Session 23: Austria 1923, Part Three

Originally posted Aug 10, 2016

Summary

The Investigators continued their exploration of the unearthly complex beneath the Alps, searching for the medallion Melisende lost here, centuries ago. Disturbing vibrations and sounds rolled through the passageways. The sample of material Dr. Wilke had taken from the creature they’d encountered earlier broke out of his backpack and leap away into the darkness.

Cautiously they headed deeper in, finding a chamber with a pedestal-shaped device. Umar, using the fragments of Outer One lore he’d collected, activated the machine and, against advice from the others, placed his head with the fungal tendrils that reached from it. The chamber filled with buzzing sounds and whirling arcs of light and glowing symbols. Umar’s mind was exposed to a maelstrom of shouted voices and data. Reaching his thoughts into this storm, he plucked out images of the medallion being revered by dark creatures in a nearby black pool. He further attempted to fish out information about how the Simulacrum might be destroyed. Much of what was revealed to him could not fully be comprehended, but did recover glimpses of a way the statue could be rotated out Earth’s space and time, though with incalculable consequences. This procedure or ritual did require all the fragments of the Simulacrum be brought together, but where it was done did not appear relevant. That last fact being in contraction to Prof. Smith’s belief that the statute could only be destroyed at the Shunned Mosque in Constantinople.

All the more desperate now to find the medallion in its black pool, the Investigators hurried past other disturbing sights, coming to a chamber and passageway littered with a miscellania of debris and artifacts from Roman coins, to Moorish jewelry, to a modern military helmet. They are then attacked though by creatures with flesh like seared, half-melted wax that attempt to steal Dr. Wilke’s backpack, which contained, among other things, the Head of the Simulacrum. The attackers, flowing between human and wolfish form, were fast, strong and vicious, but Dr. Wilke, before collapsing from his wounds, cast a holy ward on the bag, strengthened by the faith and magic of Umar and Miss Crispin. The creatures strained and injured themselves to force pass this ward. Miss Johnson and Umar brought one down by severing its head, but another finally struck down Miss Crispin and escaped with the bag, its unnatural flesh searing with the contact.

With both Dr. Wilke and Miss Crispin badly wounded, and the others exhausted, the Investigators struggled to continue their mission. Umar was determined to locate the black pool and so set off accompanied by a limping Dr. Wilke. Along the way they found the scattered contents of Dr. Wilke’s pack — include the Head. What was missing was the lantern in which the remains of Gregor Metzger had been bound. Ahead they finally found the black pool, where numerous pipes and conduits converged, oozing oily black slime. One of the creatures threw the lantern into the slime and a restored Metzger rose from it. Having no desire to exchange quips with the arrogant nobleman, the Investigators demanded he hand over the medallion, which Metzger did, though the creatures seemed to cherish the thing, and had to be tortured to give it up. The Investigators departed, Metzger’s laughter echoing behind them.

On returning to the lifting platform to exit the complex, the buzzing vibration began again. Myriad points of light washed over the Investigators, gathering on the body parts corresponding to the Simulacrum fragments recovered so far. The noise resolved into rumbling words:

You have touched the Skin.
The Tabernacle has awoken.
Deliver a message:
Tell the Tabernacle than his apprenticeship will soon end.

Battered, but with the medallion in hand, the Investigators decided they needed a vacation, and so journeyed to Vienna to rest, recover, and plan their next actions. A few incidents made their stay someone unsettled: Dr. Wike cast a scrying spell to view the vault in Venice where the other Simulacrum fragments were being kept. All seemed well, save for Arturo Faccia giving a tour of the facility to a Dr. Heinrich Glessler, a German occult expert, whom Dr. Wilke had met once in the United States.

The second event was the receipt of a letter from Prof Smith. He claimed not to have been in contact with the Investigators since his lecture back in January. An imposter has taken his place and was the one who set them off on their quest. The Smith who wrote this letter said he had been in hiding and has been working with Umar’s Uncle Sayed to determine how the Simulacrum could be destroyed. This only confirmed Dr. Wilke’s suspicions, though the others wondered if this letter itself should be believed.

For now though, they decided to continue the necessary task of finding all the fragments, but to skip ahead on the Orient Express route to Sofia, Bulgaria.

Commentary

This session ended up focusing on a big combat scene. While I was prepared for it, I hadn’t really planned it to be such a big feature. Several issues made the battle problematic for me as Keeper:

  • The players’ intent was to fight to the last, even after I’d suggested that wasn’t the best, or only strategy. They were up against overwhelming force (three feral vampires, borrowed from NBA) but kept coming up with clever tactics and holding their own. I didn’t want to subvert what they were accomplishing, even if they were mostly just prolonging the inevitable.
  • Winning or losing this fight wasn’t that important as a plot point. It was intended to be a stress scene that would lead to another, more story-significant scene.
  • There was an element of trickery built in as well. The Investigators, as expected, thought they were trying to defend the piece of the Simulacrum they carried with them, when their enemies were actually after something else.
  • Given that it was a combat situation with a lot of dice rolling, many things ended up being determined by luck. That’s fine for how a f20 game works, but not normally how I like GUMSHOE to go.

I think the players largely enjoyed things, since it was a change of pace, but if I had to run the situation again, I likely would have try a different solution, even if it meant taking away some player agency for a moment. Maybe. There’s a lot in the original campaign that happens by Keeper fiat and I really want to avoid that when possible. If they end up in a similar situation again, I’ll definitely remind them of how they were almost all killed “that one time” and see if they have can Spend their way to a way out.

In the upcoming sessions I really want to return to the core campaign story and the recovering of the rest of the Simulacrum. I think the players want that as well, after several side missions. Since the characters are very suspicious, they do not want to follow the exact route of the Orient Express and are skipping ahead to Sofia in Bulgaria. This is a fairly uncomplicated scenario. I’m wondering if it might possible to cover it in one session, rather than the usual three…

Finally, I want to give an additional *SPOILER* warning here, since I’m going to discuss a key plot point in the campaign.

A surprise at the campaign’s end is the Investigators finding out that the Prof. Smith they have been working for is in fact an imposter and they’ve been helping the bad guys all along. I wasn’t sure quite how to handle, or even use, this twist, since it isn’t as shocking an idea today as it once was (I even used the idea myself in my D&D campaign back in the 70s). In my mind I was leaving the question of Smith’s identify unresolved. A player actually started suspecting the deception early on (I had dropped a lot of clues about false identities and wearing other people’s skins). In the campaign the trick isn’t revealed until almost the very end, but in our last session the players received a secret letter from someone claiming to be the “real’ Prof Smith, and informing the Investigators about the deception. The player who had been suspicious was delighted, but the others wondered why exactly they should trust this “Smith” more than the other. The answer to that question I am still leaving open, even to myself for the time being.