World War One Cthulhu image (c) 2011 Red Wasp Design for The Wasted Land computer game
It’s 2014 and, at last, the train is arriving. Download codes for the final PDF of Horror on the Orient Express have just been sent out to all backers (check your emails), and the Chaosium crew are gearing up for a frenzy of collating as they put together the packages for everyone, with an estimated release date of 17 October. The final boxed set weighs in at over 3 kilograms, so while it has been a while coming, it will definitely land with a thump. Charlie had a shrink wrapped box mockup at Gen Con, and it is not so much a roleplaying supplement as a murder weapon. Don’t drop it on your foot.
100 years ago it was 1914, and the calamity of war broke out across Europe. The scars of that hideous disaster last to this day, as it sowed the seeds for even worse horrors to come. In Horror on the Orient Express many of the scenarios deal with the effects of the Great War, both on the psyche of those who survived, or in the changing face of the nations involved. The Lausanne, Dreamlands, Venice and Vinkovci chapters all speak directly of the experience of the veterans. We have done our best to write about these complex situations with respect for those involved, and the true horror of what they went through.
It is something that Penny and I feel most keenly, as both of our grandfathers fought in the First World War. My grandfather Ward Morrison from Wodonga served in the Australian Light Horse, and was posted to Egypt in 1915 and then on to the Western Front in 1916, until the end of the war. He was on leave in Scotland on Armistice Day in 1918, and thus made it through alive and unscathed – unlike his cousin Hawton, dead just one month before the end of the war.
These extraordinary events make you as a descendant feel both small and scared, but luckily both our grandfathers came home again. Even though they did not know each other, both were present on the Front on the day that Von Richtofen was shot down, and Ward’s best friend swore black and blue that he sighted his rifle and fired at the very moment that the Red Baron’s plane dipped, a claim no doubt made by thousands of the other Aussie soldiers taking pot shots that day.
Death of Baron von Richthofen, by A. Henry Fullwood. Source: Australian War Memorial.
When I ran the playtest for Horror on the Orient Express, we gave the investigators an existing friendship, and a prior encounter with the Mythos. I wanted to avoid the typical roadblocks at the start of a horror scenario: “Why should I trust you people?” and “This can’t be happening, I don’t believe it.”
Given that the campaign is set in Europe 1923, it seemed ideal to establish that they were all in France 1918. Harry Fitz-Alan was a Captain in the British Army, and Dr. Thomas Harrington was the surgeon who rebuilt Fitz-Alan’s features after he was hideously injured in an explosion. James O’Hara was an American newspaperman covering the war, and Ernest Wellman was an American airman who flew with the Lafayette Escadrille.
Each of the players chose a period photo for their investigator, and I put these on the Keeper’s Screen during our sessions. Here’s a photo of the screen at the end of the campaign. As you can see from the amendments, the war changed them, but the Express warped them.
Keeper’s screen during playtests, with period photos
We did not play an actual scenario set in the Great War, we just described the events of one fateful day leading up to the explosion which maimed Fitz-Alan, a terrible encounter with flesh-eating men behind the lines, men who would lope and gibber and not fall down when shot repeatedly, men who were not men at all.
We just made that up quickly, but it was such good setup for the characters that I wish we had played a Great War scenario out in full. But you can take this option if you back the new Pagan Publishing scenario collection Horrors of War: A Covenant with Death, which is on Kickstarter now (but not for long, it ends 30 September).
Horrors of War: A Covenant with Death, from Pagan Publishing
Scott Glancy and John H. Crowe have actually been writing Call of Cthulhu scenarios set during the Great War for seven years now, so they have a strong collection of adventures already playtested and ready to go. This would be the perfect prequel for your Horror on the Orient Express campaign. If the campaign reaches its major stretch goal in the next two days then Scott will throw in Volume 2 for free to all who back at the appropriate level. I hope you will consider supporting this excellent project.
We’re now shovelling coal into the furnace of our writer’s blog to get back up to steam to celebrate the impending and long awaited release of Horror on the Orient Express. Next time, Penny will be taking you back to Ancient Rome, to talk about another great project on Kickstarter right now. Ave, Cthulhu!