Authors: John W. Mangrum with Steve Miller
Excellent accessory, and excellent read (like a great novel). Truly great expansion on the Carnival of Fear novel (which gave me the creeps when I read it). The different opinions on Isolde by various Troupers is a cool idea, as in the 'in character' descriptions. None of the featured 'freaks' are feeble or boring.
One small critic: it should have been longer! I would have loved to have more adventure hooks featuring Carnival or its Troupers. I really wish we could find a copy of Farewell to the flesh someday (a RPGA adventure made to introduce Carnival) … Also, the Carnival lingo (their speech) should be expanded someday, IMHO.
This book is definitively the must have 2nd edition Ravenloft product - in paper or ESD. It's a shame the small space Carnival got in 3rd edition as I write this (a few paragraphs in Champions of Darkness).
A note of 6 on 5 ;)
David "Jester" Gibson
I passed on Carnival when I first encountered it in stores, it just looked of little use and the brief teaser in Domains of Dread had failed to peak my interest enough for me to spend $20 on a small 64 page accessory. Oh, I was intrigued as to how this small place of freaks and misfits could travel freely through the Mists and ignore the will of the Lords of the Land but just not enough. Then I read the reviews and the near constant praise of this volume, which was eventually enough for me to purchase the book off eBay. And I loved it. Despite the spoiled secrets and hype that surrounded it this book was a good purchase.
As always I start at the beginning, in this case the noteworthy cover. The cover itself is framed like a flyer nailed to a wall or table and features Tindal, the Illuminated Man, Wood’n-Head, the Snake Mistress, the Familiar, three creeplings, and the Organ Grinder. The logo itself stands out a very stylized font different than any other product at the time. Even now the uniqueness is remarkable. Only below it is the official Ravenloft logo is tucked away. This was an interesting choice, as a casual glance would not show this to be a Ravenloft accessory. Likewise the description that it is "For use in any other Campaign Setting" is misleading as it would be awkward to explain much if it were placed elsewhere. For example if it were used in a Dragonlance campaign it would be troublesome to explain the reason for the Twisting.
For those unaware this is the pseudo-spin-off from the Ravenloft novel Carnival of Fear and features three characters from that product and describes the fates of two or three more. Its existence was teasingly highlighted in the Domains of Dread campaign setting and the Champions of the Mists accessory.
The asccessory itself if written firmly in-character with only shaded DM-only boxes breaking from the tale. In fact, it is almost set-up as a short story with the pages preceding each chapter helping tell the tale of an Outsider entering the Carnival instead of the standard quote. Likewise, the brief Prelude not only sets up the story but also sets up the micro-campaign at the end of the Accessory. The writing style easily drags the reader in and makes for an entertaining read. This product is simply fun, almost as good as a real book. The prose style is excellent and the dialogue is well done. Further dragging the reader in are the many mysteries that populate the book. Such as the nature of Tindal, the secrets of the Man Beast, what the Skurra are and of course the truth behind Isolde. Some are resolved and some are not.
The book is set out into three chapters, each narrated by a different member of the Carnival. The first is Tindal, the Amazing Soul-less Man. He introduces the Carnival itself and much of the nature of the pocket domain. First we are given a primer on the lingo used throughout the book and this is followed by such tidbits as the Phantom Flyers (which are mysterious posters and not actual flying things as I imagined after reading some early reviews), Carny Law and even information on the Vardos. It is in this chapter we are introduced to the Twisting that alters all life in the Carnival and the important people that populate it. There are a mere twelve Troupers introduced here although there are apparently thirty more not described. All are fascinating individuals with colourful backgrounds and interesting deformities. These Troupers, each instantly recognisable from archetypal freak shows in the real world, are exaggerated and altered with engaging and unique results. These larger-than-life figures are such common figures in movies and popular culture their inclusion to Ravenloft is certainly a welcome one. Each Trouper, with the exception of Hermos (who also did not rate a picture in Champions of the Mists), are lavished with lovely illustrations. This is matched throughout the book with some of the best art from any product to date. This chapter, with its flamboyant narrator, is possibly the most interesting chapter in the book offering the first tantalising glance after which you cannot help but continue to read. Even the table offering random Twisting results is excellent and essentially offers a quick twenty more Troupers to interact with the players or for the characters to become. This is in addition to Blasse in the framing mini-campaign.
The second chapter is narrated by a character that is almost the exact opposite of the Barker, Madame Fortuna. She is again another lifted stereotype from carnivals and fairs altered for the dark world of Ravenloft, this time the mysterious fortune teller offering a tantalising look into the future. She offers details on the mysterious Skurra, the Vistani of the Carnival that are a dark mix of clowns and mimes as well as descriptions of eight of these silent figures in addition to the Madame. While not as gripping as the first chapter with its many diverse Troupers of varying backgrounds and deformities this chapter is still excellent offering teasing details on the Skurra and their secrets and answers many, but not all, of the questions on these figures raised in Tindal’s chapter. This chapter also describes the Creeplings and Fidgets, small animals altered by the Twisting into something else. These were updated into Third Edition in the Quoth the Raven net-magazine issue #3 by some jackass. This same issue features new freaks and many more nods of the proverbial hat to this product showing the fan –love for this accessory.
The third chapter takes a different approach introducing Professor Picali who describes the Freak Show and the abominations. Five new Troupers are introduced here along with someone readers may recognise from elsewhere. This chapter also serves as a very large adventure hook that directly ties into the final mini-campaign at the end of the book. This chapter serves well to emphasise the dark side of the Carnival. The previous chapters may be described as mischievous and indifferent but this definitely shows the possible hidden underbelly of the travelling show and how different people react to the Twisting. It is good that everyone affected does not simply accept their deformity with good graces. The Pacali entry is particularly limited by size constraints giving no clear examples of his Pickled Punks. Likewise the information on the abominations and fetches is sadly short. The fetches in particular could have benefited from a larger description and perhaps even a Monster Manual style page.
The final chapter contains five short adventures that tie together a micro-Campaign that sets up the revelation of many of the secrets in the Carnival including the biggest of all, the secret of Isolde. Some of these work best with characters that only posses a fleeting knowledge of the Carnival and others assume prior contact and association. The final adventure brings in a familiar gentleman featured at the very beginning of the book and referenced in the Hall of Horrors chapter. The adventures themselves are nicely done introducing several of the Troupers and resolving some of the mysteries and issues in the previous entries. This chapter also (re)introduces the young girl Blasse from earlier in the book and describes her Twisting adding yet another potential Trouper to the roster.
There are some interesting loop-holes to the logic of the book. The Twisting, which is often described as being powerful enough to even affect the grass and the only way to avoid it is to give up all identity, curiously does not affect many members of the Carnival. It is true they are still freaks, but they are not Twisted to the same extent. The Man-Beast, Tindal and Wood’n-Head are all freaks but have not been altered during their stay. It is interesting that the Twisting ignores those already freakish. Likewise Silessa has many serpents but they, nor their mistress, seem to be affected. And for the Twisting to remain constant, assuming Isolde is the cause, she would have to remain in her trailer at all times. But otherwise the book is incredibly solid and cohesive. It even manages to reference other products such as including the creator of Soth’s Memory Mirrors last seen in the adventure When the Black Rose Blooms.
Really it is hard to describe the full effect of the product; it simply must be read to be appreciated. There are simply so many elements added and nice small touches that the product is almost crowded. And yet the authors manage to pull it off masterfully. As others have mentioned the largest flaw in the book is it simply is not long enough. 64 pages just does not satisfy.
The continuing appeal of the product can be seen by its appearance in the 3rd Edition product Champions of Darkness, a product that sadly primarily features new creations with the exclusion of old and yet the Carnival is still mentioned. However those who have not read the original should be advised to avoid this pale imitation.
The lasting testament to the Carnival is one of the most spoiled surprises and least kept secrets on the net. It is probably up in the ranks beside the ending to Sixth Sense and who shot J.R. I am talking about the identity and secret behind the Carnival’s master, Isolde. Tindal believes her to be a human with powerful magical abilities but also cites Hermos’ belief that she is a spirit sent to aid the Carnies by the slain Marie last seen in Carnival of Fear. The Skurra and Madame Fortuna claim Isolde is a fallen angel banished to the Land of the Mists for some unknown crime. Pacali has an similar idea that she is really a fiend corrupting and torturing those around her with her Reality Wrinkle. The real truth is on the final page.
Carnival weathers the update the Third Edition well, much of the book is fluff text and descriptive and most of the magic is related to the in-character format. What little there is in game information is not that hard to update although some of the Troupers are a mite awkward. Some would greatly benefit from NPC classes and feats. The updated Outcaste Rating rules found in the Ravenloft Dungeon Master’s Guide work well with the Carnival especially in place of the altered Trouper Charisma.
Easily five severed digits out of five! Even after the switch between editions.
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