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 also help make Campaign Coins. I love all games.

Playtest of Cthulhu

Behind the Keeper's screen

Behind the Keeper’s screen of the 2013 play test for the Lausanne scenario.

Playtesting is key for the revised edition of Horror on the Orient Express.

The authors writing the new sections are playtesting their own work before submission. Oscar Rios has a group of New York irregulars he can call on, and afterwards he discusses plot refinements with them via Facebook. Their ideas for the Invictus scenario final draft were particularly gruesome. Geoff Gillan plays with his original gaming group of 20 years, but these days via Skype; he can rely on them to upend any scenario he puts in front of them (I believe one of the Gaslight characters got arrested). They have just finished playing the new Dark Ages scenario, and four of their characters will appear as the pre-gen characters in the final book; a pleasing collaboration.

Meanwhile, I am playing through the entire campaign with four friends who have put aside family obligations to meet weekly. It is an incredibly focused group, we sit down at 8pm and they give the plot their full attention, with no out of character jokes or asides. Having been away from Call of Cthulhu for years except for the occasional Christmas game, I am addicted to it all over again. I am taking a vicarious thrill in cutting apart and using all of the handouts and props for the 1991 edition, exactly as Lynn intended. The hell with the Ebay value, they were printed for use! In the photo above you can see the Sedefkar Scroll. Lynn wrote that a leather tie would give it an authentic air, but as a vegetarian I’ve settled for a piece of string.

The players include a historian, a writer and a photographer, so the extra ideas they bring to the table are remarkable, especially in the area of research ideas. Many of these new avenues and clues will make it into the book. It is clear to me what they find interesting and what they don’t pick up on at all, and I am rewriting the early chapters to provide more motivation. At the end of each session I pour another coffee and write up detailed notes, usually three pages of bullet points per night.

The biggest change is in the way that the information is structured. The 1991 edition assumes in many parts a certain dramatic flow, but any investigator decision can change that. Unfortunately the scenarios are not adequately arranged to allow for such variation, and key locations are not described at all. One chapter assumes the players will meet and talk with an NPC; instead, they decided to lure him out and break into his house, which was not covered in full. This is my first time running the final printed campaign (the version I ran in 1990 was prior to final editorial), so with the intervening 20 years I am able to approach it as an end user.

There is lots to do, but we are having great fun in the process. Actually, fun is the enemy. We are on a tight schedule to get the entire campaign played in time, and I have to curb my instincts. Hence the note on the inside of my Keeper’s screen: GO FASTER. I am perfecting my methods for quick play, which I’ll share in a future post (there are a couple that are not quite working yet, due to my own lack of discipline!).

Meanwhile, we have a group in the UK who are playing through the 1991 campaign, so I am sharing notes with the Keeper. Many of our discoveries are the same, so I hope that you all will find that the new edition is much easier to run. And, you won’t have to do it on a deadline. Go slower!


Filed under Playtesting

Lynn Willis: Steadfast Editor & Dreamer

Professor L.N. Isinwyll

It was always our intention to dedicate this new edition of Horror on the Orient Express to Lynn Willis. The idea for the project was Lynn’s: in the late 1980s Christian Lehmann and I pitched a Continental European Sourcebook for the 1920s, and Lynn responded that he would rather see an adventure set on the Orient Express. We took the challenge, recruiting others to help us. Lynn was a responsive, supportive and insightful editor, and under his vision it grew into a deluxe boxed set.

Lynn infused our first draft manuscript with history and humanity, evoking uncertain times lived on the precipice of a troubled past. Europe of the 1920s and the luxury of the world’s greatest train came alive in his edits, and as authors we were honoured by the enhancements he made. All of the ideas for the deluxe handouts and inclusions were his, and the art direction was flawless.

Lynn retired from Chaosium in 2008 and had been in poor health in recent times, but he has been in our thoughts every day of late as we rediscover the scholarship and wit in his prose. Only Lynn could add as an aside that a deceased archaeologist, when handed a book to assist in translation, would “pause to admire the concision” before getting on with the task at hand.

We’ll still make that dedication, but sadly Lynn will not see it. Charlie emailed on Friday morning to say that Lynn’s struggle with illness was over at last.

His legacy is enormous. On his watch, Call of Cthulhu was first published and then aged through five editions steeped in research and concision. His 1984 collaboration with Larry Di Tillio Masks of Nyarlathotep remains his masterpiece, perhaps the greatest RPG campaign of all time. But beyond the books, Lynn answered every letter he received about the games he worked on, and inspired a generation of gamers with his unfailing encouragement and wisdom. He also mentored scores of artists and authors, myself included. As I write this, I can still hear his voice, with that tone of knowing amusement. He still makes me smile across the intervening years.

In Call of Cthulhu, investigators step up to the mark when heroes are required; we all hope we can do the same. One such hero was Lynn’s partner Marcia, who stood by him throughout. No biography of Lynn is complete without her. Cthulhu may be fiction, but love in this world is real.

Farewell, Lynn; may you lie dreaming. We’ll think of you every day as we guide your train home again. Here are some photos of happier times.

Lynn Willis and Mark Morrison outside Chaosium, 1991

Lynn Willis and Mark Morrison outside Chaosium, Oakland 1991.

Great minds meeting: Scott David Aniolowski, Lynn Willis, Kevin A Ross, Keith Herber & Sharon Herber at Chaosium, 1990.

A meeting of great minds. Clockwise from left:  Scott David Aniolowski, Lynn Willis, Keith Herber, Sharon Herber and Kevin A Ross in the mezzanine library, meeting and gaming space at Chaosium, Oakland 1990.

Lynn and Keith at their desks in the comforting gloom of Chaosium, Oakland 1990.

Lynn and Keith at their desks in the comforting gloom of Chaosium, Oakland 1990.


Filed under Chaosium