I picked up Supplement V: Carcosa a few years ago on a whim, and have yet to regret my purchase. Indeed, my sole complaint was that it left me wanting more – while there was a truckload of role-playing potential in Carcosa, I frequently find myself lacking the time and inspiration necessary to craft an adventure there (that, and my players are all scared of the setting – quite rightly so – and are very hesitant to play there).
As such, you can imagine how delighted I was to find out that someone’s written an adventure for the Carcosa setting. Apparently the only one of its kind, I fell upon Cameron Dubeers’s adventure, Obregon’s Dishonor, with relish. What I found after reading through the material was that, although it didn’t have quite the tone I expected, it was still a wild trip through the world of Carcosa.
For those concerned, this review will have some spoilers regarding the outcome of the adventure.
Obregon’s Dishonor is a 39-page PDF. There’s only one bookmark, which takes you back to the first page of the file, something that I found disappointing. Likewise, there are no other versions of the file, such as an epub format. The book is very printer-friendly, however, having only three pieces of art in total.
I personally didn’t care very much for the art in this book. While Andy “Atom” Taylor can draw black and white illustrations far better than I could, I found the subjects to have a very “flat” look to them. While some may think it appropriate to find the subjects of the world of Carcosa to be off-putting, it shouldn’t be because you don’t think the artistry is doing them justice.
One of the major aspects of Obregon’s Dishonor, which must be noted before we go any further, is the tone that it presents. When I read Supplement V: Carcosa, what I took away from it was that this was a very bleak world. The color-coded humans of the planet huddle in small, isolated gatherings, afraid of not only humans of other colors, but also of the pantheon of monstrous creatures that roam the world. What little “treasures” they find are usually technologies that they can’t reproduce and barely understand. And magic is a ritualistic performance that requires highly specific components (e.g. specific times, places, etc.) that usually requires bloody sacrifices to tame or abjure alien gods for a sort time…and always exacts a high price from the caster.
Needless to say, that’s a harsh game world indeed. It’s also not the world of Obregon’s Dishonor. Don’t misunderstand, this adventure is still set on the world described in Supplement V, but the “feel” of the place is very different. Towns have been constructed, with fairly typical shops and trades going on (e.g. barbers, taverns, prostitution, etc.), gemstones are mined, and people of different colors dislike each other, but are willing to tolerate each other’s existence, albeit tensely.
Several of the new rules also help to tone down Carcosa’s high lethality. One of the book’s appendices introduces the new witch class. Unlike the Carcosan sorcerer, the witch class is a more terrestrial thaumaturgist; she has the power to create elixers which, although nonmagical, can replicate several of the more familiar D&D spells (e.g. a healing elixir, an elixir of sleep, neutralizing poison, etc.), something that can help PCs immensely.
Given the presentation of human habitation and the witch’s benefits, this is a different take on Carcosa – one that’s not so much “Cthulhu’s idea of a pleasant place to vacation” as it is “Conan the barbarian’s idea of a really rough place to live.” The latter is still a harsh environment, to be sure, but not nearly as much so as the former. In fact, the author states flat-out that this adventure is meant to evoke the spirit of the old action-adventure pulp stories (which were a strong inspiration on D&D to begin with), which helps to explain the tone of the book.
The plot of Obregon’s Dishonor is ostensibly a rescue mission. The PCs are in the mining town of Jaftgong and answer the call of a purple woman named Bothess. Bothess wants to hire the PCs to help her locate the spell component that will let her free the soul of her lover, Obregon, after he was killed and pulled into another dimension by the Shambler of Endless Night, something that happened after his apprentice, Darsiaas, betrayed him.
The town of Jaftgong is the initial backdrop for the scenario, despite most of the actual adventuring taking place elsewhere. Jaftgong gets a fair amount of description, including a map, and its clear that the author wants the PCs to regard this as something of a “home base” beyond the scope of the adventure – certainly, the PCs should care what happens there.
Interestingly, the other major key to the adventure is the star NPC, Bothess. I had some problems with Bothess, both in terms of how essential she is to the plot (though, to be fair, the text does take steps to help the GM should she be rebuffed in her offer of employment, or slain along the way), and in terms of her sexuality.
The latter point requires further explanation. One of the points of the old pulps that the author says he wants to recreate in this adventure is the lusty babe showing a lot of skin, and Bothess is the incarnation of that aspect of the story (even despite being a cyborg) – the text goes out of its way on more than one occasion to describe her body. (“If Carcosa had its own version of Playboy, Bothess would probably be the most popular centerfold.”)
This, I had no problem with.
Bothess isn’t just pretty, though; she’s highly outgoing in her sexuality. She’s very willing to offer sex as a reward for helping her – and, of course, she’s unconcerned with skin color, is bisexual, and is even willing to have an orgy with multiple PCs at once if that’s what it takes to secure their help. Later on, she’s willing to strip down and tempt one of the major monsters the PCs face if things become bleak (though it’s as a tactical measure, as she has a weapon for the occasion).
This, too, I had no problem with.
Assuming the PCs take Bothess up on her carnal offers, sex with her grants them some attribute bonuses, and a small penalty. But only the first time, and the bonuses are temporary.
This, I had a problem with.
The problem isn’t so much that the PCs gain stat bonuses for sleeping with her. Personally, I think that’s a valid way to make sex tempting for player-characters; most PCs are solely concerned with what improves their character, either in-game (treasure, weapons, etc.) or out-of-game (experience points, levels, etc.). Since sex is supposed to be desirable, having it grant bonuses in the game’s mechanics keeps it tempting to the PCs.
Rather, the problem here is that the PCs only gain these bonuses the first time they have sex with her. This is somewhat penalizing, since the bonuses last for about a day, and presuming the PCs are quick to have their way with her (and why would they wait?) they’ll likely gain and lose the bonuses in doing so before they get to the dungeon-crawl part of the adventure.
It wouldn’t have been unbalancing, I think, to let the PCs gain the mechanical modifiers for sleeping with Bothess throughout the course of the adventure, particularly given the way things (likely) end. Having it be a one-off series of modifiers tends to waste giving sex modifiers at all. Similarly, it’s never explained WHY sex with Bothess grants these modifiers – the implication is that she’s just that good in bed, but if that were the case, surely there’s someone else on Carcosa of equal talent, and they’d also grant similar bonuses? The in-game reason for the mechanical modifiers should have been spelled out more.
The game’s main feature is the dungeon-crawl that the PCs sojourn through to find the necessary spell component to free Obregon’s soul (a spell that, contrary to the non-banishing spells in Supplement V, requires no human sacrifices). Moreso than anywhere else, this is where the adventure is at its most pulp, as they need to battle through an abandoned monastery to find the object of their quest.
For those GMs who worry about maintaining a bleaker feel for Carcosa, this is also the area that will need the most work. The tone of this area is set not only by the creatures fought here (largely a new type of monster introduced in the book), but in terms of the weapons and items found as location-based treasure.
In the same way that the witch class allows for “potions,” the treasure here presents a lot of “magic” weapons. I put “magic” in parenthesis because while these have the mechanics of magic items, e.g. a +1 sword, they’re actually technological in nature – the aforementioned +1 sword is actually a vibro-blade, for example. While it’s true that Supplement V does present a fairly large number of technological items that PCs can find, most of those have only so many charges. It’s entirely possible for a group of adventurers to end this adventure with, not a large bundle of high-tech items, but long-lasting ones.
Speaking of the adventure’s end, it concludes with a twist on the premise, naturally, but attempts to close with a dilemma for which there’s no right answer – do you save the town of Jaftgong, or do you stop the Great Old Ones from being unleashed? It’s an impossible scenario…except that it isn’t, since the book flat-out tells you that the former possibility is imminent, whereas the latter will take a couple years to do. Presumably, the sense of this being an impossible choice is preserved if you keep that particular clause from the PCs, but this still strikes me as being somewhat sloppy. Making that threat much more immediate (a few weeks or even days), would have put much more pressure on the PCs, as it should be.
Likewise, the text sort of sputters out at that point. While I can understand not going into further detail about freeing the Great Old Ones (since that can be long and drawn out), the process for saving Jaftgong is handled awkwardly, with a link to some rules for running mass battles, and very little other information given as to how the battle is supposed to be played out. More could have been done here by far, and it’s for this reason primarily that I’m giving the adventure less than full marks.
Overall, Obregon’s Dishonor isn’t Geofrey McKinney’s Carcosa, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you want the game world to be a little less of a desolate wasteland filled with xenophobes just struggling to survive, and instead offer a little more dungeon-raiding, damsel-rescuing, heroic-questing, then this adventure will give it to you, along with providing enough new mechanics and ideas that you’ll be able to better craft further such adventures on Carcosa.