Session Diary: Itras By – The Montavarde Camera

I kind of hinted to the English-speaking „Itras By“ community on the Web that I might translate my diary for the „Itras By“ session which we played at the Tanelorn summer meeting at some point. This is that point. So if you have read the German version, you already know the below text.

Ever since I discovered the Norwegian indie RPG „Itras By“ a few years back, after which several people on the Tanelorn forum expressed an interest in the game and wanted to try it out, I have run a session each at the Tanelorn meetings.

At earlier meetings, we had great fun with „Number 13“, a pregenerated scenario which is ideally suited as an introductory adventure and one-shot because it has lovingly interlinked characters, is based on a truly quirky idea and because you learn a whole lot about the setting, its backstory and the mood and feel of an Itras By game. However, simply because it is so perfectly suited, I had run it a few times at previous Tanelorn meetings, so this time something new and fresh was definitely in order.

When preparing the session, my players had decided they wanted to link up their characters by means of an artists‘ café – pardon me, a salon, of course – in the city’s artists‘ district, so that all of them would have something to do with art, one way or the other. There was the eccentric artist Chantal Lamour, not a day older than 23 (32 in truth). Edward Gregory Nicolas Duncan the second Ninth, son of Edward Duncan the first Ninth and Earl of Willowby, who had come to the city from his manor in the countryside to see something new and to enjoy the smart city life. Sebastian Sinclair, a young musician who earns his living playing the piano at the salon while feeling destined for greater things. The sickly, over-sensitive merchant’s son Frederik-Johan Bendiksen, who comes to the artists‘ café in search of diversion. And the young city ape Karl Johansen, in a triple-breasted suit and wearing a bowler hat, who displays a love of art, among other things, to prove to everyone just how civilized he is.

I had a rough plot hook which fit the concept of an „artists‘ café“ quite well – „The Montavarde Camera“, a short story by Avram Davidson. The story is about a camera which takes incredibly impressive pictures, but obliterates its subjects – items are destroyed, people die.
Originally I had thought about giving the camera to one of the player characters, but then I figured that it would be better suited to the hands of an NPC.

So we began. Once more, the characters are gathered in their favorite artists‘ salon, and Mlle. Lamour’s player declares that the preview of her latest work of art, an abstract sculpture called „The Tree of Life“, is taking place here tonight – the perfect opportunity for me to have a journalist from the Morning Post’s feuilleton ask for a short interview and to have him take a picture of the sculpture.

And, of course, an even better opportunity for me to have the truly interesting NPC turn up: Mr. Lucius Collins, a photographer of around 50 years, who is also a regular patron of the salon and whom the characters know as fairly talentless and fairly unsuccessful in his chosen vocation. Mr. Collins, who is carrying an old-fashioned camera which the characters have not seen him with before (with a tripod, a black cloth and with its shutter release on a cord, as from the late 19th century) also asks to be allowed to take a picture – he wants to try out his new acquisition with Mlle. Lamour’s creation. In view of Collins‘ lack of talent, the artist is a bit hesitant, but then permits it provided she be shown the photograph before it is made public in any way.

Earl Duncan the second Ninth notices the particular high quality of the camera’s materials and craftsmanship, so he asks a few questions about it. It is the famous „Montavarde Camera“, explains the photographer, which he acquired by chance. Familiar with the world of art as he is, the nobleman knows that Giovanni Montavarde was a photographer at the end of the last century, whose pictures, taken with the camera he built himself, set new standards because of their particular depth and liveliness, but who then went into exile in the Fringe Zones because he had become frustrated… or went mad, nobody quite knows.

The perspective is best up on the gallery, declares one of the players, so the old-fashioned camera is positioned up there. This is the moment when Bendiksen’s player requests the session’s first chance card (and that somehow became a defining element of the afternoon – almost every time a picture was taken with Montavarde’s camera, someone drew a chance card), and – like all other chance cards which followed – it could not have been more perfectly suited had we selected it by hand.

„Your character has the overwhelming urge to do something he or she will regret“, says the card, so the young man bumps into the photographer so vehemently that the camera is thrown over the balustrade.

Why, that is perfect for my purposes! Of course the photo is taken while the camera is falling, and of course the camera crashes into the sculpture so unluckily that the work of art is entirely smashed. Mlle. Lamour is so heartbroken about the loss of her masterpiece that she swoons, while Mister Collins is happy that his camera has survived the fall entirely intact. There is a short altercation between the photographer and the merchant’s son because of the incident, but the others intervene before the argument can turn violent, and Collins makes an exit. After all, the photograph he has just taken needs to be developed.

The next day, there is a short, witty column about the opening and the accident in the Morning Post’s feuilleton. Earl Duncan is particularly miffed that his name has not been mentioned, despite the fact that he has spelled it out to the journalist in full detail. Furthermore, the muckraker („Jørn Berger“ is the name printed below the column) has „completely misrepresented the incident, the miscreant!“ And the Earl has been mentioned in the same sentence as a city ape, which is an absolute insult!

So the entire group proceeds to the newspaper by hackney coach, where, after a short interlude with the paternoster lift installed in the building, the characters confront Jørn Berger the journalist. The writer, however, refuses to admit that he has to reproach himself for anything („I have no idea what you are so upset about? You are mentioned in the article, after all! And the young man has thrown down the camera. And no, I am not poking fun at you. It’s a satiric commentary. It pokes fun at everything and everyone!“), so the characters beat a grumpy retreat.

But perhaps the photograph has been developed by now, and Mister Collins had promised Chantal that she could see the picture before it was made public, after all. The photographer has his studio in a small, run-down backyard on the southern, unglamorous end of Church Hill. When the group arrives and asks about the photograph, he excitedly shows them the result of the fall – a perfect picture, fascinating because of the unusual perspective, with uncommon depth and almost shining in its intensity.

Chantal interprets the promise to be shown the picture as permission to keep it and pockets the print. After all, Mr Collins still has the original photographic plate.

The earl is still fascinated by the fine quality of the camera and suggests that a picture be taken of the entire group. So everyone poses in the courtyard, and when Mr Collins activates the shutter release, Johansen’s player draws the next chance card.

„You switch roles with the gamemaster for the rest of the scene“, says the card, so Johansen’s player describes how Collins pauses, startled, just before pressing the trigger and examines the camera. „The lens has gone all dim!“ he exclaims. „I cannot take pictures like this!“

So after some hemming and hawing and some wondering why and how this could have happened so suddenly, Mister Collins begins to repair his camera, while the group decides to visit Mr Berger, the journalist, once more. And because this concludes the scene, the role of gamemaster falls back to me.

And that is the point when I ask for a five-minute break because I really have to think about how to deal with the fact created by Johansen’s player. For I had determined some characteristics for the camera beforehand – „takes preternaturally gorgeous pictures, destroys things (I did not want to use the ‚kills people‘ element as rigidly as it was used in the story, but perhaps people might run into bad luck or something, whatever would fit) and is pretty much indestructible“ – and it goes without saying that I did not want to cast these characteristics overboard. On the other hand, I did not want to shoot down the player’s idea, either, of course.

So how to bring the two concepts together…? Tricky, tricky. But, wait… I had already had the idea that the camera might be possessed by Montavarde’s soul. So if the lens had dimmed now, all of a sudden, Montavarde must have experienced something back when he was alive which caused the camera to react like this now. All right, then… So… Johansen was the only non-human in the group, so he was the logical element. So Montavarde must have had some dramatic experience with a city ape. Hence the camera’s reaction to Johansen. Righty-ho, all set to continue.

Back at the newspaper, the earl triumphantly presents the journalist with the photograph. Berger, absolutely captivated, promises a new and corrected article for the next day.

In the meantime, Collins ought to have finished repairing the camera, so the group returns to his studio. The photographer tells the characters of his surprise when he realized that they had hardly left when the camera’s lens had cleared up again, without his having to lift a finger.

Right, then, next try. Again the group takes up position in the courtyard, and again the lens clouds over. Since this cannot be happening by accident, now, somebody suggests that the photographer should take a picture which does not show any person. The columbines by the wall, perhaps?
No sooner said than done – Collins is able to take the picture of the flowers without the lens fogging up. (No, wait, that is not quite right. The picture of the flowers had been taken some time beforehand, I just cannot remember when exactly that was. This was the point when someone suggested that the group members be „tested“, without the interim step of photographing the flowers).

Before the photographer can check the PCs individually – he is not to take pictures, as the group explicitly states, only look through the view finder and see whether the lens goes dim – someone else draws their chance card. „The remainder of the scene is played as a silent film“, is the card’s instruction.

And so one character after another steps in front of the camera (including a triumphant „It’s not me!“ sign held up by the earl) without any effect on the lens, until Karl Johansen is the one who makes the lens fog up. This development, in turn, causes the city ape to forget all his carefully learned civilization. With a loud cry (i.e. a sign saying „UAAAAAAAAGH!!!“) he pounces on the photographer, beats him up and finally pounds the camera on Collins’s head with expansive gestures before stomping off with a grumble. (The „MON DIEU!“ sign held up by Chantal’s player at this point was particularly pretty, by the way – it had a frame around it and truly looked like the signs everyone knows from silent movies.)

When Mister Collins has recovered a bit (we declared the scene to be over with the ape’s departure, so that everybody was able to speak normally again), his first worry is not for himself but for his camera, which has not suffered as much as a scratch despite the violent treatment it was subjected to. This fact does not go unnoticed, of course, so the characters ask a few questions about where and under which circumstances Collins has aquired the camera. The photographer tells the group about a little shop in a small alleyway near the Bridge of Tears.

Afterwards he shows the group the picture he took the other day, the one of the flowers growing by the backyard wall. This photograph, too, is beautiful and particularly luminous and vivid, a true masterpiece, so Chantal decides that she definitely wants a likeness of herself taken with the Montavarde camera. However, she currently is still wearing mourning black because of her lost sculpture, so she would have to go change first, and the photographer perhaps ought to see a doctor first, as well.
Therefore, an appointment is made for the next day. („First thing early tomorrow“, declares Chantal. „Shall we say three p.m.?“)

First, however, the group pays a visit to the shop where Mr. Collins has bought the camera. There was some doubt in the group as to whether they would be able to find the shop – or the alley it is situated in – in the first place (given the fact that there is a street in the city which only exists on Fridays, this is not so absurd an idea), but both the lane and the shop are obligingly present in the described place.

Only the shop itself is a little strange – even though carefully lit display cases, shelves and pedestals are placed on the premises in such a way as if the most valuable of objects were on display there, no merchandise is visible at all.

The characters make a few inquiries about the Montavarde camera of the owner, a certain Mister Asell, and learn that he has sold it a few times in the past, but that the camera always returned to him before its most recent sale to Mister Collins. All previous buyers were involved in different unlucky incidents and accidents since the camera had passed to Mr. Asell from Montavarde’s widow – or ex-wife, or whatever it is called when someone vanishes in exile, says Asell.

When the group points out the lack of visible merchandise, Asell answers that if he were to put any objects on display, he would only limit his prospective customers in their expectations. So what did he have to offer, asks Chantal. What did she seek, retorts the merchant. „Surprise me!,“ says the artist, so Mister Asell withdraws to a back room and returns a with a fine golden powder box a short time later. Chantal does not even have to hint very much before Earl Duncan makes her a present of the powder box.

Sebastian Sinclair, the musician, enquires about a grand piano and is told that of course Mr. Asell has such an instument for sale, but what about the young man’s ability to meet financial obligations? Sebastian hems and haws a bit, then asks how Mister Collins did it. After all, the photographer was not the type to be able to afford an expensive object like the Montavarde camera, he says. The agreement with Collins was for installments, replies Asell. He had paid the first one without fail, at least, and it would remain to be seen how he honoured his future obligations.

The earl is interested in what the installments were. However, this is a piece of information which the merchant is not willing to share. It was a matter between himself and his client, he says, and nobody else’s business.
This statement draws Earl Duncan’s suspicions, though. Is this not as good as the acknowledgement that the agreed-on installments are not for money but for something else? The idea that this ’something else‘ might be the buyer’s soul springs to Duncan’s mind immediately, so he decides to grill Mister Collins a bit more closely about the subject when they meet again the next day.

The next morning, however, his first concern is the Morning Post. Mr. Berger the journalist has indeed been true to his word – a three-column piece is printed below the photograph of the sculpture. Collins is mentioned as the photographer, as is Chantal as the sculptor and Bendiksen as the cause of the accident – and the other characters‘ names are also mentioned as promised.

This is why everybody is extremely pleased when the group meets again at Mr. Collins’s studio, Mlle. Lamour now wearing photographable clothing, of course. Unlike the previous visits, Mr Collins has a few customers this time around – it seems that they saw the picture in the paper this morning and wish to purchase a framed print of it. While the characters wait outside, they notice that the brick wall looks definitely more crumbly than yesterday in the place where the columbine photograph was taken yesterday.

When the customers have left, Earl Duncan straight out asks the photographer about what he is paying for the camera and that he cannot really imagine that Collins has the financial wherewithal to be able to afford it. The photographer beats about the bush for a long time but finally and very reluctantly fesses up. Yes… he… he had to… to do things… for Mister Asell. With… with young… ladies… and with young gentlemen… while… well…
The earl is shocked. „Fornication?!“ My good man, you are prostituting yourself! For a camera!“
Collins nods, abashed. „True, but… but… the camera!!“

That is the moment when the earl’s player draws his chance card. „You wake from a dream“, orders the card. „Has the previous scene really happened?“
And of course the player immediately knows how to interpret this result. Back in the morning, in his town villa, Earl Duncan jerks awake with a start.
„Fornication?!“

Cut back to the afternoon, to Collins’s workshop, where the earl has just successfully exerted pressure on the photographer. „So talk, man, what are you paying Mister Asell with?“
„Why, money of course!,“ is the photographer’s indignant retort this time. „What did you think?! I have been living on dry bread and water to save up for the next installment…“

Now is the time for Collins to take the agreed photograph of Mlle. Chantal. But by now the group has become slightly suspicious of the crumbly wall, so the men warn their friend perhaps not to have the picture taken before they know a bit more about the camera’s properties… or powers? Before anyone can react, Johansen the ape quickly grabs the camera, which has already been set up in the courtyard, turns it around and takes a picture of Mr. Collins. Johansen’s player had already used up his chance card, but this definitely was a moment for an action card. Says the card: „The character succeeds, but the consequences of the success are completely different from what was expected.“

I don’t really remember who was allowed to interpret the action card for Johansen’s player, but whoever it was decides that Collins will grow younger from the picture.

This is not a sudden effect, but a gradual one, I add, so the photographer does not look young at once, but already his skin is a bit tighter, his walk a bit more upright, his hair a little fuller. All the more reason for Chantal to have her picture taken immediately, in her best dress and powdered from the new powder box. At her insistence, the photographer promises to develop her picture first before turning to his own one.

In the evening, in the artists‘ salon, when Chantal goes powder her nose, she gets stuck on a protuberant nail, which causes the skirt of her new, expensive dress to unravel in a long thread.
A little later, Mister Collins comes to the salon to show Chantal her picture. However, despite what she had hoped, Mlle. Lamour does not seem young and radiant in the photograph, but looks her true age instead. (This also was the result of a card drawn when the picture was taken, but I can’t really remember what that card was).

In between, we had another chance card, by the way: „Meanwhile… The scene is cut, and you may establish a new scene somewhere else.“ We interpret the card in such a way that Jørn Berger, the journalist, becomes curious, starts researching Giovanni Montavarde and finds out a few things about the man. Most important of the things he finds out is an interesting photograph in which the man looks much older than he should have given the date when the picture was taken.

The next day, the group decides that the camera had best be destroyed. Granted, it has proven fairly indestructible on a few occasions before, but Johansen has the brilliant idea of causing it to destroy itself. „Why, you’re a genius!,“ enthuses the earl. „No, you’re a genianzee!“
Buying four mirrors is not a problem at all. The group then devises the plan to ask Mister Collins for another photo to have him bring the camera into his courtyard, after which they intend to overpower or distract him while surrounding the camera with the mirrors and pressing the shutter release.

This plan is impeded a bit by the fact that the studio is manned by a young fellow in his mid-twenties, whom the characters assume to be Mr. Collins’s son at first before they realize it is actually the photographer himself, miraculously rejuvenated. But apart from that, the scheme succeeds, and spectacularly so, thanks to the „Yes and“ action card. The flashlight seems to flicker back and forth interminably between the mirrors, while the camera ages visibly and then collapses while Montavarde’s soul escapes wailing and scolding („You FOOLS! I could have lived FOREVER! What are you DOING?! Of course, a damned aaaaaaaaaaaape!“).

And that was the end of the adventure. I can’t actually remember whether we said anything about that last picture, whether we defined it would show anything, and if so, what. But no matter. One player called the session „a grand cinematic experience“, and I can only wholeheartedly agree.

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Eingeordnet unter English Language Entries, Itras By - English, Pen & Paper, Tanelorn-Treffen

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  1. Pingback: Tanelorn Sommertreffen 2014: Itras By | Timber's Diaries

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