James Introcaso is an enthusiastic and gifted podcaster and an ENnie-Award-winning blogger who loves tabletop RPGs. (His August 2015 interview with Ken is here.) He recently sent us a terrified final* testament revealing the horrifying truth behind his encounter with the King of Vampires.

introcaso

James Introcaso, pensive

“It’s huge.”

That was my first thought when my good pal, fellow podcaster, and Night’s Black Agents Director Rudy Basso gave our group Dracula Unredacted. We had played through five sessions of NBA already and everyone loved it. Rudy and I knew about The Dracula Dossier and our enthusiasm when describing the product had infected the rest of the group. That enthusiasm turned into a feeling of, “Oh my God, homework!” pretty quickly when we actually saw Dracula Unredacted. Even Rudy, our Director and the dossier’s biggest champ, looked a little worried. “I know it seems like a lot, but I promise this game will be worth the work. Plus you get to read Dracula and that’s a great book!” The session ended and we’d reconvene in two weeks, hopefully with at least one of us having read part of Dracula Unredacted.

After the session, I took a peek at our handout. As I wrapped my mind around the footnotes, added story, and original work in the first chapter, I started making notes about all the leads our group could investigate. It started to become thrilling as I wrote notes like, “Jonathan Harker was a spy,” and “We should visit Bistritz and retrace Harker’s steps.” Even as I read what I knew was the original text of Dracula, I was thinking about what the hidden spy motives of various characters were. The added content and new context had completely changed the entire story! Genius!

dossier_dracula

Count Dracula, peckish

As I wrote some notes late into the night, I started to get creeped out by what I was reading. I had silly, fleeting thoughts like, “If Dracula or EDOM knows I am reading this, they’ll take me out right now.” That’s when it hit me. Reading Dracula Unredacted wasn’t homework at all. It was play. Reading it completely immersed me in the game world.

All that being said, Dracula Unredacted is still huge. I didn’t want my friends to miss out on this part of play either, so we devised a plan to make it simple. First, make a shared document (we used Google Docs, but there’s tons of apps out there you can use). If you’re using the PDF version of Dracula Unredacted, that makes things easier because you can copy and paste. If we found a lead, first we’d write down the page number of the lead, copy and paste the text that interested us beneath the page number, and add a quick note about what we thought was important or any question we had. We also color-coded the copied footnotes as they are in the book. For instance:

Page 13

“Flamingo coming in hit icy downdraft over Carpathians(?), Cpt Spence ordered early jump ahead of storm.” Who is Cpt. Spence? Look into this.

This helped us move through the Dossier quickly, since we could pick up where others had left off.

Of course for for this method to work, everyone needs to know the story of Dracula. Skipping around in Dracula Unredacted can get confusing if you don’t know the source material. Many in our group had never read Dracula and only seen some less-than-faithful film adaptations. Others, like myself, had only read it once long ago. Luckily Dracula (being in the public domain) is a dirt cheap audio book. I got a quality copy for less than $3 through iTunes. [You can also get one with Alan Cumming and Tim Curry on it for $16.95 from Audible on Amazon. –ed.] You can listen to it during your commute, while you fold laundry, while you do the dishes, or while you work out. If you do this, you can skim Dracula Unredacted for added text and footnotes when you’re looking for leads in addition to familiarizing yourself with the story.

The final thing we did was make things easier on our Director. The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook is just as daunting as Dracula Unredacted. We shared our leads document with Rudy. By going through the leads we had gathered and each marking our favorites by simply writing our name in all caps next to them, our Director had an idea of the people, places, and things we wanted to check out first and he could start crafting his part of the story.

Of course, that’s just the beginning — and just one way to play one of the greatest RPG campaigns ever!

 

 * testament may not be final

“He placed me in a comfortable chair, and arranged the phonograph so that I could touch it without getting up, and showed me how to stop it in case I should want to pause. Then he very thoughtfully took a chair, with his back to me, so that I might be as free as possible, and began to read. I put the forked metal to my ears and listened.”

— Mina Harker’s Journal

The Gates of Roscoe Village, 2016 (Not Pictured: Dracula)

The Gates of Roscoe Village, 2014. (Not Pictured: Dracula)

Way back in the palmy days of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter, it was decreed by the archons and by the people (i.e., by Cat) that I should spend every waking minute on every podcast that would have me, talking up The Dracula Dossier and generally being publicitous. One such podcast was the wonderful and widely-enjoyed One Shot podcast, which not coincidentally is based right here in Chicago, much like all the most wonderful and widely-enjoyed podcasts are at least so semi-based.

At any rate, One Shot is one of those Actual Play podcasts that the kids are into these days, and so in October 2014 or thereabouts, genial host James D’Amato turned his GMing microphone over to me to run a session of Night’s Black Agents from a necessarily fictive Dracula Dossier campaign.

Joining me and James at the palatial One Shot studios in the glamorous Roscoe Village neighborhood of Chicago for what we later dubbed Session One (oooh foreshadowing) were Grant Greene a.k.a. “General Ironicus” of the Six Feats Under podcast (which has a 13th Age Actual Play you might also be interested in), super-designer Nathan D. Paoletta of the Design Games podcast (co-hosted with fellow super-designer Will “Eternal Lies” Hindmarch), and Zach Weber who doesn’t have a podcast apparently but give him fifteen minutes. (And give him my apologies, at this late date, for spelling his name wrong in the playtest credits.)

Here’s me explaining the rules for Night’s Black Agents in about ten or fifteen minutes to the assembled group: Night’s Black Agents Rules Expo

And here is Session One in all its terrifying majesty:

Session One Part One: Welcome to Belgrade

Session One Part Two: Never Get On the Boat

Session One Part Three: And Quiet Flows the Danube

Session One Part Four: Fear Death By Water

The game ran long, because we wanted to hit a good climax in the adventure, and because all the players were really bringing it. Then we went and got Thai food and went on with our lives.

Well, the Kickstarter delayed itself a little bit, but eventually launched while the Session One recordings were still running on One Shot, and I heard from quite a few people that hearing me run the game was not just great fun but, even better, impelled them to go ahead and back the Kickstarter. So, mission accomplished!

Until … time flowed on as is its wont and Dracula Dossier got itself five ENnie Award nominations and Cat started to think maybe we could stand to have a little more of that One Shot love during the voting window. Fortunately, James had been swamped* with emails importuning him to bring me back on and run the conclusion of the adventure we left so very climactically suspended.

And so, in June of 2016, we gathered again in the dark heart of Roscoe Village to run Session Two. Zach Weber has the misfortune to not actually live in Chicago, so in place of Zach we brought in Darcy Ross, who may very well have a podcast by the time I hit “Publish” on this post but is part of the Gnome Stew bloggoth and of the ConTessa nobility.

And here is Session Two in all its grim glory:

Session Two Part One: New Friends For Old

Session Two Part Two: Art in the Blood or Vice Versa

Session Two Part Three: White City, Black Castle, Red Death

I think there’s something in here for new and old fans alike of the Dracula Dossier universe, and for fans of my game style, and for fans of any or all of the excellent players in their own personae.

* “Swamped” is not a term with legal or mathematical meanings. Some settling of contents may have occurred during shipping. Stunt driver on closed course. Do not attempt.

 

The Belgrade Betrayal: What It Is And How It Came To Be

The Siege of Belgrade, 1456. (Not Pictured: Dracula)

The Siege of Belgrade, 1456. (Not Pictured: Dracula)

SPOILERS FOLLOW

This section contains spoilers for the podcast adventure above. Don’t read it unless you are cool with knowing things while you enjoy closely related things.

ENTER FREELY AND AT YOUR OWN RISK

I wrote the first version of The Belgrade Betrayal (as I silently named the scenario) to run at Queen City Con in Buffalo in September 2014. I picked Belgrade because I’d already done the research for that city for (S)Entries, the introductory scenario included in the Night’s Black Agents corebook. For a convention scenario intended to not-so-subtly advertise The Dracula Dossier, I knew it needed to include an on-stage role for both Edom and Dracula, so the player Agents could get caught in the cross-fire, so to speak. So I needed a sample Edom-Dracula op (kill an AQIR cell in Belgrade) and something to go wrong: Dracula double-crosses Edom. (Otherwise Edom just sets Dracula on the players and everyone dies.) That leads to a series of questions I asked myself; their answers built the scenario spine:

What should the double-cross look like? Dracula kills the Edom cut-outs, forcing Edom into the foreground.

Why? In this first version, just to be a jerk and to demonstrate that Edom doesn’t really control him.

How does Edom control Dracula in the field then? By providing his Kevlar-sealed and guarded coffin.

So how does Dracula plan to sleep by day in Belgrade? Dracula already has a place in Belgrade he can hide out and sleep by day, one that Edom doesn’t know about.

What place is that then? Belgrade Castle, where a young Vlad Dracula (unbeknownst to history) accompanied Janos Hunyadi’s relieving army during the Siege of Belgrade in 1456. (Of course he’s hiding in the Castle. He’s Dracula.) Vlad turned while inside the castle, so he can always find rest there. Since I knew Hunyadi had died of “plague” right after the siege, that gave me a nice historical death-ball to roll Dracula-as-vampire up in. Dracula kills Hunyadi and lots of other Hungarian soldiers as the blood-thirst comes upon him — which is why Hunyadi’s son, Matthias Corvinus, imprisoned Vlad in 1462. Ta-daa!

I then came up with the improv-style “name a thing you’ll encounter during this adventure” intro to make up for the lack of proper Dracula Dossier-style improvisation and collaboration and hit the dice. The die, rather.

In that first Buffalo run, the players tracked Edom to the safe-house, rumbled the hospital madman and the party boat rendezvous, and then sensibly refused to follow a coffin delivery onto the boat, watching a confusion of blood and mist and weird cold spots in the IR lenses from the shore. They then doubled back to the AQIR cell, watched Dracula massacre a whole building full of people, and tracked him to the zoo (wolves howling, and I think maybe some drone imagery) and thence to the Castle, where they fought through track-suited Novi Svar Renfield thugs (“Trackulas” they called them), and if I remember correctly one of Dracula’s Brides, to Dracula’s resting place and staked him at dawn. Great fun, everyone had a good time, I forget how many player characters died but it was more than zero.

Changing it up for the podcast, I removed the Trackulas (because I knew that would go viral and not in a good way) and settled in. The improv-style answers fed the play somewhat — I never got to the chess-playing fixer, sadly — especially the bank vault. That meant there was a treasure involved. Time for more questions:

Who are Dracula’s minions if not the Novi Svar? Slovakian river pirates, of course.

What’s in the bank vault? A treasure, obviously, one so important to Dracula that he’ll betray Edom for it. (This answer gave Dracula a proper motive, which strengthened the scenario immensely. If I had been writing it for publication, I probably would have come up with it earlier.)

How do I bring it onstage? Dracula has arranged through cut-outs to buy the treasure, so there’s a seller who can show up wherever the Agents are and look sweaty.

What is the treasure? Proof that Dracula was in Belgrade during the Siege, which means a chronicle of some kind.

In Session One, the podcast players really leaned into the adventure, and to my delight boarded the party boat. I inserted the sweaty Hungarian art dealer, Arpad, but the boat fight took long enough that the rest of the scenario was moot. Or so I thought.

In Session Two, I had to tighten up the explanations somewhat, since Darcy decided to play Hound instead of just another combat monster. (Who would have been introduced by a chess-playing fixer in the park, of course.) Thus the meet between her and the Exposition-Dropping Slovak. Minions monologue about the Master, so that worked just fine. I also knew I needed to tie off that meddlesome priest and prevent the players from reloading the Tranq Gun of Christ. Between the meet with Hound, bombing the priest, and undoing the garlic on Josip the Mad Commando, Dracula’s Conspiracy had a full day in Belgrade, and I knew I could drop echoes of their actions to the pro-active players as the game went along.

Before we started Session Two, I had a bit of time to kill while James printed out the character sheets. So, I decided to punch up the chronicle a little bit, since I knew it would have to come onstage now. So I popped onto Wikipedia and looked up Siege of Belgrade (1456) and discovered this tidbit:

“Taken by surprise at this strange turn of events and, as some chroniclers say, seemingly paralyzed by some inexplicable fear, the Ottomans took flight.”

So that gave me a great line to drop into the chronicle, and narrowed down Dracula’s turning to before the final rout of the Ottomans. So he turned during the worst of the siege, while the Ottomans were infiltrating Janissaries into the lines — hey, what if the Turks were infiltrating one of the feral vampires from Tokat Castle, as seen on p. 251 of  The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook? That vampire bites Vlad, he kills it, and becomes a vampire.

Damn, James is really wrestling with those character sheets. Guess I’ll see what else Wikipedia can bring me. Let’s Wiki up the Belgrade Castle:

“Legend says that Attila’s grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress).”

The players heard my gasp all the way across the room.

Now that gave me a climax worthy of One Shot. And it also conveniently explained why, if Dracula is a Wallachian warlord, he asks Harker (in Chapter II): “What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” And but me no buts about Attila not having been killed (or put in a suspended-animation sarcophagus) by Church vampire hunters — Michael A. Babcock’s The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun presents a sound-enough-for-gaming case that the chronicler’s version of Attila’s death was a pious legend, and the Scourge of God was killed by assassins working for the Emperor Marcian. Assassins, slayers, it’s basically the same thing.

Fortified with the best possible reveal, I just had to let the players get there, which of course they did because, hey, great players. Listen to them. What gaming they make. Twice.

Dracula Unredacted is many things. Weighty, certainly. Terrifying, possibly. (Brilliant, modestly.)Dracula Unredacted Cover_400

Welcoming – not necessarily . Now, you may be blessed with players who are already avid Dracula fans, or players who are salivating at the thought of all that delicious cross-referencing and speculating, in which case they’ll happily devour the World’s Biggest Campaign Handout and ask for more. However, there are some Directors who hesitate at the idea of giving a 476-page handout to their groups and saying “right, read that and tell me what you want to do next.”

The biggest hurdle is early in the campaign – after a few sessions, the players will have so many non-Dossier leads to follow that digging through Unredacted becomes entirely optional.

Here are a few ways to ease the players into the mystery.

The Secret Scholar

Here, the Player Characters are brought together by a mysterious scholar or spymaster who has a copy of the Dossier. For some reason, the spymaster can’t go into the field himself (he’s too old/too frail/has to avoid cameras because of facial-recognition programs – the government’s searching for him/has to maintain his public persona), so he gives the player characters assignments to carry out based on annotations in Dracula Unredacted. “Go here,” he says, “and find out everything you can about Klopstock and Bayreuth, Bankers”.

So, in the early stages of the campaign, you use the Secret Scholar to give plot hooks to your players. You pick what they’re going to investigate next. Later on, you can either continue with this approach, or else remove the Secret Scholar and let the players choose their own hooks. You could kill off the Scholar as a Vampyramid Response, or reveal him as a traitor (maybe even a Duke of Edom, using the Agents as disposable assets in a clandestine op against his own rivals in Edom).

The Secret Scholar should be extremely well informed on certain matters, and clueless in other fields, to ensure that the players have to do plenty of investigation on their own – you don’t want them to just follow instructions blindly. The Scholar might be an occult expert, or well-connected in Whitehall, or just wealthy enough to bankroll a campaign against Dracula.

Possible Secret Scholar identities: Van Sloan (p. 87), Cushing (p. 92), MI5 Deputy (p. 95), Enigmatic Monsignor (p. 114), Hopkins (p. 117), Icelandic Diplomat (p. 119), Journalist (p. 120), the Caldwell Foundation (p. 160), an officer from a rival Vampire Program (p. 75), Oakes (p. 52), Philip Holmwood (p. 43). For added fun, stick the Secret Scholar in a spooky ruined castle, and ensure he only meets the PCs at night…

Deep Throat

This works like the Secret Scholar option, but preserves the “player characters on the run” vibe of the campaign. In this setup, the PCs get fed intel and advice by a mysterious fellow fugitive who contacts them by email, dead drop or the occasional encrypted video chat. Deep Throat sent them a copy of the Dossier (or kept her own copy and sent them the original for safe keeping), but still calls them up when she can to point them at something she discovered.

The advantage of the Deep Throat approach is that you can give the players as much or as little information as you wish. One week, she can tell them exactly what to investigate and where to go. Next week, she only has time to send them a single annotation number before she has to run again. The disadvantage – or potential disadvantage – is that the Hunt for Deep Throat might become a major part of the campaign instead of a framing device.

The obvious candidate for Deep Throat is Hopkins (p. 117), but any of the possible Hopkins candidates (DIFC Tasker, p. 111, MI6 Romania Desk Analyst, p. 124, GCHQ Romania Desk Analyst, p. 115, MI6 Lamplighter, p. 123) could also qualify. Other maybes are Mr. Hopkins (p. 117), the Hungarian (p. 94),the Informant (p. 95), the Journalist (p. 120), the Online Mystic (p. 126), Carmilla Rojas (p. 46) or the BND Deep Cover Agent (p. 105).

The Paper Chase

Instead of giving the players the whole Unredacted to read at once, give it to them chapter-by-chapter, or chop it into smaller sections. Jonathan’s experiences in Castle Dracula are a nice self-contained file; all the correspondence in Chapter IX, or the radically changed sections in Chapters XVII-XIX could be good starting points. Maybe the Agents got an encrypted document from Hopkins that’s slowly decrypting, page by page, or maybe they literally find a trail of papers as they investigate the mystery. (Maybe they’re not the first group to get hold of the Dossier – there could be another team of spies who went ahead of them, and got separated and slaughtered one by one by Dracula, each one with a portion of the document.)

Highlighted Sections

You can either do this as a quick hand wave (“your skills in Traffic Analysis tell you that this is clearly the most relevant annotation to investigate this week“) or literally highlight the annotations and sections that really inspire you. In effect, you’re turning the wide-open improv approach into more of a choose-your-own-adventure, which works great for player groups that want the freedom offered by the idea of the Dracula Dossier campaign but are reluctant to dig into the reading, or suffer from analysis paralysis when presented with 476 pages of leads. Giving them a choice of three or four leads to follow may work better than giving them thirty or forty…

Free RPG Day 2016 front cover_350Released on Free RPG Day 2016 – now available to download here.

The Dracula Dossier – The Van Helsing Letter

Just before he vanished, Abraham Van Helsing – doctor of medicine, doctor of law, and secret vampire hunter – wrote one last letter hinting at an unsolved case. Now, more than a century later, that letter is in your hands. But what is a hundred years to an immortal? The contents of that letter are as important – and as explosive – to the secret conspiracies of the vampires as they ever were.

Now it’s up to you to complete Van Helsing’s last mission. Can you help Dracula’s oldest enemy strike back from beyond the grave?

This scenario for up to six players is an introduction to both Night’s Black Agents – the GUMSHOE game of burned spies vs vampires – and the improvisational, player-driven investigative style of the epic Dracula Dossier campaign. Pregenerated Agents and handouts are included to launch the players into the mystery.

13th Age – Swords Against the Dead

You suffer the rudest of awakenings when zombies crash through the walls of the inn, and battle is joined. But where do these shambling menaces arise – the misnamed Isle of Sanctuary, the strangely silent tower of Xuthana, or the Cliff Graves of the Demon Coast? And who or what raised this army of restless undead?

Swords Against the Dead is a quick-start adventure for 13th Age, the d20 fantasy game of battle, treasure and epic story telling. Grab a pregenerated character, decide your One Unique Thing, and get ready to fight for your life!

If you missed out on Free RPG Day, this double dose of adventure is available as a bonus PDF here.

 

Stock #: PEL13AN02
Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Artist: Victor Leza, Miguel Santos Pages: 40-page PDF

 

Blood_splatterImprovising telling but subtle details on the fly is tricky, especially if the players catch you off-guard. They’ve suddenly flown to Iceland to follow a lead you hadn’t prepared, and now you’re scrambling not only to get back ahead of the Agents, but also get a handle on where the overall campaign is now going. With all that to think about, atmosphere and description suffer, and your NPCs become bland stick figures who meet the PCs in, I dunno, an office or somewhere.

Using motifs – ideas that recur in different forms throughout the campaign – can help with this. It’s the classic “constraints breed creativity” trick  – if you’ve got to somehow associate Random Icelandic Dude with blood in the players’ minds, that’ll give you a starting point to riff from and get you off the blank page of the mind. Maybe he’s a farmer, and he’s just slaughtered a lamb when the PCs arrive. He’s a surgeon. He’s wobbling and pale because he donated blood this morning. He’s got ketchup on his face. Anything that suggests blood works.

There are two other benefits using motifs. Firstly, they’re a device to add a feeling of cohesion and consistency to a work. Used properly, they make a campaign with a lot of side trails, dead ends and random weirdness seem more like an actual polished story in retrospect. More importantly (from the rat-bastard GM point of view, as opposed to the lit critic in me), motifs are great for retroactive revelations. If, later in the campaign, you need to reveal that the Icelandic farmer is a minion of Dracula, you can retroactively decide that the blood on his hands was human blood from the hitch-hikers he killed! That bat beating against the window at Hillingham House wasn’t a bit of spooky atmospheric description – it was Dracula himself, spying on the Agents! Every motif can be a trapdoor. Everyone’s a suspect.

Use motifs as modifiers –  instead of coming up with a new NPC/Location/Object, take an existing one from the Director’s Handbook and work the motif into your description. Associate one or two themes with each major faction in your campaign. You might push the Dracula-Blood connection, and reserve Rats for Edom’s spies and thieves.

 

Major motifs lifted straight from the novel:

Blood

Associations: Vitality/health/strength/lifeforce, family & lineage, hearts, passion, wine (through Jesus Christ), stains (guilt), injuries (‘shedding blood’ as a badge of honour).

People:

  • Visible scrapes, bandaged wounds (“cut myself shaving this morning, you see”)
  • Red jewellery or clothing (“in the Whitby gloom, her red scarf looks like blood gushing from her pale neck”)
  • Small bloodstains on collar, cuffs or shoes (“one of the kids had a nosebleed – the washing machine didn’t get it all out”)
  • Eating a rare, bloody steak (“my doctor says it’s bad for me, but who wants to live forever”)
  • Breath smells metallic (“she’s beautiful, but her breath turns your stomach when she gets close to you”)
  • Phobia of blood (“It makes me feel faint – please don’t make that Medic roll in here.”)
  • Drinking red wine (“a rare vintage, laid down by my grandfather”)
  • Cuts themselves while talking to the Agents (“she gets so pissed at you she knocks her glass off the table with an angry gesture. As she’s picking up the pieces, she cuts her finger open on a jagged fragment.”)

Locations:

  • Bloodstains on the ground in or near the location (“looks like someone had a fight outside the office last night – the ground’s dark with dried blood that wasn’t washed away by the morning’s rains”)
  • Dark red walls (“you can almost hear the decorator saying it’ll make the room feel warm and cosy. It makes you feel like you’re inside a hunk of raw meat.”)
  • Red stains or marks. (“The old pipes spit out rusty, reddish water.)
  • Inherited property. (“It’s been in my family for generations. This place is in my blood.”)
  • Sound like a distant heartbeat (“some piece of machinery in the basement’s making this rhythmic hammering noise, thump thump thump thump, and the vibrations go right up your spine and echo in your ribcage”)
  • Nearby medical facility (“there’s a blood donation van parked in the car park of the community centre across the street”)

Objects: 

  • Reddish colours, stains or markings (“the diary’s written in dark red ink”)
  • Bloodsucking things nearby (“after wading through the leech-infested marsh, you find the buried box”)
  • Emotional reactions (“your blood runs cold when you look at the portrait”)
  • Inherited object (“to think that Quincey Harker once wielded this knife! It fires up your blood!”)
  • Evocative hiding place (“you find the diary inside an old winepress in an outbuilding”)

Bats and Rats

Associations: Filth and disease, nocturnal predators and scavengers, hiding in holes and caves, unclean animals, eating insects

People:

  • Rat-like features (“she’s got very prominent front teeth, like a rodent”)
  • Skulking demeanour (“he’s in a corner of the bar, so well hidden you nearly miss him.”)
  • Gnawing or scavenging (“he starts burrowing through the piles of reports and letters on his desk. It looks like this guy’s a total packrat.”)
  • Disconcertingly good night vision (“even though you’re hidden in the dark shadow of the hedge, he looks right at you and sniffs the air, like he can smell you”)
  • Pet rat or bat (“I found it in the garden this morning. Poor thing was starving. I’m feeding it with an eye-dropper.”)
  • Taste for cheese. (“It’s an excellent variety of Edom. I’m sorry, Edam.”)

Locations:

  • Visible mouse hole in the skirting board (“You can’t help but notice a small hole behind the desk, littered with chewed scraps of paper”)
  • Mouse droppings on a surface (“the kitchen hasn’t been cleaned in years. Mouse droppings and worse in the cabinets.”)
  • Scratching in the walls (“you try to sleep, but there’s a mouse running around the walls near your bed. It sounds like it’s trying to claw its way inside your skull.”)
  • Rats crawling over garbage. (“There’s a back door in a garbage-strewn alley. Rats look up at you with brazen curiosity as you pass, utterly unafraid of you.”)
  • Animal brought in to keep the rats down (positive spin: “a small terrier bounds into the room, something tiny and furry caught in its jaws. It shakes its head violently and there’s an audible snap a the rat’s neck breaks. The dog drops the body at your feet.” Negative: “a white cat, more like a furry rugby ball than anything else, snores lazily on the couch, ignoring the mice darting across the floor”).
  • Bats crashing into windows or beating against them is a classic, and always good for a jump scare. Players are a cowardly and superstitious lot.

Objects: 

  • Stored with rat poison (“you find the gun under the sink, behind some black bin bags and a box of rat poison”)
  • Unusual interest from bats (“as you leave the graveyard, you see a huge number of bats settling in the nearby tree. Suddenly, there’s a thump as one of them flies low and slams into your briefcase, as if it knows what’s inside.”)
  • Animal tooth marks on the object. (“The coffin’s been chewed by rats.”)
  • Animalistic decorations (“you can’t find a printer’s name or publisher on the book, suggesting it was privately printed. There’s a little symbol on the spine that might be stylised bat.”)
  • Evoke animal imagery when describing it. (“Thick grubby electrical wires, like a cluster of rat tails,run into a brass port on the underside of the machine.”)

Mirrors

Associations: Illusions, trickery and sleight of hand; deception; vanity and the ravages of age, espionage and double agents (‘wilderness of mirrors’), parallels and counter-examples, reversals.

People:

  • Seen first in a mirror (“he stops to look in his reflection in a shop window”)
  • Mirror shades (“the border guard is wearing mirrored sunglasses”)
  • Has a hand-mirror or very shiny surface to hand (“he has the annoying, childish habit of angling his watch face to catch rays of sunlight and bouncing them around the walls and into your eyes”)
  • Dopplegangers & duplicates (“you see an older, heavyset man with thick brows, wearing overalls. It’s only when you get closer that you realise it’s a different man. It’s not the Russian.”)
  • Mirroring body language (“she leans forward, copying your stance. Psych 101, creates a feeling of shared experience and promotes bonding and trust. Damnably effective when you look like she does, too.”)
  • Shadow duplicate of Agent (“The name’s Hayward. You must remember me. I was the year behind you at Cambridge, you know, and was on the Bucharest desk after you too. Our paths diverged after that, of course – I never left the Service.”)

Locations:

  • Prominent mirror in room (“the lobby’s huge, but the full-length mirror running down one wall makes it feel like you could meet an aircraft carrier here for coffee without inconveniencing anyone”)
  • Reflected or symmetrical structure (“her office is in the east wing, just across the quad. The only building is a copy of itself, so much so that when you look across the courtyard, you see three figures much like yourselves in the corridor opposite.”)
  • Still, reflective water (“The pond outside Carfax Abbey is long gone, but water pools on the Meath road in much the same place, reflecting the wintry skies.”)
  • Broken mirror or glass. (“The windows around the back are all cracked. Looking for a place to peer in, you’re momentarily arrested by the sight of your own reflected eye staring back at you.”)
  • Silvered or glassy surface. (“It’s art,” she says doubtfully.”The owners like it.”)
  • CCTV Cameras (“The security post has a bank of monitors showing all the feeds. You can see yourselves crouched in the corridor outside the post.”)

Objects:

  • Fake or duplicate item in same place (“he collects 19th century maps, so it’s only after sorting through a dozen Austro-Hungarian surveys of the mountains do you find the annotated version you seek.”)
  • Hidden behind a mirror (“searching the bathroom, you find a syringe behind the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet”)
  • Copy of original document (“the original files are gone, but you dig up a photocopy.”)
  • Wrapped in silver foil (“the inner crate is lined with some tin-foil-like substance, interleaved with swatches of ballistic cloth”)
  • Image of Agent or key NPC (“A sketch of your own face stares out at you from the first page. It must be a sketch of your great-grandmother. The resemblance is uncanny.”)

Other motifs from the novel: Revenants and the Un-Dead, Superstitions vs. Technology, Stories Told Indirectly

 

 

If you hang around my social media presence (or Ken’s, whose twitterings are to mine as Dracula is to a small fruit bat), you may have seen this funky diagram floating around.

11143633_10153226209566047_3533239896844602832_o

It’s a map of every (or nearly every) node in the Dracula Dossier and the connections between them. I ostensibly built it as a proof of concept to show that you can start anywhere in the campaign and theoretically fight your way through that chain of clues all the way to Dracula, but mainly because I had gone a bit mad from cross-referencing annotations, which is why it looks like something you’d find in Renfield’s cell.

(It’s done, by the way, in Scapple, a very simple mind-mapping program. There are doubtless other more powerful and/or cheaper apps that do the same thing – I know people who use Campaign Cartographer – but Scapple was both easy and already on my machine, so I went for the lazy option. There’s a free trial of Scapple if you want to play with these maps – and it even exports straight into Scrivener for all your Edom-fanfic needs.)

That crazy mish-mash of a chart is utterly useless as a reference, of course, but mapping the nodes visually can be a handy tool for the harried Director. Here, for example, is a snapshot of a campaign that’s just started.

CU120

Discovered Clues
The players have decided to investigate annotation CU120. That annotation references the Jewelled Dagger, the Satanic Cult, Carfax, and Dracula’s safehouse network. Last session, the players began by using their contacts in Sothebys to research the provenance of the dagger. They then poked around Carfax and the old safehouse network, where they ran into the MI5 Agent and got warned to stay away from matters that don’t concern them (Make Inquiries on the Edom response pyramid). Unperturbed, they guessed that there might be hidden, unmapped tunnels leading to the cellars of the old Carfax building, and spend Network points to obtain ground-penetrating radar gear from the Seismologist.

So, what’s likely to happen this session? What should the Director prepare for? They haven’t followed up on the Satanic Cult lead yet, but if they do, the Psychic will probably come into play as an occult expert or the heir to the cult. If the Agents question him, he’ll point them at Coldfall House.

The Seismologist is currently just a background character who provided them with useful gear (dropping “canon” NPCs in as Network contacts is a fantastic way to enmesh the players in the world of the Dossier), but as soon as they realise he knows something about Operation Edom, he can point them to his old work colleague, the Retired Computer Boffin.

The Mole Hunt Who’s Who

Here’s a map of who-knew-who (or who was “supposed” to know who) during the 1977 mole hunt.

1970 Mole Hunt

 

You’ve got Cushing right in the middle, as the liaison between Five and Six. He’s got all his contacts and experts in London on the left side of the map, and the ongoing mess in Romania on the right. (Look at the Sculptor, off on her own unconnected to any other node – she’s a wild card in the investigation, a backchannel to connect any other two nodes.)

Plot 201

You can use these maps to plot different facets of the investigation. For example, say one of your players is really excited by the prospect of black magic, of forbidden tomes and underworld sorcery, and another one wants to get into the investigation of the war on terror and keep things relatively low-key and gritty. By pulling a selection of appropriate nodes into a map, you can find places where these two spheres of interest intersect, so both players get what they want out of the campaign. Here, I’ve grabbed a bunch of campaign elements that I know pertain to either the occult or terrorism, and smeared them across a canvas to see what suggests itself.

Occultvswaronterror

Right away, we’ve got a clear line of inquiry that runs from the DIFC Tasker through Holmwood and the British intelligence establishment through the Black Site stuff in Bucharest and into Al-Qaeda in Rum. We can hook in some occult elements along the way – maybe AQIR have gotten hold of an earthquake device (presumably, the one left behind by “Van Sloan’s” team in 1940. And that Spirit Board, sitting in the middle of the map – it’s tantilisingly close to the “Black Light” Black Site. The idea of interrogating people from beyond the grave could be fun, and reminds me of the Dead House in Munich.

We also have a bunch of smaller clusters or wholly unconnected nodes. Has the Archaeologist uncovered the Scholomance? Is the Caldwell Foundation operating out of the British Library? What’s the deal with the Bookseller?

Plot 202

Here’s a more evolved version of the same map, and the Satanic Cult comes to the fore.

Occultvswaronterror2

You can see how they’re pulling the strings on both sides of the war on terror. Through Philip Holmwood (Minion version) they can influence Edom’s choice of targets. Through the Tour Guide, they’ve put the Medievalist (now an AQIR sympathiser) in touch with the Bookseller who supplied the Earthquake Device. The Caldwell Foundation is carrying out its own investigation, using the Psychic as a double agent – but the Cult are making arrangements to flip the Psychic by providing him with his longed-for copy of Le Dragon Noir. Maybe if the Agents can intercept the Smuggler, they can stop their plan and keep the Psychic on the side of the angels.

The Archaeologist is still off to the side, not really linked into the main plot. That’s fine – I can drop hints and foreshadowing relating to him that might never pay off, or I can bring him onstage later on if the campaign’s heading for a big setpiece involving the Scholomance or Zalmoxis. Similarly, I’ve left the Enigmatic Monsignor floating – I’m suddenly taken with the idea that the Black Site Interrogator’s off-the-books dabbling in necromancy have plunged him into religious terror, and the Agents could flip him by posing as priests and reawakening his lapsed faith. (Glancing at his writeup, I note that Ken has serendipitously given him an older brother in the priesthood – I might retask the Enigmatic Monsigor for that role).

Note the Arms Runner’s connection to Leutner Fabrichen and from there to the Syrian General. If the players get bogged down, I can have them run into the Arms Runner, giving them another avenue of investigation that’ll lead back to my main plot.

The other key map to your campaign, of course, is the Conspyramid. As you play through, keep building the Conspyramid from the bottom up as a tool for pacing. For example, here’s how part of the Conspyramid might look in this case.

Partial Conspyramid

I’ve added the Romanian Ministry of, er, Cult-ure as a Level 3 node to bridge the gap between the Tour Guide/Bookseller and the Cult itself.

(The upcoming Dracula Deck of cards works great for this sort of visualisation, too, if you don’t want to spend hours entering every node into Scapple again after forgetting to save the first two times, he muttered bitterly. Here’s a Scapple document containing every single node, also available in XML.)

Horror of Dracula (1958)

horrordracDirector: Terence Fisher

Dracula: Christopher Lee

Consider this film (just called Dracula in the UK) the anti-Coppola Dracula. Relentlessly modern (it was the first Technicolor vampire film) and breathlessly paced yet luridly Gothic to the core, carving to the heart of Stoker’s novel while discarding its plot almost entirely, it would be a great Dracula movie for those reasons alone. But it has in addition three advantages that no production has had before or since: Christopher Lee as Dracula, Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, and Terence Fisher’s sure, bold direction. Fisher’s sincere Christian vision, of Dracula as a fundamental story of good vs. evil, permeates the film. Lee’s Dracula both tempts and terrifies, fully animal and entirely demonic — all in only 7 minutes of screen time. Cushing brings Stoker’s multi-dimensional Van Helsing more than alive as well: pious scientist and plague-fighting philosopher, faith and reason joined. Cushing also depicts Van Helsing’s human tenderness and innate leadership qualities with economy and confidence, throwing into stark contrast his more-than-surgical strain of violence. To Fisher, the best of men can still be a beast; the worst of demons is all too attractive. But throughout, Van Helsing and Dracula remain almost polar opposites and their war is a war — is the War — for all humanity.

The film is not perfect, of course. The now-primitive day-for-night shots make exteriors chancy, the comic relief at the border hangs an unfortunate lantern on the claustrophobic setting (instead of countries across a continent from each other, civilization and Hell are in neighboring postal codes), and Hammer’s idiosyncratic love-hate relationship with the British class system mars the narrative of middle-class heroes reducing an undead aristocrat to dust. The third-act turn (taken from the cursed Deane-Balderston play), in which Dracula’s hiding place turns out to be the Holmwoods’ cellar, works thematically but not narratively. But across all that, Fisher shoots a realistic nightmare, building shots from parallel rising action, and filling the frames with color and natural motion — the wind effects in this movie alone should be mandatory viewing. Like Cushing’s Van Helsing, Fisher’s lens combines realism and even irony with faith and violence, that latter quality incidentally unleashing Christopher Lee to become a great actor and a generation’s dream of Dracula. Horror of Dracula, I submit to you, is the greatest Dracula movie ever made.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Here to catalogue books (and  your comments and responses) and kill vampires, it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order the glorious sunlight that is hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

We couldn’t wait to see photos of the Dracula Dossier books, and so many kind backers indulged us by posting their photos on their own social media pages, on the  Dracula Dossier Facebook page and on the Dracula Dossier GMs-only Google+ group. They’re so artful and fun, we couldn’t resist sharing them with everyone! Thanks to everyone who agreed to let us share their images.

In October 2015, Kenneth Hite created the 30 Days of Dractober – taking you on a tour through the cinema de Dracula! Every day he looked at one film version of the legendary story, from the classic NOSFERATU to the, um, less than immortal DRACULA 3000. Hit the Hammer highlights, the Lugosi limelights, and more — with suggestions on adapting any or all of them for your own vampire games – in advance of  The Thrill of Dracula, where Ken shows you how to build new yet mythic stories about the King of the Vampires or about your own creatures of the night, tuned for thriller adventure, cosmic horror, or even intense personal drama. Here are the links to the full 31 DAYS OF #DRACTOBER:

Taste_the_blood_of_dracula

Count Dracula (1970)

Drácula (1931)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1973)

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

Drakula Istanbul’da (1953)

Dracula (1938)

Count Dracula (1977)

Blade: Trinity (2004)

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

The Return of Dracula (1958)

Dracula (1979)

Scars of Dracula (1970)

Buffy vs. Dracula (2000) 

Dracula (1968)

Dracula’s Curse (2002)

House of Frankenstein (1944)Draculaprinceofdarkness

Nosferatu (1979)

The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Dracula (2006)

Dracula 3D (2012)

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002)

Dracula (1931)

Dracula 3000 (2004)

Nosferatu (1922)

Dracula Untold (2014)

Horror of Dracula (1958)

 

Dracula Untold (2014)

dracula_untoldDirector: Gary Shore

Dracula: Luke Evans

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a shooting star! It’s a FIST OF BATS! This latest effort by Universal to revitalize their once-glorious monster universe franchise casts a cape-bedecked Vlad the Impaler as half combat-god Batman (“sometimes the world doesn’t need a hero … sometimes it needs a monster”) complete with silly post-Coppola rubber armor in a closet, and half death-from-above Superman complete with a Kryptonite-like weakness for silver. And let’s be honest with each other: the Supervlad parts of this movie are pretty bat-tastic. Considered solely as cut scenes, the forest-hunting bits and battle footage work well, the big impaling scene is Hammer Gothic (but too short), the FIST OF BATS redefines “out there”, and the final fight between Vlad and Mehmed the Conqueror (avert your eyes, history majors and/or people who can use Wikipedia) in a veritable Scrooge McDuck tentful of silver coins manages to be both spectacular and original. As a Dracula: Year One effort it also checks some boxes while performing the vital service of adding a completely screwy new turn to the mythos, in this case Charles Dance as Vlad’s nosferatu sire (intriguingly named “Caligula” in the script) trapped in a Carpathian cave literally lined with crushed human bones.

The actual script, not so much. Leaving aside the “brilliant warlord who never bothered to raise an army or teach anyone to guard a perimeter” problems perhaps necessary for proper superheroics, there’s at least one major scene missing (how do the Turks get into the monastery? how does Mehmed learn Vlad’s weakness?) and a crippling laziness at the story’s Braveheart heart. Turning epochal psychopath Vlad Tepes into Batman is bad enough, but making him William Wallace to boot is a bridge too far (and too well-trodden) even for a comic book movie. These decisions obviously weaken any pretense that Vlad is actually history’s (or legend’s) Vlad the Impaler, but they also weaken Universal’s notion that this pretty-boy superdad ever turns out to be, y’know, Dracula. In fairness to Evans, he’s never asked to play Dracula by the film, which walks back the one truly awful thing he does — raise an army of vampires from his Wallachian followers to gut the Turkish army — almost immediately. This is supposed to be the Faustian story of an evil warlord who finds even worse evil waiting, or failing that, of a good man who becomes a monster. Instead, it’s the story of a good father who gets a FIST OF BATS and somehow it doesn’t cheer him up. Although it makes me pretty happy.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Glutted on a skull-full of nosferatu blood (and on your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order 24-karat hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!

Previous Entries Next Entries