Friday, February 24, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - The Final Analysis

Horror on the Orient Express is general considered to be one of the best horror roleplaying campaigns of all time.  It is often grouped with the ‘big three’ a list of epic Call of Cthulhu campaigns that include Masks of Nyarlathotep and Beyond the Mountains of Madness

The original Horror on the Orient Express campaign won the Origins award for Best Role Playing Adventure in 1991, while the revised edition picked up the Gold ENnie Award for Best Adventure in 2015.  It currently has a 4.5/5 rating on DriveThruRPG, 6.95/10 on RPG.net and 8.47/10 on RPGGeek.com.

In the following post I conclude my lengthy review of this campaign.  Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this classic Call of Cthulhu campaign.

Background 
In 2012, Chaosium turned to Kickstarter choosing “a re-imagining of the iconic Horror on the Orient Express, originally released by Chaosium in 1991”.  This was the Chaosium's first kickstarter offering,  promising delivery in 2013, and setting the revised campaign up as the first campaign for a new 7th edition of its classic Call of Cthulhu ruleset.  

A writers blog tracked the progress behind the scenes and provides an interesting insight into the process of constructing this product.

Ultimately the ambitious revision of Horror on the Orient Express proved to be one of the two projects that led Chaosium to kickstarter itself to death, leading to a significant change in the management of the company and final delivery of PDFs in 2014 and printed products in mid 2015.

Common Themes
Across the chapter reviews I make two consistent criticisms of Horror on the Orient Express, first that there remains a degree of railroading that unnecessarily removes player agency in some pivotal scenes.  Second, that the campaign material is insufficient for the scope of its ambition and places an unnecessarily high burden on the Keeper to invent or improvise material on the fly to keep the game flowing smoothly.

Because of the consistency of these themes, I thought it would be worth taking a look at the context, historic and contemporary, for these elements.  When Horror on the Orient Express was first published, Call of Cthulhu was in its 4th edition, so that rulebook seems a good place to start.

"Call of Cthulhu should not be a rigidly set game experience.  The keeper should have firm control over what is happening, though he should remain flexible and capable of adapting to the changing circumstances of his players' plans and abilities.  A good keeper always will modify his original plan to accommodate his players.  While Call of Cthulhu requires the use of scenarios, this does not mean that the scenario cannot be changed by an imaginative keeper. 

A keeper for Call of Cthulhu thus must be creative and flexible.  He should have a strong sense or the mysterious and horrifying, and should be fairly articulate as well, possessing the ability to describe well.  Call of Cthulhu is perhaps more demanding than other games in its requirements for a keeper, but that is a function both of the nature of the game and its desire to maximise the pleasure of playing it." -Call of Cthulhu 4th edition (1989) p.90

So while the idea of flexibility is clearly established, the burden is squarely placed on the Keeper, who must bear responsibility for improvising to serve the demands of the game.  This is consistent with how the 1991 edition of Horror on the Orient Express approaches the role of Keeper.

The problem with this attitude is that the enjoyment of the players is likely to be hugely varied depending on the experience, disposition and temperament of the Keeper.  Players who become frustrated or disengaged from the game are likely to quit, and form a negative view both of the campaign and of Call of Cthulhu (and perhaps of roleplaying in general).  You don’t need to go far to find accounts of horror on the Orient Express where the campaign has stalled, or even derailed in the early chapters.

Modern publications often identify this risk and suggest that  investigators have more agency in resolving scenarios and that the process be collaborative.  Consider this guidance from the most recent edition of the rules, some 26 years later:

"Most players, as they become more familiar with the game and confident in their investigators, will want to diverge from the linear scenario. Rather than follow the obvious clues laid out for them by the Keeper, they will want to follow up a different clue or even come up with a line of enquiry entirely of their own devising.


Suddenly the adventure is sidetracked and the Keeper may be tempted to contrive something to get the story back on its intended track rather than go where the players are heading. If the players are compelled back to the Keeper’s prepared plot, they will come to feel that their contribution is of little value and that they are simply following a preordained story rather than creating their own. is means that it’s time to look at running scenarios in a non-linear way...

Non-linear adventures give the player's choice in how to proceed.  Every fact that  expected things will happen because of the players’ choices makes for a more exciting game for everyone—the Keeper included. In this sense, the story really does become a collaboration between the Keeper and players" -Call of Cthulhu 7th edition (2015) p.217

This begs the question: just how much has a campaign like Horror on the Orient Express shifted to reflect the two decade advance in gaming theory and practice?

In reviewing this campaign I have taken the approach of how the game would play for an inexperienced or time-poor Keeper, and reviewed each chapter against a best-practice standard, where the Keeper is well supported, the scenario allows several options for resolution and the investigators have a degree of agency.

The Final Analysis
You can read my individual reviews of each chapter of the campaign following the links below.  Overall, the revised Horror on the Orient Express retains much of the charm, and a few of the problems, of its predecessor.  In my assessment:
  • The handouts for this campaign are abundant and beautiful, although there are a few noticeable omissions; for example, a reference sheet to track the baleful influence of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, summary sheets of key NPCs to allow keepers to set skill difficulty levels at and allow combat to be more easily resolved without paging back and forth through the book, and flowcharts showing how the clues link to key scenes.
  • The new text significantly improves the older material, particularly the inclusion of clearly signposted options for when the plot may become derailed, and the addition of more options and flexibility at several points in the campaign, particularly in the final scenes.
  • All of the new scenarios add something unique and interesting to the campaign.  They are well worth the time invested, although many are pitched with more of an action focus, which may be a refreshing change for some groups, and not to the taste of others.
  • Despite these improvements, there are still some chapters which deprive the investigators of agency and which are resolved entirely as a set-piece with player input confined or ignored.
  • In addition, several sequences throughout the campaign place a heavy load on the Keeper, whether through extensive monologue or description, or managing a large cast of NPCs.
  • There are also missed opportunities to include material that would help the Keeper to better evoke the setting and improvise action (for example detailed rules to support action sequences aboard the train) .
  • The ending of the campaign is still problematic, and while an option has been provided to allow for an alternative resolution, this is not smoothly integrated into the original material, meaning the players may miss some of the highlights of the original campaign.
  • These elements significantly detract from the playability of the campaign and make it a poor choice for an inexperienced or time-poor keeper.

The original Horror on the Orient Express campaign was always going to be renovated, rather than subject to wholesale change, and in that regard the authors have wholly succeeded.  The revised campaign retains much of its original charm, including some of the most memorable horror scenes in roleplaying, while also improving the playability of the more problematic elements. 

The new scenarios are great, and add some interesting back-story linked to the campaign, while also offering a slightly different style and approach supported by pre-generated characters.  This allows for a much longer run of the campaign, while also giving Keepers the option of running each scenario as a stand-alone offering.

However, In my view, rather than commission new scenarios to extend the campaign, the authors should first have commissioned a Keepers Guide to Horror on the Orient Express to address the shortcomings above.  I suggest that this would have made the campaign accessible to a wider audience and improved the overall experience for many of those purchasing this epic campaign.   

Horror on the Orient Express was already longer than many other similar products, and while as a backer I certainly appreciated all the new material offered during the kickstarter in 2012, I would have preferred the foundations of the campaign were more thoroughly strengthened, improved and supplemented with additional material, before new additions made to further extend the campaign.

A good example of this can be seen in another epic Call of Cthulhu campaign, The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, where a third party companion was kickstarted by Sixtystone Press following a deluxe reprint of the original campaign by Chaosium in 2010. 

Perhaps, one day, the same thing will happen for Horror on the Orient Express, although I fear the  aura of extravagance and luxury associated with this product, while appropriately synonymous with the train upon which this campaign is based, has also become something of a symbol of publisher overreach and failure, making any future publisher extremely cautious about further investment in products bearing this name, and crowd-funding especially.
So, if you’ve read this review and you plan to press ahead and run the campaign for your group, here are my recommendations to improve the experience.

The first thing I recommend for any Keeper planning to run this campaign is an open discussion with all the players about what kind of game the group want to play.  Ideally this would cover the focus, turnover and duration of the commitment.

Focus
If you run this as written, the campaign is a primarily investigative outing, where following clues is the main activity (whereas I would describe Masks of Nyarlathotep as primarily an action-adventure outing and Beyond the Mountains of Madness as primarily about exploration).  So it’s a good idea to make sure that the group are happy to play a lengthy campaign where they will be sifting through clues, keeping notes and interviewing NPCs on a regular basis.

Turnover
Next, you might want to discuss what level of investigator turnover the group would enjoy.  As scripted, each player is likely to go through something like 1-3 characters through the course of the campaign (not counting the pre-generated characters).  If this is the style of game the group wants to play, then it makes sense to discuss options for investigator contingency, and perhaps even create some back-up characters at the outset who have a plausible reason for joining the hunt for the simulacrum (as suggested in the campaign book I).

If your group is more interested in exploring the development of the characters across the entire course of the campaign, then you probably need to provide a means to boost their chances of survival (for example, give each character a ‘Mark of Destiny’ that they can expend to survive a fatal outcome, and add one more of these at each step where characters are likely to perish (the Doom Train, Sofia etc.)  In addition you should employ the optional Luck rules to allow the investigators to manipulate their chances of success at key moments, and roll luck at the end of each game session.

Duration
The campaign is long and the full campaign is very long.  It took our group 35 three hour sessions to play end-to-end averaging 2-3 sessions per chapter.  For some groups a six month run can be a long time, so be sure to tailor your experience to the availability of the players.  The new, optional scenarios are an easy option for removal if time is pressing.  You could probably also remove Milan, Dream Zagreb and conclude the campaign in Constantinople using the optional ending to abridge it further.

Out of the Box
The box set contains a great many wonderful components, but here are some other things I prepared for my run in order to enhance the game experience:
  • Enlarge, print and laminate the maps for each city and put these on the table each session that the investigators are in that city to help everyone understand the geography and better evoke the place.
  • Create character sheets for the pre-generated characters in each of the ‘other era’ scenarios using the auto-calculation character sheets (available free from Chaosium).
  • Create small-size portraits for each major NPC who features in the game, using the pictures in the PDF, supplemented by online photos.  These are a useful way for players to track the NPC’s and invaluable in each of the ‘murder on the train’ scenarios.
  • Create a soundtrack for each chapter.  These days wireless technology makes creating and switching between looping playlists, and playing through portable speakers, extremely easy and unlikely to distract the keeper.  In addition to music of the era appropriate to each part of Europe I added a train effects track, and some horror and action playlists for the climax of each chapter.
  • Create a clearfile or folder with all the handouts you need to provide to the Investigators.  Create a second clearfile or folder for the investigators with backups of their character  sheets (in case of forgetful players), dreamlands character sheets and space for the players to preserve all the handouts and refer to them at the table
  • Get some miniatures (or counters from a board-game),  to track the investigators relative locations when on the Orient Express using the provided train handouts. This helps ensure that the players mental image of their investigators location matches that of the Keeper.

With all that said, it’s time to disembark from the review, and exit via the platform (mind the gap).  Thanks for your interest, and all the best with your own Horror on the Orient Express campaign experience.

Some key stats from this journey:
Words in this review: 27,925
Sessions taken to run the campaign: 35
Months taken to run the campaign: 20
Players participating in the campaign: 7
Investigators Missing In Action: 1
Investigators Killed in Action: 1
Investigators Indefinitely Insane: 1
Players favourite chapter: Constantinople (330), Venice a close second
Keepers favourite chapter: Venice

Reports from the Orient Express - Istanbul 2013

This is a review of the Istanbul 2013 chapter of the revised Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on the Orient Express (Chaosium: 2014) based on actual play.  I intend to review each chapter of this venerable campaign as we play through it, highlighting what I see as strengths and weaknesses, and providing some suggestions along the way for what I’d do differently if running it again.  Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this classic Call of Cthulhu campaign.

The Simulacrum Unbound

This modern day scenario allows the players a chance to create new characters, then relive some of the highlights of their previous investigators time aboard the Orient Express.  They must also escape a strange pocket dimension, unmask the villain and defeat their evil plans.
This is an optional modern era (2013) scenario that is a nice way to conclude the extended Horror on the Orient Express campaign, allowing the players access to more familiar technologies and European politics, while maintaining much of the charm of the 1920’s era Orient Express (the train cars after all have been lovingly restored).

However, it is surprising that no pre-generated characters are offered for this scenario, despite the fact that pre-generated characters have been supplied for all of the other supplementary scenarios set in other eras (Invictus, Dark Ages & Gaslight).  Although one of the characters must be related to the original investigators (a nice touch) there seems to be no real reason to miss this detail.  Happily almost any kind of investigator can be created for the modern scenario, as all have won a prize as part of the launch of a new online travel site lux-vista.com.

The scenario is divided into three parts.  In the first part the investigators arrive, mingle with the other passengers and engage in some sightseeing.  This is a good opportunity for the Keeper to help introduce the large cast of 15 NPCs, particularly those who are also competition winners, and soon to become victims.

For no good reason I can see the NPCs are overwhelmingly (80%) male with no female NPCs among the contest winners (a similar ratio to Blue Train, Black Night, while by contrast, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express - written after the author had recently completed a journey on the Orient Express - has only 54% male suspects) . 

As with the other murder on the train scenarios the background information and plots provided for the NPCs are probably sufficient for much of this part of the scenario, but considerably lacking in terms of helping the Keeper portray how each NPC reacts in the next part of the scenario.

The number independent plots to keep the investigators interested, and throw suspicion on the other passengers, are sparse.  Presumably this is because half of the NPCs on the train have been selected at random, and therefore don’t know each other, nor have not planned in advance for the trip.   While a identity theft and celebrity stalking are interesting, modern-day, storylines neither seem likely to seriously shift suspicion from Milton, the architect of the competition, and man responsible for the presence of the investigators aboard the Orient Express.

The second part of the scenario takes the investigators to a strange pocket dimension,
where they find that they are stranded.  Attempts to leave the train are halted by the mysterious faceless soldiers.  Meanwhile, strange fragments of the past revisit the contemporary passengers of the Orient Express.  This is a fantastic device, which allows the group to remember and revisit some of the highlights of the campaign.  This should prove a great epilogue to the campaign, as Fenalik or the Jigsaw Prince return once more to (briefly) terrify the investigators.  Keepers can also present the investigators from the original campaign and confront the players with their own impressions of them .

The problem here is that the scenario works against itself.  In order for the players to gather the necessary clues to unmask the murderer, and thereby return to their own dimension, the other passengers must be murdered.  However, as soon as the investigators realise that one of their number is trying to kill them off, one by one, its highly likely they will take steps to prevent that from happening (ensuring that the NPCs remain together for example). Consider Murder on the Orient Express where Hercule Poirot sensibly takes the precaution of quarantining all the passengers to the restaurant car while he conducts his inquiries.

This means that to advance the plot, the Keeper must actively subvert or prevent the investigators from achieving this aim for long enough to allow the subsequent murders to occur, despite the fact that only one NPC has a motive for wanting this to occur.   If the Keeper applies a heavy hand, the game may devolve into a series of arguments between NPCs and investigators.  If the Keeper is more deft in their handling, having the NPCs repeatedly flee or take refuge in their own rooms when the fragmentary events  occur (like blackshirts boarding the train, or Fenalik appearing) then this may be more persistent frustration than outright vexation.

I suggest that this plot would work more smoothly if the other NPCs had both a reason to be secretive, and appear suspicious.  Thus, the investigators will have a challenging time corralling them to remain together and working out who the murderer is.  For example, possible back stories could include:
  • an addiction
  • a con artist
  • an affair
  • an art thief
  • suicidal tendencies
  • an undercover cop etc. etc.
Although less realistic than the NPCs presented in the scenario, I suggest this would work better to support the aim of the scenario; to permit the murders to occur over the following days.  A less extreme option is to change the identity of the murderer.

Instead of John Milton, it is Dr Fabian Wyss, the Swiss Plastic Surgeon who uncovered the story of the simulacrum while researching skin grafting in the early 20th Century and formulated the insane plan to create the meat simulacrum.  An angel investor to a range of internet start-ups Wyss invests in Lux-Vista and convinces Milton to arrange the competition and invite the competition winners, including the investigators.

This allows the investigators to suspect Milton early on without derailing the scenario, and Wyss to fame Milton if he's in danger of being discovered.  In addition Wyss might reasonably have more access to the train and passengers as the only medical doctor, and be more likely to be trusted by the investigators (as a reliable source of First Aid, and the person who can help with post-mortem examination).  

Milton never actually met Wyss, all investment and communication occurring through a solicitor - so he can plead his innocence if confronted, but not reveal Wyss' identity beyond saying he was encouraged to arrange the trip by his wealthy European angel investor.

The third part of the scenario, a final showdown, is dependant on Milton fulfilling his plan and opening a Gate to the now derelict Shunned Mosque, where he has assembled the meat simulacrum, in grisly parody of Selim's actions almost a century earlier.

The question of how things resolve depends a lot on how the investigators interact during the first part of the scenario.  On one level, they have no reason to trust each other more than any other passenger and no particular motivation to investigate the mystery beyond needing to get home.  There is no shared history or reason to work together.  On the other hand the players have probably just spent months, if not years, playing investigators who have risked life and sanity together; so unless the players make a conscious effort in their play, they are likely to fall back into the familiar groove that got them through Blue Train, Black Night and quickly regroup.

If they work together, they have every chance of ending the scenario on their own terms, even before the final act.  The villain is dangerous individually, but not overwhelming when facing a group.  If they act in isolation, or are hesitant to get involved, the villain has every chance to fulfil their plan, and claim several investigators lives along the way.

PROS

  • The idea of introducing flashbacks form the core campaign, that the players can interact with, is genius and a great way to finish the full campaign experience. 
  • The setting and plot are imaginative and interesting.
  • The scenario is flexible about resolution.
  • The fold out carriage maps really shine in this scenario.




CONS
  • Roleplaying the large cast of NPCs is challenging and the Keeper is likely to need to improvise once initial material is exhausted
  • There are few other plausible suspects beyond the villain.
  • To be completed as written, the Keeper must actively seek to frustrate investigator efforts to protect the other passengers.
  • There are no pre-generated characters.


In summary, despite trapping the investigators, this scenario largely allows the investigators to resolve things on their own terms.  As an epilogue to the main campaign it offers a great way to relive some of the highlights of the past chapters, while also presenting a fresh and interesting twist on the original story.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez
Overview & London
Paris
Lausanne

Milan
Venice


Friday, February 10, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - London Again and the Dreamlands Express

This is a review of the London Again and Dreamlands Express chapters of the revised Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on the Orient Express (Chaosium: 2014) based on actual play.  I intend to review each chapter of this venerable campaign as we play through it, highlighting what I see as strengths and weaknesses, and providing some suggestions along the way for what I’d do differently if running it again.  Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this classic Call of Cthulhu campaign.

The Fog Lifts

The final chapter of the Orient Express campaign provides Keepers with the opportunity to reflect a common trope in many Hollywood movies; just when you are certain the villain is dead, they come back once more to threaten the heroes.  The twist here is that this will only occur if the investigators inadvertently trigger it in their haste to be free of the simulacrum’s taint.

The investigators return to London is bittersweet; the campaign has turned full circle, and much has changed.  Some investigators may find their grip on sanity slipping away, while others haven't returned at all, perishing on the perilous journey across Europe.  The surviving investigators have now, most likely, recovered the Simulacrum that they painstakingly collected, and dispatched their nemesis, Mehmet, before he could complete his (slightly bizarre) plan to infiltrate the Royal family.

The link to return to Mehmet’s shop is somewhat tenuous, especially considering the length of time since the investigators were last in London (and the possibility that few of the characters who participated in the original London chapter remain); the scenario tries to compensate for this with a series of newspaper articles about disappearances in the vicinity of the shop, and the addition of a  pre-arranged cab driver, complete with badly spelled sign, hired to take Mehmet from the ferry to his shop.

Once they arrive at the shop, the investigators have a further monster to dispatch before they discover the final Simulacrum scrolls, lying on a desk, along with a handy English translation of the ritual of purification which will lift their corruption.  This is the contingency that Mehmet has prepared in case of his death. 

Now the investigators face a choice: perform the ritual using the handy translation provided, or spend more time studying the original source scrolls and create their own translation.  How the investigators decide to proceed is likely to depend on how much the keeper has been portraying the effects of their  growing corruption (the rules in the previous chapter, while colourful, do not cover any actual mechanical penalties for the corruption).  Accordingly Keepers should consider, in advance, how they’d like the ending to play out and tailor elements, like the virulence of the corruption, to suit.   


If the investigators trigger the false scroll they face the Mehmet and the Skinless One and now finally have an opportunity to destroy the simulacrum (assuming they take the somewhat counter-intuitive leap to throwing pieces of the statue to the loathsome God).   This may result is a suitably epic conclusion to the core campaign as the simulacrum is destroyed and Mehmet destroyed once more. 

This may also frustrate some players and lead to more questions (why would the Skinless One destroy the Simulacrum now rather than strike down those who seek to prevent its further use? Why would Mehmet summon the Skinless One now, and not in the previous chapter?).  The answers are likely to be anchored in the fickle and unknowable nature of the Mythos deities and the arrogance of those who worship them.

Equally, if the investigators do not rush to perform the ritual, or do not have the simulacrum present, they can end the campaign on their own terms although they must continue to perform the ritual of purification every 100 hours and decide what to do with the simulacrum.

In summary, the final scenario of the core campaign offers the opportunity for an epic confrontation and the players can decide whether it ends with a whimper or a roar.  There are several options provided to allow for the variable ending of the previous chapter, and to reduce the toll on the least lucky investigator.  Regrettably, the only path to success if the trap is triggered is highly proscribed and may prove frustrating for some.  However, the return of the temporary reincarnation of the villain and presence of the Skinless One make for a classic horror climax, and if the players get into the spirit of it, a fantastic way to finish the core campaign. 

The Dreamlands Express

The Dreamlands Express is an optional scenario, intended to be interspersed along with regular instalments of the campaign, while the investigators slumber aboard the train.  This is a neat concept; as the investigators tumble into their beds, exhausted from their efforts to recover the simulacrum, they are transported to the surreal and bizarre dreamlands where fresh adventures await.  Here they must unmask a murderer, try to negotiate a dispute between representatives of two races, and defeat a wicked sorcerer.

This is a sizable scenario, and from the outset, I was concerned about how well the material would work – the surreal nature of the Dreamlands is at stark odds with many of the gritty elements of the main campaign and does require some descriptive effort from the Keeper. 

However, my concerns were quickly erased as the players loved the bizarre beast-train with its mix of outrageous luxury and many unsettling elements.  The Keeper is well supported to evoke this atmosphere with maps, both of the train and route, as well as nice touches, like a menu for each of the banquets held on board.     

The Dreamlands Express is probably not for all groups, but I do suggest that it’s worth a try as the sheer creativity and whimsy evoked by this scenario are worth exploring.  There are, however, some considerations that Keepers should take into account:
  • The core campaign already incorporates the Dreamlands in two scenarios, Lausanne and Dream Zagreb.  As echoes of the waking world, these scenarios present a considerably more grim and sanity shattering take on the Dreamlands, which may feel slightly at odds with the more fantasy tenor of most of the Dreamlands Express.
  • A character killed during this scenario would not be able to  participate in Dream Lausanne or Zagreb as "if a dreaming investigator dies in the Dreamlands, he or she is shocked awake and... can never again return to the Dreamlands." 
  • In addition the Lausanne chapter requires the investigators to recover waking-world items from the Dreamlands, suggesting the reverse is also possible  This may also give the investigators the idea that the Dream Orient Express is a preferable place to stash pieces of the Simulacrum, as they collect it, especially should the scenario be interspersed over several chapters as suggested.  The scenario provides no guidance for the Keepers about what effect this might have in the Dreamlands, or on Fenalik who is eagerly tracking the progress of the investigators.
  • A nice touch for the Dreamlands Express is that it might allow investigators who die during their pursuit of the simulacrum, to continue to live on in the Dreamlands, offering guidance to their fellow investigators, while also providing a poignant reminder of the cost of the hunt for the simulacrum.  For this reason I suggest that Keepers create a new Dreamlands character sheet for the investigators.
The first challenge that the investigators face is a slightly unusual murder on the train – a kitten has been killed by a shapeshifter, and the death may have serious political ramifications if not quickly solved.  I’ve previously made some comments about the ‘murder on the train’ device for scenarios in the campaign, and most of those comments apply here.  It should be noted that the suspect list is considerably shorter on the Dreamlands Express, lifting the load on the Keeper somewhat and making this a good  warm-up for the Blue Train, Black Night investigation.

Next, the investigators are drawn into a diplomatic dispute drawn straight from the pages of Lovecraft’s story “The Doom That Came To Sarnath”.  The investigators are encouraged to become advocates for the loathsome, victimised Beings of Ib, or befriend the haughty, cruel Sarnathians who will soon suffer the aforementioned Doom.  Some players are likely to relish the opportunity of engaging with this mix of literature and litigation, although as the outcome of this negotiation is established through the fiction, there is little scope to actually influence events which may disappoint those who go all out.

Finally, the train is set to conclude its journey in the Gulf of Nodens, where passengers are invited to cast off something they wish to be lose.  The investigators are encouraged to participate in this activity, creating an artefact of fears and disappointments specific to their character to cast into the Gulf.  Disappointingly, there are no rules for how this affects the investigator. 

The wicked Sorcerer, who has dogged the train on several past occasions in his effort to recover the ‘Lovers' Heart’, attacks the train as it is besieged by waves of phantom soldiers while approaching the Gulf.  Having the investigators risk their (dreaming) lives in this prolonged combat sequence, for poorly defined aims, seemed a poor way to finish what was otherwise and entertaining and enjoyable scenario, so I didn’t run it. 


For Keepers who, similarly, wish to skip the scripted action of the last section of the Dreamlands Express, I suggest the Dreamlands Express terminate in Serannian.  Here dreamers can climb to the heights of the tallest tower of the cloud castle and cast their dream artefact into the edge of the great whirlpool of the Gulf of Nodens.  Here the Sorcerer waits (alone) to confront Madame Bruja. If the investigators do not intervene, both tumble over the parapet locked in a grim struggle for the Lovers' Heart.

PROS


  • The setting is wonderful and highly imaginative and allows the investigators to interact with several elements of Lovecraft's stories . 
  • The NPCs have interesting stories and secrets that are likely to entertain.
  • The murder investigation and diplomacy are interesting and allow investigators to choose their level of engagement.
  • There are some great supporting materials.

CONS
  • This Dreamlands scenario doesn't seem well integrated into the Dreamlands components of the core campaign.
  • The high-action ending is at odds with the general whimsy and wonder of the rest of the scenario.
  • Investigators who die in this scenario are not able to participate in other Dreamlands campaign scenarios.
  • There are no rules for the Dream Artefacts created by the investigators.

In summary, this is a highly imaginative chapter.  It's probably not for all groups given the surrealist nature of the Dreamlands, but it's definitely worth a try and can be broken into parts and interspersed with other campaign chapters (although I don't recommend splitting up the murder investigation sessions).  Keepers who feel their players will not enjoy the combat sequence at the Gulf of Nodens might do well to heed Henri's warning and disembark in Serannian.



Friday, February 3, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - Across Europe

This is a review of the Across Europe (1923) chapter of the revised Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on the Orient Express (Chaosium: 2014) based on actual play.  I intend to review each chapter of this venerable campaign as we play through it, highlighting what I see as strengths and weaknesses, and providing some suggestions along the way for what I’d do differently if running it again.  Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this classic Call of Cthulhu campaign.

Blue Train, Black Night
In this scenario the investigators, recently escaped from their imprisonment in Constantinople, board the Orient  Express for a final, fateful, journey back across Europe.  They have 100 hours to unmask Mehmet, the architect of their woes, and recover the Sedefkar Simulacrum, before they suffer a terrible fate.  But their task is not easy, their foe can assume the appearance of others with his terrible skin magic, and hides in plain sight amidst the wealthy and well-to-do guests on the Orient Express.  Meanwhile every hour the investigators suffer the effects of their growing corruption.
This is one of three scenarios that uses a similar device to drive the action.  Echoing Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit “Murder on the Orient Express,” these scenarios (which also include the optional Dreamlands Express and the 2013 Across Europe Epilogue (the Gaslight scenario is similar but the villain travels openly)) present a number of other passengers, amongst which a villain is hiding.  The investigators must deduce which of their travelling companions is responsible before it’s too late.

This setup has many advantages; the story can move at the pace of the investigators, social skills come to the fore, and there is a chance for some in-depth roleplaying that provides a nice change of pace from the quest for clues in dusty libraries, or frantic combat with degenerate cultists.

However, it also poses a significant challenge for the Keeper, in that they must bring to life a large number of NPCs  (16 in this scenario, 10 in the Blood Red Fez, 7 in the Dreamlands Express and 15 in the modern era scenario), conveying their unique personalities, and revealing some part of their backstory as the journey continues.  This task becomes even more complex when several NPCs interact, or during scenes in the Dining or Salon cars where conceivably the whole cast may be present.

I suggest that the key to conveying a diverse cast in these scenarios is to personalise them in some way for the players, so it is clear who the Keeper is roleplaying at any moment, and so that the investigators can see, at a glance, who their suspects are and how they might relate to one another.  In my games I produce a series of small headshots, which have a picture for each NPCS and their name printed beneath. I can then lay these out for player reference, group them to show who is present in a particular scene and pick them up when playing each person.

Some headshots for these scenarios are supplied with the game, and can be extracted from the PDF, but I usually supplement these with pictures from the internet, usually film actors of the 1920’s and 30’s of roughly the same age and appearance as the NPC.  This requires some additional work for the Keeper at the outset, but is a fairly invaluable resource across several sessions of the scenario.

The second challenge for the Keeper common to the suite of train-based scenarios is how to manage the amount of material provided for each NPC across the several days worth of journey.  While the characters in this scenario all have interesting storylines, many of which are intended to keep them as viable suspects throughout the journey, this material may be quickly exhausted if the investigators engage in a thorough inquiry.

A helpful addition for the keeper would have been half a dozen additional dot points for each NPC with some other suggestions (for example, “highly devout, and tries to find relevance to current events in scripture” or “fan of tennis and frequently carries a racquet to practise air-backhand” along with tips on how the NPC might react to violence, intimidation or the supernatural.

Technical issues aside, there is a discordant tone between this chapter and the that which precedes it.  At the end of ‘By the Skin of their Teeth’ the Investigators have been betrayed, captured, taunted and broken free from the Shunned Mosque.  This chapter assumes they board the Orient Express returning to a world of luxury and immediately begin to deftly navigate the intrigue and secrets of the wealthy and well heeled.  Whereas, investigators who are desperate, dishevelled and slowly being corrupted, and who believe they need to act swiftly to avert a great evil, seem much more likely to engage in interrogations at gunpoint, dispensing with social niceties in the interests of the greater good.

Keepers who are concerned that this might be a problem that will derail the scenario, can both level consequences (if arrested the investigators will certainly expire in a police cells as the 100 hours tick away) and perhaps remind the investigators that the Orient Express is home turf, and that they should be well practised at the niceties of making small talk with fellow passengers.  Nonetheless, as events ramp up, and the investigators are poisoned, and attacked it is likely that they will increasingly dispense with polite investigation and move to interrogation and confrontation.

The other fantastic element of this scenario is that it allows the investigators to revisit some of the villains of their first trip across Europe.  Most notably Baba Yaga and the Jigsaw Prince make a return appearance while the locomotive takes on a  whole new appearance as Mehmet grows more desperate (the latter scenes being  among the most memorable scenes in the campaign with the addition of the Cathedral car and Locomotive Beast).  Ultimately the game of cat and mouse should prove fairly entertaining and the investigators have the ability to dispatch the major campaign villain on their own terms, which is a nice contrast to some of the other set piece scenes.

Defeating Mehmet, like Fenalik before him, may prove extremely difficult, or relatively simple depending on how the investigators are armed, whether they separate or attack en-masse, and whether the Keeper is allowing the optional Luck spend mechanic to make extreme successes more likely.

The scenario presents another option; a deal with the loathsome Jigsaw Prince which will allow the investigators to instantly identify their quarry, destroy him and recover the simulacrum.  The investigators, of course, are expected to welch on the deal with so foul a villain. In one sense this is a neat way to tie things up (if a little too contrived), but if the Keeper favours this course of events, they must keep the investigators guessing about the identity of Mehemt for a large portion of the journey across Europe - which may frustrate players who are doing their level best to investigate the suspects.

Ultimately the Keeper must consider how they wish events to play out, and what will work best for their investigators, and tailor the scenario to that outcome.  Will Mehmet be revealed quickly and shot to death by gun-toting interrogators?  Will the investigators spend days of patient interviews all the while under attack, before being offered a deal with the Devil?  Or something in between?  The scenario allows any outcome, although Mehmet's death at this juncture is clearly the favoured option.


PROS

  • The setting and cast allow for some interesting roleplaying that allows those investigators with good social skills to shine. 
  • The NPCs have interesting and well developed stories that are likely to entertain.
  • The fold out carriage maps really shine in this scenario.
  • The return of some nefarious villains builds tension, building to some of the most imaginative and memorable scenes in the campaign.
  • The ending is not pre-determined and the investigators have a relatively high degree of agency.

CONS
  • Roleplaying the large cast of NPCs is challenging and the Keeper is likely to need to improvise once initial material is exhausted
  • There is a discordant tone between this chapter and the that which precedes it, and some groups may reject the premise of social niceties entirely.
  • There is a high probability of investigator fatalities.
  • The bargain presented by the Jigsaw Prince seems a little contrived.
In summary, this is an entertaining and highly memorable chapter, which allows a good level of investigator agency, and which is likely to be one of the highlights of the campaign.  There are some challenges for the Keeper, and careful preparation is recommended to avoid a lot of skipping back and forth between pages.  The penultimate chapter of the core campaign delivers a great experience, with a just a few bumps along the way.