Shown with eraser, highlighter, and one of Blair’s old digest-sized Planet Algol booklets for scale.
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Shown with eraser, highlighter, and one of Blair’s old digest-sized Planet Algol booklets for scale.
I received the actual physical books in the mail not too long ago. Aside from a few typos here and there, the art and layout is quite pleasing, but you have likely seen other peoples’ pictures of them already.
A couple of observations:
Isle of the Unknown isn’t a fully-conceptualized setting, but Carcosa is. However, it’s a minimalist setting, with a fairly tight, singular premise around which the whole book revolves. And while I admire that, artistically, I actually prefer maximalism, when it’s done right (i.e. integrated maximalism, not pastiche overcrowdingism). Not that I think either book should be less minimalist and more maximalist, it’s just a personal preference I’ve noticed. Luckily for me, I don’t think either product is too weird to be easily incorporated as one layer of a maximalist setting.
In the poster map, the races of men are colour-coded, which is interesting because there are three fictional colours on Carcosa.* While this adds to the book’s tone of otherworldly strangeness, it is also somewhat difficult to actually imagine and picture mentally. To take a couple examples from other sources, when I imagine garrow, I think it looks like both black and yellow simultaneously (not mixed together), and I think of Terry Pratchett’s octarine as looking similar, but with blue and orange, also simultaneously.
(*Never mind that adding one new primary colour actually results in at least five new colours, that’s something to take up with David Lindsay.)
On the Carcosa poster, Dolm Men are colour-coded with light blue and cream, Jale Men are coded with dark blue and red, and Ulfire Men are coded with cream and deep purple. But when I think of ulfire, I think of red, green, and white at the same time (this might be partly due to some bird that was covered in ulfire-coloured flames in one of Blair’s early Planet Algol reports). Jale and dolm, though… I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes I imagine dolm being a bit like olive green, and other times I can’t imagine what either of them looks like. Maybe jale is similar to yellow and pink and neon colours. I mean, sure, it’s “dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous,” but so is purple.
If there is just one fictional colour, then it’s easy to imagine, because every person’s different interpretation can stand without interfering with each other, as long as they imagine some kind of fictional, hitherto-unimagined colour. When you have to differentiate between fictional colours, that can start to get weird.
That’s not a criticism, just an observation. What do you imagine dolm, ulfire, and jale look like?
I do have some actual criticisms of the two books, though. There are a few things that could have made the books easier to use, at least for me.
I think both maps could have benefited greatly from the addition of roads being marked. Even without them, Isle of the Unknown’s keyed map is pretty good, but Carcosa’s is slightly less so. The poster has a map keyed with the locations of rituals and Great Old Ones, but there is no map with settlements or the colours of the men that live in them. When the locations of certain colours of settlements—such as we find around the other lake (the one that isn’t Hali)—are mentioned as plot points in the hex descriptions, it would help to have this information in map format. Likewise, there is a mention of a trade route road winding around the icy wastes, but no indication of where this road is coming from or where it is going.
The political situation isn’t the most useful aspect of this information, however. Terrain, and especially roads, determines how fast characters can move across the map, and how fast characters can move across the map determines how much the DM has to prep between sessions in order to respond to the players’ choices. If there is a road that stretches across three hexes, on either Carcosa or the Isle, it’s entirely possible that the PCs could travel the whole way in a single day, walking from dawn to dusk. Without having roads on the map, the DM basically needs to prep three hexes away from the PC’s present location in every direction, in order to get an idea of where to even place roads. It seems to me that adding even just major roads is not much additional work when all major settlements are already plotted out, which is the case for both books, and some hex descriptions even mention roads, which is at least the case for Carcosa.
Being able to see the roads helps to envision the possibilities of PC movement, which makes the DM’s job easier.
Any hint of motivation or personality is missing from most of the magic-users and clerics in Isle of the Unknown. They are treated simply like monsters—if you want to kill them, all the problems you’ll face and the lack of rewards you’ll receive (in most cases) are listed, but not much else. It makes me wonder why anybody would want to interact with these characters in the first place. Even a little bit of information would have been useful, evocative, and inspirational—the way threats are summarized in Apocalypse World, for example. Describing a warlord’s personality with “Dictator (impulse: to control)” or the character of a landscape with “Maze (impulse: to trap, to frustrate passage)” goes a long way with a short amount of text.
While Carcosa has numerous settlements with motivation-less leaders and populations listed, there are also many characters who do have goals, connections to other parts of the map, and even some small semblance of personality. It would have been nice to have a little bit of that in Isle of the Unknown as well, though it’s by no means a dealbreaker. And while I think including something like the Carcosan Ethnography supplemental material in the book itself would have been fantastic, so that DMs can just randomly generate genre-appropriate population details and character motivations, it’s good enough without it that I’m not really upset.
Similarly, there are a few occasions in both books where the material is essentially a tableau to be presented to the players, with little opportunity for them to interact successfully with it, or to use it in combination with other setting elements. When the text describes something the PCs can see but never do anything with, when some magical effect can only happen once in one location by accident, or when the benefits of braving obscene risks turns out to be a measly +1, I’m a little underwhelmed. I much prefer the part of Carcosa’s premise that includes finding a giant laser cannon and deciding to kill Cthulhu with it. Especially if it doesn’t work because you used up all the charges destroying castles and fortresses that asked you to pay tithes for safe passage, and now you’re facing Cthulhu with no ammo and no castles or fortresses to hide in. There’s slightly less of that in Isle of the Unknown, but both books should have had a little more, in my opinion.
Those are all relatively minor concerns, though. Overall, I think the good things everybody says about these two books are pretty accurate.
In case you are unaware of these two titles, they are a pair of books written by Geoffrey McKinney and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Naturally, I picked them up and have been perusing the pdfs of late. I have an earlier version of Carcosa, but am very pleased with this new edition, while Isle of the Unknown is completely new. They are both old-school D&D hex-crawl campaigns, although Carcosa has a certain amount of premise and theme built into it. There is some controversy about this, which I have no interest in and do not want to know your opinion of.
Instead, I have a completely different problem. In a word, my problem is: Blair.
You may know Blair as the guy with the Planet Algol blog, as a local Vancouver gamer, or as a regular Vancouver Red Box player and DM (or all three). He’s the one who got me to check out McKinney’s Carcosa in the first place, so it’s no surprise he’s had it longer and read more of it than I have. He’ll no doubt get this new version as well, which means running it for him may lack a litle bit of surprise and mystery. I can assume he’ll be likely to pick up Isle of the Unknown too, if he can stop himself from spending too much money on obscure black/death/doom metal LPs that can double as DM screens. So, while he won’t be memorizing either book in their entirety, if I were to run either of them straight, some of that “unknown” would be slightly less so. Like when I decided to run Tower of the Stargazer without knowing he’d read it already.
Don’t get me wrong, I like having Blair running and playing RBV games, but this is another one of those awkward points of overlap in our collections. The rest of the Red Box crew might have some interest in McKinney’s works, but are more likely to ask Blair or I to DM them than they are to buy and read them. It’s just that I’ll need to modify them somewhat in order to bring back the uncertainty and suspense lost by Blair’s familiarity with them (or at least Carcosa), which unfortunately can sometimes be as much work as making up a new setting from scratch.
However! The books themselves offer up an interesting suggestion for circumventing this awkwardness, in the simple fact that they both use the same numbered hex template.
The obvious solution is just to run both of them. At the same time.
That’s a McKinney Combo Platter, kids. You might remember what’s in this hex on Carcosa, and you might remember what’s in this hex on the Isle of the Unknown, but you have no idea what will happen when worlds collide.
Lieutenant Vivian Holloway Among the Bone Men.
Part 7: A Mocking Show of Contempt for the Agogi Oligarchs to the South-East.
Moztar Thegg brought him to the edge of the circle and sat him down by the sandy floor. He was still reeling from the orichalcum-inspired visions, his stomach roiling like a nest of vipers. But he could tell the great hall was much quieter now.
The revellers had stopped up their incessant chatter. The slow and steady tattoo of fingers on a lizard-skin drum rang out through the smoky air.
Thegg and some serving woman, swaddled like her master in black and white from head to toe, eased him down upon a pile of cushions. All at once, knew what it was like to be paint on a Gérôme canvas, or maybe a Delacroix.
How many years has it been since I last felt such luxury? Vivian asked himself. Before the war, surely. Before he had become used to sleeping through the sound of exploding trenches full of mud, used to the sight of death and dismemberment, the world drained of all its colour.
But that was a life he barely remembered, yet another casualty of the shelling and the snipers and the useless charges across No-Man’s Land. Even the war itself paled in comparison to this strange place, this so-called Verdant Land of Skla, with its fogs out of London legend and its natives with skin he could see right through, all the way down to their bones.
Vivian gaped as Thegg’s grey skull inclined itself politely from within its voluminous hood. He wondered for a moment if those transparent lips were stretched in a reassuring smile, or if that was just a trick of the light.
“Now, my friend from Earth so far away,” purred Moztar Thegg, “you will see what arts we have on Planet Algol, in the land of Skla.”
He turned to the sandy ground, surrounded by cloaked and hooded bone men, on their own piles of cushions or standing further back. Some men around the edges had drums and more curious instruments, strangely-shaped flutes and horns and even bronze fiddles they played in their laps. In the middle of the ground lay a large, low brazier, its fire casting a flickering, changeable light across the crowd. He could see two more atop tall spires, standing amongst those who sat at the edge of the bare ground to either side of him. There were women, he saw over the fire, directly opposite him, a huddled mass who hid even their skull faces behind dark-coloured scarves and veils. But now they seemed to part, jostling and pushing against the men around them, until a lone figure emerged.
Through the brazier’s dancing flames, Vivian saw a skeleton step forth onto the sandy ground. Its head was not a skull, but instead that of a beautiful girl, young and pink and hairless. More than just a head, she had a long pink neck as well, perfectly shaped.
But then Vivian realized the truth. She was a bone woman, completely naked but for the bells on her ankles, the bracelets on her wrists, and the pink paint that covered her head and neck and the very edges of her chest and shoulders. At first she swayed, eyes closed, but then the music swooped up and she was dancing, a flurry of twisting arms and shaking hips and stamping feet that sent the sand below her flying in all directions. Her face remained still while her body writhed and shook and leapt around the brazier. As the fire’s elusive light washed over her, Vivian could make out hints of her voluptuous curves, highlighted by tiny golden stars. A thin dusting of some sparkling metallic powder covered her, moved with her, showed her to his eyes that could not see her flesh.
As she danced, the pink paint began to mix with her sweat, and run down her arms and body. Growing thin upon her face and neck, it ran all the way down her spine to her rump, and down her chest, between her breasts and to her belly. It ran not in waves, but in rivulets, enough to suggest, to hint and tease, but only that.
Just like the gamma orichalcum, he thought. I see everything and nothing both.
But as soon as he was sure he had a grasp on that which he beheld, she was gone, spirited away through that wall of women on the crowd’s far side. A roar of cheers and clapping erupted all around him as the fire dimmed and guttered. He felt dizzy, almost as if he were falling from a great height. Thegg appeared before him and seemed to hold him up with his hands.
“My friend, are you not pleased? You are pale as our children’s bones!”
“The fire…” Vivian replied in a mutter, his lips like stone slabs. “Relight the fire…” But then he realized it was not the fire that was growing dim, but his own two eyes.
“Ah, so.” He heard the regret in Moztar Thegg’s raspy breath. “It is the orichalcum vapour. You had too much, too much!”
Yes, thought Vivian as he settled back into the darkness. Too much vapour. Much too much.
In a post on his blog, Blair made a comment about his character:
“You rolled a crap set of ability scores? So did I for my Red Box Vancouver character, and that PC is one of my favorite characters; deal with it.”
The aforementioned former Colonel Kaffshyth (now the Warlock-Axer General), has the following “crap” stats: Str 9, Int 9, Wis 14, Dex 7, Con 14, Cha 7. That’s a full 18 points lower than your average “4d6 drop the lowest” AD&D or 4e character!
However, in an earlier post, Blair also crowed that while DMing he managed to “Totally beat the living shit out of badass dwarf Gamgar,” who is my character. During that adventure, Gamgar had the following stats: Str 9, Int 6, Wis 10, Dex 10, Con 14, Cha 8. Since then, he has lost an arm and a leg, and now has Dex 6 and Con 12. He is but a third-level dwarf with worse stats than Kaffshyth, and his only magical weapons are a shield that weighs nothing and a sword +1, +3 vs. undead (which proves mostly useless whenever he has to fight ghouls).
People have a tendency to think of characters who do exceptional things as having exceptional abilities. Witness Gygax’s ridiculous interpretation of Conan’s stats. Or the urge to interpret Charisma as physical attractiveness and thus the pervasive presence of females with a score of 18, from the ancient Bone Hill module to the first four issues of the more recent Fight On! magazine. And certainly the urge to play heroic fantasy heroes has created numerous techniques for generating characters with higher stats, and little or nothing in the way of flaws. Stats are a way to communicate information, so naturally, the easiest way to show how exceptional and special a character is, is to give him or her exceptionally high stats. Which neither Gamgar nor Colonel Kaffshyth have.
So why is Gamgar considered a badass? Because of what I tell people, mostly. Gamgar managed to survive his first few adventures by scamming gullible goblins, through a lucky series of reaction rolls, in spite of his low Charisma. As a Dwarf, his saving throw vs. death is a little better than 50%, which came in handy when he fell in a river wearing plate mail, and again when he released a poison cloud of gas from a jewelled skull he attempted to loot. For someone who usually only takes a single retainer into the dungeon with him, if that, he’s been pretty lucky in that department too, even if most of them have died fairly quickly—they at least kept Gamgar from dying! And yet, for all his bad-assery, he hasn’t seen much profit. In a game that says “If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure,” Gamgar has managed to survive twenty adventures, but is still only 3rd level. Partly, that’s because, although he doesn’t like to leave his companions behind, he’s not afraid to run away when he has to.
Nor is Gamgar the only bad-ass 3rd level Dwarf in the Black Peaks. Graham’s character Connor had the head of a polar bear and wielded a flaming sword, until his body was stolen by the wizard Zamzomarr. What were his stats? Str 5, Int 13, Wis 4, Dex 4, Con 13, Cha 10. The only bad-ass stat Connor had was his prodigious 22 hit points. Meanwhile, Graham managed to roll two 18s in a row for his latest character (in Dex and Con no less!), whose lowest stat is a 10. Having moved on from the worst stats in RBV history to the best, Graham’s new guy still managed to lose an eye in his first adventure, and almost died of blood loss in his second.
Meanwhile, Dalamyr the Cleric of Wisdom is the most famous character in our campaign. He’s a 5th level Cleric with the following stats: Str 12, Int 9, Wis 14, Dex 9, Con 9, Cha 8. He’s completely average (for 3d6-in-order), only 1 point better than Kaffshyth in total, and yet he’s been on hand for some of the most earth-shattering quests and witnessed some of the strangest events in the Black Peaks. Everybody talks about him and his Doomriders, despite his low Charisma.
As for Blair’s crap-statted Kaffshyth, he’s called the “Warlock-Axer” because he managed to kill a high-level wizard one-on-one. How did he do that? This warlock, suffering from a Light spell cast on his eyes and some hit point damage already, had Charmed Kaffshyth and the two were escaping from the other PCs. After seeing the warlock use Fireball on his companions, Kaffshyth managed to make a (difficult) saving throw, and shook off the Charm. The warlock had the bad luck to run away in the wrong direction, making it easy for Kaffshyth to dispatch him.
The point is, these characters are bad-ass because of the things they have done, a good deal of which have come down to sheer luck. They are not bad-ass because of their stats, and their stats do not reflect their experiences, their successes, or even necessarily the way their players have role-played them. For the most part, stats in Red Box Vancouver have been an obstacle to overcome, not a source of strength. We’ve all had characters with crap stats, and we’ve all dealt with it.
Oh! I spammed you.
The people who I’ve run Planet Algol for have all got copies of the World of Algol booklet, but now there’s a pdf available for everybody else.
What is this?
This document gives you some new playbooks, races, and spells so you can make Planet Algol characters with the Apocalypse World rules. It gives the MC some new tags, a new type of harm called contamination, and some advice on using the existing Apocalypse World rules to run Planet Algol. It’s fairly modest, really, and you’ll need to be familiar with both Apocalypse World and Planet Algol to get full use out of it.
What is Apocalypse World?
Apocalypse World is a post-apocalyptic role-playing game written by D. Vincent Baker. It’s written in the Story Now style, so you can start playing with as little prep as possible (though it still requires some between sessions). You can find it here.
Please note that, even with the Apocalypse World rules, you’ll still need to prepare unexplored locations if you are going to run a game in the Planet Algol setting.
What is Planet Algol?
Planet Algol is a weird post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting for old-school D&D that Blair Fitzpatrick started running in 2009. Think of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa, M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne, and David A. Hargrave’s Arduin, then throw in some Heavy Metal magazine, some Gamma World, and as much pulp sci-fi as you can. He’s used 1st edition AD&D and the deluxe edition of Lamentations of the Flame Princess to run it. You can find the Planet Algol blog here.
I hope you like it.
EDIT: Now with character sheets! They are double-sided, you can fold them in half, and the instructions are on the inside.
Red Box Vancouver has been branching out from classic old-school D&D lately. This is what we’re playing now:
I’m running a game set on Planet Algol, but instead of using the AD&D or Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules, I’m using the rules from Vincent Baker’s latest game: Apocalypse World. Most of the conversion work consisted of writing up a spell list and writing new character classes, instead of using the ones in AW. Here’s part of The Robot, although you probably can’t read it:
Of course, the AW rules aren’t specifically optimized for dungeoncrawls or wilderness adventures. Still, I’m using them instead of B/X D&D for a number of reasons.
1. Even though I’ve run more games of D&D, I’m more familiar with AW. I’ve gotten a better handle on the dangerousness of various monsters in D&D, but the ratios between danger, treasures awarded, and character advancement is something that still eludes me. With AW, I don’t have to worry about gp numbers, instead I have more room to get descriptive with loot, both treasure and magical (or technological) devices. My only worry with AW is that characters may advance too fast, in which case I can easily slow that down. I really like the basic resolution system, too, and how it encourages mixed results instead of indicating only pass or fail.
2. AW is more cinematic and free-wheeling. The fragility of characters in Basic D&D encourages caution, careful planning, and a tendency to avoid risky-looking situations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! However, we’re working with a fairly episodic format with uncertain attendance week-to-week and less than four hours per game. A whole evening spent in careful exploration and positioning for further exploration can be disappointing, especially when you miss a game and don’t get to cash in on that groundwork. Also, me and at least some of the other players are the kind of people who like to wreak havoc on a setting, blowing shit up and tearing shit down, which is exactly the kind of play AW encourages, and which never makes for a dull evening. Characters that are tougher and more “heroic” encourage players to explore the content I’ve prepared and to get into risky situations, reasonably assured their characters won’t get killed for taking a wrong turn or something.
Even though I had booklets made up, the rules are still a work-in-progress, as I see how my various choices work out in play. Each time I run it I make little tweaks, and I imagine this will continue especially with regards to spells and magic, which aren’t present in AW. I’ve imported the Vancian magic of D&D, and I’m still testing out the best way to integrate it.
So far, so good. We’re playing again tonight.