The Land Beyond The Forest

dossier_draculaThe old woman confirms that she is, indeed, Mina Harker. She’s kept herself alive with vampire blood for more than a century, for if she dies while Dracula lives, she’ll become his Un-Dead slave. She contemplated ending her own life in 1940, before Edom could bring Him back, but she could not be sure if the operation would succeed and so clung to another few years – which turned into another whole lifetime, maybe more.

She knows about the check on Dracula, and suspects that it is connected to the work of Professor Van Helsing. He and dear John Seward moved to Germany after the events of 1894, and she suspects that John was still in love with sweet Lucy. Katherine Reed died in Germany in 1910, a supposed suicide. On killing vampires, she knows that the key is that the vampire must be weighted down with memories of its mortal life, or else carried over that threshold of eternity by another soul. It was not the knife that destroyed Dracula – it was brave Quincey Morris, whose death dragged the Count down into the afterlife.

Of course, the knife helped – and she gives the Agents a box containing her husband’s Kukri and Morris’ bowie knife.

Brussels. In a dark room, the agents learn that the Catholic Church has been funding a project began by Van Helsing in the early years of the 20th century, a countermeasure that has kept Dracula in check for a century. The countermeasure is based in…

Munich. In an underground complex near the Deadhouse, the agents are met by the old men who run Undertaking Brown, Van Helsing’s countermeasure. She rests her, in her rooms, as she has done for more than a hundred years. The keepers caution the Agents not to address her by her old name – she is Alraune now. She yearns to destroy Dracula, and she has the power to do so,, but they cannot risk letting her attack the Count in his place of power in Romania – the Count has too many allies and servants there. If Alraune were left off the leash, she would charge into Romania and be destroyed before she reached the mysterious Castle Dracula – wherever that is. Instead, she keeps Dracula from extending his reach beyond Romania; whenever he rattles the bars of his prison cell, Alraune is drawn to his presence and forces him to withdraw.

Lately, though, she has not been herself, and Undertaking Brown fear that the countermeasure is breaking down. The Agents explain that Dracula’s allies were trying to disrupt the link between Kate Reed’s ghost and Lucy Westenra. Now that the Hillingham Working is done, there shouldn’t be any more attacks of that sort.

Finally, the agents are allowed in to speak with Alraune. Thanks to his new psychic powers, Fitzy is able to see the spirit of Kate Reed, bound to her friend and ensuring that Dracula has no hold over the vampiric Lucy. “Alraune” demands that the Agents set her free, so she can hunt down and destroy Dracula; in this case, the enemy of their enemy is definitely not their friend, and talking to “Alraune” is like being trapped in a room with a hungry tiger. Still, they arrange to have her brought to the borders of Romania – if they can lure Dracula close to her, maybe she can be released to destroy her quarry without running into whatever traps and barriers the Count has prepared for her.

Romania. McAllister’s player quickly sketches out the farm (which turns out to be a farm with a newly installed CCTV system attached to a derelict church next to a graveyard near running water, because give a player an inch and they’ll take a precision-engineered anti-vampire stronghold), and spends Preparedness to ensure that he’s pre-arranged an emergency strategy with his family (if bad guys come, head thataway). Baptiste takes up position with a sniper rifle, Elgin sneaks in to recon the place, Fitzy finds a foxhole. There’s a dozen bad guys, including Elvis and several Edom Jacks.

McAllister drives up the long, winding laneway to his farm. Elvis comes out to meet him, and gets about five words into a monologue (“You’ve made the right decision-“) before the first grenade gets thrown. It explodes at his feet, and battle is joined. The Agents initially hold their own – Elgin manages to lock three Edom soldiers in a barn, giving the team some valuable breathing space, Fitzy proves a dab hand with lobbing grenades, and Baptiste grabs a Night’s Black Agents convention rules reference and quickly masters the sniping rules to considerable effect. Then countersniping takes its toll, Elgin ends up in a close-quarters knife fight with a Serum-using jack (by close quarters, I mean “rolling around in the mud at the bottom of the farm’s well”), and McAllister takes several bad hits. Elgin survives only by using his own dose of Seward Serum.

The Farmhouse Battle

The Farmhouse Battle

Fortunately, McAllister’s extended family show up, and it turns out that marrying into a clan of faintly sinister Romanian partisans has its advantages. The team retreat into the graveyard under Uncle Grigori’s covering fire, just in time for Dracula to show up – fortunately, on the far side of the running stream. Nonetheless, Fitzy tries hiding behind the fallen spire of the old church, figuring that if a crucifix is good, a six-foot-tall iron cross is better.

The Count threatens them again. “That one,“ he says, pointing at Fitzy, “has power. That one” – Elgin – “has a connection to Reed. You will bring me the bitch ghost, or you will all die. There is no escape. You think killing these men will stop me! I will raise up my whole country against you!”

The Count vanishes into the mist, and the wolves close in.

The next morning finds the Agents in a mountain cabin with several of McAllister’s relatives (“they heal you with old peasant cures. Also, because it’s the 21st century and Romania isn’t a land of racist stereotypes, one cousin is an army medic”). When the Agents (bar Elgin, who decides to lurk inside out of the sunshine to protect his pool of Seward Serum points) emerge, they find the hillside is littered with the bodies of dozens of wolves. Overhead, a huge storm rages across the countryside, and they hear rumours of gangs of Ruvari Szgany and other criminal groups causing havoc all across the country. The Romanian armed forces are on alert, including the forces at the nearby air force base, which the Agents suspect are agents of Dracula.

img_0664

Looking for the Castle

After a brief detour to collect the ghost engine buried by the Edom commandoes in 1940, the team go looking for Castle Dracula. They’ve already worked out that the castle can’t be any of the ‘real’ candidates like Bran or Hunedora, but it’s only when Elgin tries putting the brooch back on that they realise the truth: Castle Dracula is in the land of the dead. It’s in that spiritual subduction zone between life and death. It’s everywhere in Transylvania, in the blood and the soil of that troubled land.

As they walk through the forest, the air grows chill. The shadows lengthen, and the pale sunlight that sometimes breaks through the rainclouds seems to slow and weirdly congeal. And then, on the ridge ahead, they see the castle.

McAllister’s family are unwilling to cross the threshold, so the four Agents enter. The gatehouse and courtyard are empty, but there are signs of life, and an old man (one of the Silent Servants) opens a side door for them. The Servant indicates that the Master will come to them at nightfall, and shows them up to a dining room where meals have been prepared for them. There’s also a circle of candles, like the circle in Singleton’s house. Clearly, Dracula intends for Fitzy to complete the psychic’s plan and tear Kate Reed’s ghost from Lucy Westenra’s body, turning “Alraune” from a weapon aimed at Dracula’s heart back into one of his Brides.

After a few nervous minutes, McAllister and Baptiste go exploring. They find the library, the room where Harker stayed… and the room that leads to that vertiginous drop, the sheer wall that leads down to Dracula’s lair. It’s still daylight. Dracula should be sleeping down there… and they’ve got stakes, and the knives given to them by Mina Harker. Why not end him now?

In the banqueting room, Fitzy assembles the old Ghost Engine, while Elgin contacts the Undertaking Brown handlers and relays the location of the breach into the land of the dead – gambling that if Alraune knows where Dracula is, she can go there directly and take the King down. All the Agents need to do is occupy the Count until Alraune arrives.

Even though the pair of spies have ropes and climbing gear, the climb down the wall is still nerve-wrecking for Baptiste and McAllister. The castle walls betray them, with seemingly solid stones crumbling when touched, and ropes tangling and twisting at the worst moments. Still, they make it down and discover a huge chamber in the depths. Searching, they discover several coffins, including one huge sarcophagus made of stone. Engraved on it is the legend

DRACULA

They open the coffin.

It’s empty.

In the distance, a gate clang open, and wolves pour into the room.

Upstairs… “Did you not read the Irishman’s book? Did you forget I can walk abroad during the day if I choose?”

“Without your powers,” points out Elgin.

“And when that sun sinks beyond those trees,” says Dracula, pointing out the window at the setting sun, “I shall have the power to destroy your souls, unless you serve me. Call the ghost, and I shall set you free.”

Fitzy has, by now, assembled a circle of crucifixes around himself and the ghost engine. “You can’t touch me.”

“You think THOSE will stop me? Here, in my place of power? Look – the sun dies. The powers of darkness rule now.” He steps past the line of crosses and lifts Fitzy by the throat. “Summon Reed NOW or I dash your brains out on the floor!”

Fitzy, in a moment of beautiful confusion, responds “summon who?” His player had forgotten that Kate is Katherine Reed (the group had been referring to her as Kate).  Dracula, in a spasm of fury, hurls Fitzy across the room. Elgin uses his Seward Serum-granted speed and darts forward, grabs a sword from above the mantelpiece, and runs Dracula through.

The Count responds by taking down another sword, and driving it through Elgin’s chest. The thief dies.

“SUMMON HER!” he roars at Fitzy. Fitzy switches on the ghost engine, which shakes the whole castle and sends it falling to Hell.

Baptiste and McAllister, having escaped the wolves by climbing back up the wall, burst into the room. McAllister, for the second time, shoots Dracula in the face with silver. Baptiste, having injected himself with the second dose of Seward Serum recovered from the hospital in Edinburgh, slashes at the Count with Harker’s kukri. McAllister stabs with the Bowie knife. Dracula’s still a fearsome foe, but he spent much of his Aberrance on raising up wolves and storms across Romania, and he’s felt the bite of these knives before. He knows, too, that he doesn’t need this fight – the intruders are trapped in his castle. He can retreat, heal, and then destroy them one by one. He begins to turn to mist…

All through the fight, Fitzy’s used his talent to be a beacon. He’s summoning “Alraune” all right, but not into the binding circle of candles. Lucy Westerna crosses the Romanian border as a golden hurricane, a cloud of mist racing against the wind. Battered and wounded by Dracula’s occult defences, she has almost no strength left when she descends on the castle… but Dracula’s weakened too. The two mist-forms entwine, entangle, like drowning figures they fall through the floor, through the foundations of the castle… beyond the final threshold of death.

As the castle collapses, the surviving Agents stagger across the courtyard, and find themselves climbing a steep slope in a grey and mournful land. They stumble blindly up, out of the land of the dead. For a moment, they glimpse a fourth figure. Was it a dark-haired woman, pointing the way back to the light?

And then it’s strong rough hands, woollen blankets thrown across shoulders, the smell of sweat and cigarettes and garlic, as McAllister’s family finds them and brings them home.

CODA 1: A newspaper report relates how Ms. Ellen Mowbray, a long-term resident of a retirement home in Malvern Hills, vanished on the night of Dracula’s death. Other reports and rumblings from the clandestine world talk about a series of mysterious murders, said to be almost… vampiric. Someone’s cleaning house inside Edom.

CODA 2: Nearly a year later, a youngish man with a jaunty cravat knocks on the door of the stately home at Ring, ancestral seat of the Holmwood family. “The name’s Fitz,” he says, and there’s an unearthly light in his eyes. “I think you’ve got an opening for me.”

We Ask No Proofs, We Ask None To Believe Us: Fifteen hours of play over two days was an intense but immensely rewarding experience. I certainly had a fantastic time running it, and I believe the players enjoyed themselves. My thanks to all of them, especially Shane and Andy who both came over from the UK for the convention. Also, thanks go to Gaelcon (especially Janet) for organising everything and coping with a novel game setup. 

Running the game over the Halloween weekend added extra weight to the ghostly elements of the whole affair. The encounter with Cotford’s ghost was one of my favourite scenes in the whole campaign. Having only five sessions meant I was able to stick to a strong theme throughout; something to experiment with in future longcon games, perhaps. 

The following image, taken the following evening on Halloween  neatly sums up both my exhaustion and elation after running the game.

VAMPIRES!

VAMPIRES!

< Session 4 – The Prime of Miss Ellen Mowbray

The Prime of Ms. Ellen Mowbray

Confronting_the_count_inks_350A terrifying, elemental storm strikes Osmond Singleton’s mansion. The windows shudder as the wind hammers at them. The power goes out as lightning blasts transformers all over South London. Nearby, three members of the team – McAllister (who managed to dodge the MI5 street teams that were crawling all over Westminster), Fitzy (who’s still slipping in and out of reality, and isn’t sure if he’s still playing the role of Alfred Singleton or not…), and Elgin (who saw the Edom team clean up the mess at Hillingham and exit stage right) meet back at the pub recommended by Rev. Rogers. The last member of the quartet, Baptiste, is still locked inside the mansion, hiding inside a wardrobe as Dracula’s wrath roars around the city.

For a brief time, it looks as though the holy wafers, garlic and other supernatural blocks placed at every door might be enough to thwart the Vampire King.

Then one of the ancient yew trees surrounding the house is uprooted by the wind and topples through an upstairs window, shattering the seals.

Dracula coalesces out of the mist. Singleton pleads for his life, promising that he will complete the ritual tomorrow night, that he’ll bind the girl, but he just needs time. It is too late. The Count’s patience is exhausted – Singleton is only the first to die as the Count rampages through the house. Baptiste flees in the confusion and meets up with the rest of the team.

After fortifying the room against natural and supernatural threats, they discuss options – it’s clear that they’ve done some serious damage to whatever was going on, but they’re not sure what Dracula’s plan is, or what Edom’s involvement is. Hopkins told them that Edom was trying to bring Dracula back to England and that she was trying to stop this, but Dracula’s already in London, so what’s going on? What was the point of the ritual at Hillingham, and why were the ghosts of Lucy Westenra and Kate Reed being raised from the dead? (Also, they’re talking about ghosts now, not just vampires, which is a whole other White Wolf sourcebook of weird. Also, Baptiste stole several documents from Singleton, including Hawkins Paper 20, implying that psychic talents may also be in play.)

The discussion is interrupted by a scuttling noise from the roof. They quickly work out that it’s the Child Vampire run by Edom, CALIBAN. The barriers and crucifixes keep him out, and they switch to secure electronic means (WhatsApp) to continue their conversation, but Edom’s on the way. Soon, the front door of the pub is smashed down by MI5, and the team exit via the back, blowing Urban Survival and Surveillance MOSes to escape the dragnet.

They consider going to another safe house, but en route spot a military land rover with a familiar face in the back seat. It’s Oakes, the Edom Duke they spotted at Whitby. When he spots them approaching, he lunges forward and garrottes his driver into unconsciousness, then calls out over the radio that this sector is clear – clearly, he’s willing to talk to the Agents.

Plotting the Conspiracy

Plotting the Conspiracy

Oakes explains that he believes Edom has been compromised by Dracula, and has been since the 70s. There’s some force that keeps Dracula in check, some barrier that restricts his ability to act and keeps him trapped in Romania, and Oakes fears that elements in Edom are trying to dismantle that safeguard. He leaked information to Hopkins because he wanted to preserve his position in Edom – but it looks as though he wasn’t careful enough, as Whitby was a trap for his allies. He suspects he’ll soon be arrested or killed, too. He does offer some assistance – the team loot military radios with Edom encryption, giving them some material for Traffic Analysis, and also gives them the address of someone who might be able to help them more. It’s a retirement home in Malvern Hills, and their contact there is Ellen Mowbray.

The team fake an assault on Oakes, to make it look like they took him prisoner, and then head to Rev. Roger’s flat to hide for the night. The choirmaster has gone on a hasty holiday, but leaves contact details for some senior figures at the Archdiocese of Mechellen-Brussels who know more about the Un-Dead.

Next morning, they decide to gather more information about vampires. Step one is collecting the staked corpse of Inspector Cotford from its coffin at Coldfall Woods, and loading him into the Reverend’s car. They also collect the jet brooch from Elgin’s courier. The plan is to work out how to kill a vampire (Cotford’s corpse implies that a dead vampire doesn’t turn to dust, so what did happen when Quincey and Harker stabbed Dracula all those years ago.) Investigation of Cotford’s corpse is less than illuminating, so they head to an hypnotist that Baptiste knows from his MI6 days – she’s a therapist who specialises in PTSD, but has also been involved in debriefing assets and other unusual cases. Elgin’s brooch seems connected to Dracula, Elgin suspects he’s connected to the ghost of Katherine Reed, and recovered documents bear out the usefulness of hypnosis, so… it’s worth a shot.

b4bbb203-dabd-45f1-bde6-beb66067b9a4

At the therapists, Baptiste and Elgin head upstairs, while the other two (three, counting Cotford’s corpse) wait in the car.

Elgin takes out the brooch and puts it on at the moment of sunset. The world seems to darken; the setting sun leaves a bloody smear on the sky. The lights of London recede, leaving the medical centre (and its car park) alone in a seemingly infinite darkness. It is similar to the effects of the ghost engine at Hillingham, but more pronounced.

Under hypnosis, Elgin makes contact with Kate Reed’s ghost – and finds himself in the body of a woman again. He looks in a mirror, and there’s no reflection. He’s seeing through Lucy’s eyes – and she’s still alive, or Un-Dead at least! He can tell that she’s in Munich.

Outside, the activation of the brooch has called up another ghost. Over the radio comes a sepulchral voice – “Singleton? Is that you? Let me in, you damned fool. Open the carriage and let me in!”

The ghost of inspector Cotford has returned, and he wants his body back. When the pair refuse, the ghost attacks the car. Tyres pop, bulbs explode, the electrical system burns out, the windscreen shatters, but they keep the stake in the corpse’s heart and drive the ghost away with crucifixes and garlic. Putting that horrific encounter together with Oakes’ account of Edom’s past activities, they guess that Edom used a ghost engine in 1940 to resurrect Dracula. It seems that slaying a vampire’s body is only a temporary measure – its ghost can be brought back to reinhabit the husk again.

When the brooch is removed and normal reality reassert itself, McAllister gets a phone call. Caller ID says its Sarita, his Romanian wife, but the voice on the other end is English and mocking. “Call me Elvis. I’ve got your family here, and quite a fucking collection of power tools. This drill, for instance. Unless you’re here by midnight tomorrow, this drill is going through her skull. Understand?”

Another council of war, and frantic checking of flight times. They decide that they can cross the country yet again, visit Oakes’ contact, and then fly to Brussels and drive onto Munich and then finally Bucharest before the midnight deadline. It’s risky, and means leaving McAllister’s wife in Edom/Dracula’s clutches, but they want to assemble all the allies they can manage.

They arrive at the retirement home before dawn, and sneak into the room. There’s an old, old woman sleeping there, and they wake her.

“Mina Harker, I presume.”

Elgin's Notes

Elgin’s Notes

You Know This Because You Are Psychic: Fitzy was supposed to be a one-session temporary character, but the player decided to come back for the remaining two sessions, so I hastily wrote Psychic 2 as an investigative ability on his character sheet, justifying it as a result of Fitzy channelling the spirit of Alfred Singleton during the Hillingham Working. His actual abilities were never explored until the end of the adventure, but even just having it on his sheet justified having an out-of-work actor running around on a par with ex-spies and ex-soldiers. (Admittedly, Fitzy also had absurdly high scores in Weapons and Athletics as well as Disguise – stage fighting, of course, darling.)

Parallel Trails: You can never be quite sure in an improvised campaign which clue the players are going to follow next. Often, you end up throwing out the same lead several times in different forms. For example, the importance of Exeter as an Edom base got brought up dozen times in the first four sessions, and I was sure they’d check it out at least once on their many road trips, but they never got there. The Unredacted dossier hinted at Exeter; I mentioned it when they were discussing Harker; they saw Oakes and Hound driving back to Exeter; there was radio traffic in the Edinburgh hospital pointing there and so on.

Similarly, I dropped a bunch of leads to Munich – Elgin stole the brooch there, his psychic visions pointed there, various documents pointed there. I also intended for Reverend Roger’s connections in the church to point the Agents there. Given the pressures of time, the Brussels link was a mistake – I should have just had Rogers’ allies be based in Munich all the time, and dropped the Brussels element entirely.

In a longer campaign, I could have fleshed out Brussels into a full adventure, or at least a full encounter, as opposed to the stilted “Hello. I am Catholic Vampire Hunter Priest. There is nothing in Brussels other than me saying ‘go to Munich’” scene we got in the final session.

The GM in Repose

The GM in Repose

The Crook: The phone call to McAllister threatening his family is an absolute cliché, but it works. Pacing can be an issue in an improvised campaign; the Vampyramid helps by prompting escalating responses, but with only one session to go, I needed to force a confrontation, and this was a simple and effective way to do it. A full campaign could deploy something more subtle than this ‘crook’ (a shepherd’s crook is basically a hook that drags you forcibly along), but a convention game or one-shot needs a weapon like this in the GM’s back pocket. 

< Session 3 – Street Theatre

The Land Beyond The Forest – Session 5 >

Street Theatre

img_0663

Hawkes & Fitzy

The team retreats from Singleton’s house. They decide that they need some spiritual assistance, and contact a Network ally of theirs, Revered Rogers (any resemblance to Simon Rogers of Pelgrane is purely deliberate). Rogers meets them in a private room at a nearby pub, and brings along a bag of crucifixes along with two potential allies (and our second two temporary player characters – a Metropolitan Police detective names Hawkes and an actor called Fitzy.

(Elgin’s player missed half this session; the thief hid in Singleton’s house until he was able to escape and rejoin the rest of the group. He also had a weird vision-flash when he broke the circle of blue candles – he was in the body of a woman, dressed in modern-day clothes, and there was a man shouting at her in German.

A Message From Beyond

A Message From Beyond

When he recovered, he found he was holding a copy of Hawkins Paper 14, on which he’d circled several key words.)

Hawkes had discovered the Met’s extensive files on vampire-like attacks, dating back to the 1890s. She’d also discovered that officers who looked too deeply into any of these incidents tended to get transferred to dead-end jobs. Fitzy, meanwhile, was a former regular at Singleton’s decadent parties who had fled to Reverend Rogers after a troubling spiritual encounter with the occultist. Furthermore, Singleton just contacted Fitzy again, offering him a role in a ‘dramaturgical ceremony’ tonight (“the role of a lifetime, dear boy”).

After a lengthy discussion of options, the team decide to start by checking out Coldfall Woods. They quickly uncover a ruined cellar in some waste ground that matches the spot on an old map of London they found with the Dossier in Whitby. Exploring, they meet Richard Crinn (the Madman, DH p. 121), who Hawkes recognises as a known junkie. He rants about the three girls – one dead, one alive, one un-dead, and other cryptic nonsense, but the team are more interested in finding out what’s behind an Architecturally-suspicious wall than sifting through Crinn’s babblings. Hawkes calls some local social workers to take Crinn away, and warns them that he might be violent by night.

After some poking at bricks, the team smashes through the wall and finds a mysterious upright coffin and an even-more-mysterious partial skeleton entombed in concrete. Fitzy starts pulling bits of the skeleton out of the concrete, and has a psychic flash of the Norman Shaw building (DH p. 193).

The team drags the coffin out into the daylight, and – stakes and crucifixes in hand – open it. Inside, they discover the already-staked corpse of Inspector Cotford. A close examination finds that his throat has been torn open, and stuffed into the wound are several items: Cotford’s wedding ring, some photographs of his family, and a collection of teeth wrenched from a child’s mouth. They reseal the coffin and hide it again.

Fitzy gets some more details from Singleton about the arrangements for the evening. Fitzy will be playing Alfred Singleton, Osman Singleton’s putative grandfather. Enchanted by the idea of playing a sorcerer, Fitzy puts on his robe and wizard hat.

McAllister prepares some silver bullets and the team load up with crucifixes, holy water, and other counter-vampire measures.

Elgin contacts an ally in Germany and arranges for the mysterious brooch to be couriered to England.

Suspecting that the Norman Shaw buildings are central to Dracula’s plans (mainly because they’re central on the map), McAllister and Hawkes head there. Elgin heads to Hillingham;  Baptiste accompanies Fitzy back to Singleton’s. While Singleton and Fitzy argue over how to portray the original, Baptiste sneaks into the Psychic’s study and starts looting handfuls of clues.

At Hillingham, Elgin manages to get into the tent containing the mysterious machine and examines it. It consists of a portable generator, a computer console, and a contraption that consists of a jackhammer-like pillar of solid engraved silver, covered in occult runes. Elgin’s able to access some files on the computer console – they resemble heat maps, or images from ground penetrating radar. They seem to show parts of London as they were in the past, including ghostly tracks where people gathered. Zooming out, it looks like Edom have used the machine at other places around London, but there’s a big DO NOT USE sign on the map near Kingstead Ceremony.

Despite Fitzy’s increasing nervousness, he gets dressed in Alfred Singleton’s old suit and gets on the bus. (He also takes the drugs offered by Singleton.) He meets other actors playing the roles of Kate Reed, Lucy Westenra, Mrs. Westenra, Quincey Harker and other characters from the novel.

At Westminster, McAllister and Hawkes find the entrance to a maintenance tunnel, and hear spectral whispers in the darkness. Before they can investigate, Hawkes spots a man she knows to be an MI5 Agent (DH p. 122) watching them. The pair lay a trap for the Security Service office, and manage to ambush him.

The… performance? Ceremony? Séance? begins again. The machine starts up again, hammering the ground. Vibrating the old walls of Hillingham. The actors somehow become more like the characters they’re portraying, and seem almost possessed. The “scene” is the 17th of April – just after the death of Lucy Westenra (p. 202 of Unredacted for those reading along at home). As Single – as Fitzy approaches the door, he sees the other actor, the man standing next to him playing Cotford, change so he more closely resembles the corpse they found in the sealed coffin earlier that day.

At Singleton’s house, the blue flame returns. Baptiste witnesses another séance, but this time, the ghost in the circle is alternately a beautiful blonde woman or a hideous skeleton – it’s the spirit of Lucy Westenra!

At the Norman Shaw buildings, Hawkes and McAllister question the captured MI5 Agent, who’s clearly running security for Edom. They ask him if it was the Child Vampire who killed Dr. John, and he laughs at them. The Master is at hand – and mist starts to pour down from street level, coagulating into the shape of a tall man…

Fitzy tries to change the script (at this point, we were literally putting on a performance of Page 202 of Unredacted), but the psychic pressure is intense, and changing a single word requires a tremendous effort of will. In Singleton’s house, there’s a wrenching sensation as Lucy’s vampiric ghost becomes more and more manifest. The blue flames of the candles are now these blazing blue columns of fire, impossibly tall.

Under the Norman Shaw buildings, Hawkes and McAllister face down Count Dracula. McAllister fires a blessed silver bullet at the Count, injuring him, but it’s nowhere near enough to stop the vampire. He advances on the pair. Crucifixes hold him at bay; he snarls in fury and snaps the downed MI5 Agent’s neck with a casual gesture, like a man kicking a dog. “You will suffer for this insolence. Your families are mine! Your friends, mine! Your country, mine!”

Just before the actor playing Quincey Morris can announce that Lucy is dead, Elgin shoots the machine, knocking it out of phase. Fitzy collapses; everyone at Hillingham goes silent, apart from the actress playing Lucy. She just starts screaming and screaming, this banshee keen that doesn’t stop.

DraculaAnd back at Singleton’s mansion, the summoning circle is empty. The blue flames have all gone out. Baptiste listens from his hiding place as Osman Singleton orders his remaining followers to bar all the doors and windows and bring up the garlic from the cellar. “We have failed HIM, and he will not forgive. Bar the doors and pray, and we might survive the night!”

 

Spiritual Subduction Zones and other weirdness: I wanted a twist on the both the regular damned vampires and the telluric-bacteria vamps presented in the Director’s Handbook, but I also knew that the campaign works best if you can preserve the earth-tremor connection to Dracula. What I came up with was a breed of vampire that exists on a spiritual borderland between life and death.

A subduction zone is a geological term – it’s the place where one continental plate slips beneath another, causing earthquakes. This setup posits that the physical and the spiritual, life and death, are like continental plates, usually moving in parallel with one another, but in certain places, life can slip beneath death, opening a route to some spiritual underworld. This subduction, this violation of normal reality, causes both psychic and physical feedback that manifests in many ways, including earthquakes.

Vampires are spirits that have crawled out of such a subduction zone. They shouldn’t be alive, so reality keeps trying to drag them back down into that spiritual underworld. Vampires drink blood to cling to life. Staking or beheading a vampire isn’t enough to kill it, as they’re unquiet ghosts inhabiting a body. The only way to kill it is to carry its soul into the underworld, usually by weighing it down with other ghosts. That’s why the vampire Cotford was buried with tokens reminding him of his family – their ghosts would carry his spirit down into the afterworld. That’s why grave goods work.

Certain vibrations can also create artificial subduction zones; resonate the old stones of a building or the bedrock of a region at the right frequency, and it pushes the physical a little into the spiritual realm. That’s why, for example, hauntings are associated with running water. The mundane explanation is that people mistake the gurgling of some buried river or the drip of some leaky pipe for ghostly sounds, but what’s really going on is that the vibrations caused by the running water happen to resonate at the right frequency to push that site into the spiritual realm a little, allowing ghosts to form. 

Edom doesn’t have earthquake machines – they can make earthquakes, but that’s not their real purpose. They’ve got ghost engines, machines that resonate at the right frequency to create subduction zones. They used one of these to resurrect Dracula in 1940 – they opened a subduction zone, and Dracula’s spirit was able to crawl out of the spiritual realm and back into his body. (He was carried down into Hell by the ghost of Quincey Morris; if none of the company had died there, then no amount of physical damage would have stopped Dracula from returning the next night. Edom had to pull him out of Hell in 1940 to bring him back.)

Ghost engines can also be used to call up ghosts, or at least create conditions where ghosts are almost certain to manifest, as the team saw at Hillingham.

< Session 2 – There Was An Explosion Adjacent To A Helicopter

The Prime of Miss Ellen Mowbray – Session 4 >

 

There Was An Explosion Adjacent To A Helicopter

Goetic-org-chart-texture_350

Hawkins Paper 28

Session 2 brings in our first temporary player – a Medic named Dr. John McTavish, a former British army medic now working as a doctor in the Edinburgh hospital where Edom brought Hopkins. The team follow the Edom convoy to the edge of the city, then call to Dr. John’s flat to recruit him. Traffic Analysis warns them that an air-ambulance helicopter was on its way, implying Edom is preparing to move Hopkins by air.

The plan – infiltrate the hospital, recover Hopkins. Aided by Dr. John’s credentials and various disguises, the team make it to the secure upper floor. Hopkins’ room is guarded by two Prosperine ratings – Edom’s special forces. McAllister heads upstairs to secure the helicopter, while the other three try various approaches to bluff their way past the guards. It doesn’t go especially well – things go from “hi, we’re here to prep the patient for transit” to “ok, now the second guard’s trying to strangle you with a towel” in about ten minutes of game time. Upstairs, luck isn’t on the agents’ side earlier: McAllister tries to covertly take out the guards watching the helicopter with a silenced pistol, rolls really badly for damage, and decides to escalate to grenades.

On the bright side, the ensuing fire alarm and mass evacuation of the hospital means that the close-quarters knife/syringe/fistfight in the linen closet downstairs goes unnoticed, even after someone pulled a gun. By the end, Elgin and Dr. John are both still alive and the other pair were unconscious, but no-one is unscathed. Elgin picks up a pair of mysterious syringes (Seward Serum) from the downed guards while Baptiste escapes with the unconscious Hopkins. A quick examination of her chart shows that she’d lost a great deal of blood through a neck wound (said neck wound has tooth marks consistent with a bite from a child). There’s also a woman’s corpse of roughly the same age and appearance as Hopkins, suggesting Edom intends on faking her death.

Baptiste & Dr. John

Baptiste & Dr. John

The team exfiltrates hastily – wait, no, Preparedness 8. The team exfiltrates along a carefully planned back route to a service yard where McAllister has parked another hire car. They flee the city, heading for a safe house belonging to John in Falkirk. There, they wake and question Hopkins, who tells them that she was working with a source inside Edom. She knows that Edom somehow reactivated Dracula in 1940, but that he was kept trapped in Romania by some countermeasure (“held in check”, to be precise). Edom was working to weaken this countermeasure, and her analysis suggested that Edom was ready to bring Dracula across into Whitby by ship. Her plan had been to recruit the agents, then take a fishing trawler out to intercept and destroy Dracula while he was still helpless in his coffin. Clearly, someone fed her bad intel to lay a trap for her and other enemies of Dracula.

If a vampire had bitten her, then it’s possible that it can read her thoughts, just like Mina and Dracula. The agents decide that even with anti-vampire precautions, Hopkins is a liability as long as the child vampire was still out there. They load the car with garlic, sedated Hopkins and cross the country again, heading for some old army buddies of McAllister. They stash Hopkins there, making sure that she had no idea where in the country she is and hence (they hope) unable to relay any added information to Edom’s child vampire.

They swap cars yet again, and arrive in London in a borrowed landrover. McAllister and Elgin pretends to be journalists for an occult magazine, and flatter Osmond Singleton into inviting them to his house for an interview. John and Baptiste watch the occultist’s South London mansion from outside.

The door’s opened by a beautiful blonde girl, who invites them in. Singleton’s in the middle of a sordid party, but his ego can’t resist talking about himself and psychogeography at length. While McAllister endures a lengthy monologue on Singleton’s Blood and Soil: an Occult Exhumation of Romania, Elgin sneaks upstairs…

Outside, things get strange. A parade of drugged-up party-goers troop out of the house and onto a waiting minibus, where they change into costumes. Specifically, late Victorian formal wear for some, and servants’ costumes for others. Baptiste tails the bus as it drives to the ruins of Hillingham, the now-derelict house once home to the Westenra family. The party has become a weird masquerade, with the drugged actors swarming through the graffiti-covered walls of the old mansion, apparently taking on the roles of various people from the Dracula novel. At the same time, a weird thruuum thruuum vibration rolls through the ground – coming, Baptiste discovers, from a large plastic camouflage tent in the back garden of the house. The party-goers are studiously ignoring the anachronistic tent as they take on more and more of the qualities of the characters they’re portraying. The air seems thicker, the light… slower.

06cf65e4-3dab-4e00-8e46-6d62a9bf444f

Back at Singleton’s, the occultist ushers McAllister out. Mist has descended on the garden of Singleton’s house. From outside, McAllister sees a weird blue light suddenly flare in one of the upstairs rooms.

And upstairs, Elgin finds that very room, drawn by same weird hypnotic thruuum thruuum sound that seems to echo through the house without a discernible source. In the room is a circle of candles, blazing with blue flames. In the centre of the circle is the ghost of a dark-haired woman in Victorian costume. She silently mouths HELP ME at the thief. He blows out the candles, breaking the circle –

– At Hillingham, the noise goes thruuum thruuum THUNK, and engineers in the tent yelp in alarm as everything goes wrong. The spell over the masquerade is broken –

And in the garden at Singleton’s house, McAllister finds the corpse of Dr. John McTavish. His throat has been torn out and his back snapped by some tremendous force…

A Few Notes on Directing: Let’s pull the curtain back on a few incidents and talk running games.

Not-so-silent takedown: In a movie, taking out the guards at the helicopter would almost certainly have been a quick scene of competent assassination – thwip thwip of a silenced pistol, and two bodies crumple. But it was our first fight, some of the players were new to GUMSHOE, and poor McAllister rolled so badly on the damage rolls (two ones) that I ruled that one guard survived and was able to fire back.

Too much uncertainty in a roleplaying game, especially in a spy thriller where the odds are massively against the group, is paralysing. If doing anything carries the risk of catastrophic failure, then players tend to turtle up and do as little as possible. Conversely, if the Gamemaster is too forgiving and everything happens in  accordance with the rules of a Bond-esque thriller where the heroes are flawless and infallible, the game gets boring. Total competence and total incompetence are both boring.

Night’s Black Agents addresses this by offering the players the opportunity to buy moments of perfection: you’ve got a once-per-game auto-success in one ability (your Military Occupation Speciality), you can spend lots of General Ability points to beat any reasonable difficulty, and you can spend Investigative Ability points if you can justify how your Art History helps you beat up a mafia goon (“I hit him with the marble bust of famed oil painter Gionanni Bellini (1430-1520)”).

When the players don’t buy that infallibility, though, let the dice fall where they may.

Calibrating to the group: In the fight downstairs, Dr. John spent points of Pharmacy to have prepped some sedative syringes, and assumed that these would work in a cinematic fashion – jam it into a bad guy, bad guy falls down. Baptiste’s player, though a) already told me he’d prefer a somewhat realistic, Dust-style game and b) is a paramedic in real life, so knows what would be available in a hospital pharmacy. We agreed to downgrade the effect of the sedatives to “it makes them drowsy and uncoordinated”, which translated to attack penalties and health checks instead of an instant takedown. John still got to save the day with medical trickery, as the agents would likely have lost a two-on-two fight with the bad guys, but it meant the victory was a little more suited to the desired vibe of the game. (It’s much easier, obviously, to ramp up into high-octane weirdness and action later in a campaign than it is to ramp down into gritty Smiley-esque paranoia, so start your game in the lowest gear your group will tolerate and switch up over time.

Heat in the background: Heat is a wonderful mechanic to remind the players of the consequences of their actions and to force them to act covertly, but it almost always works better as a sauce instead of the main course. I could have included, say, a car chase or a fight with the police as the PCs try to escape Edinburgh having just blown up a helicopter on the roof of a busy central hospital, but it wouldn’t have advanced the story. Instead, I let them get away with a few tests and Urban Survival spends. 

Having agents captured or attacked by the bad guys is fun; having agents arrested or shot by ordinary cops only works in a very long game. (If an agent had gotten arrested in this campaign, I’d have brought in Oakes or some other Edom officer to whisk them away from the police and back into the clandestine arena.)

Everything’s a lead: The players picked Singleton to investigate based on the annotations in the Dossier, plus identifying him as the likely author of Hawkins Paper 28. I had assumed they’d actually go in search of the Retired MI5 Computer Boffin (DH, p. 99), as I trailed his name in the phone, the post-its and in conversation with Hopkins. Equally, I’d dropped references to Exeter and Carfax as likely Edom bases. In the Dracula Dossier, though, everything’s designed to eventually funnel back to Drac, so I wasn’t worried when the Agents fixated on the Psychic (DH, p. 96). Plus, he’s a fun NPC to play as a grotesque.

< Previous Session (Doing The Reading)

Next Session (Street Theatre) >

 

Doing the Reading

The three Agents meet in an inn. Well, a country pub – the Suicide’s Rest, just outside Whitby, where Hopkins has arranged to meet them. As soon as they arrive in town, they can tell something’s wrong. There’s a bad energy in the air (Streetwise); too many spooky figures lurking in alleyways, too many cars with tinted windows.

While they’re in the pub, two black cars zoom past, speeding down narrow winding country roads at high speed. Moments later, they get a text from Hopkins, reading “HEATHER C”. Baptiste heads out to watch the black cars through a telephoto lens; Elgin and McAllister discover that Heather C likely refers to Heather Cottage, a nearby holiday home for rent. They go there; it’s empty, with one car parked outside and signs that another recently left. Inside, they find clues that two people were staying there, although it could sleep as many as eight. A man and a woman. Oddly, there are three cups on the draining board – two coffee, one tea.

Also, there’s a suitcase full of weapons-shaped Preparedness.

Also, a mysterious folder.

Inside, they find

  • A map of London (Hawkins Papers 03)
  • Sundry other mysterious documents that attested to the validity of UNREDACTED
  • A battered iphone. Cracking the lock, they discovered it contained some photographs of documents (including Hawkins Papers 28) and old photos, as well as emails between Hopkins and someone who called himself JACKMAN
  • a copy of DRACULA UNREDACTED, covered in post-its. On the cover is a post-it reading “IF WE’RE NOT BACK BY DUSK, TAKE THIS AND RUN”.

30355e29-3600-4cbc-8ff7-5389c324d340

Meanwhile, from his vantage point on the clifftop, Baptiste sees a man being chased across the rocks below, pursued by two figures that he guesses are special forces types (Proserpine ratings). A mist descends across the cove, and when it vanishes, the first man’s lying in the water, dead. He’s dropped a bundle of documents, which are now bobbing in the tide.

More people arrive, notably a pair who seem to be in charge: an older man and a younger woman (OAKES and HOUND, Dukes of Edom). Local police cordon off the scene, and Hound points the two special forces types in the direction of Heather Cottage. Baptiste warns the other two to exit hastily.

Attempts to phone Hopkins back on the number she texted them from fail; they guess that her phone got snapped in two and dumped in the ocean. Time to run.

The team drive to Durham via back roads and hide in a cheap hotel where they can discuss their options. Going through the documents, they find map co-ordinates pointing at three locations in London (Coldfall House, Hillingham, and Carfax). McTavish also spends a point of Occult Studies (he’s been spending a bunch of time looking into Romanian mythology) to guess that a British occultist and former tv presenter named Osmond Singleton is the author of one of the documents on the phone (Hawkins Papers 28, the “Goetic Org Chart).

Switching cars to avoid pursuit, they decide to head back to Whitby to watch the cleanup, and maybe pick up some of the documents off the rocks. There, they see a fishing trawler being towed to dock; apparently, the whole crew were asphyxiated by a carbon monoxide leak from the engine. It had four crew members, but five shrouded bodies are removed, and they spot one of them being put in a different vehicle from the rest. They also learn that Edom have planted a cover story that “Hopkins” murdered “Jackman” by pushing him off the cliff in a lover’s quarrel.

Hound and Oakes and some of the Edom crew head west; the police, news crews and other “official” elements head to the Middlesborough (the nearest city), and the vehicle containing the fifth ‘body’ (who the Agents correctly suspect to be Hopkins, alive or dead), drives north towards Edinburgh. The team plant a tracking device and follow…img_0659

Preparing the Dossier: The Dossier is barely digestible in a long-running campaign; here, although two players had read part of it, I still wanted to give them a little more focus and structure. Pre-chew it a little, maybe, although that metaphor got very weird there. Hence, the invention of a fourth annotator, Jackman (we’re out of good Van Helsing actors), whose bright post-its pointed the investigators towards key clues like Hillingham.

Other clues in the folder were there mostly for flavour; I was confident that I could improvise around any unexpected lines of inquiry, but doubted they’d, say, start digging into Bram Stoker’s biography while on the run from Edom. Throughout the campaign, I kept the Heat up on the players; they started out hiding from the state, and never had much of a chance to rest. A longer campaign has time for respites and side treks, but a longcon game needs to be a five or six-act thriller.

The phone was a nicely flavourful way of presenting some extra handouts. I just used an old iphone that was lying in a junk drawer, wiped it, photographed some more Hawkins papers, and stuffed some notes in to look like copied emails. (I also changed the time zone to Bucharest.) The cracked screen lent added verisimilitude.

 Preparing the Campaign: I planned the opening set-piece (players find the cottage while Jackman dies on the beach), and I knew I wanted Hopkins to get captured and whisked off to HMS Proserpine (DH, p. XX). I also knew that Hopkins was working with Oakes, and that Edom had been compromised in the ’77 mole hunt and were now trying to bring Dracula back to England. I knew that Edom’s primary vampire was the Feral Child Vampire (DH, p. 191), now codenamed CALIBAN.

I had an idea for a different take on vampires, and especially on Lucy Westenra and the telluric elements of the story, but I wasn’t completely sure if they’d play into the game. I was determined to trust the system and improvise!

For each subsequent session, I sketched out two or three likely incidents in the hour break between games, so I’d have something to throw in if the players were stuck.

< Previous Session (Intro)

Next Session (There Was An Explosion Adjacent To A Helicopter) >