A Bumpy Ride On a Rehauled Railroad

The 2013 Kickstarter-funded rerelease of Horror On the Orient Express was a major undertaking for Chaosium, and from certain perspectives can be seen as a bit of a disaster. Sure, sure, the product did indeed come out and backers by and large got what they were promised and so on and so forth – but the handling of the Kickstarter, and the subsequent Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter, involved errors so major that they spelled the end of the Charlie Krank regime at Chaosium, as Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen were forced to step in and use their majority control of the company to prompt Charlie to resign, clearing the way for Moon Design Publishing to become the new management team.

I told the full story of how that went down in my retrospective of the 7th Edition Kickstarter, and since I was not a backer of the original Orient Express Kickstarter I can’t give much insight into how major management errors affected it. (In particular, I can’t see any of the backer-only Kickstarter updates which would allow me to get a full picture.) However, some of the problems are well known. In both Kickstarters, the Krank regime went a bit hog-wild with the stretch goals, making the classic Kickstarter error of promising a grand conga line of additional features which will greatly increase the work needed to complete the project, as well as getting overenthusiastic about making various little bits of associated merch which, whilst charming in concept, weren’t really within Chaosium’s wheelhouse when it came to manufacturing or sourcing them.

A truly major problem, however, was that they badly undercharged for shipping – a blunder compounded by the fact that they did the exact same thing on the 7th Edition Kickstarter. Even if a backer only wanted the main Orient Express boxed set, this was a problem, because thanks to all of those stretch goals the new boxed adventure was astonishingly heavy – I don’t own it, but I’ve picked it up in game shops to get a feel and it’s like it’s got lead plates in there or something. This only exacerbated the issues with the shipping costs, and can’t have made manufacture all that easy either.

As a result, when Greg, Sandy, and Moon Design burst into the command centre at Chaosium HQ and wrestled Charlie Krank away from the main control panel, one of their first orders of business was tidying up the mess that had been made of the two Kickstarters. This involved some triage – on the 7th Edition Kickstarter, a brace of stretch goals or add-ons relating to random merch and tat were simply dropped, though since backers were getting an astonishing amount of stuff (thanks to those stretch goals) for a comparatively modest outlay I don’t think anyone can say they didn’t get way more value for money out of that Kickstarter than could be reasonably expected.

To all appearances, Chaosium are back on an even keel now, but it was certainly a scary moment for them, and to get this stability an awful lot of work had to be done honouring promises to Kickstarter backers and mending bridges with various creditors. The Orient Express boxed sets did end up going to backers, and did indeed end up distributed to game shops and sold – but I have to wonder whether it turned a profit in the end, after so much money got eaten up in shipping and other charges. In addition to this, it’s pretty clear that the boxed set stuffed with booklets and deluxe handouts and the like was just not a viable form factor for reprints; the interior layout was also done to the standard of the better releases of the late Krank regime, which means a very simple no-frills two-column monochrome layout; this is not in keeping with the production standards the new regime at Chaosium now insist on for major products, and which they brought to bear on releases like the revised Masks of Nyarlathotep.

For those that are very keen to get a hard copy of the campaign, Chaosium have now put out a two-volume hardcover set, which essentially reprints the material from the boxed set in a somewhat more manageable form factor. This has not been subjected to extensive editing and revision, though apparently some especially bad typos have been squashed. Some optional material is not included, like the in-character Traveler’s Companion, though this was not actually a plot-critical document in any way; a bigger issue is that a lot of the page number references have not been updated (at least, not as of the printing of the hardcovers my copies came from), which can be a pain because of course the hardcovers have different page numbering to the original collection of booklets.

That said, if you buy the hardcovers via Chaosium’s website they come bundled with PDF and ebook format downloads of all the materials from the boxed set, and ultimately material is presented in the hardcovers in a sufficiently logical order that it will rarely be difficult to find the thing you need. (If you only want a PDF, you can get that via Chaosium’s site too, or via DriveThruRPG, and that’ll also contain the materials.) It may take a little work, but then again juggling some six booklets would take some work, so when it comes to the physical manifestations of this new version of the adventure I feel it’s much of a muchness in the convenience stakes.

But is it worth it in any format? My answer is a tentative “maybe”. I am not as enthused about running the full-fat Horror On the Orient Express campaign as written as I am about potentially running Masks of Nyarlathotep, but I do still think it is a useful resource for Call of Cthulhu Keepers.

Though statted for 7th Edition, Horror On the Orient Express has not quite had the same level of extra polish added as the new edition of Masks has. There have been a great many additions, but not much in the way of revisions, which means that parts of the original campaign which were quite weak in their original presentation are essentially regurgitated here unchanged, with the same problems intact. Conversely, Masks was more modest in terms of what was added, but gave itself a freer hand in terms of what was revised, and was the better for it.

Of course, this is another issue where the grand promises made in the Kickstarter campaign may have bitten Chaosium in the ass. A good chunk of the Kickstarter stretch goals involved the addition of new optional scenarios in the campaign; the original version of Orient Express already had some, but in this one there’s an absolute ton of side stories and optional chapters which can be woven into the campaign, including jaunts to the Dreamlands and the eras of Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and Cthulhu By Gaslight. An entire spin-off book, the French Revolution-themed Reign of Terror, was inspired by these stretch goals, though it was executed by the new regime at Chaosium and so has a nicer presentation and better editing than Krank-era material.

In some respects this is quite nice, because it allows you to adapt the campaign significantly by choosing which side stories to deploy and which to hold back – or you can throw them all in, though this can mean that the players end up spending significant amounts of time not playing their main PCs, to the point of potentially losing track of what their characters from 1923 were actually doing by the time these side stories resolve. Precisely because these side stories are not essential to the main plot, a chunk of them are also quite amenable to being parcelled out as self-contained investigations; chapters of the main plot could also be used as resources to cannibalise for self-contained stories, but would likely require more work, but even so they do provide a deep bench of NPCs and ideas to play with.

Nonetheless, the more of these stretch goals were greenlit, the more time and effort was needed to write them all – and thus the less there was available to provide further polish and revision to the existing sections of the track. There is an extent to which the side stories here reach an absurd number; with the aid of the rather handy section at the front which lays out what chapters constitute main plot and which are sidetracks, there’s 11 main plot chapters and 8 side stories, 9 if you include Reign of Terror. It’s approaching a 50-50 split – and is probably actually a 50-50 split if you take into account the fact that some of the side stories need an extensive amount of space (for instance, the Gaslight-era one needs a fair amount of page count to provide a full discussion of how the Oriental Express of the 1890s operated, and of course Reign of Terror is an entire mini-campaign in its own right). As nice as it is to have so many side stories, it still makes you wonder what could have been had Chaosium been more modest with how many they added and focused more on revisions to the core chapters.

That said, I simply don’t trust that Krank regime would have actually invested its time and resources in that manner to begin with – and the fact of the matter is that Orient Express is the last major release under the Krank regime; delivery of the set was already underway (albeit in a slow and lackadaisical fashion) when the regime change happened, so the new regime at Chaosium cannot be 100% blamed for the state the product is in. One might query the wisdom of putting out the hardcovers in this case, but I think it is justified (even considering that it’s clearly rushed in terms of updating the page references) because a) it lets them get a bit more return on investment out from the effort without going to the gargantuan undertaking of properly revising the campaign again – something which customers arguably won’t accept so soon after the last revision, and b) it serves a stated aim of theirs to allow people who want a hard copy to get a hard copy without paying extortionate rates on the second hand market.

When it comes to using the campaign set as a resource for your own Call of Cthulhu scenarios, rather than using the campaign in its own right, you do at least get a fair amount of information here. In both this revision and the original scenario a fair amount of introductory material was provided on the Orient Express itself, and this section is a de facto mini-supplement on rail travel in 1920s Europe – perhaps a dry subject, but one of clear practical application for Call of Cthulhu games. Though the authors have a clear enthusiasm for the subject, a suitable focus on information of utility in an actual game is provided. What’s the route? Who are the staff onboard? What is the arrangement of the carriages? What’s in the engineer’s tool box? These details and more are provided. The new version adds a useful look at the state of air travel in Europe in the 1920s and the legalities of gun ownership on the continent, both subjects which are also likely to be useful in a classic-era Call of Cthulhu campaign set in Europe.

As far as the campaign itself goes, there are some sensible revisions. Some of the side-effects suffered by PCs as a result of collecting parts of the MacGuffin they’ve been sent off on a cross-Europe journey to recover are revised so that they are less appallingly harsh game mechanically speaking whilst remaining unpleasant. The backstory has been tweaked a bit, but this is largely to accommodate the new optional scenarios and the new backstory is extremely close to the old one. An “Investigator Survival Guide” has been provided to give the Keeper suggestions on how to keep PCs alive – or at least alive long enough to suffer a truly worthy death – and flagging a particular NPC who seems to be largely responsible for mass death and TPKs when people try to run Orient Express, and noting how some items from the optional adventures can provide useful (but costly) ways of dealing with that particular individual. Individual chapters have had useful timelines of how the scenario is likely to unfold and current events in the relevant location added in.

I may as well do a location-by-location breakdown here, since the itinerary of the particular Orient Express route that the campaign focuses on is, of course, a matter of public record, so even if I am giving away the order in which towns on the route from Paris to Constantinople (not yet Istanbul!) are encountered, that doesn’t actually give away any plot not already flagged by the title of the campaign.

The adventure kicks off in London, and while the new version does slightly expand on the beginning by providing a potential reason for the PCs to come to London in the first place, spurring their invitation to the lecture which kicks off the action proper, it does not improve very much on the original beginning of the campaign. In both editions, the Keeper is expected to basically narrate the PCs sitting through a lecture, and to regale the players with key points made in the presentation – except so far as I can tell, these points are only relevant briefly, much later in the campaign, and really don’t need to be relayed in this laborious fashion. Since only a very mild plot development happens here – one which can be entirely missed due to failed Spot Hidden rolls – it feels like this section could have been tightened up or replaced with something much snappier.

(It gets worse. The lecture is only particularly relevant to that later incident in the revised version of the campaign. In the original, the later incident does not particularly resemble the sort of phenomena the lecture focuses on, so in the 1991 iteration of the campaign the lecture is a total red herring. Making it at least marginally relevant is an improvement, but even so either cutting it much shorter or making it centrally relevant would be a bigger improvement.)

The rest of the initiating scenario is pretty decent, with suitable small improvements made in the new edition. (Dialogue previously presented as an unwieldy mass of boxed text is now provided as bullet points for Keepers to work into conversation more naturally, for instance.) In both the original and revised versions of the campaign, the first optional scenario is found in London, and the two versions are almost identical: this is a shame, because the scenario involves arbitrarily railroading a PC to an inevitable demise.

No, really, I’m not kidding: if you run the scenario as written, you are directly instructed to kill off one of the PCs at a point. This happens unavoidably, without any scope for player action to change anything, as soon as the PCs have performed the one action they need to do in order to trigger the climactic incident of the scenario; the only way for all the PCs to survive the scenario is for them to fail to solve the mystery. Whilst inevitable doom is often cited as an entertaining feature of Call of Cthulhu, killing off a PC within a session or two of the start of a long campaign without giving even a slim chance of escape is pretty heavy-handed and obnoxious. This aspect of the scenario practically screams out for revision, and yet is left as-is.

London is also where the trigger for the Cthulhu By Gaslight scenario may be found. This is a largely self-contained mission which can fill in some interesting background; one could even run it as a prologue to the main campaign and then have older versions of the PCs from the Gaslight scenario be PCs in the main story. It’s an interesting concept, but relies a certain amount on sensationalised depictions of the more salacious aspects of Ottoman society, combined with a plot which can read like it’s playing into anxieties about foreigners (and foreign dress specifically); whilst tonally appropriate to 1890s fiction, it perhaps regurgitates some outdated tropes in a rather uncritical manner.

Next up is Paris and environs; Reign of Terror is the optional side-track here, which I’ve already reviewed. As for the main plot, some light revisions are added. Mild linkages to later scenarios or current events are added, as are a few scraps of details on subjects which the investigators have logical reasons to research in Paris but which the original version of the campaign didn’t consider (who could have guessed that a passing reference to Napoleon’s armies prompt investigators to look up Napoleonic records in Paris?), and some truly ridiculous Library Use roll requirements at the Bibliothèque Nationale are very sensibly toned down.

That said, some quite tough ones are still in place, despite the fact that players cannot actually find the item they need to retrieve – and have been told they need to retrieve – without success, so there’s still an annoying time-wasting roadblock here, just less of an extreme one. This is exactly the sort of obnoxious scenario design bad habit which has damaged Call of Cthulhu‘s reputation in the past (and make no mistake, this is not an issue intrinsic to the system so much as it is a consequence of bad scenario design), and which prompted the design of Trail of Cthulhu. At least in 7th Edition the rules for spending Luck, “pushing” dice rolls, and better guidelines for use of Idea rolls provide useful fallback mechanisms, as I noted in my review of the new edition – but best practice in scenario design can make many such fallbacks less necessary. Here, not using them risks making Horror On the Orient Express outright unbearable.

By and large, though, the Paris chapter is unchanged from the original version. This is a problem, because the original version is quite railroady. After the Bibliothèque, there are two major locations that PCs must visit. In one location, they must obtain a particular item if their mission is to continue at all, but a series of events more or less leads them to it by their nose. In the other location, they will encounter an enigma which is, at least during this stay in Paris, impossible; this sets up some further stuff later on in the campaign, so there is at least a payoff to this investigative side-track, but at the same time it’s likely to be frustrating (and not in a fun way) at the time.

Even more annoying, the investigators are assumed to tackle the impossible investigation before the one they inevitably succeed at; the latter assumes a particular NPC has picked up the trail of the PCs, you see, but the point where that NPC picks up the trail is at the locale with the insoluble mystery, so if the PCs didn’t go there first – or don’t go there at all – and then leave Paris, you end up with a plot hole because an NPC crucial to the climactic sequences of the campaign never became aware of the PCs and their mission!

This sort of thing is eminently soluble with some Keeper ingenuity, of course – but it’s one thing to account for players taking things in a different direction, or to give them a fair crack at actually solving a problem presented as insoluble in the text of the campaign, and quite another to account for the effects of this further down the campaign. Admittedly, in a campaign based on the investigators visiting various locales along the Orient Express route, some literal and figurative railroading may be expected – but an awful lot of the subsequent campaign depends on the players succeeding at certain things here and failing at other things.

The campaign is quite simply written assuming a particular order of activities on the part of the player characters – at which they must generally succeed unless and until the text of the adventure makes it impossible for them to succeed – and does not provide much in the way of fallback support for if things go astray. In this it compares badly with Masks of Nyarlathotep, especially in its current revision, which is much happier to say “here is a perilous location/situation/set of people: it’s down to your players to decide how they tackle it” for much of its span.

A stark contrast is given between this and the Dreamlands scenario, which can begin once the PCs leave Paris on the Orient Express proper and can be dipped into and out of as the campaign progresses. Though the original version of the campaign dipped into dream realms here and there, this new chapter by Penelope Love unfolds within the full-fat Dreamlands of Lovecraft’s fantasy stories – cats of Ulthar and all. This scenario is nicely conceived, has a range of interesting NPCs, offers reasonable scope for PCs to come up with their own approach to things, and builds to an exciting climax where PCs might be able to obtain an item that could be very useful to them in the main campaign; equally, it would do just fine as a standalone Dreamlands story. Frankly, it kind of makes the core chapters of the campaign look bad when set next to them.

The Lausanne chapter has many of the railroading issues of the Paris chapter; these are alleviated in some respects with a few revisions that may change a few things, but there is a firm assumption that a very specific series of events will happen, regardless of what the PCs do. In the revised version a few small gestures are made towards considering what the PCs might do at some points, but these only have the effect of noting why alternate plans do not work, or at the very least strongly urging PCs back onto the planned railroad.

Mild improvements have been made to the even more railroady Milan chapter, but these could go further and in some respects seem incomplete. In the original version, the investigators arrive in Milan, are confronted with a mystery which they can’t actually effectively investigate – in the sense that the text basically assumes they aren’t trying to investigate, and doesn’t suggest any route which might lead to some answers – see a bunch of odd stuff, go to the opera, and then have the MacGuffin piece they were hoping to find here just sort of show up right under their nose.

In the revised version, at least a token effort is made to take account of the fact that the investigators might want to investigate stuff, rather than traipse around looking at things until a plot-critical item is dangled before them. There’s even an entire new side plot added in, which if the investigators look into may give them an alternate route to tracking down the antagonist of this chapter – it says so and everything.

What it doesn’t do, despite presenting it as a clear possibility, is actually consider what an alternative conclusion to the chapter might look like; it goes as far as pointing the investigators in the general direction of a proposed locale for this confrontation, but leaves outlining it down to the Keeper. There’s nothing wrong with expecting referees to do a bit of their own work if the PCs have done something that the scenario designers didn’t consider, but the fact that this whole alternate strand just sort of tapers off with “eh, you figure it out” makes it seem like a bit of an afterthought, rather than the sort of root-and-branch reworking that this chapter is crying out for.

On to the second hardback. Penelope Love handles the Venice chapter; in both the original version of the campaign and the revision, it is a marked improvement, in part because Love weaves in an unrelated B-plot, the outcome of which is not of crucial importance to the direction of the campaign, which means there’s a precious strand of actual interactivity here. In addition, the main plot aspects are dealt with fairly smoothly.

In the revision, the chapter is tightened up further – largely by dialling back potential red herrings in the B-plot (in which an antagonistic figure was given occult interests more extensive than they really need to be for the plot in question, undermining the joy of a basically mundane story) and reflecting some further research into the era. For instance, the background of many NPCs is updated to reflect the shadow cast by World War I, and the fact that most people of a certain age in this part of the world would have had some form of troubling war experience; the political tensions of the time are also given more attention.

The revision also beefs up the A-plot somewhat, enhancing some of the investigative legwork. In particular, it cleverly ensures that the PCs only find out the name of a particularly significant family during their Venice investigations, rather than back in London; this avoids the complication of the referee having to deal with the PCs potentially telegramming ahead to inquire after, identify, and negotiate with the relevant NPCs before they get to Venice. In addition, the plot is further expanded to allow the PCs a glimpse of one of the NPCs who has been trailing them – something other main plotline chapters are a bit reluctant to do.

On the whole, it’s a chapter which does not have that much in the form of direct supernatural threat, but does entail a lot of foreshadowing. Really, there’s only one significant problem with it: namely, that by far the most exciting thing happening in Venice during the investigators’ stay is a spate of murders – murders which the PCs cannot fruitfully investigate, and indeed the campaign by and large refuses to countenance them investigating and solving now, because if they did a major climactic incident would be derailed.

This may bug some players, who opted in to play a horror-oriented investigative RPG and are now being blocked from investigating a horrific serial killer; the chapter feels like it’s paying homage to Don’t Look Now, but the end effect is Don’t Too Look Too Deeply At That Sub-Plot. That said, the sub-plot does contribute to rising tensions in the city which can help pressure investigators into focusing on more immediate issues (like tracking down the Macguffin piece they are told is here), which is all quite dramatic, but doesn’t take into account the possibility that stubborn PCs might point-blank refuse to leave Venice (despite threats from Blackshirts!) until they’ve had a proper crack at investigating the murders.

Ultimately, the problem here is part of the structural problems with the wider campaign, and so not Love’s fault. The improvements to the A-plot and B-plot of the chapter in the revision are all quite good, and one can wish that all the chapters received a similar level of tightening up.

Next up is the Cthulhu Dark Ages side-story, triggered by finding a particular document in Venice and detailing a backstory event that took place during the Fourth Crusade. This is quite cleverly handled; though the main campaign assumes certain things transpire through the scenario, suitable guides are provided for how to adapt if things don’t quite go as planned, so it is not quite as railroady as it could be. It picks a highly interesting historical event – the sack of Constantinople by rampaging Crusaders – for its backdrop, and this means there’s a certain logic in the document describing these events being found in Venice. (The Venetians essentially used the Crusaders as their attack dogs against Constantinople, and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.)

By and large, it’s quite nicely executed, though I did raise my eyebrows at some part. There’s one encounter which feels more like Dungeons & Dragons than Cthulhu Dark Ages – nothing bugs me more than people seeing a medieval aesthetic and then pivoting mindlessly to D&D nods – and one of the characters is a French Cathar who is intent on obtaining holy relics to protect the Cathars… except I think it’s astonishingly doubtful that the Cathars would have any high regard for relics at all, and much more likely that they would see their veneration as being hopelessly mired in the material dross of the world and the corruption of the Catholic Church. These are small wrinkles, though, and by and large the scenario is a solid one. As with all of the adventures unfolding in other time periods, it could be extracted as a standalone scenario nicely.

The next port of call is Trieste. This has been significantly improved over the original, turning railroady sections which didn’t need to be that way into more investigative portions and generally accounting for the fact that the PCs might take actions other than being led along by their nose. It also better keeps track of the motivations of some of the NPCs; in the original version, an NPC helps out the PCs from an ulterior motive, but then never actually acts to follow up on that, here they do. For these reasons it is a clear step up over the original.

Next is an optional side-chapter which was designed by Mark Morrison as a tribute to Thomas Ligotti. This has so little bearing on the main plot that if you skip it the players are left no worse off or less prepared for what’s coming than if you run it. It’s a dream sequence in a distorted version of Zagreb, written in tribute to Thomas Ligotti to the point where in the original version of the campaign, long extracts from a Ligotti short story are used as handouts. It is far from clear to me whether Ligotti actually knew his work had been used in this way. Notably, the handouts are rewritten in the revised version of the chapter – which otherwise is essentially like the original – to remove the Ligotti text and replace it with new handouts with a better connection to the main plot.

Despite this extra dose of tangential relevance, the chapter largely feels like a big fat waste of time, an exercise in trying to evoke a Ligotti-esque atmosphere under circumstances where it is near impossible. To do a Ligotti RPG one would not just need appropriate imagery – and it’s questionable whether this scenario succeeds – but also Ligotti-esque player characters, which 1920s Call of Cthulhu investigators are unlikely to be. You could probably do it in Unknown Armies or Kult much better, since PCs in those games tend to be grubbier and more morally dubious than Call of Cthulhu PCs start out as, or indeed in a modern-day Call of Cthulhu game with suitable character design guidance, but it’s an incongruous thing to toss into the middle of this campaign.

More optional chapters continue; these ones are new to the revised version. A stopover in Vinkovci sheds light on then-current tensions in Yugoslavia and provides an opportunity to obtain an extremely useful item, as well as the document which kicks off the Cthulhu Invictus scenario (which relates to events surrounding the inauguration of Byzantium as Nova Roma under Constantine). Both of these are by Oscar Rios of Golden Goblin press – who are now the official home of Cthulhu Invictus thanks to an arrangement with Chaosium – and are of a high standard; both are good candidates for lifting as standalone scenarios.

The next stop on the main plot is Belgrade. Some tune-ups are provided to this chapter, but these merely take it from being a frustrating and extremely narrow railroad into being a still-frustrating railroad with a bit more depth and a somewhat broader range of potential conclusions. A major tweak involves changing an encounter with a certain folkloric figure so that it’s no longer the actual, singular figure in question so much as it is a trio of priestesses who sort of ritually share the role, but I am not sure that this is much of an improvement – particularly since it seems to exacerbate rather dialling back the rather quasi-Wiccan “triple Goddess” angle.

On to Sofia, another main plot episode. This is an episode of two halves – first there’s the events in and around Sofia itself, then there’s a major climactic encounter on the train.

The Sofia-and-environs section has been very greatly improved. In the original, it is not only highly railroady, but also at points makes no sense – in particular, it has all sorts of murder and mayhem happening but doesn’t really put much thought into how the Bulgarian authorities react to all this. The revised version greatly tweaks it; it is still something of a railroad, but less objectionably so.

As an example, in both the original and revised version of this campaign a nasty injury must befall an investigator. In the original version, the referee is directed to just arbitrarily select someone to get maimed this manner and maim them; worse, they are maimed in an encounter with an ordinary human being, when by rights the player should expect to be able to resist them through the usual combat system. In the revised version, the injury takes place as the result of a gruesome supernatural attack, which takes place in such a manner that it is quite likely that someone within the PC group will get injured, but who it is may well be down to dice rolls and tactics on the part of the players. This is quite simply better by any metric: not only is the attack of such a nature that players may well feel that they were lucky to escape without worse injury, but it’s also one where the outcome can be affected somewhat, even if particular things must happen.

Then there’s that climactic encounter. In the original, this takes place on the train as the investigators trundle along to Constantinople, having found the last piece of the Macguffin near Sofia. It is a legendarily difficult encounter, but it does have issues. For one thing, though signs of this NPC’s activities have cropped up here and there, the original campaign goes out of its way to prevent the PCs from getting much of a glimpse of them (except for a glimpse very, very early on, and only if they take a frankly baffling course of action and get one or more of their number committed to an asylum to investigate an ultimately minor-seeming mystery there). As a result, it is entirely possible that players simply won’t connect this latest horror to anything that’s happened earlier in the campaign, making the whole thing seem like an arbitrary non sequitur – a diabolus ex machina deployed out of nowhere, even though it isn’t.

For another, the NPC in question is very difficult to kill, and the campaign has given the PCs almost no opportunities to actually encounter anything which will hurt the individual in question. This means that a TPK is very much a possibility, which is a problem both because this isn’t the intended end of the campaign but also because it’s not an interesting TPK because the party just aren’t given much to work with.

The “who the fuck is this asshole?” problem is greatly alleviated by the revised version of the campaign, in that it works in more opportunities to glimpse this individual and because it makes sure to direct the referee to drop in references to these past events so that the players are more able to make the connection; in addition, many of the new optional scenarios offer more insights into this individual’s past, so the PCs are somewhat more likely to say “Ah, that must be (character)!” and not “Who the fuck is this asshole?”

The “what can we do about this asshole?” problem is also salvaged by the various new optional scenarios; the same insights into the character’s past which makes them easier to recognise now can also be used advantageously against them, and in addition a good number of the new optional chapters give the PCs opportunities to acquire items which can assist against this assailant.

In addition, at this point the players have all the pieces of the Macguffin, which may prompt them to take different courses of action. For one thing, they are probably well aware that with the whole Macguffin in hand, their situation becomes all the more perilous; they might elect not to travel on by the Orient Express at all but take alternative routes, or spend some time holed up in a Sofia hotel examining the Macguffin now that they have the entire thing to hand. Alternate versions of the ambush are therefore outlined, allowing a similarly exciting climax to the chapter which still respects the players’ autonomy.

Another problem that arises is a more fundamental one: at this point (or at any point before this, but this is the stage where the matter becomes crucial), the players might outwit the main plot.

To be more specific: the main plot has the PCs urged to collect the pieces of the Macguffin and take them to Constantinople in order to destroy them, denying them to a great evil. Players applying even a modicum of scepticism to this plan – and there are countless IC reasons why such scepticism might be applied – may come to the view that this is a blatantly obvious trap, if not an outright crude one. Sure, sure, they were told to do it by a trusted friend, yadda yadda, but the friend is an ordinary human being, not an infallible God: PCs have every right, and may have a bunch of reasons, to conclude that their friend had been fed a crock of shit and regurgitated this disinformation perfectly innocently.

Even if they don’t question the legitimacy of their mission, they might reasonably query whether it is advisable to bring all the pieces of the Macguffin together, particular when it should be brutally apparent to them by now that powerful forces are seeking it. Would it not be better to lose one or more of the components in such a way that they would be near-irretrievable to their enemies? After all, those dark forces didn’t find the components when they were in much more accessible places – it seems unlikely they’d be able to just summon up some monsters to go fetch them if, say, two of them ended up on the bottom of the Med, one got tossed into a volcano, and a fourth got dropped in the Pacific. Taking all the components to Constantinople, where their enemies are surely expecting them, seems suicidal.

The original version of the campaign doesn’t address this at all. This time around, the campaign offers some suggestions on how to handle this. If investigators hide items in places which are not outright implausible to access, it’s somewhat easier to handle – just have their enemies track down the hiding places and retrieve the bits. (It helps that one way or another, at least one investigator is likely to be captured and interrogated in Constantinople, under circumstances likely to cause their Sanity to at least temporarily snap – providing a perfect opportunity for them to blab where the hidden parts are to their captors as they lose control of themselves.)

If they dump one or more of the pieces in the middle of the ocean or something, a bigger problem arises. The suggestions here allude to the side-effects of having been in possession of the Macguffin pieces worsen in a way that flavourfully reflects the pieces’ fate – but the PCs won’t experience that side effect until the deed is done. More of an issue is the fact that whilst it is viable for their adversaries to later obtain pieces which have been stashed in a warehouse or buried in a lonely wood or whatever, the item in question being at the bottom of the ocean doesn’t seem to leave any viable way for this retrieval to take place.

Furthermore, this would seem to lead to an inconsistency. The parts of the Macguffin exert a baleful influence on those who possess them. What actually constitutes ownership on a metaphysical level is not actually consistently worked out at all, which creates contradictions. Earlier in the campaign, individuals who happen to merely live in a house built over the place where one of the components is hidden suffer mild symptoms, so it seems like mere physical proximity is enough – but in that case, dumping it in the ocean and walking away shouldn’t exacerbate the effects. (Indeed, one can think of few more emphatic ways to annul your ownership of a thing than to toss it in the Mariana trench or into the mouth of an active volcano.)

On the flipside, if ownership is a more metaphysical thing which cannot be trivially surrendered, then the people who happen to live in that house shouldn’t be feeling the effects: they didn’t get it handed over to them or their predecessors by the previous owner, they never touched it, they weren’t even aware it was there.

But this inconsistency is a side issue. The real problem here is simple: if the players have been astute enough to spot the danger, and are then able to successfully make use of that information, the campaign is derailed and the climax does not work. Whilst some of the workarounds presented here feel like fair play, others feel like passive-aggression – to the point of stating outright that if the PCs don’t keep going to Constantinople, they risk the side-effects of ownership getting worse and worse to the point of death.

My friends, if your players are saying their PCs would rather die than keep pushing on in the main plot of your campaign, that’s about an emphatic a rejection of the premise of your campaign as you can get. Perhaps it should be respected.

Rather than dreaming up ways to passive-aggressively punish players for outsmarting the scenario, designers should instead look to design scenarios where if the PCs guess that they’re being set up for a trap, the conclusion still works. In this case, however, that’s not really possible; the fault in the basic premise of the campaign is so central that you would need to junk and rewrite the entire main plot to solve this.

Anyway, onwards to Constantinople, and the next part of the main plot. This is quite good in both versions; whilst some events are railroaded, an effort is at least made to provide a variety of routes into the final climactic confrontation, which means that for once failure on the part of the investigators leads things towards the conclusion just as much as success does; the “failure or success should both lead to something interesting” idea is in wide circulation now, but was less of a principle of good scenario design then.

That said, there are mild issues. In both versions, a fairly significant NPC will only meet the PCs in a public space segregated by gender. As written, women cannot take part in the meeting with him – which means that if you have an all-female party, that’s a problem. Referees can simply avoid the issue by moving the encounter elsewhere or flipping the gender of the NPC, but it still feels like a pointless and silly hurdle to put in the way.

The revised version does make some improvements. A small side plot is added in, as is an alternate ending which allows the campaign to end right here in the city should a somewhat shorter campaign be desired. Some aspects of the chapter are tweaked and expanded on to take into account the fact that Turkey is still an occupied city at this stage, due to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

That said, both versions of the chapter unfortunately require the villain of the campaign to act a bit like a bond villain, giving an annoying information-dump to the captive PCs whilst gloating in a smug manner before heading off to complete their masterplan whilst neglecting to put a bullet in the investigators’ brains. Referees who find this as risible as I do will unfortunately have to do a chunk of legwork themselves to provide PCs with the crucial information provided in this info-dump (though there is a friendly NPC in a similar bind to them nearby, who could perhaps be used to deliver the information instead).

Next up is the return leg of the train journey. A little context is needed here: at this stage, the PCs end up under a fairly tight time constraint, and their final foe is planning his return to London. Hopping onboard the Orient Express allows them to confront them on the train – if they can identify them in the first place, because they have the supernatural capability of changing their appearance. The next chapter has the PCs undertaking the full trip from Constantinople to Paris without disembarking, and takes in this search, along with some bizarre twists and turns along the way.

This chapter is rather lovely – it’s got all the fun of a find-the-killer-on-the-train story, a colourful range of characters for the villain to hide among, and some really visually arresting Mythos-y setpieces. Amazingly, for a scenario which takes place more or less entirely on a literal railroad, it’s one of the least railroady parts of the original campaign; a schedule of events that happen if the investigators do not intervene is provided, but there’s ample scope for the investigators to choose their approach here. Of all the main plot sections, it is probably the best.

The revision improves things by soothingly reassuring the referee that it’s fine if the PCs suss things out early, and otherwise pointing out how investigator ingenuity can flip the script. Perhaps most pleasingly, support is provided for what to do if, after the events in Constantinople, the PCs decide to take the return journey to London by plane, not by Orient Express. You see, at this stage in history, direct flights from Constantinople to London were available, and clever investigators who know where their adversary is likely to go may decide it’s preferable to beat him there.

In the original version, there’s no mention of this possibility; the designers missed the fact that those flights existed altogether and didn’t plan for it. In the revised version, the scenario authors could have just said “Eh, weather’s bad because it’s winter, doesn’t work.” (Never mind that it may well be spring by this point…) That would be rather crap: if a player’s come up with a clever idea which is also in keeping with the assumed setting, a blunt “no” is a bit disappointing. Instead, a section is added here describing how to handle this, if as the referee you decide to make flight a viable option at all, which feels more satisfying; then referees have the tools to decide whether they are happy with skipping this train ride entirely or not, and if they are fine with potentially skipping it they have some basis to handle that.

In either version of the campaign, taken by itself this chapter is easily the best. There is, unfortunately, a major issue, which is that the villain’s actions here are based on a totally absurd and self-defeating set of actions, so whilst the chapter may be exciting in the moment, the overall plot arc of the campaign turns into total nonsense – nonsense without which this break-neck trip across Europe wouldn’t be necessary for the villain in the first place, so the whole scenario is based on an absurdity. (Worse yet, a major feature of the chapter hinges on the return from an NPC from earlier in the campaign – so this chapter would require an unusual amount of work to run as a standalone, because you’d not only need to provide a new premise and motivations for the players but also rework that section.)

Let me explain. As a result of events in Constantinople, the villain and investigators have both been horrendously contaminated by the Macguffin. There is a ritual which can be used to cleans oneself of the taint, which the villain has left behind in London, but it must be completed within 100 hours of this deep taint being inflicted or a terrible fate ensues. As part of that info-dump in the last chapter I mentioned, the villain explains all of this to the PCs, completely and totally pointlessly, then leaves. After escaping, the PCs have a chance to follow. This is why both the villain and the PCs must take the Orient Express or a similarly brisk form of travel in the first place.

Now, there’s two acts of total, utter, ridiculous stupidity on the part of the villain here. You have probably spotted them, but let me highlight them:

  • Why, if you were the villain, would you bother explaining all of those details to the PCs? Even if it is out of cruelty in explaining their fate to them, it feels like an unusual level of detail to not only explain to the PCs why they are going to be consumed by horror, but also explain how they can prevent that, where to find the thing they need to save themselves, and what mode of transport you intend to take.
  • If you knew you would need a ritual to avoid a horrible fate after you took control of the Macguffin – as is the case with the villain here – why in the name of Cthulhu’s green radioactive balls would you leave your only copy of the fucking ritual all the way on the other side of a fucking continent?

It’s this last point which is the really pointless self-own. Not having the ritual easily to hand means that the villain is under a similarly harsh time limit to the PCs; if the villain is really as competent as he has been presented as being so far, they should really have accounted for the possibility of travel disruption making this race back to London impossible to complete in time, and indeed shouldn’t be setting themselves up for a pointless cross-Europe race against time anyway. Why they couldn’t have jotted down a handy copy of the ritual to cast on themselves in Constantinople as soon as it becomes necessary for is not accounted for. (There are, admittedly, good reasons why they would not want to have the scroll with the original on their person in Constantinople, but they should be able to tote around a copy of the ritual just fine – in some private cipher, if need be – since it doesn’t need the original scroll handy to cast.) It’s a baffling, bizarre oversight which makes a nonsense of the entire climax of the campaign’s main plot.

Now, sure, of course an imaginative referee can find ways to explain this if players notice – but it’s still annoying that the campaign creates this problem in the first place. The whole point of published adventures is as labour-saving devices for referees, and labour-saving devices are there to solve problems, not create them. This honking big contradiction in the design of the campaign is a problem. Even if the players never pick up on it, once you spot it as a referee it becomes very hard to credit the villain of the piece with any intelligence whatsoever – it’s that much of a needless botch, a decision made on no explainable IC basis which exists solely to set up a dramatic conclusion. This is bad writing when it happens in other forms of fiction, and it is bad scenario design in an RPG context.

The final chapter in both versions involves the investigators actually tackling that ritual. In the original version, potential alternate approaches are already perfectly adequately covered, which is certainly nice, but it’s a bit sparse; the revised version enriches things somewhat whilst keeping the essential core more or less intact. It is an alright end to the campaign but, again, is predicated on a very silly series of decisions by the villain.

The final optional chapter is another one, and like most of the new ones is rather good (and would make a decent standalone, though there’s certainly scope for the events of the campaign to colour it). It’s an epilogue set in the modern day involving a rather interesting idea for how a latter-day Mythos dabbler might try to compensate for the loss of the Macguffin the main plot revolves around, it’s fine.

So, what’s the big-picture conclusion on Horror On the Orient Express? Well, I would say that the revised version is a clear and notable improvement over the original, but the best sections are still the new episodes added. The updates to the pre-existing chapters – both the main plot episodes and the two optional episodes (the one in London and the dream-Zagreb Thomas Ligotti thing) – are more modest for the most part. That said, some of those chapters have received more love than the others, and I would certainly be more included to run the revised campaign than the original, in which several chapters had some pretty severe problems.

In particular, whilst a railroaded scenario is not necessarily a bad thing if the players have bought into it, too much of the original campaign was railroaded in a way which was completely needless; the revised chapters generally correct this to the extent that they can within the constraints of the original plot, and more importantly remember that players in a Call of Cthulhu campaign have signed on to play an investigative RPG, and so make sure that some of those railroady parts are swapped out for more investigate-y parts.

That said, I still wouldn’t be as keen to run the revised Horror On the Orient Express as-written as I would be to run the latest edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep. Though the main plot chapters have definitely improved, there are still issues here and there which could have been improved had the revision been a more root-and-branch rework which was less precious about keeping the original chapters close-ish to their original form; basically, Chaosium needed to have the guts here to toss out and completely rewrite more of the original, they didn’t, and so some legacy issues remain, both with some of the individual chapters and with the main plot as a whole.

This is particularly notable if you compare the all-new chapters with the pre-existing chapters. In either their original or revised forms, the pre-existing chapters are for the most part not as good as the new optional scenarios. The original optional chapters are especially bad – the London side investigation and the dream-Zagreb chapter – are notably worse. The Zagreb one, as I mentioned, you can pretty much drop and it would change very little. The London one does provide at least something which could, in extremis, be used against that legendary ambusher in the Sofia chapter, but I’d say it screams out for more significant revisions than it gets here if it’s not going to be grossly and pointlessly unfair, and better tools against that ambusher are found in the new side stories.

As for the main plot chapters, they are hampered by the constraints of an overarching story which, due to the bizarre behaviour on the villain’s part I outlined earlier, doesn’t actually make that much sense; the internal logic of the story falls apart if you try to ask questions like “Given that the villain doesn’t know in-character that they are supposed to set up a dramatic final conflict with the PCs, why exactly do they do this?”

This seems to be an artifact of the way the campaign was designed. Rather than largely being the work of a limited team, the campaign was, even in its original version, the work of a very large number of hands, many of them from the Australian Call of Cthulhu fandom. I do not know exactly how the design process went, but it strongly feels like it went something like this:

  • Someone – probably Geoff Gillan, given that he handles the opening and closing chapters and campaign overview and that he’s credited with the original outline on the credits page – devises the overarching framework of the campaign and recruits other contributors.
  • Geoff assigns cities/parts of cities to other contributors, giving them guidance on what definitely must and must not happen in that city for the purposes of the main plot.
  • Everyone goes away and works on their respective assignments.
  • Geoff, with help from Lynn Willis and Mark Morrison, assembles the Frankenstein’s Monster of a campaign and pastes over the cracks.

I might be wrong, of course – I welcome evidence to the contrary – but the campaign really does read like a project where everyone worked on it in a very compartmentalised way and then the different bits were fitted together after the fact. Morrison’s Zagreb chapter, for instance, has so little bearing on the rest of the campaign that one suspects that he knocked it out before the main campaign had actually been devised – perhaps for some entirely different project – and then sprinkled on spurious linkages to the main plot after the fact. An entire significant NPC seems to have been tossed in by Nick Hagger for a lark in one of his chapters, since Hagger is then credited with work relating to that character’s intervention in a later chapter (and the same NPC is used to provide the figleaf connection the dream-Zagreb chapter has to the rest of the campaign). There’s weird tonal shifts over the course of the main plot as different writers with different sensibilities throw in stuff which might work fine in their own chapter but doesn’t seem to fit the overall picture especially well. Some chapters are just crap, and I have to wonder whether they were originally retained solely because it would have caused too much Australian fandom drama to reject them.

It reminds me a lot, in fact, of the Hogshead-era WFRP campaign The Dying of the Light. This is an infamously sloppy adventure which was put out to support the rather excellent Marienburg: Sold Down the River supplement. Andrew Rilstone and Phil Masters, who worked on it, have spilled some of the tea on it in an RPGnet thread, but essentially the issue was that Hogshead needed some quick product, so they produced the book by getting a large number of authors to do a chapter each following an overall plot outline. There, as here, major issues in inconsistent tone and quality arose.

Many people have now doubt had fun playing Horror On the Orient Express – the Bradford Players’ audio actual play podcast of it was apparently quite popular too. As far as the original campaign goes, this may well be as much in spite of it as because of it; there’s some neat ideas here, but there’s also some issues, and whilst a skilled referee can paste over those issues in such a way that the players won’t spot it, they shouldn’t be needing to do that pasting in the first place. The revised version was a golden opportunity to do a root-and-branch reworking of the campaign to more aggressively tackle some of the structural issues, but this opportunity was not taken. The extra polish to the pre-existing chapters is certainly an improvement, but too many of the chapters retain significant issues underneath that polish which are not addreessed.

That said, the campaign also provides a very deep bench of material to draw on and extract, and the revised edition is especially useful for this since more or less all the optional scenarios can be repurposed as standalone adventures fairly easily. I don’t regret getting it – but I do feel relieved, once again, that Chaosium were saved from oblivion by the intervention of Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen when the Kickstarter for this and Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition ran into trouble, because this project would be an ignominious hill to die on.

6 thoughts on “A Bumpy Ride On a Rehauled Railroad

  1. Stewart

    Good review. On the Thomas Ligotti matter I think he was aware of this as he is credited on the box of the 1991 edition. If they were going to try and fly under the radar with copyright infringement that seems like a bad way to do it.

    Also in case you were unaware Chaosium are planning on revising this campaign to bring it up to the same standards as Masks but it’s fairly far down the pipeline (behind Gaslight, Dreamlands, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and Beyond the Mountains of Madness and not necessarily in that order).

    There’s a thread on the BRP Central forums compiling all the confirmed for 7e books. https://basicroleplaying.org/topic/11368-list-of-chaosiums-call-of-cthulhu-7e-books/

    1. Yeah, as I understand it the Beyond the Mountains of Madness update is at least 4 years away (hence them doing a reprint of the 5E version recently so people wouldn’t have to pay excruciating costs for second hand copies), so an Orient Express would be waaay off, especially given the scale of such a project.

      1. Stewart

        Yeah but at least they now have all 3 of the acclaimed campaigns available to buy at reasonable prices. I’ve skimmed through behind the mountains of madness and horror on the orient express and why they both have problems they are way more refined than Shadows of Yog-Sothoth which while having good elements to it has some real big pit falls in the edition from the classic Kickstarter. Not sure how much it was fixed in the 6e version but given it was under Krank I imagine not much. I’m really interested in seeing what comes from their 7e revision and I’m just desperate for Dreamlands and Gaslight so I’m happy with their priorities.

        Lynn Hardy also mentioned in a video the next release is a regency era Cthulhu setting with some influence from Jane Austen which I am absolutely fascinated to see come out.

      2. Gaslight was already pretty decent but I am sure the update will be good. Dreamlands I thought the most recent version leaned too hard into borrowing stuff from Brian Lumley’s Dreamlands stories, and as a result slipped from the very distinctive atmosphere the best Dreamlands material has into more generic sword and sorcery.

        The Regency era setting sounds very interesting, not least because it could happily cross over with Reign of Terror. Apparently Modiphius had at one point been planning to do “Mon Dieu! Cthulhu”, an Achtung Cthulhu take on the Napoleonic era, so it’s possible Lynne has some ideas from that which could be used.

        I wonder if they are going to rerelease Fungi From Yuggoth/Day of the Beast? I had a good time running the 1998 revision.

  2. Pingback: 5 on Friday 12/11/21 – No Rerolls

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