Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - Constantinople (1923)

This is a review of the Constantinople (1923) 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.

By The Skin of the Teeth

The investigators arrival in Constantinople marks the beginning of the final sequence of the main campaign, spanning three chapters.  Now the investigators have the complete Sedefkar Simulacrum, and have despatched the dread-vampire Fenalik, it seems that all they need are the remaining scrolls and to discover the location of the Shunned Mosque in order to perform a ritual that will end the evil of this cursed artefact for all time. It seems that victory is within their grasp.

But they are deceived, and this cruel deception is at the heart of the most controversial aspect of the campaign.  Depending on the players, and the way that the Keeper has managed expectations, this chapter may prove the beginning of an exciting finale sequence, or leave a bad taste in their mouths.
The investigators arrival in Constantinople is the fourth time the players may have encountered this city (if the Keeper is playing sequentially and using the optional Invictus, Dark Ages  and Gaslight era scenarios). 

While the history, culture and political aspects of the city are covered at some length, there  is sparse information on contemporary Constantinople provided for the Keeper to describe the sights sounds and smells of the city in any more than the most cursory detail; perhaps because the scenario expects the investigators to crack on with the scenario and not deviate from the set-piece locations.

A nice touch for the campaign, overall, would have been to focus on several specific areas of the city that date back to the Invictus scenario and provide some more detailed updates about these locations for each subsequent scenario - sort of like a time-lapse photography snapshot. This would, perhaps, give the players a better sense of the place, and support the Keeper to evoke the city in more depth.

After experiencing chaos and lost luggage at the Sirkeci railway station, the investigators have two possible leads to follow up.  The first takes them to the museum at Topkapı Palace where they find reference to the scrolls they seek, the second takes them to a memorable meeting with Belab the perspirer who is then killed in grotesque fashion to convince the investigators that his information is genuine.

Following either lead takes them to the Üsküdar Cemetery which unfortunately receives scant description in the scenario text.  Here, after some twilight grave-robbery where the investigators are expected to exhume the remains of a Kurdish Scholar, the first trap is sprung.  According to the scenario:

“[Forty] Brothers spring from hiding and seize the trespassers...They rise from behind stones on all sides; to startled investigators it seems as if the dead have risen everywhere. Armed and in overwhelming numbers, the Brothers strive to capture their foes, then herd them through the graveyard toward where yet more Brothers wait."


When the trap is sprung, at least one investigator is captured and held fast by a monstrosity in the casket.  Little detail is provided to support the Keeper should the investigators rescue their trapped colleague and try to fight their way to freedom.

If the investigators are armed and capable fighters, and make some kind of tactical play, then resolving this challenge can be tricky given the lack of detail about the cemetery and surroundings.  The Brothers are not good fighters and are armed only with knives, which means a group of investigators who are skilled in combat, and equipped with firearms, might feel they have a fair chance.

I suggest there are a couple of options to resolve this:
  • If the Keeper wants to capture some or all of the investigators (as scripted) then they should be sure to review the rules for disarming in combat.  The Brothers can use their weight of numbers (bonus dice) to offset the penalty dice for this procedure.  Once disarmed the investigators can effectively be grappled and knocked unconscious if necessary. 
  • A further option to secure the cooperation of unwilling investigators is for the Brothers to threaten to kill any captive or unconscious investigators if the others do not surrender and/or to have a final cordon of Brothers disguised as police (which is suggested in the text); if the investigators try and summon them for assistance they are captured easily, if not the fake police have firearms and threaten to shoot them down.
  • If the Keeper wishes to allow the investigators the potential to escape I suggest they should prepare for a chase (review the chase rules, create summaries for the players and establish a list of hazards and challenges) in advance of the session.  It may also be helpful to do a little additional research on the cemetery and surrounding neighbourhoods to add some flavour to the scene.
  • Obviously, if the investigators escape, the Keeper will need to devise a new way to link them into the plot and ideally introduce them to "Aktar" their Gypsy ally.  In my game, I created a list of actions for the Brothers, starting with searching their hotel rooms, and deploying the skin beast with its ‘scent prey’ skill to track them across the city and Dimensional Shamblers to retrieve the simulacrum once located.  I then sealed this in an envelope so that the players could have confidence that I was not using any of their across the table discussion to tip things in the favour of the bad guys.
The Elephant in the Room

It’s not possible to review this chapter of the campaign without addressing one of the main criticisms levelled at its predecessor.

After a lengthy journey across Europe, facing cultists, monsters and sanity shattering horrors, collecting a blasphemous artefact that slowly robs them of their vitality, the investigators are betrayed, captured and stripped of their prize as it is revealed they have been duped all along by an ambitious and powerful sorcerer masquerading as their old friend.  This blatant plot railroad may leave a bad taste in the mouths of  players who have invested long hours into their character and faithfully followed the campaign’s twisting track.


The primary reason for this plot twist is the enable the subsequent chapter ‘Blue Train, Black Night’ to be played as a frantic return journey back on the Orient Express, as the hunter becomes the hunted in a nod to Agatha Christie's classic "Murder on the Orient Express".  It’s a great idea – but does it justify this blatant removal of player agency?  Stay tuned for my final analysis of the campaign.

So, how does the revised campaign deal with this potentially contentious plot twist?  It retains the original plot, albeit with some tweaks, including allowing only one investigator to be captured in the Cemetery if necessary. It also offers an option for the campaign to conclude in this chapter. 

If employing this option, Professor Smith was not captured in London during the first chapter, and Mehmet plays no major role in the final chapters.  The investigators have an opportunity to end the campaign in this chapter and destroy the Simulacrum in a showdown at the Shunned Mosque.  I believe this is a great option, and a good way to respect the original material while also allowing Keepers to preserve a high level of investigator autonomy.

However, If you're wanting to play the full campaign as written (without using the optional ending), the sad fact is that the investigators are likely to be captured by the Brothers not just once, but twice, and each time the main villain taunts them before departing, like a James Bond villain, leaving the investigators to (un)certain death.

Once the characters escape, they must swiftly chase Mehmet, their nemesis, back across Europe (luckily he revealed his nefarious plan in a monologue) as they have only 100 hours before they are horribly corrupted by the power of the simulacrum.  A dark end to a gloomy chapter - one which some players will enjoy, if roleplaying their characters journey into darkness is a driving force for their entertainment.  But other players may feel that their investigators have been unfairly victimised for the sake of the plot.

Another option

If I were running this again, I'd want to dispense with the clichéd capture of the investigators for the sake of the plot, the unnecessary addition of Aktar as yet another face of Mehmet, while maintaining Mehmet as the villain (the man who died 3 times in one night can't be written out of the campaign!) and lead into the across Europe chapter.  To accomplish this I would:
  • Have Mehmet arrive in Constantinople disguised as Professor Smith once more.  Bandaged and with a nurse to tend him Smith tells the investigators that he thinks it unlikely that the Brothers are still after him (and how would they recognise him?) and he is willing to risk his life to aid in the destruction of the terrible simulacrum - do they have it?
  • This would simultaneously remind the characters of the story's origins (it may have been months or even years of real time since the first session) allow Mehmet to guide their final actions, and give the investigators a final chance to unmask him (they have seen a lot more skin magic since London). 
  • Smith (Mehmet) can put the investigators in touch with Beylab, who reveals both the location of the Shunned Mosque and the fact the Brothers collect a number of scrolls there, along with the children who are held prisoner to be sacrificed in profane rituals.  Beylab is then silenced as scripted by Brothers who have him under surveillance (this is a genuine reprisal, not a ruse as in the current text).
  • Smith and the investigators enter the Shunned Mosque via the cistern tunnel and recover the scrolls.  Smith swaps the scrolls for a fake and slips away while heroic investigators also free the children where they encounter the real Professor Smith and realise they have been duped.
  • Queue a frantic chase through the Shunned Mosque as the Brothers sound the alarm and Selim demands their heads.  Will the investigators take more risks to get the children to safety?  Will they try and dispatch Selim, or focus on the false Smith?  Mehmet has arranged additional obstacles (his nurse or a flesh creeper waiting in the cistern) to enable him to reach the Orient Express first, having arranged for the recovery of the simulacrum.
  • If the investigators unmask Mehmet before his plans can come to fruition, then he might escape and try again in the guise of Aktar, team up with Selim to mount an attack on the investigators and recover the simulacrum, only to betray him at the crucial moment - or perhaps Mehmet perishes and it is Selim who flees to the Orient Express.  There are several options depending on the circumstances...

In Summary:

PROS

  • There are some evocative and horrific scenes; the bathhouse, the cemetery and the Shunned Mosque which are likely to be highly memorable.
  • The investigators have the opportunity to do some good, dispatching (or witnessing the killing of) Salim and rescuing child captives.
  • The scenario presents an alternative ending which allows Keepers to avoid the plot railroad that would otherwise see the investigators captured, taunted and little more than spectators to the actions of Selim and Mehmet.

CONS

  • The blatant plot railroad may leave a bad taste in the mouths of  players who have invested long hours into their character and faithfully followed the campaign’s twisting track.
  • There are scant details about the city or the other locations the investigators may visit.
  • There is no support for the Keeper to facilitate a more complex outcome for the trap at Üsküdar Cemetery.
  • Several elements of the scenario seem contrived, such as the relative ease of the investigators in escaping from the Shunned Mosque, and villain monologue.
In summary, I think that Keepers will need to do a fair bit of additional work in order to ensure this chapter is satisfying for their players.  Whether that's reading more about the city, tweaking the combat encounters or adding chases, or changing the entire structure of the ending will depend on the group and their preferences, but in either event the Keeper will either need to spend time preparing, or improvising to fill gaps in the scenario.

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