To the best of my memory, I've never posted a rant on this blog before. First time for everything. I'll try to keep things succinct...
So I was up way too late last night reading over various threads that have sprung up in the wake of the release of Supplement V: Carcosa (JimLOTFP links to a couple of them over in his rant/review, if you care to wade in). And, having read those threads, I woke up this morning with the perfect idea for a guaranteed money-maker--Supplement VI: Slaughter Town, in which the PCs exist in a safe, sexless world filled with childless monsters that line up to be slaughtered so that the players may tap into their inherent heroic personnas and become better people in the process.
For those of you who don't know, Carcosa is a self-published, intentionally old school RPG supplement, intended primarily for use with the original 1974 rules of D&D (the title, which some found unnecessarily presumptuous, refers to the other four supplements that were published for OD&D, but the contents of the book utilize only the original rules). It details a pulpish, Moorcockian-Lovecratian world of sinister magic, weird technology, soporific lotuses, and ambiguous morality. As I wrote yesterday, I recently received my copy in the mail and am now enthusiastically looking forward to using it in a game ASAP.
So imagine my surprise at the firestorm of controversy that has erupted over a certain aspect of the book. That aspect would be the magic system. Standard D&D-style magic does not exist in the Carcosa setting. Rather, sorcerers trade their health, vitality, and even their souls in exchange for summoning and controlling eldritch cosmic horrors. All of these rituals (save banishments, see below) involve some form of human sacrifice. Ages range from infants to the elderly. Some of the rituals also call for the rape or torture of the victim before their sacrifice. Some of those rituals intersect with the requirement that the victim be a child or young adolescent. And this is where, in the opinion of some, Carcosa crosses the line.
I find this fascinating, if not all that surprising. As George Carlin used to point out, we live in a society that practically fetishizes childhood. Add in the double standard when it comes to sex and violence--it's all well and good to obsessively detail five different types of swords and eight different types of pole arms in the equipment lists, all the better for gutting hundreds of potential foes, but describe a ritual that is meant to be evil, corrupt, and debased and you've suddenly "gone too far"--and you've got yourself a powderkeg. I mean, some people--folks I quite respect, and continue to do so I might add--actually said they never address the idea of orc children in their games because they find the idea too morally discomforting. More power to ya, friend, but I have to say I. Just. Don't. Get it. Why is the slaughter of sentient creatures not morally discomforting, then? Just sayin'.
At any rate, it should be pointed out that there is an implicit approach to campaigning in Carcosa that was made explicit in the threads I read last night. Remember the part about banishment rituals not requiring a sacrifice? Gosh, what could that imply? Perhaps, I don't know, that you could play a "good guy" sorcerer out to stop these monstrous rituals from occurring (especially since the new Sorcerer class is equally adept as a combatant, thus implying that you don't actually need to know any rituals at all) and banishing the cosmic entities that have been unleashed by power-mad wizards? As Geoffrey McKinney, the author of the supplement, pointed out, he has also used the rituals to explore an "ends justify the means" theme, in which certain non-banishment rituals have been presented to good guy sorcerers, who must then decide if the, say, sacrifice of six people is worth the trade-off of the thousands of lives that will be spared if the ritual is cast. That's the stuff great campaigns are made of--although one detractor on one of the threads accused Geoffrey of being a "mindfucker" GM who obviously enjoyed torturing his players. All I have to say to that is that the accuser must run some pretty boring games if they consider moral quandaries to be equivalent to mind-fucking.
I think one of the essential disconnects--especially on the thread on the RPGsite, which was by far much more hyperbolic than the Dragonsfoot site--is that people are forgetting this was intentionally published as an old school supplement. You remember old school D&D, right? Supplement III, with the naked sacrificial victim on the cover? More to the point, the D&D that was a toolkit and not a set of commandments handed down from on high? The way some people were acting (people who, BTW, hadn't actually, you know, seen the book), you'd think that Carcosa forced you to play child-sacrificing wizards, or that every ritual in the book involved child rape or something. Not even close. The hideous rituals are presented to use or ignore as you choose. It's one very small part of the overall book. Geoffrey does not focus on it; he presents it and moves on.
As for myself, I would not be interested in playing a "bad guy" sorcerer, nor would, I think, most people who pick up Carcosa. Those who would be interested in such a thing have probably already been featuring such elements in their games. I know that back in high school I sat in on one or two rather harrowing Sabbat-centered Vampire games that crossed the line into distinctly unpleasant territory.
The cult of stat normalization and systemization has grown out of control in gaming nowadays, and I fully expect that in 10 years' time we'll look back on this period of RPG evolution and scratch our heads in wonderment at the 350-page tomes filled with writing that has all the excitement factor of a technical manual (for that's what many RPG books are these days, simply manuals and not works of daring and infectious creativity). As an example, one of the most savage critics of Carcosa over on the RPGsite (a bloke who's sub-handle was, ironically, Harbinger of Chaos--I guess chaos has its limits, huh?) came up with a brilliant retort to the proposition laid out above, in which you would play a Lawful sorcerer who had to grapple with the gradual loss of his humanity as he continually compromised himself in the name of the greater good. Our sage critic came back with, "What mechanic would you use to track the humanity loss?" ::facepalm::
So when we have such a disconnect, it's hard to argue on a level playing field. Understandable. It's just a shame to see people stooping to the usual hysteria of a moral panic. The ultimate moral panic, the D&D witch-hunts of the 1980s, were, not surprisingly, invoked in these threads. Give me a break. No one cares about D&D any more--we've moved on, we've developed new moral panics. Another poster worried about what he'd have to do if he "had to explain" to his non-gaming friends and relatives if word of Carcosa "ever got out." Guess what? It won't. Get over it, drop your persecution complex, and move on.
One last point I want to make before washing my hands of all this. Quite a few detractors were accusing Geoffrey of going too far, of not truly honoring the pulp antecedents he claimed to be drawing inspiration from. "Lovecraft and Howard often spoke of 'unnameable horrors' for a reason," went the argument. "We don't have to have the 'unspeakable' rituals graphically detailed in order to feel horrified." Oh really? People seem pretty dang horrified to me. And I would seriously doubt that, if Howard or Lieber were alive and writing today, they would hold back in the graphic description department. They pushed the envelope as it was. (Lovecraft, I think, would still be circumspect, both because it was his shtick and the guy was pretty much asexual anyway.) The reason they didn't go into more detail was thanks to folks like Anthony Comstock, the sexual neuter who passed a series of laws basically trying to outlaw any references to sex anywhere, any time. We live in a time when, thank goodness, we're allowed to actually write about what we want and not fear arrest or prosecution.
There were a couple detractors who were openly advocating reporting Geoffrey to the FBI for trafficking child pornography. These reactionary morons would happily return to a time of government censorship, in which the horrors of the world were swept under the rug, ignored, as if that would somehow make them go away. By addressing the horrors of the world, through a safe, fictional thought exercise, by examining why we feel horrified at child murder but not the murder of other creatures, we can explore a bit about ourselves, our culture, what's important to us, and the meaning of morality. Pretty heady stuff for something that's ostensibly just about sitting around and rolling dice for a few hours on the weekend. This is why I love RPGs above any other form of entertainment--it has the capacity to be thought-provoking, to be as deep or as shallow as you want it to be, because it's a truly active rather than passive activity.
I guess I'd just like to thank Geoffrey for publishing a provocative piece, something that doesn't just rehash the same tired tropes, a book that breathes a bit of good old-fashioned controversy into the old school community, of which I am increasingly feeling a part of. So thank you, sir. I will sacrifice twenty children in your honor tonight.
In all seriousness, and to sum up, playing the "bad guy" sorcerer is not something I'm interested in, but I'm sure glad the rituals were included. For one thing, they serve to establish tone. Carcosa is a world of savage, amoral brutality. Furthermore, they serve to heighten tension. I know, for example, if I had a character who was trying to save a loved from a horrific sacrificial ritual, knowing what was going to happen to such loved one would absolutely spur me on and really make the rescue mean something. Geoffrey made the point that he considered making the ritual descriptions more neutral and "safe" but that they seemed thin and ineffective that way. I couldn't agree more. Hooray for danger, and hooray for controversy!