Friday, February 24, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - Istanbul 2013

This is a review of the Istanbul 2013 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.

The Simulacrum Unbound

This modern day scenario allows the players a chance to create new characters, then relive some of the highlights of their previous investigators time aboard the Orient Express.  They must also escape a strange pocket dimension, unmask the villain and defeat their evil plans.
This is an optional modern era (2013) scenario that is a nice way to conclude the extended Horror on the Orient Express campaign, allowing the players access to more familiar technologies and European politics, while maintaining much of the charm of the 1920’s era Orient Express (the train cars after all have been lovingly restored).

However, it is surprising that no pre-generated characters are offered for this scenario, despite the fact that pre-generated characters have been supplied for all of the other supplementary scenarios set in other eras (Invictus, Dark Ages & Gaslight).  Although one of the characters must be related to the original investigators (a nice touch) there seems to be no real reason to miss this detail.  Happily almost any kind of investigator can be created for the modern scenario, as all have won a prize as part of the launch of a new online travel site lux-vista.com.

The scenario is divided into three parts.  In the first part the investigators arrive, mingle with the other passengers and engage in some sightseeing.  This is a good opportunity for the Keeper to help introduce the large cast of 15 NPCs, particularly those who are also competition winners, and soon to become victims.

For no good reason I can see the NPCs are overwhelmingly (80%) male with no female NPCs among the contest winners (a similar ratio to Blue Train, Black Night, while by contrast, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express - written after the author had recently completed a journey on the Orient Express - has only 54% male suspects) . 

As with the other murder on the train scenarios the background information and plots provided for the NPCs are probably sufficient for much of this part of the scenario, but considerably lacking in terms of helping the Keeper portray how each NPC reacts in the next part of the scenario.

The number independent plots to keep the investigators interested, and throw suspicion on the other passengers, are sparse.  Presumably this is because half of the NPCs on the train have been selected at random, and therefore don’t know each other, nor have not planned in advance for the trip.   While a identity theft and celebrity stalking are interesting, modern-day, storylines neither seem likely to seriously shift suspicion from Milton, the architect of the competition, and man responsible for the presence of the investigators aboard the Orient Express.

The second part of the scenario takes the investigators to a strange pocket dimension,
where they find that they are stranded.  Attempts to leave the train are halted by the mysterious faceless soldiers.  Meanwhile, strange fragments of the past revisit the contemporary passengers of the Orient Express.  This is a fantastic device, which allows the group to remember and revisit some of the highlights of the campaign.  This should prove a great epilogue to the campaign, as Fenalik or the Jigsaw Prince return once more to (briefly) terrify the investigators.  Keepers can also present the investigators from the original campaign and confront the players with their own impressions of them .

The problem here is that the scenario works against itself.  In order for the players to gather the necessary clues to unmask the murderer, and thereby return to their own dimension, the other passengers must be murdered.  However, as soon as the investigators realise that one of their number is trying to kill them off, one by one, its highly likely they will take steps to prevent that from happening (ensuring that the NPCs remain together for example). Consider Murder on the Orient Express where Hercule Poirot sensibly takes the precaution of quarantining all the passengers to the restaurant car while he conducts his inquiries.

This means that to advance the plot, the Keeper must actively subvert or prevent the investigators from achieving this aim for long enough to allow the subsequent murders to occur, despite the fact that only one NPC has a motive for wanting this to occur.   If the Keeper applies a heavy hand, the game may devolve into a series of arguments between NPCs and investigators.  If the Keeper is more deft in their handling, having the NPCs repeatedly flee or take refuge in their own rooms when the fragmentary events  occur (like blackshirts boarding the train, or Fenalik appearing) then this may be more persistent frustration than outright vexation.

I suggest that this plot would work more smoothly if the other NPCs had both a reason to be secretive, and appear suspicious.  Thus, the investigators will have a challenging time corralling them to remain together and working out who the murderer is.  For example, possible back stories could include:
  • an addiction
  • a con artist
  • an affair
  • an art thief
  • suicidal tendencies
  • an undercover cop etc. etc.
Although less realistic than the NPCs presented in the scenario, I suggest this would work better to support the aim of the scenario; to permit the murders to occur over the following days.  A less extreme option is to change the identity of the murderer.

Instead of John Milton, it is Dr Fabian Wyss, the Swiss Plastic Surgeon who uncovered the story of the simulacrum while researching skin grafting in the early 20th Century and formulated the insane plan to create the meat simulacrum.  An angel investor to a range of internet start-ups Wyss invests in Lux-Vista and convinces Milton to arrange the competition and invite the competition winners, including the investigators.

This allows the investigators to suspect Milton early on without derailing the scenario, and Wyss to fame Milton if he's in danger of being discovered.  In addition Wyss might reasonably have more access to the train and passengers as the only medical doctor, and be more likely to be trusted by the investigators (as a reliable source of First Aid, and the person who can help with post-mortem examination).  

Milton never actually met Wyss, all investment and communication occurring through a solicitor - so he can plead his innocence if confronted, but not reveal Wyss' identity beyond saying he was encouraged to arrange the trip by his wealthy European angel investor.

The third part of the scenario, a final showdown, is dependant on Milton fulfilling his plan and opening a Gate to the now derelict Shunned Mosque, where he has assembled the meat simulacrum, in grisly parody of Selim's actions almost a century earlier.

The question of how things resolve depends a lot on how the investigators interact during the first part of the scenario.  On one level, they have no reason to trust each other more than any other passenger and no particular motivation to investigate the mystery beyond needing to get home.  There is no shared history or reason to work together.  On the other hand the players have probably just spent months, if not years, playing investigators who have risked life and sanity together; so unless the players make a conscious effort in their play, they are likely to fall back into the familiar groove that got them through Blue Train, Black Night and quickly regroup.

If they work together, they have every chance of ending the scenario on their own terms, even before the final act.  The villain is dangerous individually, but not overwhelming when facing a group.  If they act in isolation, or are hesitant to get involved, the villain has every chance to fulfil their plan, and claim several investigators lives along the way.

PROS

  • The idea of introducing flashbacks form the core campaign, that the players can interact with, is genius and a great way to finish the full campaign experience. 
  • The setting and plot are imaginative and interesting.
  • The scenario is flexible about resolution.
  • The fold out carriage maps really shine in this scenario.




CONS
  • Roleplaying the large cast of NPCs is challenging and the Keeper is likely to need to improvise once initial material is exhausted
  • There are few other plausible suspects beyond the villain.
  • To be completed as written, the Keeper must actively seek to frustrate investigator efforts to protect the other passengers.
  • There are no pre-generated characters.


In summary, despite trapping the investigators, this scenario largely allows the investigators to resolve things on their own terms.  As an epilogue to the main campaign it offers a great way to relive some of the highlights of the past chapters, while also presenting a fresh and interesting twist on the original story.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez
Overview & London
Paris
Lausanne

Milan
Venice


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