Tabletop Preview: Horror on the Orient Express Book III: Italy and Beyond (Call of Cthulhu)
Cost: Free to Kickstarter backers ($1,199.50 to everyone else. YES, THAT MUCH)
Page Count: 272
Release Date: 12/23/2013
Get it Here: Chaosium.com
Welcome to our third of our Horror on the Orient Express previews. Well technically, it is our fourth as we hit you with surprise coverage of the physical pieces that go with the campaign. This week we’re looking at Book III: Italy and Beyond. it’s the longest of the five books that make up HotOE, but it actually has only six adventures in it, one less than Through the Alps. Part of this is because the adventure segments are a lot longer, but an equally large reason or this is the sheer number of hand-outs for each section. These hands out are stuck directly into the adventures rather than at the back of each section, which inflates the size of each section, especially when you notice many are one-fourth to one half of a page. This is in addition to the forty or so pages of maps at the back of the book. Again, this is just part of the immersive experience that is Horror on the Orient Express, so Keepers, make sure you have a copier or a scanner and lots of ink handy as you’re going to be getting copious amounts of use out of both as you play through this campaign.
As mentioned earlier, there are seven adventure segments to this leg of the campaign according to the Table of Contents. They are:
Now, you’ll probably notice that the second and fifth adventures have very different dates from the rest of the book. That’s because these are new additional adventures created exclusively for this remake of Horror on the Orient Express. The Dark Crusader is for Cthulhu Dark Ages and Sanguis Omnia Vincet is for Cthulhu Invictus. Both are optional and merely add flavor to the game. We’ll look at them further on in the preview. Something longtime fans of this campaign will notice is that one scenario has been completely excised. I’m talking about In a City of Bells and Towers. This is actually still in the book, but it’s mislabeled in the table of contents. Instead of being bolded and treated as its own adventure, it’s accidentally lumped in as part of “Cold Wind Blowing.” I’ll cover it separately, but just a head’s up about this error. I’m sure it will be fixed in the final version. Remember, I’m looking at the proofs. We’re also given an entirely new piece, Brand or Stone which ties into the other new adventures in this book. With all these three new adventures, this new version of Italy and Beyond is over 130 pages longer than the original 1991 version. Crazy.
Our first adventure, “Death (and Love)” is actually two adventures in one. Neither are connected but both take place at the same time with one having being chock full of supernatural thingies and a high mortality rate while the other is pretty mundane for a Call of Cthulhu affair. The juxtaposition of these two pieces helps to keep players and the Keeper grounded. Together, the timeline for this Venetian excursion is four days and this is one area where the Keeper does need to keep careful track of the date and time. Within Venice, Investigators should find the left leg of Sedefkar Simulacrum. It is also possible to find an items called The Devil’s Simulare, which allows players to play through the second chapter of this book, the optional Cthulhu Dark Ages scenario.
So what are the two adventures? Well one involves the exploits of the recurring vampire antagonist you will encounter and his spree of death throughout the city. The other involves a love triangle and solving a regular old murder without any mythos elements at all. I personally prefer the events of the latter story because if you overwhelm a gamer with too much of the supernatural and horror side of things, it becomes blasé, even in Call of Cthulhu. Meanwhile the vampire oriented bits of this adventure are necessary to keep the campaign going and getting the Investigators one step closer to finishing their Simulacrum. I really enjoyed this leg of the journey and there’s a nice mix of mystery, monsters and murder to ensure every CoC fan gets something out of this. Whether it’s a Deep One red herring, a murder to be solved, helping a distraught young woman, fighting automatons or dealing with vampires, “Death (and Love)” is a lot of fun.
Next up is “The Dark Crusader,” which is an entirely optional affair allowing players to sample Cthulhu Dark Ages. This is new content and of course, entirely optional. You could technically play “The Dark Crusader” on its own if you have a CDA campaign already going, but you won’t get the full effect without prior exposure to Horror on the Orient Express. The vampire (I try not to name him for spoiler reasons) from HotOE can be found here as can Sedefkar himself, which is a fun and unexpected twist. It’s also worth noting that the adventure is “on rails” so to speak, with a predetermined outcome that Investigators can’t change. They are along for the ride, which some gamers will find disappointing, but “The Dark Crusader” is meant to be a bit of a break from the core campaign and/or fanservice flavor text, and nothing more. The adventure comes with pre-generated characters and you probably should use them as it saves time and attachment. After all, this is meant to be a one shot foray into CDA.
“The Dark Crusader” takes places during the fall of Constantinople and players will take on the role of Crusaders. To help Keepers, the adventure contains a lot of background information about the region, including political squabbles, history and general information on the Crusades in general. The adventure has characters tracking down a possible heretic using evil magic, but things unfold much differently than they expect. You get to encounter a priest with a cursed eye, a would-be satanic artifact, a ship full of lepers, and a cult devoted to the worship of the Skinless Ones. Hell, there’s even a DRAGON. Yes, an actual dragon. All in all, “The Dark Crusader” ties in wonderfully with the core campaign and at least when a character dies in this part, you won’t be too upset. There’s a lot of unexpected twists and turns and I think the horror level of this section is easily the highest in the entire campaign. There’s also a lot of combat and the death toll should be high here. Remember the adventure is geared to that even if players succeed, they still fail. It’s part of the overall picture for the campaign.
Next up is “Cold Wind Blowing” which is the second core adventure in this book and the third adventure overall. This is the spot where a lot of the back story becomes told to the Investigators and they can start to realize exactly what sort of insanity they have been dropped into. It’s also the chapter where players make a very powerful ally, obtain the Ithaqua Medallion that has been such a memorable piece of the campaign over the years (and can now be purchased once the campaign is available to the general public. Alas, the one you will be able to buy from Chaosium.com lacks any powers mentioned in this book. Keep that in mind.) and a group of lloigor. This has always been my personal favorite piece of Horror on the Orient Express and hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I have over the past two decades. Of course, I’m a sucker for Ithaqua so that might explain my fondness here.
Investigators will also find another piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum in this leg of the journey. They’ll also take place in the creepiest dinner party sine Beetlejuice and get to deal with a haunted hotel. Man, there is so much to love about “Cold Wind Blowing,” I just want to go into copious amounts of detail…but that would involve spoilers. Just know that this section is perhaps the most classical in terms of CoC tropes and while there is action aplenty to be had, it’s not all that combat oriented. Okay, the end of this adventure has a lot of bullets flying, but much of this piece is talking, investigation and diplomacy at work.
Our fourth adventure is “In a City of Bells and Towers.” This is a separate Dreamlands adventure and the one I mentioned was mislabeled in the table of contents at the beginning of this piece. This is an optional scenario (although it wasn’t in the 1991 original) and it ties directly into “Nocturne” from Book II. This is a short little affair in which a previous antagonist has a bit of revenge on the characters. This is a very safe piece as players have no chance of dying here and it really is meant to be simply adding to the overall feel of the campaign and give Investigators a breather between life threatening and world saving pieces. Although this piece is optional and characters can lose a great deal of their Sanity Points from it, perhaps more than any other leg of the journey, it is also where Investigators can earn more Cthulhu Mythos points than in any other published adventure for Call of Cthulhu. A lot of risk, but a lot of potential reward and that alone will have Keepers wanting to run it and players wanting to well..play it.
We’re now on to “Bread and Stone,” our fifth adventure in this book and the second of two new additions to the Horror on the Orient Express campaign. Like all the new content, this is another optional adventure. The Investigators have to make an unexpected stop due to an anarchist bombing and find themselves embroiled in the search for a missing Archaeologist. Of course the Brothers of the Skin are nearby and interfere with your search, but not in the way you might be expecting. I swear, these guys are almost like Team Rocket at this point. “Bread and Stone” also brings home the issues between the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – issues that still occur to this day. Once again the Keeper has to be aware of the actual events and political turmoil in a region in addition to the usual mythos rigmarole.
Aside from the cult activities, “Blood and Stone” is a pretty mundane based adventure. You’ll use lots of Credit Rating and Persuade, so hopefully a character has a high level in one or both of these skills. Towards the end of the adventure things do get a little “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and there’re a few bits that are akin to dungeon crawls. The end of the adventure is creepy and sad at the same time and it’s an interesting piece to play, but it’s entirely optional and not something your players will miss if you leave it out.
Our penultimate piece in this collection is “Sanguis Omnia Vincet” and it is the optional Cthulhu Invictus piece. I have to admit, I don’t care much for Cthulhu Invictus so this is definitely one I’d skip if I ran the new version of HotOE. It’s also suggested you have a copy of Cthulhu Invictus to run this piece, but it isn’t necessary. I’m never a fan of when more than a core rulebook is required for an adventure, and especially an adventure within an adventure, so that’s two strikes against it. Finally, this is another “on rails” piece, meaning that the outcome is preordained no matter what the players do. The Investigators (pre-gens of course) are doomed to a horrible outcome so that the adventure doesn’t contradict the core campaign. For many, all of the issues mentioned above are going to make many a keeper excise this from their own campaign and I can’t say I’d blame them. However, none of that actually considers the plot of the “Sanguis Omnia Vincet” and we need to take a look at that so see if the first impression is correct or not.
This adventure chronicles the origins of both the vampire antagonist plaguing the core 1920s Investigators as well as the Brothers of the Skin. So Investigators will get to see how this entire ball of wax got started, but at the same time, they’re learn a lot their own main characters should not know, and as we all know trying to get most people to separate player knowledge from character knowledge is usually folly. So while the adventure is an interesting one, this is another reason to actually not play this. It’s great for the Keeper to read and understand the motivations of the antagonists he is playing as though, but it. Also as a one shot with a little modification.
The characters must investigate a spreading disease known as the Valerian Plague, discover its origins and also how to stem its tide. This is a fine plot hook, but unfortunately it gets a little too over the top and at times feels like zombie-a-rama. I think this adventure would have worked a lot better as part of Weird Wars Rome rather than part of Horror on the Orient Express as it just has a completely different atmosphere and style to it. That said, the information is rife with historical information a Keeper can make good use of, and the piece is very well laid out and written. It’s just not my cup of tea nor what I look for in a Call of Cthulhu adventure. Again though, as long as your players aren’t the type to get upset at the idea of an unwinnable scenario and can appreciate the huge change in tone from the rest of HotOE (or you know, just enjoy Cthulhu Invictus), this is probably up their alley. Different strokes and what not.
We end Book III with “Little Cottage in the Woods,” which brings us back to the original 1991 edition content and the last core adventure in this book. By the time you are done with this adventure you’ll have captured another part of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, but to get it, you’ll have to deal with the Baba Yaga first. Now, the Baba Yaga is not a diablerist vampire, nor is she the witchy crone from Russian folklore. In this adventure the Baba Yaga is a cult (coven?) devoted to Shub-Niggurath…which is probably worse when you think about it.
You’ll also find this chapter is pretty much pure two fisted pulp at times, including a chase scene through a market after a thief. At the same, you’ll be using a lot of your investigation and schmoozing skills, so fans of that version of CoC will be quite happy. In fact, this chapter has something for everyone, so it’s really a win-win for everyone, regardless of play style. I really enjoyed the blend of real world folklore with Cthulhu Mythos pieces and the juxtaposition between the more action side of this chapter with the need for research and study. Everything comes together wonderfully with the climax of an evil house, a pissed off Dark Young and a nearly complete Simulacrum. This is a fine way to end Book III and players will no doubt realize how close they are to completing the adventure…unless they’re all dead at this point.
So there we go. I do feel BOOK III is the weakest of the three books devoted to the campaign’s adventures, but I’ve always felt that way. It’s kind of a dip in quality wedged between two top notch pieces. That doesn’t mean what’s here is bad. I still enjoy this leg of the campaign. It’s just not AS GOOD as the other parts. It’s still weird seeing a lot of the art from the original exchanged in favor of monograph style photos from the time period. I am hoping this is just the proof for whatever reason as the original art was quite fun. Book III does contain my favorite segment of the collection and the three new optional pieces vary in quality and overall impact on the campaign, but mileage will definitely vary with those. I’m more than happy to have the new pieces in Horror on the Orient Express as they are all optional so if you don’t like them, you don’t HAVE to use them. You can pick and choose to make the version of the campaign you are most comfortable with running, and that’s what is most important. I’m really happy with the first three books so far and can’t wait for next week when we look at the fourth and final book in this preview series. Join me then as we take our last journey on the Orient Express together. Until then, feel free to read the previews of the previous two books as well as the photo collection we have of some of the ancillary and add on items for the campaign.