A Clown Cart Rolls Up and Disgorges Endless Foes

Have you ever been to a circus? I mean the kind with clowns, animals, and smells, not the day job. Hmmm, I guess that doesn’t narrow it down much. 😛

Anyway, I went once when I was quite young. I don’t remember much except that I got a stuffed monkey that would smash a pair of cymbals together and bounce around a bit.

I thought it was a real monkey for a while. I believed circus people had dehydrated and stuffed a chimp, attached cymbals à la Edward Scissorhands, and gave it out to disappointed young boys like myself. It was such a scrawny, sinewy, pointy thing that I was sure it had to be real.

Anywho, RPT GM and past newsletter contributor Konstantinos reached out to me last week for help in sharing his Kickstarter, Beneath The Big Top – A DnD 5e Adventure & Circus Compendium.

And this got me thinking about circus GMing tips. How can we run great circus adventures? Here are a few ideas.

1. Circus Theme

I normally advise starting with a quickly scrawled map. A map gives us a lot of ideation and information fast.

However, for a circus, I’d actually start with the theme and tone. I’d want to twist some tropes and make the circus unique and special. This, in turn, would inform my map.

For example:

  1. The circus exclusively features magic creatures who escape their shackles at night to perform heists, religious ceremonies, or network with the local thieves’ guild.
  2. The circus is cursed. At some point, certain people marked by the leader begin transforming into aberrations.
  3. The big circus tent is actually a gate to Hell or some terrible place. Workers are devils or evil creatures in disguise, and their leader is a powerful prince.
  4. The circus is a front for aliens studying this world. Exhibits and activities are designed to test audiences and reveal details useful for a future invasion.
  5. It’s an undead circus that only appears at night. It seeks revenge for a terrible crime committed against it in the past. If PCs can solve the mystery, the spirits can finally pass on to their final, restful place.
  6. The circus happens in an underwater dome. This gives us a chance to dust off our aquatic monsters and drowning rules.

So, if I decided on an undead circus, for instance, it would inspire me to create a map themed around a graveyard or maybe something inspired by Cinco de Mayo.

Then, when I add tents, sideshows, rides, booths, and worker areas, I can influence the design with my circus theme and try to lay out something my players won’t be expecting.

2. All the Smells

Brainstorm a list of all the amazing scents that might waft through the air and flavour your descriptions to instantly bring memories back to players.

From foods and concessions to animals and creatures to canvas tents and damp earth, circuses are ripe with a plethora of smells.

Further, if your players have been to a circus, it won’t take much description to jar their strong memories via the aromatic details, increasing engagement even more.


  1. Animal musk.
  2. Straw, sawdust, and manure.
  3. Sweat from workers, people, and animals.
  4. Woody pipe smoke and sharp, tangy ale.
  5. Weird chemical smells from stuffed, cymbal-clapping monkeys.
  6. Special foods like hot buttery popcorn, grilling meats, and fresh bread.

3. Add Interesting NPCs

You know I lurvs me some good NPCs in an adventure. They give us more agency in the game, add roleplaying opportunities, and offer chances to uniquely flavour gameplay.

Circuses bring us no shortage of quirky and memorable NPCs. For example:

  1. Cursed fortune teller
  2. Faustian ringmaster
  3. Pickpocket clown
  4. Daring acrobat
  5. Runaway royal
  6. Blind knife thrower
  7. Grieving strongman
  8. Nervous fire eater
  9. Escaped convict puppeteer
  10. Shapeshifting contortionist
  11. Unscrupulous animal handler
  12. Dancer in a cult

As a matter of practice, add at least two interesting NPCs to your circus encounters, even if they are in the background to start.

4. Leverage CombatScapes

Circuses also offer unique and special options for action-adventure environments. Imagine a desperate battle atop a stuck Ferris wheel. I hope the PCs have a lot of feather fall scrolls.

Some ideas for interesting combat scenes:

  1. Tightropes, trapezes, and acrobat platforms
  2. Animal stampede or panic
  3. Mirror maze
  4. Fire ring with a foe-launching cannon
  5. Clown car/cart ambush (a seemingly endless stream of foes emerges from a tiny vehicle)
  6. Collapsing tent

Circuses represent secret and hidden worlds that offer strange and unusual locations, environments, and NPCs. Yet, these wondrous places are very portable and accessible, making them easy to drag and drop into your campaign anytime you like.

I vote that you add more circuses to your games. What do you think?

Have more fun at every game!

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