Session 22: Austria 1923, Part Two

Originally posted July 12, 2016

Summary

Another morning in the Alpine village of Fassendorf. The district police Captain Druiger arrived to interview the Investigators about the recent murders and check their story about encountering Gregor Metzger in the woods, killing him in self-defense, and losing the body to wolves. After the interrogation, distant gunfire from the Metzger mansion on the hillside above the village.They alerted the Captain who hurried there with two other policeman, Miss Crispin and Miss Johnson following along. Dr. Wilke stayed behind, to check on Umar, who had disappeared into his hotel room and had not been heard from since the previous night.

Fire burst from the upper story as they arrived at the grand if dilapidated mansion. Captain Druiger ordered the women to stay behind while his men investigated. Miss Crispin went to summon the fire brigade, but Miss Johnson slipped inside and saw the police struggling with a frantic, injured officer. Making her way upstairs towards the source of the fire, she found another officer fighting the ghastly figure of an old woman, her gown in flames, her chest an empty cavity trailing wires. Gunfire had little effect on this creature, but flaming debris came crashing down on her. Miss Johnson, after vainly trying to help the officer, was barely able to escape with her life.

Miss Crispin had no success getting the villagers to help, who were pleased at the idea of the mansion burning to the ground. She met up with others and helped calm down the disturbed officer, who told a shattered tale of finding the gowned woman dead on the floor surrounded by a circle of stones. She revived and attacked, with one officer hurling a lantern in panic, setting off the blaze. Miss Crispin hypnotically veiled over his most disturbing memories and left him to the care of his partners. The mansion collapsed into burning ruins, taking its secrets with it — except for a scientific journal the officer had at some point clutched in his panic. The journal featured articles on receiving radio waves from sources beyond the Earth — and a letter from Metzger on how such transmissions might allow communication with other civilizations.

Back at the Inn, a dishevelled Umar finally stepped out of his room. He had spend the night analyzing the symbols he’d copied from the standing stones and referencing a tome he’d picked up during a past encounter with the Yellow Sign. The book told of the cult’s greatest enemy and fear: beings from beyond the world which they called the Outer Ones. This cosmic race had been on Earth for millions of years, but were usually indifferent to human activities, though they occasionally offered strange pacts and contracts for immortality. Gregor Metzger apparently has learned to utilize some of their power via the secrets of the stone circle.

The Investigators decided to spend a day resting. They also learned of a break-in that occured earlier in the year, when the town workshop was ransacked and several of the perchten mask stolen, assumably by ruffians from another village.

With their gear together, they talked their guide Alvar into leading the way through the rough forest outside of town and soon they reached the hill of the standing stones. They started a careful examination of the symbols carved on the face of the stones, when a figure in a dirty fur robe and wearing one of the stolen masks lept into their midst and attacked. Miss Crispin pulled off the mask, revealing a horrible face blackened and half-melted. Dr. Wilke pinned its leg to the ground with a pick, but the thing ripped free of its own leg and fled. The abandoned limb itself broke into wriggling black globules that slithered away, save for one which Dr. Wilke caught in a specimen jar.

Miss Johnson noticed that the ground was disturbed around the edges of the one fallen stone and, levering it aside, revealed a pit leading into the hill below. They descended and explored, finding an underground passage woven with a network of metal wires, conduits, and strange devices, all of an unidentifiable encrusted metal. It all seemed similar to equipment found in Poissy, in the cave were the Investigators encountered Fenalik.

Deeper in, they found a mechanical platform covered with more symbols and designs, which lowered them down a deep shaft and into a cavernous chamber of build of inhuman design and materials, every inch suggesting construction and purpose of not of this Earth.

Making their way through disorienting and unnatural passageways they came to a crypt or workroom of some sort, where three mummies were laid out on slabs, various wires and mechanisms running into the open, organ-less chests. Weird equipment was found, including several metal cylinders a foot or so across and high. Umar, following intuition guided by what he had learned of the tools of the Outer Ones, connected a cylinder with some of the equipment, and the Investigators found themselves in communication with a voice that claimed to be Melisende — though she had no recollection of the Investigators. Her tale was of coming to this cave, having the medallion taken by black demons, and then being assaulted by Satan and his dukes. She was bound in chains and offered dominion over worlds if she would give her soul to the Hell. She refused, having faith that someday this purgatory would end and Christ would free her.

Dr. Wilke attempted but failed to find any spiritual connection to Melisende, and after finding a preserved brain in another, damaged cylinder, was forced to accept that Melisende’s own brain was before them. Was the ghost they had previously communicated with somehow her disconnected soul? Puzzled but curious, the equipment was connected to another cylinder and this time they were in communication with an inhuman intelligence from a distant realm. It said it was the last survivor of a race that had been destroyed by the Skinless One when generations of ceremonies and worship were found unworthy. It knew of the Simulacrum and stated that it heralded the Procession of the One Without Skin. The Outer Ones had taken the Survivor from the ruins of its world and had interrogated it for all that it knew. The Outer Ones were very interested in the Simulacrum and the Skinless One, but it did know if they were also planning to worship it, to do battle, or had some other incomprehensible goal. What it was certain of was that since the Simulacrum was on Earth, the Skinless One would be coming as well.

The Survivor had no wish to continue its bodiless existence, so the Investigators destroyed its cylinder. A mercy they also provided Melisende, letting her believe that she would proceeding on her way to Heaven.

Commentary

As mentioned in the last report, this chapter isn’t based on material in the published Orient Express books, but inspired by one of the props from the deluxe edition of the campaign and ideas in the “Shadows Over Filmland” collection.

“Horror on the Orient Express” has very few explicit Mythos elements. Often it’s no more than a parenthetical note that some some entity is an avatar of Nyarlathotep or something. Indeed with the prominence of classic horror elements such as vampires and ghosts, Orient Express can be distinctly non-Lovecraftian. I’ve been adding a few more direct references just because I like to, and think it’s fun that, if you are going to have vampires, why not make them Mi-go bioweapons? Playing with my group is interesting in that while they certainly recognize Cthulhu, and have some familiarity with the iconography of “Arkham Horror” and the like, they are not deep Lovecraft fans or are overly familiar with his stories. So the discovery of a cache of brain cylinders in the last session did not get “Oh dear, we got Mi-go” reaction. This has advantages and disadvantages to a Keeper, since more things come as surprises to the players, but its also harder to call on the gravitas and dark implications of Mythos Lore. Next session I’m planning on directly using the name Mi-go and pointing players to “Whisperer in the Darkness” for homework.

As I’m trying more things with this campaign (one players has called it my “mad scientist RPG lab”), I’m enjoying the flexibility GUMSHOE’s simplicity provides. Investigators were planning a seance to contact a spirit they’d encountered, and I said it would be easier if they had the cooperation of girl the spirit prefered to possess. I represented that as an additional Point Pool they could utilize. A character studying Mi-go lore gained a Pool that allows him to use his other points in interactions with their works. Another character was in a fight with a strangely masked figure and wanted to pull off the mask. She didn’t have any Scuffling, but since she had earlier been investigating how these masks were made, she suggested spending a point of Craft, which gave her a +3 and an auto success at removing the mask. Some of these I plan for, other come up spontaneously, and using GUMSHOE in such ways is a high point of the sessions for me. I’m also dropping in elements such as Heat and Trust from Nights Black Agents.

While this chapter is a side-quest for the main campaign, I do have some large-scale plot points I am wanting to establish. A goal of my adaption is to make the loose anthology structure of Orient Express into more a unified story. I wanted to establish that the Simulacrum isn’t just an evil artifact, but heralds a coming apocalypse. It has led to the end of other worlds in the past and Earth may be next. But is the Skinless One a dark god that can be placated or is a cosmic phenomenon that can be no more appeased than a volcano? Of all the factions wanting to get the Simulacrum (including, apparently, the Mi-go) which do they trust the most, or rather distrust the least? Those are the sorts of questions I’d like my players to be mulling over.

They have been on the main mission for 20 sessions now (after a couple prologue scenarios). I feel like things need to be moving to a final act, even though there are three more pieces of the Simulacrum to be found (which would, at our current rate, take at least nine more sessions just for that). As Keeper what I’m think about is how to advance things, without it seems too much like short-cutting the fundamentals of the classic Orient Express campaign. I’m messing a lot with the Campaign as printed, but I don’t want to abandon it.