Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Thoughts on Running “Horror on the Orient Express”

    I recently did something I’d been debating for a long time. I plunked down the $75. for the new edition of Chaosium’s classic Call of Cthulhu campaign, “Horror on the Orient Express.” I got one of their ‘damaged’ copies which saved quite a few precious pennies. And it’s in fine shape. Looked like it could have come right out of the delivery box at a store. A slight crinkling on the box near one corner is all that could be seen as ‘damage.’ And the box is a monster. It’s over-full, with a daunting amount of material to sift through.

    Here’s the thing, though. I’m not really a pre-made adventure guy. Since I started running roleplaying games when I was a lad, I’ve almost always written my own stories, and improvised the rest. I’ve read published adventures from companies, but usually to get ideas. I’ve played in some, but the best ones didn’t seem pre-made, because the game master (storyguide, DM, whatever) made it his own (I have, sadly, not had a female GM to the best of my knowledge/memory). Once, long ago, I ran the haunted house scenario from the Call of Cthulhu basic book, but I guess I re-worked it enough that the one player familiar with the scenario didn’t recognize it for what it was until the climax. So, I’m worried about the idea of running not just a published adventure, but an entire campaign. The reports I’m seeing on this game is that it takes a year or more to go through the whole thing (real time). That’s huge.

    The obvious thing to do, and what I likely would do, is to run a shorter published campaign or some adventures to get a handle on the process, and on how I would make them my own.  But there, I’m still running into my old problems. I’ve been bad about connecting with the gaming community in my area ever since I moved here 8 years ago. And I haven’t managed to do a good job of convincing my friends to try it (other than a brief, dramatically failed attempt a couple years ago). Yet, the draw of the hobby keeps me going; keeps me hoping and spit-balling.

    So, start small, huh?  OK.  This new version of the campaign has several side adventures that are scattered across time, going all the way back to ancient Rome.  One of the first is set in Victorian London.  That got me to thinking, maybe I could run that side adventure as a kind of preamble.  That’s a start, I guess.

    And, with a scenario set in the late 1800s that leads into the greater Orient Express campaign, it got me to thinking about connections.  One of the challenges that face a lot of RPG groups when a scenario or campaign begins is ‘why are we all together?’  But the Call of Cthulhu RPG takes place, typically, in a time when social groups were common; gentlemen’s clubs and the like.  That presents a solid way to join the characters together.  Add in a few bits, and it’s not too hard to have them be members of a group that’s large enough to use for replacement characters (should the nearly inevitable event of character death/madness happen).  A few more bits, and you could have a club with some ties or interests in the occult.  In the case of “Horror on the Orient Express” it even gives a link across the years between the events of the 1800s and the primary campaign in the 1920s.  And of course, Professor Smith, as another link between the eras, can be linked with the social club.

    Now, the 1890s and 1920s were hardly times of enlightenment.  Women (all women over 21) didn’t get the vote in England until 1928.  But, while that was the reality, and I don’t like to completely shy away from real life evils, making some things a bit more pleasant for potential female players is also a concern.  Since Call of Cthulhu typically favors more intellectual and artistic characters, and those people tend to be on the forefront of social progress, I got to thinking that making an element of the characters’ social club women’s suffrage would be interesting.  I think adding some era-grounded politics will help set the stage.  Especially since there are some red-herrings about communists and the like in the campaign.  Because I always like to dream bigger than I should, it also might work to help set the stage for a future campaign.  If “Horror on the Orient Express” turned out well, I’d love to follow it up with another London based campaign, “Tatters of the King.”  Again, I’m getting ahead of myself, but I love to plant seeds in one story that might bloom in a future story. So, even if I have no idea how this trip on the Orient Express might go or how it might end, I figure I’d try to drop in a few bits to introduce themes from “Tatters of the King.”

    I have no idea if I’ll eventually run this campaign or not.  No idea if it will go the distance, or if it will be successful enough to demand a follow-up.  For now, it’s just a lot of reading and dreaming.  

-Matthew J. Constantine

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: The Broken Cycle

    After his many misadventures in “The Hard Way Up,” John Grimes is given a mission nobody wants with a ship captained by a guy who really doesn’t want John around. But things go off the rails pretty quick, with John and a tough lady cop stuck together in a dilly of a pickle.

A. Bertram Chandler published “The Broken Cycle” eight years later than the stories in “The Hard Way Up,” and it’s clear tastes had changed a bit, or the author had become a bit more untethered. There is some strong language and some semi-graphic sex. Where earlier Grimes stories would have been solidly PG, this book roves into more R-rated territory. And the sexism is still there, even if it’s been tempered a bit by modernity.

    The story is fast paced and mostly unexpected. There was a point where I could tell there wasn’t much left of the book, and I had NO idea how things could possibly wrap up. Often, I had no idea where Chandler was taking me. One of the strengths of these Grimes stories is they read fast. That helps to gloss over some of the shortcomings. In the case of this book, there really isn’t much story or seemingly much point. It’s just some stuff that happens. It’s kind of like a filler episode from a TV series. I don’t feel like anything of note was advanced, but it’s still perfectly enjoyable to read it while waiting for a better story (hopefully) in the next book. Had the book been longer or less readable, with no more content, it might have become a grueling slog.

    I’m taking a break from John Grimes now that I’ve finished the first omnibus in which I found this. Baen published “To the Galactic Rim” a few years ago as the first part in their complete reprinting of Chandler’s Grimes stores. Fans of classic science fiction should go get these. While I didn’t love this particular book (I enjoyed it just fine), the omnibus in general is great stuff.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: The Hard Way Up

    The third book in A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes series, “The Hard Way Up” follows Grimes’ first foray into commanding a vessel of his own.  Across seven short stories, we’re treated to Grimes and his crew facing off against various Science Fictional dilemmas and foes.

    It’s classic Golden Age Science Fiction stuff.  Rocket ships, bug-eyed aliens, space dames, and Australians.  Interesting worlds and trouble with authority.  It’s solid entertainment.  This isn’t high art.  This isn’t going to change hearts and minds.  This is fun, adventurous fiction.  A great read.  It was written in the 60s and early 70s, so there is some of the typical sexism and I think a bit of racism; but not worse than usual from that time.  Otherwise, a great read.

-Matthew J. Constantine