Monday, December 19, 2022

Season 17: Episodes 3-4 (plus some copious design notes...)

Episode 3: The Dark Interpreter

Edinburgh, 1845. A blood-drinking killer is stalking the streets of the Old Town. The aging Thomas de Quincey, visionary writer and opium addict, has seen him in his dark reveries… Enter Lady Penelope, who wants to ask him everything he knows about the enigmatic Three Mothers. Can she help him stop the Nocturnal Stalker before he (or it?) strikes again?

Episode 4: Black Tulip

Amsterdam, 1669, the end of the Dutch Golden Age. Thirty years after the great Tulip Mania crisis, a unique, impossible flower is threatening to spread a deeper, darker brand of madness on the City of Canals… Will Penelope and her friends manage to uncover the truth behind the mystery of the Black Tulip before it is too late?  A tale of revenge, obsession and desire…


Design Notes

Together with Episode 17.02 (Roma Mater), these two episodes formed an informal “opium trilogy”, where the aforementioned drug played a discreet but persistent role, as a substance who could allow certain psychically-gifted dreamers to access a region of the collective mindscape tied to the terrors of the interdimensional city of Carcosa

While our heroine has never visited it (but who knows?), Carcosa has been a foreboding and elusive presence in Lady Penelope’s Odyssey since its very first season – in fact, it played an important role in her first true time travel adventure using the TARDIS: City of Chimeras, set in 1925 Paris, where she encountered a fearsome member of the cursed Porphyr race, the self-styled Master of Chimeras…

Let’s start with Carcosa. You all know, of course, where the name comes from… but when I recycled it for my campaign, I did pretty much the same thing as I did with the Lloigor and other ‘reappropriations’ from various fictional sources: I kept some elements, removed what didn’t feel very Whovian and add my own ideas to the mix.

In Lady Penelope’s Odyssey, Carcosa became a sinister interdimensional city populated by a race of psychic vampires known as the Porphyrs; the trans-dimensional nature of the place enabled it to invade (or rather “overlap”?) any other big city where decadence, apocalyptic angst or fin de siècle melancholy had become high enough to attune it to the psychic frequencies of Carcosa, opening a gate between the two cities and allowing the Porphyrs to feast upon the terror, sorrow and despair of a whole metropolis…

Along with the Lloigor, the Porphyrs were to become one of Penelope’s recurring arch-enemies – at least until season 11 (see below for more details), in which they seemed to have been utterly defeated. I’ve already written about the Porphyrs elsewhere on this blog – but here is a short summary / reminder of what they are, along with some notes on their connection to Carcosa, their history within Lady Penelope’s Odyssey and a few new facts thrown in for good measure. 

(Incidentally, the Porphyrs look like Pau’ans from the Star Wars universe and whose name actually come from an old White Dwarf article on Runequest Demons, later reincarnated as a Dragon Warriors supplement – yes, I’m a merciless cannibalizer…)

Luckily for everyone, the Time Lords put an end to Carcosa’s interdimensional invasions by banishing the city (and all its inhabitants!) in an impregnable prison dimension known as Sheol – an event which occurred a long time before the start of Lady Penelope’s adventures.

But the Time War changed all this. While Carcosa was still held captive, cracks began to appear in the dimensional barriers that separated it from the rest of the multiverse, allowing some Porphyrs to pass through these interstices into our reality – usually in a great city which would have made a perfect prey for Carcosa before its imprisonment. Once there, those Porphyr escapees usually tried to increase the local level of existential angst, melancholy or fear. The plan always had the same objectives: by raising collective fear or despair, the Porphyrs sought to attune the local population’s mindscape to the frequencies of Carcosa and force its release by gatecrashing its dimensional prison walls…

This pattern formed the basis of most of Lady Penelope’s encounters with the sinister Porphyrs: the aforementioned Parisian story, as well as the following episodes:  

Phantasmagoria (Season 2, Episode 11) – the very memorable episode where Lady Penelope met Lord Byron, who had fallen prey to the psychic vampires of Carcosa…

Or Not to Be (Season 6, Episode 3) – where the Porphyrs had targeted William Shakespeare himself.

Masque of Winter (Season 8, 7) – in which Penelope once again joined forces with Shakespeare against the lords of Carcosa, this time scoring a major victory against them. With the help of the TARDIS’ psychic circuits, the Time Lady and the Bard managed to create an imaginary entity called Ariel (who else?), a positive, protective psychic construct whose mission was to guard our reality from any renewed incursion attempt by Carcosa.

This should have an end to the Porphyrs’ interventions in Lady Penelope’s world – and it did, to some extent. But of course it was only a matter of time before the Porphyrs tried to find ways to circumvent these renewed psychic barriers and its guardian spirit…

They did so in City of Sighs (season 9, episode 1), in The Banquet of Ashes (season 9, episode 10) and in City of Dreams (season 12, episode 11)… before disappearing from Lady Penelope’s Odyssey for FIVE whole seasons!

It was high time I brought them back… but I didn’t want things to work as if Penelope’s past victories had achieved nothing. I had to re-invent the Porphyrs one way or another – to restore some of their mystery and fear factor, to create new possibilities for stories and to explain how they could once again threaten our reality.

I first decided to put more emphasis on Carcosa itself, its dark secrets and weird history (introducing new cryptic names and other creatures associated with the sinister world – as the “Byakhee from Hastur” which appeared in this season’s Roman episode).

I also decided to change the psychic vampires' modus operandi. Previously, the Porphyrs had always tried to manipulate poets, artists or mass culture (Byron, Shakespeare, silent movies, etc.) as a privileged way to create a psychic bridgehead in the collective psyche of humanity, using art as the main interface or conduit to spread Carcosa’s decaying influence (in keeping with the original Robert W. Chambers’ stories about the King in Yellow). Since this strategy had been (more or less) permanently thwarted by the creation of the Ariel entity, they had to find new (and, so far, more mysterious) ways to exercise their influence on their chosen pawns… And from what Penelope has discovered so far, the consumption of opium seems to act as a “psychic gate opener” between the human mind and the imprisoned mindscape of Carcosa.

Lastly, I decided to place this ‘new era’ of Carcosan activity under the sign of the enigmatic figures of the Three Mothers – three female Porphyrs who apparently act as the matriarchs (or goddesses?) of their vampiric race: the Mother of Tears (Mater Lachrymarum), the Mother of Sighs (Mater Suspiriorum) and the Mother of Darkness (Mater Tenebrarum). 

These names will of course be familiar to readers of Thomas de Quincey (hence his pivotal role in The Dark Interpreter) and to connoisseurs of horror movies, as they form the basis of Dario Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy

Taking a cue from Argento's approach, I unashamedly re-invented De Quincey’s Three Mothers, keeping some elements and dumping others (the idea being that the version of the Three Mothers mentioned in the author’s Suspiria de Profundis are actually poetic re-imaginations of half-remembered, half-repressed opium-induced nightmares).

So far, Penelope has yet to encounter any of the Mothers – but she has felt their gaze upon her and even had a quick psychic brush with Mater Lachrymarum in Black Tulip… a taste, probably, of more serious confrontations to come. The Time Lady has also discovered the raison d’être of the Three Mothers, each of which is directly connected to one of the three negative emotions the Porphyrs feed on: fear (Mother of Darkness), sorrow (Mother of Tears) and despair (Mother of Sighs).

At this point in our season, I think I’ve managed a nice, slow-build crescendo effect foreshadowing what Penelope herself is now viewing as an unavoidable confrontation with the Three Mothers themselves – and she intends to be ready for it!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, as ever, for this wonderful and inspiring write-up. Looking forward to following your further adventures in the New Year.