Session 28: Lausanne and the City of Bells 1923

Originally posted August 7, 2017

Summary

In addition to finding the scattered pieces of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, the Investigators are gathering lore to devise a “Ritual of Ending” to destroy the cursed artifact. Dilettante Albert Alexis had discovered some of the secret mathematics of the universe, so consulting him would be of great help. He though had been lost in Time and Space aboard the Doom Train. The only clue to his location were glimpses Miss Crispin had of him being hunted through Dream Lausanne by the Duc de Messeraine. Perhaps he could be located there.

With only a small amount of the drug that allows passage into the Dreamlands, the Investigators attempted brewing their own, though what they produced had limited shelf-life and other uncertain properties.

Taking the Orient Express back to the physical Lausanne, they read news reports of a deadly meteorite strike that had devastated the region of Austria they had visited only a few weeks earlier.

Miss Crispin had a disturbing bout of sleepwalking, where strange voices demand she:

Deliver the Message to the Tabernacle. His apprenticeship ends
The Procession nears. He must be ready
You have touched the Skin, but you are not Worthy
The Tabernacle has been prepared, only He must greet the Procession of the Skinless One
Deliver the message. The Tabernacle must be ready

Settling in at a hotel in Lausanne, the Investigators made their plans for journeying to the Other Side of Sleep. To fortify themselves they sat down to a special dinner (including flamingo tongues and a sugar castle) being served at the hotel dining room, only to slowly realize that they had already taken the drug and were dreaming. The Duc knew of their coming and arrived aboard his own dream version of the Orient Express to grant the Investigators an audience. They are welcomed by their old acquaintance Henri, who spirit was drawn to this train after his death in the Waking World.

Brought before the throne of the Duc, in his guise as the Patchwork Prince, the Investigators explained that they were looking for the missing Alexis. Messeraine revealed that he had added the unfortunate man to his collection of rare items, since it is unusual these days for someone to come to the Dreamlands in their physical form. He is currently being kept in a cage transformed into a monkey.

The Duc offered a deal. He would hand Alexis over to the Investigators, if they will do a service for him: His dream kingdom is being invaded by an ever growing gray city, that blights the landscape and draws hordes of dreamers into its walls. He plans to attack and drive back the city, but wants the Investigators to be his advance spies and go into the walls and report what they find there. They are well suited for this mission, as they are newcomers still close to the Waking World and will be able to influence the substance of the Dreamlands with their wills. They agree, though demand that in addition to Alexis they receive more dosages of the Dream Drug.

The Duc’s train dropped them off near the gate of the city, where the Investigators waited with crowds of silent, hunched cloaked figures. Within the tall gates the crowds dispersed, leaving them alone amidst the dim foggy streets and towering, crumbling stone buildings. Miss Johnson and Miss Crispin used their new dreamscaping abilities to blend in, while Umar andDr. Wilke stayed prominent, to attract attention. Which they did, when a cloaked figure appeared and offered to show them the truth of the coming “Great Day, ” if they would follow him. The figure disappeared down an alley, leaving a bone key behind.

The two groups of Investigators then explored the dark city, finding a variety of nightmare tableaus. A preacher warned about the imminent return of Satan to the Earth. Flagellants sought to have their flesh torn apart by a horror in a pit in order to purify their souls. Soldiers were recruited to fight a coming invasion from Mars. An astronomer observed a strange approaching celestial phenomena. A swamp cultist celebrated the rise of Cthulhu from his tomb under the sea. Each twisted scene included a key of a different material for the Investigators to recover: wood, leather, steel, crystal, and stone.

Once the six keys had been collected, the Investigators gathered at the tower in the center of the city. Carved bas-relief on the walls depicted a priest copying symbols from a statue onto a knife and apparently triggering the sinking of Atlantis. After noting these they used the keys to open the iron gate. Within they met the cloaked figure who led them through a huge, empty fortress. On its highest tower he began to speak, telling of the long history of earth, lost civilizations, and the non-human creatures that rules before. His tale began to reach beyond Earth to the vast cosmos beyond, and the Investigators fought to protect their minds from such corrosive revelations.

Realizing their sanity was in jeopardy, Dr. Wilke tackled the cloaked figure, while Miss Crispin slapped awake a transfixed Miss Johnson. The figure laughed and pointing at the coming dawn. If the Investigators were not in their beds by sunrise, they would join him in the City forever. From the height of the tower they could see the Duc’s train outside the walls. Dr. Wilke transformed himself into an eagle, and the others dream up a Leonardo flying machine. They flew off to meet the train where Henri hurried them aboard, back to their rooms at the Lausanne hotel – where they found their own sleeping forms in bed.

The next morning they were met at breakfast by the Duc, who gravely listen to their report. His suspicions about the dangers to the world were confirmed and he offered the Investigators sanctuary in Dream Lausanne, for while it was in danger as well, he believed he could defend it and give it a better chance of survival than the Waking World. After presenting them with the Dream Drug and promising that Albert Alexis would be delivered to them, he vanished in a puff a green smoke.

Commentary

This session blends together elements from three different scenarios in the published Orient Express campaign. It uses parts of “Blue Train, Black Night” to frame the story, the setting of “In a City of Bells and Towers,” and refers back to events of “The Doom Train.” Most these elements ended up being altered considerably to work in our campaign.

As part of moving things to a conclusion, our Investigators are working to create a final ritual to destroy the Sedefkar Simulacrum. One source of the cosmos bending mathematical lore needed for that is the dilettante Albert Alexis, whose disappearance is the adventure hook in “The Doom Train” prologue adventure back at the very beginning of the campaign. In our play through, Alexis ended up Lost in Time and Space, though he’d been spotted in the Dreamlands.

The campaign books contain a lot of Dreamland material, with one main scenario, and several optional adventures. The most important element being the NPC/villain, The Duke of Dream Lausanne. After meeting him early in the campaign, he’s scripted to have return cameo near the very end, where he does little more than set up the unsatisfying deus ex machina that resolves much of the story. My players have enjoyed the Dreamlands elements, and I’d already expanded the Duke’s role in our campaign, so I wanted to integrate him more into the story as a stronger plot element. His reappearance is also the source of the nightmare train that appears on the game’s box, so adding that iconic visual was important to me as well.

So I decided to use the Duke as a means of introducing another Dreamland scenario, the Tomas Ligotti inspired “In a City of Bells and Towers.” The Duke’s dream domain was being invaded by a parasitic city and he wanted spies to report on it before he attacked. The campaign suggests the idea of players being able to shape the Dreamlands, and so I merged that idea with some of the “dreamscaping” rules from “Dreamhounds of Paris” and gave the Investigators point pools to use this way. One player took to this idea quickly, though others needed some encouragement to try to dream things into existence to help them.

As written, the optional “City of Bells” scenario is strong on atmosphere but weak on story. When I was a player in “Orient Express” we didn’t use this adventures, but I would expect most players to wander through the dream city without much purpose, being befuddled by obscure references to early scenarios, and being stuck until they guessed some lame pun-based puzzles. Without exaggeration, much of the scenario depends on the players figuring the homophone of “tide” and “tied.” I replaced the cryptic diary entries the players find with tableau set pieces were the Investigators encountered dreamers stuck in visions of various looming apocalypses, from Satan returning, to cosmic explosions, to Cthulhu rising. I also gave them a series of Dream Keys to find, so that they could have a goal, and a sense of progression. The end of the scenario I kept mostly the same: a mysterious figuring who lectured as much Cosmic Horror truth as they could take, until they needed Stability rolls to escape with the increasing Mythos Points that were being forced on them. A couple players anticipated this outcome and tried their best to block their ears and hear as little as possible.

At this point we do have a player with 7 Sanity and 3 Mythos and another down to 3 Sanity, so Sanity is getting chipped away and some Pillars are on the verge of crumbling. But for now they succeeded in their mission – and the Duke upheld his part of the bargain as well. Long, long ago in a D&D campaign I had a player complain that they never met anybody who was nice or helpful to them. There is enough murky conspiracy and ominous enemies in the game that I didn’t want to turn the Duke in a Mr. Johnson. One player remarked how odd it was dealing with somebody who had comprehensible motives.

In our next session I really want the players to think a lot on their next choices, and how they want to ultimately resolve their goals. A lot of forces and factions are increasingly active in the Big Picture of the story, and have a lot scenes and events I’d like to happen, but my attitude is the campaign does not have a definite way to end and I want player choice to drive the action, taking the game more and more into an Armitage Files/Dracula Dossier mode.