Tabletop Preview: Horror on the Orient Express Book IV: Constantinople and Consequences (Call of Cthulhu)
Cost: Free to Kickstarter backers ($1,199.50 to everyone else. YES, THAT MUCH)
Page Count: 197
Release Date: 12/23/2013
Get it Here: Chaosium.com
Well here we are with our fourth and final preview of the Horror on the Orient Express remake. Well, technically the fifth if you count the preview I did on the nifty ancillary items that come with the boxed set and/or add-ons. I hope this has been a fun four weeks for you.
Book IV is the shortest of the adventure books. It contains five adventures and a section for rules clarification. The first is “Conversion Notes for Earlier Editions” so you can play the remake with First through Sixth Edition Call of Cthulhu Rules. This appendix (although it’s not called that) gives all sorts of ways to converted from Seventh Edition and also advice on how to use the 7e rules since they are new to everyone. The book then concludes with maps and a list of Kickstarter backers. I’m really glad they included some conversion rules, because every game gets its own Edition Wars debate going. I do wish this was in Book I as it would have fit in there better, and also made the whole thing flow better. It’s weird to have the change of edition rules at the tail end of everything. Still, what matters is that they were included at all, and I’m more than happy about that. Now, let’s take a look at the five adventures awaiting your Investigators at the tail end of this long campaign.
First up is “Repression.” This adventure revolves around the head of the Sedefkar Simulacrum. Fenalik the vampire, who has mutated ala a Pokémon, the Brothers of the Skin and the players all seek the same thing and the end result is a three way dance of chaos. Surprisingly, the PCs are the least proactive at this point, almost blundering into the head thanks to the action of their antagonists. This is also the hardest chapter of the campaign to run. First, a PC will be horribly and permanently mutilated in this one, no matter what they do or what the dice say, so there is a chance of someone getting a case of sour grapes or accusing the Keeper of picking on them when this occurs. Second, there is one aspect of the adventure that is doomed to failure which again, can annoy players, especially if they realize they are in an “on-rails” scenario where the are more or less along for the ride. Finally, this is the final battle with Fenalik and he’s far more powerful than anything characters have dealt with up until now. If players have survived or found the campaign easy up until now…well, they won’t after this. Fenalik is strong enough to kill all but the bulkiest of characters in a single hit. This is the party where a lot of Investigators die out the campaign ends in an outright TPK (total party kill). You have been warned.
Now with all these warnings aside, “Repossession” is a LOT of fun in the hands of a skilled Keeper. It’s essentially the false climax of the campaign and it’s a very exciting and fast paced adventure, all of which is enhanced by the short nature of this piece. While the adventure is not “two fisted pulp,” it is extremely action packed and there is plenty of death on all sides. Players might not be expecting an adventure in this campaign to be this combat oriented or adrenaline filled, but a good Keeper can keep it from feeling like a bad D&D style dungeon crawl or a John Woo film. Keep an emphasis on the horror and weirdness and this becomes an extremely memorable experience – even for those players who see their character die in gruesome fashion here.
“By the Skin of the Teeth” is the second adventure, and this is the end of the line for the Orient Express. The Investigators have finally made it to Constantinople and should have the full Sedefkar Simulacrum in tow, along with the terrible stat penalties it bestows upon them. Of course, perhaps the biggest challenge to overcome is not the antagonists in this chapter, but the fact their numbers have been depleted by the previous adventure. After all, if only one or two PCs remain, they have a huge uphill battle ahead of them. Of course, it’s for this reason the Keeper might want a few pre-generated characters on hand so the other players can still take part in the remnants of the campaign.
The adventure starts off with a light bit of comedy. Well, it won’t seem funny to the players as it happens, but in retrospect it will be quite humorous. This chapter is also one where the Keeper has a lot of leeway to decide what happens, how and when. For a small chunk of “By the Skin of the Teeth,” The Keeper will be created his or her own adventure, tailoring it to the plans and personalities of the Investigators. Otherwise this chapter is figuring out what to do with the assembled statue now that the players have it and fending off (multiple) advances from the Brothers of the Skin, who wish to have the completed artifact. You also have the subplot of a child kidnapping ring and the big battle with the Brothers of the Skin. Investigators will see the true power of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, the true enemy is revealed and you get to encounter an apparition known only as The Flapping Man. Eek. At the end of this adventure, things will seem their darkest with players and Investigators alike feeling that they have failed the campaign. That’s exactly where the Keeper wants them as when he or she reveals there is still more to come, you’ll have them hooked and feel both as excited and as desperate as their characters would.
“Blue Train, Black Night” is the penultimate adventure for the 1920s campaign and it is a race. The remaining Investigators board the west bound Orient Express back to London in hopes of stopping the plans of their true arch enemy. Of course one of the people on board the Orient Express is said arch enemy and so a good deal of the adventure is figuring out WHICH passenger is the one they need to take down. Make the right choice and all is well. Make the wrong choice and well, now you have the police after you. At the same time both Investigators and antagonists will begin to undergo the physical corruption caused by this campaign. Unfortunately the Investigators do not know the ritual that will protect their flesh while the enemy DOES. It can get gross and expect at least one Investigator to go mad from their new appearance. If all this wasn’t enough there is also a motley crew of passengers on board that Investigators will get to know (and perhaps watch die). Perhaps the players will discover an assassination plot not related to their own adventures, or perhaps they will discover an amorous suitor. Who knows?
“Blue Train, Black Night” is far more about investigation and inquiry than combat or violence. That said, things will come down to a battle with the one who has been pulling the PCs’ strings since the beginning of the campaign. This will end in death for a lot of people, some NPC, some PC and hopefully the Big Bad itself. This three day journey back home on board the Orient Express will also bring back a recurring enemy from the Dreamlands. However, this enemy could actually be their greatest ally towards regaining the artifact and defeat the true evil of the campaign. Oh yes, the Orient Express gets a new coat of pain in this adventure…so to speak.
“The Fog Lifts” is the final piece of the 1920s campaign. It is short, but no less thrilling or horrific than the longer more detailed adventures that came before it. I should point out this adventure is almost completely rewritten from the original version. This rewrite adds in a lot of needless padding and an extra monster for no reason other than inserting combat where once there was none – a disappointing sight to see. To be honest, the rewrite needlessly adds in way too much in the same way stock footage increases a movie’s run time, but does nothing for the overall quality of the picture save to drag it down. They really should have left it alone, the same as they did for much of the campaign. At least the core of “The Fog Lifts” is the same – the Investigators have the Sedefkar Simulacrum and have won the day, but even now their arch enemy attempts to strike back with one last ditch plan – not bad for something that died in the previous adventure. More than likely one character will die during this adventure and the Skinless One itself will walk the earth. It’s okay though if this is what is triggered by the players – it’s the appropriate ending and they will see one heck of a finale.
Of course, this is the end of the 1991 campaign, but not the remake. Here we are given a brand new adventure to round out the experience. “The Simulacrum Unbound” is a Call of Cthulhu adventure for modern times, taking place in Istanbul during the year 2013. It takes up roughly forty pages and will vary greatly between Keepers, as it takes into account specific events that you and your players took during the original campaign. It also goes without saying that this is an optional scenario and that it is probably best to give players a breather between the campaign and this epilogue. After all, you’ve probably spent weeks or months playing the core experience.
“The Simulacrum Unbound” is designed for six Investigators, while the core campaign was for four to six (usually four). One of the characters needs to be a descendent of the original 1920s characters. The adventure involves a ticket giveaway for the modern version of the Orient Express (as such it’s probably best the characters don’t know each other going into this. Otherwise it will seem/feel rigged) and it also takes a very weird look at the original campaign. Here someone is trying to re-create the Sedefkar Simulacrum, but in a torture porn sort of way. Which of course is not what most people want or expect from a Call of Cthulhu adventure, but thankfully the adventure doesn’t come across like The Human Centipede 3. Rather it becomes more of a serial killer style thriller or a murder mystery rather than a gore filled B-horror film.
The adventure takes Investigators onboard the Orient Express, but much like the core campaign, this journey quickly becomes a nightmare for all onboard. Slowly passengers are picked off in this attempt to recreate Sedefkar Simulacrum. Unfortunately for everyone, including those behind this mad scheme, things go way of course, with the entire train is transported to an unreality where echoes of the past intrude on modern times in bizarre and surreal ways. This is a perfect way to introduce some of the original characters from your campaign into this adventure, even if for a few, fleeting moments. The climax is a bizarre re-creation/dark parody of the original campaign climax with players (although not characters) experiencing a bit of déjà vu. This really is a well thought out adventure and it is a nice way to pay homage to the original campaign.
I really loved the attention to detail with this adventure. You get a nice summary of the modern Orient Express experience, complete with faux menu, pricing and a list of requirements such as a dress code. I’m really impressed that so much information was provided to the Keeper instead of making them track it down. It really makes running this adventure a lot easier while improving the feel/atmosphere of the piece. NPCs are also really fleshed out and given both back stories and roleplaying tips. You just don’t see this level of attention to the little things in other systems and I think it’s a great example of why I love CoC adventures so much.
The adventure is a lot of fun, but really only if you have played the original campaign. Otherwise much of adventure’s primary draw will be lost. It is still a playable adventure and can be fun in the hands of an experience Keeper, but I wouldn’t advise using it with players who have never experienced (or at least read) the actual Horror on the Orient Express campaign.
So there you go. We’ve now looked at the four core books (Book V: Strangers on a Train has not been provided to me so I can’t comment on or do a preview of it) and the set of ancillary items. Hopefully you’ve had a lot of fun with reading these previews. If you were a Kickstarter backer, you’re no doubt as excited for the final product as I am. If you weren’t a backer of the Horror on the Orient Express remake, hopefully these previews have at least made you curious about both the campaign and Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. We’ll be back in a few months with a full review of the final, physical version of Horror on the Orient Express. Until then, keep visiting us here at Diehard GameFAN for reviews of Call of Cthulhu and other tabletop RPG products.