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)

      Monday, July 11, 2016

      How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Indy Games

      By far the majority of my involvement in roleplaying games has revolved around traditional games.  You know, games where one player acts as GM, people roll dice, and engage with the game world through a series of structured rules. My experience of Indy roleplaying games was probably not unique; I found they could be great fun when you had like-minded people at the table, but they could be excruciating when authority was turned over to the players, and there was no common ground.

      What I really appreciated was the mix of fantastic ideas and innovative rules, albeit with some limitations from my perspective. For example, Fiasco enables great stories, although it doesn't give much support to resolve stories, Dread has a cool mechanic for building tension amongst players, although this is disconnected from 'horror' of the scenario, Apocalypse World (and its many hacks) do a fantastic job of introducing and integrating characters, although the framework of 'moves' can be simultaneously bland and highly variable.

      These games introduce something new and unique in the way that players interact with their characters, the game world, and ultimately with each other.  To my mind, games like these are avant-garde, in that they are experimental, innovative and, ultimately, beautiful in their ability to influence, inspire and entertain.

      Whereas, by contrast, there seems to be a plentiful abundance of traditional games, acres of pages outlining classes, combat rules, skill checks and so on.  These games are fun too, I mean no disrespect, but they are more similar than different, and few have the ability to take my breath away with the elegance of an idea or concept
      When I decided to design my own games, it is no surprise that I looked to Indy games for inspiration. I've previously posted about my process for designing games like EPOCH and Wicked Lies & Alibis, so I won't waste your time by repeating myself.

      Over time I've developed an ethos to my own design, drawn from traditional, Indy and actual play - something like this:
      • players need time to live in the skin of their characters, and interact, before final decisions are made, so the character should evolve over the course of the game
      • key game decisions should be made through collaboration between players
      • players should be supported to engage their imagination, so they don't have do all the heavy lifting
      • and, ideally, this supports players who are less confident, or who don't enjoy being put on the spot
      • game materials should support easy 'at a glance' play at the tabletop to support immersion
      For me these things are as essential as page numbers, headings and accessible writing.

      My recent offerings, like Death of Legends and my recent Game Chef entry Fragment have moved even further down this path.  They are both simpler (in that they focus entirely upon a packaged game experience) and more complex, in the layering of rules and concepts.   

      To me these seem to be the next natural evolution of this design process - but I can't help wonder, if I've now moved so far even beyond mainstream Indy gaming that my games risk becoming largely ignored and unplayed because there are so many implicit assumptions, and the game experience is not easily discernible from a read through. 

      Is this Art for its own sake? Or simply an exercise in narcissism.