Disclosure: I playtested and proofread Heinrich’s Call of Cthulhu Guide to Carcosa. I have not received any free content, payment, or remuneration for this privilege or the following review.
“No, he is not vicious, nor is he in the least demented. His mind is a wonder chamber, from which he can extract treasures that you and I would give years of our life to acquire.”
-Robert W. Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations.”
Since Ambrose Bierce first introduced the ancient mysterious city in his short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” the otherworldly place presided over by Robert W. Chambers’ Yellow King is oft-referenced but infrequently captured. By nature, it eludes description as those who wander its empty streets and crumbling halls rarely escape with their minds intact. Until now. Intrepid Miskatonic Repository creator and talented wordsmith Heinrich D. Moore brings us his Guide to Carcosa. It follows in the vein of Heinrich’s Call of Cthulhu Guide to Character Creation as an absorbing activity for solo gamers relying on his impressive organizational skills and algorithmic thinking, but then it’s also so much more. It’s a beautiful work of playable fiction. It’s a landscape. It’s an experience. It’s a full-on nightmare. And it’s hours upon hours of rewarding game time as “an evolving solo campaign for Call of Cthulhu…playable with or without a Keeper.”
As mentioned in the disclosure, I playtested Heinrich’s Call of Cthulhu Guide to Carcosa as it neared completion. I was provided with a collection of Google Docs and three rough maps depicting unique versions of Carcosa (Disturbia, Metropolis, Necropolis). For my first playthrough, I brought a favorite investigator (The Mystifier!) from another scenario to Carcosa to see how he would fare. He met a remarkably similar fate to Bucho in the live playthrough Heinrich ran on Symphony Entertainment’s stream. I then relied on the rapid character generator provided by the guide to investigators for my next three playtests. They felt wonderfully appropriate. There is an additional prologue to pair with the Guide to Character Creation with unique Carcosa content provided.
Even without the stunning layout and moody art in the published Guide to Carcosa, my experience during the playtest was astounding. After a brief, but necessary introduction to unique rules, I quickly found myself in a dark place.
The solo experience is captivating and the rich, beautifully written text is best read aloud. The carefully sculpted depictions exquisitely weave whimsy and terror, grandeur and gore, decadence and decay. It’s entirely disquieting, yet wonderfully compelling. To enrich the sensory experience, Heinrich provides a carefully curated soundtrack, which no doubt inspired his writing. This is easily accessible on Spotify via a provided link (I’m listening as I write). I played it on low volume throughout my forays into the city.
The Guide to Carcosa does not simply rely on the masterful writing. It’s an intriguing narrative filled with mystery that creatively references key elements of the Carcosa and Yellow King Mythos. It’s also a tremendous accomplishment in game design. The number of paths available to the investigator as they explore the city is staggering. The skill challenges, puzzles, and decision trees feel varied enough to avoid tedium. The thematic inclusion of a Mask motif adds additional layers and immersive complexities to an individual’s story and exploration. As the investigators move throughout the city, they create a unique map that remains in play until the story is complete. Each location feels unique and random encounters bring additional excitement, as it’s impossible to know if they’ll garner aid or merciless harm. There are over 50 different encounters including within the 340-page PDF. The Legacy aspect of the game is further enhanced by an Achievements List that incrementally unlocks a series of Epilogues. Certain items and accomplishments provide useful downstream bonuses.
The stakes throughout remain exceptionally high with death and insanity lurking around any corner. As a result, I felt genuine tension when making choices and facing novel encounters and locations. While some circumstances in play lead to a hard stop in the exploration of Carcosa, many simply alter the course, reveal hidden truths, and provide the player/investigator with deeper insights. But it’s not hopeless or unfairly brutal. As the investigator learns, so does the player. The hope of reaching a successful conclusion builds with each consecutive playthrough as the player gains mechanical knowledge. I see this as a brilliant feature, not a game-breaking bug to willfully ignore.
And then I got the finished version of the work. As expected, Alex Guillotte once again delivers a visually pleasing product with contributions from a handful of great artists. A dedicated character sheet deserves to be printed out along with the necessary map and a copy of Appendix E: Penitents (Achievements List). There is also a mysterious “Notes” PDF with a significance that becomes clear with additional playthroughs. In its final form, this product is very much worth the $12.99 price tag for the PDF. It’s frankly a steal for the quality and playability. While there are still a couple of lingering errors in the text, I expect these to get ironed out in short order, especially before the inevitable print form of this beauty.
To celebrate the release of the Guide to Carcosa and refresh my memory, I played through one more time bringing a new investigator of my own creation. Thanks to some good rolls and 65 points of Luck, Kurt made it to The Court of the Yellow King but fell short of survival. It was a good run and a fitting pursuit for a lonely, slightly melancholic evening. The Guide to Carcosa is sensitively suffused with emotional torment thanks to honest and intentional work by Heinrich. The highly personal Afterword contextualizes the power and meaning of his creative journey, and it carries a message that bears repeating.
“Remember you are not alone. Keep the horror in gaming, and out of your lives.”
I highly recommend Heinrich’s Call of Cthulhu Guide to Carcosa and think it’s an exceptionally high-value resource with a wide range of possibilities. At its most basic function, this is easily the best solo Call of Cthulhu adventure experience I have ever played…and replayed. But it’s also great as a one-on-one experience, particularly if you’ve invested time in several playthroughs and developed an improvisational familiarity with the material before taking someone on a Carcosan journey.
From a Keeper’s perspective, this is an inspirational sourcebook. It provides location descriptions and possibilities for your games. I plan on giving a copy of the Guide to Carcosa to each of my regular players. Will I use it as an introductory experience before running Impossible Landscapes? Can it be used for short interlude scenes for Call of Cthulhu campaigns, including Tatters of the King? Or perhaps I will have each player run an investigator through the guide to afterward show up at a church basement meeting responding to a flyer “Have you Sign the Yellow Sign?” to discuss their experiences. Can a player-generated Carcosa map then be used as a basis for future adventures? I look forward to hearing how other people use this ingenious creation at their gaming tables, and I fully expect it to have a lasting impact on how Carcosa is perceived and experienced by Call of Cthulhu players.