©1990 John Tynes
[Hoo boy. For the better part of a year (during which time Pagan Publishing
was born) I was experiencing a period of profound mental instability and
depression. For a time I believed that the following was real, in some strange
way I can no longer grasp. I suppose this means that I’m better, though
considering that it often seems I had all my best ideas during that time
I’m not so sure I fancy this being mentally healthy business all that much.
Anyway, this was my first real gaming work and is an adaptation of Robert
W. Chambers’ fiction to the game. This area had been touched on by the Chaosium
scenarios “Tell Me, Have You Seen The Yellow Sign?” and “Tatterdemalion,”
but neither had gone to the extent to which I thought was needed. Hence,
this article. Owners of our solo scenario “Alone On Halloween”
may recognize some of this from a dream sequence I wrote for that adventure.]
Carcosa harbors secrets. Within the city’s shifting insanity a figure
stands, a whisperer in mottled rags. From behind a pallid mask a voice shuffles forth with an exhalation through yellowed teeth. The soft words are intended for you. This being will tell you of Carcosa’s secrets, it will share its
knowledge with any who will turn an appreciative ear. It will never tell
the same tale twice.
From the beginning, H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos encompassed the works of many
writers. The creations of Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany, for instance,
figure into several of his works. Another writer who was posthumously inaugurated
was Robert W. Chambers, a turn-of-the-century writer of continental romances
and social ponderings. In a book of short stories collectively entitled
The King in Yellow, Chambers connected several stories together by means
of a curious and forbidden book, a technique Lovecraft adopted later with
his Necronomicon. This curious book, not surprisingly also entitled The
King in Yellow, was said to be a particularly brilliant and twisted play
which wreaked havoc in the lives of those who read it. In these short stories,
Chambers introduced the doomed city of Carcosa, on the shores of the lake
of Hali. This city existed/exists not on Earth, but rather on a planet circling
the far star Aldebaran. Chambers made oblique references to the events of
the play, in which a stranger in a pallid mask disrupts a costumed ball
and informs the royal partygoers of their land’s doom. In Chambers’ stories,
people reading this play would grow depressed and melancholy, eventually
committing suicide or worse. Artists and creative types seemed drawn to
the book and the peculiar, twisting Yellow Sign on its cover.
In the Call of Cthulhu game, Hastur in some way holds dominion over Carcosa,
and is the source of its misery. Hastur — whatever or whomever it is —
also spreads ill on Earth. Several Chaosium adventures, including “Tell
Me, Have You Seen The Yellow Sign?” by Kevin A. Ross, “Tatterdemalion”
by Richard Watts and Penelope Love, and “The Evil Stars” by Keith
Herber, are excellent representations of Hastur’s malevolent intentions
towards humanity. In the first two of these adventures, investigators can
actually travel to Carcosa and see the dominance of Hastur firsthand.
However, exploration of Carcosa in these scenarios is somewhat limited and
directed. Keepers who really want to put their players through some changes
may be intrigued by the prospect of a longer stay in the strange city. What
mysteries might it reveal? This article takes a long look at this alien
place; players may wish to avert their eyes lest surprises be spoiled. Keepers,
on the other hand, should come closer. Someone wants to tell you something…
How To Get There
“During my convalescence I had bought and read for the first time The
King in Yellow. I remembered after finishing the first act that it occurred
to me that I had better stop…” -Robert W. Chambers, “The Repairer
In various Chaosium publications, several methods of travel to Carcosa have
been postulated. The first can be found in the CoC rulebook itself. This
method involves brewing a drink known as “space mead”. When consumed,
the imbiber is immune to the detrimental effects of space travel — that
is, one may breathe freely in the vacuum, etc. Having done this, the traveler
summons and binds a Byakhee, and is flown millions of miles to far Aldebaran.
This form of travel is time-consuming and dangerous, but is often used by
cultists to neatly dispose of victims.
Another method from the rulebook is Gate travel. Creating a Gate and investing
it with 14 points of POW will enable one to travel to Carcosa at will, though
an expense of 14 magic points each way is costly and will bar some from
the journey. A similar method — described in detail in “Tatterdemalion”
— is through a Window prepared by a god or very powerful cultist with a
POW of 25. Travel through the window is easy — only one magic point is
needed. But this method is rarely available, and using it may draw the attention
of the window’s creator.
Two other, riskier ways are possible. One may make a deal of some sort with
Hastur, which involves contacting or calling that being. Again, this is
unlikely to be used by player investigators. Another method, found in “Tell
Me, Have You Seen The Yellow Sign?”, is rarest of all. In this adventure,
a portion of Carcosa itself briefly manifests on Earth. Investigators may
enter the city through this manifestation, but will be trapped there if
they do not leave before the phenomenon ends.
Beyond these methods, a number of options can be created. Hastur has a special
attraction for wizards and artists; doubtless, many of these have come up
with their own unusual ways of travel. Some sample ones are given below;
in themselves, they may suggest scenarios to any Keeper.
Swirl of the Pallid Dancers: This spell will enchant several dancers,
all of whom must be willing participants. The dancers require special tattered
robes and scarves, all of a mottled yellow. When cast, the dancers begin
an elaborate and hurried dance, circling the target who is to be transported.
The dancers whirl around him, moving faster and faster, as their unraveling
costumes form a solid blur. When completed, the dancers will collapse and
the target will be gone.
The dance lasts a number of minutes equal to the target’s SIZ. It requires
an equal investment of magic points, which are drawn from among the dancers.
The caster may be one of the dancers, or may simply be nearby; should the
caster be one of the dancers, he may add additional magic points above the
minimum needed. When the dance is completed, the target attempts a resistance
roll of POW vs. magic points spent (including extra ones added by a dancing
caster). If the target fails to resist, he is lost in the blur of the dancers
and is instantly transported to Carcosa. If the caster has been there before,
he may choose where the target is sent; otherwise, the target may arrive
anywhere within the strange city. The dancers each lose 1/1D3 SAN; the caster
2/1D6, and the target, 3/1D8. Anyone viewing the process loses 0/1 SAN points.
Gahan’s Canvas: This is a painting, showing a battered throne in
the shadows of a columned hall. A painter who owns the canvas may paint
a subject into the picture, usually seated in the throne. The subject must
be present during the painting. The entire process takes 4+1D4 hours to
complete, and the painter must make a successful Painting skill roll or
the attempt fails. During this time, which must be continuous, the subject
may make an hourly resistance roll of his POW vs. the painter’s. If the
subject succeeds, the attempt is spoiled, though the subject will not be
aware of what the artist was attempting to do. In such a case, the painting
may be begun again, if the subject is willing. Should each hourly resistance
roll be failed, the subject sits there placidly and awaits the results.
When finished, the subject grows insubstantial and fades away, as does his
image on the canvas. Upon finally vanishing, the subject is transported
to Carcosa, appearing in a hall identical to the one on the canvas and in
the same position as he was painted. When it is over, the canvas once again
shows only the hall, awaiting its next visitor. Using the Canvas costs 1/1D4
SAN; being subjected to the process costs 3/1D8 SAN.
Camilla’s Shears: An ornately decorated pair of scissors, with curious
twisting designs that seem to shift before the eyes (including an occasionally-glimpsed
Yellow Sign). To be used, they must be operated in the air, as if cutting
all around a sleeping or immobile victim. When the scissors have “cut”
all around the victim, a POW vs. POW resistance roll may be attempted against
the user of the scissors. Should the roll succeed, the victim will instantly
awaken. Otherwise, their mind will be gone, transported to Carcosa, where
it will join the other invisible wailing spirits who haunt the streets.
The victim’s body will remain unharmed, but will be nothing more than a
mindless vegetable. Using the scissors costs 1/1D4 SAN. The victim takes
D100 SAN, and will in any case quickly become permanently insane, now privy
to the incorporeal terrors that lurk in dim Carcosa. Use of this item as
a method of willing player investigator travel is not recommended.
Mottled Clay: This substance must be created from a number of things,
which should be chosen by the Keeper for their unusualness and inaccessibility.
Some typical components might include ancient papyrus, dandelions, mummy
wrappings, baby fat, and other odd things. Some of these items must be obtained
in quantity, for half a pound of the Clay is needed for each point of SIZ
to be transported. When the ingredients are assembled and a noxious ritual
performed (at a cost of one magic point per half pound) the result is a
mottled yellow clay, thick and slimy.
The user of the Clay covers the target completely with it. If a person is
the target, they must be immobile or a volunteer for all of the clay to
be applied. Of course, the target may also be a book or item, which will
take no damage from the Clay’s application. As it is smoothed on, the Clay
hardens quickly into a tough shell. When the target is completely covered,
this shell may be shattered with a quick blow, and will be found to now
be hollow. The target has been transported to a particular location on Carcosa,
turned to stone. There, in a strange gallery of petrified people and objects,
the target waits for the user of the Clay to come.
In order to free the target from the invulnerable stone stasis, the user
must gather the now-hardened Clay fragments and grind them into a fine powder.
Journeying to Carcosa, the caster sprinkles this powder over the target
it was used on, restoring them to flesh (or whatever) and freeing them from
the stasis. Of course, many who are sent to the gallery are never retrieved,
and so it is a repository for many lost and vanished souls. Without the
powder of the Clay that sent them there, they will remain petrified forever.
Using the Clay costs 1/1D4 SAN.
These methods are examples; similar items and spells doubtless exist, corresponding
to their own cultures and times. Investigators will no doubt be hesitant
about using some of these to transport themselves to Carcosa… their caution
Your First Steps
“Night fell and hours dragged on, but still we murmured to each other
of the King and the Pallid Mask, and midnight sounded from the misty spires
in the fog-wrapped city. We spoke of Hastur and Cassilda, while outside
the fog rolled against the blank window-panes as the cloud waves roll and
break on the shores of Hali…” -Robert W. Chambers, “The Yellow
To truly know Carcosa we must begin with a look at the nature of reality.
In our human experience, reality is fairly consistent and reliable. Atoms
have an internal stability that allows them to remain what they are. Lead
does not become gold; a chair does not turn into a butterfly; if you turn
right, walk three steps, turn around, walk three steps, and turn left you
will be back where you started.
But the coming of the King in Yellow brought to an end the rule of such
reality in Carcosa. The malignant turmoil of Hastur entered and re-assembled
reality in its own image.
Now, existence in Carcosa is not predicated on internal stability. Rather,
it is a sort of relational reality. If there is a door on Earth, it is still
the same door whether you stand by it, walk through it, or just look at
it. But bring that door under Hastur’s influence and its definition is constantly
changing. When you stand by that door, it is defined by how you stand —
how close you are, what color shirt you are wearing, what dust is on your
shoes. Should you cross your legs, you have changed the door’s definition
— as well as your own.
The key element in this mutually-defining reality is perception. While your
presence near a door alters its reality, your looking at it actually materializes
the change. If you watch the door while a friend walks back and forth through
it, you may see the door shift and shudder. Your friend might see the same
thing, or something more appropriate to him.
The difficulty with Carcosa’s reality lies in what happens to the things
near you that you cannot see. Your perception of a thing strengthens the
bonds, so little will change as long as you can watch it. But beyond the
edges of your vision — beyond your immediate perception — reality is free
to change as it pleases, simply because you cannot perceive it. It will
stay in a more stable form only when you turn to look at it.
Thus, a person who walks from one end of a street to the other and then
back again will find that the street has changed greatly; should they turn
around and traverse the street once more it will bear even less resemblance
to the way it looked the first time.
Hastur’s mutational reality is also self-propelling. As one area of reality
is modified, everything around it changes in response. This causes the original
area to shift in response to that, and so on. The net effect of this is
that Carcosa is completely remade every few hours, never the same thing
twice. Needless to say, this makes navigation incredibly difficult for the
doomed fools — that is, the investigators — who have traveled there.
Maps are useless. Buildings, streets, entire areas disappear and reform
anew after you pass them. Leaving behind markers is similarly futile; they
are quickly absorbed into the city, and likely as not your carefully-made
trailblazes will appear all over the city, pointing in different directions.
Even movement inside a building is difficult, though the changes tend to
be less drastic than those of the city as a whole (the entire building,
for instance, will not disappear while you are in it).
Once all of this has been made clear to the newly-arrived investigators,
call for Idea rolls. Successful rolls cost them each 1D6 SAN; failure only
costs 1D3. Request that the players begin keeping a running total of how
much SAN they lose due to the city’s influence (though SAN is still recorded
normally as well, and the usual detrimental effects apply).
From this point on, call for both Sanity and Idea rolls as you feel they
are appropriate. Sanity checks should be made as the result of some shock
— realizing that the way home is blocked, or seeing a monster. Idea rolls
are used whenever you feel that the investigators might have an opportunity
to grasp something about the reality of the city. If they experiment with
the reality shifts or try to “test” how things work here, Idea
rolls would be appropriate.
There is another important difference in the two rolls. A successful Idea
roll will cost more SAN than a failed one (as seen in the 1D6/1D3 roll made
above). This is just the opposite of the normal Sanity check, which costs
more if you fail than if you succeed. In Carcosa it is not sudden crude
shocks that illuminate the mind. Rather, it is the slow but constant eating
away at your rationality and sense of place that is truly damaging.
As well as enlightening. Whenever the investigators attempt some moderately
difficult feat of navigation, one of the group must make a roll. This roll
needs to be under the total Carcosa-related SAN that investigator has lost
to date. Note that “difficult” means that the investigators are
trying to get somewhere that they can’t see; as noted earlier, as long as
you keep your eyes on something it will remain fairly stable.
For example: Archie McPhee, crack investigator, is wandering through dim
Carcosa. Turning a corner, he sees a strangely attractive statue a couple
of streets ahead. Should he walk directly to it, he will reach it with no
problem. If, instead, he makes a side trip into a building along the way,
the statue will probably not be visible (or will have turned into a lamppost
or whatever) when he comes back out. If he wants to make the statue reachable,
he will have to roll under the amount of SAN points he has lost so far.
Obviously, the more SAN you lose the easier you will find it to get around.
Explorers must budget their stability: they will need to understand enough
of this strange reality to get where they need to go, but still retain enough
SAN to survive the trip back.
It should be noted that only one investigator in a group needs to succeed
in their navigation roll, provided that unrestricted communication is possible
among the group’s members. But they must convince a majority of the group
that they know the way. This can be accomplished however the Keeper desires;
the investigator may need to make an Oratory or Debate roll, success indicating
that those listening may make another sanity travel roll with a bonus.
What You’ll See
There are three principal areas that the investigators might wish to explore:
Carcosa, the lake of Hali, and the Palace. All three share a common mood:
it is always night, always gloomy, always alien. The rising moons never
complete their journeys, frozen in their tracks since the coming of the
Yellow King. Whether they have actually stopped, or whether time here simply
does not pass, is a matter for private contemplation. Game time should still
be kept track of normally as some things happen at regular intervals, but
investigators attempting to make use of time (by meeting at a certain hour,
for instance) will find that it does not pass at a rate they are accustomed
to. Despite the everpresent gloom it is not too dark to see the nightflyers,
the strange everchanging winged things that swoop and arc above the city;
prudent investigators may remark that this clarity of vision works both
ways, and keep a lookout for nearby cover.
Upon arrival — however they get there — the investigators will immediately
feel alone, unwelcome. This place was once built by humans, perhaps another
seed colony planted by the Elder Things. But with the coming of the Yellow
King and the malignant influence of Hastur it shifted, slowly becoming a
physical extension of that being’s inner self. It is inimical to normal
life, normal perceptions; the only way to truly know Carcosa is to lose
your sanity, drop by drop, gaining precious but shattering knowledge of
this strange realm.
The city itself is a ferocious marvel; investigators with a sense of the
romantic will be drawn to it, sensing its strange beauty, its ethereal grandeur.
Those who pride themselves on rationality and logic will not fathom it,
finding that, taken as a whole, it disturbs and sickens them. But any who
stay long enough will not want to leave…
The most unusual feature of the city is that it is constantly changing;
as you look around, the structure of the city — or at least, your perception
of it — breaks down and disassembles at the corners of your vision. If
you move your gaze slowly from left to right and then back again, the entire
expanse will have changed somehow: new bricks become old, flagstones become
granite, fences become walls, doorways vanish or become cupboards. The only
way to keep an area stable is to never take your eyes from it; of course,
the longer you aren’t looking at the rest of what’s around you, the more
that will change. Staring intently at a particular door will allow it to
remain constant, but the floor just behind you may be turning into a crumbling
cliff. More information on this is given in the travel section.
In preparing for your players to explore the city, you should create eight
or ten special locations for them to wander into. These places may be keyed
to whatever the characters’ objectives are, or may be resources useful in
a variety of circumstances. Such places tend to have more stability than
most of the city due to the power that has gone into their creation; their
physical details will remain fairly constant, though never reliable. Examples
The Whisper Labyrinth: Somewhere below the city there is a crumbling
archway from which a pale draft issues. An investigator might be led here
by the distant calling of their name from within, or perhaps by the smell
of the draft. Entering the archway, one sees a smallish, circular room with
three damp and narrow hallways leading off into darkness; a light source
is needed to progress beyond here.
As soon as anyone progresses far enough down any hallway to lose sight of
their companions or the archway, they are lost. Physical aids such as ropes
and marks will not help exploration: the rope will soon be found to have
looped around somehow and become tied to itself; markings on the wall will
be altered beyond usefulness, repeated on every surface, or simply deleted.
Investigators who explore as a group will become separated if any of them
go too far ahead or drag behind; remaining in immediate contact is essential.
The labyrinth consists of hallways and small rooms. In every wall there
will be several little alcoves or shelves. Each of these holds a bottle;
there are tens of thousands of these bottles throughout the labyrinth, and
no two are alike. They are short or tall, fat or skinny, ornate or plain,
and may be constructed of any number of materials. Each bottle, however,
has a name on it, the name of the owner of the bottle. All bottles are closed
in some fashion — cork, lid, whatever — but none may be opened except
by the person whose name appears on the bottle.
In wandering around, there is a 3% chance per hour (not cumulative) that
an investigator comes across their own bottle, though a successful Spot
Hidden is still needed to spot it. Should the bottle be opened, a whisper
will be released, audible only to the investigator. The message and its
effects are up to the Keeper, who must come up with something suitable.
It may be a revelation about a past mystery; it may be the voice of a dead
friend or a forgotten lover; it may be a cryptic statement that will offer
aid or lead them into a trap. Whatever the message is, it will not be inconsequential
When an investigator (or a group) enters the labyrinth, roll 3D6. This gives
you the number of perceived hours they will wander around before finding
the way out. Should an investigator’s bottle be found, however, that investigator
(and any who are with him) will find the exit from the labyrinth in a matter
of minutes. If a bottle is taken that does not belong to the taker, they
will find that no matter which direction they turn they keep coming back
to the empty alcove until the bottle is returned. Investigators may keep
their own bottle, if they like, though it will not do anything after first
Needless to say, it should be quite rare for anyone to just happen upon
their bottle. An adventure that used this location would probably include
a spell, magic item, or perhaps a guide of some kind that would enable the
desired bottle to be found in a reasonable period of time. As the investigators
wander around the labyrinth, feel free to allow them glimpses of other travelers,
or hear voices cry out; unless you wish it, none of these phenomena can
be caught up with. Take note of what light sources the investigators bring
with them, and determine if they will last long enough. Anyone unlucky enough
to be lost in the dark will eventually reach the surface, but will quite
probably be insane.
The Whisper Labyrinth is a strange and frightening place; at your discretion,
a hallway may suddenly open up into a large room or other oddity, perhaps
where nefarious goings-on are going on. There may be truth to the legend
that somewhere, deep in the labyrinth, one may find the Voice that gives
breath to all the bottles. This may not be a desirable objective…
The Gallery of Shades: One of Carcosa’s larger structures, this elaborate
museum houses the works of dozens of artists, all influenced in some way
by the madness that is Hastur. The building, like most in the city, changes
constantly. Rooms and balconies contract and expand or disappear completely
when you’re not looking; carpeting becomes oak becomes tile becomes marble.
The disorienting nature of the structure has a purpose: to draw the visitor’s
interest to the works shown, rather than to the gallery itself.
The artworks displayed are of all types: paintings, sketches, statuary,
kinetic sculptures, folk art, etc. The quality varies widely, but all share
a common heritage of unbalanced creativity. Works here are rarely designed
to shock or disgust; the grotesqueries of Richard Upton Pickman would have
a hard time finding a place in Hastur’s aesthetic. The subject matter varies
widely in both depiction and effect; a painting of a strange alien landscape
may not be as disturbing as the sketch of a Paris cafe where a woman’s eyes
hunger for something that she will never find in Paris. The influence of
Hastur is pervasive and ever-changing, and its madness finds new interpretation
in each creator.
The effect of these works upon touring investigators is slow but insidious.
As they travel through the gallery’s many floors and wings (perhaps chasing
a mad friend or seeking a certain work, depending on your scenario), call
for Luck rolls from each. The person who rolls the highest (whether they
fail or not) will begin to fall under the gallery’s sway. Optionally, you
may simply target any investigator who is appropriate (a painter, a writer,
has the lowest SAN, read The King in Yellow, etc.).
The affected investigator will now lose 1D3 SAN every ten minutes. In some
way the others can not grasp, he has had a terrible insight into the nature
of Hastur, and now all the artworks in the gallery make a curious kind of
sense. While the others in the party simply feel uneasy when they view these
pieces, he begins to understand them. Each bit of sanity lost makes it easier
to lose the next bit, and soon the rational structure of the unfortunate
investigator’s mind falls like a line of dominoes. Do not roll for temporary
insanity, etc., but instead just keep track of how much SAN has been lost
without telling the player. The investigator is not consciously aware of
what is going on, as he slowly retreats into the madness growing inside
Should the investigators decide to leave the Gallery (entrances abound,
so this is not a problem), the affected investigator will not want to leave.
He will resist any physical attempts at taking him out, even fighting if
he has to. Should a friend attempt to talk him into leaving, however, he
may make a POW resistance roll against the speaking friend. Should the roll
fail, the insight he gained will suddenly elude him, and, shaken and pale,
he may be led out of the Gallery, though the lost SAN still applies. Once
the investigator has escaped, he will remain pale and melancholy for as
long as the party is in Carcosa, unwilling to take any action. Divide the
character’s new SAN by 5 and use that as his effective POW for as long as
he remains in the city. Upon returning home, he may recover normally in
an institution or through therapy.
Should the investigators remain in the Gallery for too long, the afftected
victim will go with the party, acting perhaps quiet but otherwise normal
until he reaches 0 SAN and is permanently, incurably insane. At this point,
a dozen masked figures in dark robes will suddenly step into the room where
the party is, blocking all entrances. The investigators will find themselves
frozen, unable to act, as the insane investigator steps forward and walks
off with the strange figures, never to be seen again.
The remaining investigators will find that the strange paralysis wears off
quickly, but no trace of their friend will be found. However, if they spend
any significant amount of time looking for him, another investigator will
begin to suffer the same fate. Should the party refuse to leave until their
friend is found, it is likely that they will all become Shades of the Gallery.
Somewhere in the Gallery is the hall referred to in the section on Mottled
Clay. This area will contain somewhere between thirty and sixty stone objects
at any given time. These will include petrified people, animals, books,
items, any number of things, all awaiting (many in vain) for the day when
the dust of their creation will be sprinkled on them, releasing them from
the invulnerable stone prison they find themselves in. Some sculptors, it
is said, prefer to construct their works entirely from life, using Mottled
Clay to transform real objects or people into eternal statues, to be displayed
The Whisper Labyrinth and the Gallery of Shades are typical of the sort
of strange madness that Hastur generates. Keepers may use them as models
for scenarios; remember that most places in Carcosa do have some purpose,
though it may be lost on normal people.
The Lake Of Hali
The lake of Hali is the passive essence of Hastur. It shares with its surroundings
a certain insubstantiality — the size of the lake is not constant, though
this will not be obvious to an onlooker. The lake is sometimes made up of
water, sometimes not. When it is not water, the lake takes the form of roiling
clouds, like a huge swirling fog that nevertheless has crests, waves, and
eddies. When it is in this fog-state, it may well be a sign that Hastur
The lake covers an uncertain area, and indeed may never truly end. Just
what Hali is is difficult to say; Chambers speaks of the cloud-waves rolling
onto the shores of Hali, which suggests that it is a general name for the
area. Perhaps Hali was the name of this land before the coming of the Yellow
Though few ever learn much about it, the lake is fully as strange as the
rest of this place. Dim lights occasionally emit a glow from somewhere deep
underwater. This glow may be constant, or may even flash like a beacon or
a message of some kind; whatever it is, the investigators aren’t likely
to want to find out.
Of course, the lake is occupied. Anyone contemplating a journey onto the
lake while it is in water form (and while Hastur is awake) had best think
twice. Boats of strange and baroque design may well be found on the shore
from time to time, and spirited investigators can certainly set sail. They
will quickly learn that anything may be living in this odd body of water.
It is assured that there are all sorts of monstrous Hastur-spawn and who
knows what else — if you wish to stage an attack on an investigator vessel,
feel free to use the game statistics for a shoggoth or other such entity.
Creatures of this magnitude are common in the watery depths. See “Tell
Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?” for a more thorough description
of the lake’s inhabitants.
One of the most fearsome and curious aspects of the lake is its changing
substance. Unknown to many, when the lake is in its foggy dream-cloud form
a voyager may actually travel down into the lake itself, simply by tipping
the boat downwards and paddling a course into the deeps of the fog. Such
a voyage will be a strange and wondrous experience, and not wholly unpleasant.
Visibility under the fogwater is about fifteen feet. Deep-ocean sounds resonate
from time to time, perhaps the low rumbles of some Aldeberan whale. Occasionally
one of the lake’s inhabitants will drift by through the dim clouds, just
out of sight. In such cases the investigators will nevertheless be aware
of something truly huge passing them by — worth a 0/1 SAN check.
About eighty feet down the explorers will begin to descend past tower spires,
only dimly glimpsed in the fog. Soon it will become apparent that the investigators
are surrounded by buildings, in a vast city that lies unguessed at beneath
the lake. Nervous investigators will wonder just what they have gotten themselves
into. Remind them that they are far below the surface of the lake — should
Hastur awaken, and the dreamclouds become water once more, they would surely
If they are brave enough to continue, several hundred feet down the boat
will come to rest on the bottom, actually one of the many streets in the
strange secret city beneath the lake. As the investigators disembark and
get their bearings, the fog will slowly drift away until they can see with
perfect clarity, revealing stars above. The investigators have gone as far
as they can and have arrived at last at the lake of Hali’s deepest secret
— Carcosa itself. For as you descend into the dream-lake and pass through
Hastur’s slumber you eventually emerge above Carcosa, and when you reach
bottom you are once again in the city where you came from. Investigators
will quickly deduce this (Idea rolls are appropriate here, at a cost of
1D8/1D4 SAN) when they see the shores of the lake of Hali still beckoning
them from not far away, the lake once again consisting of water, its strange
cloud-substance only a memory. If you would like to drive the point home,
allow the investigators to see themselves in the distance, climbing into
the boat and descending into the lake once more…
Other secrets of the lake are not for discussion here. As the essence of
Hastur, the lake of Hali is a strange and wondrous place, not quite in sync
with Carcosa. After traversing the dream-lake, one may sense that Carcosa
itself is still in transition. In time, perhaps it will share the essence
of the lake more fully. Meanwhile, a journey on or into the lake is a brave
undertaking, one that should reward the players with a very curious experience.
Standing on the shore of the lake of Hali, where it meets the edge of Carcosa,
one may occasionally glimpse a far-off structure across the lake, impossibly
far to still be visible. This is the Palace, where the King in Yellow made
his appearance and brought the infestation of Hastur. It is the setting
for the banned play that bears the King’s name, and under normal circumstances
should not be reachable by the investigators.
But, hope springs eternal in the heart of every player. Should you wish
to form an adventure utilizing the Palace, here are some guidelines.
Before attempting to use this section, the Keeper is strongly urged to read
the boxed summary of The King in Yellow play by Kevin A. Ross that appears
in both “Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?” and “Tatterdemalion”.
A short story by James Blish — “More Light”, in the anthology
Alchemy & Academe (Anne McCaffrey, editor) — gives Blish’s version
of a good chunk of the play’s text. While not wholly successful, the story
should greatly assist the Keeper in getting an accurate feel for the Palace,
its inhabitants, and its immediate history.
Reaching the Palace is the first and most difficult step. Achieving a means
of transportation to the Palace would be worthy of a scenario in itself.
It may be that when the lake of Hali is in its dream-state, there is a boat
sailing within it that will carry the investigators to the Palace. Perhaps
a bottle in the Whisper Labyrinth contains a clue. A woman frozen in stone
within the Gallery of Shades might have a piece of vital information.
However you choose for the investigators to get there, achieving the Palace
is likely to be the climax of an extended Carcosa-oriented campaign. If
the lake of Hali is the strangely beautiful soul of Hastur, the Palace is
its secret, palpitating heart. The Palace may lie within the lake; perhaps
the vision occasionally glimpsed by the investigators is simply a reflection
of the real Palace underwater. Such concerns are left for you to decide.
The Palace, however, is almost certainly not on the lake’s far shore, if
such a location even exists. When the Yellow King arrived, the Palace was
somehow absorbed by Carcosa, and it was displaced from the shore where it
once stood. Or so they say.
The Palace is of great size and great beauty. Standing before it, the viewer
is bitterly tempted to weep for lost Yhtill. Indeed, the entire structure
radiates a kind of alien sadness. Within, the recent remnants of a great
party are evident. When the investigators enter, in fact, it is only a few
hours after the initial arrival of the King in Yellow. Time here has in
some way slowed almost to a standstill. The investigators may wander the
strange, ornate rooms of the Palace unchallenged, but the sound of voices
will eventually draw them to the great ballroom.
There they will find the inhabitants of the Palace, standing and sitting
in small groups, speaking in low, stunned tones. Everyone here is gaily
dressed for a masquerade, though they have all unmasked. Only a few hours
previous, it should be explained, the King in Yellow arrived, informing
the party-goers of his identity. In that moment the city of Yhtill — wherein
the Palace lay — became Carcosa, and the royal family of the palace learned
that they were somehow doomed. They stand around now, morose and uncertain.
Any of them will speak with the investigators, seeing them only as familiar
party-goers. Little information may be passed on, however — the people
of the Palace are truly lost in both mind and soul.
The outcome of all this is up to the Keeper. Terrible dangers may well exist
in the dungeons and cellars of the palace, but such amusements are rightly
your province. The Palace should be a deeply unsettling but finally incomprehensible
place to visitors. Hastur’s madness is not a crude, violent spasm but a
subterranean impenetrable solitude, indefinable and unyielding. Exploring
its heart would not be a wholly pleasant experience.
Packing Your Bags
You can think of this text as a toolkit. Creating a scenario with these
tools is still an involved process — otherworldly travel is something that
usually crops up only in long-running campaigns, and is then exceedingly
risky. Hali is no different in that respect.
The first step, of course, is to come up with a good enough reason for a
group of investigators to do such a foolish thing as to travel there. In
“Tatterdemalion”, they make the journey to find the Yellow King
and stop one of his plans. The adventure does sort of lead the players by
the nose, though; the more comprehensive rules in this article on sanity
travel may be of assistance if you plan to run “Tatterdemalion”.
But the reasons for travelling to Carcosa are as varied as the reality of
Hastur itself. Some of the items given under “how to get there”
could easily kick off a rescue scenario — say a diplomat disappeared at
a state function while surrounded by swirling dancers, or a friend of the
investigators vanished after an old acquaintance from art school came by
to do a portrait. Any novel manner of transport will suggest a scenario
Other possibilities could include recovering some item vital to stopping
a fiendish plot. Perhaps an NPC needs the investigators to help him find
his bottle in the Whisper Labyrinth, so that he may at last learn the words
to a forgotten ritual that needs to be performed.
Once you have a plot in mind, you will need to construct locations, NPC’s,
and encounters in Carcosa that relate to your plan. No detailed maps should
be created — just a general description of a building and what sort of
things it contains will suffice. NPC’s may be human or not, and will likely
be insane. These individuals or creatures may have special advice for the
investigators, or may take the form of pursuers dogging their trail.
Locations are perhaps the most important part of your scenario. There will
probably be several places for the investigators to go, not all of which
will relate to the matter at hand. Decide what each location is used for,
what inhabitants might be there, and what sort of SAN/Idea rolls and costs
might be needed. You will also need to work up some sort of rough diagram
showing connections between the locations to facilitate sanity travel. Physical
landmarks do change appearance, but they will retain some sort of spatial
relationship with each other. An observatory may move underground, but it
will still be in the same general area — for a while.
Time is also important. It does not truly pass in Carcosa, which will thwart
any attempts at making some sort of scheduled rendezvous, but you will need
to keep rough track of elapsed game time. SAN costs will often come at somewhat
regular intervals (as in the Gallery of Shades) so keeping track of this
will be essential.
Special notice should be paid to the times when the lake of Hali becomes
filled with cloudy fog instead of water. This article interprets the phenomenon
as the dream-state of Hastur. Conditions beyond the lake may change as well,
at your discretion. The mists could extend all through the city; a shimmering
Yellow Sign may materialize in the night skies (as it does in the illustration
on page 27 of this issue); those already under Hastur’s sway may suffer
a loss of willpower and drive during such times. The lake itself exhibits
strange properties while in the dream-state: boats could be encountered
drifting along under the surface, perhaps phantom derelicts of sinister
portent. Adventures that make use of the dream-state may have things in
common with the Dreamlands.. perhaps the lake allows movement into and out
of that place. If the idea appeals to you, refer to H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands,
from Chaosium, for more ideas.
Finally, you may want to answer for yourself the question of just what Hastur
is. This article has referred to Hastur in purposefully vague terms — you
may well notice the lack of any detailed statistics for beings encountered
in Carcosa, and that is an extension of the confusion surrounding Hastur.
In “Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?” it is mentioned that
the term Hastur appears in The King in Yellow as both a person and a place.
The name crops up often in Robert W. Chambers’ short stories, but Hastur
is not identified as being a god or a man or much of anything. His short
story “The Demoiselle D’Ys” has a very minor character named Hastur,
a man who works as a falconer. This would seem to only be a bit of inspired
mischief on Chambers’ part, but who can say?
In many ways, Hastur seems to be a very abstract manifestation of something
we cannot understand. Its existence raises many questions — who did write
The King in Yellow, and how did the author know the details of the coming
of the Yellow King? “Tatterdemalion” identifies the writer as
a man named Castaigne, but this appears to be incorrect. Two men named Castaigne
do appear in Chambers’ story “The Repairer of Reputations” and
one of them reads the book, but certainly neither one wrote it. One possibility
worth considering is that Hali did not exist until the unknown writer created
it, making the city, the palace, and the lake into a sort of projected reality,
brought into being by the madness of the play’s readers. Which came first,
the play or the King? Perhaps Hastur knows, but It is not telling.