Warhammer RPG Carnival 1

Roaming across the Empire are small gatherings of strange and roguish people. These are the travelling carnivals, gatherings of misfits and thieves looking to make a quick living while entertaining the same people they fleece. The carnivals come in all shapes and sizes. They are travelling fun fairs, full of sideshows, weird performances, wonders, and even a few rides for the children. The only thing any two groups have in common is that they are equal parts truth and fraud. The fortune-teller just tells you what she thinks you want to hear, and the freaks are just normal people under clever makeup. But maybe the seer really does know the future, it’s just not profitable to tell it, and the carnival’s roustabouts all have mutations, just not the kind that draw crowds. Nothing at the carnival can be taken at face value, and the stranger something is, the more likely it is to be true.[1a]

There are several carnival troupes roaming the Empire. Like the people to be found in them, they rarely fit a standard definition. Each offers its own unique entertainments and shows, so even if one troupe has visited a town recently, another troupe can still attract an audience. That is not to say that each village gets a carnival every week. While most people can afford to visit the carnival on occasion, few places can afford to be fleeced of their fragile wealth on a regular basis.[1a]

For the Common People

In general, carnivals are a low entertainment. While plenty of nobles visit the carnivals, they certainly do not want them setting up in their back gardens. Carnivals appear coarse and common to the gentlefolk, and many take exception to their very existence. The entertainments they offer are often shocking and even offensive to those of a ‘more educated sensibility’ and occasionally to the basest of peasants as well—carnivals have many entertainments that are not for the children. However, this is a deliberately cultivated reputation; the element of danger and the forbidden, whether beautiful or obscene, pleasurable or disgusting, is part of the carnival’s draw. Anything goes at the carnival, and those who visit can enter a strange and new world for as long as they have the pennies to spend there.[1a]

Life in the Carnival

As exciting as it may seem to the outsider, carnival life is draining and rootless. First of all, few carnivals stay in one place for long. After a few nights the folk will either have no more money to spend, or be looking to get back money that was stolen from them. It is also considered honourable to keep moving for the sake of other carnivals; only with a constantly moving circuit of shows can they all hope to make the meagre existence they aspire to. Meanwhile, life on the road isn’t easy to break out of. There’s not much money to be made in the work, honestly or not, and few communities would welcome a family of carnies to settle in their midst.[1b]

A carnival is always in one of four states: setting up/taking down, travelling, working, or very, very bored. There is rarely time for a transition period between the states; as soon as the carnival reaches a new town, setup begins immediately. The work is extremely hard, and must be finished by the first nightfall lest the town’s enthusiasm for the carnival’s arrival lose momentum. The most laborious of the setup and takedown work is done by general hands called ‘roustabouts’ or ‘rousties.’ They consist of anyone in the carnival that hasn’t yet learned how to operate a show or scam, and they often double as security when the shows are up and running. Each sideshow and booth is the responsibility of its operator to set up, although the senior booth operators can usually claim a few hands to help them set up.[1b]

When night falls, the carnival opens, its lights drawing the townsfolk from nearby like moths to a flame. This is usually the time for the rousties to get some rest while the showmen step up to entertain and fleece as many as they can. The next day, assuming the carnival has not been chased off and plans to stay for another evening or two, is downtime. There will be a few things that need repair, and the showmen may take the opportunity to rehearse their acts or practice new ideas. Other than that, there is very little to do. A few of the carnival folk may take a trip into town for supplies, but rarely in large numbers. While ordinary people are happy to visit the carnival, they certainly do not want these freaks and weirdoes on their doorsteps. No matter how entertaining they were the night before, they often get very frosty (and on occasion even violent) receptions in the towns and villages.[1b]


While each carnival is different, they usually contain a mixture of three basic entertainments. The first are rides. These appeal mainly to children and poor families, so harsher scams are usually discouraged here. The carnival is looking to get all it can, but there’s little to gain by taking from those who have nothing. Rides are usually quite primitive, consisting of merry go-rounds and the like powered by a couple of men turning geared cranks. A few carnivals have Dwarf engineers who create steam-driven rides. They are hard to maintain and often unreliable, but the sight of these great machines is a major draw and the envy of any other troupe.[1b]

The second form of entertainment is sideshow games. These booths offer all kinds of diversions for the foolish. Customers are invited to take part in simple games, which, for a small fee, carry the chance of winning a ‘fabulous’ prize. Classics include ‘Pricking the Greenskin’ in which folk are invited to drive a nail through a folded Orc hide, ‘Runt Ringing’ in which they use a pole to place hoops over the necks of piglets, and of course, the famous ‘Find the Elector’ card game. It goes without saying that each challenge is fixed, though the booth showmen are usually able to make each game look simple to beat, the prizes easy to win.[1b]

The final type of entertainment are shows. Many of these cater to the more adult taste and can contain all manner of hidden debauchery. Burlesque shows masquerade as ‘exotic cultural dance.’ Freaks and mutations (both real and cleverly faked) are on display behind dark curtains. Mystics offer to read your palm or cast Tarot cards, and occasionally Wizards display feats of sorcery. Few of these shows are designed for children or for the puritanical. To assuage the audience’s sense of guilt or shame, these shows are usually advertised and hawked as being educational: “This dance will show you the elegance of the female biology. See and understand the potential contortions that such stunning agility can perform.” Few are gullible enough to think they are really going to be educated, but the message warns them to leave their inhibitions, and their children, behind.[1b]

Very few of these shows are theatrical performances in the conventional sense. They are quite short, for one; people only pay once to see a show, so the shorter the event, the more of them you can run in a day and the more money you can make. Neither does it do the carnival any good to have their patrons sitting at a show when they could be wandering around spending money. What the shows lack in length, however, they make up for in variety. There are always burlesque shows, which range from elegant and tantalisingly erotic dancing by a skilled performer to a simple girl taking her clothes off for as many as will pay to watch. Some acts, like female snake charmers, aren’t sexual at all, but evoke a mysterious sensuality that sells just the same.[1b]

For the less risqué, acting troupes perform the great speeches and scenes from the most popular and renowned plays of the Empire. Poetry is also common, and plenty of children attending the carnival have been forced to listen to something ‘good for them’ before going on the rides. Few people have access to news from outside their village, so many shows involve a herald reading whatever titbits of news and gossip the carnival has managed to pick up during their travels. If there is a lot of news, it can be split up into separate shows; for instance, one for politics, one for weather reports, and one for the always popular doings of the nobles and royal celebrities. Some carnivals manage to offer ‘fashion news,’ where models parade around in the latest couture. These are expensive and hard to maintain, but are usually worth it as they are so popular with women.[1b]

Some carnivals even have priests, both to provide spiritual guidance to the carnival folk as well as to perform short morality plays as shows for the masses. The lessons of the shows range from simple hygiene advice to high-flown ethical proclamations. The more dramatic cultists take on the controversial burden of illustrating the danger of Chaos itself, with rather lurid tales of the rampages and eventual falls of Daemonic monsters and Chaos champions. Such tales are often frowned on by the local shrines, but are usually more popular than anything else the ecclesiastical profession has to offer, especially with the children. Priests tend to have the lowest drawing power of all the shows at the carnival, but better a half-filled tent than an empty one; besides, without the priestly sermons, the carnival comedy troupes would lose one of their favourite subjects for lampoonery.[1b][1c]

Those troupes come in infinite variety, and are among the most popular. Some involve a single brave soul standing in front of an audience telling jokes. Others have small groups of performers doing short plays, often involving slapstick. Such performances can be based on anything from political satire to sexual innuendo to merely the pulling of funny faces. If the performers in a comedic troupe cannot get its viewers to laugh with them, custom allows the audience to pelt them with rotten fruit, thereby laughing at them. Such fruit is always available at the carnival, for a small fee, of course.[1c]

Carnival Folk

Warhammer RPG Carnies

Those who choose the life of the carnival are a diverse group, but despite that, most share a few basic traits. For one thing, carnie folk are all outcasts. Some are part of the carnival life because they have mental or physical deformities. Others are on the run from the law. And some are simply unwilling to become farmers, or shopkeepers, or whatever else passes for “normal” in the Empire. Carnies may not love the carnival life, but for whatever reason they know that a normal existence would be worse.[1d]

  • Freaks: Those with physical deformities are a breed apart from the normal carnie. As much as folk love to gape at the strange and contorted oddities of their bodies, the powers that be are ever watchful for the taint of Chaos. In theory, priests from each town are obligated to check over any “freaks” who make a living in the carnival to ensure they are not tainted with Chaos. In many cases this is a serious test, but more often than not it is simply an excuse for bribes to be taken.[1d]
  • Showmen: Those who run the booths and the cons are usually Charlatans. They take on apprentices in the shape of Rogues, Agitators, and Thieves, teaching them how to run their own booths when they are ready. Showmen are found all over the carnival, running games of chance and working as front men for the other sideshows.[1c]
  • Muscle: Every carnival can expect to run into trouble, so they sometimes take on Outlaws, Thugs, and Protagonists to provide security. They usually expect these guards to work with the Roustabouts to earn their keep as well. Only the most well-off carnival can hire full-time security. Muscle usually works at the gate, where people bring their troubles, and also at the Burlesque shows and other adult entertainments, in case the customers get overenthusiastic.[1d]
  • Performers: Entertainer is the most common career among a carnival’s performers. Successful Burlesque shows require skill with dancing. Other shows range from trick riding, hypnotism, ventriloquism and even animal handling to provide an entertaining show. Many carnivals also run pit fights and other violent entertainments, where anyone with the nerve to get in the ring can put on the show. Finally, Carnival Masters are open to any other ideas that they think will please a crowd and make some money. Performers with new acts, or newcomers wishing to join the carnival as performers, put on a show for the Carnival Master first. If he likes what they do, he either works the act into the operation or works the newcomer into an existing act.[1d]
  • Carnival Masters: Those who run carnivals come from all manner of places. Those who find themselves in charge of the troupe are usually Crime Lords or Stewards, but can also be Nobles, Scribes, Scholars, Politicians and even Courtiers. No one just decides to run a troupe. Most Carnival Masters take over existing carnivals, or break away from established operations (often late at night with those who are ready to join them and whatever they can lay their hands on). The Master is not just responsible for making money, but also for looking after the people in his care. Every booth operator and showman pays a substantial cut of his earnings to the carnival, which is used to pay and feed those who don’t generate revenue. Most folk like Roustabouts and security get paid very little, but are fed and sheltered for their labour. Technically, the Master owns all the money paid to him, so his wage is whatever is left. Some Masters are concerned only with increasing their own wealth, while others put everything in the kitty to expand the operation. Those who make poor decisions, or take too much without giving back, are disposed of and replaced by the next up and coming king of the carnival.[1d]

Different Worlds

Carnivals operate outside most of the usual laws, simply because enforcement of those laws is so difficult. Evidence of wrongdoing is hard to come by when the only witnesses are other carnies, and no law enforcer wants a gang of freaks or Mutants lounging in his cells with no one to pay their fines. As long as the carnivals keep to petty theft, the law is happy to let them be. As far as they’re concerned, people naïve enough to fall for a carnival’s scams deserve their fate.[1d]

One of the ways the carnival ensures that its scams go unreported and unpunished is that the victim is often embarrassed by the situation. A few stubborn victims go back to the carnival and demand their money in person, but realize their mistake when the entire troupe turns out to send them on their way. They may be outcasts, but they stick together.[1d]

Being outside the law does raise a few problems, though. While carnivals that are careful can largely operate without interference from the authorities, they are operating without its protection as well. No one sheds a tear if a carnival is attacked by outlaws and robbed. Plenty of law keepers tolerate carnivals but would dearly love to see them all vanish. Any member of the troupe who is beaten or robbed by a local has no back up from the law. Carnival folk can be murdered in their beds and the law enforcers will often turn a blind eye. Only if they are forced to (if for instance the carnival refuses to move on) will they do anything to help, and even then it will be to get this over with as soon as possible.[1d]

Also, when mistakes happen, things can get very bad indeed. Being a travelling people, few carnivals get to know the real movers and shakers in the towns they travel through. Sometimes the carnival scams the local Crime Lord or a powerful Noble by accident. It then finds itself attacked by trained professionals or brought up on charges by the local authorities. Such encounters never go well, and more than a few carnivals have been burnt to the ground after cheating the wrong person.[1d]

Carnival Scams

Warhammer RPG Carnival 2

The carnivals of the Empire make money from more than just entertainment. Most people know better than to take a full purse into a carnival, but there are always those who do. While there is the usual danger of thieves and pickpockets, the carnivals hold a far greater danger to those who want to hold onto their money. The carnie folk don’t want to just steal your money, they want to swindle it out of you. There are a hundred thousand ways to scam cash from the unwary. The sort of tricks a carnie plays are usually called “smiles,” named such because they are said to make the Lord of Deception smile. So carnies ask each other if they’d “like to help make Ranald smile” when asking for help with a scam, which is usually shorted to ‘fancy making someone smile?’ A smile always relies on the greed of the mark. It is usually the victim’s belief that he is getting the better end of the deal that proves their undoing, which is what makes Ranald smile the most. The mark often hurries the scam artist into signing the contract, convinced that he has seen a flaw that will make him rich. A few common scams and tricks are described in the following section.[1d][1e]

  • Marks: The term “mark” comes from a carnival tradition. The folk at the entrance to the carnival are not only there to take entrance fees, but also to observe the patrons. Anyone who seems to be carrying lots of money or who seems especially gullible is given a mark. This mark could be as simple as a chalk mark on the back. However, the true scam artist prides himself on subtle and more devious marks. One option is to give the mark a gift like a flower for his buttonhole, something that he wears proudly as he goes about the fair. All the other carnival folk will know what mark to look for and are sure to make the mark’s wearer a target for every scam they can muster.[1e]
  • Golden Ticket: This is a variation on the mark system. The mark is given a special ticket for the fair. He is told that this ticket gets him one free ride or entrance to a particular booth, the location of which is pointed out to him. However, somehow the operator of the show in question fails to take the ticket from the patron. If he is dishonest, he uses the ticket again to gain another free ride or entrance. Those who do so are marked, for they have proven that they are willing to cheat the carnival and, therefore, deserve to be cheated in return.[1e]
  • Man-Eating Chicken: There are plenty of ways to advertise an attraction to make it sound very exciting, when it isn’t very special at all. Those who pay their copper to see a “Man-Eating Chicken” instead find themselves watching a gentleman consume a piece of poultry. Needless to say, they are usually upset. However, this is where the booth showman can really shine. He apologizes and suggests that they take it all in good humour; perhaps the patrons can convince their friends to see the show, so they can have a good laugh at them too. Effectively the carnie brings the patrons in on the joke, and they leave to scam their friends on his behalf. They usually forget they still paid their coppers, and are now sending people to give more money to the man who just cheated them. It takes a charming carnie to pull this off, but the irony alone is worth it.[1e]
  • False Customers: With all the scams going on at the booths and shows, you’d think people would eventually get upset. It is important to make your crowd believe they can win. Unfortunately, this means giving them prizes. So the carnival folk who are not involved in running the show (such as the roustabouts and general hands) are sent out to enjoy the carnival. When they reach the booths, the games are rigged to win. They manage to win the prize to great clamour and excitement, so everyone knows “We have a winner, ladies and gentlemen!” Of course, the rousty hasn’t actually won, as he will be giving back everything he wins when the carnival is over.[1e]
  • Blood Money: This smile relies on the carnival being in town for maybe a day or two, but getting out quickly after that. The victim goes to get a card reading, but any audience with a mystic will do. During the reading the mystic will see something terrible (but avoidable) in the future. She will wonder aloud if the victim may be under a form of curse. Casually, she inquires if the victim has any money on him... not to give her, but so she can read his fate in more detail. The victim passes over the purse and, with a simple trick of prestidigitation, a similar purse is exchanged for the first. This second purse, however, is filled with pig’s blood; the victim’s purse begins to bleed! Oh horror, the money is indeed cursed. Luckily the mystic can defeat this terrible evil. She works some more mumbo-jumbo over the victim’s purse, then tests it again. This time it doesn’t bleed.[1e] Now comes the real scam. The victim must bring all his money to the mystic so that it, too, can be exorcized. No valuables are required, just the money; this conveniently “proves” that the mystic isn’t trying to scam the victim. The ritual is performed over that money as well, saving the victim from his fate. However, it has been wrapped up (with mystic ribbon or bits of herbs) and must not be opened before the next full moon or a worse curse will descend. On the next full moon the victim finds that his purse contains only bits of copper or paper, the real purse having been swapped during the “cleansing ritual.” By then, of course, the carnival is long gone.[1e][1f]
  • Sale of the Century: This is another smile that can be used as an addendum to the Blood Money scam. If the victim looks like he isn’t going for the con, the mystic offers a small statue or other item of value as collateral, to be kept while the lengthy ritual is performed. The mystic tells the victim he can collect his money by returning the statue. Now everyone has something of value, so honesty is assured. The mystic claims not to know how much the item is worth, but offers it to show good faith. Needless to say, the victim gets it valued and discovers that it is worth a lot more than the money he handed over. He decides not to return for his money, having effectively bought the item for a bargain price. Sadly, the person valuing it was part of the trick. He has “borrowed” the shop of an honest antiquities dealer or other merchant to appear to be a permanent resident, and claims not to have the money on him that day to purchase the “incredibly valuable artefact.” The next day, when the mark returns to the shop to sell the item, the store’s true owner will have just returned from a trip out of town, will report that he was closed the previous day, or the like. It turns out, of course, that the item is utterly worthless, and the mark is as unlikely to see any of his money, as he is to see the carnival still in town the next day.[1f]

List of Known Carnival Troupes


  • 1: Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd ED -- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Companion
    • 1a: pg. 12
    • 1b: pg. 13
    • 1c: pg. 14
    • 1d: pg. 15
    • 1e: pg. 16
    • 1f: pg. 17

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