Session 25: Sofia 1923, Part Two

Originally posted November 7, 2016

Summary

The investigators were ambushed and surrounded by armed cultists lead by Mehmet Makryat. They desperately tried to concoct escape plans, but shaken and exhausted by their previous struggle, they were bound and forced into waiting automobiles. Dr. Jordanov tried to justify his betrayal by saying that if Umar had told the truth about the what he knew of the statue fragments there would be fame and renown enough for all, once they published the discovery. Umar replied that no one would every believe such a paper.

Makryat drove them to a cave complex outside of town where a base for their crimes and slavery had been established. He demand the Investigators tell him where the other fragments of the Simulacrum were. He sadistically cut off Dr. Wilke’s hand with a strange obsidian knife. It was not, he said, a question of whether they would cooperate, but how much of them would be left when they did. Jordanov objected to this torture, and Makryat stabbed him as well. The Investigators were then chained up in a stone cell to contemplate their fate.

Meanwhile, back in Sofia, American reporter Kip was having a drink with a mysterious dark lady who promised him information about about an item he was seeking, an artifact stolen from an archaeological dig. The woman identified herself as Lily, and explained the item was a ceremonial knife and was in the possession of a criminal gang. This gang was also holding friends of her prisoners. Working together they could both recover what they wanted.

Within the the cell, Miss Johnson managed to free herself from the chains, and, with the help of Miss Crispin’s smuggled hatpin, pick the lock of the cell. She strangled a guard with a length of chain, disguised herself in his uniform, and cautiously began exploring the base.

Back on the surface, with Lily’s direction, Kip found the cave hideout, killed the guard, and unlocked the entrance. Lily asked if she might enter and continue their mission. With his invitation, she stepped over the threshold — and then bounded away with animalistic fury into the thieves’ den, gunshots and screams in her wake.

Miss Johnson and Kip both witnessed Lily slaughtering and feasting on everyone she could grab, thieves, cultists, and slave girls alike. She recognized the disguised Miss Johnson before killing her, and was led to where the other investigators were being held. Kip found and followed Makryat as he retrieved the strange knife. Makryat confronted Lily, but Kip clocked him from behind, and Lily snapped his neck. Unfortunately this turned out be another of Mahmet Makryat’s flesh-disguised doubles.

Amidst the carnage of the cavern complex, the freed Investigators found a medieval tapestry of the Simulacrum, with Selim Makryat’s face sewn into it, a book of Fleshwarping sorceries, and the Head and Left Leg of the Simulacrum. The strange blade was named by Lily as the Mim Sahis and, according to the spellbook, could be used to assist in the casting of its bloody rituals.

The archeological expedition that had found the Mims Sahis had been organized by German occultist Heinrich Glessler, whom Kip believed was a member of the Vril Society. Dr. Wilke had encountered Glessler himself years ago, while he was researching native American folklore — and performing dangerous experiments with memory retrieval. More recently, when checking on the Simulacrum in Venice, Dr. Wilke saw Arturo Faccia showing off the vault to Glessler.

Umar set explosives from the cult’s own armory to destroy the cavern. On their way out, Lily suddenly staggered and shouted about her father being taken somewhere. She then collapsed into a pile of rotting bones.

Commentary

Like many of the scenarios in the published Orient Express campaign, the Sofia chapter largely pushes the Investigators through a plot, leaving them little more than witness to what others are doing, without much agency to effect the situation. In our game I want to avoid that, while still including some classic story elements and situations that make Orient Express what it is.

Balancing between those two goals was especially problematic in this session. There were some plot events I wanted to have happen, there was a story event from the published campaign I wanted the players to experience in some form, and the Investigators themselves had made some choices that allowed themselves to be ambushed by Cultists. So I decided the story justified my taking control of the plot and leaving the Investigators mostly helpless. The details can be read in my Obsidian Portal summary, but the Brothers of the Skin surprised and overwhelmed the Investigators, weakened as they were from the encounters of the previous session.

I told them that it was not *impossible* for them to escape the initial ambush and they started to concoct several plans. I pointed out their skills pools were low and the training of the MI6 agent on the team noted that the bad guys had fingers on the triggers of their tommy guns. They did decide to surrender and be bound and dragged off to the bad guys lair — where they faced torture, interrogation, and imprisonment.

In the published campaign, the Investigators, after being forced into a gunfight with the baddies (which the PCs are scripted to loose), track them to this secret lair only to find that the Cultists have already been killed by the vampire Fenalik. They pick up the Simulacrum piece from the ruins and go back to their train. I found that unsatisfying when I was a player in the campaign, and as well as now, running the game as Keeper. Yet I wanted my players to experience something like these core events. I also wanted to show the bad guys being evil, powerful, and dangerous. We had our first PC maiming of the campaign as a hand got lopped off. Two Investigators also Stability Shattered at this point.

Despite such hardships, one Investigator (an MI6 agent) managed to get out of her chains (with the help of a hat pin another character had successfully concealed) and the cell, strangle a guard, and disguise herself in his clothes. I ran all that testing my “no-dice” variant to GUMSHOE, with the character spending points without rolling to be successful at those tasks. The struggle with the guard was done with blind bidding. The player actually lost the Scuffing bid, achieved a “Success at cost” by spending Health (at 2:1) to increase her bid. So she won, but got banged up in the struggle.

While it would have been interesting to see how far this escape could have gone (it would have been rough to get all the way through the Cultists’ lair) the plot I had in mind was already in motion. I was taking the player’s actions and making them largely irrelevant. I was uneasy about that, but I still thought my goals justified it, and I endeavored to make the player’s action at least dramatically interesting, even if they didn’t directly affect the unfolding events.

The cavalry was arriving in the form of Lily, Fenalik’s vampire spawn (in our game the PCs had imprisoned Fenalik himself back in a cave in France). She had also brought along the PC of a new player who was joining the game. She needed his mortal help to open the door to the Cultist Lair and invite her in over its threshold. Lily then proceeded to kill all the cultists and free the PCs. We end up at the same place as the written campaign, though the Investigators have had to witness the bloodbath, rather than find it after the fact. Besides recovering the stolen Simulacrum fragment, they also acquired a dangerous ritual knife and a book of fleshwarping magic. I put in the latter main because there is always a lot of internal conflict between the Investigators about whether occult lore should be studied or immediately destroyed.

In the end I have mixed feelings about running the session this way, but my players didn’t seem annoyed. I got in most of the plot points and story goals I wanted, Investigator mental states got worn down some, and the players have some personal reasons to hate the baddies, so I guess it was mostly a success. I wouldn’t want to be so manipulative again though.