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Masks of the Dreamer: Recovery of U-571 Part 3What lies belowThis excellent piece of concept art comes from a very exciting and now released horror video game, called Soma. It’s also very good and I recommend anyone interested in horror and science fiction play it!

The finale of this investigation has a few bits that feel forced or disjointed, mostly because of my previously discussed error. The error being that I didn’t give the investigators much of an incentive to communicate with the discovery channel crew. As a result a certain “plot” twist here is going to feel like it comes out of absolutely nowhere. On the other hand, this finale to the investigation worked out really well on several levels and developed with some interesting tension between certain PCs. This tension though was quite palpable and almost a bit too much, so I needed to keep everyone a bit after the game to talk about the “Traitor” mechanic present in the game.

Even though the landing of some of the events in this wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, it still worked well enough and conveyed some worrying secrets to the players – without giving the full story away (just yet, we’re almost at the end of this campaign).

The Russian Madman, Karachevnik

This conversation with Karachevnik was quite tense, with the investigators uncertain how this man was still alive down here and what his potential intentions were. Oddly enough from character creation, one of the characters Anastasia is actually natively Russian. The familiar accent and clear knowledge of Russian allowed her to bluff their way past his initial aggression of them being “Capitalist pig dog spies”. This gave them some room to explore and spread out a bit, with Keith taking over negotiating while Anatasia and Maggie sneaked around the back to investigate the table of documents. After all, someone had got into U-571 and removed the knowledge the Germans obtained and hopefully Karachevnik had it.

During this conversation I had Zac sneak off a bit and hide himself away, in order to mostly avoid the distraction of a second NPC “talking to myself” and because I needed him for another purpose soon (you’ll see). In reality, he was intending to see who won the fight with Karachevnik and the investigators, which was bound to happen. After this he planned to pick off any survivors and then take whatever knowledge that was on offer entirely for himself. Unfortunately for him, this plan got a bit disrupted during the fight due to him failing to notice a certain other arrival… who had a bit of an agenda of its own….

In any event, Keith and Eva delayed the inevitable by engaging in some small talk with Karachevnik, where they discovered his dates and comments made no sense. According to Karachevnik, the facility fell into ruin in 1965 due to a rebellion between two groups – one led by him – after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The hardliners, led by Karachevnik, felt the USSR had betrayed them by bowing to the west and thus the insurrection was born. A fierce firefight took out much of the facility and ensured that the survivors were effectively doomed, except Karachevnik. He used the last of their resources and knowledge he gained from the German documents/artifacts, to build the strange machines keeping him alive.

His claim that he had been down there without any contact from the outside world for 52 years since the rebellion. This immediately disturbed the investigators who realized this meant Karochevnik thought the date must be around 2017, which is three years into the future. Pressing him on this discrepancy also revealed that he thought there had been some kind of apocalypse. Apparently the surface was destroyed and some creature having been unleashed on the world sometime in the early 70s. Naturally he blamed the Americans for it and lamented that if only the USSR had beaten them to R’leyth, the Russians could have controlled the beast that was unleashed and destroyed everything.

I pointed out to the players here that they could interpret this in multiple ways, including the fact he was just outright insane. On the other hand, he might not be insane and that raises some disturbing possibilities about where they were…

The Accidental Trip Leading to a Tense Fight

By this point, Anastasia and Maggie successfully moved around behind the crazed Russian and were starting to grab the recovered U-571 documents and artifacts. Unfortunately, Damian failed to move up around the other side and accidentally pulled one of the cables out from the machine, giving Karachevnik a considerable shock. Extremely unhappy with the “betrayal”, he began to fight the investigators and they soon discovered something unusual attached to him: A mask made of ice, firmly stuck to the sorcerers side. Of course making this fight harder, was the large number of CRT screens with cables attached to him also animating into monstrous weapons.

The combination of the ray machines and Karachevnik’s magic made this a pretty tough battle, with the machines ray attacks dealing considerable damage and upping the stakes considerably. Keith in particular suffered from Karachevnik, as the sorcerer split into multiple “timelines” using reality bending magic to strike him four times simultaneously (almost instantly wiping Keith out). Damian and Eva focused on destroying the ray machines, with the investigators catching on quickly that they had to be destroyed before Karachevnik would die (or even take any significant harm).

Overall I don’t really like to run very “Gamist” feeling boss fights in Trail of Cthulhu or Call of Cthulhu, but I felt this fight went really well. It was tense, creepy and emphasized the kind of terrible things mythos magic frequently does to the human mind (and eventually their body). Inevitably with the machines destruction, the investigators were able to deal enough damage to the fragile and aged corpse of Karachevnik that it simply disintegrated. Thinking very quickly, Anastasia grabbed the strange icy mask and decided to hold onto it – her mark gained from the entity in Nepal protecting her from its normally damaging icy effect.

Unfortunately for the investigators, while they got what they came for – most notably the all important sea charts and maps showing where the U-571 had found R’leyth – the resulting battle had damaged the facility irrepairably. Very shortly, the entire facility was going to be entirely crushed under the weight of water coming in from the various machines rays and bullet holes. With not a lot of time left, the investigators decided to go with a reasonably insane plan from Maggie: Use some of their knowledge of mythos magic to make an impromptu ritual. In essence, create a “reality bubble” around them like a communal ritual and place their trust in Maggie not to kill all of them in the ocean.

There honestly wasn’t a better option that the players could come up with and despite the potential for one hell of a betrayal scene (if Maggie was the traitor) they went with it. From my point of view, while this is a little bit too much “Off the cuff” magical for what I was going for in this campaign it was by far the most interesting solution. It was also one proposed by a player and one the other players thought was good as well. As a result, even if it didn’t fit with how I viewed magic as “working”, I thought it was great enough as a concept to allow them to try it. The resulting dodging of bodies (Tyrone from the discovery channel crew came flying in when the bulkhead finally failed) and debris, combined with the tense walk across the ocean with Maggie losing her stability/magic rapidly as they came upon the submarines was excellent.

The tension really worked at this point and the investigators had to split into groups, so everyone could get into their respective submarines (they don’t take more than a handful of people each). Anastasia, Zac (who was “hiding” during the fight with Karachevnik) and Maggie ended up going to the last submarine together, where once on board they discovered my little surprise…

What a twist!

On board their submarine, bleeding but distinctly not dead, was Anitas. The investigators had figured she was dead after she disappeared on board U571, but this was not the case. In fact she had fallen from a rusty railing while exploring and hit her head, being knocked unconscious. When she awoke, she found a certain shoggoth closing in, but had other ideas: Binding the creature with an old artifact she had and commanding it to take over Zachary’s body. During the battle in the dome, while the PCs were distracted and Zac was trying to pick his moment to strike, the Shoggoth got him and possessed his body. This worked because the resulting fight and then escape, meant the investigators had no time to really ask him what was wrong. This was despite me emphasizing my description of Zac post-fight as being “extremely sick looking”.

Anastasia had a difficult situation here, because Maggie and Zac were locked in the back, while she was stuck in the front alone with Anitas. They knew nothing about her agenda, purpose or why she had done what she had done with the Shoggoth to Zac. This is when she decided to elaborate a little bit, stating that she knew Zac was a member of the Order of Dagon – had been for a while – and she had come to disrupt this operation. Unfortunately, the investigators had been an unexpected twist on things and after she was knocked out, she had to improvise a solution. She immediately asked Anastasia where she stood on the Order and if she was a member as well, but the two came to a rough agreement eventually.

Thinking smartly, Anastasia was able to warn the others about the situation using Morse code and the “Shoggoth bomb” that was now happily riding in the back. Meanwhile Maggie had noticed that Zac was beginning to bleed a bit of “black blood” and that something was seriously wrong with him. The information naturally ratcheted up the tension quite a bit, because if the shoggoth got out of control on their submarine and Maggie was locked in with it…

Either way, the investigators reached the surface and found their welcoming committee: A large group of Old Order of Dagon jobbers and Joleen waiting for them on board. Here there was a very tense moment with Keith and Maggie, as they tried to debate what to do precisely with the Shoggoth. As Keith could leave the submarine without the Order interfering with him (due to his nature), he went and talked with Maggie and the Shoggoth. Naturally when you put the two player characters who trust one another the least over the game, you get a very tense conversation where Keith did not want Maggie to make a deal with the Shoggoth. Eventually though, they decided that unless they wanted the beast coming after all of them in future they better fulfill its request: getting the artifact from Anitas and smashing it.

Thankfully Anastasia had thought ahead about some of these issues and was able to call in a shipping boat she paid to follow the Orders vessel in. This gave them an escape route and when the time came to leave, Maggie quickly pick pocketed the medallion from Anitas and then they jumped overboard before the Old Order of Dagon even realized what was happening. The shoggoth then unleashed itself and tore into the Order, then the ship itself. Terrible sounds followed the investigators as they jumped overboard to get on the other ship to safety – but Damian had an unexpected tumble! His foot caught on the railing and he belly flopped into the sea below, knocking him instantly unconscious.

However for whatever reason, Anitas decided to jump back in and actually rescue him. Assisting the investigators in dragging him back onto the boat. She quickly realized she didn’t have the artifact anymore, but fortuitously for the investigators, figured she lost it while saving Damian. Of course, with her doing that to save their fried so readily it made their deal with the shoggoth, to smash the artifact, a much more interesting choice…

Sailing away on the boat and watching the Orders vessel eventually split, then sink to the bottom was a somber image to end this investigation on. Interestingly, I feel that despite how “sudden” much of the last couple of twists were – due to me not setting up things with the discovery crew as much as I should have – it did oddly work. The resolution felt satisfying and there was some great tension in the end, which is exactly what I wanted. Unfortunately, I did manage to generate a bit too much tension.

Extreme Tension: Traitor mechanic creating too much paranoia

So in this investigation there was a moment in the game where my set up with the traitor and similar, created too much tension. In fact, my success at creating a tense and paranoid atmosphere really showed in the moment with Keith and Maggie. Unfortunately, this was quite a bit more extreme than I had originally planned and I felt the paranoia made getting to a resolution too difficult. Much of this arises from my fault and not the players, because in some ways the players expect the traitor to – essentially – kill them all at the drop of a hat. This is actually not the gameplay or narrative purpose of the traitor at all, because it would be rather disastrous to the game in general. In reality, the traitor is there to build tension and act against the investigators – but in cooperation with me as the Keeper. In other words, they poke and nudge events in interesting ways, but they aren’t aiming to murder everyone at the drop of a hat. Pretty much following the style I outlined in this previous post on the guild.

It’s worth noting I’ve never really outright explained this to the players in this game. In many ways, it was on my end that I allowed them to think the traitor would just kill them any time as it was “useful” for generating tension. The problem is – as I wrote in the above linked post – that it was starting to give the players “choice paralysis”. Essentially, if they are becoming increasingly unable to come to communal decisions with one another the mechanic is working against the game. Here Maggie and Keith’s characters have entirely legitimate “In character” reasons to be utterly distrustful of one another. The problem was the tension was starting to feel rather personal between the two players – which is understandable because nobody wants their character to die right at the end of a campaign.

At this point, in order to diffuse this tension and get things back to a state where the players felt it was reasonable to have their investigators cooperate (no RPG goes far if players aren’t cooperating), I decided to explain how the traitor worked more precisely. In short, the player “helping” me in this game does so with subtlety because their goal is similar to the investigators. There is no inherent advantage in them slaughtering their main allies, because it ultimately compromises their ability to achieve their goal. Naturally, like certain twists or betrayals, it comes in the final moments or act of the game where stakes are highest (raising them even further in some cases). This means the overall “decisions” made during investigations aren’t all immediate life and death – EG the fear of handing control of a shoggoth (potentially) to the traitor and killing everyone instantly.

While I feel this is a bit explicit and removes some of the tension, when you’ve succeeded at your two goals of “Make everyone paranoid” and “Make investigations tense” this well, it’s honestly not a great loss to be explicit. Interestingly some players were really still worried, because they thought they could be the traitor and not know! I decided to explain that yes, the player who was the traitor knew exactly who they were and I decided to add a new piece of information: The traitor could decide not to do anything against the party if they wanted. In other words, they didn’t have to actually betray anyone if they wanted, which made the players wonder even further as to what the traitors potential goal was.

We will have to see….

It’s worth noting it’s actually been several weeks since this moment IRL and we’ve had several sessions since then. This explanation and decision to talk through what the traitor mechanic is supposed to achieve, definitely worked in reunifying the players. They’re still distrusting and keeping an eye over their shoulders, as they should, but there isn’t the same problem/tension in coming to a decision anymore. So that was a good ending and I shall elaborate more in the next investigations play reports!