Friday, February 3, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - Across Europe

This is a review of the Across Europe (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.

Blue Train, Black Night
In this scenario the investigators, recently escaped from their imprisonment in Constantinople, board the Orient  Express for a final, fateful, journey back across Europe.  They have 100 hours to unmask Mehmet, the architect of their woes, and recover the Sedefkar Simulacrum, before they suffer a terrible fate.  But their task is not easy, their foe can assume the appearance of others with his terrible skin magic, and hides in plain sight amidst the wealthy and well-to-do guests on the Orient Express.  Meanwhile every hour the investigators suffer the effects of their growing corruption.
This is one of three scenarios that uses a similar device to drive the action.  Echoing Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit “Murder on the Orient Express,” these scenarios (which also include the optional Dreamlands Express and the 2013 Across Europe Epilogue (the Gaslight scenario is similar but the villain travels openly)) present a number of other passengers, amongst which a villain is hiding.  The investigators must deduce which of their travelling companions is responsible before it’s too late.

This setup has many advantages; the story can move at the pace of the investigators, social skills come to the fore, and there is a chance for some in-depth roleplaying that provides a nice change of pace from the quest for clues in dusty libraries, or frantic combat with degenerate cultists.

However, it also poses a significant challenge for the Keeper, in that they must bring to life a large number of NPCs  (16 in this scenario, 10 in the Blood Red Fez, 7 in the Dreamlands Express and 15 in the modern era scenario), conveying their unique personalities, and revealing some part of their backstory as the journey continues.  This task becomes even more complex when several NPCs interact, or during scenes in the Dining or Salon cars where conceivably the whole cast may be present.

I suggest that the key to conveying a diverse cast in these scenarios is to personalise them in some way for the players, so it is clear who the Keeper is roleplaying at any moment, and so that the investigators can see, at a glance, who their suspects are and how they might relate to one another.  In my games I produce a series of small headshots, which have a picture for each NPCS and their name printed beneath. I can then lay these out for player reference, group them to show who is present in a particular scene and pick them up when playing each person.

Some headshots for these scenarios are supplied with the game, and can be extracted from the PDF, but I usually supplement these with pictures from the internet, usually film actors of the 1920’s and 30’s of roughly the same age and appearance as the NPC.  This requires some additional work for the Keeper at the outset, but is a fairly invaluable resource across several sessions of the scenario.

The second challenge for the Keeper common to the suite of train-based scenarios is how to manage the amount of material provided for each NPC across the several days worth of journey.  While the characters in this scenario all have interesting storylines, many of which are intended to keep them as viable suspects throughout the journey, this material may be quickly exhausted if the investigators engage in a thorough inquiry.

A helpful addition for the keeper would have been half a dozen additional dot points for each NPC with some other suggestions (for example, “highly devout, and tries to find relevance to current events in scripture” or “fan of tennis and frequently carries a racquet to practise air-backhand” along with tips on how the NPC might react to violence, intimidation or the supernatural.

Technical issues aside, there is a discordant tone between this chapter and the that which precedes it.  At the end of ‘By the Skin of their Teeth’ the Investigators have been betrayed, captured, taunted and broken free from the Shunned Mosque.  This chapter assumes they board the Orient Express returning to a world of luxury and immediately begin to deftly navigate the intrigue and secrets of the wealthy and well heeled.  Whereas, investigators who are desperate, dishevelled and slowly being corrupted, and who believe they need to act swiftly to avert a great evil, seem much more likely to engage in interrogations at gunpoint, dispensing with social niceties in the interests of the greater good.

Keepers who are concerned that this might be a problem that will derail the scenario, can both level consequences (if arrested the investigators will certainly expire in a police cells as the 100 hours tick away) and perhaps remind the investigators that the Orient Express is home turf, and that they should be well practised at the niceties of making small talk with fellow passengers.  Nonetheless, as events ramp up, and the investigators are poisoned, and attacked it is likely that they will increasingly dispense with polite investigation and move to interrogation and confrontation.

The other fantastic element of this scenario is that it allows the investigators to revisit some of the villains of their first trip across Europe.  Most notably Baba Yaga and the Jigsaw Prince make a return appearance while the locomotive takes on a  whole new appearance as Mehmet grows more desperate (the latter scenes being  among the most memorable scenes in the campaign with the addition of the Cathedral car and Locomotive Beast).  Ultimately the game of cat and mouse should prove fairly entertaining and the investigators have the ability to dispatch the major campaign villain on their own terms, which is a nice contrast to some of the other set piece scenes.

Defeating Mehmet, like Fenalik before him, may prove extremely difficult, or relatively simple depending on how the investigators are armed, whether they separate or attack en-masse, and whether the Keeper is allowing the optional Luck spend mechanic to make extreme successes more likely.

The scenario presents another option; a deal with the loathsome Jigsaw Prince which will allow the investigators to instantly identify their quarry, destroy him and recover the simulacrum.  The investigators, of course, are expected to welch on the deal with so foul a villain. In one sense this is a neat way to tie things up (if a little too contrived), but if the Keeper favours this course of events, they must keep the investigators guessing about the identity of Mehemt for a large portion of the journey across Europe - which may frustrate players who are doing their level best to investigate the suspects.

Ultimately the Keeper must consider how they wish events to play out, and what will work best for their investigators, and tailor the scenario to that outcome.  Will Mehmet be revealed quickly and shot to death by gun-toting interrogators?  Will the investigators spend days of patient interviews all the while under attack, before being offered a deal with the Devil?  Or something in between?  The scenario allows any outcome, although Mehmet's death at this juncture is clearly the favoured option.


PROS

  • The setting and cast allow for some interesting roleplaying that allows those investigators with good social skills to shine. 
  • The NPCs have interesting and well developed stories that are likely to entertain.
  • The fold out carriage maps really shine in this scenario.
  • The return of some nefarious villains builds tension, building to some of the most imaginative and memorable scenes in the campaign.
  • The ending is not pre-determined and the investigators have a relatively high degree of agency.

CONS
  • Roleplaying the large cast of NPCs is challenging and the Keeper is likely to need to improvise once initial material is exhausted
  • There is a discordant tone between this chapter and the that which precedes it, and some groups may reject the premise of social niceties entirely.
  • There is a high probability of investigator fatalities.
  • The bargain presented by the Jigsaw Prince seems a little contrived.
In summary, this is an entertaining and highly memorable chapter, which allows a good level of investigator agency, and which is likely to be one of the highlights of the campaign.  There are some challenges for the Keeper, and careful preparation is recommended to avoid a lot of skipping back and forth between pages.  The penultimate chapter of the core campaign delivers a great experience, with a just a few bumps along the way.


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