Friday, January 22, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Constantinople 1204

This is a review of the Constantinople (1204) 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 Dark Crusader

The Dark Ages flashback scenario provides the players an opportunity to experience a completely different change of pace.  This scenario presents a series of combat-based encounters, each of which the characters must overcome to in order to reach their final, fateful, meeting with Sedefkar himself.

The scenario provides six pre-generated characters, which should make it easy for the players to get right into the action.  Unfortunately these characters are only presented in the traditional format, with background text and summarised statistics in the usual double column format used for NPCS, running over several pages.  This means you can’t easily print and cut them out, as the information for one character runs over several pages and contains some details the players may not want to share immediately.  More importantly, under 7th Edition the players need to have a breakdown of their Hard and Extreme success chance for every skill, and this format does not allow for this in any but the combat skills. 

The GM is left with the option of a messy print and cut, leaving players to make on-the-fly calculations at the table, preparing in advance by transcribing the characters onto proper character sheets by hand, or using the electronic Dark Ages character sheet found in the ‘Through the Ages’ publication with does these calculations automatically (I strongly recommend the latter to save time and as you can also copy and paste some of the key character information and inventory into the second page, and enter the relevant weapon damage and luck scores, making it easy for the players to get started).

While this arrangement for pre-generated characters is not uncommon in Chaosium published Call of Cthulhu publications, it does seem an unusual oversight in a product like Horror on the Orient Express which is packed with so many handouts, and which boasts an entire book of ready-to-play pre-generated characters.

The backdrop of the scenario is both extremely evocative and unique.  The year is 1204 and Constantinople has been attacked by the army of the fourth crusade and is in the throes of pillage by Frankish and Venetian forces.  The characters take the roles of  knights or other members of the Crusader army  tasked with searching the city for unholy artefacts they suspect are having a baleful influence. 

After some high-level opening scenes which allow the players as initial chance to describe their investigator and briefly interact with the famous siege, the scenario slowly introduces the investigators to the city, beginning with a briefing from their patron and  a series of vignettes to illustrate the plight of its inhabitants.  There is a minor ambush with the remnants of the defending forces to get the players some combat experience and a memorable and disturbing interview with a priest who has critical information.

From this point on the scenario consists primarily of a series of brutal combat encounters, as the investigators fight their way to a final confrontation with Sedefkar.  Whether or not your group will enjoy this  depends a great deal on your players and their preferred style of play.

On one hand, the fast-paced brutality of these encounters provides a marked change of pace from the main campaign thus far, and as the players have new, temporary, investigators they can lay waste to their foes with little concern of consequence.  Players who enjoy such action will likely have a grand time.

On the other hand, if your players enjoy the art of investigation, and prefer to find non-violent methods of resolving challenges, then they may not enjoy this scenario as much and you may need to be prepared to improvise options for the investigators to trick, intimidate or avoid their foes, and potentially modify the pre-generated characters to ensure their skills support this approach.

The most unusual encounter in the scenario involves the investigators venturing into an underground cistern where they are confronted by an angry Anatolian Dragon.  This fearsome beast is foreshadowed several times, but has no actual relevance to the core plot of the scenario, aside from providing proof of supernatural forces and the desperation of the cities inhabitants (who summoned it).

The dragon is a tough combat encounter for the characters, and while a full group of investigators are likely to prevail over it if they attack collectively, it is likely that several of their number will be slain, or significantly injured (under 7th Edition the Dragon is making a number of attacks equal to the investigators fighting it +2 per round, so despite a relatively low chance to hit of 30%, if the Keeper does get a higher level of success than the players the Investigators are likely to suffer significant damage.  If the Keeper scores an extreme success an investigator will be killed.

To prevail, the investigators must gamble they can kill the dragon (and spot its weakness) before the dragon has opportunity to kill or incapacitate too many of their number.  Should the investigators encounter the dragon piecemeal, or prolong the fight, the outcome could be much more deadly.

The encounter with the Dragon, therefore, has the potential to be tense, and cool (after all how many Cthulhu investigators can boast they have killed a dragon?).  However, it also has the potential to kill or significantly weaken the investigators, and while this would be a reasonable outcome the climax of the scenario, this is just a side encounter with no direct connection to the plot.  Accordingly, if you plan to run this encounter I suggest either giving the characters one mark of destiny at the beginning of the scenario (allowing them to survive one otherwise fatal injury) or to allow the investigators a chance to sneak up (and potentially past) the dragon as it feeds on its previous victims.

The final encounter with the skin demons and the Red Tower is a truly loathsome affair and has the potential to be both extremely memorable for the series of grisly scenes, and solidify the evil of the Simulacrum in the minds of the players.  There are certainly echoes of the authors previous work on Masks of Nyarlathotep here.

The six levels of tower the investigators must traverse to confront Sedefkar, while evocative, present little opportunity for interaction for the players.  Keepers might like to create details of some of Sedefkar’s victims (locals, venetians or fellow Franks) and allow the investigators an opportunity to swear vengeance on their behalf, or free those who are not fatally wounded to keep things interesting.

The final encounter with Sedefkar is similar in stakes to the Dragon fight earlier.  If the characters attack together, spy the weakness in the Simulacrum, and seek to overwhelm their foe, they are likely to prevail before he completes the ritual.

If they attack piecemeal or in an uncoordinated way, or fail to deduce the joins in the Simulacrum they are likely to die rapidly.  In my game the investigators swiftly worked out that they could use a fighting manoeuvre to disarm Sedekfar without much effort, knock off one piece of armour and strike him down with relative ease (as the bonus die for outnumbering offset the penalty dice or increased level of difficulty for targeting a specific location).  However, none of the characters were uninjured, and several had only a single hit point, so it could easily have worked out differently.

In summary:


PROS

  • There are pre-generated investigators each with their own backstory.
  • The setting and plot are very atmospheric and interesting and there is good foreshadowing of major campaign elements, and elements within the scenario.
  • The players may enjoy the change of pace by playing violent and disposable pre-generated investigators in a series of bloody battles.
  • The investigators battle, and have a chance to defeat, many memorable foes including a Dragon and Sedefkar himself.

CONS

  • The pre-generated character sheets are not well set out for actual use.
  • The plot is relatively linear and there are few scripted opportunities to investigate or resolve encounters through non-violent means.
  • If run as written, the plot has the potential to be extremely deadly, and the investigators are likely to be defeated unless the work together and look for weaknesses in their foes.

In summary the Dark Ages chapter of the campaign has the potential to provide a great change of pace, with some truly horrific scenes and memorable battles.  However, without some modification there is a risk that the linear nature of the plot and high stakes of several combat encounters could result in the death of some or all of the investigators before they reach the climax and leave a bad taste in the mouths of some players.


Other parts of this review:

The Blood Red Fez Overview & London
Paris
Lausanne

Milan
Venice

2 comments:

  1. These flashback scenarios are some my favorite features from the new Orient Expresss. We've done Constantinople so far and I hope to get to this one before too long.

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  2. My players hated this scenario. I killed over 20 investigators before a TPK at the bottom of the Red Tower. All the encounters were combat based. My players said they'd rather have had the summary instead.

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