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
Lausanne

Milan
Venice

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