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.

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:

  • 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.
  • 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
Overview & London


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.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Arkham, Awards and New Adventures

First I wanted to point you to the nominees for ENnie Awards this year; these awards celebrate excellence in roleplaying products.  Voting is now open and it doesn’t take long to go through and vote and I encourage you to take a look and exercise your ability to participate, if you see some things you like.  I don’t have a product nominated this year, although my whodunit RPG Wicked Lies & Alibis picked up a judges spotlight award (thanks to the excellent taste of Judge Stacy Muth). 

I’ve posted before about the beautiful agony of the ENnie Awards, where micro-publishers like myself can (if we’re lucky) be nominated, but ultimately are extremely unlikely to win an actual award based on the size of our customer base (when compared with much larger publishers).  The Judges Spotlight Award, on the other hand,  is a perfect recognition for a micro-publisher like me.   In related news, friend and one-time EPOCH scenario author Mike Sands has been nominated in the category of Best Rules for the Evil Hat edition of his bestselling game Monster of the Week, so congratulations to Mike!

We’ve just wrapped up the 13th and final session of Arkham Chronicles, and cleared our way to play the (recently ENnie Award Nominated) Horror on the Orient Express, now that it has finally arrived in magnificent physical form.  You may recall that we had already played the Orient Express Gaslight prequel scenario – The Blood Red Fez.  I plan to run the Orient Express campaign with all the trimmings, including the Invictus, Dark Ages, Modern and Dreamlands additions, as well as music, miniatures, and all manner of handouts as appropriate. 

As I read through the campaign I am reminded just how old some parts of it are.  The implicit assumptions about character actions and motivations are not something you’d expect to see in a modern scenario, as they are simply too brittle to survive contact with resourceful, creative and engaged players – highlighting a tension that can (appropriately in this case) be termed as railroading.  Rather than simply try and shoehorn the characters into difficult and dangerous situations, or frustrate their players by stymieing any but the approved investigative avenue, I’ve had some open conversations with my group about this aspect of the game. 

As I told them, I’ll do my best to meet them half-way with these kind of plot elements, but I’ve pushed the players to look to their own characters motivations, and to view the game as a television series, where the setup is usually the same at the beginning of the episode, sometimes ignoring just how crazy and dangerous things were in the previous episode.  I’m also using some of the optional elements from Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition and introducing a house rule; a ‘Mark of Destiny’ which will work as a one shot option to allow a character to avert certain death, take a reduced SAN loss or boost their Luck (this being a critical resource in 7th edition using the optional rules, to both levy consequences and enhance investigative progress).
I’ve really enjoyed running the Arkham Chronicles, and it’s been a great way to develop characters which have strong player buy-in before the campaign and learn the seventh edition rules a little as we go.  As is traditional, I post the key stats from this mini-campaign below:
  • Dark Rivals (Dead Reckonings)
  • Darkness Illuminated (Island of Ignorance)
  • Dead Light
  • Missed Dues
  • The Condemned  (H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham)

Players  = 7
Characters created = 8
Characters killed = 0
Characters institutionalised = 1
Outer Gods encountered = 1
Great Old Ones encountered = 1