Sunday, September 6, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Paris

This is a review of the Paris 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

Les Fleurs Du Mal

Paris is another fantastic location for the campaign and the campaign book does a reasonable job suggesting ways a keeper might breathe some life into the City of Lights.  The central activity for the investigators  at the beginning of the Paris chapter is chasing up leads in the Bibliothèque nationale de France where there are a range of sources that document the demise of the former owner of the Sedefkar Simulacrum.   Regrettably, the campaign here adopts one of the less desirable qualities of investigative games – making it potentially difficult or frustrating for the players that to obtain the clues they need in order to advance the plot.

The investigators must first gain access to the library, a process taking several days if they have not thought to make arrangements in advance,  then they slowly have the handouts doled out over the space of several game days, assuming they can pass the fairly difficult battery of Library Use checks required.  Now, I don’t mean to diminish the idea that historical research might lead to exciting discoveries – this kind of research accompanied by primary source style handouts can be a lot of fun.  The question for the Keeper is what they want the  primary experience for the players to be. 


Zealous bureaucracy followed by day after day of failed rolls might  more closely reflect the frustrations of the characters, on the other hand the players may feel there is enough tedium in their real lives and they’d prefer to roleplay something more exciting when they sit down to play Call of Cthulhu.  Ultimately each keeper will need to find the right balance for their group, and I suspect many will simply provide the handouts without applying such difficulty.
For the keeper who wishes to inject a little more tension, one suggestion is that Makryat keeps the investigators focused on their goal by dispatching several Brothers of the Skin to research the Simulacrum at the same time as the Investigators, leading to a ‘research race’.  The Brothers, who are likely to be far less skilled researchers than the investigators, seek to replicate then leap ahead of the Investigators work, although both sides are prevented from direct interaction or open conflict by the strict monitoring of library staff with the threat of ejection for any who are deemed to be acting inappropriately. 

This would reinforce the need for haste, keep things tense when making the all-important Library use roll, and perhaps encourage the investigators to come up with some innovative sabotage methods (or even a direct confrontation and combat outside the library).  Should the cultists research efforts somehow prove more successful than the Investigators, their French research assistant might see an  opportunity to make a little extra money and be prepared to share what was uncovered. If the Investigators are easily able to outwit the cultists, perhaps further tension could be applied through the brutal murder of their French research assistant, or a librarian, implying the Brothers are now only one step behind.

The scenario also provides suggestions for investigators who wish to sightsee around the city while their more research minded colleagues hit the stacks.  These include ideas to add an atmospheric twist to otherwise routine tourist spots.  These are nice, and can be supplemented with the information in the traveller’s guide, although more options would have been useful given the number of days required to extract information at the Bibliothèque nationale.

The fruits of the investigators research direct them to two possible leads, the ruins of the Fenalik Manse in Poissy and the site of the Comte’s incarceration at Charenton Asylum.
The Charenton lead assumes a reasonably narrow focus.  While the asylum (and its associated backstory) is a great addition to the game, there is scant chance of the investigators learning anything useful here unless they are willing to steal files from under the nose of an intimidating secretary, break into the asylum, locate and bribe a disloyal staff member, or have themselves committed – all of which seems fairly unlikely given the tenuousness of the lead they’re following. 

More logical avenues of inquiry (speaking with the Police about their investigation of the demise of the former director, inspecting the facilities posing as the family of a wealthy potential inmate, or making a formal request to examine the records of the asylum on the basis of bona fides used at the Bibliothèque nationale) are simply not considered, leaving the Keeper to scramble to tailor the available information to suit.

In the original campaign the information gleaned from Charenton may have given the investigators (and more specifically their players) a cryptic hint about the nature of one of their adversaries, compounded by the suggested foreshadowing that occurs during later chapters.  Interesting, and potentially useful during a fateful later encounter, but seemingly dislocated from the characters immediate focus on the locating the Sedefkar Simulacrum. In the revised edition, new material covers this ground more thoroughly, particularly the Invictus and Dark Ages scenarios.

The sequence of events in Poissy at the home of the Lorien family are, in my opinion, excellent and have the potential to be truly atmospheric and memorable, without actually endangering the lives of the Investigators.  Running the sequence requires some preparation, as foreshadowing the insidious influence of the simulacrum arm on the Lorien family works best if integrated into a flowing social encounter, rather than punctuated by frequent checks of the text. 


The descent into the long-buried dungeon has the potential to be extremely evocative; to keep the tension high I suggest the Keeper push the players for character decisions – who is descending first?  What are they carrying as they try and push past the pallid tree roots?  Who has any light? How long is one investigator alone in the dark below before others arrive?  This helps make the perceived threat more immediate and personal and should help with player visualisation of the scene.  For me this is the roleplaying equivalent of the score of a horror movie building to a crescendo communicating indirectly with the audience about what might happen next (although employing suspenseful music is another good technique to employ here).

The reward for this effort is, of course, the left arm of the simulacrum and the players are rewarded with the magnificent puzzle-cut handout.  Unfortunately the campaign, which is otherwise rich with handouts and support materials, provides no easy way to track how the baleful influence of each piece of the simulacrum attaches to the investigators through the sequence of their contact with it.

As a final note, the character’s departure on the Orient Express , and the moonlight performance of Signorina Cavollaro is a perfect way to close out the chapter.

 In summary:

PROS

  • Paris is an evocative setting and there is opportunity to visit many famous landmarks including the Bibliothèque nationale and Charenton Asylum.
  • The primary source handouts paint a compelling picture of the demise of the decadent Comte Fenalik.
  • The trip to Poissy, and recovery of the left arm of the simulacrum are excellent and have the potential to make for very memorable and atmospheric experience without real threat to the investigators.
  • The characters finally board the Orient Express!

CONS

  • The bureaucracy and research required to obtain the clues necessary to drive the story forward has the potential to be difficult or frustrating for the players, and few options are provided for groups who don't enjoy this approach.
  • The Charenton lead assumes a reasonably narrow focus, meaning the Keeper may have to think fast to facilitate the available information - ultimately the time and effort spent here may be better invested in the Invictus or Dark Ages scenarios for the same effect.
In summary, the load on the Keeper to keep things interesting and respond to unanticipated lines of inquiry in this chapter is quite heavy.  However, the Paris chapter also has the potentially for memorable atmospheric horror, without the bloodshed likely to occur in subsequent chapters.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Overview & London
Paris

Lausanne
Milan
Venice

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