The M-Files: Session 4 Recap

This session, we ran my first “original mystery” for Monster of the Week. So, no possible spoilers for anything else! I really enjoyed this one, largely because I brought in lore from another game / mythos I enjoy as well as local areas here in my hometown.

Opening preparation

Taking a look at the characters as usual, with a bit more detail this time:

  • Alice Everly (The Chosen): Her fate, shown through visions is to save the world, but at the cost of her life – and she won’t be able to save everyone. Somehow this was originally going to be Ophelia, but it turned out… not. The prophecies aren’t clear why.
  • Ophelia Graves: (The Spooky): Should have been The Chosen, but one night she called out to the universe and something answered her with dark powers. Occasionally, these powers lead to depression and rage.
  • Miranda “Andi” Caruso (The Spell-slinger): An Italian student living in Texas from a mysterious family that itself has a history with monsters. Fun fact: her family spellbook is also a cookbook!
  • Cordelia Miranova: (The Initiate): Commander of the Dallas chapter of the Order of Fallen Night, a tradition-bound sect dedicated to pushing back the darkness and, secretly, preparing for a larger fight against powerful eldritch forces.

We fast-forward a few days after their return from Tyler, where they defeated a necromancer at some cost to themselves. Because of concerns about law enforcement, they repaint their van silver and report the plates stolen. Ophelia and Cordelia (the “Domestigoths”) already have magical wards on their apartment, but they add another layer to make it difficult to find unless the person is permitted entry: friends, delivery drivers (albeit only temporarily), and so forth. Alice and Andi relax in their apartment on campus, with Alice skipping classes to watch Netflix with her friend.

Time for opening moves! As has become custom, Cordelia’s sect will ask her to do something “bad”. (Due to agreed-upon constraints before the campaign, this is not going to lead to “betrayal by an ally”, but that doesn’t mean allies always make wise choices.) Alice and Ophelia have the same nightmare: Andi, Cord, and Alice are consumed by separate mouths on the same thing, while Ophelia can only watch helplessly while in the grip of that thing.

Cordelia needs to return to her local sect to bring back the dagger she had been asked to retrieve from the necromancer, which had runes matching those on the Hand of Glory. Phoebe (her superior and predecessor) explains that she will take these items back to the council member she now assists, known by the moniker The First Augur. This completes a section of The Augur’s artifact, although she asks Cord to keep that quiet for now. (Later, Cordelia’s player asked me why her sect didn’t ask her to do anything bad, and I replied that in fact they had…)

Brunch discussion

As per usual, the group gets together for brunch at some local diner where they have become such regulars that they have their own table in back. Alice and Ophelia discuss the weird vibes and they explicate the dream a bit more. The parallels to some things Ophelia has seen and experienced get to Cordelia, who starts downing the mimosas faster than expected. Once they pull out their dream journals and start comparing things, Andi goes ahead and orders an entire pitcher of mimosas. Ophelia notes that the tentacles restraining her look a lot like the writhing worm-things her arm transforms into when she fully manifests her power.

This looks familiar to Andi, who recalls from her own dark past that she’d run across cultists performing sacrifices to their Mother via this monster in forgotten forest circles. She knows that they can find more information on their black magic in Flameshadow, a rare grimoire written in red wax upon vellum. ((As usual, I relied heavily on a random generator at donjon.bin.sh because procedural generation is such a great tool!))

Ophelia actually might know something about how to track this book down. A local occult book dealer named Albert Escudero runs his business from the back room of a used bookstore on the opposite side of town, where she often goes looking for newly acquired tomes or help tracking down a particular one.

Book hunters

Albert is a portly man with graying slicked-back hair and a fine thick moustache. When asked about where to find it, he gets coy because he would like proof that they’ll still do business with him. They give him a tip on where to find an original copy of the Christian Book of the Dead (the destroyed funeral home in Tyler), which excites him greatly.

An open book floats in the air under a circular arch made of books, with a book store as backdrop.
Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

He tells them that he has a colleague named Paige Grove who lives in an older, well-kept working class neighborhood (although her home is a bit unconventional). He also warns the group to take care with any deals they might make with her. Since they’re already here, the group also purchases a few more books. Andi purchases The Prophecies of Malgo, a libram written upon parchment. It was written by Lord Samuel Williams, an accomplished scholar who disappeared mysteriously in the early 18th century. Alice buys more sketchbooks, and Ophelia splurges on The Enchiridion of Flesh, a compendium etched in glass contained in a carved wooden box.

As they drive through the tree-lined streets of northern Oak Cliff, they immediately spot the house even before checking the address. Only one home has a chain-link fence around the front yard, and that encapsulates oddities like a large crystal embedded in the ground, a squirrel on a spike, and five stones arranged carefully around a larger stone. The front door has an alchemical circle painted on it. They hear several voices inside as they walk up the steps, but they are greeted by a slight young woman who looks like she could be all of fifteen years old (but she has geometric tattoos on her face, neck, and arms, so she must be an adult.)

Inside, the sitting room has blackout curtains, red shag carpeting, shadow boxes with various valuable antique tchotchkes, side tables with flowers, and a mildly-extravagant chandelier. They get to business quickly, and Ophelia asks about Flameshadow. Paige explains she’ll need payment for her services, and her eyes go black. She tells them that she can see what they are, that they all know of the secret magical world hidden to everyone else, and that they clearly represent a reservoir of potential: luck. She wants to tap into their reservoir. Paige and Cordelia join hands momentarily, and Paige shivers as she pulls just a bit of Cordelia’s future energy into her. ((Cord’s player marked off one point of Luck on her playbook as payment for this.))

While the “book dealer” goes in back to search through her shelves and cabinets, the group quietly discusses just who (or what) this is. They’d heard voices from outside, but apparently only one person is in this home. Also, the flowers look like they are all from different seasons. They could just be greenhouse-grown, of course, but on a hunch Cordelia uses that old black magic to “vibe check” the flowers. Unfortunately, this leads to arcane feedback and the chandelier’s light bulbs explode, scattering shards of glass all over the floor.

Just at this time, Paige walks back in with Flameshadow and pretends not to notice the broken glass. The group leafs through the book and finds a banishing ritual that should work against the monster they’ve seen, as well as a few notes about the cults that worship this kind of abomination. While they vary somewhat in details, all of them tend to wear robes and offer sacrifices in a forest where it manifests. They use the document cameras on their smartphones to capture the information they need. The resemblance to what Ophelia has previously seen and dealt with is almost too much for her, and she starts asking herself, “am I a cult?” Paige looks at her with a smile that immediately changes to a stone-cold stare: “do you want to be.” The group decides to hurry out, and the glass disappears from the carpet as Paige waves a hand.

The hunt is on

Rather than go back home and consider what they’ve learned, the hunters pull into a nearby park a few blocks away. Ophelia finds a wrecking bar in the back of the van and starts tracing a magical circle in the ground, while Alice carefully lines the circle with salt. As Ophelia calls upon her powers to see into the mind of a monster, she learns that there is one nearby, here in the Dallas area, in some kind of forest. She could attract its attention by giving someone – anyone – to it, and her own dark bargain tickles in the back of her mind that she would please her patron by doing so. Alice remembers that the only real remaining virgin forest in Dallas is the Spring Creek Forest Preserve on the far northeastern side of the county, and trusts her gut that they should head there. Cordelia looks at what the future holds as she examines her oracle cards from the Order. She pulls The Tree, The Serpent, and The Ring.

A large clearing in the midst of a forest
Spring Creek Forest Preserve by bentleywg (CC-BY-NC-SA)

Arriving at the Forest Preserve, they find a suitably secluded location. While Ophelia draws a summoning circle, Andi surrounds it with the banishment circle she’s learned from Flameshadow. This ritual calls for candles spaced evenly on the circle, which itself must be traced out with flammable liquid (such as gasoline, butane, etc.). They summon the monster, and as they do so they hear a crashing sound some distance away in the forest. A dead tree appears in the circle – but it begins to move. This is no tree; it is some horrifying imitation of one, with tentacles instead of branches, gaping mouths all over its body, and three thick, stumpy hooved feet.

The Dark Young watches and flails under a full moon.
“Dark Young” by dloliver

The Dark Young immediately attacks the summoner, Ophelia, but in a flash Cordelia reacts as her previous oracle cards coalesce in her mind and she protects her partner. The monster then stampedes towards Andi, who is carrying out the banishment ritual that requires some chanting. Alice and Cordelia both step in to protect Andi, and are rewarded in turn with being hoisted in the air by the Dark Young who intends to consume them. As it loses the relevant tentacles, a group of cultists finally reach them from their own nearby ritual location, where they had intended to sacrifice their own bound captive. Ophelia tries to bluff, telling them that she is also one of their number, but the leader draws a handgun as she’s not entirely convinced. The Dark Young then grabs the captive as the banishment completes – and they both disappear.

In rage and frustration, the cultist leader fires at Ophelia, who manages to stay standing. The group finishes the cultist off, with the spell-slinger draining her life and pumping it into Ophelia to save hers. We end with the group rushing to the Order’s local headquarters for medical attention, as they fear that local hospitals would report a gunshot wound to the police. But Ophelia represents exactly what the Order fights against – and now they know that Cordelia is in league with her.

Wrap-up

So much for the group to love about this session! The trip to the bookstore had lots of interpersonal roleplay among everyone, and many were delighted with Paige Grove (whom they conclude is a fey in modern times). The visions had considerable detail, and seeing the power of the Dark Young and possibly their Mother took the campaign in a new direction. The combat scene really displayed the strengths of PbtA games, which don’t have initiative but instead rely on the group to create a tense, collaborative situation.

We’ll continue to emphasize their interactions before really digging into the mystery, as well as the lore and actions of the Order of Fallen Night. Who is the First Augur, and what are they collecting? How will they react to Ophelia, and what is the connection to the Dark Young? What does it mean that Andi has previously interacted with their cults?

The campaign has reached the approximate halfway point, and the threads have started to come together as we’re jointly writing a cohesive story. The entire group, collectively and individually, continues to surprise and delight me!

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