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

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Paris

This is a review of the Paris chapter of the revised Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on the Orient Express (Chaosium: 2014) based on actual play.  I intend to review each chapter of this venerable campaign as we play through it, highlighting what I see as strengths and weaknesses, and providing some suggestions along the way for what I’d do differently if running it again.  Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this classic Call of Cthulhu campaign
 
Les Fleurs Du Mal
 
Paris is another fantastic location for the campaign and the campaign book does a reasonable job suggesting ways a keeper might breathe some life into the City of Lights.  The central activity for the investigators  at the beginning of the Paris chapter is chasing up leads in the Bibliothèque nationale de France where there are a range of sources that document the demise of the former owner of the Sedefkar Simulacrum.   Regrettably, the campaign here adopts one of the less desirable qualities of investigative games – making it potentially difficult or frustrating for the players that to obtain the clues they need in order to advance the plot.
 
The investigators must first gain access to the library, a process taking several days if they have not thought to make arrangements in advance,  then they slowly have the handouts doled out over the space of several game days, assuming they can pass the fairly difficult battery of Library Use checks required.  Now, I don’t mean to diminish the idea that historical research might lead to exciting discoveries – this kind of research accompanied by primary source style handouts can be a lot of fun.  The question for the Keeper is what they want the  primary experience for the players to be. 


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

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

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

 In summary:

PROS

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

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

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reports from the Orient Express - Overview & London

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary:

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

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

Other parts of this review:
The Blood Red Fez

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

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

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