Thursday, October 8, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Milan

This is a review of the Milan 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.

Note for Note

The next stop is Milan, the first of two scenarios set in fascist Italy.  The political context of the setting is picked up more thoroughly in the next scenario (Venice) while the focus of the Milan chapter is the disappearance of renown opera singer, Caterina Cavollaro ahead of the opening of Aida at the famous La Scala opera house, which will be the centre of the action.  This seems a solid enough beginning, the Investigators should have met Cavollaro while aboard the Orient Express and been the recipient of her generosity and charming company, giving them a strong motivation to investigate her disappearance.

Rather than step through this chapter chronologically, let’s do what much of the text of this chapter fails to do, and cut to the chase; this entire chapter revolves around a dramatic final encounter backstage in La Scala.  The plot makes no real allowance for the investigators to locate the piece of the simulacrum prior to its appearance on stage (indeed its exact location is kept a mystery even to the Keeper).

The scenario suggests, in passing, that diligent investigators might track down Cavollaro prior to opening night and even provides a tenuous investigative path to allow this, it fails to deliver on this lead; there is no support for the Keeper, meaning they must invent the details of  Faccia’s manor house, although according to the scenario “it is more likely that Faccia is hiding out at his northern warehouse prior to the big night. There may not be sufficient time to track down Faccia before the fateful aria is sung”.  Clearly there isn’t as no further mention is made of either location.

Worse still the scripted climax of the scenario occurs irrespective of prior investigator actions, meaning there is no reward for those who diligently investigate as opposed to those who simply sightsee – all the major revelations for this chapter happen at La Scala on opening night.  It is entirely possible that the Investigators will have no real idea of the proximity of a piece of the simulacrum until it appears on stage.  Disappointingly even the climactic conclusion is not well supported beyond a suggestion that “now it is a game of cat-and-mouse in the mazes that backstage at the opera and the streets of Milan can provide”. 
The Keeper must either run a slightly comedic conclusion scripted, where the NPCs are the centre of the action, or draw on their own resources to furnish the setting and scene sufficient to allow for a complex combat involving half a dozen NPCs and the Investigators based on the rambling prior description of La Scala.
Collectively these limitations give the Milan chapter the feeling of a draft which has not been robustly playtested.
However, despite these drawbacks,  much of the supporting material is sound.  There are atmospheric twists, with the moonlight serenade and the mysterious chameleon, the bizarre and unnerving nature of the backstage labyrinth at La Scala and, of course, the terrible fate of Cavollaro. 
The motivations of the cult also seem well resolved; targeting a leader of the currently politically unpopular union movement for organ harvesting, allowing the cult to extend its influence and power within the city.  A diligent Keeper may weave all this material together, pacing events on the tightly scheduled timeframe, to conceal the stark plot railroad that lies behind this chapter.
Beyond this clever obfuscation it is hard to provide suggestions for improvement for this chapter without challenging the central assumption that the climax of the chapter will occur as scripted.  Obviously there are places where more details could be furnished (for example, describing the lair of Faccia and creating more details of encounters at La Scala to allow the Keeper to make it seem different and unique each time the Investigators enter) and Keepers would do well to think about these areas in advance.
Beyond this I offer two main suggestions to enhance the scenario for the players; first the galleria where the investigators are staying is an ideal place to stage one or more of the scripted events foreshadowing Fenalik.  Increasing Investigator unease in a city already experiencing the baleful influence of the torso should make the Milan session more memorable, increasing the pressure and paranoia of the characters.
Second, a chase sequence through the backstage areas of La Scala and the back-streets of Milan has the potential to provide a suitably epic ending, either as the investigators spirit the torso away, or attempt to prevent the cultists from doing the same.  Although there is no guarantee that a chase will occur, the potential for the two groups (cultists and investigators) converging on the torso as it is wheeled off stage seems high, and a Keeper would do well to have prepared for the chase by reviewing the 7e rules chapter on chases, preparing some locations and associated hazards ahead of this climactic moment.
In summary:
PROS
  • There are many nice touches that support the GM to evoke a strong atmosphere of strangeness and horror throughout the chapter.
  • The central plot of this chapter is both intriguing and ghastly, and the climax has the potential to be exciting and extremely memorable.
CONS
  • The major plot of the scenario is highly scripted, built around a predetermined climax, and there is little flexibility for the keeper to deviate from this path.
  • The actions of the investigators have no real bearing on the plot until the climax, which may lead to players feeling frustrated or disengaged with the story.
  • There is little support to help the Keeper to resolve the final action against the cultists in La Scala in suitably epic fashion.
  • The villain of this story Faccia, has not had his combat skills/spells updated for 7e.
In summary the Milan chapter is the most difficult chapter of the campaign thus far, in that it railroads both Investigators and Keeper toward a predetermined endpoint.  This has the potential to make the game difficult, frustrating and unsatisfying for everyone.  However, if run as scripted there is enough material presented to allow the Keeper to camouflage this shortcoming, and create a rich and memorable game with an epic climax; a pretty railroad, but railroad nonetheless.

8 comments:

  1. I just came across your account of Orient Express. I'm running the game myself and am always interested in seeing other people's experiences with it. I'm actually adapting the game to "Trail of Cthulhu" as it suits my style more than CoC.

    I'm about at the same point you are, and will be starting Milan this Sunday. I agree with the issues you mention and I'm thinking that by the time I'm done tweaking the Milan chapter it'll be very different from what is in the official campaign.

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  2. Hi Samuel

    Thanks for the comment and good luck! I'd be interested to hear what you change and how it goes if you have the time or inclination.

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  3. After a holiday break we've gotten back to our HOTOE game last weekend. After a lot of thought I ended up almost entirely rewriting the Milan chapter. I have an Obsidian Portal page up about our game. https://horror-on-the-orient-express-5.obsidianportal.com/

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  4. After a holiday break we've gotten back to our HOTOE game last weekend. After a lot of thought I ended up almost entirely rewriting the Milan chapter. I have an Obsidian Portal page up about our game. https://horror-on-the-orient-express-5.obsidianportal.com/

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  5. Wow, that sounds like awesome fun!

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  6. Thank you for this! I am considering starting this campaign in the near future, and both of these inputs are very helpful in terms of what alterations I may consider once we start.

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  7. Thanks Blythe and good luck with it!

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  8. I had the same issue. What happens if the players just sell their Opera tickets and don't attend? Luckily, one player forced the other players to go to the opera.

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