Carnival of Madness
A Call of Cthulhu Scenario for the 1970s
Traveling carnivals bring forth images of sugary treats, thrill-seeking rides, amazing attractions, and games of chance. But behind the facade of bright lights and colorful signs are odd carny folk, questionable safety practices, and lost children—a perfect setting for a Call of Cthulhu scenario. A place usually filled with screams of excitement can easily be filled with terror.
Carnival of Madness takes place on October 30th, 1970, in Aylesbury, Massachusetts. Alice Lambert, an 11-year-old girl, has gone missing. A few days earlier, she was taken from the Worchester State Hospital by a man in his mid-thirties described as slender, average height, black hair, blue eyes, and in a white hospital uniform. Police do not have much to go on, but the clues point to the Carnival Pandemonium, a traveling carnival that just arrived in the western Massachusetts town of Aylesbury. Its thoroughfare and big top are ready to entertain the masses. It is up to the investigators to help locate her and bring her home safe.
The scenario is designed for players to enter using one of four hooks, Meddling Kids, Mythos Investigators, Police Investigators, or Private Investigators. The Meddling Kids hook, a riff on Scooby-Doo, uses teenager-aged investigators. They are at the carnival for fun and to promote their next musical gig. While there, they will get pulled into the investigation once a missing person’s flyer with Alice’s face is handed to them. The Mythos Investigators hook starts in media res with the investigators researching a shared dream about a young girl and a carnival. It doesn’t take long for them to link the carnival in Aylesbury to their research. Once at the carnival, like the Meddling Kids, the missing person’s flyer solidifies their suspicion. The Police Investigators’ hook features the players as state troopers looking into Alice’s kidnapping. They are following up on an anonymous tip about Alice being held at the carnival. The Private Investigator hook begins with the group accepting a missing person case from Alice’s mother, Aurora Lambert. Aurora believes her daughter was kidnapped from a state hospital by her estranged sister and held at the Carnival Pandemonium. Keepers and players are welcome to come up with their own hooks, but the four outlined above have specific prologues to get the scenario started. No matter how the investigators end up at the carnival, the game begins in earnest once the players are there.
The scenario is confined to the carnival ground in a very clever way. Some might see this as railroading, but Cthulhu scenarios often work best when the players are placed in an isolated location with no hope of escape until the riddle of the scenario is solved. With each loss of sanity, the game’s tension increases, driving investigators to learn the truth and the way out.
Though the scenario contains the investigators to a specific area, it is large enough to feel like a sandbox. There are plenty of locations for investigators to explore. There are carnival games, attractions, places to eat, and more. It is like being at a real carnival. Each location has full descriptions and rules for each game, the proprietor or performer, and the like. Investigators can enjoy playing all their favorite carnival games along the thoroughfare if they choose. There are classic games like Balloon Breaker, where darts are thrown at semi-inflated balloons on a colorfully painted plywood backboard, and Ping-Pong Fish, where ping pong balls are tossed at small bowls of water holding goldfish. Each game lists its cost, prize chain, rules of play for the investigators, and game mechanics for the Keepers. If games are not your thing, there are other attractions to visit. There is Mephisto the Puppet Master with his marionettes, Juggles the Clown making people laugh, and the Freak Show tent with all sorts of oddities. If you’re looking for rides, the carnival has a Tilt-A-Whirl and a Ferris wheel called The Wheel of Fate that provides a bird side view of the fairgrounds. However, no carnival would be complete without the Carousel with its intricately carved wooden horses and a funhouse with multiple rooms to explore. To fill your stomach, the carnival has all your favorites; fried dough at Jumbo’s food stand, Cotton candy at Pink Clouds, and heaping bags of popcorn are available at The Copper Kettle. These are just a small sampling of 30+ locations found at Carnival of Madness.
Carnival of Madness adds a little uniqueness to the game by substituting Call of Cthulhu’s regular sanity loss reactions rules with a modified mechanic called Descent. With each loss of five or more sanity, investigators experience a level of Descent. Their surroundings alter from what they once were, making their memories no longer reliable. What was once known to exist has changed for them and anyone else on the same decent level. Those not at the same level perceive the world differently. A person on level one of Descent might see a carnival game where the edges of reality appear fuzzy, slightly distorted. While another person next to them on level three Descent will see things differently, perhaps they see the same game, but the carney appears twisted and gnarly, the words being spoken are not luring them into the game, but rather speaking of something dark from their past. The mixed perceptions add to investigators’ confusion and hysteria. A Keeper will need good improvisational skills to make it work properly. Keeping track of the investigator’s realities is a tall order but well worth it.
An optional “Manifiations of Unreality” breaks down how investigators experience these alternate realities. It is divided into three subjects: Displacements, Peoples, and Unrealities. Displacement begins with investigators feeling generally confused about their environment and how they got there. As time progresses and their displacement dives deeper, locations seem to change, doors and paths don’t lead to where they should. People appear stranger or odd than before. Investigators in decent will experience strange interactions with other people, but in reality, it’s only in their heads, making for awkward and terrifying situations when confronting someone. The world around them will look different. They may view strange architecture, something out of step with time, or terrifying beasts ready to devour them. Whatever the unreality, it will be haunting and drive the investigator further into insanity. When an investigator loses enough sanity for a bout of madness, a unique table specially created to fit with the scenario is used.
Keeping track of time can get a little difficult in a sandbox environment. The Keeper can call upon the attraction performance schedule as a guide to mitigating this. Showtimes start at 6 pm and go until the main event at midnight. By keeping track of showtimes, a Keeper can easily judge the passage of time. The barkers outside of each upcoming attraction promoting the next performance will allow the investigators to track time as well until they begin their Descent into unreality. A couple of quick games at a booth might feel like ten minutes, but more or less time may have passed in reality or unreality. It is a good tool for Keepers to move players along with other activities if investigators become engrossed in the carnival activities and less in the investigation.
Carnival of Madness comes as a premium color print-on-demand softcover, hardcover, or in PDF format from DrivethruRPG. A good judge of its content is its cover image. It captures the feel of a carnival and the scenario’s underlining dread. The artwork within follows the same stylings. The interior is full color and uses a simulated distressed and aged background familiar with modern publications of this type. The layout is clean and easy to navigate. Two maps of the carnival grounds are provided, one for the Keeper and one for the players. The scenario has a host of well-crafted handouts. The missing person flyer is really nicely done. It has a worn look as if it was folded many times and passed from person to person, which gives it a sense of authenticity. But the best handout by far is a two-side tri-fold carnival brochure the investigators receive at the ticket booth. It’s designed to look like a late 1800s brochure with woodblock type, duotone line art, and festive border. On the outside, it advertises the carnival and its attractions in bold, blocky display typefaces of varying sizes for emphasis. The interior features a numbered key map of the fairgrounds and a timetable for all the performances. Providing a physical mock-up of this handout will transport your players’ into the scenario’s setting. Six pre-generated characters are provided: four Meddling Kids and two Police Investigators.
Note: If you want to go the extra mile, you can purchase a professionally printed cardstock version of the tri-fold handout from Zazzle.
Carnival of Madness does a really good job of convincing players they are at a carnival. The attractions, rides, games, and general atmosphere are vividly described. It feels like you are at an actual carnival. One could simply strip out the underlying investigation and use the remaining content for their own purposes. Heck, you can roleplay a fun day at the fair if you want to. All the information you would need is already done for you. There isn’t a spot where the Keeper is forced to come up with something on the fly. It’s like one of those fully fleshed-out city settings with each building and store described, but it’s a carnival.
The investigation and the alternative method of sanity will surprise and entertain your players. It will take a Keeper with good improvisational and bookkeeping skills to manage the investigator’s Descent into madness. If done well, it will amaze your players. I should note that Call of Cthulhu is a horror game and includes horror-themed subjects. Carnival of Madness is no less. Those not capable of navigating scenes of horror should avoid participating or speak with your Keeper beforehand and judge for yourself. Carnival of Madness is one of the few publications one can judge by its cover. It seeps with memories of a bygone form of entertainment and conveys a sense of foreboding. Investigators will not want to leave. Even if they could, they can’t until the mystery is solved.
We hope you enjoyed this article. Our mission is simple: to provide our readers with well-written articles and reviews that inform, promote, and improve the gaming community as a whole. We’re able to do this through the support of our patrons. If you’d like to become a patron and support our work, click the Patreon banner above to learn more.