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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.