Carnivals are terrifying, right? Something Wicked This Way Comes, is all about the dark things that carnivals bring to our towns… There are many adventures and sourcebooks for RPGs centered around the dark traveling carnival. Heck, the mighty Inquisitor Eisenhorn even faces one in a story set in the Warhammer 40K universe.
But what if the Carnival wasn’t so scary? Well, that is to say, what if, when you pull back the curtain, instead of being an even more twisted representation – it was something else? What if, when the layers of illusion are stripped away, you find a bunch of seemingly normal folk dealing with all the troubles of being itinerant entertainers in a dangerous world?
With all the magic that players fling around in a typical D&D campaign, it can often be difficult to remember that for the average farmer or miller, “magic” is still a source of mystery. Just because you – the player – have played three sorcerers, a warlock, and an arcane domain cleric doesn’t mean that your typical villager has ever seen any magic more powerful than a cure light wounds spell cast by a passing priest.
It seems that in such an environment, a carnival wouldn’t have to work very hard to seem exotic. A tiefling ringmaster with thaumaturgy, a bard with prestidigitation, and a few disguise self spells would certainly be enough to impress the rubes. Add in a half-orc or dwarf strongman, and a few exotic but not overly dangerous entries from the monster manual and you have a carnival capable of working the backroads for years with little trouble.
Taking an approach like this is useful for a couple of reasons.
First, if a carnival is truly, terrifyingly, squiggly weird, it seems unlikely that it will be welcome in most small towns… keeping it a little more tame certainly makes it more likely that players will have reasons to interact with the carnival beyond, “Well, you guys realize we’re gonna end up having to kill half this carnival, right?”
Second, it opens up the possibility that the carnival can serve other purposes. That bard that can cast prestidigitation? He can also cast cure light wounds. He makes an alternative to having a 1st level Cleric in every village because he can also serve as a “barber-surgeon” of sorts. Maybe he sells snake oil charms too but if he doesn’t, then knowing that the carnival is coming back around and that they have a healer with them suddenly makes them a lot more inviting to the normal folk they are entertaining.
Third, the carnival probably attracts hanger-ons just like these things do in the real world… so when the carnival comes to town, they can bring along a small tent market of traders with goods that might be valuable to communities that aren’t on main roads or rivers. This can be useful to players because it offers them a chance to buy and sell goods that they might not have access to in small rural communities but that it might make sense for a carnival to have.
Fourth, if the carnival is made up of “real people” instead of killer clowns and caged basilisks, then they offer the opportunity to roleplay in such a way that the party might come to know or care about some of these people. Maybe they save the carnival on the road when its guards are killed and they hire on for a time to protect the carnival (a nice variation on the caravan guards trope for low-level adventurers). And if these people are more than just another encounter, they might have adventure opportunities of their own. Maybe the tattooed man is actually a fugitive hiding behind those tattoos? Maybe the barker lost a family heirloom? Maybe the fortune teller sees something that the party has a chance to stop? Maybe, the party starts out as members of the carnival and finds adventure from there? It might explain all their special training.
Ultimately, by making the carnival less of an encounter with a malevolent force and more of a roving base camp, the PCs have a group of people they can connect with, trade with, and work with. The carnival becomes less of a danger and more of an opportunity. If nothing else, it breaks up the seemingly endless parade of evil carnivals and forces the PCs to re-examine some of their preconceived notions when encountering other seemingly cliché aspects of the game world.
I’m a hopeful sort. When I plant NPCs, it is always my goal that they are interesting and seed the world for encounters long beyond the one that introduces them to the player characters. A travelling carnival full of strongmen with backaches, ringmasters with budget problems, and mundane dangers may not seem as exciting as crystal spires in the clouds… but it might last a lot longer in your campaign world and still has the potential to create interesting play at the table.