Friday, February 10, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - London Again and the Dreamlands Express

This is a review of the London Again and Dreamlands Express chapters 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 Fog Lifts

The final chapter of the Orient Express campaign provides Keepers with the opportunity to reflect a common trope in many Hollywood movies; just when you are certain the villain is dead, they come back once more to threaten the heroes.  The twist here is that this will only occur if the investigators inadvertently trigger it in their haste to be free of the simulacrum’s taint.

The investigators return to London is bittersweet; the campaign has turned full circle, and much has changed.  Some investigators may find their grip on sanity slipping away, while others haven't returned at all, perishing on the perilous journey across Europe.  The surviving investigators have now, most likely, recovered the Simulacrum that they painstakingly collected, and dispatched their nemesis, Mehmet, before he could complete his (slightly bizarre) plan to infiltrate the Royal family.

The link to return to Mehmet’s shop is somewhat tenuous, especially considering the length of time since the investigators were last in London (and the possibility that few of the characters who participated in the original London chapter remain); the scenario tries to compensate for this with a series of newspaper articles about disappearances in the vicinity of the shop, and the addition of a  pre-arranged cab driver, complete with badly spelled sign, hired to take Mehmet from the ferry to his shop.

Once they arrive at the shop, the investigators have a further monster to dispatch before they discover the final Simulacrum scrolls, lying on a desk, along with a handy English translation of the ritual of purification which will lift their corruption.  This is the contingency that Mehmet has prepared in case of his death. 

Now the investigators face a choice: perform the ritual using the handy translation provided, or spend more time studying the original source scrolls and create their own translation.  How the investigators decide to proceed is likely to depend on how much the keeper has been portraying the effects of their  growing corruption (the rules in the previous chapter, while colourful, do not cover any actual mechanical penalties for the corruption).  Accordingly Keepers should consider, in advance, how they’d like the ending to play out and tailor elements, like the virulence of the corruption, to suit.   


If the investigators trigger the false scroll they face the Mehmet and the Skinless One and now finally have an opportunity to destroy the simulacrum (assuming they take the somewhat counter-intuitive leap to throwing pieces of the statue to the loathsome God).   This may result is a suitably epic conclusion to the core campaign as the simulacrum is destroyed and Mehmet destroyed once more. 

This may also frustrate some players and lead to more questions (why would the Skinless One destroy the Simulacrum now rather than strike down those who seek to prevent its further use? Why would Mehmet summon the Skinless One now, and not in the previous chapter?).  The answers are likely to be anchored in the fickle and unknowable nature of the Mythos deities and the arrogance of those who worship them.

Equally, if the investigators do not rush to perform the ritual, or do not have the simulacrum present, they can end the campaign on their own terms although they must continue to perform the ritual of purification every 100 hours and decide what to do with the simulacrum.

In summary, the final scenario of the core campaign offers the opportunity for an epic confrontation and the players can decide whether it ends with a whimper or a roar.  There are several options provided to allow for the variable ending of the previous chapter, and to reduce the toll on the least lucky investigator.  Regrettably, the only path to success if the trap is triggered is highly proscribed and may prove frustrating for some.  However, the return of the temporary reincarnation of the villain and presence of the Skinless One make for a classic horror climax, and if the players get into the spirit of it, a fantastic way to finish the core campaign. 

The Dreamlands Express

The Dreamlands Express is an optional scenario, intended to be interspersed along with regular instalments of the campaign, while the investigators slumber aboard the train.  This is a neat concept; as the investigators tumble into their beds, exhausted from their efforts to recover the simulacrum, they are transported to the surreal and bizarre dreamlands where fresh adventures await.  Here they must unmask a murderer, try to negotiate a dispute between representatives of two races, and defeat a wicked sorcerer.

This is a sizable scenario, and from the outset, I was concerned about how well the material would work – the surreal nature of the Dreamlands is at stark odds with many of the gritty elements of the main campaign and does require some descriptive effort from the Keeper. 

However, my concerns were quickly erased as the players loved the bizarre beast-train with its mix of outrageous luxury and many unsettling elements.  The Keeper is well supported to evoke this atmosphere with maps, both of the train and route, as well as nice touches, like a menu for each of the banquets held on board.     

The Dreamlands Express is probably not for all groups, but I do suggest that it’s worth a try as the sheer creativity and whimsy evoked by this scenario are worth exploring.  There are, however, some considerations that Keepers should take into account:
  • The core campaign already incorporates the Dreamlands in two scenarios, Lausanne and Dream Zagreb.  As echoes of the waking world, these scenarios present a considerably more grim and sanity shattering take on the Dreamlands, which may feel slightly at odds with the more fantasy tenor of most of the Dreamlands Express.
  • A character killed during this scenario would not be able to  participate in Dream Lausanne or Zagreb as "if a dreaming investigator dies in the Dreamlands, he or she is shocked awake and... can never again return to the Dreamlands." 
  • In addition the Lausanne chapter requires the investigators to recover waking-world items from the Dreamlands, suggesting the reverse is also possible  This may also give the investigators the idea that the Dream Orient Express is a preferable place to stash pieces of the Simulacrum, as they collect it, especially should the scenario be interspersed over several chapters as suggested.  The scenario provides no guidance for the Keepers about what effect this might have in the Dreamlands, or on Fenalik who is eagerly tracking the progress of the investigators.
  • A nice touch for the Dreamlands Express is that it might allow investigators who die during their pursuit of the simulacrum, to continue to live on in the Dreamlands, offering guidance to their fellow investigators, while also providing a poignant reminder of the cost of the hunt for the simulacrum.  For this reason I suggest that Keepers create a new Dreamlands character sheet for the investigators.
The first challenge that the investigators face is a slightly unusual murder on the train – a kitten has been killed by a shapeshifter, and the death may have serious political ramifications if not quickly solved.  I’ve previously made some comments about the ‘murder on the train’ device for scenarios in the campaign, and most of those comments apply here.  It should be noted that the suspect list is considerably shorter on the Dreamlands Express, lifting the load on the Keeper somewhat and making this a good  warm-up for the Blue Train, Black Night investigation.

Next, the investigators are drawn into a diplomatic dispute drawn straight from the pages of Lovecraft’s story “The Doom That Came To Sarnath”.  The investigators are encouraged to become advocates for the loathsome, victimised Beings of Ib, or befriend the haughty, cruel Sarnathians who will soon suffer the aforementioned Doom.  Some players are likely to relish the opportunity of engaging with this mix of literature and litigation, although as the outcome of this negotiation is established through the fiction, there is little scope to actually influence events which may disappoint those who go all out.

Finally, the train is set to conclude its journey in the Gulf of Nodens, where passengers are invited to cast off something they wish to be lose.  The investigators are encouraged to participate in this activity, creating an artefact of fears and disappointments specific to their character to cast into the Gulf.  Disappointingly, there are no rules for how this affects the investigator. 

The wicked Sorcerer, who has dogged the train on several past occasions in his effort to recover the ‘Lovers' Heart’, attacks the train as it is besieged by waves of phantom soldiers while approaching the Gulf.  Having the investigators risk their (dreaming) lives in this prolonged combat sequence, for poorly defined aims, seemed a poor way to finish what was otherwise and entertaining and enjoyable scenario, so I didn’t run it. 


For Keepers who, similarly, wish to skip the scripted action of the last section of the Dreamlands Express, I suggest the Dreamlands Express terminate in Serannian.  Here dreamers can climb to the heights of the tallest tower of the cloud castle and cast their dream artefact into the edge of the great whirlpool of the Gulf of Nodens.  Here the Sorcerer waits (alone) to confront Madame Bruja. If the investigators do not intervene, both tumble over the parapet locked in a grim struggle for the Lovers' Heart.

PROS


  • The setting is wonderful and highly imaginative and allows the investigators to interact with several elements of Lovecraft's stories . 
  • The NPCs have interesting stories and secrets that are likely to entertain.
  • The murder investigation and diplomacy are interesting and allow investigators to choose their level of engagement.
  • There are some great supporting materials.

CONS
  • This Dreamlands scenario doesn't seem well integrated into the Dreamlands components of the core campaign.
  • The high-action ending is at odds with the general whimsy and wonder of the rest of the scenario.
  • Investigators who die in this scenario are not able to participate in other Dreamlands campaign scenarios.
  • There are no rules for the Dream Artefacts created by the investigators.


In summary, this is a highly imaginative chapter.  It's probably not for all groups given the surrealist nature of the Dreamlands, but it's definitely worth a try and can be broken into parts and interspersed with other campaign chapters (although I don't recommend splitting up the murder investigation sessions).  Keepers who feel their players will not enjoy the combat sequence at the Gulf of Nodens might do well to heed Henri's warning and disembark in Serannian.



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.


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.

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.



Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Overview & London
Paris
Milan