Author Archives: Mark Morrison

About Mark Morrison

I have been writing and designing games for strange aeons, from tabletop (Call of Cthulhu scenarios) to digital (de Blob). I love all games.

Nominations and other celebrations

ENnies 2015 Nominee

I’ve thrown down some Saltes and raised up our blog today to talk about a few cool things happening for Horror on the Orient Express.

The big news, we have been nominated for four ENnies Awards!

The ENnies recognise the best roleplaying publications of each year, so it’s a huge honour to be considered among the best of 2015. A panel of judges selects the short list of nominees, and then gamers everywhere vote on the winners.

Every single nomination delights me:

  • The Best Adventure nomination honours all of the writers, too many to list here (hi everyone!) but particular kudos to Geoff Gillan, who first dreamed of our iron nightmare in 1989;
  • The Best Cartography nomination honours Stephanie McAlea, who created stunning and meticulously researched maps, in both player and keeper versions;
  • The Best Production Values nomination honours Meghan McLean, who oversaw every detail of art and layout, with help from Charlie Krank and Nicholas Nacario;
  • And, the Product of the Year nomination honours both the Kickstarter backers who believed in us, and the memory of our mentor Lynn Willis, who commissioned and edited the original project in 1989, and taught us all to be better writers, and better people.

We encourage you to vote! Whether or not Orient Express makes it onto your final ballot, there are some amazing nominees, all worthy of your acclaim.

After attending last year’s awards for the first time I am such a believer in the ENnies that as Campaign Coins I have become a sponsor; we will be providing the ENnies medallions this year, from a great design by Daniel Solis.

ENnies medal (designed by Daniel Solis, made by Campaign Coins)

ENnies medal (made by Campaign Coins)

The ceremony is held in the Grand Hall in the historic Union Station in Indianapolis, as part of Gen Con. I cannot image a more fitting place to raise a glass to the Orient Express. Many attendees suit up and frock up to make it a glamorous occasion; last year I had a great chat with Dead Scare author Elsa S. Henry who looked totally ready to board the overnight train to Lausanne.

Elsa S. Henry

Author Elsa S. Henry at the 2014 ENnies

Penny & I will both be at Gen Con this year, so be sure to say hello! Come visit us at our Campaign Coins booth #529, just down the aisle from Chaosium.

In other news, today is the last day to back the Sedefkar Simulacrum Kickstarter, from artist Delphes Desvoivres. The project is fully funded, and full of amazing things: for just 5 Euros you can get the sensational postcard of Comte Fenalik, drawn in the style of the 18th century, and posted from the Louvres where it hangs in the campaign. It is my favourite ever depiction of the Comte. I’m also excited about the new period style poster for Aida at La Scala, starring Caterina Cavolarro.

Best of all of course is the simulacrum itself, now available in the original deluxe size, but also a new smaller size, with magnetised limbs. Delphes had the absolute inspiration of adding a female torso and head. This really will be a beautiful and creepy centrepiece for your campaign, but be quick, the Simulacrum is disappearing today!

Sedefkar Simulacrum female and male torsos

Sedefkar Simulacrum female and male torsos, by Delphes Desvoivres

Meanwhile, the train goes on. We are really happy to read that backer copies of the campaign have now reached most of you across the world, and folks really seem to be appreciating the amazing (and award nominated!) production values that Chaosium brought to the project. We know it was a long wait, but we hope that you believe that it was worth it.

There have been some changes at Chaosium over the last month, so we’d like to take this moment to acknowledge our friend Charlie Krank for inviting us to revisit the train. Without him, we never would have had the chance to do this all over again, and in such style.

May all your journeys be safe ones!

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The horror to end all horrors

World War One Cthulhu image (c) 2011 Red Wasp Design for The Wasted Land computer game

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.

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 with period photos

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!

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London and back again

Cthulhu Britannica: London

Cthulhu Britannica: London

In Horror on the Orient Express the investigators travel from London and back again, although it’s not entirely likely that the same investigators will return (either in mind or body).

As it happens, the players spend a comparatively small amount of play time in London. There is an optional scenario provided which may keep them in town a little longer, but in both of our full playtests, both groups felt getting on to the main task was more urgent.

However, it’s definitely a perfect place to start the campaign, and if you want to run a prequel adventure to get the investigators together then London is the place to do it.

Happily London is looking swankier than ever, with the super deluxe Cthulhu Britannica: London from those dandy chaps at Cubicle 7 now on Kickstarter (but not for long, it finishes this Thursday 12 December!). This boxed set will have a complete guide to London, tons of period handouts and maps and also thanks to Kickstarter there will be a complete campaign book written by Mr. 7th Edition himself Mike Mason, along with Black Library headkicker Graham McNeill and the Proto-dimensional Scott Dorward. I must say, that looks so good there’s a risk your players will be having so much scary fun in London they won’t want to get on the train!

All in all, it’s a good time to be a Cthulhu Keeper, and a great time to be a writer. Kickstarter is allowing us to put together the books we’ve always wanted to at quality we could only dream about, and that’s all thanks to the enthusiastic folks who are willing to support our endeavours. We dips our lids to you!

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Call of GenCon

Campaign Coins at GenCon Indy 2013

Campaign Coins at GenCon Indy 2013

GenCon Indy has come and gone, leaving us frazzled and exhausted but very content. Even though there was lots of Call of Cthulhu activity, our main focus was running our Campaign Coins booth. We were able to combine the worlds by displaying the Medallion of Ithaqua that we made for the Chaosium Horror on the Orient Express Kickstarter reward. It was so insanely popular that it seems likely that they will be available for direct sale before too long. We also look forward to making the Innsmouth gold coins for Chaosium for 7th Edition.

Running a booth at GenCon is somewhat like being stuck on Alcatraz. You can see the lights of San Francisco but you can’t get off the Rock. So many games being played, so many cool stores, but we were a little bit busy selling money.

Happily, some of the other Cthulhu vendors managed to visit. Chris Birch of Modiphius Entertainment swung by with a couple of sweet Achtung! Cthulhu scenarios by Sarah Newton, Three Kings and Heroes of the Sea. They were originally produced as PDFs and the books look truly fantastic printed. Massive congratulations to Sarah, Chris, Dim and Michael for their ENnie Award win for Best Adventure. I also scored a copy from the Arc Dream posse of the brand new Dreamlands campaign by Dennis Detwiller, The Sense of the Sleight of Hand Man. Can’t wait to read this one as it is set in the Dreamlands, where Penny has been spending some time of late. The layout and illustrations (by Dennis himself) are beautiful and horrible at the same time, as it should be. Arc Dream also smashed out an ENnie award for The Unspeakable Oath. Righteous.

The Traveler’s Guide, proof copy (artwork not final)

Perhaps the most exciting book of all was the GenCon 2013 pre-publication proof copy of Le Guide Du Voyager aka The Traveler’s Guide, written by Penny under the nom de plume of P.E. Jensen. There was also the brilliant publication of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter guide, as well as Missed Dues, the 7th ed convention scenarios by Mike Mason and Paul Fricker. The fiction collection Undead and Unbound also made its debut at the show, co-edited by David Conyers, who has helped out in the Constantinople chapter of Orient Express.

The Penultimate Trip playthrough at GenCon

The Penultimate Trip playthrough at GenCon

After hours we managed a lot more Call of Cthulhu related nocturnal activities. On Wednesday night we visited the group who were going through the week-long play-through of the Orient Express campaign, helmed by Mr Shiny himself, Jeff Carey, with able assistance from Brandon and Joe. Held at the Crowne Plaza hotel, a hotel with actual Pullman railway cars as rooms, this was a one of a kind role-playing extravaganza and Jeff and his team had gone all out.

The super-sized Simulacrum

The super-sized Simulacrum

The game featured costumes, lighting, music, props, a life-size cut-out Simulacrum and a diabolical full-body Simulacrum suit, unique hand-made handouts, severed eyeballs (with a complimentary eye patch) and more. As the editor, I was gobsmacked by the love and dedication that Jeff and the crew showed towards bringing our train to life. The players really enjoyed it but also gave some interesting feedback on one of the scenarios that I will try to fix in post.

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One Night at GenCon players (from top): Tom, Jason, Travis, me, Thomas

Two nights later it was my turn. Four players had signed up for the One Night At GenCon game, a secret Orient Express scenario that would only ever be played once. They alone would receive the printed copies and nobody in the room would ever speak of it again. It turned out to be one of the best role-playing games I have ever run. Jeff and his family kindly let us take up residence in their Pullman carriage to run the game. I was still plotting the scenario on the plane over and Penny stepped in to write the character backgrounds. Seeing the four players (complete strangers to each other before then) inhabit these characters and make them their own was marvellous. I can speak no more of what happened within that carriage. It was something I must not and cannot recall, because their Kickstarter pledges totalled $3000 for the privilege. I must confess that I found that a little stressful, as by the terms of the contract the scenario could only be played once, so that was the playtest. Luckily it went well.

On Saturday night we had the Orient Express and Cthulhu Wars Kickstarter backers dinner with Sandy Petersen, the 7th ed authors and the Chaosium crew in attendance at St Elmo’s, home of the Flaming Shrimp, or in my case the Flaming Saltine Cracker. We vegetarians spoil everything. Penny and I sat next to Steven and Nikki from Steve Jackson games, as well as backers Patrick and Travis. It was a wonderful evening and hopefully I didn’t babble too much, like the insane cultist that I am. It was a real pleasure talking to Steven, as he had many perceptive questions about the new campaign versus the 1991 campaign. I was pretty happy as I think we have answered most of them in the new draft. You can see photos from the dinner and lots more Chaosium-related GenConnery at Mike Mason’s Angry Zoog blog.

Afterwards, because I didn’t want the night to end, I went to a bar with Mike Mason and Paul Fricker and backer Paul, only to run into Adam Crossingham from Sixtystone Press, in one of those weird GenCon coincidences. It was great meeting Adam and his layout guru Chris, as I was able to congratulate them on Investigator Weapons Volume 1 (particularly as author Hans has written such a fantastic article on guns in the 1920s for Horror on the Orient Express)  and I also got to hear about the upcoming Colonial Lovecraft Country by Kevin Ross. In fact, Adam’s next stop after GenCon is the Boston Historical Society.

Not so for Penny and I. We departed for New York. This was intended as a glorious tourism stopover with the Art Deco Empire State Building as the highlight, but lo and behold our hotel was right around the corner from The Compleat Strategist, one of the oldest game stores in the country (established 1975). It was a real thrill to walk in there and see a full shelf of Chaosium books. In fact, owner Mike recalled getting the first books from the Chaosium guys way back in the Lake Geneva days of GenCon.

IMG_4590

The Compleat Strategist (est. 1975) in New York

The Cthulhu coincidences keep on coming. Let’s see what Providence holds.

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A Visit to Chaosium

chaosium-cthulhu

Stained-glass Cthulhu at Chaosium

Penny and I have arrived in America on the first stop of our 2013 GenCon Horror on the Orient Express tour. We have even taken our first train, the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). It did not have  a salon car where white-clad waiters served champagne, but it did get us out to Charlie Krank’s place in Hayward from the airport. We’ve since been recovering from our jet lag, eating some amazing vegetarian food in the Bay Area and playing some games.

mark-at-chaosium

Back in the office at Chaosium, 2013

On Monday we visited the Chaosium offices, and for the first time saw a printout of the complete layout of Horror on the Orient Express, which Meghan has prepared to show everyone who comes to the Chaosium booth (#501) at GenCon Indy. It’s amazing to see the book printed out: a huge stack of paper larger than Beyond the Mountains of Madness. Meghan has done a fantastic job with the layout, and it was great to see the new art, particularly the new version of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, which is so blasphemous we can’t show you yet. We also met Nick, who showed us the Traveler’s Companion bound and printed up as a sample GenCon preview edition. We hope this little book that will be a useful player aid at the gaming table. It has a guide for each city on the route, accompanied by wonderful city maps by Steff Worthington.

We also got to go to the all-new expanded wing of the Chaosium warehouse to see boxes and boxes of Orient Express loot: T-shirts, medallions, commemorative coins, placemats, matchboxes, mugs, coasters and more. Chaosium have been sending out photos of all the merchandise as part of the Kickstarter updates, but it’s another thing again to see a massive wall of boxes. There’s so much stuff there you have to scale the front stack to get to the stack behind it.

OE-boxes

Boxes and boxes and boxes of Orient Express swag

The nearby row of mi-go brain cases made me wonder what if that’s what happened to previous writers who missed their deadlines, because I flubbed a few.

Assuming the vacant space on the bottom right is not reserved for me, we leave on Tuesday for the real world gibbering madness that is GenCon…

migo

Mi-go brain cases

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Horror on the convention season

PAX Australia 2013

PAX Australia panel “Writing for Tabletop RPGs” [Photo: Marion Anderson]

The manuscript is done. Done late, but it’s done. Now we’re laying out, tweaking and proofing, but at last the editing work is over. In its place, the convention scene has begun.

This weekend was the inaugural PAX Australia, and it was a beautiful thing. It’s the largest games convention ever held here, and the PAX banner brings in gamers of all stripes: PC, console, handheld and tabletop. Seeing the massive boardgames area, swathes of Magic the Gathering tables and the Pathfinder Society area booked solid was an amazing sight. I’m in awe of the efforts of the PAX Australia and US teams in staging this, with the sterling efforts of the local volunteer Enforcers in keeping everything so friendly and welcoming. It had an amazing vibe of gamers gaming together; everybody really would play anything, with anyone.

I proposed a panel on “Writing for Tabletop RPGs”, with an eye to encouraging other local writers to refine their work and take the step to get into print. I was joined by Patrick O’Duffy, one of the original writers of Green Ronin’s Freeport, and Matt Goodall, a homegrown winner of Paizo’s RPG Superstar competition. Between the three of us we have been published in around 50 RPG books over the years, and I learned tons from listening to Patrick and Matt (in fact, I really wanted to take notes, but that’s not the done thing when you’re on a panel!)

We talked about designing locations, so I chose Paris; I spoke about how research uncovers secrets about our own world and gives ideas for adventures. Marion Anderson (Orient Express author, and also The Cairo Guidebook) was able to get a few snaps of us talking away. So, up above is a sneak preview in a darkened room of Steff Worthington’s fantastic new Paris map (it’s the player version, so it’s spoiler free). That’s me on the left, Matt on the right, and Patrick is just out of shot.

I also ran an RPG session, the first time doing so at a con in many years; I ran A Cold Death, the free scenario I wrote for Pedro Ziviani’s  Mythic Iceland, which has just been nominated for an ENnie (go Pedro!). I played with brand new friends and Cthulhoid cultists Tristan and Eric from Adelaide, and we also kidnapped four players at random who were all fairly new to roleplaying. It was an absolute blast, and once they got into their characters and the story kicked in I completely forgot we were in the massive big top exhibition building surrounded by thousands of gamers; it was just us six, on a mountain in Iceland. That’s the magic circle that surrounds us when we roleplay, and why I still love this pastime after 33 years.

Anyway, I need the practice; con season has begun. Next month it’s GenCon Indy and then NecronomiCon Providence. I’m down for a new scenario at each, so break’s over, I have some more writing to do!

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Gaming in the Big Top at PAX Australia 2013.

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London in 1926, in colour

As a sequel to our footage of Venice in 1923, here is some beautiful unearthed footage of London in colour shot by Claude Friese-Greene. While the title on vimeo attributes it to 1927, the correction from the BFI in the text dates it as 1926.

As with the Venice film, it is eerie to see the place of our imagination come to life.

This was made all the more strange for me when the soundtrack changes at the 3:24 mark, and the piano music by Yann Tiersen from the Amelie soundtrack fades in (“Comptine d’Un Autre Été”). This has been a signature piece of music in our Horror on the Orient Express playtest, and to me it evokes Lausanne after dark, loss in Milan, leaving yet another European city on the train and looking back with sadness and regret.

When this tune came in, fiction and reality came together so suddenly that I got a chill down my spine. Thanks, BFI.

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