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

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: https://horror-on-the-orient-express-5.obsidianportal.com/

*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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 32; Constantinople 330, Part Two

“Horror on the Orient Express” ala Trail of Cthulhu, Session 32

As always this post contains *Spoilers* for “Horror the Orient Express” as a whole, and for our play through in particular.

I don’t go into details of the actual events of the sessions, but you can to read more up at: https://horror-on-the-orient-express-5.obsidianportal.com/

This session continued the flashback scenario set in 330 AD Constantinople, and included some major plot reveals I’ve been working towards since early in the campaign. The characters had a mission with a very definite goal but a lot of different paths they could follow for their investigation. The main plot ended up being based entirely on a player idea: she contacted the criminal cult being investigated, posing as a rogue wanting to join up. This was an unexpected development to me as GM, but one that opened up a clear path to the required resolution.

The next half of the scenario was a trip into Roman Dacia and beyond. It could easily have been a whole session, drawing on the material in the published scenario, but I wanted to wrap things up and so just summarized the journey. Now this whole 330 AD scenario is actually a historical record being read by the main player characters in 1923. I emphasized that the place the 330 AD characters were journeying to seemed to be the archaeological dig in Yugoslavia where they 1923 Investigators had found the book they are reading in the first place.

I’m now getting into big, big Spoiler territory for Orient Express, so be aware….

As written, the climax of the 330 AD scenario involves the PCs commanding officer slaying the big bad cultist, becoming poisoned by tainted blood, and eventually transforming into the vampire Fenalik, who haunts the 1923 characters as one of their many adversaries. This is strictly scripted to happen. The NPC kills the baddie and is poisoned. Even if somehow a PC succeeds in the final blow, it is still the NPC who gets cursed. The GM is supposed, if at all possible, rob them of a satisfying death blow and – even worse, it seems much, much cooler if one of the PCs themselves becomes Fenalik! It’s an odd element of the published material that it actively takes agency away from the players, or makes they actions secondary to other peoples’ stories.

So I had the commander NPC stay back at home in Constantinople and left which player character would end up cursed to actual game play. As it turned out, the choice became clear pretty early on: the character who was pretending to join the cult. Things could have gone a different way at the last minute, but the pieces did end up falling into place as if planned.

I next then read a narrative section that was much longer than I usually like. As GM I try not to talk for extended periods, but there was a lot to cover: the unfortunate character’s dissection, reconstruction and mental conditioning into a vampiric bio-weapon by the Mi-go. Mixing the Mi-go into “Horror on the Orient Express” was my own addition, part of my desire to have more straightforward Lovecraftian elements into a story that fundamentally had little to with the classic Mythos. I also had decided early on that the Mi-go spawned vampires as experiments to create a tool to give them some control over the Sedefkar Simulacrum.

Returning to 1923, players had several options as to what they wanted to do next. There is still one piece of the Simulacrum to find. But I’ve been hinting that a wise course would be travelling to Constantinople to follow up a possible contact with the Brothers of the Skin, the cult than is their main advensary at this point. I did leave the choice up to them, though they chose to take my hints. I’m trying to wrap up various components of our quite convoluted plot one by one, so hopefully the next couple sessions will see a resolution of the Brothers and set the stage for the final conclusion of the campaign.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 31; Vinkovci 1923, Part Two/Constantinople 330, Part One

2017 was framed by hiatuses, so we didn’t get in a lot of sessions, but the campaign is slowly back to work now.

The first part of this session was mostly setup for the third big “flashback” scenario of the published campaign. These have been one of my favorite features of the updated “Orient Express.” Rather than just give the players a big data dump about historical events, they actually play out the situation as a one-shot scenario. Each has been set in a earlier phase of Constantinople, and each further back in time. They are now in 330 AD, just as Constantine the Great is establishing the city as his Nova Roma.

I went through a lot of revisions with this scenario. The published version in the game book is pretty good. It’s essentially Cthulhu Invictus, the Roman era Call of Cthulhu setting, advanced a few centuries. There is just one very odd narrative choice, that I shall discuss next time. I thought at first I could run it pretty much as written, with our usual loose adaptation to Trail of Cthulhu rules. As I outlined my notes I kept feeling dissatisfied though.

While the scenario does an interesting job introducing 4th Century Constantinople, once the characters get their mission they leave the city behind, without any real interaction with it. The previous two flashbacks, set in 1893 and 1204, have taken place within the walls of the city. Also each flashback has centered around a blighted, cursed district, where Sedefkar built his Red Tower and the Makryats operate from the Shunned Mosque. I wanted to maintain that structure.

What I ended up with was largely a police procedural, with the characters investigating a crime cult that has taken over a poor neighborhood, with the goal, as the players are staring to discover, of forcing citizens to hand over any dead bodies, and killing anyone who crosses them (which of course provides more dead bodies). The cultists are known to operate mostly at night, have strange powers of persuasion, and leave victims withered with bite marks on their throats. Yes, this in the end evolved into Nights Black Agents: New Rome.

The scenario is still moving towards the same conclusion as the published version, just with some Mi-go mixed in with the vampires.

A player asked me how many more sessions I expected in the campaign, and while I estimate 5-6, I don’t know for sure. I really do not have a definite resolution in mind, since the players have a lot of important choices to make that will shape that resolution. Those pivotal choices will though be coming up soon.