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

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