Sunday, August 21, 2016

New Kiwi Games

Welcome to a round-up of the latest roleplaying games created by New Zealanders.  Previous instalments in this series include Roleplaying Aotearoa Style (April, 2015), the rise of New Zealand Roleplaying products, (Aug 2013) and  New Zealand Roleplaying Products (Feb 2011).  Now, on to the 2016 edition:

We start with The Sprawl, a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse RPG of mission-based action in a gritty neon-and-chrome cyberpunk future. On the back of a successful Kickstarter, Hamish Cameron has created a game where you are the extended assets of vast multinational corporations, operating in the criminal underground, and performing the tasks that those multinationals can’t do... or can’t be seen to do. You are deniable, professional and disposable.

Another Kiwi to successfully harness Kickstarter is Ciâran Spencer Searle, who raised funding for Transylvania, a hidden role party game of vampires and villagers played in a darkened room for six or more people.

Next up, Steve Hickey released Soth, a diceless game of cultists vs investigators where you play cultists in a small-town, trying to summon a dark god.  If you complete three more rituals, Soth will rise. But can you conceal your murderous crimes from family and friends?

Also of note, Left Coast, Steve's role-playing game about a science fiction writer in California, who struggles as the weirdness from her novels spills into real life, was a runner-up for the 2016 Indie RPG Award for Most Innovative Game!

Catherine Pegg has also been busy.  The Face of Oblivion, is a science-fiction chamber LARP for 6-8 players, designed around a hard choice.  Disaster is coming: will you save a large group of people that you are responsible for, or a smaller group of everyone you ever loved and everything you ever cared about?

Catherine also released My Bloody Valentine, a LARP scenario for 6-8 players, where instead of spending Valentine's Day with your loved one, you're stuck having biscuits and a cuppa with your landlady.  And it's worse than that - she's making you talk to her other tenants. Trouble is, Miss Elisabeth is so nice, she'll let anyone in. They're nuts!  How long before you're climbing the walls?

Anna Klein released two live action roleplaying scenarios during 2015.  Argonautica is an intense vignette inside the lives of eight characters who have found themselves in desperate enough circumstances to take part in an unpleasant shock reality TV show, wherein they sequestered from the world at large for four months, and subjected to the general ridiculousness of reality TV challenges. Partway through the game, a horror element is introduced, and the tone of the game becomes one of personal horror.

Boats Against the Current (also by Anna)  is an introspective live action roleplaying scenario for 9 players, set New York, in the throes of the roaring twenties.  Recently, an eccentric but much talked about millionaire socialite died under questionable circumstances. Speculation abounds in the streets, and splashed across the papers - who was this man, really? Where did he come from? Who killed him? And why?

At the end of 2015 I released Death of Legends, a GM-less dark-fantasy roleplaying game that tells the story of epic deeds against great odds in aid of UNICEF New Zealand, and followed this up with a high-fantasy expansion First KingdomsDeath of Legends was recently awarded an Indie Groundbreaker Award for Best Rules and was second runner up for the Indie RPG Award for Best Free Game of 2015. 

I also released another Christmas Special scenario for the EPOCH survival horror roleplaying game Polaris Six and Candidate, a micro-game of political ambition.

New Zealand game designers have also been well represented in international competitions.  Rose Docherty was a finalist for the renown Game Chef 2016 competition.  Rose's game, Making History is a game about history, hard decisions and public memory.  Hamish Cameron entered a game called Mirror Ball, a game about the many faces of technology and I entered Fragment (see below).  Rose also created School of Magic, a card-based RPG where you play teenagers in a mage school as part of the Fantasy RPG Design Challenge.

This is the biggest list to date, and I think it reflects the growing strength and diversity of New Zealand game design.

If you know of a product I've missed, comment below.

Also of Note
Mike Sands has been hard at work on Heavy Metal Æons, a roleplaying game of heavy metal inspired science-fantasy adventures.  A playtest document is currently available. 

My 2016 Game Chef entry Fragment, a game of machines and memory is currently available to playtest.

Holding On, Morgan Davie's entry into the 200 word RPG challenge recently went micro-viral.

Addendum
A couple I missed; Jenni Sands has been busy writing Monster of the Week mysteries, including Murders at the Music Festival, and The Shadow Man, and she's working on a new game called Purification: a facilitator-less story game with cards, violence and lots of death.

Grant Robinson has been  writing for Shadowrun.  In Amber Waves of Grain The runners are going to have some unusual jobs, including spreading some poisons and making sure innocent lives are spared (if they’re so inclined). They’ll have to be on their toes to steer clear of the authorities, get all the pieces of this particular scheme in place, and in particular answer the pressing question: Just what is Mr. Johnson up to?

Grant also contributed to Court of Shadows, an alternate setting for Shadowrun, Fifth Edition, emphasizing the magic and intrigue of the Seelie Court.

Hot off the press, Malcolm Harbrow has created The Devil's Brood, a LARP for nine players and an organiser, inspired by history and The Lion in Winter.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Belgrade

This is a review of the Belgrade 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.

Little Cottage in the Wood

This chapter is likely to be one of the most memorable of the campaign.  It takes the investigators far from the luxury and comforts of the Orient Express and the glittering cities of Europe, and plunges them into a rural countryside thick with folktales and myth.  Like many of the original parts of the campaign, the plot is largely a linear experience for the investigators, there are few opportunities to seek a different approach or outcome beyond that which has been scripted. 
However the atmospheric foreshadowing, interactions with NPCs and final confrontation are rich, well detailed and evocative and likely to be sufficient to camouflage this lack of agency for most groups and provide a great deal of entertainment.
The chapter begins with the investigators arrival in Belgrade.  As the National Museum is closed, they likely have some time to sightsee before following up the next lead on the simulacrum.  The scenario proposes several encounters while the investigators take in the sights of the Bazaar in the Turkish quarter, including a fortune teller, and chase sequence through the busy market concluding with a brawl. 
These light encounters serve a dual purpose of adding an element of foreshadowing (prophecy of the fortune teller) and some action for those investigators inclined to engage in some rough and tumble. Well prepared keepers might also arrange for some other encounters - do the investigators seek supplies, weapons or arcane lore?  Perhaps the Bazaar may have something to offer them.  Perhaps they might take the opportunity to send some souvenirs to their loved ones?
Next, the investigators must navigate the complex bureaucracy to locate the Bureau of National Treasures in order to obtain the proper permit (in anticipation they will secure what they are seeking).  Like the Paris chapter, this may appeal to some players, and leave others cold. To avoid in-character frustrations spilling over into out-of-character frustration the Keeper may wish to tailor this to the level of realism enjoyed by the group.
With their hard-won information in hand, the investigators must board a regional train and travel to Orašac.  Much like the Invictus chapter, this travel should be a good way for the Keeper to slowly start to build atmosphere, highlighting that the investigators are gradually moving  from the urban and metropolitan to the rural and wild.  One suggestion to help evoke the right atmosphere is to use a soundtrack of Eastern European folk songs or similar.
The next challenge for the Keeper is to portray the diverse personalities of the village of Orašac where the investigators spend the night before venturing into the woods.  There are four key personalities, and one suggestion to help the players distinguish between them is for the Keeper to create a picture for each, and hold this up when each NPC is talking. The scripted events of the night should provide an atmospheric and eerie backdrop for what is to come.
The following day, the investigators venture into the woods, and into one of the more memorable and horrific encounters of the campaign as they are confronted by a legend of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga, who holds the piece of the simulacrum they seek.  Although this section is heavily scripted,  it offers a great mix of horror and action.  Much of the action has been scripted to be damaging (to sanity and health), rather than lethal, but there is still a fair possibility that investigators who have already suffered significant physical or mental trauma in previous chapters may perish here, so the keeper should read up on the rules about dying and indefinite insanity before running the session.
The success and survival of the characters hangs on a whistle, given to the investigators in  the village.  If the characters have the whistle, and think to blow it, they are likely to be successful.  If not, things are considerably more grim.  This is an obvious place to insert an Idea roll for the investigator who holds the whistle, although as with all dice rolls, if the Keeper actually wants the investigators to succeed, they may be better to prepare a note prompt in advance and pass it to the player at the appropriate moment, rather than leaving such an important reminder to chance.
The investigators are likely to be bruised and battered as they leave the woods.  However, they are likely to suffer further harassment as the wrath of Baba Yaga follows them as they make their way back to the Orient Express.  There is little reprieve for the investigators, for as soon after they leave the horrors of Belgrade behind, the events of the next chapter begin..
In summary:


PROS


  • The chapter is extremely atmospheric and builds to a memorable climax.
  • The initial encounters offer good foreshadowing and opportunity for both action and interaction.
  • The characters have the opportunity to encounter and interact with a legendary horror.
  • The scripted plot offers a solution to minimise the harm and san loss to the investigators associated with this epic encounter.


CONS


  • The chapter is linear and offers few options for the investigators to deviate from the scripted path.
  • Making sure the investigators get as good feel for the four main characters in Orašac may be challenging for the Keeper.
  • The scenario has the potential to kill or seriously erode the sanity of the investigators .
  • The solution to allow the investigators to escape requires the players to recall and use a whistle they were gifted. 

In summary this chapter has the potential to be a real highlight of the campaign.  The mix of illusion and horror drawn from Slavic folklore has the potential for an extremely memorable climax.  However, if the investigators are unwilling to go along with the setup this chapter could fall flat.  Equally, the risk to health and sanity may claim the lives of some investigators if they fail to remember the whistle.


Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Overview & London
Paris
Milan

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Vinkovci

This is a review of the Vinkovci 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.

Bread or Stone

Vinkovci is a new optional scenario for the campaign, woven into the fabric of the existing narrative, rather than facilitated as an external flashback or an interlude (like the new Dreamlands material).  In Vinkovci the investigators have the opportunity to claim a legendary artefact and weapon, which features in the Dark Ages and Invictus flashback scenarios, but to do so they must confront a talented surgeon who is losing his grip on sanity, and contend with bestial abominations and yet more cultists.  As a new scenario the material is not essential to the core plot, and while possession of the Mims Sahis may be helpful to the investigators in subsequent chapters, it is not required.  Indeed the investigators have a rare opportunity to actually destroy this foul blade.


To fit with the existing campaign, this scenario borrows elements from other chapters; a daughter in distress who the investigators must rescue (Venice),  a powerful (non-simulacrum) Mythos artefact is being desperately sought by cultists (Trieste) and a backdrop of city-wide fear and uncertainty (Venice again).  This is in one sense derivative, and the players may feel some déjà vu, in another sense Keepers will now have a fair idea of how the investigators will react to these elements, and can tailor them accordingly, to get the best result. 

The opening to this scenario provides an interesting change of pace - the track ahead has been destroyed by 'The People’s Justice Army', and the passengers must disembark, where they are subjected to a thorough customs check.  For some Keepers this will likely prove a welcome opportunity to curb the armouries of the investigators, or at least to reinforce that there are consequences for those who readily brandish weapons, for others this may be disadvantageous, stripping investigators of weapons they will soon need if they are to survive. 

As such, it is suggested that Keepers preserve the tension of the scene – an impromptu stop, a makeshift station filled with police with rifles, a high level of tension and uncertainty among the other passengers.  The world of pampered luxury aboard the Orient Express is about to be briefly and rudely interrupted.

After their brief run-in with officialdom, the investigators become involved in an attempted abduction as a family of local cultists attempt to snatch a woman they believe can lead them to the Mims Sahis.  Putting in an action scene like this early is a neat idea, and gives the action oriented investigators a great opportunity to shine, however, I’m not sure about how realistic it is that a family of locals, likely to be easily identified, would try something so audacious in front of heavily armed police, already on edge about the possibility of rebel actions. 

A more likely outcome would seem that the would-be abductors, and anyone unfortunate enough to be near them, are riddled with bullets in short order.  I suggest that a more likely place for the abduction attempt to occur might be as the travellers arrive at the hunting lodge, amidst the confusion of bags being unloaded and guests inspecting their impromptu accommodation.

The next phase of the scenario is a parallel investigation as to the whereabouts of Dr. Moric and the location of his research materials.  The former is a relatively straightforward investigation which has the neat feature of foreshadowing the lair of the villain, while the latter is a slightly contrived scavenger hunt, which may entertain, although it does assume the presence and cooperation of an NPC, and may require some swift changes by the GM if the investigators have not acted as the scenario anticipates.

The major confrontation envisaged by the scenario was a problem for my group, they did not feel the need to act was justified by the setup.  When we analysed this in more detail out-of-character, their reluctance stemmed from the following.
  • The villain of the scenario Dr. Belenzada, although insane,  is acting with altruistic  motives – he is trying to use an artefact of evil to heal wounded veterans
  • They were not certain that Dr Belenzada was responsible for the abominations stalking the countryside.
  • The compound of Dr Belenzada is well guarded, by armed (and enhanced) humans and monsters, this is clearly signalled to the investigators if they visit. 
  • There is no trace of the simulacrum here.
I had previously planned to run the Invictus flashback scenario Sanguis Omnia Vincet  after this chapter, when the investigators were on the train and spending time reading The Accounts of Tillius Corvus but given the uncertainty of the investigators about how to proceed, I decided to trigger this early, interrupting the Vinkovci chapter, allowing the players to have the full available knowledge of the origins of the Mims Sahis.  As a consequence, several of the investigators decided to raid the compound, slew Dr Belenzada and recovered the artefact.

There are two nice elements here, first the slight moral ambiguity of Dr Belenzada , who can be seen as a warning of the consequences of assuming the ends justify the means – something the investigators may need to grapple with as their sanity slips sever downward. 

Secondly the player have the option of retaining and using the Mims Sahis, or permanently destroying it.  This is a neat and empowering idea for the players as the other artefacts in the campaign (the simulacrum and the Medallion of Ithaqua) are much harder to dispose of.  Although the san loss for experiencing “an entire year of being imprisoned in a cavern, chained to a pillar while  diminutive creatures ritually flay them alive, over and over again” seems extremely low (1D6).

In summary:


PROS
  • The opening to the chapter is a great change of pace.
  • The moral ambiguity of the villain is a neat way to highlight the consequence of sanity loss at a time when investigator sanity is likely beginning to dwindle.
  • The monsters are unique and interesting.
  • Allowing the investigators to recover the Mims Sahis, and decide whether to use or destroy it, empowers the investigators.

CONS

  • The main set-up for this chapter is derivative of earlier chapter.
  • The lack of a simulacrum piece and clear risk to the lives of the investigators if they wish to confront Dr Belenzada may convince them to leave Vinkovci without comp-letting the scenario.
  • Raiding the compound of Dr Belenzada may prove extremely hazardous.
  • There are some incongruous elements, like the abundance of living Gorilla parts, and the sanity loss for some experiences





      In summary the Vinkovci chapter of the campaign introduces some great new elements, but investigators may feel there is not sufficient to be gained to justify the risks associated with pursuing the scenario story to its end.  A worthy experience for the group who are seeking the 'complete' Orient Express experience, it might also be skipped by Keepers who feel their group will not appreciate further investigation not related to the core task.  Overall my group enjoyed this scenario but did feel there were a few rough edges.


      Other parts of this review:
      The Blood Red Fez

      Overview & London
      Paris

      Lausanne

      Monday, July 11, 2016

      How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Indy Games

      By far the majority of my involvement in roleplaying games has revolved around traditional games.  You know, games where one player acts as GM, people roll dice, and engage with the game world through a series of structured rules. My experience of Indy roleplaying games was probably not unique; I found they could be great fun when you had like-minded people at the table, but they could be excruciating when authority was turned over to the players, and there was no common ground.



      What I really appreciated was the mix of fantastic ideas and innovative rules, albeit with some limitations from my perspective. For example, Fiasco enables great stories, although it doesn't give much support to resolve stories, Dread has a cool mechanic for building tension amongst players, although this is disconnected from 'horror' of the scenario, Apocalypse World (and its many hacks) do a fantastic job of introducing and integrating characters, although the framework of 'moves' can be simultaneously bland and highly variable.

      These games introduce something new and unique in the way that players interact with their characters, the game world, and ultimately with each other.  To my mind, games like these are avant-garde, in that they are experimental, innovative and, ultimately, beautiful in their ability to influence, inspire and entertain.

      Whereas, by contrast, there seems to be a plentiful abundance of traditional games, acres of pages outlining classes, combat rules, skill checks and so on.  These games are fun too, I mean no disrespect, but they are more similar than different, and few have the ability to take my breath away with the elegance of an idea or concept
      .
      When I decided to design my own games, it is no surprise that I looked to Indy games for inspiration. I've previously posted about my process for designing games like EPOCH and Wicked Lies & Alibis, so I won't waste your time by repeating myself.

      Over time I've developed an ethos to my own design, drawn from traditional, Indy and actual play - something like this:
      • players need time to live in the skin of their characters, and interact, before final decisions are made, so the character should evolve over the course of the game
      • key game decisions should be made through collaboration between players
      • players should be supported to engage their imagination, so they don't have do all the heavy lifting
      • and, ideally, this supports players who are less confident, or who don't enjoy being put on the spot
      • game materials should support easy 'at a glance' play at the tabletop to support immersion
      For me these things are as essential as page numbers, headings and accessible writing.

      My recent offerings, like Death of Legends and my recent Game Chef entry Fragment have moved even further down this path.  They are both simpler (in that they focus entirely upon a packaged game experience) and more complex, in the layering of rules and concepts.   

      To me these seem to be the next natural evolution of this design process - but I can't help wonder, if I've now moved so far even beyond mainstream Indy gaming that my games risk becoming largely ignored and unplayed because there are so many implicit assumptions, and the game experience is not easily discernible from a read through. 

      Is this Art for its own sake? Or simply an exercise in narcissism.


      Friday, June 3, 2016

      Reports from the Orient Express - Constantinople 330

      This is a review of the Constantinople (330) 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.

      This review is slightly out of sequence with the published campaign.  This is because my group did not initially feel sufficient motivation to attempt to retrieve the Mims Sahis as part of the Vinkovci chapter, so I ran this flashback scenario before they reached a final decision, to ensure they were in possession of all the available facts about this artefact.

      Sanguis Omnia Vincet

      The Invictus flashback scenario allows the players to take on the role of the Fortes Falcones, elite scouts for the Roman Army.  This scenario reminds me a lot of the movie The 13th Warrior, only with roman legionnaires instead of Norsemen.  The overall plot is similar; a small group venture deep into unfamiliar territory to confront an ancient evil, and after being attacked, decide they must root out the source. 

      In terms of style it is similar to the Dark Ages flashback scenario, so if your players enjoyed the opportunity to play capable, violent characters, for a short run scenario then they will likely enjoy this scenario.  If not, you might want to skip the scenario as ultimately it is the investigators force of arms that must carry the day.

      As with the Gaslight and Dark Ages scenario, pre-generated characters are supplied, and again, because of the formatting, Keepers will need to do some work in order to present these to the players in a way that enables them to be easily disseminated.   Keepers will also likely need to refresh themselves on the rules for the variable benefits of using-hand forged armour and shields.

      The scenario begins and concludes in Constantinople tying in nicely to a series of historic events about the dedication of the city.  However the investigators time in the city is short, they soon receive a mission which will require them to travel to the province of Lydia to seek out a malevolent evil thought to be responsible for a terrible plague.

      One of the key features of this scenario is the non-player character Tillius Corvus, commander of the Fortes Falcones.  Corvus has a central role to play in the campaign, and must follow certain actions as the campaign concludes, but his activities prior to this point are up to the Keeper. 

      This is a difficult balance to maintain, as Corvus should be present for much of the action, but ideally not be directing the action (and stealing agency from the players).  My approach was to treat the investigators as a crack team of special forces – each character was an expert over their domain, and the group operated with little military formality – If a major decision was required, Corvus asked for the investigators advice, and only intervened in decision making when it seemed the investigators could not agree between themselves.


      The journey to Lydia and the remote outpost provides a nice narrative flow, from the height of Roman civilisation into the relative wilderness.  While such a transition should hardly be novel to the Falcones, this mission will be different. Keepers should use the opportunity build a  feeling of threat and menace as the journey progresses, which will help generate a sense of tension and foreboding amongst the investigators. 

      Once the investigators arrive at the Ghilian Outpost, the scenario is divided into 3 main sections, 
      1. investigation phase where the characters may learn knowledge about their foe, and experience the horrors of the plague first hand,
      2. the battle phase where they confront the massed forces of the enemy,
      3. and an exploration phase where the characters seek out and slay the enemy leader in his lair. 
      Although there is little opportunity for deviation from this plot, the scenario employs a clever approach to allow the initial investigations and approach of the characters to influence the battle, for two possible outcome of the battle which, in turn, changes the difficulty of the final sequence. 

      This allows a scenario which would otherwise have a fairly directive and linear, to offer a lot more variability, giving a greater sense of agency to the players (although it must be noted that there is little support for Keepers whose players choose to ignore the setup entirely and try to strike at the enemy leader from the outset).

      Similarly the battle mechanic, whereby the fort stands or falls on the basis of the individual combat of the instigators against a pre-determined number of foes is an elegant way to allow for a tense, yet individual and dramatic resolution.  This could, perhaps, have been better supported by the inclusion of suggested details for what is occurring in each part of the fort including suggestions for how the individual foes might attack or be engaged by the character.  As the pre-generated scenario also provides the characters a ‘tactics’ skill some suggestions as to haw this might be used in preparation for the battle would also have been useful.

      A surprising omission is a map of the fort and its immediate surrounds, leaving  Keepers to invent their own if the players want a visual depiction of the battlefield. This is difficult to understand, given the very nice, full colour map of Invictus era Constantinople that is provided, but which ultimately serves little purpose.

      As with the Dark Age scenario, the horrors the characters must face are inventive and original, and the final confrontation in the mountain temple of the cult is likely to be memorable. 

      The final part of the scenario provides an interesting conclusion.  Having slain the cult leader, and defeated the enemy the characters return to Constantinople, carrying their comatose leader to enjoy the fruits of their victory and life after military service.  However the story is not yet finished.  The characters (likely) meet a grisly end in the scenario’s final twist as they are betrayed, and one of the campaign’s major villains’ is born.  This is both a neat way to conclude the scenario and segue into the next part of the campaign when they will face this foe once more, and a poor ending for characters who have already survived a significant ordeal.

      My players felt this loss so acutely (having become so attached to their characters) that we agreed that the final page of The Accounts of Tillius Corvus, was missing, allowing for the possibility that some of their number may have survived the wedding bloodbath by trying to swim for their lives.

      In summary:

      PROS

      • There are pre-generated investigators each with their own backstory.
      • The setting is atmospheric and interesting and there is ample opportunity for actions of the investigators to positively or negatively impact the battle.
      • The battle resolution mechanic is elegant and should allow for some dramatic moments.
      • The twist perfectly highlights and foreshadows the origin of a major campaign villain.

      CONS

      • The pre-generated character sheets are not well set out for actual use.
      • The plot is relatively linear and there is little support for the Keeper if the investigators choose to strike directly at the enemy leader from the outset.
      • There is no detailed map of the Ghilian Outpost where the investigators will spend the bulk of the scenario.
      • There is little support to help the Keeper describe and frame the individual and distinct battle scenes

      In summary the Invictus chapter of the campaign is both evocative and innovative allowing the investigators to determine their own challenge level through their investigative action against a host of new horrors.  As with the Dark Ages chapter it allows a significant change of pace that puts a heavy focus on action.  The final twist of the scenario is extremely memorable and a great way to frame a major campaign villain, although it may leave a bitter taste in the mouth of some players.  My group said this was one of their favourite scenarios to date.

      Other parts of this review:
      The Blood Red Fez

      Overview & London
      Paris
      Lausanne

      Monday, April 4, 2016

      Reports from the Orient Express - Dream Zagreb

      This is a review of the Dream Zagreb 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.

      In a City of Bells and Towers

      The journey continues with a brief interlude in dream Zagreb.  Although presented as an independent chapter, this scenario is marked as optional.  It’s really more of a series of experiences for the investigators intended to draw together threads of the story they have already experienced, than an independent, interactive experience.

      The scenario begins  as soon as the characters board the train from Trieste, most likely fleeing angry cultists and the Bora.  As the investigators settle down for the night, the Jigsaw Prince strikes back, supplying the investigators with a delicious desert wine that will propel them into a strange dream.  Although the sequence is scripted, the Keeper would be well advised to spend some time at the beginning of this chapter dwelling on the minutiae of travel aboard the Orient Express (roleplay meeting the staff, allocating rooms, changing for dinner, then each course of the meal using the menus etc.) so that the sequence with the wine does not seem particularly unusual until after the bottle has been opened and consumed, and the investigators have been exposed to its effects.

      The investigators wake to find they have been mistakenly scheduled to depart the train at Zagreb in the early hours of the morning.  As they get their bearings, a mysterious figure recites prose on the station, calling on them to come out and explore the fog shrouded city in the pursuit of the knowledge they seek.  The scenario offers some suggestions about how the investigators may be lured from the train, and the Keeper should consider the most strategy likely to be most successful in advance based on what they know about the players.  For example, having the mysterious hooded stranger caress the suitcase containing the Simulacrum now standing on the platform with the other luggage was sufficient to motivate my investigators to rush from the train.

      What ensues is a surreal journey through the streets of fog-shrouded Zagreb, which the investigators soon suspect may be more dream than reality.  This consists of a series of strange and unsettling events and a collection of ‘love letters’ each of which refers to a different protagonist in the campaign thus far.  These are set against a sparse description of the city, with a map and suggested locations corresponding to each event.

      My group really liked this sequence, and there is no question that the letters and events are highly atmospheric, eerie and unsettling.  However, it should be noted that there is little detail beyond the general description (sometimes no more than a single sentence) and if the investigators wish to interact with these events, then the Keeper will need to improvise additional details to enable this.  Much like in the first half of Dream Lausanne the characters are more passengers than protagonists here, although the burden is lifted from the Keeper somewhat, by handing out the letters and having the players read them aloud in character. 

      If the Keeper finds this to be too much of a burden, or suspects their players may not enjoy the surrealism as intended, or the lack of agency, this chapter can be skipped entirely as it is optional and not required for the core plot.  Here are some other suggestions to handle this:
      • The letters can be delivered to the investigators as individual dreams on subsequent nights.  They dream of the object associated with each letter, and the Keeper supplies them with the handout.  The players may choose to reveal the letters or keep their contents private.
      • The Keeper might add some elements specific to the investigators, dream versions of the 'significant people', 'treasured items' or 'meaningful connections' created under the 7e rules for example.  These help reinforce the idea that Zagreb has been partially constructed from the Investigator's subconscious while also allowing the investigators a chance to roleplay and interact with these important aspects of their backgrounds.
      • The Keeper might add some other dreamers as NPCs to help share the adventure, characters drawn from the Dreamlands Express for example might have found themselves in a deeper dream on the streets of fog-shrouded Zagreb when they go to sleep (Inception style).

      The scenario concludes with the characters confronting the mysterious hooded stranger, and having the opportunity to receive the dubious benefit of its wisdom.  This is an interesting mechanic that enables them to trade Sanity for Cthulhu Mythos.  While I like the idea behind this, and think it has the potential to really make the characters more interesting,  Keepers should consider how they will reflect the increased probability of an successful Cthulhu Mythos skill for the remainder of the campaign (for example the 7e rules allow for spontaneous casting of spells using Cthulhu Mythos as an optional rule).

      The final scene calls for the characters to run for the train, passing a series of tests as they try not to fall behind, this does provide a dramatic and action-packed final conclusion to the scenario, although the rationale for some of the checks do seem somewhat random, and it might have been a better idea to apply the chase mechanic, having the investigators pursued by the stranger spouting its terrible knowledge as they race through obstacles previously described.

      In summary:


      PROS
      • Dream Zagreb is highly evocative and atmospheric and likely to be an entertaining an memorable experience for the players.
      • The accursed enlightenment provided by the hooded stranger is likely to make the rest of the campaign and the characters more interesting.

      CONS

      • Much of the scenario allows for little investigator agency, and therefore places a heavy load on the Keeper if investigators deviate from the scripted scenes or wish to interact with them in more depth.
      In summary, this is a neat and highly atmospheric interlude, which can be a really memorable and enjoyable experience for the investigators if they enjoyed the surreal horror of dream Lausanne.  However, if your investigators are likely to want to interact more thoroughly with events than scripted,  the Keeper will need to do some preparation in advance, or think fast, to keep things moving along. If your players are unlikely to enjoy this kind of surreal adventure, or become highly frustrated by the low level of agency, you may wish to skip this chapter entirely or supply the handouts as individual dreams to those experiencing the baleful influence of the simulacrum.

      Other parts of this review:
      The Blood Red Fez

      Overview & London

      Paris