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.


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:


  • 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

  • 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
Overview & London


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:


  • 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!


  • 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

Overview & London