Thursday, October 8, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Milan

This is a review of the Milan 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.

Note for Note

The next stop is Milan, the first of two scenarios set in fascist Italy.  The political context of the setting is picked up more thoroughly in the next scenario (Venice) while the focus of the Milan chapter is the disappearance of renown opera singer, Caterina Cavollaro ahead of the opening of Aida at the famous La Scala opera house, which will be the centre of the action.  This seems a solid enough beginning, the Investigators should have met Cavollaro while aboard the Orient Express and been the recipient of her generosity and charming company, giving them a strong motivation to investigate her disappearance.

Rather than step through this chapter chronologically, let’s do what much of the text of this chapter fails to do, and cut to the chase; this entire chapter revolves around a dramatic final encounter backstage in La Scala.  The plot makes no real allowance for the investigators to locate the piece of the simulacrum prior to its appearance on stage (indeed its exact location is kept a mystery even to the Keeper).

The scenario suggests, in passing, that diligent investigators might track down Cavollaro prior to opening night and even provides a tenuous investigative path to allow this, it fails to deliver on this lead; there is no support for the Keeper, meaning they must invent the details of  Faccia’s manor house, although according to the scenario “it is more likely that Faccia is hiding out at his northern warehouse prior to the big night. There may not be sufficient time to track down Faccia before the fateful aria is sung”.  Clearly there isn’t as no further mention is made of either location.

Worse still the scripted climax of the scenario occurs irrespective of prior investigator actions, meaning there is no reward for those who diligently investigate as opposed to those who simply sightsee – all the major revelations for this chapter happen at La Scala on opening night.  It is entirely possible that the Investigators will have no real idea of the proximity of a piece of the simulacrum until it appears on stage.  Disappointingly even the climactic conclusion is not well supported beyond a suggestion that “now it is a game of cat-and-mouse in the mazes that backstage at the opera and the streets of Milan can provide”. 
The Keeper must either run a slightly comedic conclusion scripted, where the NPCs are the centre of the action, or draw on their own resources to furnish the setting and scene sufficient to allow for a complex combat involving half a dozen NPCs and the Investigators based on the rambling prior description of La Scala.
Collectively these limitations give the Milan chapter the feeling of a draft which has not been robustly playtested.
However, despite these drawbacks,  much of the supporting material is sound.  There are atmospheric twists, with the moonlight serenade and the mysterious chameleon, the bizarre and unnerving nature of the backstage labyrinth at La Scala and, of course, the terrible fate of Cavollaro. 
The motivations of the cult also seem well resolved; targeting a leader of the currently politically unpopular union movement for organ harvesting, allowing the cult to extend its influence and power within the city.  A diligent Keeper may weave all this material together, pacing events on the tightly scheduled timeframe, to conceal the stark plot railroad that lies behind this chapter.
Beyond this clever obfuscation it is hard to provide suggestions for improvement for this chapter without challenging the central assumption that the climax of the chapter will occur as scripted.  Obviously there are places where more details could be furnished (for example, describing the lair of Faccia and creating more details of encounters at La Scala to allow the Keeper to make it seem different and unique each time the Investigators enter) and Keepers would do well to think about these areas in advance.
Beyond this I offer two main suggestions to enhance the scenario for the players; first the galleria where the investigators are staying is an ideal place to stage one or more of the scripted events foreshadowing Fenalik.  Increasing Investigator unease in a city already experiencing the baleful influence of the torso should make the Milan session more memorable, increasing the pressure and paranoia of the characters.
Second, a chase sequence through the backstage areas of La Scala and the back-streets of Milan has the potential to provide a suitably epic ending, either as the investigators spirit the torso away, or attempt to prevent the cultists from doing the same.  Although there is no guarantee that a chase will occur, the potential for the two groups (cultists and investigators) converging on the torso as it is wheeled off stage seems high, and a Keeper would do well to have prepared for the chase by reviewing the 7e rules chapter on chases, preparing some locations and associated hazards ahead of this climactic moment.
In summary:
  • There are many nice touches that support the GM to evoke a strong atmosphere of strangeness and horror throughout the chapter.
  • The central plot of this chapter is both intriguing and ghastly, and the climax has the potential to be exciting and extremely memorable.
  • The major plot of the scenario is highly scripted, built around a predetermined climax, and there is little flexibility for the keeper to deviate from this path.
  • The actions of the investigators have no real bearing on the plot until the climax, which may lead to players feeling frustrated or disengaged with the story.
  • There is little support to help the Keeper to resolve the final action against the cultists in La Scala in suitably epic fashion.
  • The villain of this story Faccia, has not had his combat skills/spells updated for 7e.
In summary the Milan chapter is the most difficult chapter of the campaign thus far, in that it railroads both Investigators and Keeper toward a predetermined endpoint.  This has the potential to make the game difficult, frustrating and unsatisfying for everyone.  However, if run as scripted there is enough material presented to allow the Keeper to camouflage this shortcoming, and create a rich and memorable game with an epic climax; a pretty railroad, but railroad nonetheless.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Monday, September 28, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Lausanne

This is a review of the Lausanne 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.


Lausanne is the next scripted stop in the campaign.  Here the investigators have a mysterious letter to follow up, sent by a person who clearly has an interest in the Simulacrum, and claims to have possession of a related scroll.  This in itself may not be sufficient to justify a stop in Switzerland, but as Lausanne is on the route of the Orient Express prior to the next lead (in Milan) it may be sufficient to pique the interest of the Investigators.

The first half of the scenario is a series of scripted encounters, but should work reasonably well for most groups, requiring only a few deft tweaks from the Keeper.  The characters encounter the Wellington brothers and their taxidermy shop, and there are some well-designed elements which have the potential to evoke an eerie and menacing atmosphere (handing the players pre-prepared note cards from William is a great way to help facilitate this encounter).  Enter the Duke, an apparently jovial and colourful character, also interested in the scroll, and happy to be a friendly guide to the city of Lausanne.

 The second half of the scenario is rather more problematic, as it assumes investigator actions and makes little or no allowance for deviation.  The Investigators are expected to ingest or inject a strange drug and enter Dream Lausanne experiencing a series of bizarre portents without being able to influence them in any way, before taking part in a trial, refuting trumped up charges before a furious mob.  This experience puts the characters onto a plot conveyer belt where their only real opportunities to influence events are highly proscribed.  It’s less roleplaying and more a Keeper monologue.

Despite these limitations, the core elements of this chapter are actually pretty cool – exploring Dream Lausanne, and viewing the bizarre portents has the potential to be both memorable and highly atmospheric, but the scenario lacks any real opportunity for Investigator agency, placing that load squarely on the Keeper without any support.  

The most obvious way to solve this problem would be to intersperse the scripted elements with more interactive encounters that allow the investigators to understand what is happening, and also learn something of the impact of the Jigsaw Prince’s rule, for example:

  1. The investigators encounter the dream version of an NPC they met in Lausanne, who is engaged in a similar trade (say a waiter or street sweeper).  They can speak to this person if they wish and learn a little of the reign of the Prince, but the NPC is also clearly fearful of being seen to speak with outsiders or saying too much (successful social skills and subterfuge may allow more to be revealed).
  2. The Prince’s xenophobic soldiers attack an outsider (perhaps one of the diplomatic delegates in Lausanne has dreamed their way into the Dreamlands version of the city where they are clearly an outsider), will the investigators help, and get involved in a fight, or leave him to his fate?
  3. The investigators encounter previous trial victims who are being punished in a public square for seemingly trivial crimes.  They beg for help and mercy.  Will the investigators help as the crowd watch on, or leave them to suffer and possibly die?
These have the potential to make the revelation of the Prince's identity more dramatic and  to fuel a sense of outrage in the characters, making the trial scene more satisfying for the players (if they win).  I’m not a huge fan of the scoring/trial system, but it did work for my group. 

Perhaps a more interesting way of reflecting the impartiality of the judge for the players would be to have a non-player friend join the game for that part of the session via Skype or similar (having been previously briefed by the Keeper on the setting, context and their role) and ask that person to score the arguments from either side and determine the victor.

The final encounter for this chapter is also fairly fraught.  If the players haven’t thought to try and fool the Duke with the dummy scroll, he appears aboard the Orient Express to demand the scroll, threatening the investigators with potential arrest.  Unless the investigators are good at keeping a cool head, and try to buy time to work out a way to fool him, or are confident of their prospects in the Swiss legal system, there is a fair chance that this will turn into a combat encounter. 

This is problematic for several reasons.  First the Duke must actually survive if he is to feature later in the campaign as scripted.  Second, the Duke is a fearsome opponent, initially seemingly invulnerable to physical attacks, and skilled in both spells and melee weapons, which under the 7e rules means that he has the potential to damage every investigator that attacks him (if the Keeper rolls well) as well as cast Shrivel or Dominate on one of their number each turn. 

The scenario suggests "His head is vulnerable—any attack result which is 10% or less of the attacking skill percentage does normal damage to the head, regardless of the kind of attack".
However the 7e rules offer other official rules for hit locations - a Luck roll, an optional table with a 5% chance of hitting the head or most relevantly: "If a weakness is spotted in an enemy’s armour—a vulnerable spot, such as an open mouth or eye—that area may be targeted, and the Keeper should set an increased level of difficulty or penalty dice for the attempt". 

Applying these rules make the chances of hitting the Duke in the head either more likely (Luck, increased difficulty level or a Penalty dice) or less likely (5%) than the rules in Horror on the Orient Express.  Consider also that the Investigators will also likely gain a Bonus dice from either outnumbering the Duke (melee) or shooting at point blank range.


Depending on which rules are applied the fight is either likely to claim the lives of several investigators or result in the Duke being rapidly and ruthlessly bludgeoned or shot to death, with the aforementioned problems for campaign continuity, and with the Investigators likely to face a manslaughter trial soon thereafter if the fight occurs (as scripted) in the Dining Car of the Orient Express.

So, is there a middle ground?  One suggestion is to convert the Duke’s partial invulnerability into a more conventional armour rating reflecting both his skin grafting and magical prowess, allowing investigators with firearms or a damage bonus and hand weapons a chance to drive him back, while his appearance on the train is also strictly time-limited, allowing the fight to only run for a few combat rounds (perhaps 1D3+1) before the train departs the boundaries of his domain and must teleport away (this is implied by the text, but not made explicit).

If you prefer a less detail focussed option you could give each character a ‘mark of destiny’ at the outset of the campaign which will allow them to survive certain death once.  You can add additional marks for particularly heroic actions during the campaign, but these might help lower the stakes somewhat for encounters like this and increase the chances of character continuity.

In summary:


  • The first half of the scenario has the potential to be eerie and unsettling, creating a memorable experience for the players.
  • Dream Lausanne is a neat idea, and the dream portents are a nice and evocative way of foreshadowing campaign events without giving too much away
  • Some players will enjoy the prospect of crossing verbal swords with the Prince and participating in a dream-trial
  • The Jigsaw Prince makes for a good villain

  • The second half of the scenario assumes specific actions, allows for little investigator agency, and therefore places a heavy load on Keepers if investigators deviate from this path
  • Much of the Dreamlands section of the scenario is effectively Keeper monologue
  • If the investigators subsequently decide to fight the Duke they are either likely to suffer heavy losses, or cause continuity problems for a later chapter of the campaign
  • There are several places where the investigators can fall afoul of the Swiss authorities and there is little guidance provided in how to resolve this in a way that keeps the campaign on-track (so to speak).
In summary, the Lausanne chapter has some strong points, and is the first chapter of the core campaign that has the real potential to claim investigator casualties.  However the railroad-style nature of this chapter also has the potential to place a high burden on the Keeper, which if not handled carefully may cause the players to become frustrated and ultimately disengaged with the campaign

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Paris

This is a review of the Paris 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
Les Fleurs Du Mal
Paris is another fantastic location for the campaign and the campaign book does a reasonable job suggesting ways a keeper might breathe some life into the City of Lights.  The central activity for the investigators  at the beginning of the Paris chapter is chasing up leads in the Bibliothèque nationale de France where there are a range of sources that document the demise of the former owner of the Sedefkar Simulacrum.   Regrettably, the campaign here adopts one of the less desirable qualities of investigative games – making it potentially difficult or frustrating for the players that to obtain the clues they need in order to advance the plot.
The investigators must first gain access to the library, a process taking several days if they have not thought to make arrangements in advance,  then they slowly have the handouts doled out over the space of several game days, assuming they can pass the fairly difficult battery of Library Use checks required.  Now, I don’t mean to diminish the idea that historical research might lead to exciting discoveries – this kind of research accompanied by primary source style handouts can be a lot of fun.  The question for the Keeper is what they want the  primary experience for the players to be. 

Zealous bureaucracy followed by day after day of failed rolls might  more closely reflect the frustrations of the characters, on the other hand the players may feel there is enough tedium in their real lives and they’d prefer to roleplay something more exciting when they sit down to play Call of Cthulhu.  Ultimately each keeper will need to find the right balance for their group, and I suspect many will simply provide the handouts without applying such difficulty.
For the keeper who wishes to inject a little more tension, one suggestion is that Makryat keeps the investigators focused on their goal by dispatching several Brothers of the Skin to research the Simulacrum at the same time as the Investigators, leading to a ‘research race’.  The Brothers, who are likely to be far less skilled researchers than the investigators, seek to replicate then leap ahead of the Investigators work, although both sides are prevented from direct interaction or open conflict by the strict monitoring of library staff with the threat of ejection for any who are deemed to be acting inappropriately. 
This would reinforce the need for haste, keep things tense when making the all-important Library use roll, and perhaps encourage the investigators to come up with some innovative sabotage methods (or even a direct confrontation and combat outside the library).  Should the cultists research efforts somehow prove more successful than the Investigators, their French research assistant might see an  opportunity to make a little extra money and be prepared to share what was uncovered. If the Investigators are easily able to outwit the cultists, perhaps further tension could be applied through the brutal murder of their French research assistant, or a librarian, implying the Brothers are now only one step behind.
The scenario also provides suggestions for investigators who wish to sightsee around the city while their more research minded colleagues hit the stacks.  These include ideas to add an atmospheric twist to otherwise routine tourist spots.  These are nice, and can be supplemented with the information in the traveller’s guide, although more options would have been useful given the number of days required to extract information at the Bibliothèque nationale.
The fruits of the investigators research direct them to two possible leads, the ruins of the Fenalik Manse in Poissy and the site of the Comte’s incarceration at Charenton Asylum.
The Charenton lead assumes a reasonably narrow focus.  While the asylum (and its associated backstory) is a great addition to the game, there is scant chance of the investigators learning anything useful here unless they are willing to steal files from under the nose of an intimidating secretary, break into the asylum, locate and bribe a disloyal staff member, or have themselves committed – all of which seems fairly unlikely given the tenuousness of the lead they’re following. 
More logical avenues of inquiry (speaking with the Police about their investigation of the demise of the former director, inspecting the facilities posing as the family of a wealthy potential inmate, or making a formal request to examine the records of the asylum on the basis of bona fides used at the Bibliothèque nationale) are simply not considered, leaving the Keeper to scramble to tailor the available information to suit.
In the original campaign the information gleaned from Charenton may have given the investigators (and more specifically their players) a cryptic hint about the nature of one of their adversaries, compounded by the suggested foreshadowing that occurs during later chapters.  Interesting, and potentially useful during a fateful later encounter, but seemingly dislocated from the characters immediate focus on the locating the Sedefkar Simulacrum. In the revised edition, new material covers this ground more thoroughly, particularly the Invictus and Dark Ages scenarios.
The sequence of events in Poissy at the home of the Lorien family are, in my opinion, excellent and have the potential to be truly atmospheric and memorable, without actually endangering the lives of the Investigators.  Running the sequence requires some preparation, as foreshadowing the insidious influence of the simulacrum arm on the Lorien family works best if integrated into a flowing social encounter, rather than punctuated by frequent checks of the text. 

The descent into the long-buried dungeon has the potential to be extremely evocative; to keep the tension high I suggest the Keeper push the players for character decisions – who is descending first?  What are they carrying as they try and push past the pallid tree roots?  Who has any light? How long is one investigator alone in the dark below before others arrive?  This helps make the perceived threat more immediate and personal and should help with player visualisation of the scene.  For me this is the roleplaying equivalent of the score of a horror movie building to a crescendo communicating indirectly with the audience about what might happen next (although employing suspenseful music is another good technique to employ here).
The reward for this effort is, of course, the left arm of the simulacrum and the players are rewarded with the magnificent puzzle-cut handout.  Unfortunately the campaign, which is otherwise rich with handouts and support materials, provides no easy way to track how the baleful influence of each piece of the simulacrum attaches to the investigators through the sequence of their contact with it.

As a final note, the character’s departure on the Orient Express , and the moonlight performance of Signorina Cavollaro is a perfect way to close out the chapter.

 In summary:


  • Paris is an evocative setting and there is opportunity to visit many famous landmarks including the Bibliothèque nationale and Charenton Asylum.
  • The primary source handouts paint a compelling picture of the demise of the decadent Comte Fenalik.
  • The trip to Poissy, and recovery of the left arm of the simulacrum are excellent and have the potential to make for very memorable and atmospheric experience without real threat to the investigators.
  • The characters finally board the Orient Express!

  • The bureaucracy and research required to obtain the clues necessary to drive the story forward has the potential to be difficult or frustrating for the players, and few options are provided for groups who don't enjoy this approach.
  • The Charenton lead assumes a reasonably narrow focus, meaning the Keeper may have to think fast to facilitate the available information - ultimately the time and effort spent here may be better invested in the Invictus or Dark Ages scenarios for the same effect.
In summary, the load on the Keeper to keep things interesting and respond to unanticipated lines of inquiry in this chapter is quite heavy.  However, the Paris chapter also has the potentially for memorable atmospheric horror, without the bloodshed likely to occur in subsequent chapters.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Overview & London

This is a review 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. 

I begin with an overview of the campaign, based primarily upon my read-though, then move onto the London segment of the campaign which my group recently completed.

It was a long wait to get the physical box set (roughly 2.5 years since it was funded), but it has to be said that the final product is magnificent, the production values are simply amazing.  In addition to all the props and pieces, there is excellent support for the keeper in facilitating the campaign – Book I is devoted to an overview of the campaign, key players and settings, while Book V (Strangers on the Train) is a cast of pre-generated NPC’s to help the GM flesh out the investigator’s journey and Book VI is a compilation of handouts. 

These are great additions to make the GM’s life easier, especially when navigating the 3 core scenario books at the table.  The utility and quality of this product has been recognised and reflected in the 4 ENnie Award nominations it picked up this year.

So what about the campaign itself?  Well, it‘s a pretty impressive and comprehensive offering.  There are exotic locations, including the Orient Express itself, multiple villains and some of the most evocative horror scenes to grace a table.  When you count all the new adventures, it’s probably enough gaming to last most gaming groups for the better part of a year. 

There are drawbacks too; the plot it is very linear, the setup and ending are restrictive and there are many sections where character agency is simply not assumed or factored, making plenty of additional work for the keeper (I'll cover this in more detail as part of each chapter review).  The authors of the revised product chose to keep much of the old campaign intact (and how could they not really, given its legendary status?), choosing to try and smooth some of the rougher edges (particularly the ending) and add a lot of additional material in the form of scenarios set in other eras, including a lengthy Dreamlands offering.

The revised campaign is also intended to be run using the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rules (which currently exist only in electronic form).  However, it feels as though the text isn’t really optimised for 7th edition.  Sure the skill checks in the text refer to difficulty levels and the NPC and monster core attributes and fighting skills have been converted to the new rules, but in 7th edition a lot of NPC interaction is resolved using checks where the difficulty is established based on the NPC skill level.  So ideally relevant NPC skills would be written in the core text when the characters are extremely likely to interact with the investigator if following the plot as written, so the GM doesn’t have to keep skipping to the back. 

Then there are the chase mechanics which comprise a significant section on the 7th edition rules.  There is at least one formal chase in the campaign but some other obvious opportunities haven’t been framed in this way (the conclusion to the Nocturne or the Little Cottage in the Woods chapters for example).  In addition, if popular films are anything to go by, it seems inconceivable that there not be a chase through (or on top) of the Orient Express itself (perhaps for a Pulp Cthulhu run anyway).

Finally, I want to mention what, for me, is the central campaign experience.  While treasure hunting and confronting horrors both mortal and supernatural are major aspects, to me key theme of Horror on the Orient Express is the journey of the characters from light into darkness (which parallels their journey across Europe).  The artefacts they carry, the horrors they will face, and the relentless nature of their objective all seem likely to erode the characters compassion, sanity and ultimately their humanity, giving the players a really fascinating opportunity to reveal the essence of their investigator through hardship. 

Of course, this means the investigators needs to survive, and this is no easy task as the lethality of the campaign is definitely weighted toward the latter chapters.  If you can manage this feat however, the 7th edition sanity mechanics, paired with the campaign’s suggestions about the effect of the Simulacrum on investigators, are a great way to allow the keeper and player to mechanically reflect this journey, as the keeper may draw on the Simulacrum to twist the elements of an investigators backstory when they suffer a bout of madness, and the investigator may also use their backstory to employ a ‘self-help’ sanity gain between stops.  So, on to London.

Dancers in an Evening Fog and the Doom Train
1920’s London is an evocative setting to get things underway, and the campaign encourages the investigators to experience a little of British high-society against a backdrop of industrial unrest. Regrettably the London segment of the campaign is relatively brisk and punctuated with two lengthy monologues by Professor Smith, the first of which has little actual relevance to coming events.

The campaign setup that is the focus of this chapter seems weak on paper, but in actual play, the players were willing to meet the plot half-way and agree to undertake the dangerous quest that Professor Smith outlines, so as to help a friend in need.  Whether this motivation will endure the hardships the investigators have yet to suffer remains to be seen.

There is little opportunity for investigator agency as this chapter revolves around set-pieces which occur in sequence.  That said; it gets the job done, the investigators have a chance to test their investigation skills a little, and begin their quest with a clear objective, a list of clues and the resources to complete their task.

The corpse planted in the reading room of the British Museum is a nice touch, and certainly heightened the tension amongst the more research-focussed characters, but regrettably there is little explanation as to how this feat was accomplished (leading to the suspicion that Makryat may have engaged in Weekend at Bernie’s style shenanigans).

I also think there’s an opportunity to spice things up a little (for Keeper’s looking to inject a little more excitement into the opening chapter).  It seems likely that Makryat’s reputation would be well established amongst unsavoury elements of London’s occult underworld. The newspaper reports detailing his demise might lead some of these individuals to investigate his shop and see if there are any artefacts to be plundered.   The characters might chance upon a burglary in progress, possibly leading to (wait for it) a chase through fog shrouded streets, a scuffle or a tense stand-off.  This could, in turn, lead to the recovery of the ledger, or a page torn from it which details the model train sale (drawing the characters attention to this clue), or perhaps Makryat has left some notes about the simulacrum which could serve to reduce the length and detail of Smith’s monologue later and lend credence to the Turkish cult’s interest.

The main issue for me is that, as scripted there is little likelihood of the characters engaging in the Doom Train scenario.  Now I think the Doom Train is a neat little side adventure, but the main hook is not published in the newspaper until the day after Professor Smith has begged the investigators to “Go. Go quickly” fearing that the cult may already be moving to gather the Simulacrum.  Unsurprisingly the authors note that the two playtest groups for the new campaign didn’t play this scenario.

It is also possible that the players will have come to the scenario by reading the ledger in Makryat’s shop, but this seems pretty unlikely unless one of the characters is an accountant with a proclivity for breaking and entering (or you employ my earlier suggestion to spice things up).

This can be fixed by simply moving the publication of the newspaper story (and the manifestation of the Doom Train) earlier in the timeline of the week, immediately following Makryat’s triple homicide and hoping the investigators are suspicious, or bored enough to investigate. 

A more elegant solution would be to run the Doom Train as a prequel scenario.  It ties in very neatly with the interest of Professor Smith in phantasms.  Under this approach the investigators might be asked by Professor Smith to help with the preparation of his material for the Challenger Lecture by investigating the reported manifestation of a ghost train and disappearance of Albert Alexis in 1917.  Perhaps a witness to this manifestation who described the ghost train to the papers (since institutionalised) can provide information which puts the investigators on the trail of the model train, but before they reach him, Henry Stanley ‘disappears’, which segues into the scenario as written.

Running the Doom Train like this would allow the investigators to actually participate in part of the Challenger Lecture (lifting the load on the Keeper somewhat), describing whatever they chose to reveal of events on the Doom Train to a rapt audience, their incredible tale substantiated by the sensational reappearance of the train.  These events would certainly prove the resourcefulness and skill of the investigators to those watching…

In summary:

  • The opening chapter of the campaign takes place in an evocative setting and sets up the campaign with the investigators clear about what must be done, and possessing clues and the necessary the resources to get the job done.
  • There are some nice touches to add to the tension of the game, particularly the corpse in the British Museum Reading Room, the bizarre deaths of Makryat and attack on Professor Smith.
  • The Doom Train is a neat and memorable side adventure that really helps set the tone of danger and supernatural horror for the forthcoming campaign.
  • The rationale for the characters to drop everything and depart on a treasure hunt across Europe is weak.
  • There is little opportunity for investigator agency as this chapter revolves around set-pieces and lengthy monologues which occur in sequence.
  • There are some elements that may require Keeper improvisation; for example there is no provision for the investigators to seek clues from the Police following the fire at Professor Smith’s house (despite the Police being a line of inquiry for Makryat’s death and the disappearance of Arthur Stanley).  Beddow’s also seems a viable suspect following the newspaper report of the fire but there is no detail on his life, friends family etc.
  • As written, it is unlikely the investigators will play the Doom Train scenario.

So, in summary; a reasonable beginning to set up the campaign, but with some awkward components that seem like they could have the potential to be much better fleshed out and integrated, to make life easier for the keeper, and increase player engagement.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

ADDENDUM: Dooming the Investigators
After further reflection, I'd like to make an additional comment on the lethality of the Doom Train scenario.  Regarding the attacks of the dead passengers, the scenario states "against such slow-moving attacks, an investigator may Dodge twice in a round."  Under 7e, investigators may make a dodge in response to each brawl attack made against them, so this reflects no actual benefit. In addition, as the passengers outnumber the investigators, the second attacker should receive a bonus dice.

Run as scripted, therefore, multiple investigator fatalities are quite possible. A keeper who wishes to avoid this outcome might reflect the slow nature of the dead by choosing not to apply the outnumbering bonus, and may even grant a bonus dice to an investigator attempting to use a combat manoeuvre to push their way through the press.

Another option might be allocate the dead passengers damage of 1D8 Magic Points per successful Kiss.  Under the 7e rules characters who reach 0 Magic Points suffer any subsequent damage as Hit Points (rather than falling unconscious as under previous editions).  This allows the dead passengers to more slowly drain the life of their victims, making the struggle slightly less extreme in stakes.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Arkham, Awards and New Adventures

First I wanted to point you to the nominees for ENnie Awards this year; these awards celebrate excellence in roleplaying products.  Voting is now open and it doesn’t take long to go through and vote and I encourage you to take a look and exercise your ability to participate, if you see some things you like.  I don’t have a product nominated this year, although my whodunit RPG Wicked Lies & Alibis picked up a judges spotlight award (thanks to the excellent taste of Judge Stacy Muth). 

I’ve posted before about the beautiful agony of the ENnie Awards, where micro-publishers like myself can (if we’re lucky) be nominated, but ultimately are extremely unlikely to win an actual award based on the size of our customer base (when compared with much larger publishers).  The Judges Spotlight Award, on the other hand,  is a perfect recognition for a micro-publisher like me.   In related news, friend and one-time EPOCH scenario author Mike Sands has been nominated in the category of Best Rules for the Evil Hat edition of his bestselling game Monster of the Week, so congratulations to Mike!

We’ve just wrapped up the 13th and final session of Arkham Chronicles, and cleared our way to play the (recently ENnie Award Nominated) Horror on the Orient Express, now that it has finally arrived in magnificent physical form.  You may recall that we had already played the Orient Express Gaslight prequel scenario – The Blood Red Fez.  I plan to run the Orient Express campaign with all the trimmings, including the Invictus, Dark Ages, Modern and Dreamlands additions, as well as music, miniatures, and all manner of handouts as appropriate. 

As I read through the campaign I am reminded just how old some parts of it are.  The implicit assumptions about character actions and motivations are not something you’d expect to see in a modern scenario, as they are simply too brittle to survive contact with resourceful, creative and engaged players – highlighting a tension that can (appropriately in this case) be termed as railroading.  Rather than simply try and shoehorn the characters into difficult and dangerous situations, or frustrate their players by stymieing any but the approved investigative avenue, I’ve had some open conversations with my group about this aspect of the game. 

As I told them, I’ll do my best to meet them half-way with these kind of plot elements, but I’ve pushed the players to look to their own characters motivations, and to view the game as a television series, where the setup is usually the same at the beginning of the episode, sometimes ignoring just how crazy and dangerous things were in the previous episode.  I’m also using some of the optional elements from Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition and introducing a house rule; a ‘Mark of Destiny’ which will work as a one shot option to allow a character to avert certain death, take a reduced SAN loss or boost their Luck (this being a critical resource in 7th edition using the optional rules, to both levy consequences and enhance investigative progress).
I’ve really enjoyed running the Arkham Chronicles, and it’s been a great way to develop characters which have strong player buy-in before the campaign and learn the seventh edition rules a little as we go.  As is traditional, I post the key stats from this mini-campaign below:
  • Dark Rivals (Dead Reckonings)
  • Darkness Illuminated (Island of Ignorance)
  • Dead Light
  • Missed Dues
  • The Condemned  (H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham)

Players  = 7
Characters created = 8
Characters killed = 0
Characters institutionalised = 1
Outer Gods encountered = 1
Great Old Ones encountered = 1

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Buckets of Dice 2015

This weekend I attended Buckets of Dice, a roleplaying convention held in Christchurch, New Zealand.  This was my second time attending - I previously attended in 2013, and this year I was keen to offer attendees a chance to play my new game Wicked Lies & Alibis as well as Harvest,  an EPOCH scenario from The Experiment Continues.

Attendance at Buckets has increased significantly since 2013, with more than 90 folks attending this year, playing in tabletop RPGS, the two large LARPs, the Grand Strategy and board game offerings.  I only attended 3 rounds this year due to other commitments.

In terms of organisation, my impression was that the size of Buckets has now outstripped their current  arrangements (for example people had to ask an organiser which games they had been allocated, creating an unnecessary bottleneck and workload, and scoring and nominations were not in rooms, nor were there rubbish bins in rooms) but the 'con also had some other great innovations - a code of conduct printed in the schedule booklet, free fruit for all attendees, and an attendee pack which included a notebook and pencil for all important note taking!

Round One - A Night to Remember
I had pre-registered and selected 4 picks of games I wanted to play, however the organiser had apparently not received this, so I hadn't been allocated a first round game. There were just two first-round games not full so I picked one at random to play; A Night to Remember which used Urban Shadows (a supernatural/political hack of Apocalypse World).

As a side note, when I attended Buckets in 2013 I noted just how popular the Apocalypse World hacks are with Cantabrians - this enthusiasm seems undiminished two years on, with a great many AW hacks on offer at Buckets including a mega-dungeon (world).

I was playing a mortal, Lewis, who hustled on the streets selling replica handbags, while also dealing in information about the supernatural events in the city. As it turned out the game was to be a largely political summit with the players each representing a faction and negotiating with one another and several NPCs to try and broker a peace in amongst the supernatural factions.  Lewis was not the best choice for this setup, as the game soon became a standoff between the demon-affiliated character and the others (which included an angel, hunter and ghost). 

Although I was less than convinced about the execution of the main activity of the game (player negotiation across the table without any specific information or knowledge to enable this to be a good reflection of the character aims) the game did reach a suitably dramatic and definitive conclusion in line with the GMs expectations.

Round Two - Wicked Lies & Alibis
I had a group of enthusiastic players for this game, and they did a great job of bringing the complex cast they created to life. They selected High Stakes as they liked the premise of a murder mystery aboard a Zeppelin, so began a tale of intrigue and deceit. 

The cast included Ge-Ge a beautiful actress and her secret lover Reginald (a banker who was financing the fascist movement in Brazil).  Karen a French politician who was secretly married to Father Willard, a catholic priest, while also having an affair with Amelia Jones, a German film director.  As you might imagine with such a group of suspects, accusations mounted swiftly, while there were also plentiful alibis provided by those engaged in romantic entanglements.  Ultimately, it turned out the Ge-Ge had dispatched the victim in a fit of rage, and she was arrested - taking the opportunity to pose for photos from the gathered press before being led away.

We completed the game in  two hours and as there were still two hours remaining in the round I gave the players the option of playing a second case, or getting an early dinner and having time to get ready for the flagship LARP.  They wanted to play again, so this time we played A Knight in the Maze, a classic British country-house murder.

Clearly in the swing of things, the players wasted no time getting stuck in; the cast for this case included Lady Matilda who was having an affair with Helmut the German gardener.  Helmut's sister, Victoria a textile industrialist (who was adopted at birth and raised in Britain) was also present along with Elizabeth, a young and recently impoverished woman who was cousin to the victim, and Dr. Weston a Texan medical doctor with a love for guns.  After a tense series of exchanges and revelations it was revealed the Dr. Weston was the murderer, and in his riveting confession he outlined how Sir Richard (the victim) had wronged his momma back in the U.S. and richly deserved the justice had had administered.

It went very well, and I think the players had a good time (several purchased copies of the game afterwards) - I know I had a lot of fun.

Round Four- Harvest
I didn't attend the LARP, and the next morning I found that had four players for this EPOCH scenario (the fifth being a no-show following a late night at the LARP).  They swiftly created compelling stories for their characters, an unlikely group of friends; Wylie a wild party animal in High School had nearly died in an OD and reformed his life, while Frank and James had kept their high school rivalry alive with James a semi-professional athlete, and Frank a competitive body-builder.  Finally Andrea, a shy and bookish member of the group, clearly had feelings for Frank, and it was revealed this had ultimately led to a shocking murder prior to the scenario beginning.

The game went very well with the characters experiencing a series of unsettling events at the seaside town of Hudson's Point in the lead-up to a harvest festival.  The escalating tension finally erupted, and only Frank and Andrea made it out alive, the tragic sacrifices of their friends enabling them to  achieve a total victory and ultimately a happy ending.

Overall I had a great time at Buckets, it's a neat 'con and well worth attending; as tabletop events diminish in Wellington and Auckland, Buckets is rapidly becoming a major RPG event and one of the few NZ events with a good range of tabletop offerings.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

In Their Own Words

I posted previously about my sandbox style Call of Cthulhu game, the Arkham Chronicles.  We've just completed our eighth session, and things have gone as well as I'd hoped.  The characters have all developed nicely, and had a tense time of things surviving challenges both Mythos and mundane.  Rather than spending time describing the game from my perspective, I thought I'd post some excerpts of character fiction the players have been creating to fill in missing players on events.  So here is a snapshot of my game in the words of the characters:

From the personal records of Frank Cutter P.I.:
"Baby, its been a rough week...

They say guys came back like that from the war, in pieces that nobody can see, nobody can put together again.  I’m like that. Or maybe not.  Maybe I’m the guy that breaks people into pieces and beats his friends wit a b-club because a mushroom is growin’ happily in his thick skull.  Who the hell knows anymore.

I felt fine in the hospital.  Better than fine, better than a cold beer on a hot day. I skipped out before I shoulda, I see that now. The docs were right. But hindsight is useless when you have dead children to step over on your way to the office. Its not like I’ll make that mistake twice."

From the diary of Sebastian Gilbert (engineer and radio salesman):
"It started out as a bit of a laugh really.  The desire to read those blasphemous, forbidden books a way of getting at Father and his God.  It was like watching a road crash, voyeuristic really, looking at someone’s private insanity.  Deep down I think I always knew some of it made some twisted sense that I was too afraid to admit to myself, but lately it is more real.  Those words that evil man tortured from that poor woman, or beast if Frank is to be believed, they eat into your mind, maggots eating at the necrotic flesh of my sanity.  I’m repulsed at the evil horror those words spell out on the page yet somehow hungry to know more.  The mundane life I live seems more and more insignificant.  I’m losing hope, I must understand."

A journal entry by sergeant Lorenzo Gatti (army recruiter):
"I should never have saved that lowlife Sticky Frank from those Irish thugs. Saving him set off a chain reaction of horror and violence. After the Irish Mob came into my hospital room and smashed my broken leg’s cast with a hammer, I needed to find the S O B..."

A letter from Louis Jarvie (medical student) to Dr McIlvoy:
"Anyway, my wallet got lifted, we chased after the bastard, with the help of the unfeasably
large and dextrous Conrad- the man is as fast as a greased weasle, I swear! We caught the disreputable filcher called Greasy, I know it will seem farfetched but I actually brought him down with the old Litmanns stethoscope you gave me, I swung it like an Argentine ranchero might use a bola, incredibly they wrapped around his lower legs and he dropped like the great clot he was. Then, in exchange for my fabulous whistle from Seb, Greasy gave away where his friend Sticky Frank was holed up, we went there as a group which in the end saved our bacon, though in honestly I couldn't help but feel if we'd had Frank around we would have had an easier time of it.
At the tenements we were shown inside by a kindly seeming old Russian lady and, it shames me to say but like any ninny minded chuckta, despite the business at hand, I felt at ease and took a seat alongside the handsomely put together Bessie, enjoying our close proximity perhaps more than is proper. 
My hand trembles as I write, but the elderly lady turned truely nasty and scalded poor Bessie with a coffee pot before stabbing her, I feel I was guided by a force greater than myself, which bid me rise, staunch Bessies bleeding, thereby saving her life, then returned me to myself, I turned and grasping a handy crucifix, for the whole room was cluttered with relegious imagery and icons, I attempted to strike the auld bag and instead found my sen sat on the floor with a deep cut to my thigh, but I know you will not be surprised, my ability with bareknuckle fighting is just as poor as it ever was. My auld form master would have had my guts for garters if he could've seen me."

A statement by Conad Black (photographer and army reservist):
"The fourth floor had two rooms, I think. The first one was horrible, it was like something was trying to burst through the walls, the sound. I can remember the sound of artillery hitting trees and the splintering noise.

The other door. I, I admit I lost it here.
There was something in that other room. It was horrible. I can still see it when my eyes are closed, the way it moves, undulating. The Sarge saved us. He shot at it and closed the door.
We somehow made it to the top floor. There was a noise, a weird music it tugged at the senses..."

From the diary of Bessie Steele (researcher at the Miskatonic University):
"I almost died today.  

Strange, it is to see those words on paper.  It all happened so quickly, I've not time to process.  
 Louis thinks I should be resting, rather than writing in my journal - I can sense him hovering outside.  The idea of sleep is somewhat terrifying, the fear of closing my eyes and them not opening again.  If not for Louis..."