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Tabletop RPG Cartography

Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown & Morality

This isn’t going to be a particularly extensive review, as I’m not great at writing reviews and better people have already done s0 (some links over at LotFP) but I will throw my pennies worth in, especially now that I’ve had time to look through the two PDFs I downloaded as soon as they came out.

Review: Carcosa

Firstly, I have to say that I’ve never owned nor read the original when it came out, and although I’ve heard things here and there, I’m coming to this with an fairly open mind.


This book is a work of art. The layout, the choice of fonts and colours, the illustrations, all combine together beautifully and although this is just the PDF version, I have to say that I am impressed. Wish more were like this; because, as much as the content of a game, setting, module or supplement appeals to be the most, I love it when such things are well-designed. It makes reading them more enjoyable, easier, and adds to the tone and flavour of them. I hope the printed copy turns out as good (I imagine it will).

Another great thing about this are the hyperlinks that work wonderfully, allowing easy flicking between areas, and I wish more PDFs were done like this; it helps immensely when it comes to references, and is quicker and more efficient than simply searching for keywords or using bookmarks.


Carcosa is an odd-ball setting, mixing weird fantasy with weird horror and science fiction, evoking the styles of early writings of such genres. A bit too ‘gonzo’ for my personal taste for settings, but there is a wealth of material in here that can easily be taken out and used in other games. The alternate mechanics, new class, technology and monster could all be transported into a home game without too much trouble. Even the rituals, although more keyed to the setting, can be converted. This book is more than simply a setting then, it is a source of ideas, inspiration and things to make your players tremble in fear.

The alternate rules are worth mentioning, as they are something new to me. The different way of doing Hit Dice is most interesting, and I’m intrigued to see how it would work in play (briefly, you roll the character’s Hit Dice before each combat, randomly determining what dice to use, and damage is likewise somewhat random, and healing is based on Hit Dice rather than hit points). There are only two classes, your typical fighter, and the new class of Sorcerer, who starts off with nothing but can learn the rituals that are found in the setting. Makes an ideal villain, I think, more than a PC class for most games. I do like the ‘unnatural ageing’ mechanic, which I’m tempted to port over to my game straight away. The psionics system, is simple and brief, and I could use this in my games without altering it.

I won’t go into detail about the technological items, artefacts and rituals; all are interesting in and of themselves, and can be used in your game pretty much as written. The rituals, especially,would make excellent devices for villains in a game.

The monster section has quite a few monsters and gods, with brief stats and descriptions, some linked to labelled hexes of the setting map. Again, all easily transported to your game if you wish to just use elements of this book rather than merely play inside the world it depicts. The world itself is sketched out more than detailed, and has a map of an area of the setting, with the hexes labelled and brief details written for each (all hyperlinked). There are 400 in all, with two locations or monsters listed for each, which provides plenty of action and exploration, as well as loads of ideas to burrow and inspire. Some are again hyperlinked to monster details, or other areas.

An expanded hex is more fully detailed, providing a ‘sample adventure’ for the setting, with maps of the area, and this is followed by encounter tables, and finally by a plethora of random tables covering random monster creation, technological items (weapons, robots and so forth), and mutations.


This is an attractive and content-full book, providing plenty of resources for a DM, regardless of whether they use it as it is, or pick bits they like for their own games. It’s already creating controversy (again) from some corners, but I still don’t see what all the fuss is about (see below for my further thoughts on this). If you like Old School type supplements, want a well-designed book full of ideas, or even just want to see how to produce a well-thought out PDF, then you have nothing to lose but purchasing this. But if you prefer making your own stuff up, shy away from anything that might offend some people, then perhaps this isn’t for you. Personally, I’m glad I got it and look forward to seeing what else James Raggi comes out with, as his products have been top quality so far.

Review: Isle of the Unknown

Also from the mind of Geoffrey McKinney, this is more of a ‘typical’ playground than Carcosa, being an island mapped out, with each of the 330 hexes having a location or event detailed (albeit in brief, sketched out details that a DM can expand upon). As each hex covers a wide area, there is plenty of scope for a DM to make this huge adventure location their own; which is, after all, precisely what it is designed to do.


Another finely designed PDF/book, with a beautiful map of the island itself. The full-colour artwork, especially the pictures of each and every unique monster, makes this produce shine. It is a shame that there are no hyperlinks, at least not in the version I have [is there meant to be?] but I can forgive that lapse, although it would have been a nice touch. There are full page illustrations that are all excellent, and I like the collection of smaller monster images (arranged by HD) that appears towards the end of the book. The maps are not only works of art themselves, but the one with all the labels is a useful addition.


Simply put, this book is full of descriptions of things that exist in each hex of the island. There’s a lot of stuff, some brief, some more detailed, and those with the new and unique (and yes, weird) monsters have an accompanying illustration. At the back of the book is a list of magic users, clerics and others that are found in the various hexes, an ideal reference. Used either as a source of ideas, or an island to expand upon, there is plenty of work with here, and the whole is very Old School in this approach. And I love some of the odd monsters that can be found.


I fully intend to use this at some point; either as a campaign or as a place for my players to visit and explore. The lack of a historical or generic paintbrush over the island means that it can be placed into an established game without any problems, and provides ample space and time to play inside.

And now, something else.

Morality in D&D and other Games

Before I wrote any of the above, I had a look at some other (more in depth) reviews and some of the comments that followed; comments which touched upon the controversy of Carcosa and other games that delve into what I suppose you could call the ‘darker side’ of role-playing. To be honest, comments such as those I read, seem to be the same sort of nonsence that people spout when talking about violence in films and TV programs*, the somewhat naive outlook a lot of people seem to have. I tend to steer away from things like this, because while I have my opinions on such matters, I seldom feel the need to speak up about them.

But today I will.

Carcosa has rituals that involve sacrifices, horrifying monsters, and it has always been controversial. James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Grindhouse Edition game came into some bashing when it came out, notably for some of the artwork (which, really, wasn’t that horrible), and role-playing games have taken flack from one place or another over the decades… and I don’t see what the fuss is about. These are, as their name implies, GAMES! They’re certainly no worse than video-games where players take control of criminals, or soldiers wading into battles and killing their enemies. In fact, RPGs are better than them, since they tend to be a much more social game and the spirit of the games has always been about team-play and cooperation. The people who play these games (with the odd exception, I am sure) are not mass-murdering sociopaths that are going to go out into the world and try out the rituals mentioned in the books, nor are they likely to go about looting tombs or slaughtering those that do not look like themselves; their characters will no doubt engage in such activities, since Classic D&D-type games are all about (broadly speaking) looting tombs and killing humanoids (poor orcs); I’ve played in games with some of the nicest people I know, where their characters are backstabbing one another and engaging in all sorts of mischief, murder and pillage. But none of them are going out doing these things in real life.

I mean, honestly people, why all the fuss? If you don’t like something, don’t just get on the ‘net and start slagging it off or spouting whatever nonsense you think we want to hear. I’m all for voicing your opinions, and have no objection to you doing so, but do that instead of being aggressive and hating for no reason other than your own personal tastes or misguided notion about what the book/game/film is about. By all means tell us why you don’t like it, but be polite, be aware that some of us are sensitive human beings that have a deep love for our fellow man and we get rather hurt when you personally attack us. In summary: opinions are great and welcomed, attacks, insult and angry rants are childish and not needed. Not that I honestly expect anyone to listen, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all just got along? Or, at the very least, could tolerate one another? It’s a small world, growing smaller every day, and we all have to live here, and so let’s all be nice neighbours and bake each other cakes, cookies and bread and share it instead.

This has been a rambling wander through my tired little brain. Comments welcome, even rants if that’s the way you want to go, but opinions would be preferred 🙂

*with regard to violence in films etc, all that talk about how such things make people violent by watching them is, in my opinion, rubbish; if it was true, I’d be a mass-murderer rather than the nice person I am. Although I would also argue that such things do have a tendency to desensitise us to such things; whether that is a good or bad thing, or just part of our social evolution, is something that would need more thought (and not the best post for a blog meant to be mainly about RPGs): but, briefly, I’d say it’s a bit of both (for various reasons).
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  1. purestrainhuman December 19, 2011

    Far be it from me to argue with professors and the like, but it’s always seemed a bit odd that people insist that things that we read, watch and listen to have no impact on how we live our lives, when the billions of dollars spent each year on advertising, and the long, storied history of propaganda in films and literature begs to differ.

    Best I can figure is that the studies performed can only question the conscious mind, while all of that stuff operates subconsciously. So while you may tell someone that Coca Cola ad had no impact on your future buying habits, two weeks later you may find yourself buying Coke at the 7-11 instead of Pepsi. Obviously an oversimplification, but I think the point holds – we are shaped by our experiences, and just because it’s a game doesn’t mean that we compartmentalize that experience.

    With all that being said, however, I fully endorse this sort of thing. I think our culture, for all that we pat ourselves on the back at how progressive we are, is actually quite prudish. I remember seeing an episode of some medical drama where they were autopsying a woman, and they had cut her gut wide open and pulled the flesh back. The flesh was cut and pulled in such a way that her nipples were covered. I remember thinking, well if that doesn’t just do it? If that doesn’t just sum up the Western Civilization Purity Test, right there? You can show me the eviscerated corpse of a woman, we can gaze voyeuristically at her guts, but don’t you DARE show us her nipples!

    Lamentations of the Flame Princess – showing the Gaming Community its nipples since 2009.

    • theskyfullofdust December 20, 2011 — Post author

      Everything affects us on some level, but it’s not simply the case that (for example) violent films or games create violent people, it’s more a case of their background, upbringing, social circles, and all that, has more of an impact. But you are right, there is a whole subconscious level that affects us in ways we seldom realise. My tendency to agree, at least to some extent, with everyone’s comments is more a subconscious thing, until I realise I am doing it 🙂

      And good call on the medical scene. Sums up the strangeness/hypocrisy of the media right there.

    • Justin Alexander December 21, 2011

      While there’s a great body of research backing up the existence of brand loyalty, I think your implication that this research applies to child sacrifice is a bit of a stretch. Are people reading Carcosa really likely to come away with a newfound “brand loyalty” to child sacrifice?

      In fact, the research itself suggests otherwise. As you point out, commercials aren’t generally successful in getting people to buy a product they weren’t otherwise interested in. Instead, they want you to pick their brand for a product you were already going to buy. (There’s no existing market for child sacrifice.)

      • theskyfullofdust December 21, 2011 — Post author

        Personally, I find that adverts make me less likely to buy a brand, as I detest adverts in general; which is why I am glad I can watch the BBC without any annoying adverts getting in the way.

        • purestrainhuman December 21, 2011

          Thing is, it’s not just TV – the average person is exposed to between 500 and 3000 advertisements a day – think about it as you go to work, as you surf the net, as you listen to the radio – advertisement is all around you, and you probably underestimate the amount of advertisement you’re exposed to, and the impact it has on your habits. Like I said, they wouldn’t spend billions of dollars on it if it weren’t working.

          • theskyfullofdust December 21, 2011 — Post author

            That is certainly true. Search Google and you’ve got adverts popping up alongside. As to how effective they all are… I think it depends not only on the adverts but also the individual and their social and cultural background… and I had something else to add there, but my mind has gone blank due to the distractions of work; boo hiss, work 🙁

      • purestrainhuman December 21, 2011

        Wow, that’s quite a straw man that’s been built here. I don’t think anyone could read what I posted and seriously think that I was stating that Carcosa is going to inspire people to child sacrifice. I mean, c’mon, really?

        First off, I’d like to refute your claim that commercials are not good at getting people to buy products they weren’t already in the market for. Think about that statement for a minute. The whole point of commercials is to generate interest. New products enter the market every day, and are advertised on television, generating interest where none existed previously. Let’s take a look at an example that has nothing to do with brand loyalty to make my point. Prescription drug companies run ads on television in the States. This link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3xqCtDdNNQ&feature=related – shows an example of how the prescription industry uses advertising to generate interest in a product by creating need where previously none existed. They invented a disorder with vague, commonplace symptoms, repackaged a drug they had lost the exclusive patent to in order to regain the exclusive rights to sell it – Step 3 – Profit! The whole POINT of advertising is to generate need where none exists. Billions of dollars each year wouldn’t be spent just to target the existing consumer base – growth is the object, and that means getting people who ordinarily wouldn’t buy something to buy it.

        Now, with all that being said, does this mean people who buy Carcosa are going to turn into bloodthirsty lunatics? Of course not, that’s absurd. But as theskyfullofdust points out, there are quite a few factors that can contribute to who each person is and becomes, so why should the games we play, the books we read and the movies we watch be the exception? Pretending that violent games, books and literature are somehow an exception to this is just as dangerous as pretending that they are the sole cause and contributor.

  2. Rod Batten December 19, 2011

    Thank you for an exceptionally well-written review!

    Your commentary on the ranting, raving and hand-wringing surrounding adult-themed game material was equally well-written. It’s unfortunate that some people take such things as grave moral problems when there are so many more truly bad things in the world they could rail against and try to repair.

    I’m not sure I’d use all of the material presented in Carcosa either, but it is definitely an interesting gaming supplement, and a great addition to any (open minded) gamers collection.

  3. Sir Timothy Of Kent December 17, 2011

    A brief comment on your last point about films causing violence: when I studied film at uni, one of our professors told us about a study where a variety of programmes had been shown to young offenders and the ones that drove them to violence/evil thoughts etc were the wholesome, family dramas (I remember The Waltons being specifically cited) as it was showing the viewers things they could never have and therefore fuelling their frustrations with the world. Violent shows, conversely, had no effect on them.

    • theskyfullofdust December 17, 2011 — Post author

      Now that is interesting, and I can see how that would work. Same thing with magazines aimed at young women (hell, and men), making them self-conscious about their bodies, for example.

    • Benjamin December 18, 2011

      Now that is interesting. Thanks!

      And a great article, I’ll buy the Isle asap.

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