The M-Files: Session 1 Recap

This week, I started a new “Monster of the Week” campaign titled “The M-Files”. Is it for Monster? Or Maxwell (my surname)? The world may never know…

In either case, the group consists of:

  • Cordelia Miranova, the Initiate
  • Miranda “Andi” Caruso, the Spell-slinger
  • Ophelia Graves, the Spooky
  • Alice Everly, the Chosen

The group has a significant bent towards Shakespearean Goths, which told me I’d found the right players since I’d already chosen “The Witching Hour” (from the “Tome of Mysteries” expansion book) as our introductory mystery. Spoilers for that mystery follow.

While I won’t go into the details here, because they can be quite personal, we used the Monte Cook Games “Consent Checklist” and reviewed the result as a group for Reds and Yellows (analogous to Lines & Veils). Other safety tools are in effect as well.

Narrative

The group starts off in the city of Dallas (the GM’s hometown), associated with a currently-unspecified university. Ophelia and Cord are a couple (“the Domestigoths”) while Andi and Alice are roommates.

Three of the hunters have “start of session” moves. Ophelia had a vision of something bad happening to her (“a withered hand grasps your arm and your body shrivels”); Cordelia knew her sect would ask her to do something bad; and Alice received a vague hint to the future (a classic painting recurred in her thoughts).

An exterior view of 5439 Swiss Avenue, an older mansion from the very early 20th century.
5439 Swiss Avenue, Dallas, Texas

Our group opens with a brunch scene, eating together at a cafe near the university. A raven flies up to them with tiny scrolls attached to it; even in 21st-century Dallas, some folks still like a traditional touch. The Order of Fallen Night, to which Cordelia belongs, would like for her to investigate the Bellairs home in the Swiss Avenue Historic District in Old East Dallas. Since the disappearance of Julius Bellairs seven years ago, the heirs have had difficulty finding or keeping tenants because of the rumors of haunting. A small note is attached to one of the scrolls, asking Cordelia to return a “dark artifact in the form of a hand” to her contact in the Order. She reads this askance and decides not to mention that to her friends for now.

The group begins by having Andi (an apparently-weathly young Italian woman now living in the US) talk to the realtor managing the home, a middle-aged blonde woman named Karen Ferguson. She raves about the mansion’s airy spaces, classic interior carvings, etc. After a while, Andi asks about the rumors and rolls investigate a mystery. “What happened here?” Karen tells Andi about some of the tenants complaining of not getting sufficient sleep due to weird dreams and incessant clock sounds; she thinks they just wanted an excuse or maybe didn’t really like all the clocks.

Further research turns up another former tenant, Professor Barnavelt. The professor is a well-known astronomy researcher with a strong interest in black holes; he’s something of a B-list “science celebrity” who wants to be the next Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Under the pretext of doing an interview with him for the university newspaper, Andi and Alice discuss the house with him. (Due to a rules misunderstanding on my part, they received three answers for their investigate a mystery move.) “What is concealed here?” Barnavelt tells them about a dream where he saw some sort of woman or androgynous figure carrying a “candle hand”. “Where did it go?” The dream seemed to take place in a hidden chamber that looked like a witch’s lair in an old Hammer Horror movie, but somehow it still felt like it was in the house. “What can it do?” He said that the witch figure in the dream kept whispering, “touch me and live forever”, or something to that effect.

Meanwhile, Cordelia and Ophelia head down to the actual home. Ophelia dons the Gothiest dress she owns, takes a deep breath, and uses The Sight (while standing outside). She sees the house wreathed in clocks, picture frames, and spooky lights. Based on this, she also rolls investigate a mystery. “What sort of creature is it?” Some sort of undead witch has left its presence all over the building. “What is being concealed here?” Attached somehow to the second-story library, there must be a hidden room in a space that doesn’t directly connect to any of the hallways.

Cordelia sits on a bench, pretending to sketch the house. But in reality, she’s drawing arcane sigils and preparing to use magic to see another time. Her vision only lasts a short duration, but in that time the house emitted intense rays of green light and she could hear a sound as if a hundred clocks chimed midnight at once.

Detail from "Jacob meets magician Hermogenes" showing a hand of glory

Getting back together at the Domestigoths’ place, the group concludes that the “hand candle” must be a “Hand of Glory“. They do some online research in Witchipedia to understand what they’ve seen so far, and again roll investigate a mystery. “What does a Hand of Glory do?” It can reveal hidden doors, open locked containers, and paralyze those who gaze into its light too strongly. (This veers a bit too closely to one of the Reds in our group, so I let them know I don’t plan to use this pre-emptively.) “What happened here with these paintings?” Julius collected memorabilia and art related to the Witch of Endor and the visit by King Saul in 1 Samuel 28. He also purchased a high-quality reproduction of Salvator Rosa’s “The Shade of Samuel Appears to Saul”.

At this point, they decide that further investigation must take place at the Bellairs house itself. They pull up after midnight (thus before the Witching Hour, but not too much before), only to see a couple of teenagers tearing out of the house and across the yards. Something has spooked them and they’ve left the front door open! Ophelia walks in the front door and decides to use magic and ends up with a “miss” (after I spend 2 hold from her session-opening move). She wanted to see what was here; the spoor of an undead lingers here, but the overwhelming sound of clocks reverberates in the house, synced and reminiscent of the beating of a human heart. The cackling that echoes throughout doesn’t help matters.

The Shade of Samuel Appears to Saul
1668
Oil on canvas, 275 x 191 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The hunters rush upstairs to the library, filled with occult volumes and disturbing tomes. On the wall sits a huge painting – the Rosa they’d previously learned about. Andi uses combat magic and blasts lightning at the painting, thinking this might cast out or otherwise affect the witch, and Alice chucks the frame out the window. The only reaction is the cackling within the house, “not very nice!!” Ophelia tries to use magic herself, but the dark powers within her swell and she is filled with rage, ready to smash! Someone else notices a fake book on one of the shelves, labelled Christian Book of the Dead (and a pamphlet for some group called the Sunset Prayer Group). Pulling on the book reveals a passageway into the very lair that Professor Barnavelt described! Inside sits a corpse in a rocking chair, holding an upright hand whose fingers are also candles. Creepy dolls, hanging fetishes, and all sorts of other witchy paraphernalia fill the room. Also, they note a large grandfather clock in the corner – the most normal thing in here.

Cordelia rushes forth to kick some ass but it doesn’t go well for her. As she swings her runed sword at the corpse, it reaches up a decaying, fleshy hand and swats away her arm, which burns slightly. Ophelia moves in to throw a big whammy but the corpse somehow grabs her arm and it burns even more. As she feels the burn, the corpse visibly begins to re-integrate: skin knits itself together, muscles gain strength, and a hint of color comes back to its face.

Andi glances at the clock: it is engraved with imagery from 1 Samuel 28, and in some cases the Witch of Endor has the face of Julius Bellairs – the corpse before them. Thinking quickly, she and Alice use magic against it, pouring arcane lightning into the artifact. The lightning arcs back from the clock to the witch, and a blinding explosion results! When it fades, nothing is left of the clock and corpse but bits of metal, wood, and some spectacles.

Cordelia quietly takes the Hand of Glory and the group leaves to take a well-deserved rest…

Wrap-up

This group gelled very quickly, I think. It helped that a few of them have played together (though certainly not all), and the players came in with a very strong sense of a shared aesthetic. The campaign should last approximately two months, depending on the arcs we create and pursue.

Also, I feel good running a “standard” PbtA game again, especially one that hews a bit closer to the principles of that genre.

Next time, I plan to have them follow up on that Sunset Prayer Group pamphlet with imagery of the Four Horses of the Apocalypse. But of course how this ties in with the Order of Fallen Night and the interpersonal drama between the hunters remains an open question!

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