Tabletop Preview: Horror on the Orient Express, Book II: Through the Alps (Call of Cthulhu)

Horror on the Orient Express, Book II: Through the Alps (Call of Cthulhu)
Publisher: Chaosium
Cost: Free to Kickstarter backers ($1,199.50 to everyone else. YES, THAT MUCH)
Page Count: 266
Release Date 12/23/2013
Get it Here: Chaosium.com

Welcome back to our second preview of Chaosium’s upcoming remake of Horror on the Orient Express. Last week we looked at Book I: Campaign Book and went into a lot of detail regarding what you’ll find within those pages. Starting with Book II: Through the Alps, I won’t be as thorough or forthcoming with the contents because we’re now into the actual adventure pieces and even though the original Horror on the Orient Express came out in 1991, this will still be the first look at the campaign for many current gamers, so I want to keep from any real spoilers. Remember that all four books that make up the proof may have a hefty price tag on them, but they are/were free to all Kickstarter backers, so if you haven’t downloaded your copies yet, get a move on before they are unavailable to you as well.

Through the Alps is where the actual campaign of Horror on the Orient Express begins. It contains the following seven sections:

  • Dancers in an Evening Fog: London 1923
  • The Doom Train: London and Beyond 1923
  • The Blood Red Fez: London 1893
  • Les Fleurs Du Mal: Paris et Poissy 1923
  • The Dreamlands Express: Dreamlands 1923
  • Nocturne: Lausanne 1923
  • Note for Note: Milano 1923
  • Now astute and/or longtime Call of Cthulhu fans will notice that there are two completely new sections of Through the Alps. We have a Gaslight section that takes place in 1893 as well as a brand new piece devoted to the Dreamlands. Both are completely optional with “The Blood Red Fez” being available as both a stand-alone prequel or a way to bring your 1890s characters ahead thirty years, complete with the stat changes that would require. It’s also worth noting that all of the original scenarios are greatly expanded. For example, in the 1991 edition, “Dancers in an Evening Fog” was only seven pages long. In the remake, it is twenty-five pages. Now part of this is because Seventh Edition includes a lot more information to make play easier, but also because there is a higher concentration of pictures and art, both of which are also larger than much of the art in the 1991 version. Curiously, only a fraction of the art from the 1991 edition is used here. The majority of “art” in this book (and all of the HotOE remake to be honest) are stock photographs from the time period (whose copyrights have no doubt elapsed so that they are free to all). I have to admit this does give the remake more of a monograph feel than I would like, but at the same time, all the photography helps to capture what it was really like back then. So checks and balances for the art. This is a proof, however, so these photos may be replaced by actual art when all is said and done, so this should be a minor concern at best. Now let’s look quickly at each section.

    “Dancers in the Evening Fog” is the first adventure, but it’s also the big plot hook for the campaign as a whole. The Investigators are all in London (but they don’t need to live there or even be British/Caucasian). Characters will attend the Challenger Trust Banquet-Lecture being given by one Professor Smith, and at its end encounter one Mr. Mehmet Makryat. Smith and Makryat will be the two lynchpins that send the Investigators into a long and dangerous journey. The former through what appears to be a grisly accident and the latter with a newspaper article about this sensational death. Nothing is what it seems though, but the Investigators won’t discover this for quite some time. “Dancers in the Evening Fog” is really fleshed out here. Instead of being a push out the door for players, you can actually spend an entire evening of gaming just on this section. There’s a lot of optional content and even a way to really change the dynamic (and length) of the campaign. The hook should be dramatic and interesting enough to make players want to see the campaign through and that’s what’s most important.

    “The Doom Train” is an optional sub-plot piece in the remake while in the original, it was simply the next adventure in the campaign. The original was ten pages to the remake’s thirteen, so once again we get a bit more content. In the remake it is listed as optional because Investigators can easily by pass this section based on the choices they make where the original kind of railroaded (no pun intended) players into this piece. “The Doom Train” is partly about the mistakes of both a father and son in dealing with supernatural forces, and also partly about an eeeevil train set. Although “The Doom Train” has little to do with the core campaign, it fits nicely into the campaign due to the train theme. It also has the feel of a classic Victorian ghost tale. Although “The Doom Train” is an optional piece for the overall Horror in the Orient Express campaign, it is an adventure you could easily make into a one-shot for your players if you don’t think they (or you) have the patience/stamina for the full campaign.

    “The Blood Red Fez” is one of the two new sections in the book and, as mentioned earlier, is a scenario for use in the Cthulhu by Gaslight 1890s era of the game. This is an optional scenario and it feels a bit odd to have the prequel as the third section of the book, but if Chaosium didn’t do it this way, a lot of the information would have to be moved around entirely. As the remake is primarily a reprint of the 1991 text, this was just the easier/saner way to do things. Anyway, “The Blood Red Fez” takes place in 1893 and can either feature totally new characters (such as the pre-generated characters created specifically for this adventure), much younger versions of the Investigators in the campaign or act as a fine stand alone piece for your Gaslight game. “The Blood Red Fez” is over fifty pages long and is the longest section of BOOK II. The Dreamlands chapter is the second longest and the two together make up nearly half of the book’s content. That’s a lot of extra pages for this remake.

    As you might surmise, the adventure revolves around a cursed artifact that happens to be a blood red fez. You’ll also see some familiar names show up in this piece such as Professor Smith, Mehmet Makryat’s father and the Jigsaw Prince. This adventure has Investigators boarding the Orient Express as well, but with the 1890s route rather than the one found in the 1920s. Most of the adventure is intrigue based on being on a train with nowhere else to go. Like the core campaign, it starts in London and ends in Constantinople, but it’s much more streamlined and should only last a session or three depending on how you pad it out or how off rails players go. “The Blood Red Fez” is a fairly standard Call of Cthulhu adventure. You have an evil cult, a cursed artifact, a mysterious tome and an otherworldly entity trying to enter our plane of existence.

    I really liked “The Blood Red Fez.” It ties in nicely with the core campaign and it was a joy to read an entirely new scenario. The new monsters, the bizarre powers of the Fez and the multitude of horrors that occurs when you put it on are all very memorable and even if you and your friends know this campaign inside and out, “The Blood Red Fez” is guaranteed to give you something new to take part in. After the adventure, the section concludes with a nice little essay on the 1890s version of the Orient Express to help flesh out the differences between the time periods.

    “Les Fleurs Du Mal” brings us back to the original campaign. As you can guess from the title, Investigators are now in France. Players may be stymied as to what they should do next, but it’s part of the adventure. Exploring Paris, engaging in copious amounts of Library Use to find information about cults, MacGuffins and anything else should be encouraged. They may go everywhere from the Louvre to an asylum or the Paris Catacombs. As they events in Paris continue on, they will eventually encounter an ancient vampire, a ghoul, part of the MacGuffin they seek and more. After these events players will finally board the Orient Express, along with an unexpected and most assuredly uninvited guest.

    “The Dreamlands Express” is the second and last new addition to the campaign for Book II. Again, this is another optional piece and for those of you who want to run the more classic campaign, you can excise this easily. Unlike “The Blood Red Fez” which works as a stand-alone adventure, “The Dreamland Express” really doesn’t work outside of Horror on the Orient Express. At the same time, “The Dreamland Express” can be spread out over the course of the campaign, played out a little bit here and there until the campaign finishes or the characters all die. As the section is approximately fifty pages, it’s pretty easy to break things out so that you can, in essence, run two parallel campaigns for your Investigators. I know some gamers just don’t want to play Dreamlands stuff at all, and that’s fine. Again, this entire section is optional.

    It’s worth noting that “The Dreamlands Express” ties in with both “The Blood Red Fez” and “Les Fleurs Du Mal.” You’ll see some (possibly) familiar faces from both as well as some other characters Investigators may meet in the real world. In this adventure Investigators will be on a Dreamlands version of the Orient Express – a version that could never exist in the waking world. Bigger and more luxurious, riding the Dreamlands version of the Express also brings with it new dangers and potential allies. For players having trouble with an undead antagonist of the campaign, a mighty artifact can be found here which will assuredly help them with it. Locations the Dreamlands train stops at are: Ulthar, Dylath-Leen, Zar, Aphorat, Thalarion, Xura, Aira, Sona-Nyl, and Serannian. As you can see, the potential for a full out Dreamlands campaign is here and if you own the Dreamlands sourcebook or any other material pertaining to this location, you should be able to take what’s in Book II and really flesh it out to the point where it is as long and detailed as the core campaign.

    Regardless of how you decide to run “The Dreamlands Express,” it’s definitely the hardest piece in this Book (or any of the others) to make work. A Keeper really has their work cut out for them, mainly due to keeping track of where they are in both realms (Waking and Dreamlands), what they know, who they have encountered, and so on. It’s a lot of extra work to make “The Dreamlands Express” run smoothly, but in the hands of a very experienced Keeper, this can be one of the highlights of the entire campaign. Some gamers, especially those attached to their four legged friends should probably NOT play “The Dreamlands Express” however, as there’s a bit that will unnerve them far more than any eldritch horror Lovecraft ever dreamt up. For example, there’s no way my wife could play through the Zar segment of “The Dreamlands Express.” The Dreamlands campaign also ends with a massive battle more akin to something you would see in Warhammer or some other large scale battle where there are dozens of characters on each side. Many CoC gamers might find the idea of a large scale battle distasteful for various reasons. A good Keeper knows his players as well as their own ability to run such a large (and long running) battle. If it seems like too much work, throw it out or just don’t do “The Dreamlands Express.” It’s that simple.

    “Nocturne” is our penultimate adventure for Book II. Here the Investigators will travel to Lausanne. The new version is twenty-seven pages long while the original 1991 version clocked in at sixteen. This chapter was the original Dreamlands section in Horror on the Orient Express. It feels a bit overshadowed by “The Dreamlands Express” now, but make no mistake, “Nocturne is far more important to the flow of the campaign. You face a powerful enemy in a battle of words, you get a lot of hints towards things to come and you discover the first of five very important scrolls. Hopefully you have someone on the team that knows Arabic. It is also in “Nocturne” where you will first meet Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, who is sure to be an annoyance both now and later on in the campaign. “Nocturne” has always been the weakest point in Horror on the Orient Express and I find the same holds true for the remake. Be careful about playing “The Dreamlands Express” in time with this, as players may just get burned out on the whole concept of dreaming.

    Finally we come to “Note For Note,” the last adventure in Book II: Through the Alps. This chapter sees a kidnapping of a celebrity, the uncovering of an ancient torso that players will have to lug around with them, the first true appearance of the big bad cult of the collection, and the rise of fascism (and thus Benito Mussolini). It’s a truly bizarre adventure, but one that is a lot of fun and highlights the unique nature of this campaign with strange spells and enemies all over Milan. The chapter ends with a confrontation that is as much about stealth and guile as it is physical/magical confrontation. Book II ends on less than a happy note, but we still have two more books of nothing but adventure material to go. The last thirty pages of the book are maps and handouts, which may be intense for some of you who have never run a campaign of this size before, but I love the sheer amount of tactile extras I’ll get to dispense to people.

    Overall, I’m still very happy with the remake of Horror on the Orient Express. The two new adventures in Book II add roughly one hundred pages of fresh content to the campaign, which is insanely awesome. Both adventures are optional so you can still run the classic campaign if you choose. Everything still plays wonderfully although it’s going to take a Keeper of experience and skill to make “The Dreamlands Express” live up to its potential. If you’re a Kickstarter backer, than you already know you’re getting your money’s worth from just these proofs. If you didn’t back Horror on the Orient Express back when the campaign was going, hopefully these two previews, as well as the two to come, have you itching to throw money at Chaosium for the end product.

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