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.

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