s one of presumable swan songs of TSR’s published RAVENLOFT product line, Carnival is a brief and bittersweet reminder of everything that is great about the setting. While hardly perfect and entirely too short, it’s wonderful to see in Carnival how the Demiplane of Dread has developed and matured in over the years. It is strongly recommended for devoted RAVENLOFT DM’s, and for those who always wondered what the fuss was about it serves as a great—but belated—example of what “thinking-man’s” D&D is all about.
The accessory, for those who don’t already know, finally details the mysterious wandering organization known simply as the Carnival. Mentioned briefly in Domains of Dread, Carnival moves its colorful wagons through the Mists, defying the will of the darklords themselves, at the command of its enigmatic mistress, Isolde. In terms of satisfying its intended goal of revealing the Carnival’s darkest secrets, Carnival fits the bill. The bulk of the book is divided into three sections, each an in-character description of the Carnival from the point of view of one of its three rough factions. First there are the Troupers, or performers, who are devoted (or indebted) to Isolde, and all horribly twisted in a manner that lays their souls bare on their flesh. Second are the Skurra, the Carnival’s Vistani, with their painted faces and mute inscrutability. Last are Professor Picali and his Hall of Horrors, filled with unspeakable abominations. The text is liberally sprinkled with side bars explaining the “truth” behind the narrators’ exaggerations and theories. Most of these give stats for individuals mentioned in the main text, or rules systems for various aspects of the Carnival. There is a bit of contradiction even in the sidebars over the nature of Isolde herself, but this is cleared up in the very last page of the book. Five short adventures (adventure hooks, really) are also provided. They are presented as a series, to be woven into an existing campaign as a “Carnival mytharc”.
The writing of John Mangrum and Steve Miller is excellent, making use of the Demiplane’s highly developed background to craft a story that ranges far and wide. It’s refreshing to see in-character references to the Grand Conjunction and the Van Richten Guides, if only because it grounds the Carnival in the setting that RAVENLOFT fans know well, making it seem more valid. Unfortunately, it also nullifies the “For Use in Any Campaign Setting” declaration that TSR seems to be fond of emblazoning on its products lately. Unlike the recent Children of the Night: The Created, Carnival does not live up to this promise; Mangrum and Miller have written it thoroughly as a creature of RAVENLOFT.
Kevin McCann’s interior artwork is appropriately dark, and does an excellent job of accurately depicting each and every character mentioned in the text. Unfortunately, because I’ve seen interior art of better quality in RAVENLOFT products before (Arnie Swekel and the incomparable Mark Nelson, specifically), I’ve never had much affection for McCann’s work. Todd Lockwood, however, has again delivered with an accurate and stunning piece of cover art. TSR has made a wise choice in drafting Lockwood’s talents for DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS 3RD EEDITION, if his recent covers are any indication (e.g., Children of the Night: The Created, The Shadow Rift).
My main complaint about Carnival is its size: a mere 64 pages. At $13.95, that makes it a hefty purchase for such a slim accessory (and hardly worth the perfect-bound format). Add to this the fact that there are only twenty or so performers detailed. This may sound like a lot, but it certainly doesn’t fill the forty or so circus wagons purported to be in the Carnival. If a DM plans to run a campaign involving Carnival to any great extent, he or she will have to flesh it out quite a bit. Fortunately, all the important intrigues and covered, so any added detail will be just that: detail. This shortcoming, plus a formatting error and typo or two prevents Carnival from being perfect.
In the end, however, Carnival is exactly what all the greatest RAVENLOFT accessories (The Nightmare Lands, Champions of the Mists, the Children of the Night titles) have proven to be: solid products that provide plenty of meat and just the right mood. I’ll leave the spoilers for another reviewer, and just say that the Carnival’s secrets are juicy and suitably terrifying. Any RAVENLOFT DM who loves the setting would do well to pick it up. Any heroes worth their salt should be able to find adventure and mystery among its flapping banners. Or if need be, the Carnival can find the heroes...