Friday, February 24, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - The Final Analysis

Horror on the Orient Express is general considered to be one of the best horror roleplaying campaigns of all time.  It is often grouped with the ‘big three’ a list of epic Call of Cthulhu campaigns that include Masks of Nyarlathotep and Beyond the Mountains of Madness

The original Horror on the Orient Express campaign won the Origins award for Best Role Playing Adventure in 1991, while the revised edition picked up the Gold ENnie Award for Best Adventure in 2015.  It currently has a 4.5/5 rating on DriveThruRPG, 6.95/10 on RPG.net and 8.47/10 on RPGGeek.com.

In the following post I conclude my lengthy review of this campaign.  Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this classic Call of Cthulhu campaign.

Background 
In 2012, Chaosium turned to Kickstarter choosing “a re-imagining of the iconic Horror on the Orient Express, originally released by Chaosium in 1991”.  This was the Chaosium's first kickstarter offering,  promising delivery in 2013, and setting the revised campaign up as the first campaign for a new 7th edition of its classic Call of Cthulhu ruleset.  

A writers blog tracked the progress behind the scenes and provides an interesting insight into the process of constructing this product.

Ultimately the ambitious revision of Horror on the Orient Express proved to be one of the two projects that led Chaosium to kickstarter itself to death, leading to a significant change in the management of the company and final delivery of PDFs in 2014 and printed products in mid 2015.

Common Themes
Across the chapter reviews I make two consistent criticisms of Horror on the Orient Express, first that there remains a degree of railroading that unnecessarily removes player agency in some pivotal scenes.  Second, that the campaign material is insufficient for the scope of its ambition and places an unnecessarily high burden on the Keeper to invent or improvise material on the fly to keep the game flowing smoothly.

Because of the consistency of these themes, I thought it would be worth taking a look at the context, historic and contemporary, for these elements.  When Horror on the Orient Express was first published, Call of Cthulhu was in its 4th edition, so that rulebook seems a good place to start.

"Call of Cthulhu should not be a rigidly set game experience.  The keeper should have firm control over what is happening, though he should remain flexible and capable of adapting to the changing circumstances of his players' plans and abilities.  A good keeper always will modify his original plan to accommodate his players.  While Call of Cthulhu requires the use of scenarios, this does not mean that the scenario cannot be changed by an imaginative keeper. 

A keeper for Call of Cthulhu thus must be creative and flexible.  He should have a strong sense or the mysterious and horrifying, and should be fairly articulate as well, possessing the ability to describe well.  Call of Cthulhu is perhaps more demanding than other games in its requirements for a keeper, but that is a function both of the nature of the game and its desire to maximise the pleasure of playing it." -Call of Cthulhu 4th edition (1989) p.90

So while the idea of flexibility is clearly established, the burden is squarely placed on the Keeper, who must bear responsibility for improvising to serve the demands of the game.  This is consistent with how the 1991 edition of Horror on the Orient Express approaches the role of Keeper.

The problem with this attitude is that the enjoyment of the players is likely to be hugely varied depending on the experience, disposition and temperament of the Keeper.  Players who become frustrated or disengaged from the game are likely to quit, and form a negative view both of the campaign and of Call of Cthulhu (and perhaps of roleplaying in general).  You don’t need to go far to find accounts of horror on the Orient Express where the campaign has stalled, or even derailed in the early chapters.

Modern publications often identify this risk and suggest that  investigators have more agency in resolving scenarios and that the process be collaborative.  Consider this guidance from the most recent edition of the rules, some 26 years later:

"Most players, as they become more familiar with the game and confident in their investigators, will want to diverge from the linear scenario. Rather than follow the obvious clues laid out for them by the Keeper, they will want to follow up a different clue or even come up with a line of enquiry entirely of their own devising.


Suddenly the adventure is sidetracked and the Keeper may be tempted to contrive something to get the story back on its intended track rather than go where the players are heading. If the players are compelled back to the Keeper’s prepared plot, they will come to feel that their contribution is of little value and that they are simply following a preordained story rather than creating their own. is means that it’s time to look at running scenarios in a non-linear way...

Non-linear adventures give the player's choice in how to proceed.  Every fact that  expected things will happen because of the players’ choices makes for a more exciting game for everyone—the Keeper included. In this sense, the story really does become a collaboration between the Keeper and players" -Call of Cthulhu 7th edition (2015) p.217

This begs the question: just how much has a campaign like Horror on the Orient Express shifted to reflect the two decade advance in gaming theory and practice?

In reviewing this campaign I have taken the approach of how the game would play for an inexperienced or time-poor Keeper, and reviewed each chapter against a best-practice standard, where the Keeper is well supported, the scenario allows several options for resolution and the investigators have a degree of agency.

The Final Analysis
You can read my individual reviews of each chapter of the campaign following the links below.  Overall, the revised Horror on the Orient Express retains much of the charm, and a few of the problems, of its predecessor.  In my assessment:
  • The handouts for this campaign are abundant and beautiful, although there are a few noticeable omissions; for example, a reference sheet to track the baleful influence of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, summary sheets of key NPCs to allow keepers to set skill difficulty levels at and allow combat to be more easily resolved without paging back and forth through the book, and flowcharts showing how the clues link to key scenes.
  • The new text significantly improves the older material, particularly the inclusion of clearly signposted options for when the plot may become derailed, and the addition of more options and flexibility at several points in the campaign, particularly in the final scenes.
  • All of the new scenarios add something unique and interesting to the campaign.  They are well worth the time invested, although many are pitched with more of an action focus, which may be a refreshing change for some groups, and not to the taste of others.
  • Despite these improvements, there are still some chapters which deprive the investigators of agency and which are resolved entirely as a set-piece with player input confined or ignored.
  • In addition, several sequences throughout the campaign place a heavy load on the Keeper, whether through extensive monologue or description, or managing a large cast of NPCs.
  • There are also missed opportunities to include material that would help the Keeper to better evoke the setting and improvise action (for example detailed rules to support action sequences aboard the train) .
  • The ending of the campaign is still problematic, and while an option has been provided to allow for an alternative resolution, this is not smoothly integrated into the original material, meaning the players may miss some of the highlights of the original campaign.
  • These elements significantly detract from the playability of the campaign and make it a poor choice for an inexperienced or time-poor keeper.

The original Horror on the Orient Express campaign was always going to be renovated, rather than subject to wholesale change, and in that regard the authors have wholly succeeded.  The revised campaign retains much of its original charm, including some of the most memorable horror scenes in roleplaying, while also improving the playability of the more problematic elements. 

The new scenarios are great, and add some interesting back-story linked to the campaign, while also offering a slightly different style and approach supported by pre-generated characters.  This allows for a much longer run of the campaign, while also giving Keepers the option of running each scenario as a stand-alone offering.

However, In my view, rather than commission new scenarios to extend the campaign, the authors should first have commissioned a Keepers Guide to Horror on the Orient Express to address the shortcomings above.  I suggest that this would have made the campaign accessible to a wider audience and improved the overall experience for many of those purchasing this epic campaign.   

Horror on the Orient Express was already longer than many other similar products, and while as a backer I certainly appreciated all the new material offered during the kickstarter in 2012, I would have preferred the foundations of the campaign were more thoroughly strengthened, improved and supplemented with additional material, before new additions made to further extend the campaign.

A good example of this can be seen in another epic Call of Cthulhu campaign, The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, where a third party companion was kickstarted by Sixtystone Press following a deluxe reprint of the original campaign by Chaosium in 2010. 

Perhaps, one day, the same thing will happen for Horror on the Orient Express, although I fear the  aura of extravagance and luxury associated with this product, while appropriately synonymous with the train upon which this campaign is based, has also become something of a symbol of publisher overreach and failure, making any future publisher extremely cautious about further investment in products bearing this name, and crowd-funding especially.
So, if you’ve read this review and you plan to press ahead and run the campaign for your group, here are my recommendations to improve the experience.

The first thing I recommend for any Keeper planning to run this campaign is an open discussion with all the players about what kind of game the group want to play.  Ideally this would cover the focus, turnover and duration of the commitment.

Focus
If you run this as written, the campaign is a primarily investigative outing, where following clues is the main activity (whereas I would describe Masks of Nyarlathotep as primarily an action-adventure outing and Beyond the Mountains of Madness as primarily about exploration).  So it’s a good idea to make sure that the group are happy to play a lengthy campaign where they will be sifting through clues, keeping notes and interviewing NPCs on a regular basis.

Turnover
Next, you might want to discuss what level of investigator turnover the group would enjoy.  As scripted, each player is likely to go through something like 1-3 characters through the course of the campaign (not counting the pre-generated characters).  If this is the style of game the group wants to play, then it makes sense to discuss options for investigator contingency, and perhaps even create some back-up characters at the outset who have a plausible reason for joining the hunt for the simulacrum (as suggested in the campaign book I).

If your group is more interested in exploring the development of the characters across the entire course of the campaign, then you probably need to provide a means to boost their chances of survival (for example, give each character a ‘Mark of Destiny’ that they can expend to survive a fatal outcome, and add one more of these at each step where characters are likely to perish (the Doom Train, Sofia etc.)  In addition you should employ the optional Luck rules to allow the investigators to manipulate their chances of success at key moments, and roll luck at the end of each game session.

Duration
The campaign is long and the full campaign is very long.  It took our group 35 three hour sessions to play end-to-end averaging 2-3 sessions per chapter.  For some groups a six month run can be a long time, so be sure to tailor your experience to the availability of the players.  The new, optional scenarios are an easy option for removal if time is pressing.  You could probably also remove Milan, Dream Zagreb and conclude the campaign in Constantinople using the optional ending to abridge it further.

Out of the Box
The box set contains a great many wonderful components, but here are some other things I prepared for my run in order to enhance the game experience:
  • Enlarge, print and laminate the maps for each city and put these on the table each session that the investigators are in that city to help everyone understand the geography and better evoke the place.
  • Create character sheets for the pre-generated characters in each of the ‘other era’ scenarios using the auto-calculation character sheets (available free from Chaosium).
  • Create small-size portraits for each major NPC who features in the game, using the pictures in the PDF, supplemented by online photos.  These are a useful way for players to track the NPC’s and invaluable in each of the ‘murder on the train’ scenarios.
  • Create a soundtrack for each chapter.  These days wireless technology makes creating and switching between looping playlists, and playing through portable speakers, extremely easy and unlikely to distract the keeper.  In addition to music of the era appropriate to each part of Europe I added a train effects track, and some horror and action playlists for the climax of each chapter.
  • Create a clearfile or folder with all the handouts you need to provide to the Investigators.  Create a second clearfile or folder for the investigators with backups of their character  sheets (in case of forgetful players), dreamlands character sheets and space for the players to preserve all the handouts and refer to them at the table
  • Get some miniatures (or counters from a board-game),  to track the investigators relative locations when on the Orient Express using the provided train handouts. This helps ensure that the players mental image of their investigators location matches that of the Keeper.

With all that said, it’s time to disembark from the review, and exit via the platform (mind the gap).  Thanks for your interest, and all the best with your own Horror on the Orient Express campaign experience.

Some key stats from this journey:
Words in this review: 27,925
Sessions taken to run the campaign: 35
Months taken to run the campaign: 20
Players participating in the campaign: 7
Investigators Missing In Action: 1
Investigators Killed in Action: 1
Investigators Indefinitely Insane: 1
Players favourite chapter: Constantinople (330), Venice a close second
Keepers favourite chapter: Venice

4 comments:

  1. As one of the writers of Horror on the Orient Express (and model for Dr Lorien), and as a lover of horror games I've greatly enjoyed reading through your whole blog, and found some great and intriguing Larp games and EPOCH games to buy on drivethru

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  2. Hi Christian - thanks I really appreciate you taking the time to comment. Great work on the campaign!

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  3. I just wanted to say I found this through YSDC, and it's a wonderful and very helpful read. I hope to run this campaign someday when I'm in my dotage.

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  4. Thanks! I hope you get to run it some time soon.

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