Horror on the Orient Express: Introduction

Call of Cthulhu is a tabletop role-playing game based on the horror writings of H.P.Lovecraft. It has been around almost as long as Dungeons & Dragons, with the first edition released in 1981, written by Sandy Petersen and published by Chaosium. Many people mention the game as their first encounter with Lovecraft, and it has contributed to the ongoing popularity of his stories and monstrous creations of cosmic horror.

In 1991 Horror on the Orient Express was published a sprawling adventure setting for Call of Cthulhu. Set in the 1920’s it takes players on a epic journey to find the scattered fragments of a cursed statue — the pieces of which are conveniently hidden in cities along the route of the Orient Express luxury train as it travels between London and Constantinople.

In 2012 an updated second addition of “Horror” was announced, to be crowd funded through Kickstarter. The campaign was very successful, raising more and more money but promising more and more supplemental material including special dice, miniatures, and props to be used in the game. It became an early example of a Kickstarter project spiraling out of control. The project suffered from much turmoil and many delays, and nearly destroyed the company — along with a new 7th Edition of the Call of Cthulhu rule system which was Kickstarted simultaneously and went through similar escalations of scale and promises.

The adventure and all the accompanying books and toys and tchotchkes did eventually come and distributed  to supporters. I was one of the supporters who pledges to the Kickstarter at a high level (I too was quite caught up in Kickstarter-mania at the time). One of the perks of my pledge was a chance to play in a marathon session of the game, It was held the week leading up to the Gen Con game convention in 2013. Over four days we would play through the entire campaign from morning until late a night. It was quite the experience and I might describe it in more detail at a later time. Participating in the adventure was invaluable as preparing for my running the game myself as the Game Master (the “Keeper” as that role is called in Call of Cthulhu, the equivalent of “Dungeon Master” in D&D).

The published Horror on the Orient Express is an excellent source book for weird horror or pulp action adventures set in Europe between the World Wars. The books are full of historical information, illustrations, detailed maps, strange characters, and terrible dangers for players to face. That being said, as a role-playing adventures, from contemporary standards… “Horror” is not very good. The sequence of scenarios (imagine episodes or story arcs of an ongoing TV series) are very linear, with little flexibility for player choice about where they can go and what they can do. The individual scenarios are often flimsy and poorly structured as suspenseful mysteries. One story hinges on the players noticing the tiny footprints of a lizard that tracked through spilled blood from a murder that happened days earlier — and even that only leads to a circumstantial association with the criminal. Worse, on many occasions the players end up as mere observers to strange and horrible events, rather than being personally involved in them.

All of that is very different from the game style I like to play in. I want to give players a lot of freedom of action in what is going on. I want them, as characters, to have real stakes in what is happening. They should have choices, and those choices should matter to them, and to the story as it unfolds and grows around them.

The first change I made was deciding to not use the traditional Call of Cthulhu rule system, but instead a variant of it called Trail of Cthulhu, written by Kenneth Hite using the GUMSHOE system written by Robin Laws. Without going into too detail about game mechanics, “Trail” is designed for smoother investigations of mysteries and greater player agency to make choices, advance the plot, and contribute elements to the game world. I was influenced by two big game settings for GUMSHOE, The Armitage Files and The Dracula Dossier, both of which are built with the idea of giving the players a lot of clues, mysteries, and interesting situations, and letting their choices and curiosity direct how the campaign develops. “Trail” is a variant of “Call”, so switching over was not that hard. I had several people contact me over the course of the game asking about how I “converted” numbers and other data from one system to the other, and my answer was I didn’t, really. I used the “Horror” books as background information, inspirations, and big concepts — and then made up the rest as I went along.

Another change I made was more about content. The published Horror on the Orient Express books have a lot of classic European horror elements. There are vampires and ghosts and witches. H.P. Lovecraft himself was tired of those old familiar monsters and created his various aliens and nightmares as fresher replacements. I wanted to add more Lovecraftian elements and references to my presentation. The Migo are nowhere in the published books, but became important in our play through. Likewise, when a scenario seemed perfect for bringing Robert W Chamber’s King in Yellow, that too made an appearance. There were several times when I was a player in the marathon campaign that I was expected something to happen, or a particular horror to occur and was disappointed when it didn’t. So I took those ideas and used them when they fit in. Also if something came up that my players were interested in or were expecting I tried to incorporate that as well — either giving them what they were afraid of or else subverting in an unsettling way.

The campaign ended up taking several years to play through — though much of that time we were only able to play once a month (I often hear of gaming groups that meet every week, which always amazes me). While some players came and went, I had a core group of four loyal players who struck through it and whom I greatly appreciate. The campaign would not have been possible without them.

On these pages are the summaries of the story events of each session, followed by a blog post that I wrote describing some of my thinking about how the game was developing and how I was altering the published campaign. Some of the photos and other images I used as Illustrations are included and I hope to eventually add more and otherwise polish up these pages as time permits.