If you’ve been watching the second season of Carnival Row like I have, you know what an awesome setting it is. The season finale just dropped last Wednesday and it seems like a good time to remind you that there’s actually an official Carnival Row RPG using the Cypher system! And it’s free! It came out with the show’s original first season in 2019 but it’s been a lifetime since then so it’s worth looking at what new Cypher System options you could use if you want to dust off your Carnival Row RPG pdf and head back into the Burgh.
The Revised Cypher System Rulebook came out after the Carnival Row book so you probably want to check page references if you’re using the new one. More importantly, there are several innovations that can improve your Carnival Row game such as Player Intrusions and Character Arcs. I love character arcs immensely, first falling in love with them in the Invisible Sun game, and the writing style of the Carnival Row series leans into these long development paths for characters as well. In the first season,
Species is not new to the revised Cypher System but it is expanded a bit. On page 7 of the Carnival Row sourcebook we get a listing of the Peoples of the World and we can map many of the non-human peoples to species options in the Cypher System. For instance, trow are big and tough so half-giant works for them, and fauns can use dwarf as a starting point (although I dislike this species so much so you might be better off starting from scratch). Marroks are best not done as a species but using the focus Howls at the Moon.
Faeries can work as elves, but obviously their ability to fly raises that perpetual issue in RPGs. My advice on this one is to not overthink it: faeries can move or fly at their normal rate. Sometimes they might be able to fly over dangerous ground but other times they will be knocked from the sky by dangerous winds. It all evens out in the end in my book, but if you want to balance it a little you can simulate the faeries’ hollow bones by having them take 2 extra damage from melee attacks or crashes.
We’re All Mad Here
Obviously We’re All Mad Here, a book with a bunch of fey is going to benefit your Carnival Row experience. In addition to some great advice on adapting Cypher options to fairy tale tropes, there are new character descriptors and foci that work well for the dark fantasy of this universe. A character who is Bewitched, Fragmented, or Haunted would fit well in Carnival Row as well as a character who Befriends the Black Dog, Curses the World, or Sheds Their Skin. The character arcs are all very excellent as well, especially Become an Advocate and Put Down Roots which we see many examples of in Season 2.
Another obvious choice for options is Godforsaken, the generic fantasy sourcebook for the Cypher system. There are a couple new foci (Takes Animal Shape and Uses Wild Magic) that I think work especially well and the abilities are all great. More generally useful, though, are the notes about making character foci fit with a magical setting which is doubly important as this setting is both magical and steampunk. Something like Builds Robots or Is Licensed to Carry work very well in the world of Carnival Row but pretty differently from the settings where you’d normally find them.
There are also more species here which can give us some more options for Carnival Row peoples. You can make kobolds from lizardfolk (or, better, a combination of lizardfolk and halflings), and weirdly centaurs work pretty well as catfolk (maybe with the skill and inability from dragonfolk as well). More importantly, there’s some advice on how to handle species when there are so many non-humans running around. Having two descriptors is a good way to have centaurs and faeries who can also be Brash or whatever, but it’s also a neat option for conflicted characters. A faun working in a manor house might be Graceful in their role as a servant, but after they leave for the day they are a Clever supplier in their home neighborhood.
Last of all, in the setting of Carnival Row with its larger gearworks and machinery, the section on traps is pretty great. Whether an elaborate security system set up by a Moriarty-type villain, a complicated tripwire in a faerie holy site, or just a factory of pistons and gears that the characters get trapped in, I think this is a good addition to a Carnival Row game.
This is the trick. Carnival Row is two things at once, a fantasy story about strange magics and fey peoples as well as a steampunk clash of imperialism and technology. Except it’s actually three things since it’s also a suspenseful horror thriller. You can lean into the Victorian adventure of it all but if you really want to capture the feel of the Carnival Row series then you’re going to need some horror. The horror genre in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook is a good start, particularly the Horror Mode and Madness modules, but the dedicated horror sourcebook Stay Alive! has even more.
The tips for making things especially dark and spooky can really help draw players in, and having NPCs with emotional connections to the PCs (and players) will drive home the sort of despairing blackness seen in the Carnival Row series. Keeping up the feeling of horror without it becoming a drag is hard and the authors here do a great job in providing advice. Many of the horror genres (Mummies, Science Gone Wrong, Simulacra, and Werewolves) all have great pieces to pull out and use in your Carnival Row game. They also lead to the various Horror Modules which are immensely useful. The modules of Bad Penny, Hysteria, Instant Panic, Perilous Venture, Secret Twist, and Unease all showcase things that are commonly seen in the series.
As I noted in my recent review, First Responders has a lot of applications for games beyond firefighters and EMTs. In the world of Carnival Row the environment is always present and more than just scenery in the plot. If you want to have a fire spreading through the Burghish docks, a sickness ravaging the Row, or a storm creating flooding in Tirnanoc then this book is extremely useful. It would also be interesting to run something like a riot as a natural disaster that you have to address in stages.
The rescuer type is also potentially helpful for making characters since civil servants like the police are such a big part of the series. Aside from making a doctor, fire brigade member, or vigilante in the Burgh, the rescuer type as a character option for a helper or problem-solver can fit a number of otherkin cultures in the wider world. A lot of this is left up to your imagination but if you think you might be trained as a sailor on a rescue ship in Puyan, a mountain-rescue trow from Jotunheim, or a spiritual healer from Anoun then this is a type to consider.
Increasing abilities or giving magical abilities like haruspex can be reflected by the superpower guidelines in Claim the Sky. This is also a great book for making incredibly strong or dangerous foes such as the various monsters seen in the series. Given the steampunk nature of the Carnival Row world, the mad scientist template could be useful and robotic threats could be repurposed for clockwork threats.
The sci-fi sourcebook The Stars Are Fire is pretty far afield tone-wise from Carnival Row but there are a few elements here that are useful. While the various Void Rules are a great template for other modules, biggest resource here is the Extended Vehicle Operations rules. The Vehicular Combat detailed on page 230 of the Revised Cypher System Rulebook is fine for things like carriage chases or even fighting on horseback, but in season 2 of Carnival Row we see an increased presence of two other types of vehicle: airships and sailing ships. If you want to have a fight between zeppelins, and especially if you want to have a game or mission that relies heavily on naval maneuvering, then the starship rules in The Stars Are Fire are going to be great for you. Just replace some of the terminology such as having things affect the sails instead of the stardrive and the other 80% of what’s written here is golden. Having stations for characters is especially important for these scenes, for example, and having a ready set of GM intrusions (after tweaks) will free up everything else.
Carnival Row is a great show and even though the RPG is pretty slim there are so many Cypher System options out there for you to use. I’m a little sad that this second season seems to be the show’s last, but when the pandemic hit it really seemed like we weren’t going to get even that so it’s been great to return to the Burgh this winter. Also, there’s lore and detail and exciting plot development soaking this world, but it’s sort of a blessing that we don’t have more fine detail. That means most of the world of Carnival Row is up for you to make your mark on it. Go out and tell some awesome stories, then tell me about them here! We can make our own season 3!