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Action Scenes!

Action Scene: Battle at the Big Top

by Dan Bayn
Mar 01,2005


Action Scene: Battle at the Big Top

Ling's right hand clenches involuntarily; a samurai sword materializes in its skeletal grip. Her grandfather's spirit always senses danger before she does. Violence was his whole world, back when he had a body of his own. The inky darkness inside the Big Top is broken by a single spotlight in the center ring. It illuminates a young Chinese girl, unconscious and tied to a large wooden target. Even Ling knows this is an ambush...

Come one, come all, to the Greatest Brawl On Earth!!! The circus isn't just a great fight location... it's four great fight locations: the big top, midway, side show, and rides. Each is as cluttered with potential enemies and stunt opportunities as a carny's tent is with empty beer bottles.

Big Top - The center ring is home to a wide variety of acts, so you'll find an even wider variety of props in its general vicinity. Throwing knives, whips, lassos, and torches are standard equipment. The clowns' arsenal includes juggling pins, balloons, seltzer bottles, magic props, and fake knives or swords. Also keep your eye out for animals like lions, tigers, and bears. Trained attack monkeys make particularly fearsome opponents!

Now, let me draw your attention up, up, up to the high wire act! There's much death to defy high above the center ring, whether you're swinging from the trapeze or duking it out on the tight rope. If your enemies are the resident acrobats, prepare to be tossed around like a rag doll. One failed roll shouldn't mean certain death, but don't count on a safety net to break your fall!

Midway - This is where you'll find the games of "chance" like ring toss and skeeball. The objects used to play the games make decent weapons: baseballs, bean bags, bottles, plastic rings, mallets, etc. The low-quality prizes, not so much: giant combs, stuffed animals, x-ray specs, and so forth. Candy and other delectables can be used in a pinch: beer, hotdogs, snow cones, cotton candy, ad nauseam.

The midway is always full of bystanders. Count on most of them being slightly to embarrassingly inebriated. This is also where you'll find most of the carnies, and let me tell ya... you don't want to get on their bad side! Any villain who wants to escape through a midway will knock people over, steal their stuff, scream obscenities, and otherwise prepare a warm welcome for anyone following their trail of discontent.

Side Shows - Often adjacent to the midway, side shows are where you'll find super-powered thugs like the World's Strongest Man and the dreaded Lobster Boy. Snake-charmers, psychics, pinheads, and geeks abound. That guy who tries to talk you into seeing the show is called a Barker, but beware his bite!

Rides - The most famous carnival ride is also the least exciting: the ferris wheel. Far more fun is the tilt-a-whirl! Of course, you'll have to get out of that little pod thing before you can have a proper fight, but a rotating battlefield that rapidly changes inclination is worth the trouble. Plus, you can bounce people's heads off the hemispherical pods.

Rollercoasters range in scale and complexity from the wooden rigs of the 1800's to today's colossal monstrosities. They're pretty good places to make a trade (assuming you don't need to talk much) and turn into death traps at the drop of a hat. Fights could take place on the ride itself, on the tracks, or in the rigging.

Swing rides are useful for a few stunts. Each passenger's chair is suspended from 2-4 long chains. All the ride does is spin the chairs around and lift them off the ground. Fighting from the swings might be interesting, if you're close enough to kick your adversary or get a hold of their chair. You could also grab onto a swing after falling off a rollercoaster; unless you can launch yourself towards a convenient tree or umbrella, you'll just have to hold on until the ride comes to a full and complete stop.

The Funhouse/Haunted House has been done to death, but you can breath new life into it by giving your villains enough lead time to don costumes and insinuate themselves among the volunteers. Now, your players will have to discriminate between the fake attackers (who try to look real) and the real attackers (who try to look fake). For instance, a chainsaw-wielding mental patient could turn out to be nothing more than a guy with cardboard prop, strobe lights, and sound effects... but the frightened virgin chained to the wall is packin' heat! If your villains are actually supernatural, you the lines blur even further.

The Genre Mash

The Evil Carnival is a pulp mainstay and no stranger to the realm of fantasy. You know the drill: the freaks are bona fide monsters, the Ringleader is in league with the Devil, and the gypsies know more than they're telling. The rides may be less elaborate, but they're also easier to sabotage. (See HBO's "Carnivale" for more inspiration than anyone should ever need.)

To my knowledge, there's not a whole lot of precedent for this kind of circus in sci-fi settings. The rise of VR pretty much puts funhouses and rollercoasters out of business. Plus, who needs a traveling show when you can beam performances across the globe, if not the galaxy? However, if you've got a frontier feel goin' on in a space opera setting, you might be able to get away with an alien carnival, traveling the stars in search of who-knows-what. Just imagine the freak shows!

Hostile Tactics

Any respectable circus has as many innocent bystanders as ways to endanger them. Villain-types can derail rollercoasters, set the funhouse on fire, toss a grenade into the tilt-a-whirl, start an animal stampede, or take a clown hostage, to name a few. If there are valuables at stake, a clever thief could hide their loot among the prizes in a game booth or drop it in the taffy tank. The disguise and ambush options in a haunted house have already been discussed, and getting the carnies pissed off at the PCs is always a good plan.

Lights, Camera...

Ling tries to remain alert as she approaches the center ring, despite the thunder of blood in her ears. "Ladies and gentlemen," a voice booms from the blackness, "May I direct your attention to the center ring, where the Dead Man's Hand fights for her life!"

A quartet of mounted jugglers emerge from the shadows, knives dancing in their hands. Their horses gallop around the perimeter of the ring, encircling her. Ling shuts her eyes against the inevitable attack, but her possessed hand is rock steady. As if on cue, all four jugglers hurl a knife inward! Ling moves at her grandfather's command, rushing forward and swinging in a wide arc. Two daggers ricochet off the blade, passing over Ling's head and sailing back towards the edge of the ring, where they impale two of the jugglers! The other two knives land harmlessly at Ling's feet.

The remaining assailants dismount and unleash a storm of steel on their would-be victim, seeming to produce new blades out of the ether. Her eyes still firmly shut, Ling dances around them with supernatural precision. The sword sweeps low as she nears the first juggler, lopping off his feet at the ankles. With a spin and a swing, Ling separates his head from the rapidly descending shoulders. The last juggler is running like a jackrabbit before she dares open her eyes.

The bloody victim before her almost makes Ling retch, but she holds it together long enough to reach the girl and cut her restraints. Her dead hand stabs backwards before Ling even hears him descend... or feels the weight attached to her belt. The attacker is soundly run through, but Ling is yanked violently into the air! A sandbag nearly hits her on its way down. When it lands, Ling is left dangling almost a hundred feet in the air.

Human forms flit in and out of the darkness, testing her defenses. Her grandfather's sword remains motionless; a samurai never strikes until the proper moment. Hanging by his knees from the trapeze, an acrobat hurtles towards her with an axe in his hands. The samurai sword halts his swing, cleaving the axe from its handle, and Ling grabs him around the waist with her left arm. The sword's back swing cuts the trapeze loose and the added weight drags them back down to terra firma. Ling kicks her attacker in the face while her grandfather cuts the rope. The sandbag descends once again and pounds the acrobat's head into the dirt.

Ling helps the girl to her feet and they begin to hobble their way out. A crowd of clowns move to block their escape, but Ling just levels the bloody blade in their direction and fixes them with a withering stare. They take their seltzer bottles and leave.

For our next act...

Saul "The Hammer" Hamilton lets the attendant lower the safety bar into his lap. He hates being restrained, but his contact insisted they make the trade on this damn rollercoaster. He sits one car ahead of Saul, hiding his face behind a wad of cotton candy. As the train trundles up the first incline, Saul removes an envelope from his pocket and hands it forward.

His contact snatches the envelope with sticky fingers, eagerly counts the bills inside, and stuffs them his a bag at his feet. He then produces a thick file folder and holds it over his shoulder, but Saul doesn't take it. He's busy struggling against the garrote wire looped around his throat! With the lap bar holding him down, all he can do is claw at the man behind him, hoping to gouge his eyes. Saul feels something warm wash over his fingers and the garrote loosens enough for Saul to wrest it from his attacker's hands. He whips it around like a weighted chain and breaks the man's nose with its iron handle.

Oblivious to it all, his contact waves the package impatiently, then takes it back as the rollercoaster slips over the precipice. This is not the best moment to force up the safety bar, but Saul's not paying attention to the ride. His seat lurches out from under him as he twists around. He manages to catch himself, but now he's sprawled between his car and the one behind! The track whizzes passed his face like a gigantic belt sander!

When the ride hits the next incline and slows down, Broken Nose crawls over Saul like he's a Jacob's Ladder and climbs into the forward car. He grabs the package, clocks Saul's contact across the temple, and leaps onto a neighboring track. Saul hauls himself back into the car, but it's too late to follow the thug. The rollercoaster has dipped down below the neighboring track. As they thunder up the next incline, Saul hops into the front car with his contact. The poor bastard's eyes are still rolling around in their sockets. "I told you this was a stupid idea," Saul says as he nabs a handful of cotton candy. "Next time, we meet at the bus station."

At the top, The Hammer flips over the side of the car and drops onto a train going the other way. The momentum knocks him off his feet and into the lap of a screaming woman. Saul offers her the cotton candy, but takes her continued screaming as a polite "No." The car races down the track, quickly catching up to the fleeing thug. Saul bids his car-mate goodbye and takes off across the pavement.

Broken Nose cuts through the Tilt-A-Whirl line like an Olympic hurdler and shoves the operator out of his way, knocking the kid unconscious. Saul follows in his wake, leaps off the entrance gate, and catches his quarry with a flying tackle! The package skitters across the floor, propelled by the ride's spinning and tilting. The thug lands a mean elbow smash on Saul's jaw and rolls him into one of the egg-shaped carts, where a couple of kids pummel him with their stuffed octopi.

Giving the kids his best "Don't make me come back there" look, Saul regains his feet. Thanks to a weekend course in Drunken Boxing, he manages to adopt a reasonable fighting stance. Broken Nose doesn't cope nearly as well; the floor constantly shifts beneath his feet, throwing him off balance. The Hammer comes down without hesitation, driving his opponent back with a series of off-kilter hooks and jabs. When the poor bastard backs himself into another cart, Saul bounces his head off its metal shell, folds him over, and brings his knee up to meet his face. Broken Nose is out for the count!

Next Month: Going to Church!

Loath Your Fellow Man

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