Tag Archives: Istanbul

Tree Hugging in Constantinople

Constantinople was a very cosmopolitan city in January of 1923, the month that is the intended setting for Horror on the Orient Express. However there was considerable anti-British feeling, founded in  Britain’s role in the Western powers’ military occupation of Constantinople (which lasted until the first Turkish troops entered the city in Constantinople in the October of that year) and the perception that Britain took the Greek side in many of the so-called “Eastern questions” of diplomacy.

This is a tumultuous time for the imperial city. The Sultanate had been abolished in November 1922. The Treaty of Lausanne, which would settle the question of sovereignty, was not to be signed until July 1923. Meanwhile, Mustafa Kemal, Ataturk, played brinkmanship with the European powers.

The  resultant potent mix of nationalism with political and military expediency sometimes manifested itself in some bizarre confrontations.

Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 - 1954) , Saturday 20 January 1923,

Kemalist Activities in Constantinople, the ‘Singleton Argus’, 20 January 1923 [Source: the Australian National Archives]

This backdrop of anti-British feeling worked wonders during the playtest to increase the xenophobia of the investigators. When brave Turks actually tried to save them, they ran the other way, leaving their would-be rescuers to a horrible fate.

This article was once again unearthed by Darren, our Stalwart Historian.

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Sacred Spaces, and Why They Scare Us

Once aboard the Horror on the Orient Express the intrepid investigators should seize the chance to explore the many  famous cathedrals en route.  Not only do these cathedrals husband thousands of years of history, but in several cities they hold valuable clues to the mystery at hand.  Besides, climbing the bell towers of Europe is one way to keep fit and allow the fleet of foot to outrace, if not the ravening Cthulhoid monstrosity, then at least their less fleet friends.

Notre Dame Dragon

Dragon carving from Notre Dame, Paris [Europe 2010]

Cathedrals are also vast and spooky spaces. They are deliberately built on an inhuman scale to impress the faithful with their insignificance in the sight of God. If the Cathedral is in any way wealthy it will be packed with tombs, statues, mosaics, alter screens and carvings, gargoyles and effigies,  crypts and relics,  all of which can be used by Keepers to instill a few harmless horrors in their players. It keeps them alert, gets the heart pumping, and does them no end of good.

Interior of Aya Sofia, Istanbul [Source: Europe 2010]

Interior of Aya Sofia, Istanbul [Europe 2010]

The Horror on the Orient Express takes place in winter, a time of early darkness, and general gloom. The shadows clustering in the nave, and thickening amid the vaults of the ceiling far overhead, may indeed be caused by the dwindling daylight, or  perhaps something more sinister.  Do the investigators wish to wait and find out? That flapping sound from the bell tower is probably just a flag blowing in the wind. Does some intrepid soul wish to climb up, and see for themselves?

Notre Dame interior [Source: Europe 2010]

Interior of Notre Dame, Paris [Europe 2010]

The writer par excellence who evoked the horror of the sacred space was M.R. James. A Cambridge don, he wrote a mere thirty ghost stories. He is the writer to read if you seek an imp in a Cathedral close,  a demon guarding an Abbot’s treasure  or a devil-haunted vicarage. The antithesis of Lovecraft, M.R. James wrote in spare, erudite prose. His ghosts are glimpsed only in snatches, generally as his terrified narrator is running for their life and sanity. His haunts are utterly malevolent. Sometimes they hunt a murderer, or avenge a theft. More often their vindictiveness is attracted  by accident. The hapless hero of  ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You my Lad’ simply blows an old whistle and is hunted by a terrible figure “with an intensely horrible face of crumpled linen”, while the luckless protagonist of ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ draws supernatural ire merely by making a very unfortunate choice in wall-paper.

“Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” [Source: Dream Quest magazine, G.W. Thomas]

The stories of M.R. James are very adaptable to Call of Cthulhu scenarios set in England and the Continent, featuring as they do a cast of bookish dons and antiquarian  scholars. The only problem in plotting these stories as scenarios lies in their inscrutable malevolence. There is often simply no way to fend off the haunt. In other words, no way to save the haunted.

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Orient Express, Guangzhou

A menu to remember

This train arrives in the most unexpected destinations.

Christian is one of our playtesters, but he is currently away for a month while travelling in Hong Kong and China. He just emailed us: “While missing the games back in Melb, I’m currently eating in the ‘Orient Express’ in Guangzhou!”

What did he eat? “It’s French cuisine – owner is a French guy. It’s located in the old French concession on Shamian island as Guangzhou used to be quite colonised like Shanghai.”

The Orient Express: wherever you go, there it is.

The dining car

The dining car

Paris via Guangzhou

Paris via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

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The Dreamlands Express II – The Bestiary of Dreams

When I was compiling the Dreamlands Express itinerary I thought about the fauna and flora of the Dreamlands and added it to the views from the train by way of local colour.

The fauna included Dreamlands fauna like magah birds, at least one animal of my own invention (from a dream in fact), and a smattering of real animals, mainly African. After all there are elephants and peacocks, yaks and zebras in the Dreamlands, so there must be a few other exotics tucked away. This had an unexpected side-effect. Just before Mark play-tested the Dreamlands Express scenario I found him leafing through the Dreamlands bestiary looking for quagga and okapi. I hadn’t realized it was possible to mistake these real world animals for dream beasts, but I guess their names do look kind of made up.

The okapi, a pleasingly defined “giraffid artiodactyl mammal”, is fortunately still with us:

What this okapi photograph doesn’t show you is that okapi tongues are so long  they can lick their own eyeballs  [Source: themagazine.ca August 2009]

The quagga, alas, is not.

A South African sub-species of zebra, it was hunted to extinction in the wild. The last quagga died in an Amsterdam zoo in 1883. I included the quagga in the Sona-Nyl description because one of the few things we now know about the quagga – the sound of its cry – was described in a poem. As Robert Silverberg notes dryly in The Dodo, The Auk and the Oryx, it is not a good poem, but it gives us today this one useful fact. I thought that any animal immortalized in poetry should have a chance to live on in Sona-Nyl, the Land of Fancy.

Quagga in the London Zoo, 1870 [Source: Wikipedia]

The other important Dreamlands animal is of course the cat. Lovecraft loved cats and the Dreamlands was one of the few areas of his fancy where he could give this affection full play. I had great fun with a cat sub-plot on the Dreamlands Express, where cats have their own compartment and are treated as full passengers. If the dreamers ask about this, they are given reasons taken straight from Lovecraft’s DreamQuest and The Cats of UltharFor the cat is cryptic and close to strange things that men cannot see; for the Sphinx is his cousin and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx and remembers that which she hath forgotten.

So in closing, here are some cats of Istanbul. Remember, they are looking out for you in their dreams.

Cat of Istanbul enjoying a carpet

Cat of Istanbul, ready to take a nap on a carpet

Cat of Istanbul enjoying a windowsill

Cat of Istanbul enjoying a snooze on a windowsill

Cat of Istanbul enjoying a box of records outside Lale Plak music shop

Cat of Istanbul napping in a box of records outside Lale Plak music shop

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Secrets of play testing

Dark Ages play test

Behind the medieval Keeper’s Screen for the Cthulhu Dark Ages play test, set in Constantinople 1204

Last night we played “The Dark Crusader” by Geoff Gillan, the brand new Cthulhu Dark Ages scenario for Horror on the Orient Express. It was an interesting group, as only one of our regular 1920s group play testers could make it. Of the others, one knew of the 1991 campaign from years ago, one had read it recently, one knew nothing at all, and one was Penny… who we can say knows more than a bit (although nothing about “The Dark Crusader”).

It worked really well; Geoff has outdone himself. The clues and drama moved the players seamlessly from one location to the next, the backdrop of the Fourth Crusade was rife with tragedy and horror, and there were some scenes that were creeping me out, and I was the one running it. The players praised it at the end, particularly the regular play tester, who thought it blended really well with the larger story. I timed the play test so that it ran the Saturday after the 1920s group found the illuminated 13th century manuscript in the Wednesday game.

The historical scenarios are not dreams nor past lives nor out of body experiences; they are in effect playable player handouts, with pre-generated characters. In this case the characters were mostly created by Geoff’s original play testers (including Cthulhu Reborn meister Dean), and the personalities were great. I was not so convinced by their skill chances, so I’ll be increasing some of those so that each player can shine when his or her character’s specialty is called upon.

I have not run Cthulhu Dark Ages before, and to be frank (actually, the players were Franks – oh stop, I’m killing me – Frankish knights, geddit? – I’ll be here all week, try the chicken) I found that combat ran a little slow. Armour is good at soaking medieval amounts of damage (who knew?) so even the simplest battle encounter slowed the game down for me. In the edits, I’ll add suggestions for Keepers as to what the key is for winning each fight, so that players do not need to kill everything in all scenes. I’ve co-opted this from the “out” suggested for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition fights, from work by Michael Shea and others. (And yes, that is indeed a D&D screen in the photo above; it seemed like the right choice for an adventure set during a medieval siege. It’s the most ridiculous RPG accessory I own, but in my defence I got it on special from a store which was closing down where I had $100 credit to burn. Don’t judge me.)

Backing up to the point above: our Orient Express play test games are not proper RPG sessions. We simply don’t have time, as we need to knock over a city a night. Hence my impatience with combat length. This ticking clock applies to all scenes. I’ve asked the players to focus their roleplaying on the plot at hand, and not to introduce sub-plots and dynamics from their own characters. I also don’t have time for the usual to and fro around the table where the players decide what to do; you know how it goes, an issue comes up with a few different approaches, no-one agrees, the discussion starts going around and around with plenty of repetition but no resolution in what Danny Bilson once called “a cycle of failure”. And there’s me, watching the clock, thinking If they just decided on something we could all see what happens, instead of sitting here deciding what won’t.

Hence the decision totem.

This is a pretty cool artifact; in 1989 I wrote a tournament module called Persons Unknown set in 1980s Scotland about a group of amnesiacs in an asylum. Marion Anderson had a tremendously cool idea for our trophies: she made an Elder Sign brand, and burned the image into our wooden book trophies. There was a spare left over, and Marion was kind enough to give it to me. It’s been a keepsake all these years, and now it’s a prop.

It sits on the table in front of one player. So, when the players are in a cycle of failure, I quickly summarise the options they have proposed, look at the person with the decision totem and say “Choose”. He chooses, then moves the totem widdershins around the table to the next player, and the game moves on.

Call of Cthulhu trophy, made by Marion Anderson for Arcanacon VII (Melbourne, 1989)

Call of Cthulhu trophy with Elder Sign brand, made by Marion Anderson for Arcanacon VII (Melbourne, 1989)

Our play testers are tainted, in any event. Not morally, but they know they are play testing Horror on the Orient Express, so they are the most diligent, focused, fantastic set of players you could ask for; they take their job seriously, so they are very attentive to all clues. I wish you the same luck with whoever you run the campaign for (Rule One: No smartphones in the 1920s), but suggest you contract with them before you start. If everyone pays attention, stays in character and takes the game seriously, it is better by a margin of strange aeons.

It’s a heady brew: the combination of such great players, such detailed material, the worldwide support of gamer investors and the thrill of an engaging and deep creative project. This is turning out to be one of the best campaigns I’ve ever run. I hope it is the same for you.

Oh, and a postscript: While my players in Melbourne Australia were in Constantinople 1204, at that exact hour on the other side of the planet, Oscar Rios’s players in New York were in Vinkovci 1923. Two Keepers, two groups, two cities, two Cthulhu eras, but the same campaign. That felt good.

vinkovci009

Vinkovci train station. [Source: StareSlike.com]

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Dance of the dead

Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance (Palais Theatre, Melbourne 2013)

Last night Penny and I fulfilled a 20 year musical ambition by finally getting to see the remarkable band Dead Can Dance play here in Melbourne. They’re a musical duo, but I have always preferred the ethereal vocal tracks sung by Lisa Gerrard in a language of her own design to the earnest ambient folk songs of Brendan Perry. Hearing Gerrard sing “Now We Are Free” from Gladiator was one of the highlights of my gig-going life; I think the hairs on the back of my neck are still up.

Dead Can Dance have many gothic ambient tracks suitable for roleplaying game sessions. The right music is the secret of my success as a Keeper; it lifts a session well above the ordinary, and players admire any sync between the story and the soundtrack as evidence of your genius (it is in fact luck, although the right playlist helps). Gerrard’s soaring emotional track “Sanvean” is perfect for, say, when the investigators must break the hard wintry ground of Europe 1923 to bury one of their own. (Not that we’re saying that is a certainty. Did we mention we are adding a new Investigator Survival Guide?)

I’m always on the lookout for ambient music for writing and for gaming, so when we were in Istanbul I was keen to get some Turkish music. Istanbul Encounter from Lonely Planet recommended Lale Plak up in the Beyoğlu shopping district; we were heading up there anyway in search of a painting of tortoises. The shop was crammed with jazz, ambient and more, and there was a cat asleep in a box full of vinyl.

Lale Plak

Lale Plak music store (Istanbul, 2010)

The friendly owner suggested Mercan Dede, a project by Turkish-born DJ Arkin Allen who embellishes his electronic ambience with traditional instruments and Sufi lyrics. It takes me straight back to the Bosporous whenever I listen to it, and I look forwards to using some of the tunes in the playtest when the investigators reach the Golden Horn. Here’s a sample from Breath (2007). Imagine the investigators plunging into the Grand Bazaar. Are they being followed? Surely not…

Horror on the Orient Express already has its own soundtrack, composed by Alex Otterlei. He is working with Chaosium for a new special issue release to coincide with the boxed set. You can hear samples from the current version on CD Baby and iTunes. It’s an honour to work on such a project with so many fantastic creative people bringing our train to life.

Horror on the Orient Express soundtrack

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Sirkeci Station

So you may have been wondering about our header photo. It is Sirkeci station, the grand terminus of the Orient Express. This photo is from a trip that Mark and I took along the train route in 2010 from London to Istanbul to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our writing about the train.

Istanbul's Sirkeci station 2010

Istanbul’s Sirkeci station 2010

Let’s face it, most big city train stations are approached through industrial estates. Sirkeci has to be one of the best situated stations in the world. To my mind its only rival is Venice’s Santa Lucia, where the unsuspecting first-time visitor walks out of the terminal to find the sea lapping at the edge of the station piazza. The sea! Will you look at that? Okay, it’s actually the Grand Canal, but it still smells pretty salty and really cements the impression of Venice as a city built on water. I think Istanbul and Venice are two cities that are best approached by train.

Venice Grand Canal 2010

Venice Grand Canal 2010

The Istanbul train enters the city along the shore of the Sea of Marmosa. The tracks pass Istanbul’s land walls – never breached, ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t mind a short history lesson – and still mammoth in ruin.

Istanbul Land Walls 2010

Istanbul Land Walls 2010

Then the train passes around the Golden Horn along the Bosporus, passing a jaw-dropping  array of beautiful buildings, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. Istanbul’s apartment buildings pile up over the surrounding hills. It is a breath-taking entrance, even when bleary-eyed in the morning after a day and a night on a ramshackle yet lovable old train, including standing in line after midnight for an entry visa at the Turkish border.

Sirkeci station was built in the 1880s and according to the guidebook is one of the most famous examples of the European Orientalism school of architecture. Apparently is also holds a train museum, which Nick and Meghan visited on their research trip but we somehow missed. Instead, we found this oddly pathetic train, stalled out front the station forever, but never investigated further.

This train is not going anywhere

This train is not going anywhere

From Sirkeci station, if you turn right you cross the Galata Bridge to the Pera Palace hotel, beloved of the wealthy Orient Express passengers. If you turn left you’re in the heart of the Sultanahmet district. There you’ll find yourself slapped down in the middle of all that gobsmacking architecture you glimpsed from the train; the Blue Mosque, the Archaeological Museum, the Aya Sofia and the Topkapi Palace. If you keep going, assuming you can walk past the Basilica Cistern (and who’s going to resist going down to peek at an ancient  spooky columned cistern full of dark water and giant carp) you will trip over the Serpent Column and run smack into the last standing wall of the Hippodrome. Seldom has one train station offered entrance to so much.

Sirkeci station is at the heart of all of the scenarios in the new Horror on the Orient Express; the investigators will arrive or depart from the station in the Gaslight, 1920s and modern eras. There are some evocative departure scenes in the classic 1974 and superior 2010 versions of Murder on the Orient Express. Alas, we flew home to Australia from the charmless airport instead.

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