Le Cirque des Rêves

Ta da!

I love Pelgrane Press’ Dramasystem aka Hillfolk, although I’ve not played it for a while. Back when it first came out a decade ago I’d recently joined London Indiemeet and got to play several one shots there and a short Unknown Armies-based one online via G+. I even ran a session for Cat and Simon at his home, although my social anxiety meant my GMing was no way near my usual standard.

Anyway, one of the setting pitches I wrote for it was Le Cirque des Rêves, based on a combination of Carnivàle, The Night Circus and Something Wicked This Way Comes. The first two really deserve to be more widely known and appreciated.

Hillfolk also deserves more of a following. I believe it was hoped it would become a gateway for non-gamers to come into the hobby without the accumulated cultural baggage the rest of us have had to build up, but it didn’t really take off. I suspect it would go down well as a tabletop LARP for LARPers who can’t get together enough people for a full game. These days it’s PbtA games that have driven genre-emulation play. Still, I hope to play a proper extended campaign of Hillfolk one day!

LE CIRQUE DES RÊVES

A Dramasystem series pitch by Tom Pleasant

My thanks to Chris Bloxham and James Torrance for their valuable input

“I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer that by his cunning hath cheated me.”

          Caliban, The Tempest

Nutshell

For years, Mr Corbin, a magician, ruled a supernatural Victorian circus and funfair, Le Cirque des Rêves. He gave people who sought him out uncanny gifts and talents, but for a terrible price. Now he is dead; slain in a mystical duel with a rival and the circus folk must learn to live with freedom.

Characters

Players are the magically twisted creations of Mr Corbin. They came to him following rumours that he could give them talent, knowledge, beauty or even youth. And he gave it to them, but always with a sting in the tail that made the gifts bitter.

Some example gifts and curses are:

  • Acrobats: Sometimes in mid-leap, you think you could float forever. Sometimes you do, but without control and nothing to stop you from falling into the empty sky. Maybe your gift came at the price of a fear of the ground, leaving you and your kind to make tents up in the roof of the Big Top.
  • Clown: Normal out of costume, but once your face paint and clothes go on, a darker, stronger character emerges, one able to make even the sternest of matrons cackle with glee, but also willing to commit darkly comic horrors.
  • Contortionist: Able to twist yourself into impossible shapes and the smallest of boxes, but stress or strong emotions cause your body to flow like water or set hard as stone.
  • Freaks: A 15-foot giant, a six-inch woman, a talking head, a werewolf, Siamese twins – one male, one female. But even the more ‘mundane’ members have a twist. The bearded lady’s beard writhes with a life of its own. The human skeleton is exactly that, with no flesh or skin or blood, but alive all the same. The Illustrated Man whose living tattoos are damned souls inked into his skin.
  • Hands: No matter how magical the circus, someone has to sell the tickets, pick up the litter and shovel the manure. It’s amazing what you overhear while sweeping the paths and carrying boxes.
  • Horse Riders: For one lunar cycle you are the best horse rider in the world on your steed, the world’s finest horse. For the next, you transform into the horse and your one true love, once the horse now becomes the rider. Yours is a mutual understanding and partnership that other riders only dream of, but at the cost of love separated by species.
  • Illusionist: Able to cast very real illusions, but crippled by your own hallucinations.
  • Lion Tamer: The big cats obey you, usually, but they are over-protective. Very over-protective…
  • Ringmaster: A powerful figurehead, whose voice has the power to captivate and entice, excite and scare, who once mediated between Mr Corbin and the circus folk. Or maybe nothing but an alcoholic wreck embittered at trying to satisfy all.
  • Strongman: What use is the strength of 10 men when the kick of a child can break your bones?
  • Dollymops: Selling sex was common in travelling circuses and funfairs. From common prostitutes to those changed into more exotic forms or with breath-catching beauty, but in return made blind.

With Mr Corbin dead, each player must also determine the reason why their character does not immediately leave the circus. Is it love, fellowship or loyalty? Do they want fame, wealth and power? Do they want to uncover and claim Mr Corbin’s magic for their own? Or do they simply fear how non-circus folk will treat them now they are more and less than they were?

Setting

1880: Le Cirque des Rêves has been roaming for longer than any of the troupe can remember, even the ancient Lady of Memories, Mrs Juno Moneta, and she is ancient indeed. It pulses with the magic other circuses, carnivals and travelling fairs use smoke and mirrors to create. At every stall and in every tent there are dreams made flesh. But for every dream, there is also a nightmare.

It mysteriously moves itself anywhere in the world overnight; one moment the space is empty, the next there are tents, rides and amusements set up and ready. In cities, towns, villages or fields, seasides or forest clearings it appears to perform and weave its magic for three nights only. Locals wake up to find leaflets announcing its first performance that night pasted to walls, posted through letterboxes or left mysteriously in their overcoat pockets.

Entertainments at the circus

Surrounding The Big Top is a multitude of smaller tents, stalls and entertainments, which often appear to be larger on the inside than the outside.

  • The Menagerie: A zoo of the rarest legendary creatures: unicorns, dragons, mermaids and more.
  • The Anamnesium: A tent full of bottles. Each one, when opened, contains a memory from a supplicant to Mr Corbin who traded it for something they thought was worth the cost. It rarely was.
  • The Winter Garden: A tent that contains snow and ice sculptures that do not melt, no matter the weather outside.
  • The Silk House: Where you can sleep with anyone or anything you wish, for a price.
  • The Ghost House: Where the souls of those who crossed Mr Corbin are trapped for eternity. Sometimes other souls are able to cross the weakened veil, allowing the living and dead to talk to each other.
  • Elfame Forest: A tent that holds an enchanted forest, filled with fairies; some fair, some foul. Remember though, don’t leave the path.
  • The Clockwork Carousel: A merry-go-round of mechanical creatures that move and respond to their riders, and sometimes leave on their own volition for sinister or beneficent reasons.
  • The Big Wheel: Not all that ride it see the same landscape while at the top, and not all those who go up actually come back down.
  • Hall of Mirrors: Where your reflections show things that are false and things that are true, or creatures, people and worlds that are or might have been.
  • The Fortune Teller: One woman or three? Enter and find the maiden and receive fortunes of wonder, passion and excitement. Find the mother and receive fortunes of wealth, fecundity and stability. Pray you do not enter and find the crone.
  • The Cattery: Full-grown big cats – lions and tigers – that act like kittens and play with visitors.
  • The Labyrinth: A wooden house filled with small rooms linked by narrow corridors, stairs and ladders. Each room holds something random and strange. One may be full of moths, another perpetually falling leaves, one filled with clocks. There is even one full of windows, each looking out of another window elsewhere in the world.
  • The Wishing Tree: Write your wish on a piece of paper and pin it to the tree. Be careful – very, very careful – what you wish for. It might come true.
  • The Freak Show: See the section on possible characters.

Setting questions

While some of the magical talents and entertainments are very magical indeed, they do not have to be.

Things to consider include:

  • Is magic on display to amaze (or terrify) the punters or is it hidden among more mundane entertainments, only appearing rarely to those special few, but all the more significant when it does?
  • Are the magical entertainments very real or are they only illusions?
  • Maybe instead of magically travelling overnight the circus has to travel the hard way, with cart, wagon, hard work and sweat along roads and through wind and rain.

Themes

  • Death
  • Freedom versus duty
  • Loss of innocence
  • Love and sacrifice
  • Fame versus safety
  • Pride before the fall
  • Temptation
  • The dangers of ignorance
  • The illusion of power
  • Decay versus renewal

Tightening the Screws

The first episode has the theme ‘Sudden Freedom’. The circus folk find Mr Corbin and his rival, the Lady Augusta, dead in the centre of the Big Top’s ring: all his blood turned to red glass, all her skin turned to brass.

During this episode and over the series the cast must decide:

  • Who will step up and take charge?
  • Who decides where the show goes next? Can anyone choose or will the circus magically take them to the next stop, one after another, without their say-so?
  • Who gets top billing?
  • Do they seek to exploit their magic for fame and wealth or try to rid themselves of it and with it what makes them truly unique?

  • What factions will emerge? Will one group want to maintain their magical life and another return to normality?

Additional events that can occur in an episode could include:

  • A recurring character who has longed for escape from the circus says they are going to leave. But if they go they may take more with them and risk the entire show. How far will the characters go to keep them there?
  • The circus returns to a remote town. The last time they were there, one of the characters did something – maybe theft, pregnancy or murder – that angered the locals. Now the locals want revenge. Will the circus hand over the culprit or fight for them? And what happens to the valuable stolen item or the child now starting to manifest their own magical power?
  • A mysterious stranger arrives who seems to know a lot about Mr Corbin, Lady Augusta and members of the circus in days gone past. On seeing him/her, Mrs Moneta pales and locks herself in her caravan, refusing to come out or talk with anyone. The stranger comes demanding a certain magical item from Corbin’s belongings and promises to pay well for its return.
  • A child’s wish on the Wishing Tree releases lost souls from the Ghost House. What do they want with the living and what mistakes do they want to correct?
  • Once a month, the circus pitches somewhere remote for rest and relaxation. It is a time for parties and competition as the talent pulls out all the stops to show off their secret acts. It is also the time when faeries are known to wander from beyond their wood, bestowing gifts and curses alike.

Names

LadiesGentlemenStage
Ruth HerriottStephan BibrowskiLionel the Lion-Faced Boy
Barbara FairchildWilliam HutchingsThe Cerne Abbas Giant
Irma WardFrank RichardsPennywise the Clown
Fay AlexanderArthur CaleyVincenzo and Jumbo
Mabel StarkMario ZacchiniBollo, the Ape Man
Anna Haining BatesEmmett KellyThe Flying Wallendas
Lavinia WarrenAlfredo CodonaWeary Willie
Minnie WoolseyMickey KingGee Gee Engesser
Sarah BiffenTed SverteskySamson and Delilah
Jane BarnellRex WilliamsBoopah Goopah

Inspiration

Carnivàle (TV series)

The Night Circus (novel) by Erin Morgenstern

Something Wicked This Way Comes (novel) by Ray Bradbury

Download it as a PDF here.

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