Friday, January 17, 2014

[RPG] Horror on the Orient Express, Lao-style

So, some time ago I backed the re-issue of the classic Call of Cthulhu role-playing game campaign, Horror on the Orient Express. Original first printings of the campaign have been spotted on Ebay for nearly $300 in good condition, in no small part due to the number of elaborate handouts to help set the mood.

Chaosium finally released a look at some of the goodies that will be included in many of the deluxe versions of the set coming out later this year. I certainly hope we'll get a chance to play a few of the scenarios during the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Los Angeles this September.

In any case, the campaign is famously convoluted, and players and gamemasters alike tend to love it or hate it. But the latest edition is already getting some very high praise from those who've tried it out.

I'm particularly excited for this because I backed it at a level where I was able to have them include a Lao poet as a playable character in the game, if you want. For this setting, you can now play a traveling poet from Laos touring Theosophist lodges across Europe. His final destination is Luxor, exploring connections of Egyptian snake deities to serpentine Nak of ancient Lan Xang, seeking to end relentless nightmares he has been having.

This all takes place around 1923, give or take a year or two, depending on the gamemaster's discretion. The primary cities you'll find yourself in include London, Paris, Lausanne, Milan and Venice.

But assuming that you're playing in 1923, it has been 5 years since the end of World War I. Under the traditional Lao calendar, it is almost the year 2466, the Year of the Pig (around April 15th). A Lao character would likely be informed of the pending first session of the Indigenous Consultative Assembly scheduled for August 30th.

The year before, in northern Laos, a 3-year Hmong insurrection came to a close (waged between the Year of the Goat, 2462 to Year of the Dog, 2465.) The Hmong have been granted partial autonomy in Xieng Khouang province at this point.

Presumably, if a Lao poet is in Europe around the beginning of 1923, he would most likely have begun his journey in 1922 several months earlier, traveling by boat.

As your character is going spend a lot of time on a train, it may bear worth mentioning that rail was not a common means of travel in Laos, although the French were considering a way to link Laos to Hanoi.

The exception to this was a 7 kilometer track constructed in southern Laos to connect a number of small islands during the French colonial era in southern Laos near the Cambodian border. The system was constructed 30 years prior, around 1893. This was to resolve a challenge of crossing the Khone mountain range separating the Lower from the Middle Mekong during the G. Simon Mission. Here's how the engine looks in the 21st century:

However, in neighboring Siam, in 1853, Queen Victoria had presented King Rama IV the first train for their realm, and trains would have been operating for 70 years. Among the highlights of some of the trains being used in Siam were cars like these golden teak carriages:

Tin mining and coffee production are just starting to take off in Laos in this time, although ultimately it will not be as profitable as the French hoped. The first few coffee plants were introduced to Laos by French colonists around 1915. After trial and error, the French will start trying to harvest coffee beans in the south, rather than the north.

This is because millions of years ago, a volcanic eruption in the south left the southern soils rich in minerals ideal for coffee production. There remains some debate as to the specific impact of entities such as the Great Old Ones and other ancestors in the region that may have given rise to legends regarding the Plain of Jars, the Bolovens Plateau, or epics such as Sin Xay or Phra Lak Phra Lam.

In 1923, a law school is opening in Vientiane to train local Laotians interested in participating in the government. Vientiane is one of the most likely places for the poet to have emerged from, although Luang Prabang is also another possible place to start from for playability.

One particular institution of note in the region is the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO) which was dedicated to the study of Asian societies. It was founded in 1900 with headquarters in Hanoi. Its main fields of research are archaeology, philology and the study of modern Asian societies.

Around this time, archaeologist Louis Finot has been the director of the school since 1920, and he is in the process of finishing the publication of Les questions de Milinda, Milinda-Pañhha.

Another significant figure around 1923 is Madeleine Colani, who is 57 years old when most of Horror on the Orient Express typically takes place.Colani was a French archaeologist, born in Strasbourg. She combined the roles of geologist, paleobotanist, archeologist, and ethnographer. Colani discovered the Hoabinhian culture from approximately 16,000 BCE, and investigated the Plain of Jars during the 1930s. She has been working for three years at the Indochinese Geology Bureau, and will one day write Megaliths du Haute Laos (1930). Colani travels frequently with her younger sister,Eléonore. Madeleine Colani had first arrived in French Indochina when she was 33 years old.

1923 is also the 30th anniversary since the Lao territories east of the Mekong were ceded by Siam to the French in the Year of the Snake (1893). There have been a significant number of insurrections over the last decade in Laos at this time among different ethnicities.

Eight years from now (1931) the French will convene the Exposition Coloniale Internationale. It may or may not come into play for the diligent player and gamemaster. Perhaps the poet will also be discussing the possibility of presenting other elements of Lao culture to Europe in the future. Eventually the French will construct a number of pavilions based on different architectural styles from various colonies such as this pavilion for Laos:

Given that the Lao poet is traveling to Egypt as his final destination, it may be worth noting that by April, 1923, a new Egyptian Constitution will be enacted by a 30-member legislative committee that includes representatives of political parties, as well as national movement leaders. Notably, April is the traditional observance of Lao New Year.

The Egyptian constitution is an outcome of the end of World War I. The Egyptian Revolution had broken out in 1919 calling for liberty, independence and democracy. In the year prior to the start of Horror on the Orient Express, this revolution resulted in the February 28th, 1922 declaration that recognizes Egypt as an independent state and ends Egypt's status as a British protectorate.

With this particular game, the Lao poet is touring various Theosophical lodges. For historical accuracy, it has been proposed Auguste-Edouard Chauvet (1885-1955) invited the poet. Chauvet is 38 at the time, and continuing the work of the theosophists Fabre d'Olivet and Sainte Yves d'Alveydre. Chauvet is doing so by examining the book of Moses and other topics of esotericism. The poet is very interested in Chauvet's and the other Theosophists' understanding of serpents in ancient myth and legend as they appear in Europe and Africa.

H.P. Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, is sometimes credited as the first person to bring both Buddhism and Hinduism to the West as spiritual traditions that could be embraced globally. While the focus of Theosophical societies has often been on Mahayana traditions or Vajrayana traditions, it is not wholly unthinkable that someone versed in the Theravada traditions of Laos would be of interest to their members.

In 1923, one key event that sent ripples through the Theosophists is the re-founding of the Anthrophosophical Society in Germany as the General Anthroposophical Society, which was 10 years old at the time. Rudolf Steiner was at the center of this movement, having been the General Secretary of the Theosophical Society's German branches. The declared mission of the society will be "to nurture the life of the soul, both in the individual and in human society, on the basis of a true knowledge of the spiritual world."

It's only briefly mentioned in the full biography of the Lao poet in Horror on the Orient Express, but there is a French garrison stationed at Fort Carnot in the province of Houei Xai, near the Mekong, watching the Siamese border. Situated on a hill, Fort Carnot has been in place since approximately 1903 in northwest Laos during the "Holy Man Revolt" led by Ong Kaeo in southern Laos.

The area is today considered  part of Bokeo Province (formed in 1983.) This is one of the least populated regions of the country, but over 34 ethnic groups could be found there, and Houei Xai was a major trading town for Chinese from Yunnan and the Siamese. The area was known for its sapphires, and there was an ancient stele kept at Wat Jom Kao Manilat (below) reputedly dating back to 1458 CE (Approximately 104 years after the founding of the kingdom of Lan Xang by Prince Fa Ngum.)

Because a certain book called On The Other Side Of The Eye is involved, the following poems from the modern text may add some particularly relevant flavor to the proceedings throughout the campaign: "New Myths of the Northern Land," "Imperious," "Hmong Market at Luang Prabang," "Observing the Oblivious," "The Deep Ones," "Before Going Feral," "Democracia," "Thread Between Stone," and "Zelkova Tree."

Do you really need to know all of this in order to play a Lao poet on the Orient Express as some ancient horror stirs that threatens to engulf humanity in its monstrous insanity? Most likely not, but this will hopefully provide some enjoyment for history buffs who really like to get deep into character for such games.

Good luck and enjoy Horror on the Orient Express when you get your copy!

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