GM ResourcesPlanar Mysteries

How to run a circus in your game part 3

Last time we talked about the travel, finding locations, time needed to set up the circus, battles within the circus, sound in the circus, and circus games and rides, as well as circus food. This time we’ll talk about events at the circus and how to make a circus interesting, as well as inspirations for circus themes to run in your game.

Events at a circus &
How to make circuses more interesting

There are a wide variety of things that can happen at the circus in addition to the shows themselves. Try adding these to the circuses in your game to give it a different feeling and add interest besides just the attractions and colorful characters.

Fire! The circus has a fire. The flames are spreading rapidly and people are literally running over one another in an attempt to get out of the attraction(s) that are ablaze. Even if there isn’t a fire, someone entering an attraction and shouting the word at the top of their lungs, or the presence of thick choking smoke can have much the same effect.

Ill-kept animals: The animals that the circus keeps are not well treated. They’re beaten, forced to live in dirty conditions (cages filled with animal waste, or simply not properly cleaned), not properly fed, and overall not happy due to their conditions. What happens when the local ASPCA or druid’s guild gets ahold of that information?

Muddy ground: the area where the circus has been set up has been recently soaked due to a rainstorm. The ground is muddy, and the stakes that usually hold up the tents are unable to do so. Even if the attractions are somehow able to be setup, they’re not as stable nor as sturdy as they would normally be in dry conditions. Add to that the wet and muddy conditions deter people from visiting the grounds. If it’s also hot as well, the circus could be stifling, and due to standing water, a breeding ground for biting flies and mosquitoes that use the water to breed in.

Theft targeting the circus’ patrons: While the spectators are distracted, a thief slips in among the crowds, stealing people’s purses. The thief could even be someone who works for the circus because the person doesn’t feel like s/he is appreciated enough.

Lost child: Like in modern day malls and amusement parks, children can get separated from their parents. Because of the crowds, the bright, colorful attractions, a child who stops even momentarily can be easily separated from their parents.

Slavery ring: the circus could attract a slavery ring due to the crowds (or could be one itself). Because there are so many people that go through the circus grounds on a daily basis, a few missing visitors from each town, provided that the slavers have an appropriate place to hide the people they’ve kidnapped, they could follow the circus from town to town to add to their collection.

Sickness: Some sort of sickness is spreading through the circus like wildfire. Is it something simple like undercooked food, something that is poisonous (for instance the leaves of the rhubarb plant), improper sanitation, or an airborne ailment? Or is there a more sinister reason for the sickness such as a curse, the result of a magical sickness one of their attractions – maybe the supposedly lifeless mummy that is an attraction is infecting the visitors with mummy rot or a one of the circus performers performing nefarious experiments on the circus’ visitors.

Unwitting performers: The circus doesn’t have enough staff and in order to bolster its numbers, some members of the audience are mesmerized into being circus performers. Whether the hypnosis wears off or not – or whether the person wants to return to their normal lives afterwards is another matter entirely.

Hiding in Plain Sight: Someone’s on the run for some reason. It could be the crown prince who wants to abandon his responsibility, it could be a criminal who wants to escape a town where the guard is after her.  Whatever the circumstance, they feel that the circus is a perfect hideout and is able to escape by becoming just another circus performer. Whether they stick with the circus thereafter may or may not be their choice.

Circus Training: The circus itself is a training arena for any act that one would want to learn. By joining it, the participants agree to be trained in their interest for a minimum term of one year. Should they fail to stick through the term, they are disqualified for rejoining the circus.

Community Circus: Instead of a circus that travels from town to town, this circus is made up of the members of the community. Different people were either elected or volunteered to be members of the circus staff based on their inclination and abilities. Sometimes someone who is a former member of a traveling circus can train the beginners in some of the finer points of circus performance.

The Circus, as a Family: just like any family, the circus could be seen as a family. The internal power plays, struggles, and conflicts are not to be made public to outsiders. Also, the idea of family extends to if one of them is in danger; they will often risk their lives or reputations to save their fellow circus workers.

Unwelcome Circus: A circus left a bad taste in a community’s collective mouth recently. When the new circus shows up, they’re not allowed to setup and even chased off with torches and pitchforks. 

Different racial circuses: just because a circus is in town doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a circus of humans or humanoids (or mostly so). Consider the ramifications of having an all dwarven or elven circus… or maybe even a circus made completely of dragons.

Circus accident:  a ride that was setup either jammed and people are stuck in it, unable to move unless they’re able to get the ride going again. Conversely, the people in the ride are thrown from it, injuring or killing both the people who were on the ride or the innocent bystanders.

Stolen Box Office: The entire proceeds for the circus are stolen. This could be either for a day’s performance, or, if a longer running show, the proceeds for an extended period of time.   

Surviving after death: there’s a circus that appears every so often, appearing from nowhere. The main difference between this and a “normal” circus is that all the performers are actually dead. This could be played one of several ways.
One of the ways this could be played is that this could simply be a thing that the performers so enjoyed their work that the chains of death could not keep them in their graves. They appear fully alive and don’t seem all that alarmed about the fact that their existence is transitory.
Other possibilities have something much more sinister going on. It could be played like a Halloween haunted house where the purpose is to scare the visitors, or perhaps even kill them, adding them to their ranks. This would be even more appropriate if the circus was a haunted house and that there were rumors about people entering the place never were able to make it out again alive. Maybe there’s a mirror maze inside that shows the person their greatest fear and it’s nothing physical that kills them but phantasms from their own mind. Perhaps that the circus reappears in order to harvest the souls of the circus visitors unlucky enough to still be there when it disappears again.

Circus on a ship: just like in my ships as a dungeon piece, parts 1, and part 2, crafty DMs can use a ship as a location for their circus.
Perhaps the circus itself could be water bound. This opens up quite a few new possibilities for performances. For instance, just like today, we have performing water shows where whales and dolphins are the main attraction. Maybe an aquatic elf could be the ringmaster, the merfolk could run concessions, and maybe there could be a captured Kuo-Toa and/ or Sahuagin on display. Maybe there could be a druid whose companion is a giant squid.
Conversely, the ship could be an airship, which opens up different possibilities. Maybe the ringmaster could be an air genas. Attractions could include giant eagles, air elementals of various types, and djinn. Arrowhawks, belkers, cloud giants, devas, hippogriffs, pegasi, sprites, and sylphs, may also be found as attractions in certain sky circuses. Audiences could simply be powerful adventurers or everyday folk who have the money to pay for the ferry to get there.

Circus as a Crime Syndicate: everyone loves going to the circus, and as eluded to earlier could be involved in human trafficking, but that’s not the only types of crime they could be involved in.
If the gaming world were built around the time of real life prohibition, the circus could also be smuggling alcohol. Maybe the laws would be lenient enough that they could serve drinks as part of their entertainment, but nowhere else. Transfer this idea to a fantasy setting, and the substance could be some magically addicting drug, or perhaps even the distilled essence of life or magic. Those that get addicted to this substance would be followers of the circus as they go from town to town. Just like in real life, these addictions can have negative side effects if the “fix” is not taken – everything from severe withdrawal symptoms to death.
Due to the large amounts of money – generally cash that a circus handles, an increase, even a drastic one, in revenue can hardly seem suspicious. So that means that they could easily be involved in money laundering. Also, because of the fact that the circus is in any given area for such a short period of time, it’s also possible for them to create and pass off fake money and disappear before the law catches up to them.
Another way that the circus could be a crime syndicate is if they’re just one piece of many. Maybe there are multiple circuses and there’s an unwritten, unspoken understanding: you come to the circus and have a good time, handing over your hard-earned money, and nothing bad happens to your town. If you don’t, there’s a good possibility of disaster happening. Things will go missing. Animals will rampage and the members of the circus will act as they can’t control them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the circus couldn’t be more proactive about seeking protection money.  But if this is done, it’s usually done of shopkeepers and the like threatening them that if they don’t give them money bad things will happen to their shops But the drawback of this is that if the circus members are doing so the local constables or wandering adventurers may be inclined to get involved.. unless the shopkeepers are too frightened to get the law involved.

Sabotage! Something has been sabotaged. It could be a ride or attraction that suddenly breaks – causing someone to get seriously hurt or killed, someone deliberately sets a fire to a tent, a wire that is supposed to hold the combined weight of the trapeze artists that snaps, a harmful substance gets placed in the circus’ food or drink that causes the performers to get sick.

8 Circus Themes

  1. The Show must go on: no matter what, the crowd’s entertainment is the circus performer’s top priority, irrespective of anything else going on around them.
  2. Circus of Freaks: by showing that the circus members as freaks, it shows the community’s prejudices and makes them feel like heels for mistreating treating others based on their differences.  
  3. Circus of Wonder: wonder is the key theme of this circus and it’s shown through the big top’s spectacle of amazing acts, attractions and rides.
  4. Circus of Horror: this is the type of a thing one would see in a dimly lit haunted circus, complete with horrifying zombie clowns with sharp, pointy teeth, torture victims; and malfunctioning rides.
  5. Circus of Grief: This circus explores the 5 stages of grief, which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This might be appropriate in a shared dream sequence after the loss of an important NPC.
  6. Circus of Sin: This circus could follow the classic 7 deadly sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Maybe each of these sins are an act in the circus. Pride could be showcased as a perfect performance, neat and tidy appearance. Greed could be one act that is outrageously expensive to get into. Lust could be envisioned as a scantily clad male and female contortionists dancing seductively. Envy could be a hall of wonders of stuff that those visiting can look at, but not touch. Gluttony and sloth could likely be combined for a fat man who’s always eating. Wrath could be shown as a constantly angry animal tamer.
  7. Steampunk Circus: maybe some of the automatons could be attractions. Use this as an source of inspiration for your steampunk circus.
  8. Planar appropriate circus: pick a plane of the multiverse and have a circus from it. Lots of inspiration can be found here (there’s a vast library of links on the various planes on pathguy’s site. Just follow the links to find what you’re interested in. I’m *sure* that you’ll find something appropriate to make your circus fun for your players!)

With these ideas on events and concepts to make the circus more interesting and themes for your circus, there should never be any reason to run a boring circus in your game ever again