When my Junior year of college began I discovered that a number of my residents were gamers; one had even worked on the English translation of the Swedish horror game ‘Kult‘. While I had run a Star Wars campaign the previous year (much to my delight) I had never run a Call of Cthulhu game before, let alone a campaign. Nevertheless, I’d had the baleful eye of Nyarlathotep-in-train-form staring down from my shelf for two years. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to run Horror on the Orient Express.
We had four or five players, as I recall (and I should add, my memories of the game are in places rather hazy, it has been almost twenty year) and we played roughly once per week for about twenty sessions, wrapping up in the Spring just before finals. While I can’t remember ever character or session, a few points have remained with me (and here be many spoilers):
- My players did not trust Dr. Smith from the start. As one player said- “Anyone with such a long speech can’t be helpful.” Also… alas poor Beddows…
- The Doom Train was loads of fun, but since it was my first combat ever in CoC, there were a few hiccups. Additionally I only had two of my players on hand, IIRC, so I had to scale back the menace of the passengers a bit to keep them alive. I can still recall the two players desperately forming a figure 8 with the heart and viscera. Yuck.
- I had some plans to bring back Alexis… I never had a chance but I have some notes on his next misadventure in London. Perhaps I should do something with them.
- Speaking of London, running HotOE inspired me to pick up my first period guidebook- the Muirhead Short Guide to London, 1928 – at a used book store. It was greatly helpful when I ran Masks of Nyarlathotep two years later.
- Play bogged down a bit in Paris when there was so little to do at the Charendon Asylum. The players were convinced there was more to do there. There was also a bit of hew and cry when looking at a drawing of a certain odd mansion cost 1 point of Sanity.
- Things picked up in Lausanne, though my players had very little interest in saving the endangered taxidermist. The Duc… was also a problem. I had read A Rebours a few years back (after having read HotOE) and I couldn’t help but find him to be something less than inspiring villain. If I were to run it again, I’d definitely tweak him. He was a bit too much a deus ex machina at points and, in general, less than compelling. The illustration of him with a page-boy haircut didn’t help matters.
- The Italian stretch of the campaign was probably my favorite part. Milan was adequate to good as I began to employ both Fascist thugs and ominous Turks to my advantage. The party grew increasing frightened and paranoid, which paid dividends later. While some might not love the Venice chapter, I had a fantastic time with it, bouncing between romance and horror. The party loathed the villains and was genuinely surprised at the encounter in the clock tower despite my (at least what I thought were) numerous hints about what was following them. This was also the high points of our game’s many quips, with a warning about the dangers of old asylums, abandoned amusement parks, and toy shops in horror games.
- Trieste, despite the complaints I’ve read elsewhere, was probably the single best part of the whole campaign. To begin with, the party was so paranoid at this point one of the players on his own murdered an innocent Turkish businessman who happened to disembark with them (and they had seen before in Paris) in his hotel room in cold blood. This caused some great role-playing conflict, to be sure. This was compounded by the mental attacks of the Lloigor, the malevolent medallion, and the ghostly scholar, all to create some genuine moments of horror, even before they reached the caves. Needless to say, the left Trieste as soon as they were able.
Unfortunately we then arrived in Yugoslavia and there were some bumps in the road… err, tracks. I hated Zagreb so much that I simply skipped over it. I had my doubts about Belgrade, but kept in Baba Yaga. The players were visibly confused and clearly didn’t love their weird walk in the woods. Sofia was an improvement; the attack of the eye-gouging cultist was a bolt-out-of-the-blue moment with some great action and role-playing as was the race to the cave.
- Fenalik’s attack was a solid, generally enjoyable, scene with one major caveat (see the final item). The players were in genuine danger but I suspect my Keepering skills weren’t quite up to the task of portraying a train in panic. There was much confusion about how to best fight the vampire. Fortunately a lucky (I think it was an 02) roll in the kitchen car by our elderly antiquarian (I think) put a stake in that menace.
- To conclude on the outskirts of Constantinople… there was one fly in the ointment, thought not one the campaign’s writers could have foreseen. One of the players was, well, he was a mess. He dropped out of school at the end of the year… after skipping class routinely, vandalizing our lounge, and generally imploding socially and academically. To me he was always friendly, even when I was reprimanding him for riding the top of the dorm’s elevator, demanding he put on pants, or refusing an offered glass of “apple juice” that was
unquestionably urine. Despite being possibly insane, he was friendly with the other players and wanted to join thecampaign. He, as you might expect, grew bored quickly. His character… and sadly I recall his character best… was Chicago police detective Hampton Porkchop, I suspect after the pig on Tiny Toon Adventures. He dropped outafter a few sessions, always promising to return. By the time we reached Sofia, I decided that Fenalik should introduce himself with a bang, so while the players were debating what to do about the Simulacrum, I had himappear at the window of their compartment, dominate poor detective Mr. Porkchop (who I’d rechristened Porcheau and made an NPC) and then yank him out the window. He was the first investigator I ever killed. Farethee well, Hampton Porkchop, wherever you are. (And Ryan, I hope, somehow, you got your life together. And started wearing pants.)