Session 26: Belgrade 1923, Part One

Originally posted June 26, 2017

Summary

Some time has passed since their last mission, and the Investigators are attempting to move past recent traumas and focus on their core mission: recover the next piece of the Simulacrum. Aboard the Orient Express heading to Belgrade, they consider their next actions, particularly how much they should trust Prof. Smith — who is suspected of being an imposter. They agree to go along with things for the time being, and to contact the guide Smith has recommended in Belgrade, Petar Riticht.

The enthusiastic young man took care of all the arrangements for their stay in the city, and the Investigators were left to follow up the lead they have from Smith’s notes: Dr. Milovan Todorovic at the National Museum of Serbian. Dr. Todorovic had not heard of anything resembling the Simulacrum, but does have an old school friend who occasionally deals in unusual artifacts and relics found in the countryside. One of his sources has actually been producing skilled, if disturbing, surreal figures, many of which have unusually large right legs. Dr. Todorovic will provide a letter of introduction to Father Filopovic, who can likely tell them if any strange statuary has been found recently. He warns though that the country has strict laws about removing antiquities from the country, so if they find anything, it is important to follow procedures and take care of any paperwork.

The next day is given to sightseeing and shopping and the Investigators visit the city’s thriving bazaar. Dr. Wilke, under the protective gaze of Miss Johnson, delved into the market for occult objects, digging deeper and deeper until he came across an intriguing broken tablet. It is covered with a mixture of cuneiform and the more ancient symbols sometime attributed to Atlantis. This fragment is all that’s left from an attack on a Turkish base during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877.

Miss Crispin and Umar checked for any sign of the Simulacrum amidst the archaeological fragments and statuary for sale by the local antiquity dealers. Miss Crispin noticed a beggar steal a leg the size and appearance of what they are looking for. But by the time she caught up with him, something had struck him down in an alley, destroying his mind. Additionally his own right leg and arm missing. In fact the limbs had been lost long ago, so how had he so quickly grabbed the leg and run off with it? The stolen item, actually only made of plaster, lay shattered nearby, as if it had been thrown against a wall.

Dr. Wilke and Miss Johnson next encountered a fortune teller named Phaedra. Her divinations revealed strange glimpses into the future, that even she did not understand. Her pet chicken exhibited pain in the parts of its body that corresponded to the parts of the Simulacrum each Investigator was bound with. Phaedra, disturbed herself, asked the Investigators to return tomorrow if they wished to consult her further.

At their hotel, Umar was given the tablet to study. The others continued what had become a nightly habit of visiting the nomadic cigani people who lived outside of city proper. They had made friends with these people and learned something of their customs and culture, including an old belief that the forces of nature, particularly in Spring time, could be too powerful, wild, and hungry, posing a risk for frail humans, if precautions were not taken.

Alone in the hotel room, Umar examined and decoded the tablet. It secrets suggested the terrible knowledge that Sedefkar drew on when he wrote his Scrolls and tried to master the Simulacrum in the 14th Century. Surrounded by the tablet, the Scroll of the Head, The Devil’s Simulare, Prof Smith’s 1893 diary, and other items from their missions, Umar realized that the magic lore in these texts all seem based around a core system of arcane symbols, long speculated about in occult studies: the Aklo. And the symbols that can be glimpsed on the surface of the Simulacrum appear to be the oldest, purest form of Aklo. Could all of what human mages and sorcerers and wise men call “magic” be derived from the Simulacrum, even the powers that Umar himself has wielded in the name of God?

The next day the Investigators departed to visit the village of Orašac, home to Father Filopovic, slipping way without telling their guide Petar of their intentions. On the way they stopped to visit Phaedra once again, but her stall was empty, save for a single egg. Dr. Wilke attempted to recreate her divination spell, but was struck by a vision of a dark procession traveling through dying stars, a cloaked figure on a bier gesturing Wilke to join him.

They shared a local train with friendly locals and an ill-tempered black rooster. The train dropped them off at the edge an old forest, and they had to make the last leg of the trip on foot. Along the way they briefly encountered a strange naked young woman cavorting through the trees. On arriving in the village they soon met Father Filopovic and his wife Ana. One of his main sources for the relics he sells to Todorovic, and the artist who crafted the figurines is an eccentric old woman nicknamed Grandmother, who lives outside the village. He can point them the way in the morning. The village has no inns, but guests are always welcome to stay with the village mayor, Todor Nedic. On the way to the mayor, they spot some of the local cigani, and Ana express her contempt for them.

Todor is glad to have visitors to his crowded household, especially tonight, as the cigani will be performing one of their quaint folk ceremonies that welcomes the coming Spring. Ana is scornful of such pagan rituals and argues with her husband about why he permits such blasphemies. The Investigators note that the mayor follows the local fashion of collecting interesting relics that are found around the countryside. Among various pots and figurines is an unusual bone flute of ancient origin. Noticing Umar’s interest in it, Todor’s sister suggest he take it as a gift. Curious about any occult properties it might have, Umar blows the flute and experiences an unusually deep vibration. He experiences a compulsion to keep blowing it harder and harder, but is able to stop himself.

Soon it is time for the ceremony to begin. Ana reappears and begs the Investigators to not participate in such devilry. She suggests they come to Church and pray with her instead. Miss Crispin and Miss Johnson agree.

Umar and Dr. Wilke join the villagers to watch a parade of costumed cigani progress through the down, dancing and splashing water on the thresholds of the houses. Experienced themselves in the ways of magic, they recognize that this ceremony is a ritual of actual power, and the cigani are casting and reinforcing a powerful protective ward on the village. Dr. Wilke recalls what he’d learned of the cigani folk beliefs and his own occult studies and realizes this ward matches those meant to protect against the ravenous desires of an entity known as the Black Goat of the Woods.

Commentary

I had three goals for this session:

* Starting up the campaign after nearly 7 months since the last game

* Adapt the published campaign material to our game’s story and style

* Begin to gradually steering things towards the campaign’s conclusion

I could hardly assume everybody remembered all the twists and turns of the story, the subplots, and the competing factions of antagonists. I decided to just place the characters into the Belgrade chapter of the campaign and have them concentrate on their main mission: finding the next piece of the Sedefkar Simulacrum. Other subplots could slowly be reintroduced and refreshed in the players’ memories. I tried to pay attention to the things they did remember, as clues to what had made a memorable impression on them. I could build on those as the key elements to concentrate on as the story moved forward.

I chose the Belgrade chapter as it is a fairly self-contained scenario. It doesn’t have a lot of actual mystery solving. It’s more experiential, with a lot of A tells you to go see person B who tells you to see person C structure. My intent was to decorate this with clues and weird observations that fill in a picture of the horrible conclusion they move towards, with each step closer to the Simulacrum. As usual in the published campaign books, while there is a lot of good ideas, atmosphere, and background lore, it has a lot issues as a rpg scenario, particularly from a 21st Century, GUMSHOE-styled perspective. I had several goals as a revised things to my taste.

Even though our version of the campaign has strayed wildly in some ways from the published books, I always want to maintain core elements, so the players will feel like they have played “Horror on the Orient Express” and not something else. The adventure, as written, has several memorable images, scenes, and encounters. Unfortunately they don’t always connect much to the story or the dramatic structure of a game session. There is a chase scene involving a thief and a crowded bazaar, which that is an entirely a red-herring and intentionally leads to a disappointing anti-climax. I decided inject some inexplicable weirdness and use it stage some ominous omens. Another scene involves a fortune teller and her chicken. The game book gives elaborate description of the spell the fortune-teller uses, with eggs as the main component. When I played Orient Express as a player as a PC at Gencon some years ago, my occultist character tried to recreate the spell from what he’d witnessed, using the found egg, and was rewarded with –nothing. It was another dead-end, and written as such in the book. In our campaign, I have a player who I knew would attempt to do exactly as I had, and so had a Stability threatening vision ready for him to experience as recklessly attempted the spell.

That same player decided to look for some occult item in the bazaar. I thought this might happen, but planned to just let him spend a point of Occult and tell me what he was looking for. What he wanted was something related to the Simulacrum and its associated sorcery. I was puzzled at how to best respond. I feel if a character wants to make a Spend, they should get something, and not just be shut down. After some thought I realized this was an opportunity, not a problem.

I had in my overall ideas about the campaign some important story elements I wanted to introduce. I had first though of using an NPC to convey the information, but wasn’t satisfied with that kind of data dump. The shopping Investigator was able to come across a fragment of a clay tablet inscribed with both coded cuneiform and even older symbols that are attributed to a prehistoric, perhaps Atlantean civilization. This artifact then functioned a trigger for a Mythos Spend. It was revealed that the Sedefkar Simulacrum is source of the primal Aklo symbols which all of Earth’s magic was derived from. I’ve allowed the Magic Ability in our game and the Investigators make a lot of use of it. I now want them to be thinking about the true nature of the powers they have been calling on.

As the campaign moves forward I want to keep developing the sense of a looming Apocalypse. That is something missing in the published campaign. There’s little sense of large scale threat from the Simulacrum and its master, the Skinless One. I hope to present a heightening atmosphere of dangers from a multiple fronts: the Immanentization of a Great Old One manifestation, schemes of cults, the Mi-go, the British Empire, and a surviving Egyptian goddess.

We should finish the Belgrade chapter next session, and there will be only one more piece of the Simulacrum to find. The players are already talking about the steps they want to take next, and how to turn the tables on the man who sent them on the mission, whom they have come to believe is an enemy imposter. I have an assortment of rough ideas for how things could ultimately end up, but I’m curious to see how the players’ actions will shape how, when, where, or if those ideas will appear in the remaining sessions.