Saturday, January 6, 2018

Running great convention games

With Kapcon around the corner, I've been pondering what makes a good tabletop roleplaying convention game (from either side of the table).  I've had some hits and misses in my time running games at conventions and spent a fair bit of time discussing and de-briefing with others. 

In the following section I outline 5 common challenges that often undermine convention games, then propose a solution you can employ to account for such obstacles and allow your convention scenario to achieve its full potential.

1. Insufficient character agency
The time constraint of convention games often leads GMs to construct scenarios where there are limited choices.  This can be fine, so long as the characters can genuinely make some important decisions, and those decisions are the focus of the game. 

Consider the first 20 minutes of  any contemporary horror movie - there will almost always be some constraint that limits the characters options and separates them from wider society when the horror strikes.  That's not a problem necessarily, so long as the choices the characters then make have real meaning for them and their story (in game terms this means that the story of the characters should be the meat of the action).    
Another common type of 'con game with limited agency is the high-concept scenario, where a GM has a vivid and detailed idea about a setting (usually inspired by fiction) but only a rough idea of how the characters will interact with the setting (beyond exploring it) and no backup plan to adapt the story to the characters if they reject some or all of the premise, or simply find it dull.

2. Too little structure
The flip-side of a low-agency game is a game where there is simply too much scope for unstructured character interaction.  Consider most investigative scenarios: usually the characters must follow a sequence of clues to solve the mystery.    The problem with such scenarios in a 'con environment is that people (and their characters) are likely to have very different approaches to what may seem (to the GM) like a very linear set of clues, and could easily spend the better part of an hour discussing one particular clue and its implications, or following false lead.  

Equally scenarios which invite the characters to form plans can fall into an endless planning cycle as characters consider every possible eventuality.  This is often not the intent or focus of the game, but an inevitable outcome of a particular set of elements.
3. Assumed character cooperation
Irrespective of whether the players are strangers or not, if the characters are not known to one another, most players will want to 'ease into' character relationships and shared decision making.  Some will not want to participate collectively at all, and prefer a 'lone wolf' approach if they feel this fits their character.

That means that most con games need to allow characters space and time to meet and interact, and not count on character cooperation unless this is clearly and explicitly stated from the outset.

4. Poor system fit
Unless a convention game is intended to teach a system it needs to be very light touch, and focussed on only the core activity that will occur for the characters during the few hours of the scenario.  Many traditional systems have rules that cover far more ground than that, and this can confuse and bog-down play.

There are many, many different systems out there, and it's well worth shopping around to find one that is well suited for the needs of the scenario.  Ideally a discussion of rules is a very short part of the game establishment phase, and players have quick reference sheets handy (or incorporated into their character sheets) to refresh themselves of the key points.

5. Doesn't cater for player styles
People approach games in a lot of different ways.  Some are particularly extraverted and likely to enjoy and proactively engage in almost any style of game.  Others are less likely to try and grab the spotlight.  For some folks having something structured, like an initiative sequence with clear specified actions that are weighted to be equal to those performed by other characters, provides assurance that they'll get an equal level of involvement to their more glib companions.

Irrespective of the system and setting, some players will try and win, or defy the odds, others will try and participate indirectly, playing their characters more as spectators than protagonists.  How a GM responds to such approaches will be noticed and reflected upon by the other players, who may change their own approach if they perceive there is a more favourable option. 

Creating a scenario sideboard
All of this may seem a little overwhelming, especially for a GM who feels that the players should simply be grateful that they've offered to run a game at all.  All too often the temptation is to blame the players if a game doesn't go well, or live up to the expectations of the GM.


But you can do more to ensure that you run the best version of your game possible. When I played Magic: The Gathering, many years ago, decks had a thing called a sideboard, which was an extension to the deck that had a series of additional cards that you could add to your deck to better optimise it once you knew what you were up against.

I suggest that a good convention scenario can have something similar.  A series of ideas and options that you can port into your scenario to better adapt it to your players.  What options are there for the characters to interact and get on the same page and how can you facilitate this if it doesn't happen organically?  What time pressure can be added if the characters seem to want to spend ages planning something?  How can you ensure that everyone is involved at the table, and what option might you employ to park a noisy player for a few minutes, to allow quieter players time to be heard?

Because you won't necessarily know what challenges you'll face, the unsurprising advice behind all of this is to playtest your game if at all possible.  If you can playtest it with strangers, or people you don't normally game with, so much the better.  But a robust playtest should highlight some of the things you need to include in a scenario sideboard.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Gaming in 2018

Here's a look ahead at my plans for gaming in 2018:

1. Complete The Enemy Within for Warhammer 3e
I recently posted my impressions of Fantasy Flight's 3rd Edition of Warhammer.  My group has completed the first of the four chapters of the campaign.  I plan to knock out the other three before finding a storage solution for the acres of cards that make up the game.  Thus far the campaign has had some great moments, although the layout and lack of maps and other documents and relatively linear plot make running the game harder than it need to be.

2. Pulp Cthulhu: The Two Headed Serpent
Call of Cthulhu is a staple in my gaming group, and I'm keen to dive into a new "high-octane globe-spanning" campaign using the new pulp-action rules for Cthulhu's 7th Edition.  If you're interested in a chapter-by-chapter review, as I did with Horror on the Orient Express, please let me know via the comments.

3. Playtesting Instruments of the Chrysanthemum Throne 
The secret to writing good games (in my opinion) is understanding the diversity of approaches, expectations and experience that players (and GMs) bring to the table.  The best way to do this is to test your game as widely as possible.  The initial playtests of Instruments have already revealed some major opportunities for improvement and there's plenty to do before the game is ready to be released.

4. Warhammer 4e
If there's any time left by the end of the year, and sufficient material has been published for Cubicle 7's new edition of Warhammer I'd ben keen to give it a whirl.

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Small But Vicious Dog

Over the last few months we've been exploring the world of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd edition) from Fantasy Flight Games.  Described by the publisher as: "an new, exciting way to experience the popular Warhammer Fantasy setting... a grim world, constantly at war", I think WFRP 3e is an important game, albeit an imperfect one.  The following text contains my reflections of the game thus far.

Why WFRP?
There are many, many fantasy games on the market, so why does Warhammer have enduring appeal?  For me the answer is in several parts.  One part is nostalgia. For anyone who played the Warhammer Fantasy Battle, or earlier editions of the roleplaying game, WFRP is a familiar, well resolved, interesting fantasy setting, that contains most typical fantasy tropes alongside some tongue-in-cheek humour.

The second major appeal of the game has always been the idea that instead of playing a fledgling hero, you play a character just trying to get by.  Careers like Rat Catcher or Servant are the norm, and darkness is everywhere.  Perhaps the characters will survive the adventure and prosper, but they may simply end up mutilated, mentally scarred or diseased, trying desperately to get into a more respectable career.  If you favour a dark fantasy game, WFRP has always been a good choice.

Finally the game has always been well supported with a large range of sourcebooks and scenarios.  Some classic campaigns, like The Enemy Within are considered classics and extremely innovative for their time.

Pick a card, any card
The most striking difference between the 3rd edition of WFRP and it's predecessors, is the use of cards.  The bespoke card decks are used for the entirety of the options available to players during combat, reflecting wounds, insanities, diseases, madness, mutation, monsters and even in-game locations.

The cards are neat.  They take a lot of the load from the GM to manage the rules for the players, and make clear the potential outcomes for most results.  On the down side, the cards take up a lot of space during the game, and require careful management between sessions to prevent hours of searching later, and make second hand versions of the game a touch-and-go option.

It should be noted that, toward the end of the license, Fantasy Flight published a series of books which enable the game to be played without many of the cards previously required, and allowed players to plan career development at a glance (rather than scouring endless card decks).  The utility of these books make them an important addition to the smooth operation of the game.

Other innovations
There are several other neat elements of WFRP 3e.  The game is practically bursting with little innovations, such as the stance tracker, which tracks whether a character is more conservative or aggressive and allows you to swap dice in your pool accordingly, social combat rules, a descriptive range tracker, and overall party tension measure.  And of course, the special dice which so polarised gamers when the game was released.

Although many of these elements are not smoothly integrated, they are extremely innovative for a traditional system with such a long history.  For these reasons I think the game is important in the history of roleplaying game design, and many have been influential on subsequent designs.

Quirks and peculiarities
WFRP 3e is not without some eyebrow raising limitations.  For example, High Elves are included as a core character race, but widely marginalised in the settings for most of the scenarios written for the game.  In addition, no elf expansion was ever made limiting elf-specific career options.

The game was originally designed for just 4 players with card options to match.  These days this problem is easily resolved by finding the basic card summary online and printing one for each player.


While the materials included in the scenario and expansion boxes are beautiful, there's a criminal shortage of usable maps and the organisation of the scenario books is not always ideal.  Should the card decks become separated from the scenario books they are almost unplayable in some cases.

The party tension meter is a really nice idea, but unless your players are rigorous in staying in character, most bickering around a game table happens 'out-of-character' and punishing players for bickering in character actually works against a richer, more fully realised, game.

The bespoke dice mechanic is a nice way of randomising several possible outcomes in a single throw, but dice outcome cancelling each other out, means bigger pools (as the character advance their careers) complicate the resolution of this mechanic without any additional benefit.

Freeing careers from a tree-progression system and allowing an almost unlimited ability to pick up new cards means that players have a lot more options in terms of character development, but this also means players face a bewildering array of choices, especially when they start playing the game.

In summary
WFRP 3e is an eccentric game.  It is bursting full of ideas and neat tricks, but much of the way these work together at the table feels unfinished, and doesn't live up to their full potential.  Indeed, you might say that Fantasy Flight refined the system when it made Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and again for Genesys.

If you like the setting, and can get past the challenges inherent in the game collateral (bespoke dice and large numbers of cards) you'll find a surprising accessible system, that delivers a solid gaming experience, particularly for early-career characters.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Vote Machine in 2017

Hi there

You've probably always voted human up until now, which is entirely understandable. But I'd like to tell you about an exciting new machine option for the 2017 ENnie Roleplaying Awards.

Fragment is a game which explores the increasingly complex relationship between human and machine.  It's been nominated in the category of Best Electronic Book and here's why I think it deserves your vote:
  • Fragment is free, like many of the machines in your daily life, it exists only to make you happy.
  • Fragment is a story game that supports you to tell the stories of discarded machines, and their human creators, while exploring the Last City.
  • Fragment was written in a single week as part of the 2016 Game Chef competition, and from these humble origins, it's mounting a scrappy campaign to compete for your vote against best-selling titles.
Did you know voting is free and doesn't require registration?

To cast a vote, all you need to do is go:
http://www.ennie-awards.com/vote/2017/

Rank your choices in order from the list provided, and click vote.  Like so many things in life, machines are working tirelessly to make this process as easy as possible.

This ENnie Awards, please consider a vote for Fragment in the category of Best Electronic Game and give hope to machines everywhere.

- Votebot 2050

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Players & Preferences

Most people come in roleplaying through a fairly informal process.  They play with friends, or join established groups.  While this kind of entry to gaming is fairly reliable in allowing people to identify the kinds of games they don’t enjoy, few groups actually have an explicit conversation about the kinds of gaming activities they enjoy most.  In fact I’d argue many people haven’t even given it a whole lot of thought.
And yet, when a group (collectively) fails to click with a game the consequences can be severe.  Perhaps more insidiously, groups might spend years playing games that, whilst enjoyable to some extent, don’t actually press their buttons.

This issue is compounded by the fact that within the group tastes may vary considerably, and that many people actually like a lot of different elements in different combinations.  Consider the following list for example:
  • Exploring ideas and concepts
  • Exploring settings or environments
  • Investigating mysteries and interacting with NPCs
  • Battling and defeating foes
  • Developing a story about the characters
  • Acquiring new powers, expertise or items
  • Interacting with the other players in character
  • Developing innovative solutions to intractable problems
The chances are good that most players will enjoy all these elements to some extent, but they probably also have several that they enjoy over the others.

Now consider the social inhibitions commonly associated with gaming.  The GM often runs the game they want to play without necessarily having regard to the preferences of the players, on the basis that they will invest more time into making the game successful.

Then there the myriad of complex relationships between players – are they friends outside the game?  Are some ‘tenured’ while others are relative newcomers?  Have some invested in specific game books?  Plus, the aforementioned possibility that they may not actually have given a whole lot of thought to their actual preferences, or simply enjoy the social activity irrespective of game.

So, how to reveal the preferences of players?  Here are two suggestions:

Explicit question: contact the players individually and ask them what kinds of activities they enjoy most; ideally as a hierarchy using a list like the above, as it’s likely that people will enjoy all of those activities to some extent, or in a particular context.

Observe and assess:  watch how your players respond to specific sessions containing different mixes of the above elements.  This will likely also reveal the group dynamic to some extent and give you a good feeling for where respective preferences sit around the table.

Suffice to say, that I’ve observed that the preferences of the players in my group (collectively) are not actually what I would have previously thought them to be, and since I’ve tried to find a game that better suits their preferences, people have been having more fun.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - The Final Analysis

Horror on the Orient Express is generally 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