Tag Archives: Writing

The Train Rolls On

In May 2018 we filled in some missing stops in our original Horror on the Orient Express train tour of Europe. This time we headed from Geneva to Lausanne along the shores of Lake Leman and then on to Milan.

In St Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva, in what would become a theme, we first descended to the basement, where an archaeological excavation had uncovered an intriguing well. Get out of this one investigators. Mark remembers the well on the cover of the original Call of Cthulhu Companion, they’re best avoided.

The Well St Peters

It must be an Extreme Climb roll

Then we climbed the bell tower, past the monsters carved upon the pews.

Wood carving - St Peters

We don’t know what it is but it’s looking at us funny

Atop the tower we gazed out over the Old City where once a certain Dr Frankenstein studied, and speculated which alleys his monster roamed.

We then boarded our iron steed and headed off, passing exquisite lakeside villas as we left the town. Now which was the one that that nice young couple, the Shelleys, and Lord Byron regaled each other with ghost stories?

Train to Laussanne

Train to Laussanne

In the 1920s Switzerland was considered a cheap destination for British tourists, with the pound sterling strong against the Swiss franc. Alas no more. The Swiss franc is eye-wateringly expensive against the Australian dollar. It says something about affordability in Switzerland that during an excursion across Lac Leman into the medieval French town of Yvoire we found the prices (in euros) delightfully affordable.

Yvoire wall and roses

The roses in Yvoire made me nervous

By coincidence, or sinister design, a sumptuous masked ball paraded through Yvoire during our visit. We remained at a cautious distance from the revelers in case a mask should be accidentally let drop by the incautious claw to reveal the inhuman features beneath.

Yvoire Masked Ball Procession

A Strangely Sinister Procession

We also had a side jaunt to the walled town of Gruyere in order to eat our bodyweight in fondue and visit the Giger bar, an appropriately Gothic launch for our Horror on the Orient Express tour.

Giger Bar-Gruyere

Is this bar weird or have we drunk too many Mojitos?

The Giger Bar at Night, Gruyere

Perhaps best not go in there at night

Or you might meet one of these.

Gruyere at night

And Redcap was never seen again…

We stopped off in the lakeside town of Nyon. In the enchanting Museum of the Lake we found a strange wooden figure, allegedly an old life saving manikin, but we feared a more sinister purpose.

Life Saving dummy Nyon

Simulacrum in Nyon

Then we visited the castle, which had been used as both a prison and asylum. We found something rather …. odd … in the attic.

The attic in Nyon was not normal

The attic in Nyon was not normal

Perhaps, after all, we needed one of these.

Old straitjacket

Old straitjacket

We hurried back to the safety of the train and only left once we reached Laussane. There we had booked into the most expensive hotel of the trip, as recommended by our 1920s guidebook, in an effort to soothe our jangled nerves. The Chateau D’Ouchy was a magnificent and luxuriant pile by the lake, whose cosy cocoon we reluctantly left in order to  take the funicular from the shore to the top of the town.

Chateau Douchy

Chateau D’ Ouchy

There we climbed the ancient bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral pausing to admire the historic pews with medieval carvings. During the Renaissance the works of the ancient Greeks were rediscovered and spread through Europe. The devout custodians of Notre Dame were not impressed by the ungodly works of Aristotle so carved a picture of the philosopher being ridden by ‘the maid Phyllis’, on the side of the pew. This was the Renaissance equivalent of a sick burn.

Aristotle being ridden by the maid Phyllis

Take that Aristotle, you heathen

Finally we located a certain café near the theatre, le Chat Noir.

Le Chat Noir in Laussane

Where did that Skinless One sticker come from?

Fortunately no unearthly visitors disturbed our rest that night, and there were no taxidermy shops listed in the business directory, but we did find this sweet Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits model train carriage which now adorns Mark’s desk.

Orient Express in miniature

A tiny train in direst peril…

The next morning we were back on the train and off to Milan. That’s a tale for another blog…

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Other times, other Expresses II

We’re looking here at more brave, insane or intrepid individuals who have lovingly recorded their experience of running or playing Horror on the Orient Express.

Clicking any of the links below will reveal spoilers.

Bret Kramer’s blog post Memories of the Orient Express  on his blog, Tomes in Progress,  is indeed just that. He reminiscences about running the campaign through a nostalgic haze of 20-odd years, and casts a dispassionate eye over the foibles of players, Keepers and writers alike.  He also has a ton of other Keeper aids and hand-outs, and is one of the movers behind the long awaited Masks of Nyarlothoptep Companion.

Call of of Cthulhu, or Constantinople or Bust is an endearing diary version of one gang’s train journey, told in diary format by the different characters and complete with appropriately movie star photographs of the cast. I particularly like a photograph they unearthed for the Sofia  scenario. Thank you Simon, for your brave sacrifice. We fellow soldiers in the Trenches of Horror salute you. 

Simon's Eyeball [Cthulhu or Bust]

Simon’s Eyeball [Source: Constantinople or Bust]

Another 1920s version by Leonard Bottleman starts in the single calm narrative voice of Franklin Meyers, as a recap to the now scattered investigators.  However by the time the team reach Belgrade, different narrators, and a strong hint of panic, emerge. The story includes the maps and characters from the scenarios  as an aid to the reader, and as always I am in awe of how so many Keepers found so many ingenious ways to plug plot holes and keep things moving and entertaining.

Some Keepers have cleverly translated the campaign out of its 1920s roots.

Gaslight diary sets the story in 1890, and was played as a World of Darkness campaign and recorded by Derek Morton. The account is The Diary of Tweeney Sodd  and it’s a note perfect rattling easy Victorian pastiche, but its writers have used white writing on black background rendering the entire story into squint-o-vision. Copy and paste, readers, to enjoy such gems as: “I am not sure what was going on but Nigel had brought his shotgun with him.”

Yellow Dawn Session notes is a cyberpunk take on the Express by the seriously talented and deeply weird David J. Rodgers. It takes the Express to a sanity stretching Sofia. It also features a very classy image of the head of the Sedefkar Simulacrum.

Head of the Sedefkar Simulacrum Statue – image by sirylok

Head of the Sedefkar Simulacrum Statue – image by sirylok

So the train steams ever onward into new worlds of fantasy and imagination.

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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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Revisiting Venice I – The City

So Mark’s play-testers have survived Venice, and are on to Trieste. As one player astutely observed, the real hero of the scenario was Venice herself.

I’ve re-visited Venice both in metaphor and in reality. I hadn’t been to the city when I wrote the scenario twenty odd-years ago. I had read John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, and I had always vowed to visit before I was thirty. I managed it, just.

Before I left my mother gave me a wonderful gift, picked up in a second hand bookshop, E.V. Lucas’s A Wanderer in Venice. E.V. Lucas wrote his guidebook to Venice in 1914. Aside from the Austrians no longer sunbathing  on the sands of the Lido, his lively tome is still an excellent guide. I could retrace his steps, see what he had seen, and count the winged lions along the canals at his side.

Lucas and Norwich generously gave me their Venice and their views still colour mine today. It was a city born of the printed word and pictured firmly in my imagination before I ever saw it in reality. And unlike most visions born in this way Venice was even more beautiful than I imagined.

Sixteen years later I re-visited Venice, this time with Mark. Venice is slowly sinking into its marsh. It had sunk several more centimetres by then, so at high tide St Mark’s Square was awash and the sea crept into the entry of the basilica.

St Marks at High Tide

St Marks at high tide

The city seemed to be losing the fight against two equally remorseless foes: salt water and tourists (of which I was one). Its beauty was all the more heartbreaking. The atmosphere of this city is unique. At night all is quiet and dark, with only the lights reflecting on the canal water.

Venice canal at night

Venice at night

Mark in Venice at night

Who is that figure lurking in the Venetian darkness? Oh, it is only Mark.

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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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Back on the train again

Welcome to Orient Express Writers, a blog about the writing and editing process for the new edition of Horror on the Orient Express for Chaosium. It first squirmed into the light of day over two decades ago. It will return in August 2013, just in time for Lovecraft’s 123rd birthday.

We’re delighted to be boarding the train again, and we’ve invited some new writers to jump on board. The publication would not be possible without the enthusiasm and kindness of everyone who supported Chaosium on Kickstarter. We thought we’d start this blog to share what we’re up to as we chug towards publication and beyond.

Man dies three times in one night. Let the horror begin… again!

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