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**SPOILERS** "Horror on the Orient Express" posts contain spoilers for my group's playthrough and the campaign in general. My ...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 35; On The Train 1923, Part One

I had been planning on this being the next to last session of the campaign, but just a couple hours before we started I changed my mind about how I’d set up the scenario. I felt my initial plan was too structured so I made the scenario more open and, unlike what I usually do, took it back closer to the published campaign.

The Investigators were back aboard the Orient Express and I put them in with a big group of various NPCs. I let who they chose to talk to and interact with guide how things unfolded, improving and casting people in appropriate roles as we went. When I was a PC in The Orient Express – this was a few years ago at a Gencon event – we played this section as a larp, talking and mingling with a variety of people, some of whom were guest players, others actors directed by the GM. That was fun and I wanted some of that sense of freeform interaction.

It did mean that the session got only about half-way through the scenario. So we should still need two more sessions to complete everything. That’s probably for the best anyway, so they’ll be no need to rush. I mostly know how the ending will go (at least the setup for it; I want the ultimate resolution to arise from player actions), though I still want to work in a couple elements from the published campaign that help define “Orient Express” as the experience it was written to be.

One issue we do face is that characters are showing the strain of their experiences and one Investigator is down to 1 Sanity. I’ve talked with that player about his situation, and he’s said that in a shorter game he’d be fine with playing someone spiraling into Lovecraftian madness, but that wouldn’t be how he’d like to end this multi-year epic. I’ve been thinking of ways to allow him to continue, without just giving him (or the other PCs) any sort of “plot immunity.”

First I suggested he have a new Drive: Edge of Madness. This would let him recover some Stability by an occasional irrational act. Second, another player (whose character feels some guilt about it all) offered, at a cost to herself, to help him from going completely over the edge. My thought was that she could use her Psychology skill to help buffer any additional Sanity lost. This would be a finite resource though, and would drain her Psychology and Stability ratings, especially if the dice rolled poorly for her. Finally, in the very last session, the situation will lend itself to having characters go into negative Sanity. There will be no coming back from that, and the lower Sanity gets, the worse their ultimate fate will be. The Investigators don’t seem to expect to survive the final conclusion, but the players do appear to want to have some hope of success in holding off the looming Apocalypse as much as they can.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 34; Constantinople 1923, Part Two

I have been running the classic Call of Cthulhu campaign “Horror on the Orient Express” using Trail of Cthulhu rules. Our group quickly diverged from the planned story in important ways. So I have been using the published campaign mostly as source books and idea sources, though I aim to include many of the locations, elements, NPCs, and atmosphere of the original.

Detailed session summaries are up at Obsidian Portal.

Whew. Lots to go into for our last session. I’ll be going deep into **SPOILER** territory for the “Horror on the Orient Express” campaign here, so be warned if you ever think you might want to play in it.

We are in the middle of one of the last adventures in the campaign, set in 1923 Constantinople. As written this scenario is mainly the characters being taken captive, made helpless witnesses to events, escaping through deus machina, and having the magic relics they’ve collected stolen from them. So not much concern about player agency…

In our campaign they are cooperating with Mehmet Makryat, one of their main antagonists, to assassinate his sorcerous father, Selim, mastermind behind much of the campaign. This father/son betray is a story element from the published campaign I did want to keep. As written, Mehmet then goes on to steal the Simulacrum, triggering a chase back across Europe to London and the campaign’s final resolution. That couldn’t happen in our game since the players had the Simulacrum fragments safely stored away – to avoid just such an occurrence. I contemplated some equivalent double cross, but didn’t want to force the “everybody betrays” the PCs story too hard. Mehmet’s recognition of just how dangerous the Simulacrum is, and his desire to dethrone his megalomaniacal father and run a non-occult based international criminal empire seemed a reasonable and sufficient motivation. Plus there are plenty of other secrets and betrayals going on.

So rather than being captives, my players were sneaking into the bad guys’ HQ with a definite goal. A big revelation in the published version is finding the mutilated Prof. Smith, the man they thought had sent them on the quest in the very beginning. The Makryats having impersonated him to trick the PCs into gathering the fragments of the Simulacrum. Well, my players figured out that deception quite a while back and I decided the “real” Smith was more interesting as an active support NPC character than a tortured, maimed torso. I didn’t plan this session as a detailed dungeon crawl, but rather had a collection of story elements and events to call on as needed based on how they choose to approach the challenge.

In the written scenario while the PCs are held captive they learn that the cultist fear an apparition called The Flapping Man, which has been haunting their lair of late. When I was a player in “Orient Express” we immediately thought this was something meant for us to take advantage of. We could masquerade as this creature, scare the guards, and escape. We began to plan for this – when an actual Flapping Man showed us and terrified the guards, letting us walk out. What is the Flapping Man? Why is it troubling the cult and helping us? No idea. No information whatsoever is presented. As far as the story goes the Flapping Man only exists to make any actions the PCs take to free themselves pointless. I wanted to do more with it. I included the idea that the cultists were worried about a creature – slightly renamed the Flapping Thing – that had been awakened by Selim’s sorcery and black rituals. Or so it was believed. The original use of the Flapping Man was so frustrating that I had planted the narrative seed for it over 20 sessions ago. I adapted the story of an NPC who had been used by Selim has a medium to contact Yog-Sothoth, and come away broken and distorted. It grew over decades into a revenge filled mass of flesh and hate.

The PCs succeeded in striking down Selim. This failed to kill him outright as the hoped, but did rob him of his magic – and the Flapping Thing arrived to take a long waited revenge. Or so they hope. They didn’t actually see his body, fleeing before the Thing arrived. Which was wise from a Stability saving perspective. Now I do not think any of my players have made the connection between the Flapping Thing and this NPC, despite my dropping quite a few hints and suggestions to review past events. But that’s understandable, given that it’s been a year and a half since we actually played those sessions. I might mention it, or it could remain a Easter Egg…

I’m feeling that it is the appropriate time to start wrapping up the campaign. There are enough NPC factions and subplots that going for a dozen more sessions is quite possible, but more isn’t necessarily better. The session ended with the PCs being confronted by MI6 agents who had been tracking them down, and firmly encouraged to cooperate with them. This is will likely to lead to a conflict between players who want to agree (and get the British to help with the final destruction of the Simulacrum) and a players whose Investigator has become so paranoid and suspicious that he hardly trusts anybody.

I was thinking hard about how to resolve such a conflict before wondering: should I resolve it? Maybe this is the point where things start to go very, very wrong. Has the psychic damage suffered by the characters gotten to the point where it tears them apart, just when glimpses of some final victory is in sight? Another character is at 1 Sanity (mostly due to accumulated Mythos knowledge). Can he hold it together for even a couple more sessions? Again, maybe he doesn’t… I am going to have to discuss this seriously with my players and try to get their feelings about what kind of ending do they want. Is our campaign climax “The Dunwich Horror” or “Haunter in the Dark” (or most Lovecraft stories…)?

Monday, April 23, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 33; Constantinople 1923, Part One

To recap: I have been running the classic Call of Cthulhu campaign “Horror on the Orient Express” using Trail of Cthulhu rules. Orient Express is an infamously linear adventure, tightly structured around scripted events and determined outcomes. Our group quickly diverged from the planned story in important ways. So I have been using the published campaign mostly as source books and idea sources, though I aim to include many of the locations, elements, NPCs, and atmosphere of the original.

Detailed session summaries are up at Obsidian Portal.

*Spoilers* for the campaign as a whole and our playthrough in particular below.

We are now heading into the final sessions of the campaign, and the characters have arrived in the Constantinople of 1923. One big difference in our game is that the players have not yet found all the pieces of the Sedefkar Simulacrum. Quite sensibly they decided to be sure they knew how to destroy the cursed artifact before reassembling it. This goes along with their keeping the parts they had found safely locked away rather than hauling them around in their luggage. Both of these player choices completely take the published campaign off its rails. Which was fine by me, as it has taken things in very different directions.

This period is the threshold of Turkish independence and while the campaign’s background material mentions that, it doesn’t really incorporate it. I’m trying to add more of a feel of the political turmoil of the time (heightened by the Mythos activity of the campaign). One of my players, whose character is a native of the city, mentioned that, after some calculation on his phone, that the Investigators were arriving during Ramadan. That was an interesting detail which I might have done more with, if I had known it in advance.

Multiple factions are looking for the Investigators, so they are trying to stay undercover. For efficiency I jumped ahead in time a week or so and let the players describe the false identities they created. Then we worked out the Spends it took to establish them. There were quite a lot of a Clues to be uncovered, though really only one Core Clue: the contact who could getting them in touch with the rebels in the evil Cult they were looking for. I let their identities and actions shape who found the information and how. Then the Core Clue was available and we moved on.

This chapter of the published campaign is one of the most problematic. Most of the investigations available are either dead ends or part of scheme that leads to their capture by the villains. As Robin Laws has written, being taken captive in a staple of the adventure genre and can lead to characters showing off their skills, learning important information, or otherwise advancing the plot. In this case though the players are just being set up for frustration and helpless witnesses to scripted events.

In my take on the situation, the players were still being manipulated and tricked, but towards steering them into an infiltration of the bad guys’ lair, rather than being dragged there as prisoners. The narrative goals are still the same: the tension of being in the heart of the villains’ power, awakened horrors, a surprise betrayal, and the resolution of a major plot thread of the campaign. I’ll go into more detail after we see how the next session actually plays out.