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

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.