Yesterday I got a chance to look at my print copy of Tim Deschene’s One of Us1. It’s great! It’s also designed for use with Dungeon Crawl Classics, a game which I don’t own (or, honestly, have much interest in running: despite the many appealing things I’ve heard about the gam, especially the kooky magic system, I’m a bit leery of any the mental workload I might have to take on running a game with a rulebook that huge).
That said, the beauty of old school games is that stuff is all roughly cross-compatible. DCC isn’t really old-school—to me, it feels like it’s maybe more of a a stripped down 3E but more crunchy complexity retained than I tend to like—but it’s close enough.
All that said, the dustbowl carnival vibe really appeals to me. I’m a (nostalgic) fan of the old HBO series Carnivàle—one of those people who came across it a few years after its cancellation, and who still managed to disappointed at how short the series ended up being2—and I’ve long suspected it’d make a brilliant setting/concept for a game.
I mean, seriously:
1934. The Dustbowl. The last great age of magic. In a time of titanic sandstorms, vile plagues, drought and pestilence—signs of God’s fury and harbingers of the Apocalypse—the final conflict between good and evil is about to begin. The battle will take place in the heartland of an empire called America, where a traveling carnival harboring Ben Hawkins, a troubled healer, will clash with an evangelical ministry led by Brother Justin Crowe.
But yeah, I know, I know, the title of the zine invokes a different piece of Dustbowl/carnival/sideshow media, of course—the infamous 1932 film Freaks:
I think prospective GMs would do well to mix and match the two vibes a bit, to be honest.
Meanwhile, I just read my copy of Trash Planet Epsilon 5 3, an Electric Bastionland hack for cyberpunkish games on a trash-strewn landfill planet. It’s… a little light, but pretty impressive for how much it squeezes into so few pages.
So that got me thinking: how directly could One of Us be used with Into the Odd/Electric Bastionland? This is the system I’ve been using with a group of new players, and very much enjoying, lately, after all: it’s very simple, and much of the fun is in the flavor, which is communicated through character careers and setting details.
And One of Us is pretty much all character careers and setting details, so: I think, yes, it can be used… with a little tinkering, anyway. As a challenge, I am trying to do this with minimal work, since I many not end up doing it in the end… but it’s a fun think to think about.
Here’s what I would do to make it work:
The Occupations list on pages 3–6 of One of Us pretty much works as a list of failed careers and the two types of “bonus” equipment that come with them. Yes, Electric Bastionland characters sometimes get powers or abilities instead of gear, but that’s okay, we can fudge it when a suitable Occupation comes up, or, well… see below for my ideas on folding the new character classes into the ItO/EB system.
This… isn’t so easy. I see a few ways to deal with it:
Option 1: Do away with debts altogether. One of Us is a postapocalyptic-ish Dustbowl setting: your characters are workers on a freaky don’t need debts when the entire financial system has collapsed.
I’m not crazy about that option, since I found the debt system in EB is actually a really strong carrot/stick for my players: it creates a motivation for adventuring that is simultaneously strong and bizarre. So…
Option 2: Roll on the Occupations table again, and make up a setting-appropriate creditor organization for the result: if you roll up 14 (Candy Butcher), then the group is in debt to the Sugarcane Distributors’ Association, say, after a shipment of sugarcane from the farm where they were sharecropping goes wrong. If you roll 41 (Grave Digger), they’re in debt to the National Undertakers’ Association. If you roll 80 (Psychologist), the characters are in debt to the guards who helped them escape from the insane asylum back in Pensacoloosa.
This is not bad: it can definitely create a sense of setting in a way like the debtors in Electric Bastionland does. That said, I’m not sure it quite fits the flavor. So… I think I have a third option…
Option 3: Do away with monetary debts but replace them with a flavorful magical debt of another kind: each character is in debt to The Madame, the supernatural Patron figure presented on pages 22–25 of One of Us. The Patrons system is a DCC thing and it’s not as common in other old-school games. It’s not something I necessarily want to import into ItO/EB anyway… but the Madame is a neat character I’d like to include, so… yeah.
Instead, I’d say every character has a bit of backstory about how they “died” and how they they were, inexplicably and seemingly by paranormal means, “saved” or “resurrected”… and then, in short order, recruited into the Carnival and talked into entering a “legal” [i.e. magical] “agreement” with The Madam. In exchange, each character gets one “gift” from The Madam that they can invoke once per adventure. I’d have players roll 1d4 on the table corresponding to their highest stat:
- Revelation 13. You may call the “The Mark” forth from their skin. STR save to channel its energy, adding a -2 penalty to morale checks by enemies for one scene.
- Grant Me Strength. Advantage on one STR save/check per session.
- Revelation 20. You can breathe fire for a couple of rounds in combat (1d8).
- Prime Mover. The earth moves beneath your feet, and everyone else’s. You’re fine, but they need to make a DEX save or be thrown to the ground.
- Leap of Faith. The character may invoke the Madame’s aid and perform one superhuman athletic feat—a great leap, a dash across an uncrossable distance, running across the surface of water—and automatically succeed. The player must roll a DEX save; if the check fails, the character succeeds nonetheless, but will take damage equal to the amount by which the roll fails at the end of the scene.
- Bullet Catch. The character can, once per adventure, use the power of the Madam to avoid certain death: sidestepping a bullet or catching it in their teeth, seizing a blade and slapping it aside, grabbing a spear from the air, or some similar action. This requires a DEX check; on a failure, the character instead takes half damage.
- Misdirection. The character can, by a mix of fast fingers and nimble movements combined with deft patter, the character can distract onlookers for a number of minutes equal to the differential between the DEX roll target and the roll result.
- Under Heaven’s Watchful Gaze. Heaven can see you, but with luck, nobody else can: add both your DEX and CHA modifiers to move unseen when you have not yet been spotted.
- Serpent Summoning. CHA check to invoke: normal result calls a large, frightening serpent; a critical success calls down a rain of snakes.
- Loving Cup. CHA check to roll with advantage on CHA saves for one scene.
- Revelation 19. CHA check to call down celestial calliope music, and all who hear it must make a CHA save or burst into ecstatic religious dance.
- Darkness Upon the Face of the Deeps. Darkness descends and the invoker can speak to the Madam. When near Her wagon, this will be face to face: otherwise, the Madam’s voice will speak into the character’s mind.
For any ability where a roll is required but a consequence isn’t given for a Critical Fail (that’s most of them), roll on the Patron Taint table on page 25.
That’s a rough list, but it’ll do the trick. I don’t think anything here is too unbalancing.
Unlike DCC, Electric Bastionland doesn’t have character classes—characters start with failed careers but have no special class abilities, and don’t advance in familiar class-based systems—and I honestly like it that way: everyone’s about equally competent, advancement is haphazard in a way that rewards risk (via the Scars table), and people are less prone to searching their character sheet for “possible actions.”
That said, this is a traveling circus or carnival, and making the characters part of that kind of requires that they have a current career, not just an ongoing one. I think giving characters a Role, with one special ability, could work.
What kind of ability? The easiest answer would be to lift a mechanic from Honey Heist: each character has one skill, related to his or her role in the carnival, which they can roll with advantage. Examples:
- Strongperson: advantage on any feat of heavy lifting.
- Acrobat: advantage when rolling for a feat of acrobatics or balance.
- Mystic: advantage on cold reading someone or convincing them of the existence of magic.
- Revival Preacher: advantage on manipulating large groups of people through oratory.
… and so on. This has the advantage of being very simple, but it does make it difficult to introduce types like the sideshow freak (advantage on attempts to horrify or shock?) or the stunt shooter (advantage on all gunshots would make combat a little too easy for them).
An alternative would be to have a single feat for each role, with specific (but roughly similar) rules, but more variety and risk involved. A few examples:
- Strongperson: Performs feats of Strength. Can transfer HP to STR for a roll, but they remain there for the rest of the scene, and the character is Impaired afterward.
- Acrobat: Performs feats of balance or acrobatics. Can transfer HP to DEX for a roll, but they remain there for the rest of the scene, and the character is Impaired afterward.
- Natural Wonder: Character takes a mutation from the Mutations Table on pages 15–18. The character can also choose to take a new mutation instead of a roll on the Scars Table when reduced to 0 HP.
- Mystic: Palmist and fortune teller: DEX save to have foreseen an event and get a reroll on the fie to avoid a bad result, or maybe CHA rolls for convincing people of something impossible are made with advantage.
- Revivalist: CHA save to either lay the hands on a character (curing 1d6+1 points of STR) or to attempt to banish evil spirits (who get a CHA save to resist).
- Hawker: CHA saves are rolled at Advantage when the character is attempting to talk someone into a transaction of some sort; if you fail, the target is immediately hostile. On a critical fail the target becomes violent.
- Hoochie-Coochie Dancer: Can combine DEX and CHA bonuses—and use the higher of the two for the roll—when attempting to use a dance or other performance to charm or distract a number of onlookers equal to the difference between the roll target and the roll result. On a failed roll, you take CHA damage equal to the combined bonus. On a Critical Failure, the audience turns self-righteously hostile. (Obviously not suitable for every group.)
- Doc: Brews cure-all tonics and potions. Requires ingredients and time, CHA save with advantage to brew a healing tonic correctly, as a potion that cures 1d6 points of STR (or HP, if STR is returned to full). GM makes the roll; on a failed roll, the tonic is poisonous for the same amount. On a Critical fail, the tonic is deathly toxic.
- Geek: Take a horrifying skill (such as eating anything fist sized or narrower with no ill effects, once per adventure; STR save to perform without injury; on a failed save, take STR damage equal to the difference between the target and the roll, or be immobilized on a critical fail.
- Razor-Back: Hired muscle. STR save to perform a feat of endurance.
- Stunt-Shooter: A gun-toting entertainer. Add your CHA bonus (in addition to your DEX bonus) for any “tricky shot” where a number of people equal to the total bonus is watching. On a Critical success, add bonus damage of one die per point of difference between the target and result of the roll. On a missed shot, suffer CHA damage equal to the total bonus applied to the roll. On a Critical failure, you are additionally Impaired by shame until you get a full night’s rest or until you roll an unmodified Critical success with this weapon, whichever happens first.
- Noah: Animal handler. CHA save to try tame and retain one beast as an ally,. (Only one at a time; beast stays with the character for a number of days equal to the differential between the target and result of the CHA check, assuming it is treated well and fed regularly.)
These bonus abilities might be a little too complex, I’m not sure. I tend to want to avoid adding complex things to such a simple game, so I might just go with the Advantage thing and make a couple of special cases for Sideshow Freaks, Stunt Shooters, and other roles where the skill benefit would be harder to adjudicate. I certainly don’t want to “unbalance” things by making one character more powerful than the others, and I’m pretty reluctant to add even single “feats” to the game, but clearly something is needed to make the characters’ role as carnival members mechanically relevant to the characters.
I’m also tempted to figure out a way to make animals available as player characters, but…. that would take a little more work, so it’s something I’ll consider adding if the game gets to the table. (Maybe animals would remain in the category of potential sidekicks or henchbeasts.)
The monsters in One of Us can be easily adapted to ItO/EB, since the latter system is much simpler. I’d probably reduce the HP and damage output of some of the monsters, though I’d keep some scary-deadly.
I also think the monster-remix ideas in Clinton R. Nixon and Kevin Kulp’s Owl Hoot Trail (starting on page 51) are a very good fit with this kind of game:
- harpies as oasis-killers,
- giant skeeters,
… and so on.
You could even kind of go for the same vibe, since there’s a fair bit of overlap between Old West and Dustbowl.
I’d probably also introduce some specific human antagonists:
- a revivalist church group (think eldritch cult, Call of Cthulhu style) hostile to supernatural carnivals?
- an organization (gun-toting Templars or Watchers or something) who are the sworn enemy of the Madam?
- members of competitor carnivals?
- Pinkerton-type agents chasing the carnival across the countryside because The Madam… hasn’t paid taxes in fifty years?
- government agents who are trying to abduct supernatural carnival members for a magical research program?
- vengeful townsfolk from a village where a show went terribly, terribly wrong?
There are plenty of possibilities. And, again, Owl Hoot Trail has some excellent name generators for human NPCs (see pages 59–63).
This wouldn’t need much changing. You could keep the whole postapocalyptic vibe from One of Us, but I’d be likelier to make it an old-timey game in a funhouse version of Earth, perhaps even in a Dustbowl-like stretch of Deep Country or something. (I’d be tempted to have Mockeries in the carnival, but… well, maybe only a couple.)
I think it’s probably pretty crucial to make overland travel—weather conditions, events during travel, random encounters, and so on—a part of the game, but I wouldn’t want to belabor it. Probably I’d do up a road map and have travel times on the roads, along with a random encounter table for each region based on terrain and local history.
I’d be tempted to kind of make travel a stage of the game, sort of like downtime in Blades in the Dark: traveling is quiet and boring and you can either do stuff to advance your own projects, or you can do stuff to help the carnival travel a little more safely (which modifies certain rolls). The important thing is to set a reasonable limit on what a character can do during downtime: if you’re helping out with the kitchen or helping tend to the horses, you can’t read that weird, seemingly magical book you picked off the body in the ditch outside Perdition; if you’re training the new recruit you brought on board back in Lebanon Plains, you won’t have time to help out in the kitchen or scout ahead to make sure there’s no bandits or flooding along the road out to Temperance.
I think it’s probably best to make this a kind of resource mini-game that starts the session when characters make the move to a new town, with an occasional random encounter thrown in to spice things up.
Gear is something you’d have to improvise. Characters could pick it up (through purchase, theft, or extortion) when they stop through towns, but often on the road they’d have to scrounge up something maybe-good-enough from the equipment and gear carried by the Carnival itself.
Again, you can find a decent equipment list starting on page 33 of Owl Hoot Trail—it’s more of a mid-to-late-19th century vibe, but it’s a pretty reasonable start as far as listing the kinds of things characters might find in a random nowhere town out in the middle of nowhere in the 30s. Whether you keep the economics the same or inflate them (as in Electric Bastionland) is up to you, I guess? I’d probably keep the Owl Hoot Trail prices, since debt (at least, personal debt) isn’t a major driving factor in the game I envision.
Of possible interest: there’s a glossary of old-timey carnival slang from 1931 available on JSTOR:
Unlike some of the lists I’ve found online, which seems to include more modern carnie slang, this one is historical. The opening portion of the paper also, by the way, paints a pretty compelling picture of the carnival in the late 1920s and early 1930s, about how circuses and carnivals were no longer what they used to be, and that the romance in them was dying off… but also about how they were incredibly diverse groups of people, with a lively slang born of that diversity—racial and cultural—as well as the diversity of their experience as world-travelers, along with other lingo born of necessity or utility, especially in the inevitable hoodwinking and trickery involved in carnival attractions and games. It’s well worth a read!
We don’t have HBO in Korea, but the series’ DVDs were available in the Carrefour store in Jeonju when I lived there.. and in a sadly fitting irony, Carrefour only lasted a short time in Korea before being shut down, just like Carnivàle.↩