Session 31: Vinkovci 1923, Part Two & Constantinople 330 AD, Part One

Originally posted January 28, 2018

Summary

In the Yugoslavian railway town of Vinkovci, the Investigators have seen to the care of Sayed, exhausted and at the edge of mental collapse from his research. Sayed apologies to his nephew Umar for dragging him into this affair, but has faith Umar will live up to the responsibility.

Sayed had collected a considerable library of occult books, including the shunned “Unaussprechlichen Kulten”, in which Sayed uncovered clues about the primal cult that has formed again and again around the Simulacrum. The scholar also acquired a strange artifact that he claims can detect the activity of the extraterrestrial Mi-go.

The Investigators next set out on horseback to visit the archaeological excavation being conducted by Prof. Smith. After some trouble with bandits, they arrived and found their long missing patron wearied but pleased to see them. A thorough medical exam convinces the Investigators that this Smith is not a flesh-masked duplicate. Smith is grateful for the Investigators’ continued help, but is concerned about the accumulating costs to body and soul.

Smith has been digging out a Roman construction uncovered by recent erosion. It is quite old, though shows signs of being altered and rebuilt for centuries. Throughout are carvings and images of humans worshipping not the gods, but unsettling crustacean-like creatures. A central panel appears to show these horrors delivering the Simulacrum from the heavens. An inscription reads:

We beseech the holy words
So we might be found worthy
With joy we give our flesh and blood
To build the Tabernacle of the Great Gift
May our prayers and sacrifice be pleasing
So we may be transfigured and purified
To deliver the Great Gift of Skin
Onto the True God of the Black Stars

Beneath the panel Smith has found a pit of human sacrifices, each with its skull neatly cut open, and a pendant show Mi-go symbols around the neck.

Dr. Wilke found more symbols, similar to those on the standing stones in Austria, and Umar managed to activate them, causing the panel to slide open and reveal a hidden chamber. Within is a half-collapsed room similar to what was found in Austria. Most everything is broken and in ruins, but a lead box is found containing a strange manuscript. This book has an 18th Century binding, but its pages have been patched and repaired for many centuries. The hand writing through is eerily the same, related what seems are historical events from over 1500 years ago….

In 330 AD Constantinople, the city is being rebuilt into Nova Roma, the capital of a new united Roman Empire under Constantine the Great. A squad of elite military veterans, the Fortes Falcones, has been invited to a lavish banquet by their commanding officer, Tillius Corvus. To the surprise of none of them, the dinner leads up to new assignment. A Senator recently received a letter complaining of possible new organized crime activity in a certain blighted corner of his district. The politician wants to show that he is a man with connections who can get things done, and Tillius owes him a favor. Tillius in turn orders the squad to investigate, clear things up, or otherwise make the problem go away in a reasonably efficient manner.

The letter of complaint was signed by three citizens of the area, and the Falcones proceeded there to interview the three. On arrival at the riverside neighborhood, they immediately felt a sense of listless depression contrasting with the rest of the bustling metropolis. They quickly find that the first name of their list has recently died. No one is very willing to give details and all residents seemed tense and frightened.

Belasir sought out a local hole-in-the-wall pub and finds out that a Dacian passed through some weeks go and formed a cultish gang that quickly took over the district in a reign of terror. He expressed interest in working for such organization and was pointed towards an ominous figure literally lurking in the shadows. This figure expressed interest and agreed to meet later to discuss a possible employment interview. He must though be discreet and tell no one. Within his mind Belasir feels chains close on his will and he knows he cannot tell anyone.

Galerius moved to the next name on the list, a local stone cutter. The man had been sent home from his work due to lack of business— very strange in a city undergoing vast reconstruction. At the man’s home it is discovered that he too has just died of an unknown illness. Strangely, though the stonecutter’s family subscribed to a community fund to provide cremation and burial service, his family refuses to turn over the body. Galerius barged into the family quarters demanding explanations. The dead man’s mother admitted that they are being forced to give the body to the new criminal cult. Galerius insisted the law can protect them, but the woman revealed her son’s body, withered and showing two ugly bite marks on the neck. Can they protect the family from that?

Galerius ordered Damanais to stake out the apartment, waiting until the gang arrives to collect the body that night. Galerius and Milonius headed to the address of the third man, without much hope for what they will find.

Commentary

The first part of this session was mostly setup for the third big “flashback” scenario of the published campaign. These have been one of my favorite features of the updated “Orient Express.” Rather than just give the players a big data dump about historical events, they actually play out the situation as a one-shot scenario. Each has been set in a earlier phase of Constantinople, and each further back in time. They are now in 330 AD, just as Constantine the Great is establishing the city as his Nova Roma.

I went through a lot of revisions with this scenario. The published version in the game book is pretty good. It’s essentially Cthulhu Invictus, the Roman era Call of Cthulhu setting, advanced a few centuries. There is just one very odd narrative choice, that I shall discuss next time. I thought at first I could run it pretty much as written, with our usual loose adaptation to Trail of Cthulhu rules. As I outlined my notes I kept feeling dissatisfied though.

While the scenario does an interesting job introducing 4th Century Constantinople, once the characters get their mission they leave the city behind, without any real interaction with it. The previous two flashbacks, set in 1893 and 1204, have taken place within the walls of the city. Also each flashback has centered around a blighted, cursed district, where Sedefkar built his Red Tower and the Makryats operate from the Shunned Mosque. I wanted to maintain that structure.

What I ended up with was largely a police procedural, with the characters investigating a crime cult that has taken over a poor neighborhood, with the goal, as the players are staring to discover, of forcing citizens to hand over any dead bodies, and killing anyone who crosses them (which of course provides more dead bodies). The cultists are known to operate mostly at night, have strange powers of persuasion, and leave victims withered with bite marks on their throats. Yes, this in the end evolved into Nights Black Agents: New Rome.

The scenario is still moving towards the same conclusion as the published version, just with some Mi-go mixed in with the vampires.

A player asked me how many more sessions I expected in the campaign, and while I estimate 5-6, I don’t know for sure. I really do not have a definite resolution in mind, since the players have a lot of important choices to make that will shape that resolution. Those pivotal choices will though be coming up soon.