Review of Horror on the Orient Express

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

September 7, 2011


by: Darren MacLennan


Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 3 (Average)

It's brilliantly written, containing scenes of evocative horror that you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else, but the problem is that it just doesn't provide characters with enough freedom to move around.

Darren MacLennan has written 117 reviews (including 2 Call of Cthulhu: 1920s reviews), with average style of 3.56 and average substance of 3.38. The reviewer's previous review was of Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity.

This review has been read 6738 times.

 


Review of Horror on the Orient Express


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 Some products acquire a particular reputation not because they're really, really good, but because they're really, really hard to find. Just by way of a for example, the original Delta Green chapbooks acquired a reputation in my mind as being really, really excellent, but when I finally got ahold of a copy of Delta Green: Eyes Only, I found myself disappointed in the contents. Not because they were particularly bad - they weren't - but because there was no possible way that the actual product could have met up with the massive expectations that I'd generated for 'em.

Horror on the Orient Express is a product that I was particularly lucky to lay hands on; I got it for half-price in a small used bookstore in Rochester, Minnesota, sometime in 1993. It was being blown out because it just wasn't selling - Rochester is apparently not a big Call of Cthulhu town - so I nipped it up for $20. I have seen it going on Amazon for $300, which is perhaps a signal that it's time to bring it out in PDF.

Is it any good? It's got some of my favorite authors - Mark Morrison, in particular - doing some of the excellent work that Chaosium was capable of before the Mythos card-game debacle forced them to lose some of their best authors and artists. (Or so I heard, mind you.) It has scenes of surreal and trascendent horror, interesting and horrifying villains, and a climax that'll be unforgettable for a number of reasons. Almost every chapter has some neat bit of horror, or a neat scene, that showcases just how interesting the Cthulhu Mythos can be when it interacts with the human race. It has a magical artifact - the Sedefkar Simulacrum - that will continue to be on the minds of the investigators long after they've dealt with the goddamn thing. One scene in the book actually had imagery potent enough to give me a nightmare.

But.

As a campaign, it's kind of a mess. It's obviously the result of a number of disparate scenarios being added on to a single whole, creating a campaign that jumps from one mood to another without really settling on one. Its villains are interesting, but one of them is poorly integrated with the campaign, and, at points, seems to have more going on its background than the investigators will ever have to deal with. It's lethal in the extreme - the campaign's original playtest, in the book, noted that there was a 70% casualty rate, and a review that I saw of it in Dragon magazine suggested that players would be better off making 5-6 extra investigators instead of the book's suggested two. While the Orient Express provides the central hook of the campaign, it makes more sense for the investigators to simply decouple themselves from it and proceed by alternate means of transportation, to avoid having to be slaved to its schedule (and to avoid leaving behind an invaluable magical artifact because they missed a departure time.) Keepers who are interested in playing it are going to have to do a lot of work to make sure that it's a smooth experience. There's a persistent sense of atmosphere, but the atmosphere isn't consistent.

The major problem with the campaign is, and forgive the pun, that it's very heavily railroaded; it feels more like somebody's well-written Mythos novel and less like a playable adventure. If the characters don't go to very specific locations, then the Keeper is going to have to make sudden and rather radical changes to the plotline in order to compensate for the free will of the players. Often, the presence of the investigators seems superfluous, because the story isn't about their struggle against the Mythos so much as it's about the machinations of the villains, with the investigators only there to bear witness to events that they can't change. In some cases, the horror of the book feels simply vicious, forcing the investigators to witness scenes of awful atrocity without being able to do anything about it, which is like taking part in a Friday the 13th horror scenario by watching the carnage from the safety of a rowboat. The book's description is excellent, and does a good job of conveying both a tone and a mood, but often it's designed for the benefit of the person reading the book and not the Keeper who has to run the adventure.

The central McGuffin of the campaign is the Sedefkar Simulacrum, a statue based around an avatar of Nyarlathothep that's been split into its component pieces and scattered across Europe. In an overcomplicated plot to retrieve it, the heretic son of the leader of The Brotherhood of Skin, a cult dedicated to that particular avatar, kills a friend of the investigator - as well as three men who look just like him, apparently just to draw gigantic amounts of attention to the fact that he's supposed to be dead three times over - disguises himself as the dead friend, then asks the investigators to do the legwork of retrieving the Simulacrum themselves. I'm not sure why the cult leader himself can't haul off and go get the artifact himself, as he knows the general location of most of the pieces, but that's the way that the scenario presents the situation. Meanwhile, a vengeful vampire who wants the Simulacrum back because it makes him look purty has also decided to shadow the investigators and kill them once they've assembled the Simulacrum themselves. To boot, there's a character who haunts the dream images of his favorite city - a character borrowed from a French novel called Against Nature - who wants the artifact for himself.

You see what I mean about overcomplication? Never mind about the three major villains where one would be just fine; just being aware of a particular Mythos McGuffin will make the investigators want it, but they're instead entangled in a labrynthine - and largely opaque, to the players - plot involving a heresy within the Brotherhood of Skin and a man whom the investigators will automatically be suspicious of, especially since the central villain's brainless slaying of his dopplegangers will make it obvious that his cult has the power to warp flesh. (The Brotherhood of Skin, taken in itself, is actually a viciously nasty little cult focused around organ-swapping and the manipulation of flesh - think of the Epideromancy of Unknown Armies, except not self-focused.) The easiest way that I can think of to handle the problem of the campaign's lethality is simply to have the characters be representatives of a university - or similar organization - with a powerful thirst to get the Simulacrum back.

I should mention that there's extensive discussion of the Orient Express, its conductors, a complete list of NPC passengers who represent a cross-section of the interesting and rich people of Europe - really, if you're looking for information on what it's like, this is an excellent resource for that purpose. But again, there's no real reason for the investigators to take it other than that the flunky of the man who's asked them to do the legwork gives them enough money to do it. (As mentioned in an issue of The Unspeakable Oath, it was hard at the time of the book's writing to find out how much a ticket about the Orient Express actually costs.) A more sensible option is to create five teams of investigators and sending each, individually, to retrieve one piece - which also has the benefit of lessening the statue's awful curse - but the book mandates that the GM either stays on the Orient Express or does a lot of rewriting of the book's later structure.

In any case, there's a short scenario - maybe six pages long - called The Doom Train that's actually quite entertaining. It's also rather radically out of place, dealing with the front half of a train that's been thrown into a pocket dimension, where it's spent the last thirty years chugging around in empty space thanks to the work of a single cultist. When his son gets run down by the train - in his room, during an unsuccessful attempt to resummon the train to the real world via enchanted model railroad set - the investigators, following a slender lead from a newspaper article, investigate and presumably find themselves sucked into the train's world. That accomplished, they immediately have to flee from the spectral passengers into the only safe place on the train, talk things out with the cultist who caused the problem in the first place, then figure out a way to get the train back into the real world. And it's here that the scenario steps from interesting to truly memorable - in order to get back to the real world, the investigators have to play with a model railroad set made out of human remains, gliding a human heart across the proxy track in order to return the train to the real world. It's that kind of image, the audacity of using a heart as a proxy train, that makes Call of Cthulhu great; and maybe it sounds silly out of context, but as it's written, it's quite potent. The only problem is that it's essentially a giant red herring, has nothing to do with the Orient Express, and may even confuse the players when the Orient Express itself starts doing weird stuff. As a separate scenario? It shines.

The first piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum is found entirely through research, in Le Fleurs De Mal, as the investigators go through ancient records to track down the former mansion of the vampire who's currently seeking out the Sedefkar Simulacrum on his own. Now, I do not own Trail of Cthulhu, but I am strongly considering purchasing it; and one reason for that is because Trail of Cthulhu uses a different system to distribute clues to its investigators than does Call of Cthulhu. If the players aren't able to track down information about the vampire's life in the Nationale Bibliotheque, then the trail goes cold and the characters don't get a critical piece of of the puzzle that they need - but it boils down to a series of Library Use rolls in a language that many investigators may not have. The scenario provides an out in the form of a helpful student who can do the research for them, but really, it might have been easier simply to not make the scenario revolve around making a marathon series of Library Use rolls. Once the characters have found the location of the vampire's former villa, it's an easy enough step to claim the first piece, although there's a nicely chilling recurring injury due to the ambient influence of the piece in question,. It's a pretty weird scenario.  

Nocture has the characters chasing after the Scroll of the Head, another component required to make the Simulacrum work; it's a neatly weird little chapter, involving a taxidermy shop, a mute brother, the aforementioned character borrowed from a French novels - the Duc Jean Floresses des Esseintes, from A Rebours - murder, the dream images of cities, and an amazing dream sequence where the characters investigate Dream Lausanne and get some eerie foreshadowing of what's coming up for them in chapters to come. Hell, just for example, here's two of the dream sequences, with stats elided:

In the middle of a deserted square, another statue stands. It is large, and made with wire with what appears to be rags hanging from it. As they get closer they notice that the wire has been crazily woven into a human shape, and that the rags are scraps of flesh snagged on cruel barbs and hooks. From the head emerges the sweetest sound that the investigators have ever heard. It is like an angel singing, a voice of perfect clarity. The sounds brings tears to the eyes of the listeners, and they flee weeping from the square before their hearts can break. 

Or:

A street magician displays an empty hat. He inserts first his right arm, then his left, then his right leg and finally his left leg into the hat. Each time he does this his limb is taken by the hat and vanishes. Finally, collapsing to the ground, laughing hysterically, the magician asks that someone from the audience to retrieve his limbs from the hat. No one volunteers; if an investigator does, nothing is inside.

You see what I mean? Beautiful and horrible at the same time, symbolic without hammering you over the head with it. (Both are references to the horrible fates of some of the NPCs, but really, they work better as just bits of art in their own right.) The chapter ends with a trial undertaken to rescue the owner of the Scroll from a kangaroo court, and relies less on physical conflict and a lot more on the ability of the investigators to argue their way out of a legal system that bears little resemblance to traditional law.

Note for Note is irritating. In fact, it's not really a role-playing scenario at all; it's a series of scenes to herd the investigators through, without really giving them any chance to affect the scene around them. The characters get jerked around repeatedly until the end of the scenario, at which point the biggest chunk of the Sedefkar Simulacrum is dropped into their lap with only minor interference from the bad guy. There's extensive detail given on a scene where the investigators explore the inside of an opera house the night before a performance, but as far as I can tell, there's no particular reason for them to do that except for a dropped line in a newspaper article - and that's just the guy bitching about a string of bad luck. Furthermore, the central atrocity of the bad guys is something that the investigators can literally do nothing about: an opera singer with a pure, beautiful voice is kidnapped by a cultist, who then removes her voicebox with a spell and replaces his own with it in order to sing along to a particular opera. Not to summon Cthulhu, or to complete some hyperdimensional spell; just to sing along to an opera, in the belief that it'll help him get what he wants. The players can't restore her voice without knowing the spell, and the cultist in question is ripped to shreds later on by another NPC, removing any possibility of getting her fixed up.

It's maddening for several reasons. It rips away player control of the scenario - there's no possible way for the characters to make the situation right. Instead of being able to save the opera singer and her voice, the investigators are instead only able to witness her ruin at the very end. All they can do is to get led through the scenario, then make a stab for a big chunk of the Sedefkar Simulacrum which they basically get - as the scenario describes - by GM fiat. The players don't even get a chance to deal with the villain of the piece, as the vampire takes care of him shortly thereafter, which is another piece of railroading that hurts the scenario. It's very well written, but it's basically a chapter from the author's novel, not a role-playing scenario. It is eminently rescuable, I suppose, but it needs a lot of work before it can be fixed.

Death (And Love) In a Gondola has a lengthy subplot about a woman with two suitors - one Fascist, one romantic - that every investigator in the party will be hard-pressed to give two shits about. It is nice to see the occasional change of pace within a Call of Cthulhu scenario, where it's not just about finding the local bugaboo and filling it full of shotgun pellets, but the problem is that the investigators will probably not want to spend their time dealing with the romantic misfortunes of some random Venetian woman. The investigators will probably have no interest in attending her parent's funeral, may deal with Blackshirts more harshly that their crimes up to that date merit, and will probably regard her rescue from said Blackshirts with no small amount of irritation - because for fuck's sake, they're dealing with the Mythos here, not some moony twit's romantic advances. On the other hand, there's a bunch of good, solid bits of horrific atmosphere due to the vampire's presence and activities, turning Venice from a modern city into a half-reflected nightmare of its medieval self, complete with flagellants and human-handed fish. The ending is particularly good, involving trying to find the leg while dealing with whirling automatons in a clock tower. You can leave the romantic plot in, but GMs who want to keep the tension of the plot going may feel better just leaving it out.

Cold Wind Blowing: You may want to sit down for this one, because this particular scenario features Johann Winckelman, top headliner for Who The Fuck Am I, Again? magazine, and star of You Don't Even Know Who I Am And Even I Myself, Johann Winckleman, Do Not Know or Care. In fact, reading his biography, I can't even see what makes him even barely interesting enough to turn him into part of this scenario other than the sheer perverse thrill of rescuing a historical nonentity from deserved obscurity. In a nutshell, Winckelman's real-life murder was caused by his working for a Lloigor cult, who were in turn trying to summon the Wendigo to Trieste thanks to its gale-force winds, called the bora. His ghost decides to haunt up the investigators because they happen to be in the neighborhood, shows them where the medallion was hidden, then disappears forever once they've got it. When the investigators go to deliver the medallion to the Lloigor - which is, coincidentally, also where one of the pieces of the Sedefkar Simulacrum is, they wind up in the middle of a cult war between the Lloigor cultists, the Brotherhood of Skin, the vampire, the investigators and the Lloigor themselves. It's not a terrible scenario, but again, the investigators are being led around by the nose by something that they may have no reason to trust; and the cave crawl at the end might invite comparisons to dungeon crawls.

A City of Bells and Towers is, in my opinion, a masterpiece; it's one of my favorite CoC scenarios of all time, both to read, and, hopefully someday, to play. In fact, it would make a beautiful piece of interactive fiction, because about ninety-five percent of it is composed of vivid and beautiful descriptions of dream Zagreb, inspired by the work of Thomas Ligotti, who's definitely worth looking into if you like good horror fiction. In fact, the scenario actually goes so far as to quote liberally from "The Journal of J.P Drapeau", one of Ligotti's short stories that exemplify his work, allowing investigators to pick up excerpts from the journal as they travel through a wonderfully described dream city. 

But here's the thing: It may be a fantastic scenario to read; I'm not entirely sure if it's a good scenario to play. The characters are in search of a mysterious hooded figure through a dream city, with each location that they pass through briefly described. For instance:

A splash of silver on the cobblestones; a fish lies here, waterless and dying painfully.

Or:

Up ahead in the fog, a squawking and a hissing is heard, a slithering of scales and a beating of wings. When the investigators pass, all that is to be remarked upon is a stone statue depicting a griffin and a serpent locked in combat.

Or:

A flock of children run, pitter patter pitter, small cloaks billowing. Their eyes are white as the moon at its fullest, and just as blank. The infants smile without joy and run by.

 

(The bells of the town talk, five times, once for each of mankind's senses - but with seven more marks on the face of the clock, is not mankind a limited and incomplete creature?)

As fiction, it's really good. As interactive fiction - like Zork, but people have been doing some amazing stuff with it since then - it would be excellent. As an actual scenario, where a Keeper has to convey all of this atmosphere, I'm not a hundred percent that it's going to come off without a group that's very willing to put up with a surreal and disconnected scenario. (One of the scenarios I wrote, Marching Goes Johnny Home, tried to emulate the scene-to-scene surreality of this scenario.) At the end, the figure also essentially allows the characters to open up a firehose of Mythos knowledge on the investigators, gaining 1d10 Cthulhu Mythos knowledge in exchange for an equivalent amount of Sanity, but allowing the characters to regain all but 2d6 of the sanity they lost while retaining the Mythos knowledge once they wake up. I don't have a problem with letting the characters have a high Cthulhu Mythos score, but Keepers should be made aware of the potential for characters walking away with a huge amount of precious Mythos knowledge for little cost.

Little Cottage in the Wood brings the characters to Belgrade; after an amusing red herring, the characters travel into the wilds of Serbia aboard a vividly-described peasant-class train, only to find themselves in the kitchen of Baba Yaga - which then turns pretty much into your standard death trap, complete with a whole ton of rolls to avoid being sliced up by the various threats that both Baba Yaga and her daughter present. Pursued by Yaga's chicken-leg hut, they use an incredibly powerful magic artifact handed to them by a friendly villager, as a deus ex machina, and escape with the piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum that they need. If my description seems brief, so is the scenario - and there's a lot of excess cruft nailed on that has nothing to do with the investigators, such as the fact that the village that the investigators visit is actually composed of Shub-Niggurath cultists, or the details of the ritual that the villagers undertake while they're there. (It's pretty benign, so there's absolutely no reason for the players to stop it without looking like jerks.) While the Shub-Niggurath cultists do explain the sudden appearance of Dark Young in the scenario, it's going to confuse the players. It's a scenario that draws heavily from the atmosphere of a fairy tale - one of the darker Russian ones - but I'm not sure that it entirely fits within the context of the campaign. Memorably, there's a chicken attack on the investigators while they're waiting to reboard the Orient Express, but it's kept from being silly by the fact that there's a shitload of chickens, they're all black, and they're obviously directed by the will of Baba Yaga, getting in one last shot before the investigators leave Serbia. (Dan Davenport suggested that the message delivered was "...and don't come bock!" for which he's going straight to Hell.)

Repossession opens up with a neat hook, as one of the investigators has an eyeball sliced out of his head by a Brotherhood of Skin cultist, who then flees and replaces his own eye with the investigator's. (The involuntarily modular approach that the Brotherhood of Skin takes towards the human body is source of a lot of really good horror.) However, the investigator still gets flashes of what the cultist is seeing while the rest of the group attempts to find the final piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum - in this case, by once again meeting with a local contact, then engaging in a chase scene to the location of the final piece, where the vampire has already done the useful and necessary work of paving the investigator's path with dead cultists. Once they find out that the head isn't there, they return to the train and face off against the vampire - and it's this scene, according to the book, that'll account for a whole ton of investigator casualties - with a +2d6 damage bonus and a STR of 32, it's not hard to imagine the vampire engineering a total party kill. On the other hand, that's part of the fun of Call of Cthulhu, and if the investigators are smart - and remember some vampire lore - it won't be totally impossible to kill the thing, or at least keep it at bay until dawn. The creature's attacks are very well-described, including a haunting chant representing the vampire's attempt to get an investigator to open up a window.

By the Skin of Their Teeth is a somewhat unpleasant venture into Grand Guignol, and includes some stuff I like, and some stuff I don't like. Arriving in Constantinople, the characters try to track down the Shunned Mosque so that they can destroy the Simulacrum for good. (I should also note, since this seems to be the right place for it, that ownership of the piece depresses Idea, Know and Luck rolls by five points per piece - which frankly seems like an unnecessary penalty for ownership of the thing. There's nothing wrong with penalizing investigators for owning a Mythos artifact, but those rolls in specific are often the ones that investigators roll most; it's like removing feats from a D&D character.)

It's a chapter that's going to frustrate the players more than it's going to entertain them. The writing is sterling, but the investigators are primarily there to witness scenes of horror, not to be able to do anything about it. While the investigators are fighting the Brotherhood of Skin on their home turf, the Brotherhood seems to pretty much run Constantinople - they kidnap children, have spies everywhere, and pretty much have the upper hand on the investigators from the moment that the investigators hit the ground.

The investigators never get a chance to become proactive. They're too busy being jerked around by the cult. When they find a lead to the Shunned Mosque, the cult turns the lead into a flesh-thing and has them attack. When they investigate a graveyard, they're attacked and imprisoned yet again in order to watch a dozen children sewn together and have enchanted, boiling flesh poured over them, only for the investigators to be freed by a deus ex machina. (I found the use of the children in the scenario to be somewhat exploitative - while it's an undeniably horrible scene, it's also a touch beyond what I'm comfortable portraying to players. It works better as a written scene than it would as something you would describe in the course of a game session.)

When the characters discover the headquarters of the Brotherhood of Skin, they have a chance to rescue some children from being turned into another Skin Beast, only to be - wait for it - captured and imprisoned, where the central villain of the piece explains the more interesting plot that was going on out of the investigator's view and explains all of the powers of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, after which they're freed from captivity by a supernatural creature - the Flapping Man, the creature that gave me the nightmare mentioned earlier in the review. In short, at no point during the adventure will the characters be doing anything but getting caught by the cultists. The investigators almost seem superfluous to the scenario. There's even a short paragraph where it's suggested that any investigator kidnapped by the cult will be tortured and killed, almost offhandedly, as if they're just props instead of somebody's proxy-avatar.

And, weirdly enough, the local authorities seem utterly powerless to do anything about the cult; this is Turkey under Ataturk, during its forging into a new country, a period of new vitality, and yet the investigators will largely be on their own. There's always a strain of Orientalism in Call of Cthulhu - the whole idea of the foreigner as mysterious Other, but Constantinople almost comes off as vaguely racist, as if the Turks are unwilling to save their own people and must rely on the investigators to do the work for them. In fact, the scenario even throws in the white child of an English ambassador who's been kidnapped, as if the kids who already got kidnapped aren't important enough until Natalee Holloway counts among their number. To be sure, there's a few friendly NPCs - one a Gypsy - but given the scale of the cult's evil, and how little they're doing to conceal their activities, it's a miracle that the the government hasn't swept them up and executed them en masse. (It wouldn't be the first time there was a massacre in Turkey, if you get my drift.) The portrayal of the Turkish government as passive and disinterested in the kidnapping of children grates, especially with the example of the New China movement and the Brotherhood in Masks of Nyarlathothep providing a counterpoint as to how people from a foreign country could deal with the Mythos. 

Blue Train, Black Night provides the capstone to the campaign, in which the investigators have only a hundred hours to find the scroll required to prevent them all, as former owners of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, from corrupting into horrible slime. The scenario makes the decision for the investigators that they'll take the Orient Express back to London, since the central villain of the piece - and the Simulacrum - are aboard. That's basically the only option that the investigators have, as the scenario openly states that any plane the investigators take to London will crash and force the investigators to board the train in Belgrade.

More puzzlingly, the central villain's ambition is to use his newfound shapechanging power not to take over a major political figure, but the Duke of York, basically for his money and his position. The book itself acknowledges that the royal family is in decline at this point in time, but has the guy going after royalty simply for the money and status the guy enjoys - except that it would be trivially easy to make money swapping out body parts for ailing rich people, creating organ transplants long before their invention. Hell, imagine a subcult based around World War I veterans who are getting their severed limbs and faces back by way of stealing them from somebody else. Or why not imitate Ataturk? If the Brotherhood of Skin already runs Constantinople, why not go whole hog and take over a country? Going after the Duke of York is like buying a Rolls-Royce and then driving it straight into a lake because you're trying to catch a trout.

("Ha-ha, trout! You may have avoided my rod and my reel, but you cannot escape MY LASH!")

The scenario's basic intent is to replicate John Carpenter's The Thing, where the central villain jumps from body to body and keeps the investigators guessing as to whether the person they're talking to is actually who they say they are; to this end, the scenario introduces a whole bunch of NPCs for the GM to keep track of, each with a readily identifiable hook to avoid getting one confused with another, and a detailed timeline of the villain's body jumping. Meanwhile, the characters are busy retracing their steps through areas where they've probably already pissed people off - Baba Yaga, the Lloigor cultists, the blackshirts - some of which they have to deal with on their way back through Europe. 

I'm not really sure how this scenario is supposed to work. First off, the Simulacrum is tucked away in a place where the investigators won't be able to find it, so all of their searching for it will dead-end. (It's on the train, but bolted to the underside of one of the cars.) Second, the body-swapping villain is unable to be affected by any weapons that the characters will try to bring to bear; he's got something like ten points of armor, and while I can easily imagine characters pinning him and unloading double-barreled shotguns into him at point-blank range, the scenario seems to presume that the investigators will be content to engage in a delicate social dance of "are you or aren't you", instead of unloading double-barreled shotguns into likely suspects, so that nobody's monocle pops off in shock while the investigators are trying to save the human race from utter destruction.

As the train goes on, Baba Yaga makes an appearance, but only to fuck with the investigator's meal and glare at them, since her powers are limited by the iron rails of the Orient Express. (It's creepier than it sounds.) Finally, deciding to pull out all of the stops, the Brotherhood of Skin turns the locomotive into something possessed by Nyarlathothep, who apparently has nothing better to do, and open up full-bore trying to kill the investigators. Fortunately for the investigators, the Dream Prince of Laussaine turns one of the cars into a small stone cathedral - a wonderful image, and one ably depicted by Earl Geier - and offers the investigators the magic spell to kill the central villain of the campaign in exchange for a hollow promise to give him the Simulacrum. That accomplished, the train goes back to normal.

Not to say that it's over; the characters have to get back to London in order to cast a spell that'll remove the taint inflicted on them by the Simulacrum. Unfortunately, the spell kills off the character that reads it - it's a trap, you see - and resurrects the villain while killing off an investigator. (There's a resistance check against a pretty stiff POW score, but still.) If I had managed to shepherd a character through the entire campaign only to lose him to a trap at the very end - and just to bring a villain back that had already been killed - I'd be a touch pissed. In any case, a fight ensues, ending with the destruction of the Sedefkar Simulacrum and the main villain. (There's a nice bit where the face of the Simulacrum briefly displays all of the faces of the characters involved in the campaign before being destroyed; it's a haunting image.) There are alternate endings described in a sidebar, most of which seem a little more in tune with Call of Cthulhu's ethos than a second big boss fight with a villain that's already been defeated.

So, in summary: Horror on the Orient Express is a great book to read, but the actual play value is compromised by too much railroading; it reads more like a novel than an adventure. It is absolutely worth reading through if you can lay hands on a copy; it's excellently written, has numerous evocative scenes, but just doesn't gel together as a campaign.

-Darren MacLennan

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