rituals, most of which require expensive treasures, human sacrifices, or quests to extremely dangerous locations. Even if all the requirements are met, the cosmic entity still gets a saving throw, and:

The Referee must make the being’s saving throw in secret. If a ritual does not work, the Sorcerer does not know why:
The ritual might be defective and thus will never work.  
The Sorcerer might have performed the ritual incorrectly. 
The entity might have made its saving throw.
How is this conducive to any kind of entertainment at the gaming table? If the PCs are trying to complete a ritual, it's just an exercise in frustration. If the PCs are trying to prevent an evil sorceror's ritual, it opens the door to a sad anticlimax: "You failed to stop him in time... but luckily Cthulhu made its saving throw so nothing happens."

Once you get past the long and pointless list of rituals (most of which don't do anything useful even if you go to the trouble of completing them) you reach what should be the real meat of the book: the hex descriptions. But here, too, McKinney seems to have little interest in the possibilities of his own material. So many hex entries are literally just a monster name and a number, as if rolled right off a wandering monster table. But the really baffling ones are things like this: "Tens of thousands of ancient stone burial vaults dot these barren plains. Every one of them has been broken open and emptied." Or: "A shadowy figure lurks at the edge of the forest, watching intently. Though it may be a Black Man or a Purple Man, it is impossible to tell for sure, and he disappears deeper into the trees if pursued. No amount of searching or pursuit will result in finding him."

In other words: "Something here appears to be interesting, but on further investigation, it isn't. At all." 

I know some people praise this kind of brief hex description because "it can serve as a starting point for the DM's imagination". But most of Carcosa's hexes are so brief that they give you nothing at all to work with, or worse, actively stifle imagination by negating possibilities.

The monster descriptions are similarly low-effort. Most of them boil down to generic blobs or crazed mutants that attack on sight. Many Lovecraft deities are listed, and although there's a certain goofy charm in learning that Azathoth, "the monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space", has 19 armour class and 60 hit dice, ultimately the descriptions of them are so brief as to make each one indistinguishable. McKinney's attitude seems to be: "You've read the original stories, so I don't need to put in any effort here."

Yet even that is too kind because McKinney has managed to make a lot of the Lovecraft monsters less interesting than in their source material. For example, Carcosa claims that creatures as diverse as shoggoths, mi-go and Deep Ones are all numbered among the "six main spawn of Shub-Niggurath". This attempt to systematise the unruly hodgepodge of the Lovecraft cosmos is reminiscent of the misguided efforts of August Derleth, who notoriously tried to fit Lovecraft's pantheon into neat boxes based on the classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. But cosmic horror really only works when the uncanny defies logical classification. The fact that Lovecraft's meta-universe is crowded with beasties and barely held together is part of its allure.

A review of Carcosa, especially a critical one, can't be complete without talking about the rape content. Because it created such controversy at the time of release, I'm always surprised to find how little there actually is in the book: I think it's just two or three rituals and one monster description. I absolutely think it should not be included in the book. Any reasonable DM won't use it anyway, and it makes it much harder to talk about the setting when you have to preface any discussion with "but I'm not into the rape stuff".

That said, I don't believe that the depictions of cruelty and torture in the ritual section are entirely gratuitous. It does add something new to the Cthulhu mythos. The traditional theme of cosmic horror has been "the universe is full of powerful beings that don't care if something horrible happens to you". Carcosa's rituals twist this a little: here, the powerful beings do care about horrible things happening to you, but they care for alien reasons beyond comprehension. But I really question whether this theme can be ably explored in a roleplaying game, much less in a game of gonzo hack-and-slash D&D.

Conclusion... look, I would be an asshole if I didn't give credit where it's due to a book that I've written a bunch of blog posts about. McKinney has definitely created a world that is fundamentally compelling on some level. But if you're reading this review to decide whether to buy it, I'd say... maybe don't bother?

Even aside from the fact that it's published by a guy who stands up for (alleged) rapists - the book doesn't give you anything you can't get yourself. Instead, I recommend you read the source material (Chambers, Smith, Lovecraft, Lindsay, and uh... Burroughs but maybe just watch the movie instead). Look at the artwork associated with Carcosa and read what other D&D bloggers have written about it. Then just imagine what's inside the book itself, and you will probably come up with something better than the disappointing reality.

Monday 27 April 2020

Seasons of Carcosa

Bruce Pennington

Carcosa's solar year lasts for nine months, each of fifteen days' duration. The seasons are as follows:

Hot Dry (or "Dustfall") (2 months): The driest and hottest portion of the year. Crops wither and creatures seek shelter. Humans go about in full-body cloaks to avoid exposure to solar radiation. Some flora and fauna hibernate during this period. Dust storms, brushfires and solar flares are common.
Black Rain (1 month): As the temperature decreases, noxious clouds rise from Lake Hali and fall on the landscape as black rain. Creatures and plants mutate to survive the rain's toxins. Humans hoard clean water.
Sporing (3 months): Coldest and wettest season. Freshwater storms wash away the black rain and life blossoms. The fungal forests sporulate during this time. Humans wear filter masks to avoid fungal infections. Floods and thunderstorms common, but overall a time of bounty.
Hot Wet (3 months): Storms give way to humidity. Fungal forests grow. Humans retreat into caves, which offer respite from the relentless heat. Overland journeys are difficult because exhaustion sets in quickly.

There are two major moons, Yuggoth and Pnakotoi. The former rises at night and the latter during the day.
Yuggoth has a fifteen day cycle and is associated with the nine months. When it is full, it projects eldritch energy that increases the power of spells and stimulates uncanny beings. 'Werethings' transform under a full Yuggoth.
Pnakotoi has a sixty-day cycle. It normally achieves fullness at the same time as Yuggoth, creating a double full moon once every four months. Full Pnakotoi augments the effects of full Yuggoth.
Bruce Pennington

The nine months of Yuggoth:

- Dust Moon: For the heavy dust clouds that rise at the beginning of the dry season. The full moon stimulates the spawning of giant dust worms.

- Ulfire Moon: the ulfire tint reflects the heat on the planet's surface. Creatures of invisible flame walk the land on the full moon.

- Black Rain Moon: A moon often obscured by thick black clouds. When its pale light strikes the ground, horrors spawn from the mud.

- Thunder Moon: A welcome moon that heralds the end of the black rain season and the coming of fresh water. Sorcerors perform rituals of renewal under this moon.

- Spore Moon: Spore clouds rise in this month and turn the sky greenish-white. When the full moon shines, spells spontaneously cast themselves from the minds of spellcasters.

- Hunt Moon: A bright moon, beloved by predators, who use it to hunt the young prey spawned during the Sporing season. Old beasts stir under its light and warriors make sacrifices of blood.

- Yellow Moon: A sickly moon, presiding over humidity and infection. Madness flares up in this month, and at full moon Hastur walks the earth far beyond his demesne in Lake Hali.

- Fruiting Moon: In this month, the fruiting bodies of fungi grow wildly, sometimes so fast as to coat a sleeping victim overnight. Fungal forests become nigh impassable. Spellcasters sprout mushrooms from their facial cavities. At the full moon, the fungi walk and perform strange rituals, while humans and beasts are rooted to the ground.

- Moth Moon: Named for the dolm moths that swarm in this month. Men and beasts store food jealously as the last supplies are depleted before the coming of the dry season. On the full moon, the moth swarms reach their peak and humans feel restless, a desire to travel.

Bruce Pennington

I have a new blog about weird old SFF novels

 Well, as you can see I haven't updated this blog in quite some time. I still play D&D but I don't get creative ideas for it in ...