Friday, February 10, 2017

Reports from the Orient Express - London Again and the Dreamlands Express

This is a review of the London Again and Dreamlands Express chapters 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 Fog Lifts

The final chapter of the Orient Express campaign provides Keepers with the opportunity to reflect a common trope in many Hollywood movies; just when you are certain the villain is dead, they come back once more to threaten the heroes.  The twist here is that this will only occur if the investigators inadvertently trigger it in their haste to be free of the simulacrum’s taint.

The investigators return to London is bittersweet; the campaign has turned full circle, and much has changed.  Some investigators may find their grip on sanity slipping away, while others haven't returned at all, perishing on the perilous journey across Europe.  The surviving investigators have now, most likely, recovered the Simulacrum that they painstakingly collected, and dispatched their nemesis, Mehmet, before he could complete his (slightly bizarre) plan to infiltrate the Royal family.

The link to return to Mehmet’s shop is somewhat tenuous, especially considering the length of time since the investigators were last in London (and the possibility that few of the characters who participated in the original London chapter remain); the scenario tries to compensate for this with a series of newspaper articles about disappearances in the vicinity of the shop, and the addition of a  pre-arranged cab driver, complete with badly spelled sign, hired to take Mehmet from the ferry to his shop.

Once they arrive at the shop, the investigators have a further monster to dispatch before they discover the final Simulacrum scrolls, lying on a desk, along with a handy English translation of the ritual of purification which will lift their corruption.  This is the contingency that Mehmet has prepared in case of his death. 

Now the investigators face a choice: perform the ritual using the handy translation provided, or spend more time studying the original source scrolls and create their own translation.  How the investigators decide to proceed is likely to depend on how much the keeper has been portraying the effects of their  growing corruption (the rules in the previous chapter, while colourful, do not cover any actual mechanical penalties for the corruption).  Accordingly Keepers should consider, in advance, how they’d like the ending to play out and tailor elements, like the virulence of the corruption, to suit.   


If the investigators trigger the false scroll they face the Mehmet and the Skinless One and now finally have an opportunity to destroy the simulacrum (assuming they take the somewhat counter-intuitive leap to throwing pieces of the statue to the loathsome God).   This may result is a suitably epic conclusion to the core campaign as the simulacrum is destroyed and Mehmet destroyed once more. 

This may also frustrate some players and lead to more questions (why would the Skinless One destroy the Simulacrum now rather than strike down those who seek to prevent its further use? Why would Mehmet summon the Skinless One now, and not in the previous chapter?).  The answers are likely to be anchored in the fickle and unknowable nature of the Mythos deities and the arrogance of those who worship them.

Equally, if the investigators do not rush to perform the ritual, or do not have the simulacrum present, they can end the campaign on their own terms although they must continue to perform the ritual of purification every 100 hours and decide what to do with the simulacrum.

In summary, the final scenario of the core campaign offers the opportunity for an epic confrontation and the players can decide whether it ends with a whimper or a roar.  There are several options provided to allow for the variable ending of the previous chapter, and to reduce the toll on the least lucky investigator.  Regrettably, the only path to success if the trap is triggered is highly proscribed and may prove frustrating for some.  However, the return of the temporary reincarnation of the villain and presence of the Skinless One make for a classic horror climax, and if the players get into the spirit of it, a fantastic way to finish the core campaign. 

The Dreamlands Express

The Dreamlands Express is an optional scenario, intended to be interspersed along with regular instalments of the campaign, while the investigators slumber aboard the train.  This is a neat concept; as the investigators tumble into their beds, exhausted from their efforts to recover the simulacrum, they are transported to the surreal and bizarre dreamlands where fresh adventures await.  Here they must unmask a murderer, try to negotiate a dispute between representatives of two races, and defeat a wicked sorcerer.

This is a sizable scenario, and from the outset, I was concerned about how well the material would work – the surreal nature of the Dreamlands is at stark odds with many of the gritty elements of the main campaign and does require some descriptive effort from the Keeper. 

However, my concerns were quickly erased as the players loved the bizarre beast-train with its mix of outrageous luxury and many unsettling elements.  The Keeper is well supported to evoke this atmosphere with maps, both of the train and route, as well as nice touches, like a menu for each of the banquets held on board.     

The Dreamlands Express is probably not for all groups, but I do suggest that it’s worth a try as the sheer creativity and whimsy evoked by this scenario are worth exploring.  There are, however, some considerations that Keepers should take into account:
  • The core campaign already incorporates the Dreamlands in two scenarios, Lausanne and Dream Zagreb.  As echoes of the waking world, these scenarios present a considerably more grim and sanity shattering take on the Dreamlands, which may feel slightly at odds with the more fantasy tenor of most of the Dreamlands Express.
  • A character killed during this scenario would not be able to  participate in Dream Lausanne or Zagreb as "if a dreaming investigator dies in the Dreamlands, he or she is shocked awake and... can never again return to the Dreamlands." 
  • In addition the Lausanne chapter requires the investigators to recover waking-world items from the Dreamlands, suggesting the reverse is also possible  This may also give the investigators the idea that the Dream Orient Express is a preferable place to stash pieces of the Simulacrum, as they collect it, especially should the scenario be interspersed over several chapters as suggested.  The scenario provides no guidance for the Keepers about what effect this might have in the Dreamlands, or on Fenalik who is eagerly tracking the progress of the investigators.
  • A nice touch for the Dreamlands Express is that it might allow investigators who die during their pursuit of the simulacrum, to continue to live on in the Dreamlands, offering guidance to their fellow investigators, while also providing a poignant reminder of the cost of the hunt for the simulacrum.  For this reason I suggest that Keepers create a new Dreamlands character sheet for the investigators.
The first challenge that the investigators face is a slightly unusual murder on the train – a kitten has been killed by a shapeshifter, and the death may have serious political ramifications if not quickly solved.  I’ve previously made some comments about the ‘murder on the train’ device for scenarios in the campaign, and most of those comments apply here.  It should be noted that the suspect list is considerably shorter on the Dreamlands Express, lifting the load on the Keeper somewhat and making this a good  warm-up for the Blue Train, Black Night investigation.

Next, the investigators are drawn into a diplomatic dispute drawn straight from the pages of Lovecraft’s story “The Doom That Came To Sarnath”.  The investigators are encouraged to become advocates for the loathsome, victimised Beings of Ib, or befriend the haughty, cruel Sarnathians who will soon suffer the aforementioned Doom.  Some players are likely to relish the opportunity of engaging with this mix of literature and litigation, although as the outcome of this negotiation is established through the fiction, there is little scope to actually influence events which may disappoint those who go all out.

Finally, the train is set to conclude its journey in the Gulf of Nodens, where passengers are invited to cast off something they wish to be lose.  The investigators are encouraged to participate in this activity, creating an artefact of fears and disappointments specific to their character to cast into the Gulf.  Disappointingly, there are no rules for how this affects the investigator. 

The wicked Sorcerer, who has dogged the train on several past occasions in his effort to recover the ‘Lovers' Heart’, attacks the train as it is besieged by waves of phantom soldiers while approaching the Gulf.  Having the investigators risk their (dreaming) lives in this prolonged combat sequence, for poorly defined aims, seemed a poor way to finish what was otherwise and entertaining and enjoyable scenario, so I didn’t run it. 


For Keepers who, similarly, wish to skip the scripted action of the last section of the Dreamlands Express, I suggest the Dreamlands Express terminate in Serannian.  Here dreamers can climb to the heights of the tallest tower of the cloud castle and cast their dream artefact into the edge of the great whirlpool of the Gulf of Nodens.  Here the Sorcerer waits (alone) to confront Madame Bruja. If the investigators do not intervene, both tumble over the parapet locked in a grim struggle for the Lovers' Heart.

PROS


  • The setting is wonderful and highly imaginative and allows the investigators to interact with several elements of Lovecraft's stories . 
  • The NPCs have interesting stories and secrets that are likely to entertain.
  • The murder investigation and diplomacy are interesting and allow investigators to choose their level of engagement.
  • There are some great supporting materials.

CONS
  • This Dreamlands scenario doesn't seem well integrated into the Dreamlands components of the core campaign.
  • The high-action ending is at odds with the general whimsy and wonder of the rest of the scenario.
  • Investigators who die in this scenario are not able to participate in other Dreamlands campaign scenarios.
  • There are no rules for the Dream Artefacts created by the investigators.

In summary, this is a highly imaginative chapter.  It's probably not for all groups given the surrealist nature of the Dreamlands, but it's definitely worth a try and can be broken into parts and interspersed with other campaign chapters (although I don't recommend splitting up the murder investigation sessions).  Keepers who feel their players will not enjoy the combat sequence at the Gulf of Nodens might do well to heed Henri's warning and disembark in Serannian.



2 comments:

  1. Just wanted to say that your analysis of the Horror on the Orient Express is excellent, and I applaud your efforts and your insight in doing so. :)

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