Friday, June 3, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Constantinople 330

This is a review of the Constantinople (330) 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.

This review is slightly out of sequence with the published campaign.  This is because my group did not initially feel sufficient motivation to attempt to retrieve the Mims Sahis as part of the Vinkovci chapter, so I ran this flashback scenario before they reached a final decision, to ensure they were in possession of all the available facts about this artefact.

Sanguis Omnia Vincet

The Invictus flashback scenario allows the players to take on the role of the Fortes Falcones, elite scouts for the Roman Army.  This scenario reminds me a lot of the movie The 13th Warrior, only with roman legionnaires instead of Norsemen.  The overall plot is similar; a small group venture deep into unfamiliar territory to confront an ancient evil, and after being attacked, decide they must root out the source. 

In terms of style it is similar to the Dark Ages flashback scenario, so if your players enjoyed the opportunity to play capable, violent characters, for a short run scenario then they will likely enjoy this scenario.  If not, you might want to skip the scenario as ultimately it is the investigators force of arms that must carry the day.

As with the Gaslight and Dark Ages scenario, pre-generated characters are supplied, and again, because of the formatting, Keepers will need to do some work in order to present these to the players in a way that enables them to be easily disseminated.   Keepers will also likely need to refresh themselves on the rules for the variable benefits of using-hand forged armour and shields.

The scenario begins and concludes in Constantinople tying in nicely to a series of historic events about the dedication of the city.  However the investigators time in the city is short, they soon receive a mission which will require them to travel to the province of Lydia to seek out a malevolent evil thought to be responsible for a terrible plague.

One of the key features of this scenario is the non-player character Tillius Corvus, commander of the Fortes Falcones.  Corvus has a central role to play in the campaign, and must follow certain actions as the campaign concludes, but his activities prior to this point are up to the Keeper. 

This is a difficult balance to maintain, as Corvus should be present for much of the action, but ideally not be directing the action (and stealing agency from the players).  My approach was to treat the investigators as a crack team of special forces – each character was an expert over their domain, and the group operated with little military formality – If a major decision was required, Corvus asked for the investigators advice, and only intervened in decision making when it seemed the investigators could not agree between themselves.


The journey to Lydia and the remote outpost provides a nice narrative flow, from the height of Roman civilisation into the relative wilderness.  While such a transition should hardly be novel to the Falcones, this mission will be different. Keepers should use the opportunity build a  feeling of threat and menace as the journey progresses, which will help generate a sense of tension and foreboding amongst the investigators. 

Once the investigators arrive at the Ghilian Outpost, the scenario is divided into 3 main sections, 
  1. investigation phase where the characters may learn knowledge about their foe, and experience the horrors of the plague first hand,
  2. the battle phase where they confront the massed forces of the enemy,
  3. and an exploration phase where the characters seek out and slay the enemy leader in his lair. 
Although there is little opportunity for deviation from this plot, the scenario employs a clever approach to allow the initial investigations and approach of the characters to influence the battle, for two possible outcome of the battle which, in turn, changes the difficulty of the final sequence. 

This allows a scenario which would otherwise have a fairly directive and linear, to offer a lot more variability, giving a greater sense of agency to the players (although it must be noted that there is little support for Keepers whose players choose to ignore the setup entirely and try to strike at the enemy leader from the outset).

Similarly the battle mechanic, whereby the fort stands or falls on the basis of the individual combat of the instigators against a pre-determined number of foes is an elegant way to allow for a tense, yet individual and dramatic resolution.  This could, perhaps, have been better supported by the inclusion of suggested details for what is occurring in each part of the fort including suggestions for how the individual foes might attack or be engaged by the character.  As the pre-generated scenario also provides the characters a ‘tactics’ skill some suggestions as to haw this might be used in preparation for the battle would also have been useful.

A surprising omission is a map of the fort and its immediate surrounds, leaving  Keepers to invent their own if the players want a visual depiction of the battlefield. This is difficult to understand, given the very nice, full colour map of Invictus era Constantinople that is provided, but which ultimately serves little purpose.

As with the Dark Age scenario, the horrors the characters must face are inventive and original, and the final confrontation in the mountain temple of the cult is likely to be memorable. 

The final part of the scenario provides an interesting conclusion.  Having slain the cult leader, and defeated the enemy the characters return to Constantinople, carrying their comatose leader to enjoy the fruits of their victory and life after military service.  However the story is not yet finished.  The characters (likely) meet a grisly end in the scenario’s final twist as they are betrayed, and one of the campaign’s major villains’ is born.  This is both a neat way to conclude the scenario and segue into the next part of the campaign when they will face this foe once more, and a poor ending for characters who have already survived a significant ordeal.

My players felt this loss so acutely (having become so attached to their characters) that we agreed that the final page of The Accounts of Tillius Corvus, was missing, allowing for the possibility that some of their number may have survived the wedding bloodbath by trying to swim for their lives.

In summary:

PROS

  • There are pre-generated investigators each with their own backstory.
  • The setting is atmospheric and interesting and there is ample opportunity for actions of the investigators to positively or negatively impact the battle.
  • The battle resolution mechanic is elegant and should allow for some dramatic moments.
  • The twist perfectly highlights and foreshadows the origin of a major campaign villain.

CONS

  • The pre-generated character sheets are not well set out for actual use.
  • The plot is relatively linear and there is little support for the Keeper if the investigators choose to strike directly at the enemy leader from the outset.
  • There is no detailed map of the Ghilian Outpost where the investigators will spend the bulk of the scenario.
  • There is little support to help the Keeper describe and frame the individual and distinct battle scenes

In summary the Invictus chapter of the campaign is both evocative and innovative allowing the investigators to determine their own challenge level through their investigative action against a host of new horrors.  As with the Dark Ages chapter it allows a significant change of pace that puts a heavy focus on action.  The final twist of the scenario is extremely memorable and a great way to frame a major campaign villain, although it may leave a bitter taste in the mouth of some players.  My group said this was one of their favourite scenarios to date.

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Overview & London
Paris
Lausanne

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