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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Antagonists in Steven Universe

More Steven Universe thoughts. Deep into *Spoiler* territory here. I’ve seen different ways of dividing the show into “seasons,” but the last episode I watched was “Bubbled,” which I see listed as #103.

When the larger plot of Steven Universe started to kick in, I wondered how the show would handle having actual, active antagonists. The first “face” of opposition we saw was everybody’s favorite angry little slice of pie, Peridot. A common trope in anime is the baddie who eventually changes sides and joins the heroes. We get to see that play out with Peridot, though it isn’t an easy road for her, and she still seems uneasy with things. Her path does represent the dream that Rose Quartz built her rebellion on, that a true, free life was better than even a high place in the rigid hierarchy of Gem Homeworld.

We have had one short glimpse of Yellow Diamond, but the one real “villain” of the show so far has been Jasper. She works well as an antagonist since she is not only an imminent, physical threat, but offers a fundamental challenge to the Crystal Gems’ beliefs. To Jasper, Garnet embodies a transgressive relationship, Pearl is a slave who doesn’t know her place, and Amethyst is a born failure. Jasper is the biggest threat to Amethyst and attacks her greatest weakness: her lack of self-worth and belief that she is flawed and unworthy. Jasper’s ultimate insult: “You could have been *me*!” hits hard. Fortunately for her, she has Steven for a friend. Together they are a force that Jaspar repeatedly demonstrates she can’t understand: two people working together to be stronger.

Steven’s conflict with Jasper is on a different level. Jasper simply refuses to believe that Steven isn’t his mother, and dismisses his own identity. Steven is left with only responsibilities of his mother’s legacy – and the guilt for the sins Rose Quartz may have committed in the past, actions that Steven is only just becoming aware of (and mature enough to process).

Jasper is ultimately, a character in her own right, though we see only brief moments of her inner self. There is her painful, codependent argument to Lapis to restore their fusion: “I’ve changed. You’ve changed me!” and her sad “Nobody who fuses with me wants to stay…” She never gives herself the chance to be more than the role she was born to. She won’t let go of the belief that Rose Quartz built her army of misfits and damaged individuals not to help them, but because people at their low point are easy to manipulate. (Which may have a grain of truth to it, from what we’ve seen of Rose).

Jasper, as a character with her own beliefs about the world, is in the end challenged by the *heroes’* worldview – and breaks rather than changes or grows. That’s quite an interesting arc for a baddie on a cartoon. We’ve yet to see much of the Big Bads of the show, the Diamonds, so there’s a lot more challenging storytelling for the show to explore.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Rose Quartz

Some more Steven Universe thoughts:

I’ll be getting into some third season spoilers here. Spoilers are a big problem when discovering an ongoing series. It’s hard to even look at cosplay photos and not learn secrets.

A narrative technique which always interests me is when a story spends a lot of time referring to a character before that person ever appears on screen. When they do show up, can the actual character possibly live up to (or at least be as dramatically as satisfying as) whatever image the viewer has formed in their own mind? Some successes at this would be, say, The Third Man or… The Wizard of Oz, now that I think of it.

We hear about Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, from the first episode. We know she was a Gem, and in some manner, passed her life energy on to Steven so he could be born. For much of the first season we don’t even get a good image of her. There might be a quick shot of an old photo. Whenever the large portrait that hangs in the Steven’s house is on screen, a roof beam or something blocks her face. Later, we do see some statues of her, and we see a Rubenesque figure with long flowing, curly hair. We learn that she had healing powers, could converse with and control plants, and her spirt weapon was a shield (all abilities Steven is developing as well). An earth goddess, a nurturer and protector.

More episodes pass before Steven finds the VHS tape Rose made for him and we “see” Rose for the first time, largely supporting the mother/goddess image, though we also see the first glimpse of her and Steven’s father Greg’s relationship (and in a wonderfully disconcerting bit of character design, that Rose was about 8 feet tall!)

That all would be a cool example of the type of character reveal that I mentioned, even if it stopped there. But this is Steven Universe and we have only gotten started.

I’m in the series’ third season and am still learning about the Crystal Gems’ dark history of war and rebellion, but we have seen, through a slow accumulation of background lore, at lot more of who and what Rose Quartz was. Yes, her and Steven’s spirit weapon is a Shield – but Rose also wielded a Sword. She appears to be the one who lead the Crystal Gems against their Homeworld, and rallied them to protect the Earth, a world she had grown to love. Not just a Mother Goddess, she was a General in the terrible war thousands of years ago (the details of which I have yet to get to in the show). She was a figure of great strength that could inspire great loyalty (as we see in Pearl), and perhaps shift the destiny of empires.

So for thousands of years, she lead the Crystal Gems as protectors of the Earth, a place of fragile, mortal life that she cherished. And then she met Greg. In the amazing “We Need to Talk” we see a Rose who, while she is fond of and attracted to the very human Greg, still looks down on earthly things from a goddess’s point of view. She finds humans cute and amusing. It’s only when Greg has truly reached out to her, when he makes her see and love him as a real person, that Rose finally steps down and walks the Earth she has been guarding.

What happened next? Well, I haven’t watched more of the show yet! From what I have seen, the Gems originally came to Earth to mine it for its life energies, to breed and hatch new Gems from it. They wanted to consume Earth to make new life. What did Rose Quartz do, after falling in love with Greg? She too, chose to use the Earth to make new life, but not as a predator, but as a creator, a transformer, to make something new, to give birth to Steven.

More Steven

I'm into the third season of Steven Universe now and the show continues to amaze.

One thing that makes it so refreshing is that, while it's greatly influenced by anime, it's blessedly free of most of the cliches, tropes, and shortcuts that clutter and cheapen many Japanese shows. Even when the show is referencing Dragonball, Sailor Moon, Utena, etc. it isn't just making easy references from a check-list...

P.S., while I referred earlier to Garnet being my new "Coolest Character Ever," the more we see of Rose Quartz... 😳

Steven Universe

I haven't kept up with recent animated series, either Japanese or American, so I am only just now watching Steven Universe and...

Wow... just Wow...

It's the kind of show where only towards the end of the first season do you begin to realize the depth of worldbuilding and character developed that has been going on. Then in the second season (where I am now) they just keep turning those dials up and up... I've been watching the climax of "Prison Break" over and over again this evening...

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 30; Vinkovci 1923

The game books for Orient Express have a scenario set in the Yugoslavian city of Vinkovci, but it's an optional side-adventure to the main campaign. I used the published adventure as a bit of source material for an original scenario that grew out of our characters’ unique situation. The Investigators were looking for one of the character’s missing uncle – who had actually been a PC way back when we played the 1893 flashback adventure “The Blood Red Fez.” This uncle has been doing his own research into the mysteries of the Sedekfar Simulacrum.

My goals was to accelerate the tempo of the situation and communicate what some of the other factions have been up to while the Investigators have been going about their missions. The Makryat family are being more open in their schemes, both protesting the British authority in Constantinople and expanding their cult into a messianic movement across Turkey. At the same time, factions within the cult are becoming discontented with their leader’s dreams of godhood. Clues about that are hooks that the players might follow to a final confrontation with these enemies. The published ending for this plot line doesn’t really work at all for us anymore, but as usual I will try to bring in some of its core elements.

The meeting with the Investigator’s uncle is one that I’ve planned a half-dozen different ways previously, but each time it never quite fit into the players’ actions. I’d been concerned about it being too much of a data-dump, with the Uncle explaining at excessive length 20,000 years of background lore about the Simulacrum and it cults. Sometimes I had him be kidnapped or murdered, leaving his notes behind, but that felt unsatisfying as well. Ultimately I decided to present him as a scholar on the edge of madness, driven to 1 Stability by what he’d discovered. His research I condensed to a crazy wall of notes that he’d scrawled across his study, and gave that as a handout for the players’ the mull over.

I also finally got to mention two names that I’ve incorporated into the campaign. The word “Mi-go” is openly used now, though their influence has been a factor for some time. Several of my players aren’t big Lovecraft readers, so I don’t know how many of my hints they’d picked up on, even when they stumbled on a Mi-go medical lab complete with brain-cylinders. There isn’t much direct Mythos material in the published campaign and using the Mi-go was one of my ways of bringing more in. The other story element brought in and no longer secret is “Project Edom,” which of course is from Dracula Dossier. My Project Edom though, while having its origins in researching vampires, is now mainly interested in acquiring and reverse engineering Mi-go technology. I think players are beginning to suspect this, and I’ll probably be open about it soon. The Investigators have been getting a lot of help from the British Secret Service (and one PC is an MI6 agent) and a want them to be increasingly uncertain about how much trust they should put in this help.

Those trust questions also involve the Investigators with each other. We had a fairly tense standoff between PCs in this session when the uncle pulled a gun the MI6 agent PC, demanding she tell what she knew of Project Edom. One PC moved to project her, while the nephew was loyal to his uncle. The fourth PC talked everybody down, for now. The question of PvP conflict in GUMSHOE is something I think a lot about. No so much physical attacks, but conflicts between goals. I wonder what's the best way to resolve these confrontations, which can involve both sides hunkering down and sticking to their guns. Robin Laws' DramaSystem game is all about these kinds of conflicts, so can aspects of it be brought into a GUMSHOE game such as Trail of Cthulhu?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 29; Interlude

This session was one of our “Interludes”: it wasn’t based on any particular scenario from the campaign, rather it was a collection of miscellaneous scenes to advance our plot and some discussion of the specifics of what the characters wanted to do next.

Taking up after the last session, the characters, resting aboard the Orient Express, refreshed their skills, but not all their Stability. They got some back for succeeding in their goals, and for enjoying the luxury of the train. That is adapted from the original Call of Cthulhu campaign’s suggestion for Sanity recovery. They are still on the low side and I’m going to be tracking Stability carefully going forward. They may not get a chance to do a complete recovery before we end. I do try to drop in a few points here and there based on their drives and goals. For instance, the Investigators did take the train to Venice just to check on the pieces of the Simulacrum they were storing there. That earned everybody a point of Stability.

It also let me run several Floating scenes related to Venice that I had been wanting to get to. In a major departure from the written campaign, our Investigators have an uneasy alliance with Arturo Faccia (from the Milan chapter) and the SIS to store the pieces of the Sedefkar Simulacrum in a magically warded vault. (It’s a strange conceit of the original campaign that the characters would unquestioningly haul a life-sized human statue of vast occult power in their luggage). They discover that since they’ve last checked in, Faccia has brought in a German scientist/occultist to study the statue as a source of “vril” energy, in hopes of developing it as an industrial power source. In an unexpected twist the Investigators, after rescuing Albert Alexis from the Dreamlands last time, chose to delay interviewing him about his knowledge of the secrets of hyperdimentional space and time. Instead they are giving him a chance to rest and recover at Faccia’s mansion. You can bet that while the Investigators are away, Alexis and our German vril expert are going to have some interesting discussions. Much like real life, sometimes minor decisions can lead to significant consequences.

Another scene was a conversation between an Investigator and Maria, another NPC, from the Venice chapter this time, that I am making a bigger part of the story. Maria is wondering whether to accept an offer to join a SIS project to develop an organization of women to help the English homeland deal with supernatural menaces. This group was actually formed at the Investigator’s suggestion (see the summaries of our Venice chapter) so she supported Maria’s joining. Now this player, and I think her character as well, seems aware that Maria is an avatar/medium of the goddess Bast, so it was an interesting choice. I’m sure she (the player) is curious about where this plotline will lead. The character I should mention, has suffered a mental disorder from being Blasted, and so is experiencing lost time and occasional confusion between waking and dreaming.

I am now going to mention what is probably the main plot twist of the Horror on the Orient Express, so be warned…

…even though the “twist” is a pretty obvious one and something that one of my players was suspecting very early on. That is, the growing suspicion that Prof Smith, the whole adventure’s primary patron and “quest giver” was not whom he claimed to be, and is in fact an imposter. To settle this issue, the Investigators slipped off and arranged airplane flights back to London (something the campaign books helpful describe as quite possible in 1923). There they surprised the reclusive Smith as he was supposing recovering from the injuries suffered at the start of the campaign and found a construct of wax, bone, and machine parts. Agents of the Brotherhood of the Skin attacked then, but that battle was interrupted by what appeared to be a large metallic beetle with a devastating lightning gun. It though seemed more concerned in eliminating any trace of the Brothers than killing the Investigators. My goal here was to emphasize the fact that multiple factions with their own agendas are at work around the Investigators.

This London adventure was largely improvised on my part, since it was an idea the players came up with during the session. But there were various NPCs from past sessions available for them to encounter, and I had a general idea of the overall state of things, as well as the goals of various factions. As mentioned I’m trying to take an Armitage Files/Dracula Dossier approach for these concluding sessions.

In another departure from how the published campaign assumes Investigators will act, our characters are questioning the wisdom of finding all the pieces of the Simulacrum *before* fully understanding how to destroy them. They hope to learn more about that by finding the “real” Prof. Smith as well as one of the Investigator’s uncle, who himself was a PC in the 1893 “Blood Red Fez” flashback scenario! That’s an encounter that I have had on the back burner for a long time and keep revising to fit in with the ever evolving plot. Next session it should finally happen, much to the distress, I hope, of everyone involved. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 28; Return to Lausanne

This session blends together elements from three different scenarios in the published Orient Express campaign. It uses parts of “Blue Train, Black Night” to frame the story, the setting of “In a City of Bells and Towers,” and refers back to events of “The Doom Train.” Most these elements ended up being altered considerably to work in our campaign.

As part of moving things to a conclusion, our Investigators are working to create a final ritual to destroy the Sedefkar Simulacrum. One source of the cosmos bending mathematical lore needed for that is the dilettante Albert Alexis, whose disappearance is the adventure hook in “The Doom Train” prologue adventure back at the very beginning of the campaign. In our play through, Alexis ended up Lost in Time and Space, though he’d been spotted in the Dreamlands.

The campaign books contain a lot of Dreamland material, with one main scenario, and several optional adventures. The most important element being the NPC/villain, The Duke of Dream Lausanne. After meeting him early in the campaign, he’s scripted to have return cameo near the very end, where he does little more than set up the unsatisfying deus ex machina that resolves much of the story. My players have enjoyed the Dreamlands elements, and I’d already expanded the Duke’s role in our campaign, so I wanted to integrate him more into the story as a stronger plot element. His reappearance is also the source of the nightmare train that appears on the game’s box, so adding that iconic visual was important to me as well.

So I decided to use the Duke as a means of introducing another Dreamland scenario, the Tomas Ligotti inspired “In a City of Bells and Towers.” The Duke’s dream domain was being invaded by a parasitic city and he wanted spies to report on it before he attacked. The campaign suggests the idea of players being able to shape the Dreamlands, and so I merged that idea with some of the “dreamscaping” rules from “Dreamhounds of Paris” and gave the Investigators point pools to use this way. One player took to this idea quickly, though others needed some encouragement to try to dream things into existence to help them.

As written, the optional “City of Bells” scenario is strong on atmosphere but weak on story. When I was a player in “Orient Express” we didn’t use this adventures, but I would expect most players to wander through the dream city without much purpose, being befuddled by obscure references to early scenarios, and being stuck until they guessed some lame pun-based puzzles. Without exaggeration, much of the scenario depends on the players figuring the homophone of “tide” and “tied.” I replaced the cryptic diary entries the players find with tableau set pieces were the Investigators encountered dreamers stuck in visions of various looming apocalypses, from Satan returning, to cosmic explosions, to Cthulhu rising. I also gave them a series of Dream Keys to find, so that they could have a goal, and a sense of progression. The end of the scenario I kept mostly the same: a mysterious figuring who lectured as much Cosmic Horror truth as they could take, until they needed Stability rolls to escape with the increasing Mythos Points that were being forced on them. A couple players anticipated this outcome and tried their best to block their ears and hear as little as possible.

At this point we do have a player with 7 Sanity and 3 Mythos and another down to 3 Sanity, so Sanity is getting chipped away and some Pillars are on the verge of crumbling. But for now they succeeded in their mission – and the Duke upheld his part of the bargain as well. Long, long ago in a D&D campaign I had a player complain that they never met anybody who was nice or helpful to them. There is enough murky conspiracy and ominous enemies in the game that I didn’t want to turn the Duke in a Mr. Johnson. One player remarked how odd it was dealing with somebody who had comprehensible motives.

In our next session I really want the players to think a lot on their next choices, and how they want to ultimately resolve their goals. A lot of forces and factions are increasingly active in the Big Picture of the story, and have a lot scenes and events I’d like to happen, but my attitude is the campaign does not have a definite way to end and I want player choice to drive the action, taking the game more and more into an Armitage Files/Dracula Dossier mode.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 27; Belgrade, Part Two

From the start, our campaign has been on the Pulp side of ToC. For instance I've let players put points into Magic, and we currently have 3 out of 4 characters frequently using spells of sort (though each character has a different take on what they can do, from a Turkish scholar to Church of England medium). I’ve started pushing the nature of "magic" as a major subplot, building up to the idea that all Earth's sorceries derive from the Aklo language, which was developed in Atlantis, and ultimately based on the symbols carved on the Sedefkar Simulacrum itself.

In the last session the Investigators encountered a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath. Despite hints that confronting such an unknown dangerous threat might not be a good idea, they were determined to fight it -- which they did mainly through spells (with some help from molotov cocktails). Rather than have them be devoured (as a straight fight would have gone) or somehow avoid the combat, I let them go at, with their efforts successful at keeping the horror from fully manifesting in the material world. But they began to experience surges of power associated with the parts of their bodies that were bound to the Simulacrum pieces they had found so far. I gave them an extra die of pool points to spend on their magic — with the consequence that the higher the role, the more their body was marked by the tower. Our Turkish scholar rolled a 6 and now was the symbols of the Left Arm of the Simulacrum branded into his own arm. In the next sessions I’m going to continue to press the idea that the magic the Investigators are using may ultimately derive from the Simulacrum and that they themselves are contributing to the drawing the Skinless One to the Earth and immanentizing an eschaton they think they are preventing.

This scenario was based on elements of Eastern European folklore, something one of my players had some familiarity with. At the climax of the ultimate encounter, I began to describe how the quaint country cottage the Investigators had found was transforming and lifting up into the air. That player starting exclaiming: “No… don’t!. Don’t do it Sam!” He foresaw, correctly, that the cottage was about to stand up on giant chicken legs, becoming the walking cottage of the Baba Yaga.

It was also an interesting moment when the Investigators had to face the necessity of saving the local village from this Walking Horror, even though there was no love lost between the villagers and the characters at this point. They personally wouldn’t have minded having the locals be devoured by Shub-Niggurath, but of course couldn’t really let that happen…

The next session is a return to the Dreamlands with several characters and story elements from early in the campaign making reappearances. It’s technically a side story, but I want to use it as an opportunity to reinforce the players’ awareness that both game, and the world, is moving towards an ultimate resolution. I frequently catch myself thinking “If I do this or that, it will be too obvious and spoil the mystery,” but I know that I actually do want make parts of the story obvious at this point, so the players can make true and informed decisions about how to respond to them.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 26; Belgrade, Part One

As always SPOILERS for the campaign in general and for my group's playthrough in particular.

I had three goals for this session:

  • Starting up the campaign after nearly 7 months since the last game
  • Adapt the published campaign material to our game’s story and style
  • Begin to gradually steering things towards the campaign’s conclusion
  • I could hardly assume everybody remembered all the twists and turns of the story, the subplots, and the competing factions of antagonists. I decided to just place the characters into the Belgrade chapter of the campaign and have them concentrate on their main mission: finding the next piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum. Other subplots could slowly be reintroduced and refreshed in the players' memories. I tried to pay attention to the things they did remember, as clues to what had made a memorable impression on them. I could build on those as the key elements to concentrate on as the story moved forward.

    I chose the Belgrade chapter as it is a fairly self-contained scenario. It doesn’t have a lot of actual mystery solving. It's more experiential, with a lot of A tells you to go see person B who tells you to see person C structure. My intent was to decorate this with clues and weird observations that fill in a picture of the horrible conclusion they move towards, with each step closer to the Simulacrum. As usual in the published campaign books, while there is a lot of good ideas, atmosphere, and background lore, it has a lot issues as a rpg scenario, particularly from a 21st Century, GUMSHOE-styled perspective. I had several goals as a revised things to my taste.

    Even though our version of the campaign has strayed wildly in some ways from the published books, I always want to maintain core elements, so the players will feel like they have played "Horror on the Orient Express" and not something else. The adventure, as written, has several memorable images, scenes, and encounters. Unfortunately they don’t always connect much to the story or the dramatic structure of a game session. There is a chase scene involving a thief and a crowded bazaar, which that is an entirely a red-herring and intentionally leads to a disappointing anti-climax. I decided inject some inexplicable weirdness and use it stage some ominous omens. Another scene involves a fortune teller and her chicken. The game book gives elaborate description of the spell the fortune-teller uses, with eggs as the main component. When I played Orient Express as a player as a PC at Gencon some years ago, my occultist character tried to recreate the spell from what he’d witnessed, using the found egg, and was rewarded with --nothing. It was another dead-end, and written as such in the book. In our campaign, I have a player who I knew would attempt to do exactly as I had, and so had a Stability threatening vision ready for him to experience as recklessly attempted the spell.

    That same player decided to look for some occult item in the bazaar. I thought this might happen, but planned to just let him spend a point of Occult and tell me what he was looking for. What he wanted was something related to the Simulacrum and its associated sorcery. I was puzzled at how to best respond. I feel if a character wants to make a Spend, they should get something, and not just be shut down. After some thought I realized this was an opportunity, not a problem.

    I had in my overall ideas about the campaign some important story elements I wanted to introduce. I had first though of using an NPC to convey the information, but wasn’t satisfied with that kind of data dump. The shopping Investigator was able to come across a fragment of a clay tablet inscribed with both coded cuneiform and even older symbols that are attributed to a prehistoric, perhaps Atlantean civilization. This artifact then functioned a trigger for a Mythos Spend. It was revealed that the Sedefkar Simulacrum is source of the primal Aklo symbols which all of Earth’s magic was derived from. I’ve allowed the Magic Ability in our game and the Investigators make a lot of use of it. I now want them to be thinking about the true nature of the powers they have been calling on.

    As the campaign moves forward I want to keep developing the sense of a looming Apocalypse. That is something missing in the published campaign. There’s little sense of large scale threat from the Simulacrum and its master, the Skinless One. I hope to present a heightening atmosphere of dangers from a multiple fronts: the Immanentization of a Great Old One manifestation, schemes of cults, the Mi-go, the British Empire, and a surviving Egyptian goddess.

    We should finish the Belgrade chapter next session, and there will be only one more piece of the Simulacrum to find. The players are already talking about the steps they want to take next, and how to turn the tables on the man who sent them on the mission, whom they have come to believe is an enemy imposter. I have an assortment of rough ideas for how things could ultimately end up, but I’m curious to see how the players’ actions will shape how, when, where, or if those ideas will appear in the remaining sessions.