Category Archives: Spoilers

GenCon Penultimate Trip Playtest

Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station. The hotel had once been a train station.  After working on the Horror on the Orient Express for so long, anything to do with trains makes us anxious. The staff in the lobby seemed friendly. Or did their smiling faces mask some deep seated, potentially train-related, evil?

Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Donwtown Union Station

The roof looked solid enough.

We nervously followed the hand-scrawled directions we had been given to our destination. The door was ajar…

Penultimate playtest door

We sensed something was wrong as soon as we arrived.

It was Gencon Indy 2013 and beyond that unhallowed entrance, Jeff “Mr. Shiny” Carey and his stalwart fellow Keepers, Brandon  and Joe, were running the Kickstarter Horror on the Orient Express GenCon Penultimate Trip for six intrepid, and perhaps ever so slightly insane players, Paul, Marc, Samuel, Steve, Graham and Suzanne.

These hardy souls played for five days and nights, and when I mean, nights, I am talking 4 am in the morning. We arrived on the third day to find the players in good spirits, although their investigators were starting to fray at the edges.  The Keepers were displaying incredible stamina as they steamed remorselessly onward to Constantinople.

The playtest was also incredibly useful for us as we were able to make several important edits that will help the final book, based on player feedback.

In the photographs below I am going to show some of the room, players, Keepers, props and handouts. If you are going to play Horror on the Orient Express stop reading now for fear of the forbidden knowledge you may accidentally glean from these blasphemous images.

Jeff and his fellows Keepers had done an amazing job and must have spent hours lovingly recreating handouts and props. It was a huge thrill, and truly humbling, to see our work reproduced in such meticulous style.  The room was atmospherically lit.

The Unhallowed Shrine, er, Playtest

The Exit Sign was clearly marked. Why, oh why, did they not use it?

The props were gorgeous. The players informed us in hushed and worried tones that their full-size Simulacrum had a disconcerting habit of reassembling itself when they went out for meals. No matter how scattered its components around the room, when they returned it was always neatly arrayed in the center of the table.

TThe Unseen Forces were tidy souls.

The Unseen Forces were tidy souls.

The handouts were wonderful. Again people, the following image contains a massive spoiler so please do not not look unless you are genuinely never going to play Horror on the Orient Express for as long as you live, and peeking between fingers doesn’t work. By the way, I know you’re going to look anyway so I blurred the particularly blasphemous part.

Devils Simulare

That was when he wished he had never learned Latin.

In honor of the hotel’s history some of the rooms were immaculately restored Pullman cars. Jeff and his family were staying in one of these cars and in a truly heroic act of generosity Jeff offered his room to Mark to play his Kickstarter Secret Orient Express History game.  This meant neither Jeff nor his folks got to bed until after midnight. It is not often that a Pullman car represents a heart-warming gift to a fellow Keeper.

Jeff's Pullman Car

Jeff’s Pullman Car, with Mark and the Secret History players in the foreground

And yes, these four players now know a secret of the history of the Horror on the Orient Express than no-one else will ever know. You can see by their worried faces that the knowledge is already taking its toll. Thank you, Jeff and family, for sharing the horror.

Graham’s Flickr album for the Horror on the Orient Express contains some evocative photographs of the game, players and Keepers, but again there are spoilers galore so don’t look if you are planning to play the scenarios.

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Filed under Chaosium, Conventions, Fun, Playtesting, Spoilers

The Simulacrum Lives!

Figures fill our worlds. Shop front dummies.  Statues in public places. Images on screens. What do these figures want? What do they mean? Do their eyes follow us when we’re not looking back at them?

When we visited the United States recently for GenCon Indy and Necronomicon Providence we were thinking of Horror on the Orient Express as it steamed inexorably towards its publication date. However we were not dwelling on a certain arcane artifact that features within it. My mind was running mainly on proof reading and header styles.  And on that note, if you plan to play in Horror on the Orient Express, please stop reading as I am about to offer certain insights into said artifact that may or may not be involved in the investigators’ continent-spanning quest.

In San Francisco I pointed out a shopfront dummy to Mark. ‘why, I said, gaily, ‘That looks just like You-Know-What.’  Chuckling at the coincidence we took a photograph.

The First Simulacrum

The First Simulacrum

Shortly afterwards we saw another figure. This time the coincidence seemed slightly less amusing. Was it because the figure was now, how can put this, unnervingly incomplete? Was it because that this was when we felt the first, haunting sense, of being followed? Nevertheless we were tourists. It was broad daylight. What could go wrong? We do what tourists do. We took a photograph.

The Second Simulacrum

The Second Simulacrum

We left San Francisco without further sightings of any mysterious figures. Surely, even if we were being – followed –  we could easily elude our follower in the crowds of GenCon Indy? So it proved, for the first few days.

On the third day I was fool enough to leave the convention, and venture down the quiet mall next door. It was a bright, sunny day. Little did I think to discover the horror…oh the horror…

The Third Simulacrum

The Third Simulacrum

Who as this good doctor, and why was he being threatened by a crowd of amputated legs? I looked closer.

The Right and Left Legs

The Right and Left Legs

I hurried back to the convention center and mingled gratefully with the happy, oblivious crowds. I hoped I might forget. But it was not to be.  We found nowhere to hide in New York. It tracked us down, even in broad daylight and amid the bustling crowds of Times Square. Look – up there! On the Times Square Screens!

The Fourth Simulacrum

The Fourth Simulacrum

It was too much. We fled New York for the peace of Providence, Rhode Island. Surely in this quiet university town we could lose this sense of being followed by an implacable and vindictive force?  What harm could come from browsing in the hallowed and venerable precincts of the Brown university bookshop?

The Fifth Simulacrum

The Fifth Simulacrum

Averting our eyes from that dreadful, insensate, blank visage we fled the bookshop, seeking the peace of the dreaming, pristine lawns of the university. Surely no horror would dare set foot upon this sacred turf – ARRRRGGGGHH!

The Sixth Simulacrum

The Sixth Simulacrum

Has anyone seen Mark? It’s been a few weeks now and I’m starting to get quite worried.

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Honoré Fragonard, Creepy Anatomist

Warning: This post contains a photograph of an 18th century anatomical specimen of a human and equine preserved corpse.

Coincidence is by its nature a startling thing. A historical character can be deemed too far-fetched if found in fiction. Very few of the horrific images we have summoned up in Horror on the Orient Express  can surpass those found in the grotesques of the 18th century French anatomist, Honoré Fragonard.

Honoré Fragonard was a careful craftsman, an expert technician, and in his own way a genius. He specialized in the preparation and preservation of anatomical models, called écorchés. This translates as “flayed figures”. Medical students found them essential in the 18th century because of the lack of bodies available for dissection. I am sure the Horror on the Orient Express enthusiast can see where this is heading.

Écorchés were models of bodies with the skin removed, exposing muscles, blood vessels and skeletons. They were made out of different materials, bronze, ivory, plaster, wax, and wood. Fragonard made his from corpses. He kept his methods of preservation secret.

When Louis XV founded Paris’s first veterinary school in 1765 Honoré Fragonard was appointed Professor of Anatomy. He kept his position for six years, during which time he prepared up to 700 pieces although today only 21 survive. Unfortunately, Fragonard’s pieces became too… theatrical. He was expelled from the school in 1771 as a madman. He continued to work, selling many of his later pieces to the jaded Parisian aristocracy. Looking at these dates, we realize that he was at work in Paris in the same years as a pivotal NPC in the campaign. Fragonard died at Charenton in April 1799. We don’t think he died in the asylum, but the proximity is alarming.  

His surviving works are on display today in the Musée Fragonard d’Alfort, a museum of anatomical oddities in the École Nationale Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort. In addition to animal skeletons and dissections, such as a piglet displayed in cross-section, the museum contains a collection of what are dryly called teratology. In layman’s terms this means monsters, including preserved Siamese twin lambs, a two-headed calf, a 10-legged sheep, and a colt with one huge eye.

The Fragonard Museum [Source: the museum website]

Honoré Fragonard’s exhibits are all found in the final room and include:

The Horseman of the Apocalypse: a man on a horse, both flayed, surrounded by a crowd of small human foetuses riding sheep and horse foetuses.
Monkeys: A small monkey, clapping, accompanied by another monkey holding a nut.
The Man with a Mandible: inspired by Samson attacking the Philistines with an ass’s jaw.
Human foetuses dancing a jig; three human foetuses, arteries injected with wax.
Goat chest: a goat’s dissected trunk and head.

Contemplating this list you start to get an idea of why the school dismissed Fragonard as mad.

Below is a photograph of the rider and horse. Look no further if you are squeamish.

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This is from centuries ago, but it it still a dead person.

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For reals.

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Okay then.

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Sanity loss (0/1):

Rider and horse [Source: Wikipedia]

Rider and horse [Source: Wikipedia]

We found out about  Honoré Fragonard and his eerie echoes to our own fictional history only recently, with thanks to the work of Darren, our Stalwart Historian.

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Revisiting Venice II – The Scenario

Beware, here be spoilers…

Re-visiting the Venice scenario made me think about the reasons why I structured it as I had. It has three strands, Love and Death, and then the Mystery, the results of the players’ investigations. On re-reading the scenario I was shocked by two things. First, my unthinking stereotyping of Italians as cheerful incompetents, for which I’d like to unreservedly apologize to the entire nation.  Second, the Venice of my imagination provided excellent background and color but it had a complete lack of actual plot – just keep knocking on those doors, players, eventually you’ll find the right house. What worked well was that the incidents of Love and Death ticked over regardless. There was always something going on in the background which the investigators could choose to investigate.

I was baffled by why I had divorced the Love sub-plot from the actual plot, until I remembered why I’d written it in the first place. In Lausanne and Milan, the players meet characters they cannot help. We wanted to restore their belief that they could save someone. This, after all, is the reason they first boarded the Orient Express. Thus, Love came in. It certainly worked a treat in the play-test. When one of the play-testers suggested not helping the lovers he was thoroughly rounded on; ‘Good God man, we’re British’ was firmly remarked.

It was clear that in my re-write I had to leave Love and Death alone and focus on building an actual plot, as well as allowing the non-player characters some more actual, well, character. Fortunately twenty additional years of writing experience have given me a few more clues on how to structure a narrative.  I’ve now moved the thing the players are trying to find around, although never fear, Dear Readers, it still ends up in the same place. I have created a trail of clues to follow, and made one of the NPCs a disabled war veteran (guess what Keepers, he has an artificial leg). In Venice the players also find a clue that sends them to Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. I feel that Venice now has more than enough plot to go on with.

It is also clear to my older self the deadly nature of the conflict between the Communists and Fascists, which my younger self had unthinkingly played for laughs. One of our play-testers is a historian, and he unearthed the following newspaper clipping. These events precede our scenario by only a few months. There are deep divisions in Venice, in all of Italy, that will only get worse.

Christmas Day fight December 1922

Christmas Day fight December 1922 [Source: Kalgoorlie Miner 29 Dec 1922, retrieved from The National Library of Australia, trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/93236637]

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