Friday, June 3, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Constantinople 330

This is a review of the Constantinople (330) 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.

This review is slightly out of sequence with the published campaign.  This is because my group did not initially feel sufficient motivation to attempt to retrieve the Mims Sahis as part of the Vinkovci chapter, so I ran this flashback scenario before they reached a final decision, to ensure they were in possession of all the available facts about this artefact.

Sanguis Omnia Vincet

The Invictus flashback scenario allows the players to take on the role of the Fortes Falcones, elite scouts for the Roman Army.  This scenario reminds me a lot of the movie The 13th Warrior, only with roman legionnaires instead of Norsemen.  The overall plot is similar; a small group venture deep into unfamiliar territory to confront an ancient evil, and after being attacked, decide they must root out the source. 

In terms of style it is similar to the Dark Ages flashback scenario, so if your players enjoyed the opportunity to play capable, violent characters, for a short run scenario then they will likely enjoy this scenario.  If not, you might want to skip the scenario as ultimately it is the investigators force of arms that must carry the day.

As with the Gaslight and Dark Ages scenario, pre-generated characters are supplied, and again, because of the formatting, Keepers will need to do some work in order to present these to the players in a way that enables them to be easily disseminated.   Keepers will also likely need to refresh themselves on the rules for the variable benefits of using-hand forged armour and shields.

The scenario begins and concludes in Constantinople tying in nicely to a series of historic events about the dedication of the city.  However the investigators time in the city is short, they soon receive a mission which will require them to travel to the province of Lydia to seek out a malevolent evil thought to be responsible for a terrible plague.

One of the key features of this scenario is the non-player character Tillius Corvus, commander of the Fortes Falcones.  Corvus has a central role to play in the campaign, and must follow certain actions as the campaign concludes, but his activities prior to this point are up to the Keeper. 

This is a difficult balance to maintain, as Corvus should be present for much of the action, but ideally not be directing the action (and stealing agency from the players).  My approach was to treat the investigators as a crack team of special forces – each character was an expert over their domain, and the group operated with little military formality – If a major decision was required, Corvus asked for the investigators advice, and only intervened in decision making when it seemed the investigators could not agree between themselves.


The journey to Lydia and the remote outpost provides a nice narrative flow, from the height of Roman civilisation into the relative wilderness.  While such a transition should hardly be novel to the Falcones, this mission will be different. Keepers should use the opportunity build a  feeling of threat and menace as the journey progresses, which will help generate a sense of tension and foreboding amongst the investigators. 

Once the investigators arrive at the Ghilian Outpost, the scenario is divided into 3 main sections, 
  1. investigation phase where the characters may learn knowledge about their foe, and experience the horrors of the plague first hand,
  2. the battle phase where they confront the massed forces of the enemy,
  3. and an exploration phase where the characters seek out and slay the enemy leader in his lair. 
Although there is little opportunity for deviation from this plot, the scenario employs a clever approach to allow the initial investigations and approach of the characters to influence the battle, for two possible outcome of the battle which, in turn, changes the difficulty of the final sequence. 

This allows a scenario which would otherwise have a fairly directive and linear, to offer a lot more variability, giving a greater sense of agency to the players (although it must be noted that there is little support for Keepers whose players choose to ignore the setup entirely and try to strike at the enemy leader from the outset).

Similarly the battle mechanic, whereby the fort stands or falls on the basis of the individual combat of the instigators against a pre-determined number of foes is an elegant way to allow for a tense, yet individual and dramatic resolution.  This could, perhaps, have been better supported by the inclusion of suggested details for what is occurring in each part of the fort including suggestions for how the individual foes might attack or be engaged by the character.  As the pre-generated scenario also provides the characters a ‘tactics’ skill some suggestions as to haw this might be used in preparation for the battle would also have been useful.

A surprising omission is a map of the fort and its immediate surrounds, leaving  Keepers to invent their own if the players want a visual depiction of the battlefield. This is difficult to understand, given the very nice, full colour map of Invictus era Constantinople that is provided, but which ultimately serves little purpose.

As with the Dark Age scenario, the horrors the characters must face are inventive and original, and the final confrontation in the mountain temple of the cult is likely to be memorable. 

The final part of the scenario provides an interesting conclusion.  Having slain the cult leader, and defeated the enemy the characters return to Constantinople, carrying their comatose leader to enjoy the fruits of their victory and life after military service.  However the story is not yet finished.  The characters (likely) meet a grisly end in the scenario’s final twist as they are betrayed, and one of the campaign’s major villains’ is born.  This is both a neat way to conclude the scenario and segue into the next part of the campaign when they will face this foe once more, and a poor ending for characters who have already survived a significant ordeal.

My players felt this loss so acutely (having become so attached to their characters) that we agreed that the final page of The Accounts of Tillius Corvus, was missing, allowing for the possibility that some of their number may have survived the wedding bloodbath by trying to swim for their lives.

In summary:

PROS

  • There are pre-generated investigators each with their own backstory.
  • The setting is atmospheric and interesting and there is ample opportunity for actions of the investigators to positively or negatively impact the battle.
  • The battle resolution mechanic is elegant and should allow for some dramatic moments.
  • The twist perfectly highlights and foreshadows the origin of a major campaign villain.

CONS

  • The pre-generated character sheets are not well set out for actual use.
  • The plot is relatively linear and there is little support for the Keeper if the investigators choose to strike directly at the enemy leader from the outset.
  • There is no detailed map of the Ghilian Outpost where the investigators will spend the bulk of the scenario.
  • There is little support to help the Keeper describe and frame the individual and distinct battle scenes

In summary the Invictus chapter of the campaign is both evocative and innovative allowing the investigators to determine their own challenge level through their investigative action against a host of new horrors.  As with the Dark Ages chapter it allows a significant change of pace that puts a heavy focus on action.  The final twist of the scenario is extremely memorable and a great way to frame a major campaign villain, although it may leave a bitter taste in the mouth of some players.  My group said this was one of their favourite scenarios to date.

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