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Design Notes: Horror on the Orient Express & Pulp Cthulhu

Player response to this classic Call of Cthulhu campaign was immediate and energized. The classic conventions of Murder on the Orient Express, the rich cache of cultural reference points, and a setting with then cutting edge engineering at the fore seem utterly irresistible. More than any other campaign, players considered dressing up and roleplaying their characters immediately, each with their own concepts. So I've been starting to read up on and figure out how to make this classic into my own game. And here are some early thoughts.

Oh, the Horror!

I'm only beginning to read through this rich campaign, but it does so, so much right. It provides a wealth of details about the Orient Express and identifies any historical anachronisms employed to make the game fun and playable (occasionally incorporating technology or styles just a few years ahead of their adoption). It provides notes on color and style while citing works of fiction and history for further research. Of course, the game itself is well delivered.

One of my favorite elements is the incorporation of railway icons: straight rails, forking rails, and broken rails. These indicate the main plot, a sidequest, and a potential dead end for the players respectively. While I'm not into much of the plot just yet, they provide tools (including rules for airplane taxis) to catch back up with the main plot.

The entire campaign is intended to resolve over the course of a winter season, though the game can take over a year depending on the dalliances of the players in the optional side content. The tale has a general thrust of industry and direction given the Express's own motion, making time an ongoing issue. Historical issues of snow and other delays could also be employed for conveniences as needed. I am impressed and deeply excited about what is presented here!

Learning from Pulp Cthulhu rules

I continue to be smitten with the Pulp Cthulhu variants on the core Call of Cthulhu game. That said, Horror on the Orient Express is ostensibly a “low pulp” setting. However, I can already identify how it can place some high demands on less attractive skills such as languages, history, and geography. In addition, the already obvious emphasis on languages skills encourage me to create some passive bonuses at certain linguistic tiers to smooth play.

For example, let's look at languages: First, characters will have bonus points at character creations equivalent to EDU, specifically to spend on foreign language skills. This reflects the what languages they took in classes at various times during their educational careers. A few passive bonuses for languages might include:

  • 10% in skill - Character can typically parse a written passage

  • 20% - Character can speak language and be understood in low danger environments

  • 30% - Character can write serviceably in the language

  • 40% - Character tends to be able to understand the language when spoken

  • 50% - Character can attempt (with skill roll) to pass as a native speaker; may gain bonus dice if skilled in acting or knowledgeable about the history or geography of that country or those countries.

So far, languages of interest include English, French, German (predominantly Swiss German), Italian, Slavic Group (Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian will be treated as one language skill), Greek (Modern), Turkish, Farsi (Iran/Persia), and Arabic, though these may get spelled out in more detail later on. This doesn't include the Latin, Ancient Greek, and other languages that can be used for Cthulhu Mythos Tomes that may be encountered.

I plan to incorporate Pulp by doubling of traditional hit points and nixing the “Major Wounds” element. This makes characters much hardier and opens up the chance for more suspenseful combat and even the daring feats of fighting atop the train or other more outlandish endeavors. Talents, like D&D’s feats, provide fun character specificity and emphasis on skills and the “Low Pulp” ruleset . Pulp Cthulhu’s Insane Talents, however are often very powerful and encourage more aggressive styles of play that doesn’t particularly suit this campaign. In addition, in a game so steeped in am era of regal opulence, weird science is a poor fit and will be omitted.

Characters will begin in England and unless they are British subjects, firearms may be difficult to obtain, especially handguns. Foreign agents may be on government business or have unlicensed weapons on their person, though the various customs checks will mean that any weapons may require stealthful handling or the greasing of palms to carry into foreign countries. With that, we'll be expecting Credit Rating rolls slightly more often than we've typically seen, while Fast Talk, Charm, and Persuade skills are always useful.

We're still some time out from getting this campaign underway, but I am definitely excited to get there!

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