TV Shows & Gaming: Carnivale


The first of a short stream of articles concerning TV shows I've watched and liked, why I liked them, and what I learned from them gaming wise. This one addresses Carnivale, one of my favorite shows, and one that I've raved about previously on this site. Now you get to see why.

I guess I like chains. I also like TV shows (only good TV shows, though). I've been watching quite a few, and they've actually improved my game considerably, particularly as a DM, but also as a player. They helped me develop into the gamer I am now (whatever that is). So, I figured I'd impart whatever wisdom I have gained to you. In a small string of articles, updated when I watch a new TV show, or feel like talking about one, I'll first effectively review the show, as to whether it's good or not, why it's worth watching, what I liked about it, etc., and then I'll talk about what I learned from it that can be applied to gaming, or even to just creating a general storyline, with an emphasis on roleplaying games.


Well, I've raved about this show to all my friends, and I think I've mentioned a number of times on this site, too. I guess it's about time I explained just why this show is so great. It follows two stories, each invariably connected with the other, set in the depression in the U.S. One storyline follows Ben, a convict on the run and hiding among a traveling Carnivale making it's way across the American dustbowl. The other storyline follows Justin, a preacher living in California, and his ministry. Don't worry, that's not it. This story is also something of a modern fantasy, with both Ben and Justin gifted with supernatural powers they hardly understand. Sound complicated enough? Well, of course, it's going to get worse. There are others with gifts, but the story revolves around Ben and Justin and the coming apocalypse. One follows a path of evil, the other of good. And both paths are destined to meet. The series lasts for two seasons before it was canceled by HBO, and, though incomplete, is still well worth watching.

A warning, though, before you go out and try to get it. It was aired by HBO, meaning that it has a lot of adult material. And I mean a lot. If this had a rating it would say something like, "Sexuality, female nudity, adult themes, strong language and violence." Needless to say, this is not something to watch with your children. Personally, I'm going to buy them and edit them, because a lot of that I just don't need to watch again, and it isn't necessary for story. So, you've been warned. It's an amazing show, but not recommended for people who don't like adult material. (Don't worry, I promise the later shows will be friendlier, and I understand your sentiments – I share them.)

Ok, now on to what we've all been waiting for – the gaming aspect. I actually began watching this show because I found it recommended in a White Wolf book for getting an idea of the mood for that game (I think it was Mage). So I checked it out – and loved it. Though I have yet to play a Mage game, I've already used several of the ideas I got from it in my current D&D game (which has something of a horror bent). And they've been well received. So, let me tell you, this is definitely something worth checking out.

Lesson 1: Setting.

Nothing is more important than setting, and Carnivale drives that home. As you know, it takes place in the depression, which is an ambitious setting, because so many Americans remember that time, and for the rest, it's just a memory of their grandparents. To portray it correctly and to the satisfaction of both groups takes a considerable amount of fine tuning. They've got an excellent tuner.

There have already been a number of articles on gamegrene concerning setting, which I have enjoyed and plan on implementing into my games, but this is of a different sort. This isn't about giving brand names to armor or making a dungeon realistic; this is about giving players a sense of the world, a feeling of space. Part of what is so remarkable about Carnivale is that it could've taken place in another setting. The story could've been told in the late 1800s, or even now. But they chose the most striking setting they could to tell the story, to set things up. And then they implemented key scenes into the narrative to make this world real to the viewers, to impress upon you the despair of the times. Some of the best scenes in Carnivale had nothing to do with the storyline. They just reminded you where you were. They reminded you that these people had nothing. There were times I felt like crying, they did so well.

Yes, yes, you're saying, but what does this mean for the game? It means that if you want your players to act like they're in a real world, you have to give them a real world to act in. This doesn't mean you need to detail every square inch of the world they're traveling in, to know the name of every resident of the city of Redcorner (heh, that's a funny name). It means you need to implement key scenes that preferably have nothing to do with the storyline, but flesh out the world. If your PCs are traveling through a harsh, totalitarian country, have them reach roads where the entire length is lined with crucified criminals. Describe to them the few that live calling out to them, pleading with them to free them. Then describe the soldiers coming along and breaking the legs of those few, describe the agony for these people as they hand there. Or, if your PCs are coming to a town known for its happiness and good cheer, describe to them how people wave to them as they enter, the happiness evident in their faces, a little girl that runs up and starts pestering them with questions about the world outside, staring wide eyed as they answer her questions.

It means a bit more work, but it's all brain work, and it's more than worth it. When someone dies in a book or movie or TV show, we don't think, "Oh, man, he was so cool; remember the time he beat up that dragon!" We think about how kind he was to that little girl, how he answered all her questions, how she grew to love him. And then we think about the tears that will fill that little girl's eyes when she discovers he has passed. That's what makes a world, that's what makes it real. Whatever mood you are going for in a certain place or in the whole game, make it clear, make it real to the PCs through things like that.

Lesson 2: Bad guys/Good guys.

Spend as much time with your bad guys as you do your good guys. Carnivale has the best villain development that I have ever seen, and I've seen a lot. Part of that is that the villain and the hero get equal screen time, you learn about them at the same pace, and you're always surprised. Don't be afraid to really pour work into the villains. Many times, I've heard the advice to not work on something your players will never see. Well, that's true and it's not. When it comes to developing important villains, I think you should flesh them out like they are a player character. Your players might not ever know that Undra Thundercloud (another funny name) lived in a small town as a child and really loved kitties, but they will see it. You develop that bad guy fully, and you'll be able to roleplay them much, much better. Your players will feel like they're talking with, struggling against someone every bit as real as they are, and that will make the experience all the better for them.

Another note on bad guys and good guys – connect them early in the story, and make sure the connection is strong. I think in the first episode of Carnivale, Ben and Justin see each other in their dreams, know that the other is there, though they have no clue who that is. Do this in your games. Give you characters creepy dreams, or implement a shadowy figure in their past or something like that. Connect them to the bad guys early. Give them a reason to pursue this, or to run from it. I've already tried it, and it worked beautifully. You can't imagine the looks on their faces – it was pure magic, and I owe it all to this show, for at least getting my mind jumpstarted. There are several reasons why it works so well. First, it heightens the tension. It makes them wonder, makes them watch their back, jacks up the paranoia. Second, it ties in the characters. You won't have to worry so much about the players getting bored or sick of their characters, because it heightens the interest in them, keeps them curious. It also keeps them guessing. Third, when the final encounter comes, it is all the more sweet. I have yet to reach this point, but I know it's true. Because they've been tied in early, they've been waiting a long time for this to happen. We all know that the anticipation of something is usually a lot more powerful than that something itself is. Well, this lets you harness that and use it. It jacks up the anticipation to critical levels. Of course, this means you have to keep it up. You have to give them more dreams, give them encounters with NPCs who know the bad guys in their dreams, keep on giving them little by little, until they're right where you want them. And they'll love you for it.

Lesson 3: Make it costly.

If you're going to give the PCs something make them pay for it. Especially if it's powerful. This is perhaps my biggest pet peeve with any system, is how easy it is for people to get stuff. You want a sword of life-stealing? Well, I happen to have one of the most evil magic items ever right here, even though I'm a merchant in a crowded city, where such things should be illegal. One of the best parts about the supernatural abilities that Ben and Justin have is that they are powerful, yes, but also costly. They don't use them flippantly. Make the PCs pay, like people really have to. Every story of magic in mythology is fraught with risk and cost. You want power? Well, I want your soul. How about we make a deal? Make them pay for it. That way, it's all the more precious and important for them – it won't be wasted or unappreciated. Of course, you can go too far with this – don't make them give up an arm for a magical sword. But do make them pay for it, preferably with blood, sweat and tears. Then they'll appreciate it. And then they'll want to use it.

Well, while I'm sure there's a lot more, and I'll probably think of them later today, too, that's all I've got today. These are the lessons I've learned from Carnivale, a show I recommend highly. Use them well, and enjoy the show!