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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.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 34; Constantinople 1923, Part Two

I have been running the classic Call of Cthulhu campaign “Horror on the Orient Express” using Trail of Cthulhu rules. Our group quickly diverged from the planned story in important ways. So I have been using the published campaign mostly as source books and idea sources, though I aim to include many of the locations, elements, NPCs, and atmosphere of the original.

Detailed session summaries are up at Obsidian Portal.

Whew. Lots to go into for our last session. I’ll be going deep into **SPOILER** territory for the “Horror on the Orient Express” campaign here, so be warned if you ever think you might want to play in it.

We are in the middle of one of the last adventures in the campaign, set in 1923 Constantinople. As written this scenario is mainly the characters being taken captive, made helpless witnesses to events, escaping through deus machina, and having the magic relics they’ve collected stolen from them. So not much concern about player agency…

In our campaign they are cooperating with Mehmet Makryat, one of their main antagonists, to assassinate his sorcerous father, Selim, mastermind behind much of the campaign. This father/son betray is a story element from the published campaign I did want to keep. As written, Mehmet then goes on to steal the Simulacrum, triggering a chase back across Europe to London and the campaign’s final resolution. That couldn’t happen in our game since the players had the Simulacrum fragments safely stored away – to avoid just such an occurrence. I contemplated some equivalent double cross, but didn’t want to force the “everybody betrays” the PCs story too hard. Mehmet’s recognition of just how dangerous the Simulacrum is, and his desire to dethrone his megalomaniacal father and run a non-occult based international criminal empire seemed a reasonable and sufficient motivation. Plus there are plenty of other secrets and betrayals going on.

So rather than being captives, my players were sneaking into the bad guys’ HQ with a definite goal. A big revelation in the published version is finding the mutilated Prof. Smith, the man they thought had sent them on the quest in the very beginning. The Makryats having impersonated him to trick the PCs into gathering the fragments of the Simulacrum. Well, my players figured out that deception quite a while back and I decided the “real” Smith was more interesting as an active support NPC character than a tortured, maimed torso. I didn’t plan this session as a detailed dungeon crawl, but rather had a collection of story elements and events to call on as needed based on how they choose to approach the challenge.

In the written scenario while the PCs are held captive they learn that the cultist fear an apparition called The Flapping Man, which has been haunting their lair of late. When I was a player in “Orient Express” we immediately thought this was something meant for us to take advantage of. We could masquerade as this creature, scare the guards, and escape. We began to plan for this – when an actual Flapping Man showed us and terrified the guards, letting us walk out. What is the Flapping Man? Why is it troubling the cult and helping us? No idea. No information whatsoever is presented. As far as the story goes the Flapping Man only exists to make any actions the PCs take to free themselves pointless. I wanted to do more with it. I included the idea that the cultists were worried about a creature – slightly renamed the Flapping Thing – that had been awakened by Selim’s sorcery and black rituals. Or so it was believed. The original use of the Flapping Man was so frustrating that I had planted the narrative seed for it over 20 sessions ago. I adapted the story of an NPC who had been used by Selim has a medium to contact Yog-Sothoth, and come away broken and distorted. It grew over decades into a revenge filled mass of flesh and hate.

The PCs succeeded in striking down Selim. This failed to kill him outright as the hoped, but did rob him of his magic – and the Flapping Thing arrived to take a long waited revenge. Or so they hope. They didn’t actually see his body, fleeing before the Thing arrived. Which was wise from a Stability saving perspective. Now I do not think any of my players have made the connection between the Flapping Thing and this NPC, despite my dropping quite a few hints and suggestions to review past events. But that’s understandable, given that it’s been a year and a half since we actually played those sessions. I might mention it, or it could remain a Easter Egg…

I’m feeling that it is the appropriate time to start wrapping up the campaign. There are enough NPC factions and subplots that going for a dozen more sessions is quite possible, but more isn’t necessarily better. The session ended with the PCs being confronted by MI6 agents who had been tracking them down, and firmly encouraged to cooperate with them. This is will likely to lead to a conflict between players who want to agree (and get the British to help with the final destruction of the Simulacrum) and a players whose Investigator has become so paranoid and suspicious that he hardly trusts anybody.

I was thinking hard about how to resolve such a conflict before wondering: should I resolve it? Maybe this is the point where things start to go very, very wrong. Has the psychic damage suffered by the characters gotten to the point where it tears them apart, just when glimpses of some final victory is in sight? Another character is at 1 Sanity (mostly due to accumulated Mythos knowledge). Can he hold it together for even a couple more sessions? Again, maybe he doesn’t… I am going to have to discuss this seriously with my players and try to get their feelings about what kind of ending do they want. Is our campaign climax “The Dunwich Horror” or “Haunter in the Dark” (or most Lovecraft stories…)?

Monday, April 23, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 33; Constantinople 1923, Part One

To recap: I have been running the classic Call of Cthulhu campaign “Horror on the Orient Express” using Trail of Cthulhu rules. Orient Express is an infamously linear adventure, tightly structured around scripted events and determined outcomes. Our group quickly diverged from the planned story in important ways. So I have been using the published campaign mostly as source books and idea sources, though I aim to include many of the locations, elements, NPCs, and atmosphere of the original.

Detailed session summaries are up at Obsidian Portal.

*Spoilers* for the campaign as a whole and our playthrough in particular below.

We are now heading into the final sessions of the campaign, and the characters have arrived in the Constantinople of 1923. One big difference in our game is that the players have not yet found all the pieces of the Sedefkar Simulacrum. Quite sensibly they decided to be sure they knew how to destroy the cursed artifact before reassembling it. This goes along with their keeping the parts they had found safely locked away rather than hauling them around in their luggage. Both of these player choices completely take the published campaign off its rails. Which was fine by me, as it has taken things in very different directions.

This period is the threshold of Turkish independence and while the campaign’s background material mentions that, it doesn’t really incorporate it. I’m trying to add more of a feel of the political turmoil of the time (heightened by the Mythos activity of the campaign). One of my players, whose character is a native of the city, mentioned that, after some calculation on his phone, that the Investigators were arriving during Ramadan. That was an interesting detail which I might have done more with, if I had known it in advance.

Multiple factions are looking for the Investigators, so they are trying to stay undercover. For efficiency I jumped ahead in time a week or so and let the players describe the false identities they created. Then we worked out the Spends it took to establish them. There were quite a lot of a Clues to be uncovered, though really only one Core Clue: the contact who could getting them in touch with the rebels in the evil Cult they were looking for. I let their identities and actions shape who found the information and how. Then the Core Clue was available and we moved on.

This chapter of the published campaign is one of the most problematic. Most of the investigations available are either dead ends or part of scheme that leads to their capture by the villains. As Robin Laws has written, being taken captive in a staple of the adventure genre and can lead to characters showing off their skills, learning important information, or otherwise advancing the plot. In this case though the players are just being set up for frustration and helpless witnesses to scripted events.

In my take on the situation, the players were still being manipulated and tricked, but towards steering them into an infiltration of the bad guys’ lair, rather than being dragged there as prisoners. The narrative goals are still the same: the tension of being in the heart of the villains’ power, awakened horrors, a surprise betrayal, and the resolution of a major plot thread of the campaign. I’ll go into more detail after we see how the next session actually plays out.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 32; Constantinople 330, Part Two

“Horror on the Orient Express” ala Trail of Cthulhu, Session 32

As always this post contains *Spoilers* for “Horror the Orient Express” as a whole, and for our play through in particular.

I don’t go into details of the actual events of the sessions, but you can to read more up at: Obsidian Portal.

This session continued the flashback scenario set in 330 AD Constantinople, and included some major plot reveals I’ve been working towards since early in the campaign. The characters had a mission with a very definite goal but a lot of different paths they could follow for their investigation. The main plot ended up being based entirely on a player idea: she contacted the criminal cult being investigated, posing as a rogue wanting to join up. This was an unexpected development to me as GM, but one that opened up a clear path to the required resolution.

The next half of the scenario was a trip into Roman Dacia and beyond. It could easily have been a whole session, drawing on the material in the published scenario, but I wanted to wrap things up and so just summarized the journey. Now this whole 330 AD scenario is actually a historical record being read by the main player characters in 1923. I emphasized that the place the 330 AD characters were journeying to seemed to be the archaeological dig in Yugoslavia where they 1923 Investigators had found the book they are reading in the first place.

I’m now getting into big, big Spoiler territory for Orient Express, so be aware….

As written, the climax of the 330 AD scenario involves the PCs commanding officer slaying the big bad cultist, becoming poisoned by tainted blood, and eventually transforming into the vampire Fenalik, who haunts the 1923 characters as one of their many adversaries. This is strictly scripted to happen. The NPC kills the baddie and is poisoned. Even if somehow a PC succeeds in the final blow, it is still the NPC who gets cursed. The GM is supposed, if at all possible, rob them of a satisfying death blow and – even worse, it seems much, much cooler if one of the PCs themselves becomes Fenalik! It’s an odd element of the published material that it actively takes agency away from the players, or makes they actions secondary to other peoples’ stories.

So I had the commander NPC stay back at home in Constantinople and left which player character would end up cursed to actual game play. As it turned out, the choice became clear pretty early on: the character who was pretending to join the cult. Things could have gone a different way at the last minute, but the pieces did end up falling into place as if planned.

I next then read a narrative section that was much longer than I usually like. As GM I try not to talk for extended periods, but there was a lot to cover: the unfortunate character’s dissection, reconstruction and mental conditioning into a vampiric bio-weapon by the Mi-go. Mixing the Mi-go into “Horror on the Orient Express” was my own addition, part of my desire to have more straightforward Lovecraftian elements into a story that fundamentally had little to with the classic Mythos. I also had decided early on that the Mi-go spawned vampires as experiments to create a tool to give them some control over the Sedefkar Simulacrum.

Returning to 1923, players had several options as to what they wanted to do next. There is still one piece of the Simulacrum to find. But I’ve been hinting that a wise course would be travelling to Constantinople to follow up a possible contact with the Brothers of the Skin, the cult than is their main advensary at this point. I did leave the choice up to them, though they chose to take my hints. I’m trying to wrap up various components of our quite convoluted plot one by one, so hopefully the next couple sessions will see a resolution of the Brothers and set the stage for the final conclusion of the campaign.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 31; Vinkovci 1923, Part Two/Constantinople 330, Part One

2017 was framed by hiatuses, so we didn’t get in a lot of sessions, but the campaign is slowly back to work now.

The first part of this session was mostly setup for the third big “flashback” scenario of the published campaign. These have been one of my favorite features of the updated “Orient Express.” Rather than just give the players a big data dump about historical events, they actually play out the situation as a one-shot scenario. Each has been set in a earlier phase of Constantinople, and each further back in time. They are now in 330 AD, just as Constantine the Great is establishing the city as his Nova Roma.

I went through a lot of revisions with this scenario. The published version in the game book is pretty good. It’s essentially Cthulhu Invictus, the Roman era Call of Cthulhu setting, advanced a few centuries. There is just one very odd narrative choice, that I shall discuss next time. I thought at first I could run it pretty much as written, with our usual loose adaptation to Trail of Cthulhu rules. As I outlined my notes I kept feeling dissatisfied though.

While the scenario does an interesting job introducing 4th Century Constantinople, once the characters get their mission they leave the city behind, without any real interaction with it. The previous two flashbacks, set in 1893 and 1204, have taken place within the walls of the city. Also each flashback has centered around a blighted, cursed district, where Sedefkar built his Red Tower and the Makryats operate from the Shunned Mosque. I wanted to maintain that structure.

What I ended up with was largely a police procedural, with the characters investigating a crime cult that has taken over a poor neighborhood, with the goal, as the players are staring to discover, of forcing citizens to hand over any dead bodies, and killing anyone who crosses them (which of course provides more dead bodies). The cultists are known to operate mostly at night, have strange powers of persuasion, and leave victims withered with bite marks on their throats. Yes, this in the end evolved into Nights Black Agents: New Rome.

The scenario is still moving towards the same conclusion as the published version, just with some Mi-go mixed in with the vampires.

A player asked me how many more sessions I expected in the campaign, and while I estimate 5-6, I don’t know for sure. I really do not have a definite resolution in mind, since the players have a lot of important choices to make that will shape that resolution. Those pivotal choices will though be coming up soon.