Monday, April 4, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Dream Zagreb

This is a review of the Dream Zagreb 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.

In a City of Bells and Towers

The journey continues with a brief interlude in dream Zagreb.  Although presented as an independent chapter, this scenario is marked as optional.  It’s really more of a series of experiences for the investigators intended to draw together threads of the story they have already experienced, than an independent, interactive experience.

The scenario begins  as soon as the characters board the train from Trieste, most likely fleeing angry cultists and the Bora.  As the investigators settle down for the night, the Jigsaw Prince strikes back, supplying the investigators with a delicious desert wine that will propel them into a strange dream.  Although the sequence is scripted, the Keeper would be well advised to spend some time at the beginning of this chapter dwelling on the minutiae of travel aboard the Orient Express (roleplay meeting the staff, allocating rooms, changing for dinner, then each course of the meal using the menus etc.) so that the sequence with the wine does not seem particularly unusual until after the bottle has been opened and consumed, and the investigators have been exposed to its effects.

The investigators wake to find they have been mistakenly scheduled to depart the train at Zagreb in the early hours of the morning.  As they get their bearings, a mysterious figure recites prose on the station, calling on them to come out and explore the fog shrouded city in the pursuit of the knowledge they seek.  The scenario offers some suggestions about how the investigators may be lured from the train, and the Keeper should consider the most strategy likely to be most successful in advance based on what they know about the players.  For example, having the mysterious hooded stranger caress the suitcase containing the Simulacrum now standing on the platform with the other luggage was sufficient to motivate my investigators to rush from the train.

What ensues is a surreal journey through the streets of fog-shrouded Zagreb, which the investigators soon suspect may be more dream than reality.  This consists of a series of strange and unsettling events and a collection of ‘love letters’ each of which refers to a different protagonist in the campaign thus far.  These are set against a sparse description of the city, with a map and suggested locations corresponding to each event.

My group really liked this sequence, and there is no question that the letters and events are highly atmospheric, eerie and unsettling.  However, it should be noted that there is little detail beyond the general description (sometimes no more than a single sentence) and if the investigators wish to interact with these events, then the Keeper will need to improvise additional details to enable this.  Much like in the first half of Dream Lausanne the characters are more passengers than protagonists here, although the burden is lifted from the Keeper somewhat, by handing out the letters and having the players read them aloud in character. 

If the Keeper finds this to be too much of a burden, or suspects their players may not enjoy the surrealism as intended, or the lack of agency, this chapter can be skipped entirely as it is optional and not required for the core plot.  Here are some other suggestions to handle this:
  • The letters can be delivered to the investigators as individual dreams on subsequent nights.  They dream of the object associated with each letter, and the Keeper supplies them with the handout.  The players may choose to reveal the letters or keep their contents private.
  • The Keeper might add some elements specific to the investigators, dream versions of the 'significant people', 'treasured items' or 'meaningful connections' created under the 7e rules for example.  These help reinforce the idea that Zagreb has been partially constructed from the Investigator's subconscious while also allowing the investigators a chance to roleplay and interact with these important aspects of their backgrounds.
  • The Keeper might add some other dreamers as NPCs to help share the adventure, characters drawn from the Dreamlands Express for example might have found themselves in a deeper dream on the streets of fog-shrouded Zagreb when they go to sleep (Inception style).

The scenario concludes with the characters confronting the mysterious hooded stranger, and having the opportunity to receive the dubious benefit of its wisdom.  This is an interesting mechanic that enables them to trade Sanity for Cthulhu Mythos.  While I like the idea behind this, and think it has the potential to really make the characters more interesting,  Keepers should consider how they will reflect the increased probability of an successful Cthulhu Mythos skill for the remainder of the campaign (for example the 7e rules allow for spontaneous casting of spells using Cthulhu Mythos as an optional rule).

The final scene calls for the characters to run for the train, passing a series of tests as they try not to fall behind, this does provide a dramatic and action-packed final conclusion to the scenario, although the rationale for some of the checks do seem somewhat random, and it might have been a better idea to apply the chase mechanic, having the investigators pursued by the stranger spouting its terrible knowledge as they race through obstacles previously described.

In summary:


PROS
  • Dream Zagreb is highly evocative and atmospheric and likely to be an entertaining an memorable experience for the players.
  • The accursed enlightenment provided by the hooded stranger is likely to make the rest of the campaign and the characters more interesting.

CONS

  • Much of the scenario allows for little investigator agency, and therefore places a heavy load on the Keeper if investigators deviate from the scripted scenes or wish to interact with them in more depth.
In summary, this is a neat and highly atmospheric interlude, which can be a really memorable and enjoyable experience for the investigators if they enjoyed the surreal horror of dream Lausanne.  However, if your investigators are likely to want to interact more thoroughly with events than scripted,  the Keeper will need to do some preparation in advance, or think fast, to keep things moving along. If your players are unlikely to enjoy this kind of surreal adventure, or become highly frustrated by the low level of agency, you may wish to skip this chapter entirely or supply the handouts as individual dreams to those experiencing the baleful influence of the simulacrum.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Overview & London

Paris

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Trieste

This is a review of the Trieste 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.

Cold Wind Blowing
The next stop on the Orient Express is Trieste where the search for the simulacrum leads the investigators a magical medallion, competition between rival cults and a restless spirit.  The scenario outlines each of these actors and their likely actions against a rough timeline, which supports a more freeform and player-driven style game, but also requires the Keeper to ensure they have prepared thoroughly prior to each session.
The Bora is a non-player character in this scenario, a relentless wind that howls through Trieste and threatens to blow their investigators off their feet.  The Bora is also linked to the local cult and the beings they worship, providing a neat way to highlight this influence from the moment the investigators disembark from the train (albeit without the characters realising it initially).  While this has the potential to be very atmospheric it does place a burden on the Keeper to continually find ways to make this meaningful and interesting for the players.
One suggestion is to use a soundtrack, a short clip of a howling wind, looped and played at the table as background noise; this had my players hunching against an imaginary freezing wind.  Turn up the volume when the investigators are outside.  Another suggestion is for the Keeper to make a list of events to intersperse when the investigators venture out, for example:
  • Two elderly nuns are crossing the road, when the wind knocks one to the ground.  A trolley car bears down on the pair, and it’s not clear if it can brake in time.  Will an investigator risk serious injury to save a stranger?
  • The wind rips apart large sign depicting a man enjoying a glass of wine. Fragments of the sign containing the decapitated head hurtle toward the investigators.
  • A hat, scarf and coat swirl in a wind eddy nearby, giving the impression that someone recently shed a disguise.
  • Warm rain spatters an investigator, the wind driving it into their moth or eyes, but when they get inside they find they are covered in blood.  Perhaps Fenalik is hunting nearby, or perhaps a butcher lost control of a bucket of offal?
Perhaps the most memorable encounters of the scenario is with the ghost of Johann Winckelmann, whose possessions the investigators must trace.  Although the sequence of events necessary to initiate the haunting is slightly tenuous (investigation at the museum, a meeting with a private collector, then hours spent deciphering a dairy in classical Greek) the subsequent haunting is extremely atmospheric, presenting a range of suggestions to unnerve the investigators in escalating levels of severity.  Unfortunately the climax of this encounter (the image of Bacchus) is a clue more likely to confuse or frustrate the players than drive the story onward.
Aside from the possibility of the investigators conducting a séance there seems to be little purpose to this additional obfuscation.  The scenario does provide several ways to steer the investigators to the ultimate aim of this section, the recovery of the amulet, but it seems to me that the story of Winckelmann’s murder, conveyed either through a vision or dream (ideally where the investigators can have some level of interaction) would, in my opinion, provide the investigators with a much clearer idea of what they are looking for (an old inn built over ancient ruins) than the scripted path, and also allow their historical or library use skills to come to the fore while scanning old town plans or historic records.
Antonio Termona and the lloigor cult are the other major consideration for this scenario.  On one hand it is refreshing to introduce a new cult and their supernatural masters who care nothing for the simulacrum.  On the other hand is seems a little derivative to again have the characters recover a powerful artefact that is sought by a dangerous cult.  Ultimately my players found the incidental link between cults and artefacts to be somewhat confusing.  The key clues which shed light on this probable link are held by the Brothers of the Skin, who the investigators are unlikely to confront unless they are particularly aggressive, and by Helmut the mutilated former investigator, who the characters are unlikely to engage with unless they feel particularly sympathetic or trusting.
I suggest that should the investigators need a further push to investigate Helmut, they might happen across a newspaper article that describes Helmut as having located ancient treasure horde in an unnamed cave complex.  The following day the cult acts, Helmut is mutilated and the paper publishes a story clarifying that their earlier report was in error.
The scenario proposes that the investigators are under surveillance by both cults from a fairly early stage, but there are few details to support the Keeper to describe these watchers beyond the first and most awkward.  I suggest there is an opportunity here to play on the investigators paranoia and highlight the insidious nature of both cults; the lloigor cult are locals and virtually anyone could be a member, while the Brother of the Skin might have taken the appearance of any NPC the investigators have previously encountered. 
A prepared keeper might create some details for NPCs the characters are likely to encounter (hotel concierge, waiter, trolley car or taxi driver, newspaper seller etc.) and then arrange for subsequent encounters to seem increasingly suspicious as the NPC has different mannerisms, seems to use a different dominant hand, or be engaged in furtive conversation with other passers-by when the investigators approach.
The final act of this scenario occurs when the investigators venture into the caverns at Postumia.  At this point they almost certainly know they are venturing into the lion’s den and this may be problematic, given they have no direct knowledge that the simulacrum is located there.  The investigators may wish to enter by stealth, some may wish to be heavily armed and some may feel the risk is simply too great to make the trip at all.  One suggestion, if there is some wavering on the part of the investigators, is for Helmut to remember having seen a part of the simulacrum in the caverns.
There is little detail about the nearby town and countryside, and the influence of the cult in these environs, which was problematic as my group decided to investigate these in some detail before committing to enter the caverns.   
The scripted setup is neat and atmospheric as the friendly ‘guide’ takes them deeper beneath the earth where a chaotic confrontation occurs.  Despite the seemingly huge odds, as scripted the investigators are more spectators than protagonists as rival cultists battle.  To give the players greater agency I suggest that, assuming the investigators came ready for action, they should have the opportunity to defeat Antonio Termona and Marco in a running battle prior to their encounter with the lloigor and perhaps Carlo and one of the Brothers of the Skin as they make their escape with the leg.
Running this final scene can be a significant challenge for the Keeper if they are to convey tension, pace and danger while also allowing the investigators to interact with the scripted story elements and not feel like they are merely spectators and not in any real physical jeopardy.  However if you can pull this off, and the players are willing to meet you half-way, there is the makings of a thrilling and memorable climax, which is likely to be a highlight of the campaign.
In summary:

PROS

  • Trieste and the Bora provide a unique and highly atmospheric backdrop for the scenario.
  • The haunting scene is very evocative and likely to create a very memorable experience your players.
  • The plot involving rival cults and an unrelated Mythos artefact is refreshing and allows the Keeper some flexibility, and the investigators some agency, in how events resolve .
  • The climax provides a further epic and highly atmospheric encounter, with relatively minimal risk to the Investigators.

CONS

  • The plot for the scenario seems unnecessarily complex in places and is a little derivative of the overall campaign plot.
  • While the factions and key protagonists are described, allowing for some contingency for investigator action, the Keeper will likely need to invent additional details to keep this convincing if the scenario runs for multiple sessions.
  • The investigators may not have sufficient information or motivation to risk the dangers of venturing into the caverns at Postumia.
  • The investigators are spectators for much of the final confrontation in the caverns and their meeting with the lloigor, as scripted, may seem a little contrived.

In summary the Trieste chapter of the campaign pulls together a range of very evocative scenes and set-pieces, and allows a reasonable degree of flexibility in how the bulk of the scenario plays out.  However, some parts of the plot are not well linked, and the Keeper may need to improvise and invent additional detail in order to keep the investigators on track for the epic final climax.  

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Overview & London

Friday, January 22, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Constantinople 1204

This is a review of the Constantinople (1204) chapter of the revised Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on the Orient Express (Chaosium: 2014) based on actual play.  I intend to review each chapter of this venerable campaign as we play through it, highlighting what I see as strengths and weaknesses, and providing some suggestions along the way for what I’d do differently if running it again.  Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this classic Call of Cthulhu campaign.

The Dark Crusader

The Dark Ages flashback scenario provides the players an opportunity to experience a completely different change of pace.  This scenario presents a series of combat-based encounters, each of which the characters must overcome to in order to reach their final, fateful, meeting with Sedefkar himself.

The scenario provides six pre-generated characters, which should make it easy for the players to get right into the action.  Unfortunately these characters are only presented in the traditional format, with background text and summarised statistics in the usual double column format used for NPCS, running over several pages.  This means you can’t easily print and cut them out, as the information for one character runs over several pages and contains some details the players may not want to share immediately.  More importantly, under 7th Edition the players need to have a breakdown of their Hard and Extreme success chance for every skill, and this format does not allow for this in any but the combat skills. 

The GM is left with the option of a messy print and cut, leaving players to make on-the-fly calculations at the table, preparing in advance by transcribing the characters onto proper character sheets by hand, or using the electronic Dark Ages character sheet found in the ‘Through the Ages’ publication with does these calculations automatically (I strongly recommend the latter to save time and as you can also copy and paste some of the key character information and inventory into the second page, and enter the relevant weapon damage and luck scores, making it easy for the players to get started).

While this arrangement for pre-generated characters is not uncommon in Chaosium published Call of Cthulhu publications, it does seem an unusual oversight in a product like Horror on the Orient Express which is packed with so many handouts, and which boasts an entire book of ready-to-play pre-generated characters.

The backdrop of the scenario is both extremely evocative and unique.  The year is 1204 and Constantinople has been attacked by the army of the fourth crusade and is in the throes of pillage by Frankish and Venetian forces.  The characters take the roles of  knights or other members of the Crusader army  tasked with searching the city for unholy artefacts they suspect are having a baleful influence. 

After some high-level opening scenes which allow the players as initial chance to describe their investigator and briefly interact with the famous siege, the scenario slowly introduces the investigators to the city, beginning with a briefing from their patron and  a series of vignettes to illustrate the plight of its inhabitants.  There is a minor ambush with the remnants of the defending forces to get the players some combat experience and a memorable and disturbing interview with a priest who has critical information.

From this point on the scenario consists primarily of a series of brutal combat encounters, as the investigators fight their way to a final confrontation with Sedefkar.  Whether or not your group will enjoy this  depends a great deal on your players and their preferred style of play.

On one hand, the fast-paced brutality of these encounters provides a marked change of pace from the main campaign thus far, and as the players have new, temporary, investigators they can lay waste to their foes with little concern of consequence.  Players who enjoy such action will likely have a grand time.

On the other hand, if your players enjoy the art of investigation, and prefer to find non-violent methods of resolving challenges, then they may not enjoy this scenario as much and you may need to be prepared to improvise options for the investigators to trick, intimidate or avoid their foes, and potentially modify the pre-generated characters to ensure their skills support this approach.

The most unusual encounter in the scenario involves the investigators venturing into an underground cistern where they are confronted by an angry Anatolian Dragon.  This fearsome beast is foreshadowed several times, but has no actual relevance to the core plot of the scenario, aside from providing proof of supernatural forces and the desperation of the cities inhabitants (who summoned it).

The dragon is a tough combat encounter for the characters, and while a full group of investigators are likely to prevail over it if they attack collectively, it is likely that several of their number will be slain, or significantly injured (under 7th Edition the Dragon is making a number of attacks equal to the investigators fighting it +2 per round, so despite a relatively low chance to hit of 30%, if the Keeper does get a higher level of success than the players the Investigators are likely to suffer significant damage.  If the Keeper scores an extreme success an investigator will be killed.

To prevail, the investigators must gamble they can kill the dragon (and spot its weakness) before the dragon has opportunity to kill or incapacitate too many of their number.  Should the investigators encounter the dragon piecemeal, or prolong the fight, the outcome could be much more deadly.

The encounter with the Dragon, therefore, has the potential to be tense, and cool (after all how many Cthulhu investigators can boast they have killed a dragon?).  However, it also has the potential to kill or significantly weaken the investigators, and while this would be a reasonable outcome the climax of the scenario, this is just a side encounter with no direct connection to the plot.  Accordingly, if you plan to run this encounter I suggest either giving the characters one mark of destiny at the beginning of the scenario (allowing them to survive one otherwise fatal injury) or to allow the investigators a chance to sneak up (and potentially past) the dragon as it feeds on its previous victims.

The final encounter with the skin demons and the Red Tower is a truly loathsome affair and has the potential to be both extremely memorable for the series of grisly scenes, and solidify the evil of the Simulacrum in the minds of the players.  There are certainly echoes of the authors previous work on Masks of Nyarlathotep here.

The six levels of tower the investigators must traverse to confront Sedefkar, while evocative, present little opportunity for interaction for the players.  Keepers might like to create details of some of Sedefkar’s victims (locals, venetians or fellow Franks) and allow the investigators an opportunity to swear vengeance on their behalf, or free those who are not fatally wounded to keep things interesting.

The final encounter with Sedefkar is similar in stakes to the Dragon fight earlier.  If the characters attack together, spy the weakness in the Simulacrum, and seek to overwhelm their foe, they are likely to prevail before he completes the ritual.

If they attack piecemeal or in an uncoordinated way, or fail to deduce the joins in the Simulacrum they are likely to die rapidly.  In my game the investigators swiftly worked out that they could use a fighting manoeuvre to disarm Sedekfar without much effort, knock off one piece of armour and strike him down with relative ease (as the bonus die for outnumbering offset the penalty dice or increased level of difficulty for targeting a specific location).  However, none of the characters were uninjured, and several had only a single hit point, so it could easily have worked out differently.

In summary:


PROS

  • There are pre-generated investigators each with their own backstory.
  • The setting and plot are very atmospheric and interesting and there is good foreshadowing of major campaign elements, and elements within the scenario.
  • The players may enjoy the change of pace by playing violent and disposable pre-generated investigators in a series of bloody battles.
  • The investigators battle, and have a chance to defeat, many memorable foes including a Dragon and Sedefkar himself.

CONS

  • The pre-generated character sheets are not well set out for actual use.
  • The plot is relatively linear and there are few scripted opportunities to investigate or resolve encounters through non-violent means.
  • If run as written, the plot has the potential to be extremely deadly, and the investigators are likely to be defeated unless the work together and look for weaknesses in their foes.

In summary the Dark Ages chapter of the campaign has the potential to provide a great change of pace, with some truly horrific scenes and memorable battles.  However, without some modification there is a risk that the linear nature of the plot and high stakes of several combat encounters could result in the death of some or all of the investigators before they reach the climax and leave a bad taste in the mouths of some players.

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

Friday, December 11, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Venice

This is a review of the Venice 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.

Death (and Love) in a Gondola

Venice is the second chapter of the campaign set in fascist Italy.  This chapter weaves together two separate plots; ‘Love in Venice’ a love story involving a recently bereaved woman, a young communist and a cruel blackshirt leader, and ‘Death in Venice’ the search for a piece of the simulacrum and a key text.  Both plots are set against the atmospheric backdrop of Venice and a mood of increasing fear within the city, as the canal waters slowly turn black and a murderer stalks the city by night.

This chapter has the potential to paint an extremely evocative picture, weaving the simultaneous threads of the treasure hunt and romantic drama together into a series of memorable scenes.  There are a lot of good suggestions to bring this material to life and my group ranked this as one of their favourite chapters thus far, due to the mix of evocative locations, high tension and simmering threat.


Love in Venice

The 'Love in Venice' plot provides the Keeper with antagonists in the form of Alberto Rossini and his Blackshirts thugs who can intimidate and inject some action for the investigators, keeping them on their toes as they progress though the 'Death in Venice' investigation. 

Some aspects of this plot are well detailed – Maria’s residence, the core cast and the actions of the Blackshirts each day, although notably absent are details about the friends of the Stagliani family and how they respond to events, and a good description of the cemetery island of San Michelle.  The Keeper must do some research in advance if they plan to bring such a memorable location to life for the players.

This plot is largely detached from the investigative aspect of the scenario, meaning that if the characters do not chose to intervene in the drama, there is little likelihood they will have contact with the Blackshirts unless they openly mark themselves as foreigners in later days as the city is gripped by fear.  Accordingly, I suggest that Keepers who wish to keep the tension high, ensure the investigators become a focus of Blackshirt attention even if they fail to help Maria and Georgio.

It seems plausible that the investigators might be linked to the murders – there are few actual details about these crimes in the text, and the subsequent taint of the canals to support the Keeper should the investigators decide to spend time and effort looking into it (where does Fenalik reside during the day? what is the source of the contagion of the canals? what can be deduced from a chemical analysis etc.) 

One suggestion is that the Investigators (particularly those suffering from the baleful influence of the Simulacrum who may seem unhealthy and possibly even infectious) become prime suspects.  The Blackshirts likely require little in terms of proof beyond the arrival of the investigators in Venice coinciding with the first murder and beginning of the canal taint, and the fact that the first murder occurred near their hotel.  As a result they might harass and accuse the investigators, claiming they are troublemakers or foreign agents intent on sabotage. 

This keeps the pressure on the investigators while they search for the simulacrum piece, and provides a challenge the investigators might resolve any number of ways, from establishing their bona fides and appealing for official help (Credit Rating and Persuade) to evasion and subterfuge  (Stealth and Disguise) to outright conflict (Intimidate and Fighting).

Death in Venice

The second plot leads the investigators through iconic Venice locations on a hunt for two items, the first a text known as The Devil’s Simulare can eventually be tracked to the Biblioteca Marciana, where diligent researchers find it amidst a relocated collection.

Regrettably the only suggestion presented is for the Investigators to try and steal the book using Sleight of Hand.  My group considered a wide range of options from bribery to cat-burglary to recover the text, and the scenario text provided little support for the Keeper in furnishing such details.  A wise keeper might look online for some details of the Biblioteca Marciana to be prepared for such contingencies.


The quest for the simulacrum leg leads the investigators through another burglary, to a dilapidated doll factory and on to a tense encounter in a city bell tower.  These are all great scenes; my only real suggestion is that the dolls in the Gremanci factory have the potential to really keep the suspense high.  So rather than a tedious bookkeeping search, the characters feel themselves being watched by the china-blue eyes of the dolls.  When they look up from the records, they are sure one of the dolls has moved, and now sits closer than before.

Perhaps Fenalik in his mist form is playing with them, pushing them to find the next piece, or perhaps the investigators are simply tired and their minds are playing tricks.  Either way it should make the scene even more memorable for the players, as their investigators close in on the final lead.

The final scene in the clock tower is terrific, with the investigators braving larger than life automata as they search for the leg, and catching a glimpse of their nemesis.  There is a neat level of physical and mental threat at the pivotal moment, my only suggestion here is that investigators who chose not to brave the inner workings of the clock, but lurk nearby while their comrades do this dangerous work, might also be struck by flying cogs or springs if they fail a luck check, as the clock breaks down.

In summary:

PROS
  • There are several simultaneous plots which allow the Keeper to weave several stories together and allow the investigators some choice about how they will proceed.
  • The mix of a human drama, alongside the supernatural quest, provides a good opportunity for the characters to face mundane foes and help some ordinary people in need.
  • The backdrop of Venice increasingly gripped by fear, is excellent and extremely atmospheric, ratcheting up the pressure and tension.
  • There are several memorable scenes, and the final conclusion of this chapter with the automata in the clock tower should be a real campaign highlight.
CONS
  • There are some parts of each plot which are not well developed, leaving the Keeper to fill in the details if the investigators deviate from the anticipated path.
  • As scripted it is possible that the characters will not participate in the ‘Love in Venice’ plot which potentially removes the Keeper’s option to the Blackshirts as antagonists to heighten the tension.
  • Much like Paris, the search for the simulacrum piece is relatively linear, based in research, and there are few scripted opportunities for the Keeper to make things interesting for more action focused characters until the final scene.
In summary the Venice chapter has a great mix of tension and drama, mixing both mundane and supernatural elements into a potentially very memorable experience for the players.  There are some places where a Keeper might need to think fast, improvise, or have prepared in advance to smooth out rougher edges.  There is also potential for the Keeper to tweak the existing plot to create even more mundane and supernatural tension if they so desire.  A well-crafted chapter oozing detail, Venice is a real highlight of the campaign to this point.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

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:
PROS
  • 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.
CONS
  • 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.

Nocturne

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:

PROS

  • 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
CONS

  • 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