I had three goals for this session:
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.