I don’t know about you guys, but I find Quest Giver’s eyes far more unsettling than Thief’s. That concealing hat brim is all that separates “wizardly counsel” from “stabbed by a carny.”

Any dang way, despite today’s lampoonery, I am by no means above this trick myself. Tutorials are hard to get right, and the structured yet low-consequence nature of carnival games make for an ideal setup. You even get to tack on worldbuilding elements by explaining what the locals are celebrating. Sure we’ve seen the setup once or twice or thrice before, but it’s always a fun change of pace from the usual goblin cave or bandit camp.

That said, the classic “tutorial session” is by no means the only use for carnivals. From One Day at HorrorLand to Five Night’s at Freddy’s to the Carnival of Chaos over in Warhammer, the creepy carnival is its own trope. Horror has followed midways around like an extra corndog trailer since the seminal cinematic creepfest of Freaks (1932) and the capital-C Carnival setting in “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). Making a corresponding abandoned theme park in an RPG is an easy next step.

If you stop to think about it though, we owe a lot to carnivals and theme park designers in general. One of my favorite articles on the subject comes from media scholar Henry Jenkins. It’s called “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” and I’m looking in particular at this passage:

Don Carson, who worked as a Senior Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, has argued that game designers can learn a great deal by studying techniques of “environmental storytelling” which Disney employs in designing amusement park attractions. Carson explains, “The story element is infused into the physical space a guest walks or rides through. It is the physical space that does much of the work of conveying the story the designers are trying to tell….Armed only with their own knowledge of the world, and those visions collected from movies and books, the audience is ripe to be dropped into your adventure. The trick is to play on those memories and expectations to heighten the thrill of venturing into your created universe.” The amusement park attraction doesn’t so much reproduce the story of a literary work… as it evokes its atmosphere.

Jenkins is thinking about video games here, but the same logic applies to tabletop dungeon delving. Whenever you create a labyrinth, populate it with loot and liches, and then let your players wander through, they activate story by progressing through virtual space. So you better believe that I pay attention when I find myself standing in line at Universal or shuffling through the local haunted house at Halloween. These are full-scale dungeons that I get to explore IRL. And I’m always sure to take notes.

Question of the day then! What is your relationship to RPG carnivals? Do you use them as dungeon inspiration? Low-stakes tutorials? Maybe you trade on the horror tradition? Whatever your take, tell us all about your own favorite carnival games/dungeons/inspirations down in the comments!


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