Session 24: Sofia 1923, Part One

Originally posted September 21, 2016

Summary

The Investigators had a chance to once again enjoy the luxury of the Orient Express as they took the train to Sofia, Bulgaria. There were only scant clues to look into, and they were wary of following the leads given them by Prof Smith, since they now knew he had be replaced by an imposter. Fortunately they met another passenger, a young professor from Geneva Dr. Jordanov, who was on his own related mission.

Jordanov’s mentor, a Dr. Ivo Penev, had some years ago uncovered the Left Leg of the Simulacrum, believing it to be an artifact of an unknown civilization. He had then gone on to write a deranged monograph about the fragment and died insane. Jordanov believed there must be some value in this admittedly disturbed work. He had an appointment to examine the Leg, which now resides at the University of Sofia.

Their discussion was interrupted by a waiter who was revealed as a cultist from the Brotherhood of the Skin spying on Jordanov. Miss Johnson chased him through the train and interrupted him from performing a strange self-mutilation. Dr. Wilke tried to chloroform him, but the cultist suffocated himself with a flesh-warping cantrip. The body of the original waiter was found with his face flayed and hands severed at the wrist.

At the Sofia train station, suspicious figures were spotted stalking Jordanov, so the Investigators invited him to join them at the Grand Hotel. In the morning they all accompanied him to his appointment — and noted watchers staking out their rooms.

The Professor-Academician at the University sympathized with Jordanov’s goal, but explained the leg was clearly a fraud, being made from some modern material. It was still around somewhere in the University’s stores — in fact it had recently been borrowed by the curator of the Museum of Archaeology, Todor Mateev, who was planning a new Egyptian exhibit based around a mummy he was restoring. Unfortunately he had recently fallen and broken his leg and was in hospital suffering from severe complications.

Umar headed to the Museum with Jordanov. Curator Mateev’s workshop was found ransacked, the Egyptian exhibit demolished, the mummy and the Leg missing. When the police arrive, they dismissed it as a burglary by gypsies, of little importance, though it is noticed that a window looked more broken outwards, rather than inward. Dr.Jordanov had grown increasingly nervous and upset by all these strange events, and Umar, with the help of a hypnotic suggestion, suggested he depart back to Geneva and wait for a resolution of the situation.

Dr. Wilke, who had slipped away to pursue entertainment in the town’s red light district, had his relaxing massage interrupted by animate severed hands that swarmed over and attacked him. After blasting them off with sorcery, he fled naked into the wintry streets where he was promptly arrested.

Many bribes later, Wilke was free and the Investigators reconvened at their hotel. The lookouts and watchers noticed early were no longer present… The Investigators had to consider that a reanimated mummy may have been unleashed by the magic of the Simulacrum. The next few days were spent gathering what information they could. A tour guide mentioned that there had been some recent unexplained murders in the poor, Jewish quarter of the city. Dr. Wilke visited the unconscious curator in the hospital and, scanning his feverish dreams, saw his obsession with the Leg and efforts to use it in replacing damaged parts of the mummy. Volunteering at local churches Miss Crispin and Miss Johnson heard stories of a cloaked figuring haunting the alleys at night.

It took several nights of staking out the slums of Sofia at night before Miss Crispin felt a cold stab of spiritual pain. Following it, they spotted a tall, robed man throttling a helpless victim. Miss Crispin sensed the impossible agony of a soul being destroyed and rushed ahead, followed by the others. She confronted the creature, a bandaged withered corpse, patched together from various parts, including the Left Leg of the Simulacrum. It continued to draw the eternal essence from his victim and Miss Crispin reached out with her own spiritual power — and collapsed. The other Investigators fired their guns, but to little effect. Dr. Wilke lit a torch, but had to fight past a unnerving human-head bird that dived at his face.

Miss Crispin awoke in a dark realm, and confronted an elderly robed man standing over the suffering victim. The man insisted that he was searching through deaths to find an escape from this world. The afterlife had fallen and the gods devoured, with only Bast having found an escape. As they clashed on the spiritual plane, the others attacked on the material. As the monster was weakened and distracted, Umar blew the Leg free with a shotgun blast. Dr. Wilke grabbed the fragment — and was struck by the pain and visions of the Baleful Influence.

The victory was short lived, as blinding headlights flooded the alley, and Mehmet Makryat, surrounded by a squad of armed thugs, and accompanied by Dr. Jordanov, stepped forward, demanding the Investigators hand over the Simulacrum piece.

Commentary

We’ve rewritten the campaign story a lot by this point. The published scenarios do not include anything about the Mi-Go, MI6, Atlantis, or the goddess Bast, but all are major elements in our game. Even with these changes I always try to include at least some of the campaign’s iconic events or elements. I want players to have felt like they have played “Horror on the Orient Express.”

For this scenario I chose three of these iconic story elements and worked to include them in the scenario. I’ll describe those elements, as well as how I tried to find an organic way of bringing them into what is, as written, a very railroading chapter of the campaign.

We are actually in the Sofia Chapter now, since the Investigators were wanting to stay ahead of their enemies and not follow the linear course defined by the Orient Express’s schedule. This meant skipping ahead a couple chapters in the campaign structure. That was fine with me as Keeper. Unfortunately for them, this choice was actually taking them deeper into territory controlled by their main enemies, rather than avoiding them. I felt a little bad about negating their intentions so bluntly, but the Sofia chapter is centered on getting the Investigators in direct conflict with cultists and thugs. Dealing with the Brotherhood of the Skin cult was the first iconic story element I wanted to include.

The Investigators first ran into the cult while still aboard the Orient Express. They spotted a disguised waiter spying on them and a clue-giving NPC. This lead to a chase through the train, using some of the Thriller Chase rules from Nights Black Agents. This chase is also an example of something that happens repeatedly throughout the campaign books: it is explicitly stated that whether or not the PCs catch the cultist makes no difference to the story. I’m always looking for ways to make player choices matter. My players did catch and stop their target, so the cultists didn’t get advanced warning that the PCs were coming. Unfortunately (again) for them they didn’t build much on this initial advantage.

The published scenario’s core plot is a largely irrelevant investigation that leads to railroading PCs into a gunfight with the cultists. The baddies are scripted to get away with the artifact and the players having to chase them to their lair. I kept my cultists more in the background, trailing the Investigators, observing their actions, and waiting for the right moment to strike. Given how paranoid the players have become in general, I was surprised that they didn’t react much to being watched. Maybe they just didn’t pick up on what was going on, but I thought I was being pretty obvious about it. Too bad for them, but it did help me introduce the other elements on my list that I wanted to use.

Perhaps the most iconic scene in this chapter is the Investigators being attacked by a swarm of severed hands. It’s written as a sneak attack in their hotel room, but since I’ve already done a couple hotel room attacks, I wanted something different. I didn’t plan anything specific, but just waiting for an opportunity to present itself. Which it did when one of the Investigators slipped off to visit the Red Light district. Alone, naked in a whore house, unconcerned that bad guys were following them — Hello, opportunity. The campaign doesn’t give the Investigators much hope of surviving this encounter without someone getting an eye poked out — literally. In fact the resolution of the scenario depends on a PC getting thus maimed. I wanted to give my player a fighting chance, which he succeeded at, though at a cost of being arrested while fleeing naked through the streets and the other players paying substantial bribes to the police for them to forget the incident.

The actual spine of this scenario, the specific location of the next Simulacrum piece, was a merging of the ideas in the campaign with some new elements. Back in Venice, I didn’t use the main set piece of that chapter. It has a doll maker repairing an automaton from a mechanical clock with a Leg from the Simulacrum. I liked that idea and had been planning on reusing it in Sofia. It ultimately morphed into an archaeologist reconstructing a damaged mummy — which of course came to murderous life. Previous chapters have including a vampire, a Frankenstein-like revenant, and a haunted opera, so why not a mummy?

My players, as much as I love them, are not the World’s Greatest Detectives. Even after pushing some Core Clues in their paths (mysterious murders in the poor quarter of the city; rumors that a strange robed figure was stalking the slum’s streets at night) I still had to drop hints that maybe that would be a good place to stake out looking for the mummy. It’s taken awhile, but I’ve finally realized that mystery solving, the piecing together of a whole picture from scattered parts, is not really what they are into. Research, exploration, and poking hornets nests with sticks is more their SOP and I need to keep that in mind for future scenarios.

I really wanted to (mostly) finish this chapter in one game session, so I did rush things along a bit for a finally confrontation with the mummy. I also included some more hints that an apocalypse was looming over the world and that the goddess Bast was somehow involved in it all. The cultist, lead by one of the campaign’s main baddies, Mehmet Makryat (not seen on stage for many sessions). He’d figured out what the Investigators were up to and decided to wait for them to deal with the mummy issue and the Baleful Influence of the Simulacrum. Once that was done they ambushed the exhausted, stressed out PCs and demand they hand over the newly acquired Simulacrum fragment. That’s the cliffhanger ending of the session. It will also lead to the third, and biggest iconic element from the published campaign that I wanted to include. More on that next report, though unfortunately we won’t be playing again until the middle of October