Saturday, April 12, 2014

Reports from the Orient Express - The Blood Red Fez

This week we completed the prequel scenario, “The Blood Red Fez” which is a new addition to the epic re-booted Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on The Orient Express.  As people have recently posted, asking me to share my thoughts on the campaign, I’ll start here with a review of this scenario.  As a warning there will be some spoilers, so please don’t read on if you plan on playing this scenario.

We used the proof copy of the scenario supplied to backers at the end of 2013, so it is possible that there will be revisions and changes before the final campaign is published.  So, on to the review – ‘The Blood Red Fez’ is a scenario by Geoff Gillan, one of the original authors of the Orient Express.  It covers a whopping 55 pages, including a small section detailing the Gaslight era of the Orient Express. 
It is suggested that the scenario be run as a flashback during the first part of the main campaign, however, the complexity of this scenario and the time involved (it took us 4 sessions) meant that I didn’t believe this to be feasible.  For the record, I like the idea of a prequel, triggered during the campaign but believe that this would need to be limited to a relatively simple plot, so as not to detract from the campaign investigation.  Instead I chose another suggested option – to run the scenario in advance of the main campaign, and give the players the option to play any surviving characters thirty years on

The scenario takes three parts.  An initial investigation in London, followed by a tense journey on the 1890’s Orient Express, then a final confrontation in Constantinople.  
Overall the scenario has a mix of both highly structured elements, and relatively open sections.  For example it is assumed the characters will diligently investigate a nefarious artefact, then board the Orient Express, but they have relative freedom to determine the way things play out on the train, and what happens once they reach their destination.

I felt that the train section of the scenario was reasonably well supported, and I liked that the villain is travelling openly, and that his relationship with some of the other passengers provokes the characters moral outrage - although it might have been nice to get a sense of what the NPCs are doing during the trip, and how they will react to both mythos and mundane violence, should it occur so the Keeper need not carry the entire descriptive burden.
I think the main drawback of the plot as structured is that the villains have two key artefacts on the train necessary to undertake their ritual in the final section of the scenario.  However, it is possible, if not likely, that proactive investigators will recover one or more of these – potentially dispatching the villains en-route. 

If this occurs there is scant guidance on how to adapt the final section of the scenario with regards to the capabilities of the villains.  The scenario remarks that this eventuality is unlikely, but should the social constraints of the Victorian era be broken, and combat occur, it is the most likely outcome, as the main villain has no real protection against mundane weapons (this is also true for the final confrontation, where it seems that buckshot and bullets are a more reliable method of defeating evil than spending hours deciphering a Mythos tome).

A simple solution (and one which I will employ if running this scenario again) to make this less likely would be to place a famous detective or other military or law-enforcement authority figure amongst the other passengers to provide an outlet for tensions and conflict, reinforce the rule of law, and force the characters bent on violence to adopt a more surreptitious approach.

The final segment of the scenario feels very much like the conclusion of a Chapter of Masks of Nyarlathotep, detailing a host of villains, their lair and their plans (perhaps not surprising given Gillan worked on this venerable campaign as well).  While there is a list of possible investigative sites, the detail of possible resolutions to the scenario seems light.  There is no discussion of possible allies the characters could recruit to help them defeat the villains (once they realise they are outnumbered and outgunned), nor of what should occur if the characters seek the help of the authorities to dispatch the cult (by making allegations of white slavery or the abduction of royal prince for example). 

In my opinion the scene which covers the climactic exchange with kidnappers would have benefitted from the presence of a map and a few more details, and it might have been good to detail whether the characters can monitor the cultists lair from the surrounding islands (and perhaps explain why the villains had ferry tickets in the first segment of the scenario, if no ferry actually goes to their island).  The scenario might also have provided some options for the villains to be proactive (attacking the investigators in their lodgings to try and recover the items they seek for example).
I also think it’s necessary to discuss the centrepiece of the scenario: The Blood Red Fez itself.  While I appreciate the hard work that the author has undertaken to research all things Fez related, I think for some people the idea of horror headwear is simply too ridiculous to be taken seriously.  The Fez is at once described as loathsome (costing Sanity points to view for prolonged periods) and later openly worn on the Orient Express.  In my opinion a Keeper will have to work pretty hard to ensure the players take the Fez as seriously as the scenario requires.

Finally, we ran this scenario using the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu Quick Start rules, and I didn’t appreciate just how deadly combat has become.  In previous editions, villains usually had less total attacks than characters, and a well-timed Dodge test could save an investigators life.  Under 7th Edition, in close quarters combat there is the potential for both sides to damage each other with every action, and a successful dodge roll will not necessarily negate damage if the attacker secures a ‘hard’ success (one fifth of their chance). 

In this scenario there are several instances where close quarters combat is likely, and the investigators are likely to discover just how dangerous their enemies are.  In addition First Aid no longer works in the same way as it did and injured investigators no longer get a boost to restore in hit points following a combat. 

I gave each investigator a fate point (meaning they could negate a killing injury once) and this proved the difference between a hard won success and brutal defeat in the final session.  My party of 6 investigators all spent their fate points, and a further two were killed subsequently (meaning that 8 investigators would have died without fate points).
In Summary:

  • The settings (Victorian London, The Orient Express and Ottoman Constantinople) are very atmospheric
  • The scenario is well supported with descriptions and details, nice maps and a good cast of NPCs
  • The conclusion of the scenario allows the investigators agency to resolve the scenario on their own terms
  • The scenario neatly foreshadows several elements from the main campaign
  • This is a sizable scenario, and pre-generated characters are provided
  • Some people are likely to find the idea of horror headwear too ridiculous to take seriously
  • The scenario is too long and complex to be easily run as a flashback
  • There is not sufficient scripted motivation for the investigators to drop everything and risk their lives in a fight against an odd cult (I’d make this same criticism of many Call of Cthulhu scenarios)
  • More detail about how the NPCs respond to likely events on the train, and options to keep the hostilities covert would assist the keeper
  • Under 7th edition combat rules, run as written, this scenario is likely to be extremely lethal to the investigators, and result in a brutal defeat
  • The conclusion of the scenario is not sufficiently detailed to support the Keeper in detailing all the options it invites
In the final analysis, I did enjoy running this scenario (more than I thought I would when I first read it), and with the use of Fate Points the conclusion was genuinely tense and climactic.