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:

  • 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.
  • 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
Overview & London

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