Session 37: Unmaking

Originally posted September 9, 2018

Summary

After calming the Right Arm of the Simulacrum, Umar sat down in the dirt outside the train station in Trieste and began scribbling in the dirt with his finger. The strain of the unnatural experiences of recent months appeared to have finally broken his stoic mental state, but Miss Crispin was able to talk him back to his senses — at least the Investigators hoped.

A few hours aboard the Orient Express further eased their rattled psyches, though a strange lack of news from London was unsettling. Arriving at the Venice station they were met by Miss Avon, who started to scold them for their unauthorized activities, but even she was shocked by how haggard and ill the Investigators seemed. After a short trip on a steamboat, they arrived at Arturo Faccia’s villa. The Italian Industrialist welcome them, asking if they had seen any of the German engineer who should also have been on the same train. The Investigators declined to provide any information on the topic.

After getting some rest and checking on the state of the Simulacrum in its vault, they paid a call on Albert Alexis, who had spent the time since his rescue from the Dreamlands studying and developing his eccentric theories on space and time and their relations to railroad lines and timetables. In consultation with Umar, a theoretical ritual was concocted that might unfold the Simulacrum, or at least the four-dimensional shadow of the artifact that existed on Earth, out of our reality, freeing this existence from its curse. All the Investigators were taught a Spell of Unmaking, though grasping such lore strained them yet further. A remaining problem was that this ritual could not be performed while confined within the Material World. Dr. Wilke suggested using the Dream Drug of the Duc de Messeraine. Alexis agreed that could allow them to cross over the boundaries of Reality, but there was no promise of being able to return — or at least to return to the world they had left.

Within a ballroom of Faccia’s villa, a complex diagram of magic circles and interlocking model train tracks was constructed around the assembled pieces of the Simulacrum. The Investigators were to dose themselves with Dream Drug and be carried off into spiritual realms to seek out and sever the connections between the Simulacrum and the physical world. Albert Alexis, Faccia, and Miss Avon bid them good luck, and the ritual was begun.

After slipping into sleep, the Investigators were assailed by nightmarish recollections of their experiences that threatened to tear them away forever into Dream. They managed to hold their identities together and found themselves on a foggy hilltop. They were shaken, but able to Shape the substance of this realm to some degree through the power of the Drug. A cloaked figure appeared, asking why they had come. He was surprised that they did not know him, claiming that every ritual, spell, sacrifice, or prayer throughout human existence had been an invitation to him. If they wished to know more, he stated, they need only follow — as he toppled over backwards into the mist.

From where he vanished, a stone stairway led down to a plateau laid out with a chalk carving of a human shape. Stone arches, carved with the same symbols as the Simulacrum stood above the outline, one at the head, one on the chest, and one on each limb. Within each arch they glimpsed another strange world, several of which looked familiar from the visions triggered by the Mi-go “gifts.”

They first entered the world of an Egyptianized London, where obelisks lined the streets, and a giant pyramid rose where the City of London once stood. The Investigators were drawn to a temple of Bast, which was guarded by sphinxes with the face of Maria Stragliani, the young woman they had encountered in Venice who seemed connected to the cat goddess through the ancient order of the Red Maidens. Within the inner temple, the painted images of priestesses all began to take on Miss Crispin’s face and a statue came to life, also with her image though covered with the Simulacrum’s designs. It attacked, demanding that she join them in worshipping Bast forever. Miss Crispin forced it away with her own Christian faith, and Dr.Wilke attacked it with his own prayers — though the use of magic hurt Miss Crispin as well. Further, when the eidolon was destroyed, Miss Crispin found her own magic abilities had vanished. A pyramid of pure white was found on an altar and Miss Crispin cast the Spell of Unmaking on it, calling on the terrible knowledge and secrets that her experiences had revealed to her.

Finding themselves back on the plateau, the Investigators next entered the arch to a battlefield torn by soldiers with weapons, vehicles, and aircraft beyond anything they had seen before. They encountered a parade of battered refugees seeking shelter. Dr. Wilke identified their leader as one of the cigani people, and he explained that the Americans, Germans, and Russians had warred back and forth across the land so much they were not sure who was fighting whom anymore. When the man saw that Dr. Wilke knew his people’s ways, he excitedly invited him to meet his band’s “grandmother” who had foreseen his coming in her dreams. At the refugee camp, this ancient woman explained that her people guarded much terrible lore and many occult weapons that the German Nazi party wanted for their war. She had no descendants to guard these secrets and insisted Dr. Wilke take this burden. When he expressed hesitation, the old woman transformed into a symbol-covered eidolon of Dr.Wilke and attacked. When this creature was defeated, Dr. Wilke too found his magic ability was gone. A necklace of pure white stones was uncovered, and when it was Unmade, the Investigators again appeared on the plateau.

They next attempted to enter the London of skyscrapers and airships that Miss Johnson had previously seen — but a blast of hot wind and sand took them elsewhere. They stood in a desert, illuminated by a pair of setting suns. A woman wearing a tattered yellow gown and covering her face with a mask appeared and offered Miss Johnson her “Second Invitation” to leave all her troubles and pain behind and join her at the court in Carcosa, where the King in Yellow had been interested in her since the Investigators’ encounter with the Yellow Sign in Milan. Miss Johnson declined, and the woman said she would accept that, and as Miss Johnson was untainted by the corruption that marked the others, there would be a Third Invitation.

They then did appear in this capital of a British Empire that had conquered the world and subjugated all non-white cultures. A strange pull led them to a vastly expanded British Museum, which both celebrated the Empire’s victory in a war against the Mi-go, and housed a collection of artifacts and treasures from around the world. There was even a display of relics from “Atlantis” — including a pure white chalice. This was the next link to be Unmade, and doing so spun the world away until the Investigators returned to their starting point again.

The next expedition was to the remains of a large city completely overgrown with trees and vines and inhabited by peaceful animals — and naked, placid, but curious humans. Miss Crispin, who was suffering the strain from all these disturbing experiences, abandoned her prudish ways and stripped down as well, making friends with the innocent people. After some simple communication, they led the Investigators to their settlement and also to the overgrown chicken-legged cottage of the Baba Yaga. The three avatars of this entity accused the Investigators of trying to bring evil again to this now pure world. But she knew why they had come and showed them a tall tree which was home to a pure white serpent that divided into an endless hydra as Miss Crispin Unmade it.

Two arches remained. They entered a forested realm in the darkness of an eternal eclipse only to be attacked by werewolves. The fight was broken off by the appearance of a robed figure and two masked attendants. The monsters were ordered away for attempting to take “prey” without permission. The robed “man” revealed himself as the Austrian aristocrat Gregor Metzger, who had managed his own undead immortality through Mi-go technology. All living things were now “prey” and they would be taken to the castle of Emperor Fenalik. The Investigators allowed themselves to be captured, thinking their next goal would be there, but along the way they felt a familiar pull from a ruined church. Umar used his magic to free them and held off a giant swarm of bats that stormed out of the castle towards them. The others reached the ruins and found a pure white crucifix, which when Unmade, sent them away again.

The last arch took them to the utterly broken and devastated landscape that Umar had seen in his earlier vision. Weird glowing aircraft flew through the smoking sky. The Investigators successfully took cover, but were then found by a group of rifle carrying Arabic men. They were surprised by the Investigators’ presence here, but became hostile at the mention of the bunker-like building they had spotted and taken as their goal. Suddenly one of the men threw himself at Umar’s feet, asking forgiveness for not recognizing their Caliph, Makryat the Great. Playing along, Umar and the others were led into the bunker, which was stationed there to guard some important relic of the Caliph’s. Within a large vault a cloth covered object sat on a dais. Umar was suddenly wracked by agony and a gory hand burst out his shoulder, followed by a sneering face that proclaimed that it was the reborn Selim Makryat. The sorcerer was reforming himself from the scars his blood had left on Umar’s flesh. ” You cannot kill me! Nisra could not kill me! As long as the Skinless One calls to me I shall not be denied!” Umar attempted to magically destroy this abomination, but Makryat only absorb the power and grew stronger. The Investigators attempted to grab the object off the dais, but found it intangible. Desperate, Miss Crispin tried to use the Dreamshaping power of the Drug to make the object tangible. The only possible route to making this real was to reach through time to a future where Makryat had become manifest, leaving Umar little more than a husk. Seeing no other choice, she bent time and Unmade the perfect cube that would, in the future, appear on the dias.

Back on the plateau, the arches were gone, replaced by an outdoor cafe. The sky cleared to reveal a endless expanse of stars. Umar stilled lived, but was left a helpless ruin. The cloaked man sat at the café, leafing through piles of books. He said he was fascinated by language, how words could be so vague, yet communicate so much. What, for instance did “skin” mean, or what was it to be “skinless?”

Removing his hat, this being revealed a face of exposed muscle and bone. This was what everyone possessed, so was skin something that served to hide truth? Dr.Wilke accused this figure as being “nothing” and it said maybe it was, that it only came to reveal truths that the Earth now would never know. The Investigators had indeed saved their world, for whatever it meant to save a mote of dust in vast, boundless cosmos. The Skinless One stood and a vast multitude of dark shambling forms stood as well. He gestured for Umar to join them. Ultimately shattered and broken, it was Umar’s destiny to join the Procession, forever.

The remaining Investigators found themselves again on the plateau, in a circle of the 6 stone arches. Except that is, for Miss Johnson, who saw a seventh entrance: this one an gothic doorway painted a pale yellow. Emily Johnson walked to the Third Invitation and vanished. Dr. Wilke and Miss. Crispin were left alone with the different realms they had visited. The war-torn battlefield seemed the world that needed them, the one they could help the most. Hand in hand, they stepped through.

Commentary

This was the concluding session of a campaign that began April 2015. Actually none of the players in the very first prologue session were around at the very end, but for almost all of the campaign I was fortunate to have a strong core of four players.

The conclusion in the printed campaign of “Orient Express” is not that strong a climax and, as happens often in the campaign, makes the Investigators mostly witnesses to events, rather than participants. It has a few interesting elements that I wanted to included in our game, if only as an homage, and I’ll discuss them below.

A core plot element of the published campaign is that the fundamental mission, the quest to find all the parts of the Sedefkar Simulacrum in order to destroy them, is a hoax, a con by the bad guys to get the Investigators to do the dangerous work for them. The new edition of the game has a few suggestion for alternative approaches, but our campaign departed from that idea early on. The Investigators quickly suspected they were being used and I introduced evidence that they might be able to collect enough lore to actually create a ritual that could do the previously thought impossible task of destroying the artifact (or at least unfolding its 4-dimensional manifestation in our reality).

I had two issues in concocting an ending scenario and it turned out to be one of those situations were two problems added together equalled a solution.

First, how could such a ritual could be presented in the game, beyond just rolling dice against an Inertia Pool or something? Since the quest had been to bring all the pieces of the Simulacrum together, how about a series of challenges that would represent severing the connections between each piece and our world. I was inspired by Kabbalistic belief, and the idea of the Sefirot, a diagram of a series of spiritual realms that an aspirant could encounter as part of a journey to the divine. When I found that while the Sefirot, while usually represented as a tree, can also be expressed through an image of the human body, that made up my mind! But what form would this spiritual journey take; what specifically would the players encounter?

The second issue came from all the various storylines and NPC factions that were still in play. While I had been moving everything towards an apocalyptic conclusion, to fully resolve all the subplots could have taken a dozen more sessions. We had the British Empire trying to master Mi-go technology, an avatar of Bast on the loose, secret societies thinking the Simulacrum was the key to mastering vril energy, 20,000 year old Atlantis cults, and, oh did I mention Mi-go? I felt strongly that it was time to wrap things up, but I didn’t want to just abandoned these events that were in motion.

Then the idea came to me that the different spiritual realms of the ritual could represent these different plot elements. Essentially the Investigators would visit various possible futures that might arise from events of the story. A vril-punk worldwide British Empire. A Mi-go apocalypse. A world under an eternal solar eclipse, ruled by the vampire Fenalik. And a future being devastated by a Second World War. There would be one such a Realm for each of the six pieces of the Simulacrum they had collected over the campaign.

The Investigators used a ritual devised by Albert Alexis, an NPC from “The Doom Train” scenario, and the Dream Drug from the Dream Lausanne chapters to visit each of these Realms, in quick missions to locate a white artifact that represented the link between the Simulacrum and the Real World. Sometimes they just had to follow a pull towards where the artifact was hidden, but sometimes one of the Investigators would encounter a dark eidolon of themselves than needed to be defeated. This doppelgänger was powered by the character’s own Magic Skill.

Magic was another major theme I wanted to resolve in the conclusion. At character creation I allowed the players to put points into Magic, which three of them did, though they each had a unique take on it. I allowed the skill to increase over the campaign. My intent was that this would ultimately be a problem, since, as clues began to indicate, all magic, even what was consider divine or holy, came from Atlantean study of the Aklo symbols on the Simulacrum, and ultimately drew on its corrupt power. In these final confrontations, the higher the character’s Magic Skill, the stronger their evil self was.

One Investigator never had Magic, but she had her own issues: since an encounter with the Yellow Sign in Milan, the King in Yellow had his eye on her. She was receiving invitations to escape all the horror and danger she experiences by joining his Court in Carcosa…

The Investigators were presented with gates to each of then six realms and choose the order to visit them. The act of severing the link when they found it was done mostly through Mythos Spends, which had subsequent Sanity and Stability costs. I had made up some mechanics for this all, but ultimately didn’t track it all too closely, since letting the story play out seemed more important than the math.

An important bit of drama came from the Realm they choose to visit last. Here I had set up a story element from the published campaign’s conclusion: one of the game’s main villains attempting to resurrect himself out the flesh of one on the Investigators. This was that character’s eidolon, and since he had developed the highest Magic, this was by far the strongest enemy they’d met. As I said this turned out to be the last of the six missions, if they had chosen this Realm first, the rest of scenario would have played out quite differently.

On the whole this approach to the conclusion worked okay. I was able to make a lot of call backs to previous scenarios, with plenty of cameos of NPCs. Since there was a lot to get through, I had to keep it all moving, and scenes were more scripted than I usually like, particularly with the final of all confrontations, with the Skinless One himself (whom I chose to make more than a guise of Nyarlathotep as in the published game’s few direct Lovecraftian elements). He had things to say that had been in my head for many months and I gave them precedence over any actual conversation with the Investigators.

It was at this point that the one Investigator who had been functioning with False Sanity the whole session dropped to his true zero rating. He rose to join the Skinless One and his shambling Procession in their endless perambulations around the roiling chaos of Azathoth. The others were free to return home — but to which home? They had gateways to all six of the Realms they had visited. The players of course knew that world of WW II was “their” history, but the Investigators did not.

Further, the PC who had never used Magic saw a seventh way: a gothic doorway, painted light yellow. Her player choose to open it, and is dancing in Carcosa to this day. The remaining two characters decided the world of war and refugees was the place they could do the most good, and quite true to their Drives, chose it.

And that’s where we ended it. To me as Gamemaster from a storytelling point of view, sessions always seem like first drafts and I can’t help but think of dozens of things that I could have done better, that could have strengthened the emergent story that came about from the mixture of my ideas and the players actions and reactions. But a RPG is a unique experience and a session is a singular event that never gets repeated.

If by some crazy circumstances I did run this campaign again, I would take it even further in the Armitage Files/Dracula Dossier direction. The Investigators would not get a linear list of places to visit, with the assumption that a piece of the Simulacrum was to be found at each one, conveniently accessible by the Orient Express. They’d get a big packet of clues and I would let them decide where to go and what seemed the most promising leads to follow up or NPCs to talk to. The published campaign books are interesting sourcebooks full of information and details. The characters could go pretty much anywhere in Europe of 1923 and find weird situations and horrors.