Tabletop Preview: Horror on the Orient Express, Book I: Campaign Book (Call of Cthulhu)
Cost: Free to Kickstarter backers ($1,199.50 to everyone else. YES, THAT MUCH)
Page Count: 76
Release Date 12/23/2013
Get it Here: Chaosium.com
As a Christmas present to the 1,374 Kickstarter backers who supported the Horror on the Orient Express remake for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, Chaosium sent everyone the proofs for all four books in PDF format so that they could get a head start on reading the material, as well as preparing campaigns of their own. Meghan over at Chaosium sent me an email right as I was boarding a plane to Mexico for a week (a much deserved vacation) and asked if I could do a piece on Horror on the Orient Express in a vein similar to all the Call of Cthulhu reviews I do for Diehard GameFAN. I was more than happy to as I still have my original copy of Horror on the Orient Express (complete in its little box/slipcase hybrid) from 1991. It’s one of my favorite campaigns for any system and I love that a whole new generation of gamers are going to get the chance to play this collection. However, since Horror on the Orient Express is a collection of five books and clocks in at close to 1,000 pages, I don’t think a single preview would do the product justice. Instead, I’ll be doing four separate previews, one for each book in the collection except Book V: Strangers on a Train, because that one isn’t included in the proof set. That way I can really talk about each specific book in depth and also give you a reason to come back to the site each week.
Book I aka The Campaign Book is the shortest at only 76 pages…which should give you an idea how long the other three are. They’re as long as some core rule books! The first ten pages are an odd collection of filler and thanks. There’s a nice tribute to the late, great Lynn Willis, a whopping two pages of credits, a three page introduction and a page of thanks! The introduction really highlights a lot of changes between the 2014 and 1991 editions of the campaign, including new backstories for NPCs and a completely new history for the Sedefkar Simulacrum, one of the key MacGuffins of the adventure. This means even veterans who have played through the original campaign several times will find many changes and a lot of new content. I’m sure because of these changes there will definitely be some strong opinions as to which version of the campaign is better but honestly, it’s almost like comparing oranges to tangelos. They’re similar citrus fruits, but different enough that one can appreciate them both for what they are. Most telling about this piece is that you can really see that the Horror on the Orient Express remake isn’t just a Chaosium publication, but a Cthulhu Mythos community one. After all, people from Yog-Sothoth.com, The HPL Historical Society, Golden Goblin press, Sixtystone Press, The Unspeakable Oath, Diehard GameFAN, and numerous individuals not associated with any of the above all helped out in various ways to make the end product come to life. It’s a bit startling to see just how many people took part in the crafting of this remake, but at the same time, it’s heartwarming as it shows the Call of Cthulhu fanbase is as strong as ever.
Contrary to what you might think, The Campaign Book is not just the set up for the campaign. It is also a collection of essays and information designed to help the Keeper (and to some extent the Investigators as well) really flesh out his campaign so that it comes to live with historical accuracy and real life events from the time period in which Horror on the Orient Express takes place. We have a great history on the Orient Express itself from its origins in 1182 to its modern day incarnation (something I hope to ride at some point). This essay also includes sidebars about appropriate books, movies and Cthulhu related products that can help you enhance the overall experience of the campaign. I was very happy to see The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux make the list as I used that heavily when I was a teenager running Horror on the Orient Express for the first time. One book missing from the list that you might also want to pick up is also by Paul Theroux and is entitled Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. It’s a ride on both the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian railway and touches on many of the locations in this campaign.
From there you get twenty pages of essays. Here you’ll find everything you need to make your campaign as detailed as possible. Need a list of all the job descriptions for people working aboard the Orient Express? You’ll find it here. Want a list of all the cards that make up the Venice-Simplon train and the order/arrangement in which they are found? It’s here. Curious about what first aid supplies or tools are carried on the train? You can find that information in these pages. There’s a list of stops, how to deal with getting firearms onboard the train as well as the different laws each country has for carrying them, and a really nice essay on plane travel which is more useful than you might expect for an adventure that revolves around train travel. All of the essays are really well done and the Campaign Book shines because of it.
Of course, what you all really care about is the actual campaign content in this book. Well as the campaign material starts on page 43 of the PDF (41 in physical form), you’re getting most of a Cliff Notes version of what to expect along with a lot of advice and help for the keeper. I love the new icons provided in the book to signify core scenario, optional material and areas where the campaign can go wildly off-rails. This is a fun little touch to the calendar of events which will help a Keeper out immensely. As you run through the calendar of events, you’ll see that there are nineteen possible adventures that make up the Horror on the Orient Express campaign. I believe the Gaslight era adventure will make twenty, but it’s missing from the timeline so I’m not sure what’s going on with that piece. Of the nineteen adventures, eleven are core scenarios for the campaign and eight are optional. Some of the new optional content written specifically for the remake involves a piece in the Dreamlands and a sequel of sort that takes place in Istanbul in the year 2014. This timeline was a lot of fun to read. It gives you between one and three paragraphs per adventure and they are detailed enough that a Keeper can decide which optional pieces they want to excise from their campaign, if any.
After the calendar, you get a nice look at the Sedefkar Simulacrum. Again, the background and history of the piece is notably different from the original campaign, but all the core aspects that long time fans of HotOE love are still here. The machinations of the Skinless One, the Voorish Knife, the vampire Fenalik, a certain set of scrolls and some familiar nefarious antagonists are all still present in the adventure. As such, the changes will really only be noticed by the Keeper and even then, most gamers won’t notice them unless they are very familiar with the 1991 original edition of this campaign. From there, Keepers are given advice on how to start the campaign, some ways to throw in incidental events so Investigators aren’t just doing one large crisis after another, and other nifty tidbits.
Right after all this Keeper information is a piece entitled “The Investigator Survival Guide,” which feels oddly placed. Usually books are arranged where pieces for everyone are upfront and Keeper only items are in the back. You might think that this section is for players to read due to the title, but it’s actually for the Keeper. It’s a way to help the Keeper and players craft characters that will be useful and perhaps survive the campaign. You get some nice advice on what skills will be especially helpful in this campaign. Some might poo-poo this as spoiling or cheating but honestly, they’re the same skills that are always of note like Library Use, so it’s not like you’re being told to put a ton of points in Drive Train or Sanskrit.
You also get a reminder of new 7e aspects like pushing failed rolls and using Luck as a dispensable resource. You’d be surprised how much these two new aspects make Horror on the Orient Express easier to survive. That doesn’t mean character death is non-existent. Far from it, but as you play the campaign with 7e rules rather than, say, 5e, you will notice Luck rolls and pushing give the characters more opportunities to get out of deadly situations. Does that mean this incarnation of the campaign is easier because of the rule changes? Well yes, it does. At the same time, the old version all but guaranteed the original set of characters would be dead by the time you hit Constantinople, and so the difficulty level/mortality rate seemed to be a sore spot with some gamers. This is a way of balancing things back in favor of the Investigators and it’s really going to be up to each player’s individual preferences and tastes as to whether the changes to Luck and the addition of pushing is a good thing or a bad thing. Meanwhile there is some downright INSANE advice from Modiphus Press in this piece like doubling character hit points, halving enemy hit points and letting players ignore enemy armor. This just made me want to roll my eyes and retch because Investigators will just steamroll through this thing and you pretty much lose all sense of terror, horror and danger from this campaign. It’s one thing (and indeed admirable) to try and balance things out. It’s another to make the campaign the equivalent of a video game where some has grinded their characters up to Level 99 and then just cakewalk through the rest of things. Ugh. Just ignore this bit.
The rest of the Investigator section is full of ways to make the campaign easier for the players instead of the giant death and insanity trap the original was. One of the things we’ve all noticed about 7e Call of Cthulhu is that it is very similar to Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition in that with both games, balance has swung wildly in the favor of player survival instead of grisly character demise. This is neither a good thing or a bad thing – it all depends on what you want to play. Older, more grizzled gamers that poo-poo how easy modern games are probably won’t be happy with the advice in this section. They’ll view it as mollycoddling or too alien from the CoC they’ve played over the years. Meanwhile gamers who are used to more modern era releases will probably enjoy the changes of 7e and especially appreciate the section on modifying the difficulty of scenarios as well as all the extra clues and hits that Investigators can find in order to progress instead of finding themselves stuck or worse. At no point do I think 7e or the changes to Horror on the Orient Express will inspire edition war insanity the level of what hits D&D every few years. This is partly true because this version of the campaign supports previous versions of CoC in addition to the upcoming Seventh Edition, meaning that if you think the 7e changes aren’t for the better, you can still play this with Sixth, Fifth or hell, even First Edition rules. Meanwhile, if you love CoC but have a hard time getting friends to play it because it can be extremely unforgiving, 7e might be the edition that finally helps you to showcase why you love the system so much. It’s also partly true because CoC gamers tend to be far more accepting and less defensive toward each other’s edition of choice. My personal view is that 7e doesn’t have either of its core rulebooks out yet, so there’s no point in even trying to state a subjective opinion on which edition is better. Just be happy we’re getting a remake of HotOE at all instead of having to pay exorbitant third party seller prices for a nearly twenty-five year old copy.
The Campaign Book ends with a set of essays to help establish mood for Horror on the Orient Express. “A Continent of Horrors” talks about the principal horror authors of each European country in the 1920s as well as stories set in those locations. It’s a wonderful piece and you may discover some new stories, authors or even CoC material to pick up after reading it. “Celluloid Train Terrors” is a fine piece on spooky movies about trains. It’s too bad the list only contains European and North American movies as there are some good Asian horror films about trains, but the Japanese rail system is dramatically different from ones in the West, so perhaps that is why. I also have to sadly point out that several of the films like Horror Express and The Ghost Train are not available on Netflix. Boo-urns. Finally the book ends with a set of important newspaper headlines from the dates in which the campaign takes place and some nice maps and illustrations.
Overall,The Campaign Book of Horror on the Orient Express is a real treat and aside from the potential dramarama players may have over 7e making the game easier, this first book is something fans of any CoC edition will love flipping through. I’m really impressed by what is here and the more I read of Horror on the Orient Express, the more excited I am to get the physical copy placed on my shelf right next to the original.
If you’re curious as to what all comes in the Horror on the Orient Express boxed set, here is a list of the basics. Note that this doesn’t contain any of the swanky Kickstarter add-ons or extras like the miniatures, soundtrack, luggage or Ithaqua medallion.
If that list doesn’t have you at least curious about the final product once it’s released, I don’t know what to tell you. Join us back here next week as I look through Book II: Through the Alps and we give you a taste of what awaits you once you finally start playing Horror on the Orient Express.