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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, November 7, 2016

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 25; Sofia 1923, Part Two

As always SPOILERS for the campaign in general and for my group's playthrough in particular.

Like many of the scenarios in the published Orient Express campaign, the Sofia chapter largely pushes the Investigators through a plot, leaving them little more than witness to what others are doing, without much agency to effect the situation. In our game I want to avoid that, while still including some classic story elements and situations that make Orient Express what it is.

Balancing between those two goals was especially problematic in this session. There were some plot events I wanted to have happen, there was a story event from the published campaign I wanted the players to experience in some form, and the Investigators themselves had made some choices that allowed themselves to be ambushed by Cultists. So I decided the story justified my taking control of the plot and leaving the Investigators mostly helpless. The details can be read in my Obsidian Portal summary, but the Brothers of the Skin surprised and overwhelmed the Investigators, weakened as they were from the encounters of the previous session.

I told them that it was not *impossible* for them to escape the initial ambush and they started to concoct several plans. I pointed out their skills pools were low and the training of the MI6 agent on the team noted that the bad guys had fingers on the triggers of their tommy guns. They did decide to surrender and be bound and dragged off to the bad guys lair -- where they faced torture, interrogation, and imprisonment.

In the published campaign, the Investigators, after being forced into a gunfight with the baddies (which the PCs are scripted to loose), track them to this secret lair only to find that the Cultists have already been killed by the vampire Fenalik. They pick up the Simulacrum piece from the ruins and go back to their train. I found that unsatisfying when I was a player in the campaign, and as well as now, running the game as Keeper. Yet I wanted my players to experience something like these core events. I also wanted to show the bad guys being evil, powerful, and dangerous. We had our first PC maiming of the campaign as a hand got lopped off. Two Investigators also Stability Shattered at this point.

Despite such hardships, one Investigator (an MI6 agent) managed to get out of her chains (with the help of a hat pin another character had successfully concealed) and the cell, strangle a guard, and disguise herself in his clothes. I ran all that testing my "no-dice" variant to GUMSHOE, with the character spending points without rolling to be successful at those tasks. The struggle with the guard was done with blind bidding. The player actually lost the Scuffing bid, achieved a "Success at cost" by spending Health (at 2:1) to increase her bid. So she won, but got banged up in the struggle.

While it would have been interesting to see how far this escape could have gone (it would have been rough to get all the way through the Cultists' lair) the plot I had in mind was already in motion. I was taking the player's actions and making them largely irrelevant. I was uneasy about that, but I still thought my goals justified it, and I endeavored to make the player's action at least dramatically interesting, even if they didn't directly affect the unfolding events.

The cavalry was arriving in the form of Lily, Fenalik's vampire spawn (in our game the PCs had imprisoned Fenalik himself back in a cave in France). She had also brought along the PC of a new player who was joining the game. She needed his mortal help to open the door to the Cultist Lair and invite her in over its threshold. Lily then proceeded to kill all the cultists and free the PCs. We end up at the same place as the written campaign, though the Investigators have had to witness the bloodbath, rather than find it after the fact. Besides recovering the stolen Simulacrum fragment, they also acquired a dangerous ritual knife and a book of fleshwarping magic. I put in the latter main because there is always a lot of internal conflict between the Investigators about whether occult lore should be studied or immediately destroyed.

In the end I have mixed feelings about running the session this way, but my players didn't seem annoyed. I got in most of the plot points and story goals I wanted, Investigator mental states got worn down some, and the players have some personal reasons to hate the baddies, so I guess it was mostly a success. I wouldn't want to be so manipulative again though.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Shinobigami One-Shot

I ran "The Dagger that Kills Gods," an intro scenario for the Japanese ninja RPG Shinobigami at a gameday here in Chicago last week. It was the first time playing for all of us. These are some of my thoughts:

Usually for cons and gamedays I create pregens, but for this Shinobigami session I had players create characters at the table. I wanted that as both a way of introducing the game and to let the players shape characters they felt personally connected to. I think the latter goal was more successful than the former. All three players made interesting characters, but we had a lot of reference material on the table to sort through as people looked up and checked ninpo, and everybody felt they characters weren't built as effectively as they could have been, once they understood how the game played.

I had the nimpo printed on handouts, but one player had that good suggestion of having them on cards. I think if I ran the one-shot again I would use at least partially built pregens, with ninpo cards for each character.

The game's style of switching between freeform RP scenes and structured skill checks work well with my players, with everybody getting the concept quickly and adapting it to their own style. One player was boots on the ground, tracking and interacting with the main NPC. Another worked mostly through a network of contacts and animal spies (having a falcon flying over the city was the best narrative explanation of "knowing one's Location" I've seen yet). The third, who had the secret goal of creating positive EmoBonds, mostly created flashback scenes, of when she'd previously encountered the other PCs.

We had only one Combat Scene before the Climax, taking place in a noisy dance club (our interpretation of the "Stormy Weather" Battlefield). It took a while to get heads around the Velocity System and how range worked, particularly with why Stormy Weather increased range. After a couple rounds we were getting the hang of it. A lot of innocent bystander on the crowded dance floor got taken out as the PCs turned out not to be where their attackers thought they were, or attacks were otherwise dodged or avoided. The main NPC went down early in this fight, but PCs fought among themselves long enough for the combat to be a draw, and the NPC slipped away with the Prize before anyone else could claim it.

There were some good moments and gasps in Drama Scenes as Secrets became revealed, though we had some confusion (mostly do to my not explaining it well) about how Secrets got shared through EmoBonds. I think maybe tokens or cards could help here as well.

Backstabbing between characters started in the combat scene above, but really took off during the Climax. One PC aligned himself with the NPC baddie, and the other two were out for themselves. The big conflict began to show some we all had some reservations about: there was a lot of Dodging going on. Battles in Shinobigami are really prolonged do to the relative ease of Dodging. While I enjoyed my years of playing D&D, these days I don't like long combats very much. Dodging really prolongs combat and I wonder about ways of tweaking it Shinobigami. Our Climax Combat felt too long, though things did accelerate rapidly once Skill Columns began to go down.

Ultimately one PC was standing at the end, though she did sacrifice her Secret Goal in order to win the Prize. That choice would lead to interesting consequences if this were an ongoing campaign, as relations between her and her Clan would start to strained.

On the whole I enjoyed the game, though I see a lot I'd need to learn to master it. I look forward to seeing the full release. I am tempted though to deconstruct the ideas of what Shinobigami wants to be an reconstruct it with a smoother system. It seems like it could potentially be run with Fate. EmoBonds and Secrets could function as Fate Aspects and one could limit the Fate Actions to model the goals and choices characters make during Drama Scenes. It's something I'll be thinking about and might try the next time I gave an opportunity.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 24; Sofia 1923, Part One

We've rewritten the campaign story a lot by this point. The published scenarios do not include anything about the Mi-Go, MI6, Atlantis, or the goddess Bast, but all are major elements in our game. Even with these changes I always try to include at least some of the campaign's iconic events or elements. I want players to have felt like they have played "Horror on the Orient Express."

For this scenario I chose three of these iconic story elements and worked to include them in the scenario. I'll describe those elements, as well as how I tried to find an organic way of bringing them into what is, as written, a very railroading chapter of the campaign.

We are actually in the Sofia Chapter now, since the Investigators were wanting to stay ahead of their enemies and not follow the linear course defined by the Orient Express's schedule. This meant skipping ahead a couple chapters in the campaign structure. That was fine with me as Keeper. Unfortunately for them, this choice was actually taking them deeper into territory controlled by their main enemies, rather than avoiding them. I felt a little bad about negating their intentions so bluntly, but the Sofia chapter is centered on getting the Investigators in direct conflict with cultists and thugs. Dealing with the Brotherhood of the Skin cult was the first iconic story element I wanted to include.

The Investigators first ran into the cult while still aboard the Orient Express. They spotted a disguised waiter spying on them and a clue-giving NPC. This lead to a chase through the train, using some of the Thriller Chase rules from Nights Black Agents. This chase is also an example of something that happens repeatedly throughout the campaign books: it is explicitly stated that whether or not the PCs catch the cultist makes no difference to the story. I'm always looking for ways to make player choices matter. My players did catch and stop their target, so the cultists didn't get advanced warning that the PCs were coming. Unfortunately (again) for them they didn't build much on this initial advantage.

The published scenario's core plot is a largely irrelevant investigation that leads to railroading PCs into a gunfight with the cultists. The baddies are scripted to get away with the artifact and the players having to chase them to their lair. I kept my cultists more in the background, trailing the Investigators, observing their actions, and waiting for the right moment to strike. Given how paranoid the players have become in general, I was surprised that they didn't react much to being watched. Maybe they just didn't pick up on what was going on, but I thought I was being pretty obvious about it. Too bad for them, but it did help me introduce the other elements on my list that I wanted to use.

Perhaps the most iconic scene in this chapter is the Investigators being attacked by a swarm of severed hands. It's written as a sneak attack in their hotel room, but since I've already done a couple hotel room attacks, I wanted something different. I didn't plan anything specific, but just waiting for an opportunity to present itself. Which it did when one of the Investigators slipped off to visit the Red Light district. Alone, naked in a whore house, unconcerned that bad guys were following them -- Hello, opportunity. The campaign doesn't give the Investigators much hope of surviving this encounter without someone getting an eye poked out -- literally. In fact the resolution of the scenario depends on a PC getting thus maimed. I wanted to give my player a fighting chance, which he succeeded at, though at a cost of being arrested while fleeing naked through the streets and the other players paying substantial bribes to the police for them to forget the incident.

The actual spine of this scenario, the specific location of the next Simulacrum piece, was a merging of the ideas in the campaign with some new elements. Back in Venice, I didn't use the main set piece of that chapter. It has a doll maker repairing an automaton from a mechanical clock with a Leg from the Simulacrum. I liked that idea and had been planning on reusing it in Sofia. It ultimately morphed into an archaeologist reconstructing a damaged mummy -- which of course came to murderous life. Previous chapters have including a vampire, a Frankenstein-like revenant, and a haunted opera, so why not a mummy?

My players, as much as I love them, are not the World's Greatest Detectives. Even after pushing some Core Clues in their paths (mysterious murders in the poor quarter of the city; rumors that a strange robed figure was stalking the slum's streets at night) I still had to drop hints that maybe that would be a good place to stake out looking for the mummy. It's taken awhile, but I've finally realized that mystery solving, the piecing together of a whole picture from scattered parts, is not really what they are into. Research, exploration, and poking hornets nests with sticks is more their SOP and I need to keep that in mind for future scenarios.

I really wanted to (mostly) finish this chapter in one game session, so I did rush things along a bit for a finally confrontation with the mummy. I also included some more hints that an apocalypse was looming over the world and that the goddess Bast was somehow involved in it all. The cultist, lead by one of the campaign's main baddies, Mehmet Makryat (not seen on stage for many sessions). He'd figured out what the Investigators were up to and decided to wait for them to deal with the mummy issue and the Baleful Influence of the Simulacrum. Once that was done they ambushed the exhausted, stressed out PCs and demand they hand over the newly acquired Simulacrum fragment. That's the cliffhanger ending of the session. It will also lead to the third, and biggest iconic element from the published campaign that I wanted to include. More on that next report, though unfortunately we won't be playing again until the middle of October

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 23; Austria 1923, Part Three

Originally posted Aug 10, 2016

This session ended up focusing on a big combat scene. While I was prepared for it, I hadn't really planned it to be such a big feature. Several issues made the battle problematic for me as Keeper:

1. The players' intent was to fight to the last, even after I'd suggested that wasn't the best, or only strategy. They were up against overwhelming force (three feral vampires, borrowed from NBA) but kept coming up with clever tactics and holding their own. I didn't want to subvert what they were accomplishing, even if they were mostly just prolonging the inevitable.

2. Winning or losing this fight wasn't that important as a plot point. It was intended to be a stress scene that would lead to another, more story-significant scene.

3. There was an element of trickery built in as well. The Investigators, as expected, thought they were trying to defend the piece of the Simulacrum they carried with them, when their enemies were actually after something else.

4. Given that it was a combat situation with a lot of dice rolling, many things ended up being determined by luck. That's fine for how a f20 game works, but not normally how I like GUMSHOE to go.

I think the players largely enjoyed things, since it was a change of pace, but if I had to run the situation again, I likely would have try a different solution, even if it meant taking away some player agency for a moment. Maybe. There's a lot in the original campaign that happens by Keeper fiat and I really want to avoid that when possible. If they end up in a similar situation again, I'll definitely remind them of how they were almost all killed "that one time" and see if they have can Spend their way to a way out.

In the upcoming sessions I really want to return to the core campaign story and the recovering of the rest of the Simulacrum. I think the players want that as well, after several side missions. Since the characters are very suspicious, they do not want to follow the exact route of the Orient Express and are skipping ahead to Sofia in Bulgaria. This is a fairly uncomplicated scenario. I'm wondering if it might possible to cover it in one session, rather than the usual three...

Finally, I want to give an additional *SPOILER* warning here, since I'm going to discuss a key plot point in the campaign.

A surprise at the campaign's end is the Investigators finding out that the Prof. Smith they have been working for is in fact an imposter and they've been helping the bad guys all along. I wasn't sure quite how to handle, or even use, this twist, since it isn't as shocking an idea today as it once was (I even used the idea myself in my D&D campaign back in the 70s). In my mind I was leaving the question of Smith's identify unresolved. A player actually started suspecting the deception early on (I had dropped a lot of clues about false identities and wearing other people's skins). In the campaign the trick isn't revealed until almost the very end, but in our last session the players received a secret letter from someone claiming to be the "real' Prof Smith, and informing the Investigators about the deception. The player who had been suspicious was delighted, but the others wondered why exactly they should trust this "Smith" more than the other. The answer to that question I am still leaving open, even to myself for the time being.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 22; Austria 1923, Part Two

Originally posted July 12, 2016

As mentioned in the last report, this chapter isn't based on material in the published Orient Express books, but inspired by one of the props from the deluxe edition of the campaign and ideas in the "Shadows Over Filmland" collection.

"Horror on the Orient Express" has very few explicit Mythos elements. Often it's no more than a parenthetical note that some some entity is an avatar of Nyarlathotep or something. Indeed with the prominence of classic horror elements such as vampires and ghosts, Orient Express can be distinctly non-Lovecraftian. I've been adding a few more direct references just because I like to, and think it's fun that, if you are going to have vampires, why not make them Mi-go bioweapons? Playing with my group is interesting in that while they certainly recognize Cthulhu, and have some familiarity with the iconography of "Arkham Horror" and the like, they are not deep Lovecraft fans or are overly familiar with his stories. So the discovery of a cache of brain cylinders in the last session did not get "Oh dear, we got Mi-go" reaction. This has advantages and disadvantages to a Keeper, since more things come as surprises to the players, but its also harder to call on the gravitas and dark implications of Mythos Lore. Next session I'm planning on directly using the name Mi-go and pointing players to "Whisperer in the Darkness" for homework.

As I'm trying more things with this campaign (one players has called it my "mad scientist RPG lab"), I'm enjoying the flexibility GUMSHOE's simplicity provides. Investigators were planning a seance to contact a spirit they'd encountered, and I said it would be easier if they had the cooperation of girl the spirit prefered to possess. I represented that as an additional Point Pool they could utilize. A character studying Mi-go lore gained a Pool that allows him to use his other points in interactions with their works. Another character was in a fight with a strangely masked figure and wanted to pull off the mask. She didn't have any Scuffling, but since she had earlier been investigating how these masks were made, she suggested spending a point of Craft, which gave her a +3 and an auto success at removing the mask. Some of these I plan for, other come up spontaneously, and using GUMSHOE in such ways is a high point of the sessions for me. I'm also dropping in elements such as Heat and Trust from Nights Black Agents.

While this chapter is a side-quest for the main campaign, I do have some large-scale plot points I am wanting to establish. A goal of my adaption is to make the loose anthology structure of Orient Express into more a unified story. I wanted to establish that the Simulacrum isn't just an evil artifact, but heralds a coming apocalypse. It has led to the end of other worlds in the past and Earth may be next. But is the Skinless One a dark god that can be placated or is a cosmic phenomenon that can be no more appeased than a volcano? Of all the factions wanting to get the Simulacrum (including, apparently, the Mi-go) which do they trust the most, or rather distrust the least? Those are the sorts of questions I'd like my players to be mulling over.

They have been on the main mission for 20 sessions now (after a couple prologue scenarios). I feel like things need to be moving to a final act, even though there are three more pieces of the Simulacrum to be found (which would, at our current rate, take at least nine more sessions just for that). As Keeper what I'm think about is how to advance things, without it seems too much like short-cutting the fundamentals of the classic Orient Express campaign. I'm messing a lot with the Campaign as printed, but I don't want to abandon it.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 21; Austria 1923, Part One

Originally posted June 29, 2016

This chapter of our game is not based on material from the published Orient Express books. Wanting to make the "Medallion of Ithaqua" prop more important to the campaign, I'm incorporating it into a previous Trail of Cthulhu scenario of mine -- which itself was inspired by an adventure seed in the "Shadows Over Filmland" scenario collection.

This is the third time I've run this scenario and what I've discovered is that it works a lot better as an introduction to "Trail" and investigation game players that it does for more experienced RPGers. The immediate problem is an eternally regenerating evil aristocrat. When I first ran the scenario, with players new to the game, he was a real, menacing threat to them. Hardened, seasoned players quickly take to the tactics of repeatedly shooting the baddie in the head with a shotgun, burning his body, and crushing the bones to powder, etc, in order to at least slow him down.

A fundamental decision point arose from the first crisis in the scenario: track down the immortal murderer, or investigate the spooky, secret filled mansion. One player convinced the others to go on the hunt. In terms of dramatic structure of a horror story that wasn't the strongest choice they could have made, and I was tempted to invoke some Drives to steer them away from it. But I didn't want to short circuit a definite choice that they'd made. The may have now bypassed a big section of the planned scenario.

I may try to weave some of that back in, or I might just let it go and concentrate on the direction things have taken. After all, the true dangers in the scenario are the ultra-terrestrial forces whose lore the baddie has tapped into for his immortality. And getting the Investigators in contact with them (or at least the knowledge of them ) is the main plot point of this chapter. The evil aristocrat, rather than being the boss enemy of the scenario, has become the Tempter, offering to share his secrets and lead the Investigators to more Clues. The Investigators have accumulated several Mythos points at this point and will now have plenty of opportunities get hit with the consequences of using them.

This scenario has been a reminder that a Trail of Cthulhu game isn't about maneuvering PCs into a confrontations with monsters or other material challenge, but leading them on to confront information that they may regret learning.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 20; Venice 1923, Interlude

Originally posted june 20, 2016

It's been awhile since my last report on the campaign. This is due to both scheduling issues and that two of the previous sessions were a flashback set in 13th Century Constantinople. That adventure was more action-oriented than investigation and so I decided to run it with Fate, rather than GUMSHOE, and thus seemed off topic here. Summaries of those sessions are up on the Obsidian Portal page: https://horror-on-the-orient-express-5.obsidianportal.com/adventure-log/constantinople-1204-part-one

The framing sequence was the 1923 Investigators reading the medieval tome "The Devil's Simulare," and the actual game was having characters from 1204 playing out those historical events. It was a much more structured scenario than I usually run, since the main plot points were events that had to happen. What was determined by play were the fates of other artifacts in the campaign: the Mims Sahis dagger and the Medallion of Ithaqua. The idea was that these objects are things that the 1923 Investigators would learn about and want to find for themselves, but what specifically happened to them, and where they ended up, was larged shaped by what the 1204 characters did with them.

Back to 1923 and Trail of Cthulhu, the Investigators have made an uneasy alliance with several other factions, including the Section for Research Operations of Britain's MI6. One of the PCs has actually been a British agent reporting on their activities (this has been an open secret that the other players knew but the PCs did not). I have been gradually bringing into our game an increasing amount of elements from not just Night's Black Agents, but the Dracula Dossier. Vampires have always been a big part of Orient Express, so it seemed fitting. I am not strictly following the story behind Dracula Dossier as such, as my equivalent of Project Edom has a different agenda, but there are definite parallels to be explored.

So the Investigators are getting help from both MI6 and the Industrialist/gangster Arturo Faccia (another minor character who has developed into a major player in our campaign) but in both cases I'm stirring in enough suspicious behavior that the Investigators can't rest too easy in the company of their new friends. Rather than lug life-sized pieces of occult statue in their suitcases, most of the pieces of the Simulacrum will now be kept in a guarded, physically and mystically secure underground vault. We'll see how well that ends up working out for everybody involved.

I mentioned the appearance in 1204 of the Medallion of Ithaqua. The medallion was described as having power to summon down some terrible force or entity that weakened the Simulacrum. Naturally that caught the attention of the 1923 Investigators and they are very interested in finding out exactly what the artifact was and what happened to it. Anybody who knows the Orient Express campaign as written might be wondering what the Medallion of Ithaqua is doing here, rather than in the Trieste Chapter of the campaign. As part of the Orient Express Kickstarter, supporters could get an actual metal medallion. Pretty cool prop, but it was for something that did not actually play that large a part in the story. It's largely a one session McGuffin. I decided to make it a much more important element both in function, and as a clue that could lead to important -- and dangerous -- secrets about the Simulacrum.

The ghost of one of the 1204 characters, the lone survivor of an order of medieval warrior-nuns, was called up in a seance and consulted about the medallion. She gave enough clues to put them on the trail of where it ended up and the next session they'll be attempting to track it down. Unfortunately for them, one PC choose to push the seance farther than was wise and also attracted the attention of powers that have been lurking at the edge of the campaign from the start. So far our adventures have had a supernatural tone, with plenty of spells and spirits and vampires and ghosts, but I'm hoping to throw the players a more Lovecraftian curveball and make them question if "magic" is really what they think it is and that powers behind it maybe be more extraterrestrial than supernatural.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 18-19; Constantinople 1204

I did not write up a commentary on these sessions since I ran then not with Trail of Cthulhu but Fate.

The events of the session are summarized on Obsidian Portal as usual.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 17; Venice 1923, Part Three

Originally posted Mar 23, 2106

I began this session with my new "Previously on.." recap, styled like a TV scripts with cuts, fades, voice over, etc. I touched on both the initial premise of the campaign as well as highlighting a few past scenes that I wanted to emphasize as being relevant to the upcoming session. I didn't try any of the techniques I've been considering to help the Investigators keep track of Core Clues, since they had basically gathered them all and now were going to be focusing on the necessary actions to resolve the scenario.

Something from Armitage Files/Dracula Dossier I'm trying to use is for NPCs to potentially be either allies or enemies, based on how the Investigators interact with them. In the written campaign the Italian industrialist Arturo Faccia is a one-dimensional gangster bad guy from Milan, but I have wanted to build him into something more, even an ally of the players (though one with his own agendas of course). He's offering to help the Investigators by storing and protecting the fragments of the Simulacrum as they are found, avoiding the awkward idea that characters are lugging chunks of a man-sized statue around in their suitcases -- not to mention that these chunks are the components to a supernatural armageddon device. One player strongly objected to this idea, leading to intense argument between characters on the best course of action. This again brings up the question of how to best resolve intellectual or emotion PvP conflict in Gumshoe. I'm thinking about this a lot, and wondering if there's anything from DramaSystem (which is all about that kind of conflict) that can go into the mix. The player involved is concerned about being too much of an obfuscator, even if what he is doing is entirely character appropriate (and might even be the correct course of action).

Speaking of NPCs, I think there are at this point seven different factions involved in the search for the Simulacrum. The session ended with the potential of an uneasy alliance between several groups, each keeping an eye on the other. With this and the conclusion of the Venice chapter, I am considering the campaign to be at the end of "Season One." When we start Season Two, things may be different. "Orient Express" is fundamentally an anthology of adventures, loosely woven together by a set-collection quest. When I played the game (in a very condensed time-frame, going through the whole campaign in 4 days) we didn't question the logic or wisdom of the Investigators going from place to horrific place on this mission. It's just a conceit of the form. In my adaptation, i wanted events to unfold with a stronger narrative structure. I didn't know how long the concept of train trips between European cities carrying the recovered artifacts would hold up. We may have taken that as far as it can go, though I don't know what form Season Two will take. The Investigators may now have a HQ that they will set out from for each mission. One character has all along been an agent of the British Government, and the Investigators' connections with secret agencies involved in the supernatural make get stronger. Operation Edom, from Dracula Dossier may be making an appearance in Orient Express. I have a lot to mull over as well as discuss with the players.

Before Season Two begins though, we will try an interesting change of pace. The Investigators also acquired a medieval tome, the "Devil's Simulare," which tells of events that occurred in Constantinople in 1204 AD. This unlocks another flashback session, where we will actually play out the story that is recorded in the book. Since this is potentially a much more action focused scenario, I asked my players about running the session not with GUMSHOE, but Fate. They seemed willing to try this, with half the group having played fate before, and the other half being new to it. This scenario has a determined end point, since there are historical events that have to happen, but there is a lot of flexibility about how they happen

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 16; Venice 1923, Part Two

Originally posted Mar 10, 2016

When I played Orient Express as an Investigator and we arrived in Venice, I quickly suspected that the strange pollution in the water might be caused by the Simulacrum being in the canals, or perhaps a flooded basement, its evil aura tainting its surroundings. That turns out not to be the case in the campaign as written -- in fact there is no direct connection between the fouled canals and where the Simulacrum piece is. Now as Keeper, I decided to use the idea of the Simulacrum being in the water, saving the written situation for some future scenario.

Then I was feeling I was changing and throwing out too much from the classic campaign. I decided to work in the romance subplot to convey more of the experience the original adventure. Actually I held off deciding to bring in the tale of Maria and Georgio until the last minute. The session was three hours in and it was clear we would not be finishing that night, so it seemed like there would be room in the next session for these additional complications. I had actually hoped to do Venice in one session, but it'll end up being the usual three...

At 16 sessions, my "Horror on the Orient Express" adaptation is now not only my longest GUMSHOE game, but my longest non-D&D campaign ever. So I've been thinking a lot about my style of playing and how I structure scenarios for the system.

I've had some problems with the current chapter, based on the Venice section of the original "Orient Express" Call of Cthulhu campaign. (I haven't written up last weekend's session yet, but previous ones are up at https://horror-on-the-orient-express-5.obsidianportal.com/). I've made some fundamental design errors with the central mystery. To me, as Keeper, it seems like the clues and the solution should be obvious, but the Investigators were having trouble with it. My view is moot, if the players are not seeing things. It's their experience that counts.

Rather than an A leads to B leads to C leads to D mystery, I'd set up something that is more A+B+C = D. That is, a puzzle where you don't see the picture until all the pieces are in place. The players have been free to look for the pieces in whatever order they wanted. The problems showed up when the players did collect all the pieces, but weren't seeing the whole picture.

Players have a lot to keep track of, especially when the situation has other distractions and dangers. I think about how in a game such as Eldritch Horror there's a "Mystery" card that says "You need to find six 'Clues' to solve this" or some such. What a board game does is of course too abstract for a roleplaying game, but I wonder if there's something that can be useful there.

Or in a video game, a character might find a clue or important item and a UI element will pop-up and say "You have found Important Thing!" There can even be an additional hint saying like "That's odd, I wonder what the scroll means by Mysterious Reference? Maybe you should look into that." Again, abstract and gamified, but maybe something to mull over.

I think about an Escape Room I was in recently, where we had a lot of trouble with not only solving the puzzles, but even recognizing what the puzzles were. So I'm wondering about trying some techniques to help the Investigators see more clearly that there is a multi-part task to carry out, and to let them see that they are making definite progress in solving that task.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 15; Venice 1923, Part One

Originally posted Feb 29, 2016

I've mentioned how I'm using the published Orient Express Campaign mostly as a source book for our own interpretation of the adventure. When you look at the Venice chapter as written there are really 5 different plot elements involved: polluted canals, a medieval book of lore, a politically volatile romance, vampire killings, and the Simulacrum piece itself. Most of these end up not having much connection between them.

I wanted to take some of those ideas and inspirations and knit them together so they at least affected each other. I shuffled things around and tried out various different clue networks. Ultimately I replaced the main set piece of the adventure entirely -- though I may insert in back in a different chapter. I'll write more about what I'm doing instead after the next session.

I'm am seeing a few problems with my overall approach to the campaign:

Things are running kind of long. We have been averaging 3 sessions for each chapter and I'd like to get that down to two. Initial scenes in a new Investigation can be slow and unfocused. I might try starting new chapters more in-medias res, with ongoing action, and then letting the players narratively establish how they got there.

I'm struggling with the balances of giving players freedom of action, keeping the clues available, and having to shutting them down when the head down paths that, while interesting, might diverge from the plot too much. I'm fine with restructuring clues and even events so that the path the characters choose is the one that leads them to information, but that doesn't always end as elegant as I'd like. Looking back at the last session I see a couple basic mistakes of having important clues be available only through one line of investigation, or even through one key question, which they don't end up asking. Fortunately one player helpfully decided she wanted to light a candle at a bombed Church at in the middle of the night and I thought "Yeah, I can worked with that."

I was also lucky that the "Ken Writes About Stuff" feature on Bast had just come out, which gave me just the inspiration I needed to fill out what I wanted to do with my revision to the Venice chapter.

One milestone was reached in the session: a character was Blasted by a Mythos shock. I've been having contact with pieces of the Simulacrum be a Mythos Stability test and a character already in the negatives failed the test. So far in the campaign there haven't been any character losses, but they are starting to notice their Sanity ratings getting chipped away...

Monday, August 15, 2016

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 14; Milan 1923, Part Three

Originally posted Jan 25, 2016

My previous long-term campaign was a multi-year 4e game, set in the Forgotten Realms. It began with the Living Forgotten Realms organized play, but soon branched off into original adventures. I looked into the rich lore of the Realms from reference books, adventures, and novels found a lot of inspirations and ideas for situations, NPCs, artifacts, etc. That's getting to be my relationship with the Orient Express source books as well. I'm gleaning a lot from them, even as the actually scenarios develop into their own distinct stories. As mentioned last time, our version of the Milan chapter has become a "King in Yellow" scenario and the chapter in Venice is also likely to be inspired by ideas and elements from the original books, but be quite different in actual plot.

This was the third session in the MIlan chapter, so wrapping things up was a high priority. I trimmed out some planned subplots and NPC reactions, but they will likely show up in Venice. To have a conclusion, I had the villain of the chapter walk into a clever, but pretty obvious trap. I thought that this was justified in the narrative since he wasn't a genius mastermind, but a madman as deluded as the protagonist of "The Repairer of Reputations." In a Purist one-shot things would have gone wildly different, with the actual Stranger from the play showing up to lead the Investigators to Carcosa, but this a Pulpy ongoing campaign. Everybody has survived so far, but sanity is getting chipped away, and one player is at minus 5 Stability, the cost of resisting the lure to don the Pallid Mask, i.e., the face of the Sedefkar Simulacrum.

There was one interesting bit of emergent story: The Investigators normally, in character, trade a lot of cutting quips and insults amongst themselves. The evening before setting out on their scheme, they were trying to calm their nerves and bolster their determination -- that is, use Psychological Triage to get some Stability back. Every roll failed miserably and nothing was recovered. It would seem all the jibes and conflicts must of had a deeper effect on the team's feelings than they had realized, or were willing to admit. It was fun to see the Stability mechanic represent the increased risk caused by that lack of trust and empathy.

The session ended with a near-panicked flight from Milan in a stolen car, as they didn't want to wait until the next 1:30pm departure of the Orient Express. Stability is low all around, and they haven't entirely escaped the influence of the Yellow King. So it'll be a little dire for them at the start of next game... 

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 13; Milan 1923, Part Two

Originally posted Jan 13, 2106

As mentioned before, the Milan chapter of the campaign, as written, has problems, mostly due to players being left as passive observers with little agency in the situation. I contemplated various ways to deal with this, briefly considering making it into a "Phantom of the Opera" homage, since a performance at La Scala is central -- and we've already had vampires and a Frankenstein monster in the game.

But after thinking about the elements and situations the chapter introduces -- a troubled stage performance, a dark prophecy, a lurking magical influence -- it suddenly clicked that this needed to be a "King in Yellow" scenario. I then rewrote almost the entire scenario, even changing which piece of the Simulacrum is involved. With the "King in Yellow" infecting and transforming "Aida" what was needed was not a Torso, but a Pallid Mask...

Other elements from the chapter, such as the activities of the Brothers of The Skin and the literal flesh peddling of Arturo Faccia, I hope to use as parts of a larger story arc that emcompasses the Investigators' time in Italy.

Getting back into the story after the break went as well as could be expected. I had put together a fairly detailed chart showing the network of the clues uncovered in the last session and that worked as a recap. I also made sure there was a specific upcoming event -- a grand ball in honor of the upcoming opera -- to give a direction to the action. I'd been trying to present opera star Caterina as someone the players had some connection to, and they did react swiftly when she started singing "Cassilda's Song" and was almost kidnapped by venomous wormy little men. Their success in stopping her abduction (impossible in the campaign book) was a major plot event that could have gone either way.

Since the Investigators are now on a secret quest in the middle of Fascist Italy, doing things such as carrying a large diplomatically sealed chest, I decided to introduce the mechanic of "Heat" from Nights Black Agents to represent the official attention they are drawing to themselves. Another bit of mechanics I played with was having the players make a Stability roll to resist blowing their budget when they were out shopping for appropriate clothes for the gala they'd been invited to.

Since this game has been mostly Pulp in style, the Investigators have Magic points, and they make effective use of the Idiosyncratic Magic System. The consequences of this has been accumulating though, and will start to come to roost in the next session, both from attracting supernatural attention, and from people being more than a little annoyed when they realize the equivalent of "Charm Person" has been cast on them.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 12; Milan 1923, Part One

Originally posted Nov 16, 2105

Back on the train in 1923 with the session. The Investigators have just finished the diary from 1893 that made up the past three sessions. There then followed an epilogue to the Lausanne chapter (of four sessions ago!). This is the violent confrontation with the Duke. I ran it largely as written, just setting it during the darkness of the Orient Express's passage through the Simplon Tunnel and giving the Duke some backup in the form of the Frankensteined William Wellington, whom the Investigators had abandoned back in Lausanne.

Then we move on the Milan. This chapter of the campaign is problematic as written. A lot of important events -- murder, kidnapping, organ theft -- are not only beyond the players' agency, but have actually happened before they even arrive. I thought a lot about how to make the scenario something more involving. The result was a pretty extensive rewrite. One change was to make the activities of the Brothers of the Skin Cult its own "B" plot, separate from the terrible things the piece of the Simulacrum is causing to happen. The cult plot is now a storyline that will be spread across all the chapters set in Italy. One reason to do this was my concern about tracking what information all the individuals and factions have about what's going on. There's no real reason that the Brothers know a Simulacrum piece is even in Milan. It might be the Investigators' actions that lead them to find that out!

I introduced the situation by giving the players four different contacts that Prof. Smith had been corresponding with, and let them decide which to pursue. That choice has a big effect on how they start collecting clues, and what the responses of other involved factions will be. It also shows something of what they are most interested in engaging with. Not surprisingly they are very concerned about hints of what the Cult is up to. I'm trying to put involving and ominous clues in whatever path they take. I hope to do better than the written campaign, where finding tiny foot prints left by a chameleon in the blood left at a days old murder scene functions as a Core Clue!

The Investigators have also made friends with opera star Caterina (who in the books has been kidnapped and worse before they arrive). She's told them a few clues about odd things going on at the rehearsals for Aida and has invited them to the gala ball to be held in her honor. It's at this ball that the "A" plot of the SImulacrum (which they've let themselves be distracted from) will begin to assert itself, and start to cross over some with the "B" plot of the cult. More on that next time...

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 11; Constantinople 1893, Part Three

Originally posted Nov 2, 2015

We finally finished up the flashback scenario set in 1893 Constantinople. As mentioned before this was based on the "Blood-Red Fez," included in the Orient Express Campaign, but by the time we were done with it, only the broadest elements of the plot remained. So there's not much to say about CoC to ToC conversion. I was a lot more plot directing this time than in the recent sessions, since we did need to get to a story conclusion. That included leaning on some Drives to get the characters to a set piece, whose main purpose was putting them in some Health and Stability danger to increase the tension of the upcoming final confrontation.

Some nice story opportunities opened up when one character, whose face had been badly slashed, went looking for any help to restore her appearance. This led to me being able to show the Brothers of the Skin at their flesh ripping and stealing worse, the character being driven out of the group for dealing with evil forces, and then that character showing up in the final climax as a member of the cultists! As often happens, the most interesting stories arise organically from player actions.

So it took three sessions, but I think I managed to plant a lot seeds for story elements that will sprout in the later sessions as well as filling in backstory. I'm also going to be on lookout for times when the 1893 characters might show up again in the "present day" of 1923. I'll be looking back on these flashback sessions a lot for lessons on timing and pacing of scenarios.

Next, we will be back in 1923 with the Investigators heading to Milan. I'm thinking about this chapter a lot, since in the Orient Express campaign, this scenario is one of the most scripted. Events can unfold with little involvement or interaction from the player characters. The problem starts with the Investigators coming into the situation with only the vaguest of clues: that a fragment of the Simulacrum may have been bought by someone in Milan. As players they are left to just look for a weird situation and trust that it will carry them into the plot.

I've given the players a pool of Contact points -- as used in Nights Black Agents -- that represent people Prof. Smith had interacted with in his first investigations. The players will be able to use that pool for NPCs they can seek out and get help from. I'll let them create the NPCs out of their own interests and backgrounds, though I may give a few suggestions. Who they seek out will shape what information they find out about the ongoing situation in Milan, and what they decide to pursue further will shape how that situation unfolds. I'm really intrigued by the Improvisational structure of Armitage Files and Dracula Dossier and want to explore that style of game.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 10; Constantinople 1893, Part Two

Originally posted Oct 31, 2015 Just quick commentary this time. The players are still in the 1893 flashback scenario! What I first wanted to be a one-shot is now looking like a two-and-a-half shot. The players seem fine with it, though I have some concern about losing focus on the main 1923 story. But with that player feedback I have been letting things play out a their own pace. Up until the start of the session I had a scene in mind that would move things more directly to a conclusion, but I decided it would take too much agency from the players, so I let them follow their own investigations, even if that meant switching between four different simultaneous scenes.

My Keeper style now is really developing into having a collection of Core Clues in mind, with loosely associated NPCs, locations, and secondary situations, and then introducing them into play where ever they likely to fit. I might have started expecting the Reporter would hit the streets and track down the mysteriously retired crime kingpin and get Clues from him -- but the eccentric Artist ended up poking around the bazaar, finds herself in the middle of street fight, gets rescued by a former lieutenant of said crime boss, and then charms those Clues out of him. It just takes a while to get all the necessary clues and plot elements into play and set a scenario resolution in motion.

I do think this extended flashback is succeeding in filling in backstory about the main Campaign's different villainous factions. As the 1923 Investigators encounter Makryat, the Brothers of the Skin, The Shunned Mosque, etc they should all seem more complex and menacing, from what they've "read" about them in the diary that is the framing sequence of this flashback.

Taking a sandbox approach to this scenario has been a learning experience, but I think that if we use the other two flashback scenarios available in the main Campaign I will keep them shorter and more focused. I want to support the main story, not dilute it.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 09; Constantinople 1893, Part One

Originally posted Sept 9, 2015

In this session we used one of my favorite ideas from the Campaign: the present day (1923) players read a document from an early period which triggers a flashback scenario. In this case they have Prof Smith's diary from 1893 Constantinople.

I created 8 pregens to pick from, based on a mix of my ideas and pregens from other ToC scenarios. Nobody picked Prof Smith himself, so his role is mainly to record the events as they unfold. Which characters they picked had an influence on how events unfold and which story elements got greater or lesser emphasis. The players made a few tweaks to suit ideas they had. One players decided to change an English priest into an Islamic cleric (and uncle to a 1923 PC).

The scenario is in the campaign book is called "The Blood-Red Fez" and I ultimately only used the rough concept and a few ideas from the original text. As written, the scenario has a few of the major NPCs from the main storyline making brief, almost cameo appearances, but I wanted them to be the main antagonists in our version. I hope this will fill in their backstory some and make them appear more threatening in their encounters with the 1923 Investigators. They've also found some important clues about the history of the Simulacrum and the 12th Century sorcerer Sedefkar.

I tried something different than how ToC scenarios usually go. Rather than starting the Investigators with a specific direction and let things branch out, I began sandboxy, with it being very open in how they responded to the initial situation. This went okay, except that I also wanted to keep this flashback to one session -- which of course conflicts with a sandbox. Rather than force an ending we decided to extend things into the next session. I hope that will only take about 2/3rd of the session and we can also transition back into 1923.

I'm tweaking ToC's settings to go more Purist, rather than Pulp here. While one PC is a minus 1 Stability already, I don't know if I'm quite grinding them down enough yet. I want to try the alternative rule from "The Rending Box" where characters can spend Sanity to regain some Stability. Since this a sidestory I'm not too concerned about keeping characters alive or sane after the end of this scenario. I'm hoping that once they discover more about the situation they'll find themselves in a dilemma with no good solution, and have to choose between multiple different disastrous outcomes -- one being the mass death and horror that the coming World Wars unleash in the timeline as we know it. More on that next time... 3 plus ones

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 08; Lausanne 1923

Originally posted Aug 31 2015

We are at the "Lausanne" chapter of Orient Express now. The plot of the session kept mainly to the scenario as written, but I adjusted few keys bits.

My inspirations for many of the changes I make to the campaign come from things I was expecting to happen when I went through it as a player -- but then didn't end up happening. For instance, when we met the sketchy taxidermist Edgar Wellington and his mute, looming, and lurching brother William, I was expecting some sort of Frankenstein's monster element. But, no: William is only the victim of war injuries and is in the scenario just to be upsetting -- because I guess disabled people are innately supposed to be creepy...

I decided to go with my expectations: William had been killed during the Great War and Edgar brought him back to some semblance of life through weird science. He acquired the Sedefkar Scroll (the goal of the scenario) as part of an effort to magically improve his brother's condition. My players picked up on the hints immediately. Indeed one of them had already, as soon as he heard they were in Switzerland and near Lake Geneva, said he wanted to visit the villa where Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein!

The Investigators were concerned about William once they learned of his condition, but circumstances led them to flee town without doing anything to help him. I think they are expecting to eventually read in the newspapers about a monster going on a rampage through town and being chased by a torch wielding mob. I don't know if that’s exactly will happen, but I'm sure William will return in the campaign eventually.

As written, the Investigators find Edgar Wellington's diary, which conveniently explains what's going on. I wanted to try something different: I typed up a lot of small notes representing the facts and clues the players' discovered. What is on Wellington's book shelf? Here's are all the volumes. Here's the things you find on his desk, etc. I wanted them to be puzzle pieces the players put together. I'm not sure how much of the Wellington backstory they pieced together, (finding a photo of the Brothers in uniform, and then a letter of condolence addressed to Edgar led to a pretty obvious conclusion) but they seemed to enjoy getting a literal pile of clues.

I tried to play up the faerie-tale quality of Dream Lausanne. One of the Investigators is a medium and she has been having dreams about the place, and the Jigsaw Prince, for several sessions. Goblins, elves, bipedal sheep, and other weird things were mixed it with the town's inhabitants. I didn't use the parade of visions that were meant to foreshadow future scenarios. When I played the campaign I certainly didn't understand or recall these visions when we got to those points....

The Trial, which you know about if you're familiar with the campaign, worked well. As written the Keeper is supposed to numerically rate each defense speech the Investigators make and then add up the numbers to see if they "win" or not. Contrary to the usual Gumshoe approach I actually game-ified things more and used dice rolls. If a player could use an Interpersonal Skill they got to roll a d6. A Spend gave them a +2 on that roll. If they could justify another class of Skill (say Law or History) they could use that for a roll, but then they had to make the Spend. A support Spend from someone else gave them a +1. The prosecutor in the case was rolling a straight d6+2 each time. Each roll was added together and the highest total won. I might tweak the numbers some if I do something similar in the future, but I think it gave the situation some tension. The Investigators won fairly easily, though that that did result in a mob chasing them through Dream Lausanne (for which I used some of Nights Black Agents chase rules).

Next session is a flashback to 1893 Constantinople that will fill in some of the backstory to the current events. The campaign has three flashback scenarios, and I hope to include them. For this I plan to go full Purist, unlike the mostly Pulp mode so far. I've warned the players about this. Since it is a flashback, keeping characters alive or sane will be of little concern. In most of the Purist games I've done in the past, by the end of the scenario characters aren't in much condition to move on to the next adventure.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 07; Paris 1923, Part Three

Originally posted Aug 17, 2015

A goal in adapting this campaign for "Trail of Cthulhu," and my own play style, was to have more direct involvement between the characters and the NPC factions who are also seeking the Sedefkar Simulacrum. Count Fenalik for instance is written as lurking the background and only occasionally getting involved in the scenarios (and then often as a deus ex machina). In our game, there's been a direct confrontation, ending with Fenalik bound in a magic circle and severely limited in what he can do. Rather than either have him just break free (cheating players out of their accomplishment) or completely removing him from events to come, I've introduced the notion that victims of the vampiric Fenalik rise from the dead as his "children." A nameless, murdered shepherdess is now an undead NPC who can perform some of the plot functions, though in a drastically limited fashion. Her main role will be to put the characters in the uncomfortable position of deciding what to do with a known, deadly evil faction that wants to help them. I don't know how this plot thread will eventually resolve, but it should be interesting.

The session did end with the Investigators finally finding the Left Arm of the Simulacrum. If you know "Orient Express" there's the Baneful Influence that the Simulacrum exerts. When I played the campaign, the version used still had the Baneful Influence eroding away Luck and Power. That's changed in the printing version to be more of a general misfortune that the Keeper can use against the players. My Gumshoe interpretation was to have contacting the Simulacrum be a Mythos Stability test. The player was lost for a moment in an a nonhuman and non Euclidean perspective, but survived by making the gamble of spending two stability to give him the bonus on the roll. He came out it with a point in Mythos, but with a rash and pain in his own arm which will increase the difficulty of physical checks involving that limb. I plan something similar with each other fragment they find. In my outline of the scenario, if the Investigators had not already faced Fenalik directly at this point, they would have now, with him appearing and demanding the Left Arm. As written, he only appears as a chilling mist.

A few sessions ago the Investigators were considering taking a plane to Belgrade; they have now decided to finally get on the Orient Express proper. On route is Lausanne, Switzerland. In the campaign as written, the players would have found, along with Arm, a letter from Edgar Wellington, an Englishman living in Lausanne, that reveals he know about the Simulacrum, Fenalik,and the Sedefkar Scrolls. That bothered me. I am trying to keep careful track of what information all the various factions know, and it seemed another cheat against the players if someone else just knows all the information they have spent sessions laboriously collecting. The players know about Fenalik after days of digging through dusty libraries. Why does Wellington know about him? I've been seeding information about Wellington in early sessions, to tweak the players' curiosities and position him as someone who knows something about the Simulacrum and Sedefkar's Scrolls. He doesn't know anything about Fenalik or where the fragments are currently. I have several other tweaks to the Lausanne chapter in mind which I'll discuss in future posts.

The campaign is mostly "Pulp" in style, and I'm giving the players a lot of opportunity to recover stability. Most of them have "Sources" that they carry with them. One character for instance is Muslim, whose daily prayers are a Source. Another is an agent of the British government who gets Stability by sending reports -- if that is, she reports the actual truth of what happens. We'll see what the eventual consequences of that will be... Enjoying the luxuries of the Orient Express is written in the campaign to give characters "Call of Cthulhu" Sanity back, so I'm also giving them a little Stability from that. If all that ends up being too soft on them, I may make it harder to recover Stability as time goes by, or put them in situations where they might lose the transportable Sources they have with them.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 06; Paris 1923, Part Two

Originally posted July 29, 2015

Lots of craziness in this session of my campaign of "Orient Express" with Trail of Cthulhu. Last time there was talk of the Investigators taking a plane to Belgrade, but since the player who had suggested that couldn't make this session, we made the call to keep everybody in Paris and finish investigating things there. The game is definitely in Pulp category now, largely due to several of the characters having some Magic and Hypnosis skills. Backgrounds range from Christian Spiritualist to Islamic Occult Scholar, so that leads to interesting clashes in flavor.

I'm starting to find some interesting use of Drives. I use a house rule of Secondary Drives based on PC relationships and personal goals. The campaign includes recovering Sanity through successes and time spend in the luxury of the Orient Express. I'm giving them a little Stability recovery from the focus they have by having a specific mission. Their personal interactions also give them a little back. I called on the spiritualist's Duty Drive to encourage her to try and free a lost spirit she'd failed to help last time. Next time I plan to invoke some "Thirst for Knowledge" Drives, even though if would healthier for them to lay low for awhile...

One of my goals in adapting the campaign was to have the major NPCs be more active in the story. So I had Count Fenalik, weak and disoriented from his imprisonment, lurking around his former home in Poissy, France. The Investigators heard reports of a killer wolf attacking sheep (and a shepherdess) in the surrounding countryside. Not surprisingly, the players talked about werewolves -- but my secondary goal was warning them about assuming creatures will work according to Universal Monster rules. The group's Turkish PC assumes the creature is a djinn. I want to keep it uncertain whose ideas are right until they are tested "in the field." I have my own, Lovecraftian, origin for Fenalik in mind -- and there's also a lot of Tim Powers influence in my thinking about such things.

The Investigators did follow up on the Core Clues pointing them to the underground catacombs beneath the humble home of the Lorien family, which was built on the former site of Fenalik's villa. One player made a 2 point Reassurance spend on Mrs.Lorien. Conveniently the campaign mentions, as a red herring, that the Loriens are rare Protestants in Catholic France. The Investigator herself is Church of England, so that gave them something to bond over. I haven't fully given the player the all the benefit of that Spend, but I'm keeping it in mind for putting to use in the next session. The players picked up on the fact that the Loriens all have injuries to their left arms, but are trying to connect that somehow with their werewolf ideas, rather than the real reason...

Building on the suggestions in the campaign book, I had Fenalik pay a couple nighttime visits to the investigators' hotel rooms. This led to the first crazy scene involving screams in the night, swarms of black mice, a badly injured doorman, a holy words from the Koran, and the Investigators not being especially welcomed back in the hotel.

The players came out of this more concerned about the dark visitor than following up with the Loriens. I'm not actually sure if they believe this vampire/werewolf/djinn creature is Fenalik. Probably, but nobody has mentioned it openly. Hunting him down led to the second confrontation, with lots of magic, djinn binding spells, and gunplay. An unfortunate Investigator took 16 points damage (as well as going to -3 stability). A second character is at 1 stability. Despite the risk of "crossing the streams" of Christian and Islamic mystic energies, they did manage to bind Fenalik in a magic circle. That of course is a pretty big plot event in terms of the campaign.

When I played the campaign myself I was occasionally frustrated by the lack of agency in the very linear structure. So I wanted to avoid the trap of thinking, for instance, that Fenalik has to be active for the plot to progress as written -- and I would have really cheated the players of a hard won victory. I'm actually finding it quite interesting adjusting this villain's plans and actions. Bound, his main strength is now the fact that he knows far more about the Sedefkar Simulacrum that anybody else. That knowledge is powerful currency...

I have a little concern that the specifics of the main "quest" aren't advancing much. Not only have the Investigators not gotten the first fragment of the Simulacrum, they haven't even gotten aboard the actual Orient Express yet! I'm not going to force things in any particular direction, but I don't want to completely lose the plot line. A goal of next session will be to blend the current situation into that main quest a little more.

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 05; Paris 1923, Part One

Originally posted Jul 15, 2015

Aside from the differences in game mechanics, converting "Horror on the Orient Express" to Trail of Cthulhu has been relatively straight forward. One can read through the adventure and extract Core Clues easily enough. Most of the rest I use for color and inspiration to fill the rest of the sessions. There's plenty of rich detail to build on and adapt to my style of adventure design.

In the last session I faced a couple instances of the players getting interested in what I had planned as a secondary detail, and paying less attention to what I intended as the main investigation. While I tried to emphasize that (in this example) the murder scene had been thoroughly gone over by the police and the landlord had cleaned and repainted, I did not want to shut them down from their intent -- which was to hold a seance (one of the PCs is a medium). I tried to make this an interesting scene, with some information to be uncovered, though I couldn't think of a way to slip a Core Clue into the situation.

The bigger consequence of the situation was the Investigators coming to feel they were a step or two behind their opponents and needed to take drastic action. They decided to hire a plane to travel ahead of the Orient Express, hoping to get to a fragment of the Simulacrum in advance of the enemies they assume are on the same route they are. This is interesting since "Orient Express" unlike, say "Eternal Lies," is very linear, with an assumption the players will go from one location to the next. I'm fine with them doing this and I definitely want this choice to have a significant effect on the events of the campaign.

They also "split the party" with one PC staying behind in Paris to follow up leads on the Charenton Asylum and Count Fenalik. Having two parallel event sequences messes with my goals for pacing, but again I do not want to stop players from making such choices. While I had planned to have Charenton be a fairly complex investigation -- as written in the campaign books -- I condensed a lot and, Core Clues in mind, moved the player through that sequence in the last half-hour or so of the session.

One plot element I'm adding, btw, is that Fenalik was awoken on January 3rd (the morning before the Challenger Lecture and the attack on Prof. Smith) with the idea that it was the return of the Simulacrum's previous owner that stirred the artifact to a more energized state, and set the Campaign's whole sequence of events in motion.

So now I'm looking at the Belgrade chapter of the campaign, both giving it my usual treatment, as well as considering the consequences of this happening now, rather than several stages later on in their quest. I'm not sure how far the lone Investigator will take things on his own, back in Paris, and how he will fare. Fenalik may have a very different reaction to a lone investigator poking around, rather than a whole party

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 04; London 1923, Part Two

Originally posted Jun 23, 2015

A big goal for this sessions was to advance the plot, i.e. get them on the darn train. We did get as far as the ferry across the English Channel toward Calais. The players showed a lot of initiative this session. For instance, as written, the missing Prof Smith sends a message to the Investigators to come to his hiding place, but my players managed to track him down themselves. I actually had some uncertainly about how much plot to invoke, since the players were about ready to head off to Paris and Lausanne entirely on their own without even hearing the main quest of the campaign. That was tempting, but I decided I really wanted to lay out the overall structure: the search for the fragments of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, the list of clues pointing to locations to check out, and the linking structure of the luxury trip aboard the Orient Express. Since there is a lot to keep track of, I wanted to be sure they had that foundation of goals and places, what was going on and what they were supposed to do. Plus, since this is a classic campaign, there’s the sense of a shared beginning with others who have played it before. If things go completely off track now and end up very different than the campaign as written, that’s find and I won’t force them back into the structure as written.

There were some good moments for players still new to Gumshoe, where points were spent to say an Investigator knew someone who could provide information they were looking for. In one case it was an NPC I had prepared, in another, one that the player and I came up with on the spot. Neither of encounters involved Core Clues, but did provide data that is and will be helpful. For instance, without even knowing they’d need one, they now have a contact with someone at the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris. Core Clues I’m trying to keep as transparent as possible, without even openly mentioning the Skills being used to get them.

It continues to be odd looking at a Call of Cthulhu campaign from a Gumshoe perspective. The plot is still pretty research heavy at this point and there are multiple points were the books says something like: “If the players make a successful Library Use and Luck rolls then they learning this interesting/cool/useful fact.” I’m glad just to be able to have them show up with their Library skill, get the clue, and move on.

The books are also oddly restrained sometime in their Weirdness. I managed to work in the “Man Dies Three Times” incident where three different bodies are found, all carrying papers identifying them as Mehmet Makryat. As written these are just three different men, though each has part of their body flayed (something that is never explained or developed). That seemed weak use of the circumstances, since disguise, blood magic, and flesh changing are all parts of the Brothers of the Skin modus operandi. So I made all three identical twins of Makryat, at least until an examination revealed a patch of oddly different skin on their bodies. When that was examined, an entire false skin peeled away revealed the true, if shriveled, body underneath. Fake skins and the skinned victims of stolen identities will continue to be a motif where Makryat is involved.

I haven’t yet succeeded in introducing the Duke from Lausanne as an active force in the situation. The hooks I’ve tried haven’t quite taken yet. I hope to get that going next time, at least so that the Investigators know that multiple factions are out there looking for the Simulacrum. And then the Comte Fenalik is also about to be unleashed into the mix…

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 03; London 1923, Part One

Originally Posted May 27, 2015

I first played “Orient Express” (with Call of Cthulhu rules) as a special Gencon event where we did the entire campaign in four days. In that format we had a lot of player buy-in and willingness go along with whatever the plot demanded. I did think early on that the adventure might be better served through Trail of Cthulhu. As written, the first few chapters have a lot of complex setup and rigmarole leading to a few Library Use rolls. And if you fail those rolls you are faced with the challenge of… more Library Use rolls! Pretty much you keep rolling until you finally get the necessary information. This can take days of in-game time, dealing with recalcitrant librarians, language issues, and troublesome assistants. The campaign books actually encourage the Keeper to make things tedious for the players.

Gumshoe of course functions to cut through that. Additionally I want to provide other avenues for finding the important clues than just going to libraries, for all that the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale loom large in the opening of the campaign.

Another odd thing about the opening of the campaign is that are Weird events going on that the players just hear about. The “Man Dies Three Times” event that people familiar with the campaign probably remember, for instance. I decided to introduce some schemes that Mahmet Makryat is involved in that the players could investigate and battle against. They would, over the course of these encounters, stumble on the three dead Makryat duplicates, as well as accumulate some of the core clues that would otherwise just be waiting at the Library.

As played out in the actual session, we started with the Challenger Lecture where Prof. Smith talks about the use of modern science to investigate stories of ghosts and mysterious disappearances. The Investigators already know Smith from my prologue sessions. As written, there is a mysterious foreigner at the Lecture, but I had Makryat himself put in appearance and make ominous threats. The first part of his schemes involved setting up the Investigators for a trap, but they saw through it, with a combination of a player’s own insight and their PC’s Interpersonal Skills.

Hijinks ensue and the players get a hold of a cuneiform decoding system that will functions as an Investigation Pool for understanding the Sedefkar Scrolls, once those shows up. They also already find some clues pointing to Edgar Wellington in Lausanne. I want to keep things open enough that the players aren’t stuck following the campaigns Scenarios in exact order.

I’m not sure how much of my (and Makryat’s) original plan will end up being played out, but the Investigators are realizing that Makryat is up to something, that Prof Smith has secrets he hasn’t told them, and there is an ancient, fragmented statue out there that multiple factions are interested. For cliffhanger I ended with the Investigators finding Prof. Smith’ s townhouse burned to the ground – since part of Makryat’s scheme was to distract them from this attack.

Most of the players are still new to “Trail of Cthulhu,” so we are still finding the right tone and people are refining their characters. My plan is to divide the campaign into short arcs – with skill refreshes between them. They’ll be in London for one or two more sessions before finally getting onboard the darn train that the campaign is named after!

Horror On The Orient Express: Session 02; The Doom Train

Originally posted on Apr 27, 2015

For this one-shot I went to material from the actual Orient Express campaign books. I drew on "The Doom Train" adventure, which is presented as a side-story for when the main campaign is underway, but I thought would work as a prologue.

My main goals were to introduce new PCs, reinforce Prof. Smith as a main "quest-giver" NPC, and have the characters encounter Mahmet Makryat, a major figure in events to come. In the printed campaign the PCs would have already met Makryat, but I wanted to give him a more gradual introduction as well as hint at the past encounters between the Makryat family and Prof. Smith.

The adventure ultimately went through multiple revisions. First was my adaption of it to "Trail" and restructuring the order of scenes and the clue chain that connected them.

Second revision came when I found out there would be six players at the session, which seemed a lot for a fairly linear investigation (Six strangers show up at an NPSc door and start asking questions). I took a cue from an idea that shows up several times in the campaign books: don't just have PCs get a data dump about what happened in the past: have them play characters who experienced those events. "Doom Train" is about a train that disappeared in 1897, so I had one group doing the investigation in 1921 and a second group actually on the train in 1897 -- and subsequently lost in time and space, only occasionally intersecting with the "normal" world.

Final revision came during actual play where I rewrote and reordered events and scenes to suit player actions, and to fit the core scenes into the one session format. At one point I just asked the players to narrate the police raid on some bad guys' warehouse and the seizing of the magic artifact they had acquired, rather than playing it out. That wasn't the main story and there was no good reason why one wouldn't call on the authorities in that circumstance. It will though have a major effect on their interactions with Makryat to come...

Since there was warping of time and space and a mixing Einstein with sorcerous ritual and all, it seemed natural to include the Hounds of Tindalos in the mix, and I looked to the "Ken Writes About Stuff" for approaches to the Hounds.

The session closed with a big player vs player moral conflict about the risks of saving innocents vs dangers to life and sanity (and maybe the world in general). I tried to arbitrate that and move the players to a decision without forcing them into a particular choice. Not sure how successful that was. I wanted to wrap up the session at that point. With more time it might have been interesting to explore the consequences of saying "no" to the heroic rescue. Maybe I bring that up as a theme in later sessions...

Horror On The Orient Express: Session 01; Terror on the Thames

Originally posted on Apr 22, 2015

I'm starting a campaign of Chaosium's new Edition of "Horror on the Orient Express" using "Trail of Cthulhu." I thought I'd post a little more detail about it.

As support for the game, I also acquired Cubicle 7's "Cthulhu Britannica: London" (I have the PDFs through Kickstarter as the print version isn't out yet) for all its background material on 1920s London. I wanted to start out with a couple related one-shots, so for the first session I used an adventure included in London set, "Terror on the Thames." It's a pretty straightforward intro adventure. As written it's kind of a haunted house scenario, though I tweaked it to be more of an "Alien" situation.

Besides using it as an introduction to the setting and "Trail" I also brought some NPCs onstage. Firstly was Prof. Julius Smith, who is a major figure in "Orient Express." I wanted the players to get to know him in advance of the main plot. The scenario came with a big cast; which other ones end up being important depend on who the Investigators decide to interact with. Several NPCs from this scenario will show up in later sessions.

For the most part converting things to "Trail" was simple, just using Gumshoe rules and philosophy to move things along. Once a few ominous clues were in the players hands, they caused enough disruption for the action to escalate quickly and a whole second half of the scenario as written was unnecessary. The basic rpg principle that if player character are loose on a boat it will, at some point, catch fire and sink was demonstrated.

The next session will be another one-shot, with characters being gathered by Prof. Smith for one of the side-mission in the actual "Orient Express" game books. Again I want to introduce more characters and plot elements that will be part of future sessions. Part of what makes "Orient Express" interesting to me is that the campaign's story is part of a web of events involving a long history of multiple competing factions. I want to lay groundwork to give the players a lot to explore and a lot of important choices to make.


**SPOILERS** "Horror on the Orient Express" posts contain spoilers for my group's playthrough and the campaign in general. My players should definitely not read any of these while the game in ongoing! Detailed summaries of the sessions are up at Obsidian Portal.

Horror On The Orient Express ala Trail of Cthulhu

For a year or so now I have been running the classic Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign "Horror on the Orient Express". I have been converting it from its original rules to the Trail of Cthulhu game system, since it better suits my style of play.

After each session I've been writing both a summary of the game play as well as a behind the scenes commentary about converting the campaign to the new game system, as well as changes to the adventures themselves. I've been posting those on Facebook in the The GUMSHOE Roleplaying Games Community and the Pelgrane Press G+ group. I decided to collect those posts here as well.