We plunge deeper into the secrets of the Witchlight Carnival. But how far down the rabbit hole are we willing to go?
Last week, a diverse group of strangers all found themselves standing in front of the Witchlight Carnival, a mystical faire filled with joy, laughter, and a little despair. We had all come seeking something, we knew not what, and we weren’t sure how we got here, but we all knew that we had been here once before. Whether we were seeking answers, resolution, or just to have a good time, we all bought a ticket and went inside.
The carnival was wild and strange and beyond our imagination. Talking monkeys playing a piano, walking trees with squirrels handing out wish-fulfilling dandelions, subverted monsters acting as babysitters, wild games of skill with fantastical rewards, and bizarre rides to thrill, tempt, and terrify you. And loss; the aching, gut-wrenching misery of loss.
Everyone here at the carnival has lost something. Each player has lost something vital to their character and needs to get it back. My character Durwyn has lost his sense of direction and has spent the past 40 years wandering aimlessly. You can read more about it in my backstory, Durwyn the Bastard Paladin. What the others have lost, I do not know. Yet.
This loss extends to everyone here, even the carnival workers. The monkey has lost his buttons and obsessively collects more. Two halfling children have lost their parents and even the thing in charge of watching them, a very friendly displacer beast with butterfly wings, has lost her own child, a cub named Star. Whether this sense of despair and loss is the design of the carnival itself or the work of outside malevolent forces remains to be seen.
When we left off, we were at the Dragonfly Rides in the northwest corner of the map. Not that Durwyn has any idea where that is. We debate where to go next. The only clue we’ve been given came from the ticket collector, Nicholas, who suggested we check out the Mystery Mine. Despite it being on the far side of the fair, both “Pop” the kenku ranger and my Durwyn, the half-dwarven paladin, want to go there.
Everyone else wants to go to every single attraction in the park, going in order, starting from right now. As a real-world expert on navigating the Walt Disney Parks, I can tell you that this is not the way to experience everything at a carnival. It is a science involving wait times, load times, crowd control, live show timetables, time of day, pre-park opportunities, lemming mechanics, and the fact that 90% of the population is right-handed. But this isn’t Disney, it’s D&D, so yeah sure, whatever, do it all in counter-clockwise order.
Theo and I lost the popular vote. Isn’t democracy great? Instead, we go to the next shiny thing down the line, which turned out to be a pie eating contest at the Feasting Orchard. Even though I didn’t want to be here, I may as well enjoy myself now that we are. Turns out that this is a Constitution skill challenge, just like the previous Catch the Fairy Dragon game was a Dexterity challenge. Well, my Constitution score is huge! I’ll have a big advantage. Where do I sign up?
Five of us get our ticket punched as entrance to the contest. The others picked some fruit in the orchard, while the kenku kept an eye out for any dodgy folk. He’ll make a great squire someday. The rest of us have to eat as many custard pies as we can. For every pie, we roll a Constitution check. If we pass, great, move on. If we fail, we take 1d8 custard damage. I ask if that is like poison, because my dwarven hardiness give me resistance to poison. No, I’m told, it is custard damage, and nobody has resistance to that. This was my first inkling that will lead to my biggest criticism about this carnival, but I’ll get to that in a little bit. For now, bring on the pies! I’m going to enjoy this.
I didn’t enjoy it. I began with a big head start. I automatically passed my first 6 pie rolls, while everyone else is rolling right away. Then I picked up my dice and everything fell apart. I couldn’t roll higher than a 4! Needless to say, I quickly ended up “killed by custard” and passed out in the pudding. Even worse, I was beat by a bunny, a fairy, a wimpy wizard, and a 98-pound elf. And the elf won! For his reward, Dieha received a translucent cupcake that acts as a Potion of Invisibility. Okay, screw Constitution, where are the feats of Strength like Goblin Tossing? I can win those.
Okay, onto the Mystery Mines… No, wait… now you all want to do the Carousel next door? Aw, c’mon! The Merry-Go-Round is the lamest ride at every carnival. “Let’s put it to a vote.” Mystery Mines – 2, Carousel – 6. Damn it! Democracy sucks. Fine. Let’s go ride the ponies.
Despite my objections, the Carousel ended up being the spot that gave us the most explanations about the carnival, our goals, and just what the heck is going on, so I’m glad we came here. There was also a neat little puzzle, even if it wasn’t very hard.
The Carousel was being operated by a centaur named Diana Cloppington, and while we waited in line, we got to ask her a few questions. Long story short, she is not happy. I believe that she is under some sort of curse but she is unable to talk about it or she coughs up a sap-like goo. None of this was revealed directly by the DM, but rather inferred by the way he portrayed it and I could be wrong. Either way, Durwyn wants to ease her suffering and attempts to use his Lay on Hands ability to cure her disease, and this brings me to my biggest issue with the carnival.
I am told flat out that it won’t work, which is objectively fine. The curse is magical and as part of our adventure, we’ll have to undo the curse. But this also means that none of our characters matter. None of our special abilities matter. None of the care and choices we made making these characters matter. I could just as well be playing Rich, the middle-age dad with the low charisma and the special ability to fart like the dead. It doesn’t matter.
I know that this is a roleplay heavy adventure, meant to challenge the players and not their character sheet and yada, yada, yada; and I love that. But the character sheet still matters, for it is their special abilities that make the characters unique and fun to play, as you try to find new and innovative ways to overcome obstacles. But so far, the ranger cannot use his tracking ability, even when someone was presented to be tracked. The thief has yet to use a single thieving skill, the bard has not sung one song, the fighters have nothing to do, and not one spell has been cast by any of the three wizards! This is how murder-hobos are born! Okay, I’m fine. Let’s keep talking to this horse.
Cloppington goes on to tell us that the mounts on the carousel, which are actually magical unicorns, will sometimes speak to the rider if they manage to figure out its name. All of the unicorns are mated pairs but some of the paint has peeled on the name plaques. Can you figure out their names? Okay, I’ll admit I liked this puzzle. I was just a simple word association game based upon popular (and maybe a little dated) phrases and idioms. I’m old and got them right away, but a few of the more millennial players had a hard time and had never heard of some of them. You can make this puzzle as easy or hard or elaborate or simple as you want.
As a reward for solving the puzzle and repainting the name plaques, we got to ride the carousel for free. We all chose a mount. I picked “Stone” because, duh, Mountain Dwarf. We each got to ask three questions and our unicorn would answer truthfully but a little cryptically. I loved this part, but oh my god, it took forever and was clearly a difficult task for the DM. I’ll try to be succinct, but no promises. BTW, I thought it was interesting that afterwards, everyone thought that they asked the best questions. I mean, they were good, but not as good as mine.
“Pop” the Kenku asked, “What is the nature of this place? Where do I need to go? How do I regain what I’ve lost?” To which his replies were, “The Three require joy to sate their appetite. The Hall of Illusions will make many things clear and unclear. Seek out Scabatha, Bwlorna, and Endolin (all probably misspelled) if you dare to reclaim that which you long for.” This was odd since we only know of two leaders of the carnival, Mr. Witch and Mr. Light. We shall have to see if there is a third or an entirely new three.
Durwyn (me) asked one selfish question and two story questions, “Where are the feats of strength? How can we best help Cloppington? How can we find the devious kenku lurking around the park?” I was given these replies, “Goblin Wrestling you will find in the shadow of a teakettle. You must find Granny Nightshade in the Hall of Illusions. You will find whom you seek in the cardinal discontent.” This last one made no sense, and I may have misheard it, but screw the Mystery Mines, we’re going Goblin Wrestling!
Up next was the fairy warlock we know as Mara, “How can we find our lost items? What places should we avoid here? What is the key to regaining my lost memory?” Aha! That’s what she lost. Oh, wait. I can’t hear this conversation. I have to pretend I don’t know. Dammit, role playing is weird. But her responses were, “You must find your way out of Prismeer; seek the tallest mountain and enjoy the show. To avoid your greatest fear, you must avoid the Mystery Mine. You must seek the help of the laughing archwizard.” I assume Prismeer is in the Feywild and we’ll find the laughing wizard in a minute.
Herbert, the harengon bard, is next, “How do I find what I lost? What have I lost? What is the greatest danger to avoid?” Herbert’s responses were, “You must find the puppet master and check her workshop. Bunny bard without song, you’ve lost your creativity.” I had suspected this one, but it was the DMs response to question three that I loved. He just flipped to the back of the book and looked for the baddest guy he could find. “Avoid the witches’ cauldron or face the eternal dragon.” Well, I can’t wait to fight that thing, whatever it is.
Serena or sometimes Starshine (all these multiple names make it really hard to keep track of my fellow players) the sorcerer asked the questions, “How can I control the magic around me? How can I keep my mouth shut? Is Bloopy alright?” Her unicorn answers were, “Restore the Laughing Wizard to her previous form. Look for dear old granny and find her dollhouse. I fear she is restrained and made into a mount.” To which the player seemed truly upset. This Bloopy must be very important to her.
Dieha, the emaciated elven barbarian, asked “How can I make others hear Gene (his imaginary talking halberd)? How can the kenku (everybody loves “Pop”) regain his flight? What is the best question I can ask?” To which he got, “Seek out the toymaker to bring out its inner voice. Bring happiness to the carnival; become the monarch. The one who has stricken you has an aversion to a certain move; run with your shins.” I have no idea what that means.
The player Thane still hasn’t officially picked a name, but I need something to call him, so we agreed on Shammer. So, Shammer the fairy wizard tried to ask for more questions by asking, “What do I need to do to complete every question that the other players asked.” Of course, the DM didn’t even remember all of the responses he just gave, he wasn’t writing them down. I was. But he deftly sidetracked the issue and said that those questions were private, but Amman could still ask a different question. Taking the hint, yet forgetting what my questions were, Shammer asked, “How can I help Cloppington? (great minds think alike.) What happens to the dandelion wishes? (we made those last session.) How do I get my memory back? (aha!)” His unicorn’s replies added a bit more on to mine, “Find Granny Nightshade and convince her to end the current bargain and create a new one. Vast riches await, but first you must save the Mine of Briganox(?). To remember where you came from, find the inn at the end of the road.” Great, more stops to make.
Finally, Faux the rogue asked some short and direct questions, “How do I make friends with a unicorn? Is there anything at the carnival to avoid? What is a unicorn’s favorite food?” And his equally brief answers, “Find the glittering purple lake and stoke the hearth to find what you seek. To stay safe, don’t lose your ticket. And bejeweled apples.” Oh, thank god, we’re done; that was one of the craziest info dumps I’ve ever witnessed and…
Oh, we’re not done. DM Aiden asked each player what they reveal to the others about the info they just received. We went back around the table trying to recap what we could remember. Half of it was misheard or misremembered and half of the other half was purposely withheld for “role play”. So, now I’ve got stuff I know, stuff I think I know, stuff I might know incorrectly, stuff I know but I have to pretend I don’t know, and stuff that I don’t know but think I do. And all of it is out of context, so…uhm… now what?
Okay, it’s easy to be dismissive of this big pile of exposition, but this was a monumentally exhausting task for the DM and he did a great job. We have a ton of names and places and thing to do, but this fully illustrates why role-play heavy adventures work best with about 4 players. It’s just too easy to overwhelm both the DM and the players. Combat heavy adventures can still work with 6 or even 8 players. Waiting your turn to roll dice doesn’t take half as long. But trying to have that many full, in-character conversions, all while dropping a bunch of names and tantalizing clues and keeping everyone engaged is practically impossible. Moving on.
Theo and I have changed our minds. The Mystery Mine is out. Lots of clues point to the Hall of Illusions. We want to go there. Everyone is in agreement until literally one-inch on the map later. Everyone (else) now wants to go to the shiny blue thing here on the map. “Let put it to a vote.” You know what stinks about this “D&D democracy”? There is absolutely no compromise. Needless to say, we lost. Turns out there are two things here, the Silversong Lake and the Swan Rides. Sigh, we are never getting out of here. The Silversong Lake is a stage show with a mermaid singing in a fishbowl and the Swan Rides are a swan ride but with giant, living swans. Incredibly, no one wanted to watch the show or spend an hour on a lazy river with a verbose goose, so we left just as quickly as we arrived.
Wait, what’s this? Could it be? Are we actually gonna get somewhere I wanna go? Yes! We arrive at the Hall of Illusion and immediately almost blow up the entire carnival. As we approach, we see a mime on stilts, in front of a seemingly normal (that’s a red flag) Hall of Mirrors, collecting tickets. Ugh, a mime; I don’t even want to talk to this guy (Bah, dum, bump. Thank you, thank you. I’m here all week, Try the veal.)
But what really draws our attention is the marriage proposal occurring right here beside us. Two halflings are in front of a display box with a mannequin of a female wizard in it. The male Halfling gets down on one knee and the female bursts out in laughter. Mortified, the jilted lover runs into the Hall of Illusions (without getting his ticket punched. Uh oh.). I am convinced that bad things happen to people when they are alone in the carnival, so I and most of the party runs in after him.
Before we can do that, everyone has to go past the mannequin box and saving throws are required. Most of us pass, but a few are overcome with laughter. The mannequin turns out to be that of Tasha, one of D&D’s big deal NPCs, creator of the spell Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, which this box is dispersing into the crowd, and the titular author of “Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything” (in stores now).
One of the few who did not run inside was Starshine the Sorcerer. She chose this moment to be the first character to actually use an ability and casts a spell to remove the howling halfling’s curse or something. What she neglected to tell anyone is that is has a horrible feat called Tides of Chaos which means she has to roll on the wild magic chart every time she casts a spell. Remind me to give her a wide berth in combat. Needless to say, had she inadvertently cast a fireball, the mood at the carnival would be decidedly worse. Fortunately, she merely blinded everyone in the area but I had already run inside the Hall.
Inside the Hall of Illusions is your standard Mirror Maze except that all the reflections show past, present, and future versions of our selves; sometimes young and virile, others old and infirm. I really hope “Time” has some role in this adventure, I love playing with that concept. Just read my adventures of the Saviors of Phandalin starting with the Lost Mine of Phandelver – Session 14 for proof of that.
We quickly find the spurned suitor staring into a mirror. But in this mirror, there is a reflection of a little girl wearing a pig mask. Maybe this is one of the Three that we are seeking to end our curses. She fades away as we approach and it is a simple matter to convince the Halfling that there has been a big misunderstanding and to follow us back out of the Hall of Illusions.
Once in the fresh air, the Halfling has overcome her laughing fit and we witness a wonderful and successful marriage proposal. The air is filled with joy and the mood improves again, raising the whole carnival to a truly festive affair. Yet the mime seems a little melancholy.
Next week, we learn what makes the mime so sad, we take center stage in the big top, and we come face to face with Mr. Witch and Mr. Light.
I almost forgot, here’s my theory on what’s going on. It is one of two things. The carnival owners, Mr. Light and Mr. Witch, plus a third mystery person, are running an evil carnival like the one in “Something Wicked this Way Comes” that is all smiles on the outside but steals a part of your soul and feeds on your misery. Or, a separate group of Three, probably witches or maybe hags, have subverted the carnival causing all this creepiness and chaos. Whether Mr. Witch and Mr. Light are willing accomplices or forced to comply is unknown.
I think that the kenku we are chasing is one of the minions sowing the seeds of despair and discontent. I think that the little girl in the Hall of Illusions is one of the mysterious Three but I don’t think this is her true form. Also, all of these beings go by multiple names; Scabatha, Bwlorna, Endolin, Toymaker, Puppet Master, Granny Nightshade, etc., and we need to figure out who is who and what is their true name. Finally, we need to get into the Feywild to visit all the cryptic locations mentioned and the entrance will be in the Hall of Illusions. Turn on a magic mirror and we’ll be Through the Looking Glass. Just like Alice.
As always, the adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time, and Game On!
By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes – The Three Witches – Macbeth, Act 4, scene 1