Sleepless Nights, Session Five: Speak of the Devil

I’ve fallen badly behind on these session reports: I just ran the seventh session of Sleepless Nights last week. I’ll try to catch up.

Prussia/Poland, summer 1545

A Curse

Kazimierz of Cracow, sailor, printer, humanist, and adventurer, is confused and afraid. For the last couple of years, he’s served as junior mate on a merchant ship (in which he’s invested some of his own money), but he has just deemed it necessary to abandon the ship for good. An older sailor of dubious origins, with whom Kazimierz had taken to discussing their shared interest, the occult, revealed at long last to Kazimierz that he is, in fact, a witch. He proposed that Kazimierz become his apprentice, but the young man lost his temper and threw the witch overboard. Splashing in the water, the witch cursed Kazimierz, saying that as he would not serve a gentle master, let him therefore be a slave to the Devil. Kazimierz knows enough to suspect the curse has real power, and he fears for his soul.

The above happened in the port of Königsberg, where Kazimierz collected his belongings (money, some books of excellent quality, clothes fit for a successful young businessman, and a sword and pistol), left ship, and bought a horse. He had planned to visit his home town of Cracow, and to meet his old friend and mentor, the great renaissance humanist Pan Twardowski; this visit has now acquired greater urgency, as Twardowski is a very learned man in the occult sciences, and just the man to consult. He has arranged for Twardowski’s letters to be received at an inn in Plock, and there reads one, stating that Twardowski is eagerly waiting to see his young friend again, and that he is currently planning a trip to a small (unspecified) town along the river to buy a very rare and interesting book. As a few of Twardowski’s other friends are joining him, it would be more than convenient for Kazimierz to do so as well – and the book is bound to interest him greatly. At night, Kazimierz has nightmares of the witch in the water, surrounded by squirming eels, blaspheming in some horrid, unknown language.

Two Failed Purchases

As suggested, Kazimierz meets Pan Twardowski, astronomer, alchemist, mathematician and magician, at an inn in a small but busy town that serves as a local trading hub for river boats and nearby settlements. He is accompanied by three members of his circle of likeminded intellectuals, to whom he has hinted tantalizingly about the enormously interesting book he is here to buy, from a mysterious seller. The seller has demanded utmost secrecy, and set up a meeting on the docks in the afternoon, which Twardowski has just missed, despite the seller’s specific insistence on finishing the deal before sundown. Twardowski is undaunted, trusting that the seller will be back around the next day: nobody leaves the kind of sum he’s promised to pay on the table because of a little delay.

Their drinking is interrupted by the entrance of a thoroughly uncouth foreigner, a big Slovak peasant from the Tatra mountains. Stanislaw, the PC who recognizes the ethnicity of the stranger, refers to him as “one of those sheepfucker types” in the time-honored tradition of casual prejudice. The man walks up to the party and asks, in rudimentary Polish, to speak with Pan Twardowski. He manages to explain that the matter concerns the sale of a book. Pan, of course, is game, and the Slovak reluctantly guides the whole party along when it becomes clear they will not be left behind. He takes them to a unremarkable but respectable burgher’s house, where Twardowski (alone) is taken to an upstairs study, while the Slovak and another just like him keep a gruff eye on the rest of the party.

In the study, Twardowski meets a small, refined woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a widow’s black gown. She discusses the book with Twardowski, a most singular work of the rarest provenance: the True Picatrix, considered nonexistent by many; a complete edition of the famous Arabic work on astrology and sorcery, infinitely rarer and more valuable than the common Picatrix, from which key passages have been omitted. She is polite and warm at first, but becomes frustrated when it becomes apparent there has been a misunderstanding: she is not, in fact, selling the book, but hoping to buy it from Pan Twardowski. When he explains that he did not succeed in buying the book in question, she mesmerizes him, commanding him to depart, and to get the book if he can.

This is where it became readily apparent that the woman was a vampire, as every player had surely suspected. Now, it bears keeping in mind that of the PCs, only one was present in this scene, and his memory of it was wiped. (The Mesmerism ability includes two linked advantages: Mind Control, and an Affliction with the Amnesia enhancement. See the Vampire template.) So, for the remainder of the session, the players knew what she was, while the characters found out for sure only much later.

Pan Twardowski’s Secret

The party leaves, confused. Pan is already forgetting the encounter and explains that the whole thing was a misunderstanding (true enough). At the inn, Kazimierz talks with two of Pan’s friends, with whom he shares a room, about current events and natural philosophy. He ends up finding out, from both men separately, that Twardowski is rumored to have made a deal with the Devil, selling his soul for arcane knowledge. They do not appear to believe these rumors, but neither do they dismiss them entirely.

Twardowski himself, meanwhile, gets into an argument with the friend he is sharing a room with. This friend, a book dealer, suspects, and comes close to accusing, Pan Twardowski of having purchased the book and hidden it from his companions. Twardowski has not explicitly named the book in question, but he has dropped enough hints for his friend to make the correct guess, and he is anxious to lay eyes on the True Picatrix.

A Second Attempt

The following day is spent in idle pursuits: the party leases guns and a dog and goes duck hunting on the river. In the afternoon, Twardowski and his book dealer friend go to the docks again in the hopes of making the purchase, while the rest of the party visits a local monastery.

My players, a couple of whom I’ve never played with before this campaign, seem to have a penchant for taking detours when the plot hooks are in clear view. I encourage this! We got a nice bit of entertaining character interaction, and I got the opportunity to drop in references that might foreshadow interesting events later in the campaign.  

At the docks, the wait pays off as the seller appears in a boat, hiding from view and refusing to come on dry land. Nevertheless, book and money exchange hands, and the seller rows away with all manner of superstitious mannerisms. Pan and his friend confirm with a quick browse that the volume is indeed the True Picatrix. Their exhileration is cut short, however, when they spot the Slovak idling a little way off, apparently having shadowed them. Pan gets in their hired carriage and speeds off, while the book dealer hides, intending to shadow the Slovak in turn. While following the Slovak, however, he is spotted, and cornered by the bigger man in a quiet alley. He pulls out his dagger to frighten the brute off, but the escalation takes him by surprise as the Slovak pulls out his own knife, and a quick, brutal fight ensues. The book dealer draws first blood, cutting the Slovak, but is outclassed by the professional cutthroat, who carries him away badly wounded and unconscious.

I might write at some point about the house rules I’m using for combat. One of them is an enhancement to All-Out Attacks: Melee AOAs combine both the Determined and Strong options, for +4 to hit and +2 or +1/die to damage. This is intended to make fights shorter and more lethal by encouraging risky tactics. It works, too! The Slovak stabbed for the Vitals (-3) for a total +1 to hit, making his attack roll of 13 with skill 12, and did 1d+1 impaling with ST 11, a Large Knife, and +2 for the maneuver. A good damage roll caused 18 points of injury and the player character missed his unconsciousness roll on the next turn.

Devil Take the Hindmost

Kazimierz and his two companions return from the monastery to find a distraught Twardowski. The fifth man of their party is missing. With Twardowski’s life obviously at risk, they decide to split up: Kazimierz and Twardowski will leave right away for Cracow, a two-day ride if they make haste. The other two will stay and look for their missing friend, and follow as quickly as they can. Twardowski decides they will stay at the first inn they come to after dusk, and the two others, or hopefully three, will join them there. They also decide to keep the hunting guns they leased earlier, wisely.

The two who stayed (let’s call them the Jesuit and the dilettante, which they were) do good detective work and find blood in an alley near the docks. They decide to search the house where the Slovak lead them the previous night.

The players were very, very careful and methodical in their approach to scouting, entering, and searching the house. I did my best to improvise evidence of it having been inhabited by a prosperous family, whose property was still in the house, and more recently by two untidy and crude men who had left in a haste. It was only in the master bedroom that they made a real discovery.

The body of their friend has been laid out on a bed, stabbed repeatedly in the chest. There is, however, little blood around, suggesting that the body was moved here after the murder. The two horrified men set out for Cracow.

A couple of hours later, further on down the road, Twardowski and Kazimiers come to a rustic inn, from which merry music and warm firelight spill into the dark countryside. Inside, there is some local celebration, in which guests at the inn have joined heartily. The walls are covered in homely bric-a-brac and soot from the open fireplace, obscuring even the placard displaying the name and owner of the inn. Finding a spot in the corner, they order food and drink and crack open the True Picatrix. The owner brings them a catfish on a bed of eels, which the two men leave to cool, preoccupied as they are with the forbidden book.

They leaf through the pages, their hunger for its secrets growing with each small taste. It takes them a while to notice the music and voices have died down. Everyone else in the inn, two dozen people maybe, have fallen asleep, seated on benches or leaning against walls. Twardowski and Kazimierz have barely found the words to remark on this, when the catfish on the plate vomits out more eels. At first, only a couple of coils droop from its mouth, easy enough to dismiss as a natural movement of slippery fish as they cool, but then more and more comes spilling out. The catfish rises, vomiting more and more, on a pile of eels that soon grows too large for the plate, almost too large for the table, a waist-high cone of dead, snakelike fish.

Both players made their Fright Checks, but elected to keep staring. And why not? I kept going with the narration.

The cone trembles and a slit opens in it. Two red, slender hands emerge from the slit, and the whole cone folds back into a cloak of eels, as the figure inside stands up: a beautiful, naked boy of perhaps fifteen, his skin bright red, wearing a garment of eels and a catfish in apparent mockery of a cardinal’s cape and mitre. His penis is a twitching whip and he wears a jocular smile.

Time for another Fright Check! They both make it, again, and decide against hasty action, again.

“Who are you?” asks Pan Twardowski with all the cool he can muster. The boy laughs kindly and responds that he is Satan, of course. “Have you come for me?” Kazimierz asks, to which Satan replies, touching his shoulder tenderly: “You’re not one of mine, not yet. I’ve come to collect the soul of my dear old friend, Pan Twardowski.”

Yes, as is obvious now, the rumors about Twardowski’s deal with the Devil are true! Preparing for the session, I laid out the requirements for the one-shot characters: they should be members of a circle of occult-oriented renaissance humanists in Cracow, centered around the figure of astronomer Pan Twardowski; if one of the players would like to play Twardowski himself, I told them, that would be great. When one of the players came forward, I asked him privately if he would like to be in league with the Devil, and, as I expected, he assented wholeheartedly. I even gave him a satanic version of Divine Favor, but he didn’t end up using it at all. I told two of the other players about the rumor, one-on-one with each, and hashed out connections between the rumor and the characters’ private motivations together with the players in question. These were the Jesuit and the dilettante: the former wanted to save Twardowski’s soul, while the latter wanted the secret of eternal life, even if he could only get it from the Devil. I don’t always go for private stuff: just as often, I’ll keep the characters’ secrets in sight of the players unless they specifically request I don’t. But I was planning a little trick here.

Twardowski reminds Satan of the terms of their contract: his soul is, indeed, to be Satan’s, but it may only be collected after Twardowski has visited Rome. (Far from having made preparations for a pilgrimage, his secret plan was, of course, to never go to Rome in the first place.) Satan laughs again, and makes a little sweeping gesture in the direction of the placard by the door. The soot clears, and the inn’s name is revealed: Rome. “Ah,” says Twardowski with dignified disappointment. Satan apologizes to Kazimierz that they must leave in such a hurry, and says that he awaits their next encounter anxiously. “That’s a fine read, I’ll leave you to enjoy it in peace,” he quips before disappearing, with Twardowski, in a puff of noxious smoke.

The Bite

What seems like only seconds later, although it must have been much longer, the Jesuit and the dilettante burst in through the door, taking in the scene: A crowd in unnatural sleep, and Kazimierz, alone, at a table with the True Picatrix. Kazimierz tells them calmly that the Devil took Twardowski. They are in the process of pleas for a reasonable explanation for the absence of their friend, and for the sleeping revelers, developing into an argument, when the Slovaks enter. There’s a standoff with swords and guns drawn, and when one of the Slovaks makes a grab for the book, and is driven back at swordpoint, the other fires a shot and misses. That’s when the vampire appears, emerging from shadows: a fanged skeleton in widow’s dress, floating a foot or two above the floor.

More Fright Checks! I don’t remember the penalty I assigned here (I might want to look at the guidelines in Gurps Horror again at some point), but everyone made their rolls again. Tough guys.

The vampire implores the humans to stay calm, and says she just wants the book. She asks what has happened at the inn, gesturing at the sleepers. Kazimierz repeats his curt explanation that the Devil came and took Pan Twardowski, and the monster is taken aback. “He was here?” she asks, and repeats her demand for the book with greater urgency. Kazimierz refuses, and a chaotic fight follows. The monster and its minions focus on getting the book at the expense of finishing their enemies, which amounts to their undoing. One of the Slovaks dies by the dilettante’s rapier, and the other is killed as he tries to rescue the book from the fireplace, where it’s been thrown by the Jesuit: he’s shoved in too, and kicked and stabbed unconscious as he tries to get out. The vampire is badly wounded, first with a gunshot and then with a rapier thrust, and grabs Kazimierz, sinking its teeth in. As it feeds, it gets stabbed again, and finally decides to fly off, escaping through a window and taking Kazimierz along. His two companions stare out, helpless, as the monster receds into the distance. It drains Kazimierz while airborne, and drops him into the river, whose dark water and muddy bottom conceal him from the sun.

Back at the inn, the sleepers begin gradually to wake, responding with varying degrees of confusion, shock and terror to the two dead bodies and other signs of violence. The dilettante gets the book from the fireplace; the body of the Slovak has smothered the flames, and it’s not badly burned. The Jesuit begs him to leave it be, but he won’t be persuaded: the secrets he desires are surely contained in this volume. He leaves with it, while the Jesuit stays, praying helplessly.

Like twice previously (but unlike with the Grand Master), we left off between the bite and the return from the dead. Afterwards, the player suggested that Kazimierz tracked down the dilettante and the True Picatrix, and immersed himself into the secrets of the book.

Only one of the players in this session also played in Dracula’s intro (I really must write about the big-cast aspect of this campaign at some point), but it’s safe enough to confirm that the skeletal lady vampire who bit Kazimierz was also the one who carried off Dracula. These two player characters haven’t met each other yet, but when they do, they might compare backgrounds and come to this conclusion. The big reveal about the campaign background, here, was something else, of course: the Devil is real. He makes deals for souls, and appears in different, obscene guises (note that Twardowski didn’t recognize him immediately, suggesting he had not seen this form before). Nothing more is known at this point. Dracula in the novel, of course, has Slovak minions, which is why I decided on that nationality for the two blood slaves in this session. Time will tell whether our Dracula develops a similar taste in servants!

Even aside from the satisfaction of having introduced the Devil in a way I was really quite happy about, at the end of the session, I had the distinct satisfaction of having pulled off a nice little stunt. As the reader has noted, Pan Twardowski was more in the lead than the nominal main character, Kazimierz, in this session, and his story had a neat little ending, like a folk tale about the Devil might. That’s because Pan Twardowski is a character from Polish folklore, and his story does go like that. I hadn’t told the players about this beforehand, and none of them happened to think of Googling the name. I don’t know how knowing about this angle affected their thoughts about the game in retrospect, but it was certainly fun for me. I happen to know the story from a beautiful picture book I liked as a kid. You can read it online in English translation, unfortunately with the two-page spreads scanned as separate pages: Krystyna Turska: The Magician of Cracow.


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