Second, other reviewers make a point of saying they don't want to have any controversy in their comments section when they talk about Carcosa. Screw that. It's controversial, it makes people uncomfortable. As long as you can be civil, I don't mind you expressing all sorts of misgivings about this product. Go ahead and comment! Now on with the review!
Okay, so some history.
That guy that wrote An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge also wrote about a place called Carcosa in a short story called An Inhabitant of Carcosa that can be read for free here. Over the years, it got incorporated into the Cthulhu Mythos. Later, I had to read his less interesting stories in middle-school English Class, but I just mostly say that to evoke the pubescent atmosphere of the next part of our history tour.
Long ago there was a game called D&D. It had a few supplements that were given roman numerals and contained alternated rules. Carcosa was presented as such a supplement when it first came out a couple years back, though its creator admittedly has nothing to do with the original people or company that made D&D. I just want you to know the writer's approach of evoking nostalgia from books they obviously love.
In other parts of the 1970s role-playing universe, another game called Empire of the Petal Throne was also enjoyed by a few old school nerds. At one point they put out a supplement called The Book of Ebon Bindings. You can check it out on Scrbd, and if you do you will start to see a lot of similarities to the Carcosa product. It seems that both the modern day dead-tree edition and the text are intentionally imitating Ebon Bindings, and I think that's fine. A non-obvious homage.
Ebon Binding presented rituals for getting demons and the like to work for you. They described foul rituals where the caster would do unspeakable and torturous things to humans that were sacrificed to gain the attention of these infernal entities. That was in 1978. I've not check out the entirety of Ebon Bindings to see how it compares to Carcosa on the nature of victims, but the point must be made that Carcosa is not treading new ground in terms of describing sacrifices in a role-playing supplement. I dare say that if parents back in the day had gotten ahold of the Ebon Bindings, which was much more obscure a game book than any D&D product, the moral panic of the 80s may have visited the gaming world much sooner.
But the big difference between Ebon Bindings and Carcosa is that the former reads more like an anthropology book (basically, it's a little boring) and Carcosa reads like a tourism guide to Barsoomian world (which makes it quite interesting).
No pussy-footing around it though: Carcosa mentions underage victims being sacrificed, and in one now infamous instance goes into an amount of detail that will make anyone suck in their breath for a second and cringe. Furthermore—and I don't know if this was part of the original PDF from a couple years back—in the sample adventure included in the book, the players can run across the body of such an unfortunate victim and learn that the sorcerer that did this has also found a way to keep her necrotically preserved for further ritualistic violations.
Why publish such a thing? Because it makes the stakes very high. Any self-respecting group of players will want to enact painful justice on the man that did such a thing. You want horrid villains? This book will give them to you. The most loathsome and sad beings in the universe.
On the other hand, many will point out that because such rituals are described, albeit in short entries usually no more than a paragraph or two, some players will exercise their right to carry them out in-game. Well, in my personal case, if I was playing a sorcerer (the class presented in this book that has access to rituals), I would never carry out certain of the rituals, even if it was for the greater good. I never can bring myself to be too bad of a guy when I role-play. I always have a soft spot for begging villains that promise contrition. That's how I roll. If the player to my left wanted to perform an evil ritual, my character would soon plot their character's demise. Even if they were doing something that might save the world from one of the Lovecraftian entities presented in the book.
There are more than a couple ways sorcerer characters are limited anyways. First, they have to find rituals to even have knowledge of them. Something easier said than done. I am not finished reading the 800 entries of the hex-crawl section, but I suspect the most infamous ritual in the book is not listed anywhere as being learnable in a way that PC can stumble across. So it would be up to a—dare I say it?—perverse DM to put foul rituals into PC hands. Second, banishment rituals, which would be the ideal method to stave off nightmarish beings, do not require the sacrifice of humans.
So what does the book offer outside of controversy?
Lots of new flavorful rules and goodies to play with. The latest version of Carcosa uses rules from the publisher's game: Lamentations of the Flame Princess. So there is ascending armor class and a few other quirks that are a matter of taste, but the hit-die and damage-die re-roll at the beginning of each battle system was so interesting it actually inspired me to finally make this blog and the Kill It With Fire RPG rules (don't worry, publishers, I didn't rip off your rules by any means!). I doubt most people would play the re-roll-every-time rules in their D&D/LotFP/Carcosa campaigns, but I would like to try them at least once. They add an element of caution that I would expect Old Schoolers to embrace.
Besides the new rules there are presentations for simple (and very random) psionics, alien weapons, spawn of Shub-Niggurath, plants, and so on. You will get a bit of a Gamma World feel with some things, and a lot of Call of Cthulhu with others.
The monster entries and hex-crawl sections are pretty fun. In fact, for someone like me stuck in Japan and rarely encountering other gamers, these sections are wonderful literature with which to pass the time. The adventure included in the book is excellent and flavorful as well. I don't think one can find such a rich gaming supplement very often.
I am happy with my purchase. I don't know when I will get to use its contents, but in the meantime they entertain me and that's all I really ask for.
Edit: Also, the publisher's thoughts on the RPG and its controversy are very interesting. Link!