Call of Chicago: The Carcosan Prisoner

“I told you to keep to the paths. You wandered into the Yellow Zone.”

— No. 6 to Nadia, “The Chimes of Big Ben,” The Prisoner

Robert W. Chambers may have invented reality horror, combining Poe’s fragility of self with Bierce’s arbitrary universe and his own artistic flair, but it arguably reached its peak, ironically in a theatrical form, seventy years after Chambers opened The King in Yellow. More specifically, it peaked in seventeen plays – teleplays – that changed up Poe by leaving the narrator-protagonist as the only fixed point in a slipstream world. I speak, of course, of the greatest television series ever filmed, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner.

Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Pennyfarthing?

If you haven’t watched The Prisoner, go do it right now. The constant threat to McGoohan’s Prisoner (designated No. 6 by his jailer, No. 2) is precisely the personality disintegration that follows exposure to the Play, weaponized and scientized by the Warders of the surreal Village. The Warders plant doubles, sleepers, and moles within the Village, so No. 6 never knows whom to trust. No. 2 arbitrarily manipulates and alters the Prisoner’s environment to catch him off guard or in a dilemma, forcing him to act without reliable outside information, hoping to grind down his resolve to resist. In short, No. 2 is a GM.

“The result is bad. (That the prisoner has escaped without betraying a single word of information useful to us.)”

— Robert W. Chambers, In Secret

In our brainstorming during the GUMSHOE Scenario Workshop, Robin, Gar, and I came up with the notion of a castaway on the shores of the Lake of Hali. This idea further inspired me with the notion of a Carcosan Village, and the unknown No. 6 immured therein. So how might you introduce a suitable No. 6 into your own Yellow King RPG campaign? The basic challenge is this: the more the Prisoner might know, the less he trusts the PCs to hear – and the less they should believe what he does tell them.

Perhaps the simplest version of the story involves a prisoner of The Wars, escaped from a mysterious prison camp on the northwest coast of Morocco (or was it Wales, or Lithuania?) who reaches the PCs, ostensibly his allies and fellow-countrymen. He tells them about this reality-shifting prison, and his miraculous escape – at which time, the players most likely start interrogating him as avidly as his former Warders did. How did you escape? Why did they focus their attention on you? Did you desert? Were you on a mission? What was it? A roaring, inflatable Pallid Sphere hunting their new comrade down could be proof of what he says – or proof that he’s its master, covertly using it to break their discipline. As a new enemy offensive weapon? As a test of loyalty by their superiors?

In Aftermath, the PCs uncover evidence of a Castaigne psychological prison-village in Harmony, Colorado, where Carcosan magic and arcane technology fuse to control every aspect of the inmates’ perceptions and beliefs. The PCs’ preferred faction wangles the authority to investigate it, assigning the PCs to oversee the cleanup as temporary liberation coordinators. But sadly, the prison records have been sabotaged or forged or both by the time they get there. Before they know it, the PCs have become the new Warders, and have to sort out which of the prisoners are genuine resisters, and which were the original Castaigne Warders – and who was the Carcosan representative who ran the prison-village from behind the scenes? One suspect seems very likely – if only the PCs could break him …

“Break down his sense of reality, No. 12. Once he begins to doubt his own identity, he’ll crack.”

— No. 2 to No. 6, “The Schizoid Man,” The Prisoner

Rather than set the PCs as the structural Warders, what about making them the Prisoners? On paper, it couldn’t be simpler: they go to sleep, and wake up in the Village just like No. 6 did, gassed and kidnapped and transported to a brightly-colored gulag. You could theoretically run a setup like this in any of the sequences, from a Carcosan outpost in 1895 that uses eerily futuristic 1960s technology to a weirdly retro facility in the modern day that seems to have been built by mad scientists in 1966. (In any version, you might think about having a beautiful female No. 13, as a tip of the hat to Chambers’ heroine.) The PCs might not even know the secret they must keep – that they are player characters, especially real thanks to their accidental linkage between realities. Hopefully they can distract their jailers during the community theater performance …

It probably works best of all in Aftermath or This is Normal Now. In the latter setting, they awaken in the former setting, perhaps even in their old PCs’ bodies again but with eerie knowledge of their “normal now” lives. Someone (A Castaigne holdout? An unscrupulous Guardian cell? An old villain from The Wars, somehow still alive?) has re-built or re-purposed the old Castaigne prison-village in Harmony to trawl for reality shifting life-lines and caught the PCs. They have to figure out who’s running this place, and how to get themselves sent (or send themselves) back to their proper timeline. But do their old PCs want them to succeed? Any unfinished business from the previous sequence should definitely come back to haunt them.

In Aftermath, the PCs wake up in a Castaigne-run Resort, an Beaux-Arts no-place reminiscent both of the TV series and of the Belle Epoque. Dr. 2 (“names are just labels”) informs them that the Castaigne empire never ended; they are here in the Resort to recover, so they can return to the valuable security work they were doing before their breakdown, hunting down malcontents and rebels like their PC selves. Come up with Castaigne regime figure identities eerily reminiscent of the PCs’ Aftermath selves, which the Resort attempts to fit the PCs into. Dr. 2 might be the sort of holdout or revanchist mentioned earlier, attempting to forcibly shift the whole world back onto a new Castaigne-victorious track just as Hildred and Wilde did in 1895/1920.

In either of these versions, of course, the GM could be working with one or more of the players. Especially if their PC has proven to be unreliable in previous adventures or sequences, their identity in Harmony or the Resort is fake – they are actually doubles impersonating their actual self, working with the Warders and Carcosa. Depending on the group’s appetite for suspicion and paranoia, this might comprise a series of scenarios each revealing a new double and culminating in the one true PC’s decision/breaking point, or it might just be one big adventure playing with very plastic identity that leaves just enough loose ends to justify the occasional weird callback later on in the game. Be seeing you! 


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront players with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

3 Responses to “Call of Chicago: The Carcosan Prisoner”

  1. chukg says:

    I thought there were only 6 episodes of the Prisoner. With Ian McKellan.

    • Becky Smith says:

      A quick Google check reveals the original with Patrick McGoohan consisted of 17 episodes – the remake with Ian McKellan only had 6 episodes. Becky.

  2. Ron Levy says:

    Steve Jackson Games put out an excellent GURPS Prisoner sourcebook to aid in any such games.

    But watch the series first!!

    http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/prisoner/

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