Monday, September 28, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Lausanne

This is a review of the Lausanne 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.

Nocturne

Lausanne is the next scripted stop in the campaign.  Here the investigators have a mysterious letter to follow up, sent by a person who clearly has an interest in the Simulacrum, and claims to have possession of a related scroll.  This in itself may not be sufficient to justify a stop in Switzerland, but as Lausanne is on the route of the Orient Express prior to the next lead (in Milan) it may be sufficient to pique the interest of the Investigators.

The first half of the scenario is a series of scripted encounters, but should work reasonably well for most groups, requiring only a few deft tweaks from the Keeper.  The characters encounter the Wellington brothers and their taxidermy shop, and there are some well-designed elements which have the potential to evoke an eerie and menacing atmosphere (handing the players pre-prepared note cards from William is a great way to help facilitate this encounter).  Enter the Duke, an apparently jovial and colourful character, also interested in the scroll, and happy to be a friendly guide to the city of Lausanne.
 The second half of the scenario is rather more problematic, as it assumes investigator actions and makes little or no allowance for deviation.  The Investigators are expected to ingest or inject a strange drug and enter Dream Lausanne experiencing a series of bizarre portents without being able to influence them in any way, before taking part in a trial, refuting trumped up charges before a furious mob.  This experience puts the characters onto a plot conveyer belt where their only real opportunities to influence events are highly proscribed.  It’s less roleplaying and more a Keeper monologue.

Despite these limitations, the core elements of this chapter are actually pretty cool – exploring Dream Lausanne, and viewing the bizarre portents has the potential to be both memorable and highly atmospheric, but the scenario lacks any real opportunity for Investigator agency, placing that load squarely on the Keeper without any support.  

The most obvious way to solve this problem would be to intersperse the scripted elements with more interactive encounters that allow the investigators to understand what is happening, and also learn something of the impact of the Jigsaw Prince’s rule, for example:

  1. The investigators encounter the dream version of an NPC they met in Lausanne, who is engaged in a similar trade (say a waiter or street sweeper).  They can speak to this person if they wish and learn a little of the reign of the Prince, but the NPC is also clearly fearful of being seen to speak with outsiders or saying too much (successful social skills and subterfuge may allow more to be revealed).
  2. The Prince’s xenophobic soldiers attack an outsider (perhaps one of the diplomatic delegates in Lausanne has dreamed their way into the Dreamlands version of the city where they are clearly an outsider), will the investigators help, and get involved in a fight, or leave him to his fate?
  3. The investigators encounter previous trial victims who are being punished in a public square for seemingly trivial crimes.  They beg for help and mercy.  Will the investigators help as the crowd watch on, or leave them to suffer and possibly die?
These have the potential to make the revelation of the Prince's identity more dramatic and  to fuel a sense of outrage in the characters, making the trial scene more satisfying for the players (if they win).  I’m not a huge fan of the scoring/trial system, but it did work for my group. 

Perhaps a more interesting way of reflecting the impartiality of the judge for the players would be to have a non-player friend join the game for that part of the session via Skype or similar (having been previously briefed by the Keeper on the setting, context and their role) and ask that person to score the arguments from either side and determine the victor.

The final encounter for this chapter is also fairly fraught.  If the players haven’t thought to try and fool the Duke with the dummy scroll, he appears aboard the Orient Express to demand the scroll, threatening the investigators with potential arrest.  Unless the investigators are good at keeping a cool head, and try to buy time to work out a way to fool him, or are confident of their prospects in the Swiss legal system, there is a fair chance that this will turn into a combat encounter. 


This is problematic for several reasons.  First the Duke must actually survive if he is to feature later in the campaign as scripted.  Second, the Duke is a fearsome opponent, initially seemingly invulnerable to physical attacks, and skilled in both spells and melee weapons, which under the 7e rules means that he has the potential to damage every investigator that attacks him (if the Keeper rolls well) as well as cast Shrivel or Dominate on one of their number each turn. 

The scenario suggests "His head is vulnerable—any attack result which is 10% or less of the attacking skill percentage does normal damage to the head, regardless of the kind of attack".
However the 7e rules offer other official rules for hit locations - a Luck roll, an optional table with a 5% chance of hitting the head or most relevantly: "If a weakness is spotted in an enemy’s armour—a vulnerable spot, such as an open mouth or eye—that area may be targeted, and the Keeper should set an increased level of difficulty or penalty dice for the attempt". 

Applying these rules make the chances of hitting the Duke in the head either more likely (Luck, increased difficulty level or a Penalty dice) or less likely (5%) than the rules in Horror on the Orient Express.  Consider also that the Investigators will also likely gain a Bonus dice from either outnumbering the Duke (melee) or shooting at point blank range.


Depending on which rules are applied the fight is either likely to claim the lives of several investigators or result in the Duke being rapidly and ruthlessly bludgeoned or shot to death, with the aforementioned problems for campaign continuity, and with the Investigators likely to face a manslaughter trial soon thereafter if the fight occurs (as scripted) in the Dining Car of the Orient Express.

So, is there a middle ground?  One suggestion is to convert the Duke’s partial invulnerability into a more conventional armour rating reflecting both his skin grafting and magical prowess, allowing investigators with firearms or a damage bonus and hand weapons a chance to drive him back, while his appearance on the train is also strictly time-limited, allowing the fight to only run for a few combat rounds (perhaps 1D3+1) before the train departs the boundaries of his domain and must teleport away (this is implied by the text, but not made explicit).

If you prefer a less detail focussed option you could give each character a ‘mark of destiny’ at the outset of the campaign which will allow them to survive certain death once.  You can add additional marks for particularly heroic actions during the campaign, but these might help lower the stakes somewhat for encounters like this and increase the chances of character continuity.

In summary:

PROS

  • The first half of the scenario has the potential to be eerie and unsettling, creating a memorable experience for the players.
  • Dream Lausanne is a neat idea, and the dream portents are a nice and evocative way of foreshadowing campaign events without giving too much away
  • Some players will enjoy the prospect of crossing verbal swords with the Prince and participating in a dream-trial
  • The Jigsaw Prince makes for a good villain
CONS

  • The second half of the scenario assumes specific actions, allows for little investigator agency, and therefore places a heavy load on Keepers if investigators deviate from this path
  • Much of the Dreamlands section of the scenario is effectively Keeper monologue
  • If the investigators subsequently decide to fight the Duke they are either likely to suffer heavy losses, or cause continuity problems for a later chapter of the campaign
  • There are several places where the investigators can fall afoul of the Swiss authorities and there is little guidance provided in how to resolve this in a way that keeps the campaign on-track (so to speak).
In summary, the Lausanne chapter has some strong points, and is the first chapter of the core campaign that has the real potential to claim investigator casualties.  However the railroad-style nature of this chapter also has the potential to place a high burden on the Keeper, which if not handled carefully may cause the players to become frustrated and ultimately disengaged with the campaign

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

Milan
Venice

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