Saturday, March 12, 2016

Reports from the Orient Express - Trieste

This is a review of the Trieste 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.

Cold Wind Blowing
The next stop on the Orient Express is Trieste where the search for the simulacrum leads the investigators a magical medallion, competition between rival cults and a restless spirit.  The scenario outlines each of these actors and their likely actions against a rough timeline, which supports a more freeform and player-driven style game, but also requires the Keeper to ensure they have prepared thoroughly prior to each session.
The Bora is a non-player character in this scenario, a relentless wind that howls through Trieste and threatens to blow their investigators off their feet.  The Bora is also linked to the local cult and the beings they worship, providing a neat way to highlight this influence from the moment the investigators disembark from the train (albeit without the characters realising it initially).  While this has the potential to be very atmospheric it does place a burden on the Keeper to continually find ways to make this meaningful and interesting for the players.
One suggestion is to use a soundtrack, a short clip of a howling wind, looped and played at the table as background noise; this had my players hunching against an imaginary freezing wind.  Turn up the volume when the investigators are outside.  Another suggestion is for the Keeper to make a list of events to intersperse when the investigators venture out, for example:
  • Two elderly nuns are crossing the road, when the wind knocks one to the ground.  A trolley car bears down on the pair, and it’s not clear if it can brake in time.  Will an investigator risk serious injury to save a stranger?
  • The wind rips apart large sign depicting a man enjoying a glass of wine. Fragments of the sign containing the decapitated head hurtle toward the investigators.
  • A hat, scarf and coat swirl in a wind eddy nearby, giving the impression that someone recently shed a disguise.
  • Warm rain spatters an investigator, the wind driving it into their moth or eyes, but when they get inside they find they are covered in blood.  Perhaps Fenalik is hunting nearby, or perhaps a butcher lost control of a bucket of offal?
Perhaps the most memorable encounters of the scenario is with the ghost of Johann Winckelmann, whose possessions the investigators must trace.  Although the sequence of events necessary to initiate the haunting is slightly tenuous (investigation at the museum, a meeting with a private collector, then hours spent deciphering a dairy in classical Greek) the subsequent haunting is extremely atmospheric, presenting a range of suggestions to unnerve the investigators in escalating levels of severity.  Unfortunately the climax of this encounter (the image of Bacchus) is a clue more likely to confuse or frustrate the players than drive the story onward.
Aside from the possibility of the investigators conducting a séance there seems to be little purpose to this additional obfuscation.  The scenario does provide several ways to steer the investigators to the ultimate aim of this section, the recovery of the amulet, but it seems to me that the story of Winckelmann’s murder, conveyed either through a vision or dream (ideally where the investigators can have some level of interaction) would, in my opinion, provide the investigators with a much clearer idea of what they are looking for (an old inn built over ancient ruins) than the scripted path, and also allow their historical or library use skills to come to the fore while scanning old town plans or historic records.
Antonio Termona and the lloigor cult are the other major consideration for this scenario.  On one hand it is refreshing to introduce a new cult and their supernatural masters who care nothing for the simulacrum.  On the other hand is seems a little derivative to again have the characters recover a powerful artefact that is sought by a dangerous cult.  Ultimately my players found the incidental link between cults and artefacts to be somewhat confusing.  The key clues which shed light on this probable link are held by the Brothers of the Skin, who the investigators are unlikely to confront unless they are particularly aggressive, and by Helmut the mutilated former investigator, who the characters are unlikely to engage with unless they feel particularly sympathetic or trusting.
I suggest that should the investigators need a further push to investigate Helmut, they might happen across a newspaper article that describes Helmut as having located ancient treasure horde in an unnamed cave complex.  The following day the cult acts, Helmut is mutilated and the paper publishes a story clarifying that their earlier report was in error.
The scenario proposes that the investigators are under surveillance by both cults from a fairly early stage, but there are few details to support the Keeper to describe these watchers beyond the first and most awkward.  I suggest there is an opportunity here to play on the investigators paranoia and highlight the insidious nature of both cults; the lloigor cult are locals and virtually anyone could be a member, while the Brother of the Skin might have taken the appearance of any NPC the investigators have previously encountered. 
A prepared keeper might create some details for NPCs the characters are likely to encounter (hotel concierge, waiter, trolley car or taxi driver, newspaper seller etc.) and then arrange for subsequent encounters to seem increasingly suspicious as the NPC has different mannerisms, seems to use a different dominant hand, or be engaged in furtive conversation with other passers-by when the investigators approach.
The final act of this scenario occurs when the investigators venture into the caverns at Postumia.  At this point they almost certainly know they are venturing into the lion’s den and this may be problematic, given they have no direct knowledge that the simulacrum is located there.  The investigators may wish to enter by stealth, some may wish to be heavily armed and some may feel the risk is simply too great to make the trip at all.  One suggestion, if there is some wavering on the part of the investigators, is for Helmut to remember having seen a part of the simulacrum in the caverns.
There is little detail about the nearby town and countryside, and the influence of the cult in these environs, which was problematic as my group decided to investigate these in some detail before committing to enter the caverns.   
The scripted setup is neat and atmospheric as the friendly ‘guide’ takes them deeper beneath the earth where a chaotic confrontation occurs.  Despite the seemingly huge odds, as scripted the investigators are more spectators than protagonists as rival cultists battle.  To give the players greater agency I suggest that, assuming the investigators came ready for action, they should have the opportunity to defeat Antonio Termona and Marco in a running battle prior to their encounter with the lloigor and perhaps Carlo and one of the Brothers of the Skin as they make their escape with the leg.
Running this final scene can be a significant challenge for the Keeper if they are to convey tension, pace and danger while also allowing the investigators to interact with the scripted story elements and not feel like they are merely spectators and not in any real physical jeopardy.  However if you can pull this off, and the players are willing to meet you half-way, there is the makings of a thrilling and memorable climax, which is likely to be a highlight of the campaign.
In summary:


  • Trieste and the Bora provide a unique and highly atmospheric backdrop for the scenario.
  • The haunting scene is very evocative and likely to create a very memorable experience your players.
  • The plot involving rival cults and an unrelated Mythos artefact is refreshing and allows the Keeper some flexibility, and the investigators some agency, in how events resolve .
  • The climax provides a further epic and highly atmospheric encounter, with relatively minimal risk to the Investigators.


  • The plot for the scenario seems unnecessarily complex in places and is a little derivative of the overall campaign plot.
  • While the factions and key protagonists are described, allowing for some contingency for investigator action, the Keeper will likely need to invent additional details to keep this convincing if the scenario runs for multiple sessions.
  • The investigators may not have sufficient information or motivation to risk the dangers of venturing into the caverns at Postumia.
  • The investigators are spectators for much of the final confrontation in the caverns and their meeting with the lloigor, as scripted, may seem a little contrived.

In summary the Trieste chapter of the campaign pulls together a range of very evocative scenes and set-pieces, and allows a reasonable degree of flexibility in how the bulk of the scenario plays out.  However, some parts of the plot are not well linked, and the Keeper may need to improvise and invent additional detail in order to keep the investigators on track for the epic final climax.