Horror on the Orient Express is a huge Cthulhu campaign, and also a very famous one – more because it’s damn near impossible to find without paying tons of money for it, somewhat less because of the actual contents. Of course, it is a very nice package, being a box set with lots of player handouts. The actual campaign is described in several staple-bound books, in addition to which the box contains a period advertisement poster for the Orient Express, passports, tickets, a cutout of the central “McGuffin” in the scenario, a booklet of maps of the train, a booklet of “extra” NPCs, etc. It’s a lavish production.
It took me years to get my hands on a copy of this, finally getting lucky on eBay and getting one for under $100. After reading the thing, I’m still happy that I got it, though the contents are an at times frustrating mix of the fantastic and the problematic. As a story, it’s a great and atmospheric read. As a roleplaying campaign… well, it needs some work.
It begins with an old friend of the PCs being victim of a near-fatal attack, and enlisting them on a quest across Europe to find pieces of a mysterious artifact, the “Sedefkar Simulacrum”. It’s assumed the PCs say “yes”, of course. They are provided with tickets to the famed Orient Express, departing from France. As a prelude, the book gives us a short mostly unrelated scenario (“Doom Train”), which is actually pretty good and can act as a red herring in some ways. It’s not really relevant to the plot, though, and can be left out.
The main action starts in France, and wends its way across Europe. It’s assumed that the PCs will stop in certain places and investigate, and then hop back on the train to continue. The whole campaign is a travelogue, with the train voyage linking together the different set pieces… and oh boy, what set pieces. This is where the campaign shines, most of the specific adventures at various locales are fantastic; written with style and providing you with tons of creepy and atmospheric moments. Not all of them shine, of course, and some are downright mediocre, but the good ones are very good. The Jigsaw Prince episode is awesome, as is the somewhat related “City of Bells and Towers”. There are encounters with politics (the fascist Brownshirts are in full swing in Italy), encounters with mythological figures (Baba Yaga and her chickens, much creepier than it sounds), and encounters with various nasty cults and creatures. The mood shifts from quiet investigation to full-on action horror, with quiet social interludes in between. The Orient Express itself provides a sort of home base, an island of civilization (though it also becomes a scene of extreme violence at a few points).
So, the set pieces are excellent (well, many of them are anyway). What’s the problem?
There are several. First off, as the old joke says, this campaign is very “railroaded”. It’s expected that the PCs behave in certain ways and take the train from one location to the other, stopping in certain places – but honestly, in many places it makes no real sense for them to do so. There is no real support for PCs who go “fuck this, we’ll just take a car/plane instead”. Also, the backstory here is ridiculously complicated. There are three different major “bad guys” at work here, with at times conflicting motives… and worst of all, much of this is opaque to the players, with many characters only making their play towards the end of the campaign. In addition, some of the motivations presented here don’t really make much sense, it would be much smarter for some of the antagonists to do something much less complex (instead of trying to manipulate the PCs). All this makes for a confusing game for the GM to run, and a potentially frustrating one for the players who rarely see rhyme or reason to what is happening in the background.
There were a lot of writers involved with this one, and it shows. While many of the set pieces are really good, there are some poor ones in the mix. There, the PCs are just led by the nose through events, with little chance to change the outcome. Classical railroading, in other words, and something that easily results in player frustration. There are a few bad cases of this in the middle of the journey, and the entire (penultimate) end game in Constantinople has a lot of this fault, with the PCs ending up foiled, defeated, outsmarted and kidnapped no matter what they do. The Constantinople portion does contain some very cool bits in addition, though, so it’s not a total loss. The very end of the campaign, in London, assuming the PCs survive the harrowing (and very cool) return journey, contains a twist that’s maybe a bit too nasty. Or not, depends on the play group.
In the end, it’s a complicated and baroque campaign which combines fantastic and weird set pieces with an overly-railroaded and overcomplex main plot. In addition, it’s extremely lethal, so the GM needs to plan for easy replacement PCs along the journey (the set contains some help in that regard, with nicely detailed “extra” NPCs which can be turned into PCs quite easily). I’d rate this as a very challenging campaign to run, the GM needs to do lots of improvisation and on-the-fly modification in order to keep the plot flowing without too much (visible) railroading. Add to the mix the need to run a horde of NPCs, and you get something which will require lots of prepwork to pull off. Given that prepwork though, there is potential for a great adventure here.
A seriously flawed masterpiece, this one. Very much worth reading, the writing is generally good and very poetic, given to evoking moods of vague dread and strangeness. As a game, it needs work.