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**SPOILERS** "Horror on the Orient Express" posts contain spoilers for my group's playthrough and the campaign in general. My ...

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 37; UnMaking

This was the concluding session of a campaign that began April 2015. Actually none of the players in the very first prologue session were around at the very end, but for almost all of the campaign I was fortunate to have a strong core of four players.

The conclusion in the printed campaign of “Orient Express” is not that strong a climax and, as happens often in the campaign, makes the Investigators mostly witnesses to events, rather than participants. It has a few interesting elements that I wanted to included in our game, if only as an homage, and I’ll discuss them below.

A core plot element of the published campaign is that the fundamental mission, the quest to find all the parts of the Sedefkar Simulacrum in order to destroy them, is a hoax, a con by the bad guys to get the Investigators to do the dangerous work for them. The new edition of the game has a few suggestion for alternative approaches, but our campaign departed from that idea early on. The Investigators quickly suspected they were being used and I introduced evidence that they might be able to collect enough lore to actually create a ritual that could do the previously thought impossible task of destroying the artifact (or at least unfolding its 4-dimensional manifestation in our reality).

I had two issues in concocting an ending scenario and it turned out to be one of those situations were two problems added together equalled a solution.

First, how could such a ritual could be presented in the game, beyond just rolling dice against an Inertia Pool or something? Since the quest had been to bring all the pieces of the Simulacrum together, how about a series of challenges that would represent severing the connections between each piece and our world. I was inspired by Kabbalistic belief, and the idea of the Sefirot, a diagram of a series of spiritual realms that an aspirant could encounter as part of a journey to the divine. When I found that while the Sefirot, while usually represented as a tree, can also be expressed through an image of the human body, that made up my mind! But what form would this spiritual journey take; what specifically would the players encounter?

The second issue came from all the various storylines and NPC factions that were still in play. While I had been moving everything towards an apocalyptic conclusion, to fully resolve all the subplots could have taken a dozen more sessions. We had the British Empire trying to master Mi-go technology, an avatar of Bast on the loose, secret societies thinking the Simulacrum was the key to mastering vril energy, 20,000 year old Atlantis cults, and, oh did I mention Mi-go? I felt strongly that it was time to wrap things up, but I didn’t want to just abandoned these events that were in motion.

Then the idea came to me that the different spiritual realms of the ritual could represent these different plot elements. Essentially the Investigators would visit various possible futures that might arise from events of the story. A vril-punk worldwide British Empire. A Mi-go apocalypse. A world under an eternal solar eclipse, ruled by the vampire Fenalik. And a future being devastated by a Second World War. There would be one such a Realm for each of the six pieces of the Simulacrum they had collected over the campaign.

The Investigators used a ritual devised by Albert Alexis, an NPC from “The Doom Train” scenario, and the Dream Drug from the Dream Lausanne chapters to visit each of these Realms, in quick missions to locate a white artifact that represented the link between the Simulacrum and the Real World. Sometimes they just had to follow a pull towards where the artifact was hidden, but sometimes one of the Investigators would encounter a dark eidolon of themselves than needed to be defeated. This doppelgänger was powered by the character’s own Magic Skill.

Magic was another major theme I wanted to resolve in the conclusion. At character creation I allowed the players to put points into Magic, which three of them did, though they each had a unique take on it. I allowed the skill to increase over the campaign. My intent was that this would ultimately be a problem, since, as clues began to indicate, all magic, even what was consider divine or holy, came from Atlantean study of the Aklo symbols on the Simulacrum, and ultimately drew on its corrupt power. In these final confrontations, the higher the character’s Magic Skill, the stronger their evil self was.

One Investigator never had Magic, but she had her own issues: since an encounter with the Yellow Sign in Milan, the King in Yellow had his eye on her. She was receiving invitations to escape all the horror and danger she experiences by joining his Court in Carcosa…

The Investigators were presented with gates to each of then six realms and choose the order to visit them. The act of severing the link when they found it was done mostly through Mythos Spends, which had subsequent Sanity and Stability costs. I had made up some mechanics for this all, but ultimately didn’t track it all too closely, since letting the story play out seemed more important than the math.

An important bit of drama came from the Realm they choose to visit last. Here I had set up a story element from the published campaign’s conclusion: one of the game’s main villains attempting to resurrect himself out the flesh of one on the Investigators. This was that character’s eidolon, and since he had developed the highest Magic, this was by far the strongest enemy they’d met. As I said this turned out to be the last of the six missions, if they had chosen this Realm first, the rest of scenario would have played out quite differently.

On the whole this approach to the conclusion worked okay. I was able to make a lot of call backs to previous scenarios, with plenty of cameos of NPCs. Since there was a lot to get through, I had to keep it all moving, and scenes were more scripted than I usually like, particularly with the final of all confrontations, with the Skinless One himself (whom I chose to make more than a guise of Nyarlathotep as in the published game’s few direct Lovecraftian elements). He had things to say that had been in my head for many months and I gave them precedence over any actual conversation with the Investigators.

It was at this point that the one Investigator who had been functioning with False Sanity the whole session dropped to his true zero rating. He rose to join the Skinless One and his shambling Procession in their endless perambulations around the roiling chaos of Azathoth. The others were free to return home — but to which home? They had gateways to all six of the Realms they had visited. The players of course knew that world of WW II was “their” history, but the Investigators did not.

Further, the PC who had never used Magic saw a seventh way: a gothic doorway, painted light yellow. Her player choose to open it, and is dancing in Carcosa to this day. The remaining two characters decided the world of war and refugees was the place they could do the most good, and quite true to their Drives, chose it.

And that’s where we ended it. To me as Gamemaster from a storytelling point of view, sessions always seem like first drafts and I can’t help but think of dozens of things that I could have done better, that could have strengthened the emergent story that came about from the mixture of my ideas and the players actions and reactions. But a RPG is a unique experience and a session is a singular event that never gets repeated.

If by some crazy circumstances I did run this campaign again, I would take it even further in the Armitage Files/Dracula Dossier direction. The Investigators would not get a linear list of places to visit, with the assumption that a piece of the Simulacrum was to be found at each one, conveniently accessible by the Orient Express. They’d get a big packet of clues and I would let them decide where to go and what seemed the most promising leads to follow up or NPCs to talk to. The published campaign books are interesting sourcebooks full of information and details. The characters could go pretty much anywhere in Europe of 1923 and find weird situations and horrors.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 36; On The Train 1923, Part Two

This session picked up immediately after the last one — though that was a month ago, so I tried to do a detailed recap. I’m always amazed to hear about game that play weekly. Just like in my last long term game (a 4th Edition D&D campaign) once a month tends to be the best I can hope for.

I know some of my plot threads and themes have been diluted through a campaign that’s taken three and a half years to play 36 sessions. I have tried to not make it vital that the players remember everything that has happened and I’ve structured things so that important topics get refreshed. Still I wish I had a better way to keep important story elements fresh in the players’ minds.

The penultimate scenario in the published campaign is very influenced by the 1972 Cushing/Lee movie “Horror Express” (which itself is another take on “The Thing). It includes some interesting elements, some weird events that don’t really go anywhere, and an immensely unsatisfying ending. Very little of it was appropriate for how our campaign has developed. A few elements, such as the return of the Jigsaw Prince as an uneasy ally, I’d actually already repurposed for early scenarios. I rebuilt things into a resolution and confrontation with Mi-go, whom I’ve made major players in our campaign. Even including a “Whisper in the Darkness” homage: a voice claiming to be one of the character’s uncle who had learned the “truth” of the Mi-go and tried to persuade the PCs to cooperate. I also utilized some favorite NPCs: Men in Black. Not the Will Smith kind, but inspired by the sort in John Keel’s “The Mothman Prophecies.” Strange, unidentifiable foreigners who both know too much but also lacking in basic understanding of communication and human behavior.

The purpose of these MIBs was to trigger various hallucinatory visions in the PCs, each a vision of a possible future, including the genocidal devastation of World War II. These futures are a key feature of how I plan to wrap up the campaign.

This session ended with a mini-scenario that resolved finding the last piece of the Simulacrum. This was also the biggest “edit” I made in order to move to a conclusion. I decided to entirely remove the Trieste chapter of the campaign. I had ideas in mind that I liked (as usual using the published campaign mostly as a source book) but I was feeling strongly that another three session scenario would drag the game out too much. The main story elements were already in place, the characters were getting dangerously low on Sanity, and, I was starting to feel the beginning of burnout. Wrapping up seemed best. Within the campaign story what happened also made some sense: the Investigators had been undercover from their “allies” in British Intelligence. MI6 in turn decided to send their own team of operatives to find the last piece of the Simulacrum. This team was successful, though they all came back insane. So a sort of 1920s Delta Green scenario took place in the background while the Investigators were elsewhere. It still ended up being up to the PCs to use their hard learned occult knowledge to control the Simulacrum piece. One player also used her spiritual power to purge the madness from the other team. That was something I hadn’t expected, but it was cool idea. She was successful, though ultimately it was a sacrifice, since it cost the character more Stability than she gained by following her Drive. I need to think about to work this selfless act into the story some more, though not necessarily as a benefit. This is Lovecraft after all, and good deeds don’t necessarily lead to rewards.

Additionally, our PC who has down to 1 Sanity suffered a Mythos shock… But as I talked about last post, it would be odd to start a new character at this point, so I have a mechanic in mind to allow another character prop his Sanity up for a bit — but he is a dead man walking at this point, and is not coming out of things well, regardless of how the story wraps up.

Next session will be the end of the campaign. The published resolution is pretty anticlimactic and lacking in a sense of cosmic stakes. The only specific consequences of, say the bad guys getting control of the Simulacrum, have been rather petty. I have been trying to build the impression of a looming apocalypse. The Mi-go claim that if they control the artifact they can guarantee the preservation at least single called life on Earth. If the Simulacrum cannot be properly presented to the Skinless One when he arrives on Earth, the consequences will be much, much worse. These are the two choices the Investigators are faced with. But they, through their adventures, have collected enough lore and Mythos points to attempt what has never been done before: actually destroying the Simulacrum before it summons the Skinless One. Tune in next time! Our next game is scheduled for the end of August.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 35; On The Train 1923, Part One

I had been planning on this being the next to last session of the campaign, but just a couple hours before we started I changed my mind about how I’d set up the scenario. I felt my initial plan was too structured so I made the scenario more open and, unlike what I usually do, took it back closer to the published campaign.

The Investigators were back aboard the Orient Express and I put them in with a big group of various NPCs. I let who they chose to talk to and interact with guide how things unfolded, improving and casting people in appropriate roles as we went. When I was a PC in The Orient Express – this was a few years ago at a Gencon event – we played this section as a larp, talking and mingling with a variety of people, some of whom were guest players, others actors directed by the GM. That was fun and I wanted some of that sense of freeform interaction.

It did mean that the session got only about half-way through the scenario. So we should still need two more sessions to complete everything. That’s probably for the best anyway, so they’ll be no need to rush. I mostly know how the ending will go (at least the setup for it; I want the ultimate resolution to arise from player actions), though I still want to work in a couple elements from the published campaign that help define “Orient Express” as the experience it was written to be.

One issue we do face is that characters are showing the strain of their experiences and one Investigator is down to 1 Sanity. I’ve talked with that player about his situation, and he’s said that in a shorter game he’d be fine with playing someone spiraling into Lovecraftian madness, but that wouldn’t be how he’d like to end this multi-year epic. I’ve been thinking of ways to allow him to continue, without just giving him (or the other PCs) any sort of “plot immunity.”

First I suggested he have a new Drive: Edge of Madness. This would let him recover some Stability by an occasional irrational act. Second, another player (whose character feels some guilt about it all) offered, at a cost to herself, to help him from going completely over the edge. My thought was that she could use her Psychology skill to help buffer any additional Sanity lost. This would be a finite resource though, and would drain her Psychology and Stability ratings, especially if the dice rolled poorly for her. Finally, in the very last session, the situation will lend itself to having characters go into negative Sanity. There will be no coming back from that, and the lower Sanity gets, the worse their ultimate fate will be. The Investigators don’t seem to expect to survive the final conclusion, but the players do appear to want to have some hope of success in holding off the looming Apocalypse as much as they can.