Saturday, October 27, 2012

Using Carcosa Out Of Laziness

Here's a typical Carcosa hex description:

Village of 430 Green Men ruled by “the Speaker of all Truths,” a neutral 5th-level Fighter.
The tumbled ruins of an ancient castle squat sullenly atop a small rise. 8 Green brigands, leaderless and desperate, lair among the rubble. Diligent searching and exhaustive toil (250 man turns of digging and rock removal) reveal the entrance to the castle dungeons, hidden beneath a collapsed curtain wall. There are dozens of cells and several large rooms, many of which are covered in large colonies of ulfire mold. 

Some things I like about it, structurally:

-It's short. I don't have to read a paragraph to make sure I didn't miss anything good.
-Only interesting things are included in the description (no: a largely agricultural area where the inhabitants subsist onzzzzzzzzz).
-There are 2 things in every hex (10 miles in this case), meaning the crawling players are free to ignore a lot of stuff (as they tend to) yet still have resources at their disposal if they need them.
-The names of things are evocative enough to give me ideas for a hook without a complex paragraph-form description of what, say, "The Speaker of All Truths'" exact gimmick is. If your players are really hexcrawling, it sucks the energy right out of the table to go "Ok...excuse me while I read this..."
-We've got pure evil, human sacrifice, insanity, lost civilizations and whatnot built right in.

A thing that makes it of limited utility to me:

-I'm not running a science-fantasy campaign.

What this blog entry is about:

-There's a way I can use it anyway, and so maybe you can too.

Now some people will complain about the simple formulaic Carcosa village descriptions: 

# of people in one of 13 flavors, ruled by a sorcerer or wizard with one of three alignments and a weird name, over and over and over... a way that's reeking of random-generation-turned-thing-to-actually-pay-for.

However--it is this very supposed bug that turns out to be the key feature for turning the Carcosa map into something anybody can use. Basically what you've got is a system of 13 factions (men of x color) plus 2 simple toggles (class and alignment)--one with 3 positions and one with 2.

So you just take the Carcosan ice cream men and make a key replacing them with factions in your campaign. If you're running a Game of Thrones these could be Starks and Dothraki and whatnot, if you're running a Tolkieny thing they could be elves and dwarves and men of various places, etc.

Since the world I've got in my campaign's relatively civilized, I've decided these hex descriptions only include major or interesting settlements, so the ordinary human places every 15 miles or so are left out.

In the Northern wastes of my campaign....

blue = humans
bone = vampires or revenants
brown = gnolls
dolm = goblins
green = lizardpeople 
jale (supposedly the best at sorcery) = librarians (Yuan Ti)
orange = beastmen
purple = were-rats
red = jackalmen
ulfire = priests of Vorn
black men = southern elves
white = white elves
yellow = snow leopard men

Carcosa hexes also have a few other repeating civilized creatures...

Space aliens (usually a background feature, more known by their works than their deeds)= undead armies
Deep Ones (coastal creatures) = eelmen/jellyfish men

And some common monsters in the Carcosan hexcrawl ecosystem (from Carcosa page 240)...

B'yakhee = gargoyles
Great Race = mind flayers
Mi-Go = polar worms
Mummy = lich
Mummy Brain = demilich
Shoggoth = giants
Spawn of Shub Niggurath (takes various forms) = demon
Robot (takes various forms) = golem
Primordial Ones = wolves
Species 23750 = snow leopards/ocelots 

I leave the remaining jellies, molds, worms and dinosaurs as-is for now and leave the lake monsters undescribed and unique.

As for the toggles, just switch them to things that would help you quickly formulate an adventure location....

law = in need of help
neutral = rationally motivated
chaotic = insane

sorcerer = (d4)  1. Witch 2. Priest 3-4. Wizard
fighter = (d4) 1. Barbarian 2. Paladin 3. Ranger 4. Fighter


Now I've got...

Village of 430 Lizardpeople ruled by “the Speaker of all Truths,” a rational 5th-level Paladin.

Fair enough.


You can also link the toggles for more complex options, like lawful sorcerer means one thing (say: "priest of Grogg") but lawful fighter means a whole other thing ("halfling lawyer"). So basically you get 6 options that relate to repeating features of your campaign.

And you can also use this nifty random automatic Carcosa generator, too, though if your campaign is D&D enough, this one might do you just as well.


  1. You could also use the various Wilderlands books (which Carcosa was modelled on). All are available (cheaply) on RPGNow (but with bad scans).

    Example hex from Fantastic Wilderlands Beyonde:


    The skeletal remains of a man sized lizard with two rows of ivory teeth worth 2425 gp as a set is in a standing position on it's hind legs in a pit. A giant spitting cobra; AC5,HTK4+2; is coiled around it.

    There are settlements and strongholds with rulers too (that don't have as evocative names, unfortunately).

    1. Although it's longer and, in many ways, richer, I find Wilderlands slightly less appealing for this--
      -the settlement descriptions are longer and larded with uninteresting details
      -there are more empty hexes
      -the proportion of ordinary human settlements to strange ones is higher so simply replacing the 20-odd wilderlands races with other races produces less interesting results
      -the dense format makes it harder to write notes in
      -the place is more naturalistic overall, so the descriptions tend to include many reasonable but not very exciting places

      In fact, deciding on Carcosa was a product of trying to do this with wilderlands

    2. "2509 ANVIL (Village): Magical; AL N; TL 5; 200 gp limit; Assets 4,600 gp; Population 736 (Able bodied 184); Mixed (human 79% [mostly Tharbrian, some Skandik and Alryan], dwarf 9%, halfling 5%, elf 3%, others 4%); Re- sources: Silver. Authority Figure: Fladhal, male Tharbrian N Clr11. Important Characters: Gani, female dwarf LN Ftr2/ Ari2 (leader of the dwarves in Anvil); Tandel, male human N Clr8 (master of the novices, ill-tempered); Vanai, female human LN Mnk6 (high teacher of the monk school).
      Anvil is based around a monastery of Thoth founded after the gnoll invasions 400 years ago. Anvil is under the authority of the King of Thunderhold. The prime resource of Anvil is silver."

    3. Yeah, that's true. Regarding the density though, there is no reason to not shuffle the hex descriptions onto a different map, or use them as a deck to draw from.

      That could actually have interesting implications for the hex relationships (if there were relationships; I don't think the Wilderlands products are very good about relationships, and even Carcosa mostly only has relationships having to do with rituals).

  2. I have a random generator for Carcosa hexes (modeled on the Wilderlands generators) at

    The newest version is in the eighth reply. This may have more information about the more mundane aspects of Carcosa than Zak prefers, and it is designed to be used with the existing Carcosa maps to fill out a 10 mile hex, but it still may be useful to some of you. You could probably use it to build a hex from scratch. There's also a sample hex in another entry of the same board. If you use it for a more regular sort of D&D campaign than Carcosa, you will still need 'interpret' it in the way that Zak does.