For the past few weeks, Jack Vance has consumed my nightly reading, specifically his stories from the Dying Earth (rereading) and the Planet Adventure (first time). Each time I put down the book, I end of thinking about Geoffrey McKinney’s science fantasy masterpiece, Carcosa,
In some ways, both the Dying Earth and the Planet of Adventure remind me of Carcosa, at least superficially. All three worlds are ancient, filled with wonder and the unknown. Similarly, they all contain magic and technology juxtaposed against one another. Planet of Adventure is even filled with primitive tribes of outrageously colored inhabitants struggling to survive on an unforgiving planet.
On the other hand, both of Vance's worlds support a completely different world-view and different types of challenges. Carcosa, at least from my reading, supports a play-style that is primarily man vs. nature (or a post-apocalyptic, radioactive, mutated, otherworldly mess). Adventurers must spend as much time hiding from the unimaginable horrors that walk the dunes and haunted the forests, as they do delving into unknown regions for gold and glory. Depending on one’s reading of the setting, gold and glory might even be completely non-existent.
Comparatively, the many scattered tribes of brightly hued men seem to serve as a place of refuge. Despite racism and xenophobia, the lowly race of men is alone in the word and must find their strength in unity and congregation. The inhabitants of Carcosa don't have enough time to war with one another. They are too busy failing to provide food and shelter to their own miserable tribe.
In ancient times, warfare was primarily concerned with the acquisition of resources – land, natural resources (fertile soil, access to iron or other useful/valuable metals, etc.), and slaves – and glory. On the planet Carcosa, land is abundant and in low demand. Natural resources are scarce and most hexes are probably devoid of any worthwhile resources. There's little purpose in capturing your neighbor's land when his village or citadel is just as poor as yours.
Finally, we come to slaves. Some may make the point that slavery may be common on Carcosa, fueled by a strong suspicion of outsiders and the need for additional labor. And while this may be true, slavery has at least one major downside. Most slaves means more mouth to feed. Most Carsosian villages contain no more than 300 residents, some as little as 30. I, therefore, argue that the ability for a settlement to survive on Carcosa is a direct function of its size. The settlement must be large enough to defend itself again outside threats (the unexpected arrival of mutant dinosaurs), but small enough to go unnoticed by insane sorcerers in need of unwilling sacrifices and able to support itself through hunting and primitive agriculture. The smaller the settlement the quicker it is to react to certain threats. It is easier to relocate 100 people than it is to relocate 5,000, for example.
That's one way to read Carcosa, but it's certainly not the only way.
In fact, having only seen the original printing which include not a single piece of artwork other than the small silhouette of a city on the front cover, my interpretation could differ wildly compared to someone reading the LotFP edition of Carcosa. Art direction matters!
One could also argue that the abundance of castles and citadels informs the reader that the world of Carcosa, at least on the surface, is, in many ways, no different than any other dark fantasy world, except that instead of fighting trolls and goblins, adventurers match their skills against horrors from the star and greedy sorcerers, corrupted by their thirst for power and an ancient darkness. It is the DM's decision to decide how much technology and how many Cthulhoid monstrosities to include (or not include). One could run an entire Carcosa campaign without the character ever encountering a piece of advanced technology a single old one. Characters may not even know the difference between a magical wand and a raygun or be able to tell the different between a mutated dinosaur and a spawn of Shub-Niggurath.
When comparing these two versions of Carcosa, I personally feel that, as a game setting (as opposed to the setting a short story or novel), the second seems a lot more fun and exciting. The first may have more depth and make more sense, but it just doesn’t resonate with me as a place I would like to adventure in. The first view is bleak, grimy, and hopeless. The other is bursting with color, life, and mystery. It is a world in which an assaulting a castle in equally likely to be met by a cavalry charge as Word War II tank being driven out from behind the drawbridge.
Now that is a world in which I want to adventure!