Category Archives: Playtesting

Posts about the playtest for the new edition.

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.


Vinkovci train station. [Source:]

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Library Use made easy

While Mark was running the Milan playtest the players got really interested in a mural in La Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. The Egyptian style mural was one of four in the roof of the Galleria, visible from their hotel room in the Hotel de la Ville (situated in the Galleria itself).

The mural’s Egyptian theme intrigued the players who had tickets to see Aida at La Scala. They spent some time trying to get a closer view. However there’s no closer view to be got without climbing the sheer stone façade of the Galleria. There’s a black and white illustration in the 1991 boxed set but showing a colour photograph to the players gives the image that much more impact.

Mark found some wonderful photos on Absolutely Faaabulous, a fashionista blog (of course; this is Milan after all):

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Egyptian mural above the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (Source: Absolutely Faaabulous blog)

Close up of the mural. (Source: Absolutely Faaabulous blog)

Close up of the mural (Source: Absolutely Faaabulous blog)

The same blog also passed on a delightful rumour about the mysterious properties of a mosaic of a bull in the floor of the Galleria. If you spin three times on one foot on the bull’s testicles, your wish will come true. This is not quite as romantic as singing along with the singer on the stage of La Scala but has certainly had a deleterious effect on the bull’s testicles.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele handily connects La Scala Opera House to the Duomo Cathedral, these three beautiful buildings forming the heart of Milan.

On another Google Images related note, why describe the luxurious hotel to your investigators when you can show them a picture? In writing the Travelers’ Guide I am listing some truly opulent hotels in all of the cities (with some mid-price options for the less spend-thrift investigators). Some of these hotels are still in operation and their websites often provide historical images. Here’s one for the Beau-Rivage Palace, Lausanne (Source: hotel official website):


When you’re trying to describe a luxury hotel a picture certainly works wonders. The players invariably gasp and head for the cheaper option.

This has all been a lot easier than it was the first time around in 1991. It is a great age to be running Cthulhu scenarios, where you can have arresting images delivered to the tabletop via tablet or laptop.

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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!


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The trailer we wish we’d made

In starting our research we looked up YouTube to see what Orient Express footage was available.  Lo and behold we found quite a few trailers for Horror on the Orient Express. This one by MalleusCalixis uses borrowed music and footage and some great archival photos to perfectly sum up the mood of the campaign, so much so that Mark used it to open the first evening of playtesting. The players spontaneously applauded.

We loved the fact that this campaign that we published years ago has caused so many creative echoes and ripples. Thanks Malleus!

So turn down the lights, turn up the sound, and enjoy.


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