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Reviewish: Dark Carnival

Shimmin Beg

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(I am shamed into resuming these reviews by my shout-out on the latest MUP, where Keeper Chad referred to me as a "profilic poster". I haven't written here in ages through a mixture of work and personal stuff, but let's get back on that horse.)

 

This is a spoileriffic review of Dark Carnival, by David A. Hargrave, from Curse of the Cthonians.

 

It’s the first scenario in this collection, published in 1984, and while it shows its age somewhat, it’s definitely got something going for it as a sandboxy situation to explore. There’s no plot (in the usual sense) at all here, only what the players and Keeper make of it – essentially they can disturb an existing situation and see what happens. From the scenario as written, I would guess the most likely result to be that the Investigators discover something sinister is happening, and meet a grisly end.

 

As you might expect, the scenario features a sinister fairground whose inhabitants are essentially all members of an evil cult that captures and sacrifices victims as part of their worship of the cthonians whose tunnels extend below them.

 

Unexplained murders and disappearances at a seemingly innocent amusement area just north of Providence, Rhode Island, lure the Investigators into a deadly confrontation with worshipers of the dread Burrowers Beneath.

 

This scenario starts right off with the hooks. I might have preferred a Keeper’s Note at the start explaining what’s going on, to be honest. A lot of information is presented up front, and without having an explanation to begin with this calls for careful reading and piecing together by the Keeper, much as the players will experience it. It’s a fairly intriguing and nicely blatant set of hooks – none of this “let’s pretend we think nothing weird is happening†stuff. They’re relatively gory, but not so much that it’ll make this a gore-fest, as these are only reports (and could easily be toned down if the Keeper prefers). However, they are all information hooks, and there’s nothing to explicitly draw the players in. Essentially, Investigators will need to be the kind of people who pro-actively head out and poke into weirdness for no particular reason.

 

Most of the scenario is just description and lists of names and places, since it’s a location-based adventure. There’s really an awful lot of information and character names (forty-odd). A whole swathe of carnival locations are introduced (many of them red herrings) and their inhabitants listed, but it’s some time before we’re told anything at all about the inhabitants themselves, which makes it harder to follow. On the plus side Hargrave has done a very thorough job in describing the fairground, including all kinds of things Investigators might potentially look into but probably won’t – it’s done quickly and efficiently, and I appreciate that. Should your players be absolutely set on diving into the cess tank to look for clues, this is one adventure where you know exactly what’ll happen.

 

The situation itself is interesting, but because it’s so static I’m a bit short of things to say. It’s a cult of people who sacrifice to cthonians. That’s basically it. There are a variety of fiendish traps around the fairground to catch victims, though magic and brute force also work. Investigators might be able to find some of these, although that poses a couple of problems: it’s going to be hard to evade the notice of the carnies, and actually finding any of the secret doors is fairly likely to kill them anyway.

 

The carnies are really very lethal, which considering the overwhelming number of them I would probably want to temper somewhat. Between the completely invulnerable sorcerer boss, the assassin dancer with instakill knives, and the score or so of characters with 80-100% skills doing a couple of dice of damage, any fight that breaks out is likely to end in a TPK even if everyone plays shotgun-wielding maniacs. Lethality in Call of Cthulhu is a given, but normally applies to obvious threats like caverns full of cultists, huge monsters and cackling undead sorcerers. I’m a bit concerned about a bunch of (essentially) ordinary cultists being capable of wiping out the party with ease. Unless the party sneak into the place at night and immediately set about offing anyone they stumble across purely on spec, things are likely to get very ugly. 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.

 

Though there are a number of secret doors, most have to be operated from (also hidden) places some distance from the door. This makes perfect sense from the fairground point of view, since operators can use this to capture victims as they’re going through the tunnels, but does make it more difficult for the Investigators to get through. Once entering the tunnels, Investigators are liable to encounter a number of zombies, ten ghouls and potentially two cthonians, as well as any cult members who head down. Any of these would, in my book, generally be more than a match for most groups of Investigators, particularly when they’re stranded in unknown caverns with no obvious way out, and fleeing in any direction or using firearms is likely to bring another group of monsters down on their heads. Both the ghouls and cthonians are highly resistant to damage and capable of killing an investigator in a single round of combat. There’s a small chance of rescuing two captives (both already mad), though precious little of escaping with them, since unless Investigators have already broken in, there is only one usable exit from the tunnels described, leading to the graveyard. However, a Keeper could potentially improvise further passages leading to a river that will bring them to the surface.

 

Just in passing, there are apparently a couple of ghoul sentries on one of the more accessible cave entrances. Do ghouls have nothing better to do than hang around hidden behind a wall 24/7 just in case an investigator somehow finds out about the carnival, breaks in and comes downstairs to look around? They must be pretty bored.

 

Quibbles

The black character’s dialogue is written in awkward phonetics, with the statement: “The monolog below represents the way that white men supposed black men should talk in this era. If there is a black investigator present, Mr. Washington will be more straight-forward and understandable.â€

 

A sample of this dialogue: “Yassuh, I seen dem thangs dey called be Zumbies, yassuh I knows what dey is cause I be f’om dat island place Haiti and dat be bad place fo dis kind Juju, yassuh I knows all bout dat.... Dey be a tootlin on dey flutes, and a singin like it be a reglar churchroom service, but I knows bettah dan dat!†Yeah. Um. Okay, first off, this is not Tom Sawyer, or any novel you read at your own pace for enjoyment, but a game; putting character dialogue in heavy ‘dialect’ is unhelpful, because it makes it more awkward for the Keeper to use. It also means that if they’re not comfortable doing accents in general, or feel uncomfortable in this specific case because of the racial aspects, they have to retranslate it into something more standard. Finally, since the scenario highlights that a black investigator will understand Mr. Washington (as should anyone who’s used to dealing with speakers of similar dialects), it would make more sense to put the whole thing in standard English for everyone’s convenience, and allow a Keeper to adapt however they feel is appropriate if the investigators are types who’d likely find Mr. Washington difficult to understand. In general I’d tend to just tell the players that they struggle to understand an NPC if that’s what I’m going for. I mean, if all the investigators are French, are you going to put on some weird made-up accent to convey how difficult the Americans are for them to understand?

 

One of the cultists is explicitly a paedophile. Mixing in paedophilia with monster horror something I personally wouldn’t do, but it is a note in passing, and easily ignored if you don’t want that element.

 

General musings

I think this might be quite an interesting situation to play with, though it has some drawbacks in my view.

 

One of these is there’s no strong hook to actually draw in the investigators, despite the array of interesting news articles at the start; it relies on pure curiosity.

 

Another is that the structure of the setup (a fairground full of murderous cultists, an invulnerable cult leader and a mostly inescapable set of monster-filled caverns) seems liable to lead not only to a TPK, but to a TPK without necessarily finding out very much about what’s going on. There’s a bit of a Deathtrap Dungeon thing going on here, but not everyone’s going to want to send waves of Investigators to find out what happened to the last lot. Unlike many others, the scenario doesn’t offer any suggestions for overcoming the sorcerer Wyatt, not even the stereotyped One MacGuffin of Boss-Slaying.

 

Finally, to some extent the plotless nature of the scenario means it’s harder to establish an actual end. With no particular machinations to end, artefacts to recover or key figure to eliminate (destroying Wyatt alone realistically wouldn’t end the cult) the only obvious success would be destroying the entire cult and the monsters associated with them. Since it’s in the middle of the city, this isn’t a case of surviving and escaping a place of horrors that can be safely left to fester somewhere remote; fleeing is likely to leave an unfinished taste in the mouth.

 

Wyatt I find problematic, largely because of the combination of invulnerability and lethality. An invulnerable Big Bad can work well if they’re either not inclined to kill, or aren’t particularly deadly; this makes them intimidating to players, but allows the opportunity for a party to escape after being thoroughly scared, and possibly plan a second attempt. A lethal Big Bad makes for a dangerous opponent, but does allow the party to destroy them by careful planning or sheer luck, and their vulnerability means they may themselves tread carefully and consider retreat if things go badly. However, if the Big Bad can’t be killed and easily kills PCs, then the stakes of any confrontation are automatically very high, and it’s likely to end with a TPK because the Big Bad has no reason for caution. In this case, there’s also no way for the PCs to guess Wyatt is invulnerable until they actually try to kill him.

 

Verdict

This is a scenario I would consider using. It would make a reasonable one-shot, particularly if you’re looking for either a Halloween-style special event, or a reliable TPK. In either case I would be very careful about using the NPCs, because it will be all too easy to overwhelm the players quickly. While a quick capture followed by narration of horrible tortures and sacrifice might satisfy some groups, it’s not my thing. I think to get the most mileage out of this scenario, you really want the players to discover quite a lot about what’s going on, and run across a number of the NPCs in small groups or alone, so that there’s a reasonable chance of survival. Even if you plan for things to end with the party trapped underground in the tentacles of the cthonians, you probably want to build a sense of threat and horror beforehand so they can realise just how doomed they are (and in that case, perhaps you do want to bring in Wyatt so they can feel the helplessness of attacking an invulnerable foe).

 

In my case, I’d probably really dial back the lethality of the carnies, make them quite lax about people prowling round the place so Investigators have a chance to actually learn stuff, and cut down on the number of monsters. A tunnel where there are clear signs of cthonians having passed recently is quite scary enough, without the practical likelihood of a random band of ghouls eating you. It also feels a bit monster mashy to me if you’re including three different Mythos creatures in such a limited space.

 

I would also want to build in means for the Investigators to survive and defeat Wyatt. One possibility would be to limit his power massively – I’m sorry, but an invulnerable sorcerer with both Shrivelling and Red Sign of Shudde M’ell and POW 28 is just over the top. The easiest thing would be to hack that POW down to a more manageable number so he couldn’t actually annihiliate a whole party single-handed. I might have all spellcasting cause visible hit point loss as a result of the ring, so that a canny party of Investigators can try to lure him into destroying himself. Or I might just reduce the effectiveness of the ring so that it provides armour rather than completely nullifying weaponry. The old classics of having him eaten by his own servants are also good. Otherwise, there’s random MacGuffins or good old fire.

 

In any case, I’d also like there to be some means for Investigators to do some actual research and find out what they might be dealing with here. That includes the cthonian connection, and also ideally learning more about Wyatt and his magic ring.

 

Honestly, I would probably aim to run this a bit more like a film – not imposing a big plot railroad, but trying to provide (player-initiated) distinct “scenes†where they encounter different cultists in small groups and get to appreciate the dangers posed by each one, either by watching them or when an actual fight breaks out. I’d want to handwave things so that carnies didn’t automatically run to each others’ rescue when gunshots started, and very possibly make it easier for the PCs to heal up.

 

In terms of the writing, I think it's reasonably well-written and concise, expressly leaving some things open for you to play with. On the downside, I do think the organisation was a mistake. It presents things more or less as the players might discover them, and the Keeper never gets an overview, but has to piece things together from the morsels in each clue, NPC or location entry. A simple introduction would have made things that much simpler for a Keeper in a hurry; apart from anything else, there's no easy way to work out what the scenario is like, what it features or how it might play out. I feel that having an "abstract" at the start of a scenario is a must, so that a Keeper can quickly glance through and decide whether it's likely to fit the bill, particularly if they have a large collection of scenarios to browse through.

 

The high skills and damage of most of the NPCs is the main sign of age in this scenario, and I suspect if written more recently it'd feature fewer dangerous NPCs with lower numbers. As a general guide, I'd personally suggest knocking at least 20% off everyone's combat skills and adjusting damage rolls in accordance with both the latest ruleset and the NPCs' descriptions; for example, there's really no good reason for a STR13 SIZ13 character to do 1d6+1d4+2 damage with a knife.



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When I ran this scenario, it resulted in a total party kill, but it did bring about some famous last words: "As we're not doing anything else, let's check out the sewer outlet."

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What most intrigues me is how that ever wound up seeming like the next logical step.

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On reflection, this reminds me of two things:

* an Usborne puzzle book (I think it was The Deckchair Detectives) featuring a private eye who investigates a villainous circus.  There are fun confrontations with a fire-eater, a knife-thrower and so on.  That sort of thing is easy to do well in a book where you control everything.

* James Bond.  I can absolutely see a secret agent (or group of them) having a mission briefing where their boss runs through profiles of the main suspects, complete with evaluations of their known abilities: expert knife-thrower, believed to murder people with acid-filled glass daggers, incredibly strong, that sort of thing...

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If you want a slightly more survivable carnival horror scenario, try Isle of the Dead for the Chill RPG.

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If you want a slightly more survivable carnival horror scenario, try Isle of the Dead for the Chill RPG.

 

Ah, thanks for the tip.  I might try and get round to reviewing that so I can compare the two.  And different takes on a theme are always interesting.

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I remember reading this in the early 1980s when it first came out. I loved the dialogs and characterisation for the non-cultist NPCs and was really looking forward to running it. Then as I read through the list of cultist and monster stats I realised that it was just too lethal. A real shame since I loved the carnival setting (reminded me of "Something Wicked This Way Comes").

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I wish I had read this before I started running this for my group. Now two of the investigators lie mortally wounded at the feet of a meat cleaver-wielding zombie at the altar site in the underground caverns, two other PCs are grappling with another zombie (the third zombie is on fire, thanks to a critical miss and the nearby brazier), and the fifth PC is holding back with the girl and boy captives. To save the PCs (I don't really want to kill them, although I have given the two players the option to make up new characters if they want), I had Wyatt (the Big Bad) order the zombies to stop as a cliffhanger end of the session...

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Shimmin Beg

Posted

I wish I had read this before I started running this for my group. Now two of the investigators lie mortally wounded at the feet of a meat cleaver-wielding zombie at the altar site in the underground caverns, two other PCs are grappling with another zombie (the third zombie is on fire, thanks to a critical miss and the nearby brazier), and the fifth PC is holding back with the girl and boy captives. To save the PCs (I don't really want to kill them, although I have given the two players the option to make up new characters if they want), I had Wyatt (the Big Bad) order the zombies to stop as a cliffhanger end of the session...

 

Ouch!

 

Hmm, my immediate thought here is to have Wyatt order them all captured, healed up enough to stay alive for now, and caged for sacrifice.  If PC5 is mostly staying out of the way, give them the chance to lurk and avoid capture.  Wyatt assumes he has the whole party and gets careless, giving PC5 and friends a chance to break the others back out before the Big Ritual can begin.

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Thank you so much for a (quick) response; I wasn't expecting one! I figured if some of the players wanted to let their characters die (one has expressed interest in playing a carnival midget), Wyatt would turn them into a zombie using the Black Binding spell and sacrifice the rest. The player for PC5 is out of the country until early June (hence the hanging back with the captives), so unless I can stall, I'll have to play for him and have him attempt a rescue or lead the captives out and bring back the cops. I like the idea of him breaking out the others before the Big Ritual (which could possibly lead to the appearance of Shudde M'ell, although I've previously said I don't want to kill the investigators ;) ). I do agree that the cultists are extremely deadly and should probably be toned down.

Another thing that does bother me about the cultists (and this may also be in other adventures) is that they all have a 0 SAN score but can still function in society, albeit evilly. It doesn't seem fair or balanced that investigators with 0 SAN are locked up in an asylum or otherwise unplayable, but it's no big deal for NPCs. Just a fault in the system, I guess.

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Shimmin Beg

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TKT, do tell me how things go down!  I'm quite interested in how this scenario works out, because it struck me as tantalisingly interesting, with just a few significant weaknesses.  Plus, ideas for recovering from disaster are always useful in CoC...

 

I've always had very mixed feelings about the way SAN works with cultists.  I've seen suggestions that the Trail model is better, where ability to function is somewhat separated from how loony you are.  I'm generally quite torn about cultists in general, although I keep meaning to read a couple of things I've been recommended that supposedly explain how cults might actually work.  But yeah, the way cultists are mostly entirely indistinguishable from normal humans - in fact, so well-adjusted that they can do all kinds of evil stuff and conceal it from everyone, as well as coming across as normal.  Most of us can't even manage the latter...

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