Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Sofia

This is a review of the Sofia 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 Sofia chapter is the most dangerous of the campaign so far, and if run as scripted, there is a high probability of  investigator fatalities.  However, this threat is wrapped in a series of highly evocative and tense encounters. If the players can sustain their motivation without feeling overwhelmed by this relentless threat, they will likely remember this chapter as one of the highlights of the campaign.  Because of the open ended nature of the final encounter, there is real scope for the Keeper to tailor this chapter to suit their desired outcome, so it is important for Keepers to do some thinking in advance.

This chapter is paced quite differently from others in the campaign.  It brings a high intensity action focus which is likely to suit the more action oriented investigators.  However, this does create a risk that more research-inclined investigators may feel out of their depth, or sidelined.   Events begin as soon as the train departs from Belgrade, with a cultist posing as a waiter in order to steal research from Dr. Radko Jordanov, that will ultimately lead the cult to the head of the simulacrum.  It’s not immediately clear why the concealed cultist doesn't simply wire ahead to Sofia, rather than snatching the research in front of a train load of witnesses, but the scene does offer the investigators a dramatic opportunity to chase through the train.

Once they reach Sofia, the investigators are in for a harrowing night; one will lose an eye.  This is a very atmospheric encounter, as mummified hands creep up on the sleeping investigators, made more so as the investigator begins to receive visions from the severed eyeball.  There are suggested penalties for the investigator who loses the eye, but sympathetic Keepers may wish to scale these back a little, given the arbitrary assignment of this misfortune.  This hardship and trauma associated with this sequence has the potential for a player, who enjoys drama over mechanics to roleplay the impact on their investigator to the hilt.  Keepers should bear this in mind when deciding who is targeted.

Unlike many other chapters of the campaign the final piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum is relatively accessible, located in a University storeroom, however when the investigators follow this lead they swiftly become entangled in a gun (and grenade) battle with homicidal cultists.  This could be a particularly challenging surprise encounter for your investigators should it be the mild mannered researchers, rather than the gun toting action investigators, who have investigated the lead at the University. 

As the point of this scene is twofold (1) the investigators witness the cultists capturing the head and escape with it, and (2) learn that the local cult is well armed, overt, and resourceful.  I suggest these ends can be achieved without necessarily using the scripted level of NPC armament, should the investigators not be up for a gunfight.  Knives employed by the rearguard (rather than guns) are likely to be sufficient to ensure the former, while the scripted use of a concealed machine-gun in the getaway truck, spraying nearby vehicles with bullets, more than amply illustrates the latter.

Next, the investigators link up with a renegade police unit, who themselves have been targeted by the cult, and forced to set up a temporary headquarters.  Now the investigators deduce the hiding place of the cult, as the investigator missing an eye receives visions of the cult hideout (and subsequent visions that suggest that a third party has intervened and dispatched the cultists).  Because the  progress of the scenario hangs on these clues, and in order to preserve continuity, Keepers need to be mindful to ensure that the player whose character is missing an eye can attend the session where this will need to occur. 

The back-up clue (a telephone tip from Fenalik) seems a little far-fetched when you consider (1) Fenalik apparently doesn’t understand trains or cars, so knowledge of telephones is a stretch (2) it’s unlikely that a telephone exchange operator knows the whereabouts of the police ‘safe house’ sufficient to direct the call. 

When the investigators follow these leads, they discover and explore a cave complex scattered with the the grisly remains of the cultists, and recover the final piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum in a hiding place that Fenalik could not access because of well placed garlic cloves (again this stretches credulity somewhat, given Fenalik’s ability to hypnotise and control the living).  The investigators have only just made this recovery when newly created vampires, the Children of Fenalik attack, foreshadowing the final encounter of the chapter.

To survive this encounter the investigators either need to use their force of arms, and swiftly learn how to dispatch the vampires, or take to their heels.  As the Keeper is provided with the statistics of the special police squad who accompany them on this dangerous mission and it is suggested that the Keeper might like to print these and hand them out to the players, so they get a first hand feel of the brutality and relative invulnerability of the vampires rather than simply narrating their demise.

Finally, bloodied but victorious, the investigators return to the Orient Express.  The scenario suggests that the Keeper lulls the players into a false sense of security by awarding sanity and allowing skill checks which are normally done at the end of the chapter, paralleling the sense of security the investigators feel being back on the train and departing Sofia.  This is a nice device but again the Keeper should ensure that they feel their players will enjoy such a deception before the investigators are thrust straight into a conflict with the much foreshadowed campaign villain; the vampire Fenalik.

At the outset I said that I felt that Keepers should think carefully about this chapter, and how they want it to play out, as it is possible that the entire party of investigators may be wiped out after months of effort and investigation and roleplay.  For some groups this will be an acceptable risk, and all part of the fun, for others this may mean the campaign ends in Sofia, and in some cases players may feel so disengaged that the players actively avoid Call of Cthulhu games in the future.

I suggest this chapter should provide some challenging and harrowing encounters, but ultimately my aim when running this chapter was that all the investigators who arrived in Sofia, should survive until the final encounter with Fenalik (bar a run of poor luck on dice rolls).  This is because the Sofia chapter does not lend itself to the recruitment of new investigators, and I wanted to avoid the disposable investigator syndrome, where a new character is recruited only to die later in the same chapter, killed by Fenalik. 

For me the confrontation with Fenalik needed to be epic and I was prepared for several of the investigators to perish, but ultimately I wanted to have at least one survivor to continue the journey and continuity of the campaign.  Accordingly I arranged Fenalik's actions to make this the most likely outcome (cat and mouse attacks with a focus on hypnotism and allowing Cthulhu Mythos rolls to identify possible Vampire strengths and weaknesses).

It should be noted that, if you are using the 7th edition rules, and the optional luck mechanic, the players may have considerable scope to approach this encounter in a tactical way (by spending luck to ensure they receive a higher degree of success than Fenalik on each roll and thereby damage him in both his attacks, and through their own actions).  This will burn through luck, but for the players, this may seem an acceptable sacrifice to defeat their foe.  An investigator with a high Brawl skill, an improvised stake, and a decent pool of luck has a fair chance of beating the vampire on this basis.

However, investigators who rely exclusively on firearms, split up or try to hide are likely to suffer a grim fate.  The final section of this chapter offers a range of good advice and guidance on running this memorable encounter, and Keepers should be sure to review before running the encounter.

In summary:


  • The chapter is fast paced and action focussed and is a change of pace to much of the rest of the campaign.
  • The mixture of well armed, brazen cultists and terrifying, relentless, undead have the potential to make evocative and memorable encounters.
  • The characters have the opportunity to encounter and ultimately defeat a long-term villain of the campaign.
  • The resolution of the confrontation with Fenalik is open ended and well supported with advice and suggestions. allowing Keepers to tailor this to their group and desired outcome.


  • The chapter is fast paced and action focussed and is a change of pace to much of the rest of the campaign
  • There are several plot elements that don't seem entirely consistent.
  • There is a high probability of investigator fatalities.

  • Some players may find the relentless horror inflicted on their investigators in this chapter demoralising

In summary this chapter will likely be one of the most memorable of the campaign, the vampire on the train is Classic Cthulhu, both at its best, and its worst.  There is a real chance that the campaign could get derailed here if the Keeper doesn't plan in advance and read the advice provided.  For players who really seek to embrace the dark journey of their investigators, this chapter marks the place where the darkness really takes hold.  The relentless violence, continued horror and final bloody twist should leave the surviving investigators haggard, harried and ready for the final (although penultimate) confrontation in Istanbul.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

New Kiwi Games

Welcome to a round-up of the latest roleplaying games created by New Zealanders.  Previous instalments in this series include Roleplaying Aotearoa Style (April, 2015), the rise of New Zealand Roleplaying products, (Aug 2013) and  New Zealand Roleplaying Products (Feb 2011).  Now, on to the 2016 edition:

We start with The Sprawl, a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse RPG of mission-based action in a gritty neon-and-chrome cyberpunk future. On the back of a successful Kickstarter, Hamish Cameron has created a game where you are the extended assets of vast multinational corporations, operating in the criminal underground, and performing the tasks that those multinationals can’t do... or can’t be seen to do. You are deniable, professional and disposable.

Another Kiwi to successfully harness Kickstarter is Ciâran Spencer Searle, who raised funding for Transylvania, a hidden role party game of vampires and villagers played in a darkened room for six or more people.

Next up, Steve Hickey released Soth, a diceless game of cultists vs investigators where you play cultists in a small-town, trying to summon a dark god.  If you complete three more rituals, Soth will rise. But can you conceal your murderous crimes from family and friends?

Also of note, Left Coast, Steve's role-playing game about a science fiction writer in California, who struggles as the weirdness from her novels spills into real life, was a runner-up for the 2016 Indie RPG Award for Most Innovative Game!

Catherine Pegg has also been busy.  The Face of Oblivion, is a science-fiction chamber LARP for 6-8 players, designed around a hard choice.  Disaster is coming: will you save a large group of people that you are responsible for, or a smaller group of everyone you ever loved and everything you ever cared about?

Catherine also released My Bloody Valentine, a LARP scenario for 6-8 players, where instead of spending Valentine's Day with your loved one, you're stuck having biscuits and a cuppa with your landlady.  And it's worse than that - she's making you talk to her other tenants. Trouble is, Miss Elisabeth is so nice, she'll let anyone in. They're nuts!  How long before you're climbing the walls?

Anna Klein released two live action roleplaying scenarios during 2015.  Argonautica is an intense vignette inside the lives of eight characters who have found themselves in desperate enough circumstances to take part in an unpleasant shock reality TV show, wherein they sequestered from the world at large for four months, and subjected to the general ridiculousness of reality TV challenges. Partway through the game, a horror element is introduced, and the tone of the game becomes one of personal horror.

Boats Against the Current (also by Anna)  is an introspective live action roleplaying scenario for 9 players, set New York, in the throes of the roaring twenties.  Recently, an eccentric but much talked about millionaire socialite died under questionable circumstances. Speculation abounds in the streets, and splashed across the papers - who was this man, really? Where did he come from? Who killed him? And why?

At the end of 2015 I released Death of Legends, a GM-less dark-fantasy roleplaying game that tells the story of epic deeds against great odds in aid of UNICEF New Zealand, and followed this up with a high-fantasy expansion First KingdomsDeath of Legends was recently awarded an Indie Groundbreaker Award for Best Rules and was second runner up for the Indie RPG Award for Best Free Game of 2015. 

I also released another Christmas Special scenario for the EPOCH survival horror roleplaying game Polaris Six and Candidate, a micro-game of political ambition.

New Zealand game designers have also been well represented in international competitions.  Rose Docherty was a finalist for the renown Game Chef 2016 competition.  Rose's game, Making History is a game about history, hard decisions and public memory.  Hamish Cameron entered a game called Mirror Ball, a game about the many faces of technology and I entered Fragment (see below).  Rose also created School of Magic, a card-based RPG where you play teenagers in a mage school as part of the Fantasy RPG Design Challenge.

This is the biggest list to date, and I think it reflects the growing strength and diversity of New Zealand game design.

If you know of a product I've missed, comment below.

Also of Note
Mike Sands has been hard at work on Heavy Metal Æons, a roleplaying game of heavy metal inspired science-fantasy adventures.  A playtest document is currently available. 

My 2016 Game Chef entry Fragment, a game of machines and memory is currently available to playtest.

Holding On, Morgan Davie's entry into the 200 word RPG challenge recently went micro-viral.

A couple I missed; Jenni Sands has been busy writing Monster of the Week mysteries, including Murders at the Music Festival, and The Shadow Man, and she's working on a new game called Purification: a facilitator-less story game with cards, violence and lots of death.

Grant Robinson has been  writing for Shadowrun.  In Amber Waves of Grain The runners are going to have some unusual jobs, including spreading some poisons and making sure innocent lives are spared (if they’re so inclined). They’ll have to be on their toes to steer clear of the authorities, get all the pieces of this particular scheme in place, and in particular answer the pressing question: Just what is Mr. Johnson up to?

Grant also contributed to Court of Shadows, an alternate setting for Shadowrun, Fifth Edition, emphasizing the magic and intrigue of the Seelie Court.

Hot off the press, Malcolm Harbrow has created The Devil's Brood, a LARP for nine players and an organiser, inspired by history and The Lion in Winter.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Belgrade

This is a review of the Belgrade 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.

Little Cottage in the Wood

This chapter is likely to be one of the most memorable of the campaign.  It takes the investigators far from the luxury and comforts of the Orient Express and the glittering cities of Europe, and plunges them into a rural countryside thick with folktales and myth.  Like many of the original parts of the campaign, the plot is largely a linear experience for the investigators, there are few opportunities to seek a different approach or outcome beyond that which has been scripted. 
However the atmospheric foreshadowing, interactions with NPCs and final confrontation are rich, well detailed and evocative and likely to be sufficient to camouflage this lack of agency for most groups and provide a great deal of entertainment.
The chapter begins with the investigators arrival in Belgrade.  As the National Museum is closed, they likely have some time to sightsee before following up the next lead on the simulacrum.  The scenario proposes several encounters while the investigators take in the sights of the Bazaar in the Turkish quarter, including a fortune teller, and chase sequence through the busy market concluding with a brawl. 
These light encounters serve a dual purpose of adding an element of foreshadowing (prophecy of the fortune teller) and some action for those investigators inclined to engage in some rough and tumble. Well prepared keepers might also arrange for some other encounters - do the investigators seek supplies, weapons or arcane lore?  Perhaps the Bazaar may have something to offer them.  Perhaps they might take the opportunity to send some souvenirs to their loved ones?
Next, the investigators must navigate the complex bureaucracy to locate the Bureau of National Treasures in order to obtain the proper permit (in anticipation they will secure what they are seeking).  Like the Paris chapter, this may appeal to some players, and leave others cold. To avoid in-character frustrations spilling over into out-of-character frustration the Keeper may wish to tailor this to the level of realism enjoyed by the group.
With their hard-won information in hand, the investigators must board a regional train and travel to Orašac.  Much like the Invictus chapter, this travel should be a good way for the Keeper to slowly start to build atmosphere, highlighting that the investigators are gradually moving  from the urban and metropolitan to the rural and wild.  One suggestion to help evoke the right atmosphere is to use a soundtrack of Eastern European folk songs or similar.
The next challenge for the Keeper is to portray the diverse personalities of the village of Orašac where the investigators spend the night before venturing into the woods.  There are four key personalities, and one suggestion to help the players distinguish between them is for the Keeper to create a picture for each, and hold this up when each NPC is talking. The scripted events of the night should provide an atmospheric and eerie backdrop for what is to come.
The following day, the investigators venture into the woods, and into one of the more memorable and horrific encounters of the campaign as they are confronted by a legend of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga, who holds the piece of the simulacrum they seek.  Although this section is heavily scripted,  it offers a great mix of horror and action.  Much of the action has been scripted to be damaging (to sanity and health), rather than lethal, but there is still a fair possibility that investigators who have already suffered significant physical or mental trauma in previous chapters may perish here, so the keeper should read up on the rules about dying and indefinite insanity before running the session.
The success and survival of the characters hangs on a whistle, given to the investigators in  the village.  If the characters have the whistle, and think to blow it, they are likely to be successful.  If not, things are considerably more grim.  This is an obvious place to insert an Idea roll for the investigator who holds the whistle, although as with all dice rolls, if the Keeper actually wants the investigators to succeed, they may be better to prepare a note prompt in advance and pass it to the player at the appropriate moment, rather than leaving such an important reminder to chance.
The investigators are likely to be bruised and battered as they leave the woods.  However, they are likely to suffer further harassment as the wrath of Baba Yaga follows them as they make their way back to the Orient Express.  There is little reprieve for the investigators, for as soon after they leave the horrors of Belgrade behind, the events of the next chapter begin..
In summary:


  • The chapter is extremely atmospheric and builds to a memorable climax.
  • The initial encounters offer good foreshadowing and opportunity for both action and interaction.
  • The characters have the opportunity to encounter and interact with a legendary horror.
  • The scripted plot offers a solution to minimise the harm and san loss to the investigators associated with this epic encounter.


  • The chapter is linear and offers few options for the investigators to deviate from the scripted path.
  • Making sure the investigators get as good feel for the four main characters in Orašac may be challenging for the Keeper.
  • The scenario has the potential to kill or seriously erode the sanity of the investigators .
  • The solution to allow the investigators to escape requires the players to recall and use a whistle they were gifted. 

In summary this chapter has the potential to be a real highlight of the campaign.  The mix of illusion and horror drawn from Slavic folklore has the potential for an extremely memorable climax.  However, if the investigators are unwilling to go along with the setup this chapter could fall flat.  Equally, the risk to health and sanity may claim the lives of some investigators if they fail to remember the whistle.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Vinkovci

This is a review of the Vinkovci 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.

Bread or Stone

Vinkovci is a new optional scenario for the campaign, woven into the fabric of the existing narrative, rather than facilitated as an external flashback or an interlude (like the new Dreamlands material).  In Vinkovci the investigators have the opportunity to claim a legendary artefact and weapon, which features in the Dark Ages and Invictus flashback scenarios, but to do so they must confront a talented surgeon who is losing his grip on sanity, and contend with bestial abominations and yet more cultists.  As a new scenario the material is not essential to the core plot, and while possession of the Mims Sahis may be helpful to the investigators in subsequent chapters, it is not required.  Indeed the investigators have a rare opportunity to actually destroy this foul blade.

To fit with the existing campaign, this scenario borrows elements from other chapters; a daughter in distress who the investigators must rescue (Venice),  a powerful (non-simulacrum) Mythos artefact is being desperately sought by cultists (Trieste) and a backdrop of city-wide fear and uncertainty (Venice again).  This is in one sense derivative, and the players may feel some déjà vu, in another sense Keepers will now have a fair idea of how the investigators will react to these elements, and can tailor them accordingly, to get the best result. 

The opening to this scenario provides an interesting change of pace - the track ahead has been destroyed by 'The People’s Justice Army', and the passengers must disembark, where they are subjected to a thorough customs check.  For some Keepers this will likely prove a welcome opportunity to curb the armouries of the investigators, or at least to reinforce that there are consequences for those who readily brandish weapons, for others this may be disadvantageous, stripping investigators of weapons they will soon need if they are to survive. 

As such, it is suggested that Keepers preserve the tension of the scene – an impromptu stop, a makeshift station filled with police with rifles, a high level of tension and uncertainty among the other passengers.  The world of pampered luxury aboard the Orient Express is about to be briefly and rudely interrupted.

After their brief run-in with officialdom, the investigators become involved in an attempted abduction as a family of local cultists attempt to snatch a woman they believe can lead them to the Mims Sahis.  Putting in an action scene like this early is a neat idea, and gives the action oriented investigators a great opportunity to shine, however, I’m not sure about how realistic it is that a family of locals, likely to be easily identified, would try something so audacious in front of heavily armed police, already on edge about the possibility of rebel actions. 

A more likely outcome would seem that the would-be abductors, and anyone unfortunate enough to be near them, are riddled with bullets in short order.  I suggest that a more likely place for the abduction attempt to occur might be as the travellers arrive at the hunting lodge, amidst the confusion of bags being unloaded and guests inspecting their impromptu accommodation.

The next phase of the scenario is a parallel investigation as to the whereabouts of Dr. Moric and the location of his research materials.  The former is a relatively straightforward investigation which has the neat feature of foreshadowing the lair of the villain, while the latter is a slightly contrived scavenger hunt, which may entertain, although it does assume the presence and cooperation of an NPC, and may require some swift changes by the GM if the investigators have not acted as the scenario anticipates.

The major confrontation envisaged by the scenario was a problem for my group, they did not feel the need to act was justified by the setup.  When we analysed this in more detail out-of-character, their reluctance stemmed from the following.
  • The villain of the scenario Dr. Belenzada, although insane,  is acting with altruistic  motives – he is trying to use an artefact of evil to heal wounded veterans
  • They were not certain that Dr Belenzada was responsible for the abominations stalking the countryside.
  • The compound of Dr Belenzada is well guarded, by armed (and enhanced) humans and monsters, this is clearly signalled to the investigators if they visit. 
  • There is no trace of the simulacrum here.
I had previously planned to run the Invictus flashback scenario Sanguis Omnia Vincet  after this chapter, when the investigators were on the train and spending time reading The Accounts of Tillius Corvus but given the uncertainty of the investigators about how to proceed, I decided to trigger this early, interrupting the Vinkovci chapter, allowing the players to have the full available knowledge of the origins of the Mims Sahis.  As a consequence, several of the investigators decided to raid the compound, slew Dr Belenzada and recovered the artefact.

There are two nice elements here, first the slight moral ambiguity of Dr Belenzada , who can be seen as a warning of the consequences of assuming the ends justify the means – something the investigators may need to grapple with as their sanity slips sever downward. 

Secondly the player have the option of retaining and using the Mims Sahis, or permanently destroying it.  This is a neat and empowering idea for the players as the other artefacts in the campaign (the simulacrum and the Medallion of Ithaqua) are much harder to dispose of.  Although the san loss for experiencing “an entire year of being imprisoned in a cavern, chained to a pillar while  diminutive creatures ritually flay them alive, over and over again” seems extremely low (1D6).

In summary:

  • The opening to the chapter is a great change of pace.
  • The moral ambiguity of the villain is a neat way to highlight the consequence of sanity loss at a time when investigator sanity is likely beginning to dwindle.
  • The monsters are unique and interesting.
  • Allowing the investigators to recover the Mims Sahis, and decide whether to use or destroy it, empowers the investigators.


  • The main set-up for this chapter is derivative of earlier chapter.
  • The lack of a simulacrum piece and clear risk to the lives of the investigators if they wish to confront Dr Belenzada may convince them to leave Vinkovci without comp-letting the scenario.
  • Raiding the compound of Dr Belenzada may prove extremely hazardous.
  • There are some incongruous elements, like the abundance of living Gorilla parts, and the sanity loss for some experiences

      In summary the Vinkovci chapter of the campaign introduces some great new elements, but investigators may feel there is not sufficient to be gained to justify the risks associated with pursuing the scenario story to its end.  A worthy experience for the group who are seeking the 'complete' Orient Express experience, it might also be skipped by Keepers who feel their group will not appreciate further investigation not related to the core task.  Overall my group enjoyed this scenario but did feel there were a few rough edges.

      Other parts of this review:
      The Blood Red Fez

      Overview & London
      Constantinople (1204)