Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Sofia

This is a review of the Sofia 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.

Repossession

The Sofia chapter is the most dangerous of the campaign so far, and if run as scripted, there is a high probability of  investigator fatalities.  However, this threat is wrapped in a series of highly evocative and tense encounters. If the players can sustain their motivation without feeling overwhelmed by this relentless threat, they will likely remember this chapter as one of the highlights of the campaign.  Because of the open ended nature of the final encounter, there is real scope for the Keeper to tailor this chapter to suit their desired outcome, so it is important for Keepers to do some thinking in advance.

This chapter is paced quite differently from others in the campaign.  It brings a high intensity action focus which is likely to suit the more action oriented investigators.  However, this does create a risk that more research-inclined investigators may feel out of their depth, or sidelined.   Events begin as soon as the train departs from Belgrade, with a cultist posing as a waiter in order to steal research from Dr. Radko Jordanov, that will ultimately lead the cult to the head of the simulacrum.  It’s not immediately clear why the concealed cultist doesn't simply wire ahead to Sofia, rather than snatching the research in front of a train load of witnesses, but the scene does offer the investigators a dramatic opportunity to chase through the train.

Once they reach Sofia, the investigators are in for a harrowing night; one will lose an eye.  This is a very atmospheric encounter, as mummified hands creep up on the sleeping investigators, made more so as the investigator begins to receive visions from the severed eyeball.  There are suggested penalties for the investigator who loses the eye, but sympathetic Keepers may wish to scale these back a little, given the arbitrary assignment of this misfortune.  This hardship and trauma associated with this sequence has the potential for a player, who enjoys drama over mechanics to roleplay the impact on their investigator to the hilt.  Keepers should bear this in mind when deciding who is targeted.

Unlike many other chapters of the campaign the final piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum is relatively accessible, located in a University storeroom, however when the investigators follow this lead they swiftly become entangled in a gun (and grenade) battle with homicidal cultists.  This could be a particularly challenging surprise encounter for your investigators should it be the mild mannered researchers, rather than the gun toting action investigators, who have investigated the lead at the University. 

As the point of this scene is twofold (1) the investigators witness the cultists capturing the head and escape with it, and (2) learn that the local cult is well armed, overt, and resourceful.  I suggest these ends can be achieved without necessarily using the scripted level of NPC armament, should the investigators not be up for a gunfight.  Knives employed by the rearguard (rather than guns) are likely to be sufficient to ensure the former, while the scripted use of a concealed machine-gun in the getaway truck, spraying nearby vehicles with bullets, more than amply illustrates the latter.

Next, the investigators link up with a renegade police unit, who themselves have been targeted by the cult, and forced to set up a temporary headquarters.  Now the investigators deduce the hiding place of the cult, as the investigator missing an eye receives visions of the cult hideout (and subsequent visions that suggest that a third party has intervened and dispatched the cultists).  Because the  progress of the scenario hangs on these clues, and in order to preserve continuity, Keepers need to be mindful to ensure that the player whose character is missing an eye can attend the session where this will need to occur. 

The back-up clue (a telephone tip from Fenalik) seems a little far-fetched when you consider (1) Fenalik apparently doesn’t understand trains or cars, so knowledge of telephones is a stretch (2) it’s unlikely that a telephone exchange operator knows the whereabouts of the police ‘safe house’ sufficient to direct the call. 

When the investigators follow these leads, they discover and explore a cave complex scattered with the the grisly remains of the cultists, and recover the final piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum in a hiding place that Fenalik could not access because of well placed garlic cloves (again this stretches credulity somewhat, given Fenalik’s ability to hypnotise and control the living).  The investigators have only just made this recovery when newly created vampires, the Children of Fenalik attack, foreshadowing the final encounter of the chapter.

To survive this encounter the investigators either need to use their force of arms, and swiftly learn how to dispatch the vampires, or take to their heels.  As the Keeper is provided with the statistics of the special police squad who accompany them on this dangerous mission and it is suggested that the Keeper might like to print these and hand them out to the players, so they get a first hand feel of the brutality and relative invulnerability of the vampires rather than simply narrating their demise.

Finally, bloodied but victorious, the investigators return to the Orient Express.  The scenario suggests that the Keeper lulls the players into a false sense of security by awarding sanity and allowing skill checks which are normally done at the end of the chapter, paralleling the sense of security the investigators feel being back on the train and departing Sofia.  This is a nice device but again the Keeper should ensure that they feel their players will enjoy such a deception before the investigators are thrust straight into a conflict with the much foreshadowed campaign villain; the vampire Fenalik.

At the outset I said that I felt that Keepers should think carefully about this chapter, and how they want it to play out, as it is possible that the entire party of investigators may be wiped out after months of effort and investigation and roleplay.  For some groups this will be an acceptable risk, and all part of the fun, for others this may mean the campaign ends in Sofia, and in some cases players may feel so disengaged that the players actively avoid Call of Cthulhu games in the future.

I suggest this chapter should provide some challenging and harrowing encounters, but ultimately my aim when running this chapter was that all the investigators who arrived in Sofia, should survive until the final encounter with Fenalik (bar a run of poor luck on dice rolls).  This is because the Sofia chapter does not lend itself to the recruitment of new investigators, and I wanted to avoid the disposable investigator syndrome, where a new character is recruited only to die later in the same chapter, killed by Fenalik. 

For me the confrontation with Fenalik needed to be epic and I was prepared for several of the investigators to perish, but ultimately I wanted to have at least one survivor to continue the journey and continuity of the campaign.  Accordingly I arranged Fenalik's actions to make this the most likely outcome (cat and mouse attacks with a focus on hypnotism and allowing Cthulhu Mythos rolls to identify possible Vampire strengths and weaknesses).

It should be noted that, if you are using the 7th edition rules, and the optional luck mechanic, the players may have considerable scope to approach this encounter in a tactical way (by spending luck to ensure they receive a higher degree of success than Fenalik on each roll and thereby damage him in both his attacks, and through their own actions).  This will burn through luck, but for the players, this may seem an acceptable sacrifice to defeat their foe.  An investigator with a high Brawl skill, an improvised stake, and a decent pool of luck has a fair chance of beating the vampire on this basis.

However, investigators who rely exclusively on firearms, split up or try to hide are likely to suffer a grim fate.  The final section of this chapter offers a range of good advice and guidance on running this memorable encounter, and Keepers should be sure to review before running the encounter.

In summary:



PROS


  • The chapter is fast paced and action focussed and is a change of pace to much of the rest of the campaign.
  • The mixture of well armed, brazen cultists and terrifying, relentless, undead have the potential to make evocative and memorable encounters.
  • The characters have the opportunity to encounter and ultimately defeat a long-term villain of the campaign.
  • The resolution of the confrontation with Fenalik is open ended and well supported with advice and suggestions. allowing Keepers to tailor this to their group and desired outcome.


CONS


  • The chapter is fast paced and action focussed and is a change of pace to much of the rest of the campaign
  • There are several plot elements that don't seem entirely consistent.
  • There is a high probability of investigator fatalities.

  • Some players may find the relentless horror inflicted on their investigators in this chapter demoralising

In summary this chapter will likely be one of the most memorable of the campaign, the vampire on the train is Classic Cthulhu, both at its best, and its worst.  There is a real chance that the campaign could get derailed here if the Keeper doesn't plan in advance and read the advice provided.  For players who really seek to embrace the dark journey of their investigators, this chapter marks the place where the darkness really takes hold.  The relentless violence, continued horror and final bloody twist should leave the surviving investigators haggard, harried and ready for the final (although penultimate) confrontation in Istanbul.

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