The Darklantern Circus wanders from town to town, performing for only a night or two before moving on. Even in a world lousy with magicians, there is something magical about the skill and cleverness on display.

Yet, the performers have their own agendas. The Circus is a front for a ring of thieves that never stay in one place long enough to be caught. And there are even more plots and plans within...


The Darklantern Circus is a game for an estimated 3-5 players. One may be the Referee--much like a ringmaster, they direct attention to appropriate areas, but they don't participate in the reaction. Experienced groups may forego this role, sharing its burden among themselves.

Play will require paper and writing utensils, a deck of "cards" to write on (blank index cards are fine; it helps if you can shuffle them) and paper for note taking. You may also want physical tokens to represent Story Points. In theory, this game should work as a LARP.

First the players should collectively brainstorm some parameters of the setting. This is the first step in creating a shared world that the players can all enjoy.

The world--what is the technology level, population density? There is probably at least a little magic, but how much is there?

The circus--A guild of performers, a gypsy caravan? How public or secret are their performances? Could there be, for example, vampires in the circus? If so, are they beings that the public at large knows about?

Each player should create a character. This character is both a circus performer--acrobat, magician, contortionist, animal trainer or such--and a thief. (While the circus certainly includes stagehands, janitors and perhaps even accountants, they are never player characters.) Mechanically, a character has 15 points to divide between any combination of Skills; each Skill has a rating from 0 to 5. NOTE: Skill values will NEVER change during play!

Also, each character has a Fame value, which starts at 0. They also start with a number of Story Points equal to the total number of players.

Each character has an Ambition they are attempting to complete. More on this later, though; at this point in the Preparation process you need only consider the character's Skills and values, though you can certainly begin thinking about an Ambition at this time.

LIST OF SKILLS (and some practical applications thereof)

Acrobatics (tumbling, gymnastics)
Weightlifting (strength, endurance)
Contortionism (agility)
Escapology (untying ropes, lockpicking)
Stage Magic (misdirection, sleight of hand)
Clowning (misdirection, fast talk)
Animal Handling (riding, calming exotic animals)

Notable figures: At this point each player should think up a brief description of a notable figure in the world; a governor, a famous knight, an infamous brothel madam, some such. Some more details about the world will naturally fall out of this process.

Ambitions: Each character has an Ambition they are hoping to achieve. Think about what your character values the most, then think of a concrete goal they can achieve to support that. It could be the heist of a valuable object, it could be revenge, it could be gaining the support of the shadowy Lord of Thieves (if your world has one, that is). Referencing characters created by the other players, either performers or notable figures, is highly encouraged. HOWEVER, no character's Ambition can block another character's Ambition! You cannot endeavor to kill another character, nor destroy the artifact they were trying to steal. In other words, it must be possible for every character to fulfill their Ambitions at once. (It doesn't have to be easy, of course.)

Circus Deck: The last part of Preparation is the Circus Deck. Each player writes a Circus Upgrade on a card and places it in the Circus Deck. After successful Story Scenes, one Upgrade is drawn and becomes "part" of the Circus. The Upgrades are not replaced in the Deck; when it's exhausted, have everyone write down new Upgrades. (Players may discuss Upgrades if they wish, but players may always write down and contribute their Upgrades secretly.) If a duplicate of a non-stackin Upgrade is drawn, draw another one to replace it.


Tumbling Mats (+1 to Acrobatics rolls, stacks)
Spotters (+1 to Weightlifting rolls, stacks)
Physical Therapists (+1 to Contortionism rolls, stacks)
Locksmith (+1 to Escapology rolls, stacks)
Magician Seamstress (+1 to Stage Magic rolls, stacks)
Costuming (+1 to Clowning rolls, stacks)
Grooms (+1 to Animal Handling rolls, stacks)
Mermaid (mermaid sweat allows performers to breathe underwater during scenes, does not stack)
Trained Horses (can get to and from distance places quickly, does not stack)
Advertising (+1 to rolls to get people to believe you, does not stack)


Play is a series of Scenes. Each Scene has a Difficulty and an Objective, that may be successful or not. Each Scene is "called for" by a player on behalf of their character.

The calling player is decided by an auction of Story Points. Each player's Fame is considered a penalty to their bid. (Thus, a bid of 3 Points/Fame 2 loses to 2 Points/Fame 0; really, it only matters if players have different Fame scores.) The WInner spends the Story Points bid (Fame doesn't matter, you spend the Points you bid). The Scene's Difficulty is equal to the Story Points ultimately spent.

The calling character holds the Darklantern, an object that casts light which may be seen only by those sworn to the Circus. (The player may get to hold a physical object representing this, if you like.)

When the calling player is chosen, one card is drawn from the Circus Deck. The player then decides what sort of scene they want. (Upon successful completion of the scene, that upgrade becomes part of the Circus; see Circus Upgrades). A Scene should have an objective that has some bearing on the calling character's Ambition, but it should also focus on a thiefly operation given to the characters by their superiors in the Circus.

When the scene starts, the Referee gets a number of Penalty Points equal to the Difficulty plus 1, to be spent to make resolutions more difficult. When the Penalty Points are all spent, the scene must be resolved as being successful or not! The Referee must spend at least one point on each resolution, but cannot spend them all on the first resolution of the scene.

If the Story Scene is successful, the calling character's Fame increases. Also, any participating characters get 3 Story Points. (This will quite likely be all of them!) Each Story Scene should have a number of problems that require resolution; both resolution through "basic" actions of the characters, but definitely a few that require the resolution mechanic.

Non-Story Scenes: The calling player may call for a non-Story Scene. This scene will not increase Fame or cause an Upgrade draw; however, at the end of the scene, all players gain a number of Story Points equal to the Difficulty, whether it was successful or not (possibly in addition to the award of 3 for a successful scene!).


Resolution is meant to be simple, but with a couple interesting twists. A character's skill, plus modifiers, is compared with the task difficulty, plus modifiers. If the skill is at least the difficulty, the character succeeds; if not, they fail. However, if they overshoot their target by 3 or more, they acquire a Consequence. (NOTE: Any character could be involved in resolutions, not just the calling character.)

1. Task is identified (picking a lock, for example). Player may pay 1 Story Point to estimate the difficulty ("Locks are usually difficulty 2, but this one looks complicated").

2. Other players decide if they wish to assist. If at least one player does, and can make a good case for it, the player gets a +1.

3. If the calling character has a Consequence that could interfere, and any player calls for it (Referee, other players, calling player--anyone!), the player gets -1.

3. Player secretly decides number of Story Points to spend. Referee secretly decides number of Penalty Points to spend. (Hold tokens secretly in hand, write down on slip of paper, something like that.)

4. Reveal Points spent.

5. Modified Skill = Skill of character, +1 if assistance, -1 if Consequence, +Story Point(s).

6. Modified Difficulty = Scene Difficulty, +Task Difficulty, +Penalty Points.

7. If Modified Skill >= Modified Difficulty, resolution is successful!

8. If Modified Skill >= Modified Difficulty + 3, calling character gets a Consequence.

If the Referee spent all their Penalty Points on this roll, its success or failure is used to judge whether the Scene is ultimately successful.


Consequences are negative results of actions. A character who fails an athletic sort of roll could acquire a scar or a limp; failing a social or mental roll could result in a phobia or tic. These have the potential to interfere with future actions (see Resolution). Consequences are permanent and should be recorded on the character sheet.

Death and Victory

If a character loses a roll, AND they spent their last Story Points on the roll, AND a Consequence gave a penalty to the roll, the character dies during this scene and is removed from play. (NOTE: Given that the player chooses when to spent Story Points, character death is always under player control!)

If a character's Fame reaches 3, they have achieved their Ambition. The character may have one more scene where they work out the results of their Ambition, then they are removed from play. (NOTE: You may want to aim to complete your Ambition over the course of 3 Story Scenes!)

If a player's character is removed from play, they may immediately create a new character--identical to the previous character, or a new one. Fame and Story Points are as a starting character.

Character death or victory results in a character being replaced with a very similar character, but with starting Fame and Story points.


By John Evans, 2012
For Game Chef 2012,
Can winning by too much be a good thing?
Competitive story overlay
Luck/karma resolution system for LARPs
A bit of inspiration from all sorts of RPGs, most likely Diaspora, and also the novel Night Circus by Erin Morgenstren; probably Failbetter Games' Fallen London, too