Some friends recently joined me to experience the newest edition of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. Over four pleasant evenings we explored the classic adventure Dark Carnival, by David A. Hargrave, from 1984’s Curse of the Chthonians collection (my copy is in the 1989 Cthulhu Classics reprint).
I’ve always been interested in this adventure, with its evocative setting of a mysterious amusement park in 1920s Providence. It has a poor reputation, but we had a great time with it. Here are my notes on how to get the best out of this overlooked gem.
Below this line, there are spoilers!
FEATURES OF DARK CARNIVAL
This adventure definitely has the potential to be extremely deadly. One of the recurring criticisms of this adventure is that it is too much a “party killer” (see note 1). To my eyes, however, this is not a problem – this is a signal as to the kind of adventure we are dealing with here. Many CoC adventures follow the pattern of “uncover mystery, wade into the trouble, using all your skill you stop the troublemakers and escape the clutches of hideous mythos beasties”. If you and your players apply that pattern to this adventure, things will not go well. Investigators who push hard against the sinister forces herein will find they are massively overmatched in any stand-up fight.
Dark Carnival is best approached in another mode entirely – one that is, I think, more in keeping with many Lovecraftian tales. Investigators will uncover strange goings-on in the carnival, and they will encounter deadly threats on all sides, but at no time is it incumbent on the investigators to engage these threats. If the game turns into massed deadly carnival assassins ganging up on the investigators, then something has gone wrong.
Partly this is down to how the players approach the game. If they come in with a pulp sensibility, toting guns and wreaking havoc, then the carnival will make them pay. But players who are more cautious and thoughtful will find plenty of other avenues into the carnival’s mysteries that don’t require constant battles with deadly foes.
Mostly, it is up to the keeper to make this work. Here’s my advice to the keeper – if you follow these principles then the players should feel like they are pulling back the curtain to reveal impossible dangers, and skirting around the edges of deadly forces they barely understand. Sounds perfect to me.
- Send the right signals. Players react to the world you create. They are constantly evaluating the risk and reward based on how you present things to them. If your NPCs are eager to battle, then they players will presume that is how the game is structured. So in every piece of description and every choice you make for NPCs, make it obvious to the players that there are always other ways forward than deadly combat. They will pick up on your tone.
- Give them options. The carnival is packed with detail and secrets. Keep suggesting to the players that there are other things out there worthy of interest (because there are!) – this will ensure players don’t hastily conclude their only way forward is right through a deadly opponent.
- Give the NPCs and monsters complex responses. Or, to be blunt, don’t make the NPCs and monsters rush to kill the characters. I’ll expand on this one…
- Don’t kill ’em – make ’em hurt. Killing investigators is easy for a Keeper with this many deadly foes to hand; and it’s disruptive to the game. Look for ways to make the investigators’ lives worse instead.
If the cult and monsters in Dark Carnival set about the task, investigators would quickly die. That could be fun for some games, but it doesn’t bring the best out of the adventure. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to justify a less bloodthirsty approach on the part of the mythos forces in this adventure. I note some below, in the notes on the different enemy groups, but it’s worth noting the central point right here.
Unusually for a CoC adventure, this mythos cult is not flourishing in a remote backwater, but in the midst of an enormous city, surrounded by civilians and authority forces. It is already on the radar of local law enforcement and as the adventure begins, horrific events in and near the park have drawn media attention as well. This is crucial to understand how the cult is operating and what kind of threat it presents the investigators.
Essentially, the cult begins the adventure in an extremely perilous situation. If the authorities start to actively investigate the cult, then the jig is up. As strong as the cult is, it wouldn’t be able to withstand a swooping force of Providence’s Finest. Its only alternative would be to abandon the park and the tunnels and scatter to the four winds.
This means that the investigators actually begin the game in a very strong position. The cult is vulnerable – even endangered. Everyone is watching. More mysterious occurrences connected with the park will endanger everything they have been working towards.
So the cult is strongly motivated not to be involved in any more trouble. Yes, the cult is overwhelmingly deadly – but it daren’t kill anyone unless it is damn sure it can get away with it.
This is the wedge that the investigators can use to get close to the truth – but they best not put a foot wrong.
So many monsters
There are a variety of mythos elements at play in this adventure – and this has been another regular criticism, the “mythos hoedown” effect. (Note 2) There was a tendency in early CoC adventures to throw in a variety of critters, but I don’t think there’s much to complain about here. The mythos forces are cultists, zombies, ghouls and burrowers. To my eyes these four all match up harmoniously into a single narrative, as discussed below under the discussions of different creature types.
This adventure is undeniably tricky to run. It has many, many moving parts contained within its single main location – dozens and dozens of cult NPCs with their own styles and agendas, as well as the comings and goings of the public, the interest of law enforcement and the media, and a physical environment full of distractions and secrets. As well, there is no storyline imposed on the situation – no great ritual to disrupt, no set of events that will become the spine of the action. The adventure can unfold in innumerable ways based on the way the Keeper and players approach the content.
This has been another criticism of the adventure (Note 3), and yes, it’s pretty close to accurate. However, again, there are lots of ways for the Keeper to manage this complexity and keep things usable. Here’s what I did:
- I copied the carnival map and cut it into smaller segments, then annotated each segment with the NPCs you might find there. This was a great reference in play, and it was also very useful as a process to help me learn how the carnival worked.
- I made a quick-reference list of all the NPCs with a few summary notes next to them (and page refs for more detail). As the game went on I noted on here developments from the game like “is suspicious of investigator X”)
- I collected all the references to the shows into one place, so I could describe easily what was on offer when investigators considered buying tickets
CREATURES OF DARK CARNIVAL
The Society of the Great Dark
There is no clear description of the cult in the adventure, but we can infer a few things from the text. My interpretation is as follows:
- They serve the ones below, also known as the dark ones. Above all, they revere the great dark one, also called the Great Mother of Us All.
- They profess that if you die defending your faith and the dark ones, you will live again in endless glory when the Great Mother comes into power. (Individual cultists believe this to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how fanatical or how cynical they are.)
- There are inner and outer circles in the cult. Initiation to the circles is by ritual. Initiation to the inner circle is particularly gruesome, involving human sacrifice to the burrowers.
- The outer and inner circles gather weekly to a great ritual in the pool cave. (Any more than this and the non-members staying in the roustabout quarters would become suspicious.) They all know about the zombies down there. The inner circle gathers more frequently, both in Wyatt’s home and in the cave below, for planning and rituals. In some rituals human blood is drunk and human flesh is consumed.
- The outer circle isn’t exposed to ghouls or burrowers, although they hear about them and some of them have encountered them. The inner circle is directly involved with all creatures.
- There are two classes of victim – “innocents” such as the two current captives, who are held for special ceremonial sacrifice, and “regulars” such as the two older men recently seduced by Velma who presumably were killed for inner circle ritual use.
There are clearly divisions within the cult. Some members hate others and will scheme to bring them down (to advance their own status in the cult, or simply to get rid of them). Investigators might be able to take advantage of these divisions.
The cult is watchful of trouble, but at the start of the adventure they are instructed by the inner circle to de-escalate. They know they could be exposed, and everyone is expected to turn away investigators without arousing any further suspicions. Murder is off the table! They all know there are two captives down in the tunnels right now, and they don’t need to take any more, so they can afford to let things calm down again. However, there is at least one burrower causing mayhem on the surface. This unexpected development will no doubt be a source of great anxiety for the inner circle – how can they stop this monster they worship from inadvertantly exposing them and ruining everything?
Should the cult be exposed, its members will attempt to disappear. Perhaps they will start their own little ventures in other parts of the world…
(Also note that many of the cultists do have extremely high combat ratings. There is no harm in dialling these down somewhat to reflect the more recent CoC style!)
I love Wilberforce Wyatt. He’s a villain viewed with some disdain and confusion (Note 4) because, yes, he is a nigh-unkillable sorceror with a broad selection of deadly magic to his name, as well as an extensive murderous cult at his beck and call. It is clear that a set of CoC investigators have a minuscule chance of taking him down. And yes, this is all true. But to me, this is a significant positive feature, not a negative one.
Wyatt only seems like a problem if you read the adventure as a set of combat challenges to be overcome by sufficiently doughty investigators. As soon as you question that premise, he is revealed as what he really is: one of the best villains in the game. And as I’ve noted above, the cult is in a dangerous situation right now, and killing investigators is a last resort for Wyatt. He is effectively invulnerable, which means the investigators probably can’t kill him, either. So you have a situation where the heroes and the main villain need to look at other ways to deal with each other than direct violence. Fantastic! What a great source of drama and excitement and challenge!
As a Keeper, have Wyatt work hard to stay on top of the situation around the Cult. Keep him busy – his group are fractious, there’s a burrower out of control, police and others are sniffing around – he has lots on his mind. But he is smart and when he suspects investigators are up to something, he will act fast. He will send people to intimidate them, he will follow them home to gather information, he will blackmail them with threats of violence against their families, he will offer to help them with other problems if they leave him alone… In my game I would have loved to have one investigator go to his wealthy father’s home for an evening meal only to find Wilberforce Wyatt there, calmly discussing a business transaction and making the implicit threat to the investigator very, very clear… sadly the opportunity never arose for that little gambit.
I do recommend two significant changes from the Wyatt in the adventure. He is described as one who will not hesitate to destroy or kill someone who is closing in on the carnival – I recommend keeping in mind his high INT here, and having him be aware that the mysterious death of someone investigating trouble in the carnival will reliably draw unwanted attention. Give him a high bar before he turns to murder.
Secondly, I recommend ignoring entirely the description of Wyatt as someone who will never talk to any investigators. I like Wyatt as being perfectly ready to interact with anyone, because he has nothing at all to fear. He can be charming and devious and more as he tries to deflect all theories of trouble. He doesn’t want to act like he has something to hide – because that will only make people more suspicious. Make him a powerful presence who is always memorable when he steps on stage. Make him a memorable villain!
The zombies in the tunnels below the park are very creepy but by the text of the adventure they only defend themselves if attacked. They are an excellent source of increased tension and to add complications by revealing a zombie is someone the investigators know, but they don’t make the adventure deadly as long as the players aren’t approaching things as a shooting gallery.
The adventure says that the ghouls have been here long before the Great Dark set up, and will be here long after. They are the original inhabitants of these tunnels. Note that they are not of murderous intent – according to the adventure they will watch intruders to see if they are irrelevant to the cult, and if so, they will attack. The Keeper should interpret this liberally, and give the investigators the benefit of the doubt here – let the ghouls be a scary presence and a threat, but don’t force a battle unless the players, again, decide they’re in a shooting gallery.
There’s a tricky bit here, however – the much-derided Area A, which says there are two ghouls sitting behind an ambush wall waiting to slaughter unauthorised people who come down the steps into the tunnels. This is hard to explain – why are there two ghouls on guard duty for the cult, and what are they doing sitting there all day being bored? It is also the only point in the adventure where the text advocates a deadly battle be sprung on unsuspecting investigators. I would encourage a Keeper to deviate from the text here – perhaps striking this encounter entirely, or replacing the ghouls with zombies who would be more about capturing intruders than killing them. In my notes I had ghouls hanging out in this little “ambush” alcove, but for their own weird reasons – it’s just a nice place to curl up – and with no particular incentive to attack intruders or act as guards for the cult, even if that’s what the cult think they are doing.
My interpretation of the ghouls was strongly influenced by reading the ghoul issues of Alan Moore’s Providence comic, which emphasises their weird/dreamlands nature. I took the ghouls to be a strange nightmarish presence, emphasising their weird and sinister aspect rather than the subway-rampaging cannibals suggested in Pickman’s Model. The whole tunnel complex was, in my game, a semi-real space, and the ghouls were residents of this threshold between dreamlands and reality. They did not serve the cult (although the cult considers them “tamed”, but they welcomed it and sometimes participated in its rituals). They did not want for food, with the cemetery nearby. They were a threatening presence that added weird complications, while being largely indifferent to the success or failure of the cult and the investigators alike. In fact I had one subplot where I decided an investigator, who had occult interests, had attracted the attention of the ghouls – he fell unconscious in the tunnel of terror and had a dreamlike experience of being borne down into the tunnels by ghouls, where they showed him the great pool and he sensed the monstrous presence within. At the end of the game it was suggested he might return to the tunnels to seek further contact with the ghouls.
The Burrowers are not necessarily going to be a big part of the game. In our adventure, one – suggested to be Shudde M’ell itself – was glimpsed moving through a tunnel and sinking into the great pool, but apart from that they weren’t present. The adventure does suggest at least one of the creatures is active above, however – moving through the cemetery and inside the Tunnel of Terror. This is unusual behaviour, and the Keeper can play it up or down as circumstances warrant.
Also, note that they are telepathic creatures. This, combined with the presence of ghouls with dreamlands connections, opens up to the Keeper ample opportunity for weird mindgames. Dreams, visions, and mental strangeness is extremely easy to justify and this is a fantastic source of exciting moments for a Keeper to play with. (In my game, the presence of the burrowers in this location was due to the ghoulish connection to the dreamlands – the cult didn’t set up in a city for the fun of it, they did so because the weird dreamy tunnels allowed them to contact the burrowers here.)
Should a burrower come across an investigator, the text indicates it might use telepathy to see if they are a cultist, and if not, to attack or call for aid. The Keeper is encouraged to use such an encounter to make the investigator’s life more miserable, rather than having the burrower simply murder them outright.
Why are the tunnels under a Carnival? What’s going on there? Is it just a coincidence? I decided to explain this as a very deliberate convergence. The excitement of patrons at the Carnival – riding the roller coaster, screaming in the Tunnel of Terror, etc – creates an intense psychic aura that hangs over the location like a beacon, drawing in the Chthonians. The cult uses this aura of intense adrenaline and emotion to summon the dark ones for their ceremonies, and the ghouls can whisper about the pleasant sensations that leak into their dreamworld phantasmagoria. Played right, your players might shudder at the implications of every flushed-face scream from a Carnival ride, knowing that the whole facility is a giant church to the most horrible things…
ERRORS AND ODDITIES
There are some weird things in this adventure that, in an ideal world, would have been caught in editing.
Unlabelled buildings on the map: The unlabelled building by the Ferris Wheel is clearly meant to be the Wax Museum. The unlabelled building by the Water Tower is clearly meant to be the Main Barn.
Magic shop missing from the map: The guide to the carnival grounds describes Mr Lucky’s Magic Shop in some detail, but this is nowhere to be found on the map. In my game I just deleted this entirely – if you want to include it, I suggest swapping it for the Salt Water Taffy Shop (#17 on the map).
No riding area: While there is a pony rides attraction on the map, there does not appear to be anywhere for Emmanuelle Vasconcellos to perform her trick ring act. There are two horses in the barn she uses for her act, but her description just calls her an “all-around performer at the arcade”. In my game I take this to mean she works the arcade’s games as relief, but also every hour or so she performs a trick riding show, riding in a circuit around the Swan Pond. You need to cheat the map a little to ensure there is room for her to do this, but it gives a nice feature to a visit to the Carnival, as the barkers shout about the show and carnival workers enthusiastically sell food and drink to those who gather to watch her ride.
Unclear who stays in which cottage: The many cottages are obviously shared by the carnival’s permanent staff, and the Keeper should assign them as they see fit. In my game I used the following plan:
Three cabins north of the Bunkhouse:
Northern: Frank Brunner, Norris Long
Middle: Angus McWhirter, Rudolph Ryor, Anthony Gubatosi
Southern: Jonathan Boom, Carl Denim
Three cabins north of the Cookhouse:
Northern: Old Ben, Michael Ransom
Middle: Rondo Moresby, George Suggs
Southern: Peter Sanderson, Joshua Peterson
Three cabins north of the Root Beer House:
Northern: Emmanuelle Vasconcellos & Anthony Bowen, and the two Pinheads from the House of Freaks
Middle: Porticia Montebello, Velma Pryziewski
Southern: Esteban Garcia, Sonny Poacher, Wong Fu Ji
Wyatt shares his house with Abigail Forman.
Three cabins by the riverside:
Northern: Ermaline Grodt, Fatima Flores, Co-Co the Dog Boy
Middle: Frank Garber, Flyboy Pehr
Southern: Filmore Wagabaugh, Reuben Ramirez
Rumours at the start
Oddly, the adventure includes some notes at the start that aren’t fully explained in the text.
What happened to Lucy and Kent? It isn’t clear, but my guess is that they were ambushed in the cemetery by Wyatt, who directed the zombies to seize Lucy. Then the rogue burrower came out of the ground and chomped off Kent’s arm. In the confusion Kent got away, back to the carnival in time. (The music he heard was transmitted by the telepathic connection of the burrower.)
What did Officer Reynolds see? Also not clear. My guess is that it was the rogue burrower, using telepathy to lure the Officer into its maw. Keepers wanting to make life hard for the investigators might try the same trick.
What did Abner Weems see? This is clearer, but it is confusing. It seems it was Ptompkin and Valdosky carrying a bundle of Lucy’s clothes and dumping them in the river. Why? My guess is Wyatt was trying to cover tracks here – by having Lucy’s clothes wash up somewhere downriver, it would help give the impression that she drowned, and take the heat off the carnival.
In my run of the adventure, partly based on the characters invented by the players and partly based on things that interested me, I used these ideas in play. They all worked really well! For your consideration:
Potential recruit: I had one investigator with an interest in the occult, and a few points of Cthulhu Mythos. I had Wyatt mark him down as a potential recruit – at least one worth sounding out. (This was the same investigator the ghouls took a fancy to.)
Other people snooping around: I had one investigator encounter his no-good older brother, who was also snooping around the carnival. The story they’d heard was that there was an organised crime family running a forging operation out of the carnival, and a forging machine was hidden somewhere, probably in Peter Sanderson’s office or quarters. They added a nice source of extra complications – especially as Emmanuelle flirted with the brother to make her deadly husband jealous.
Another missing boy: Another investigator was associated with a band of street kids who made a living pickpocketing. Some of them were regulars in the park, and I had one of them disappear like little Freddie Pendergast had. I decided he had decided to play a revenge prank on Flyboy Pehr, who had warned him off several times, but instead had been found on the premises by Jonathan Boom who had taken the opportunity to capture him and lock him in a cupboard in his quarters. The boy managed to slip his gag and cry out for help, which led to Wyatt confronting Boom in his quarters and, in light of this huge error of judgment that would surely bring law enforcement closer to them, he used a domination power (which I added to Wyatt on the spot) to cause him to shoot himself in the head. All of this was witnessed by spying investigators – the first evidence of Wyatt’s deadly magical powers.
I hope that’s enough to help any Keepers out there have a memorable time with this adventure. Would love to hear about anyone else’s experiences!
Note 1. “I have always feared that this one is a ‘party killer.’ A Keeper not wanting to put an entire party at risk would have to play this one very loose, or modify it heavily.” – CoC Scenario Reviews
Note 2: “Some of the NPC descriptions are interesting enough, but the investigative part of the scenario is brief and obvious, and the monsters – again – suffer from the “Mythos hoedown” effect.” – RPG.net review
Note 3: “Without advice or a suggested narrative, the Keeper is left with a lot of work to do in order to make this into something playable.” – Reviews from R’lyeh
Note 4: “And I really have no idea what Hargrave thinks you might do about the sorcerer, who cannot be killed and has a headful of lethal spells.” – Shimmin Bloeg review