Special Relationships Are Not Special Snowflakes (Or At Least, Not If You Do Them Right)

by Lisa Padol

When I first started running the Dracula Dossier, setting up the 1894 group, one of my players wanted a special relationship with Dracula. They wanted to have had their character have met Dracula as a child and for Dracula to have taken a liking to them. After all, the player argued, just because one was an evil serial killer, it didn’t mean that one couldn’t, you know, like someone.

I said no, and while I was correct at the time, it wasn’t for the reason I gave, as I eventually figured out. The reason I gave was that I was holding by what Ken Hite had said: There are no nice vampires. There are no good vampires. There are no vampires who are your PC’s friend.

And this is all correct, but doesn’t actually touch on the real reasons. “This person is first, last, and in between a villain” says nothing about having special relationships with PCs.

No, there were two reasons that I came to realize actually mattered here:

1. You do not get to be the special one in an RPG. EVERYONE needs to be special. 

This has an obvious fix, of course. Give everyone a special relationship. The player wasn’t asking for others not to have this, and multiple special relationships do not dilute the game. They are all unique, just as snowflakes are.

Also,

2. I didn’t yet know enough about my Dracula to figure out how this would work. 

It’s the second that was more important, as we were beginning the campaign at the time. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, who the PCs would be, how they’d interact with each other and with Dracula. I had no idea we’d have a session 0.5 or that one of my players would create a unique Fiasco set for it, or that this would define the starting relationships among the PCs.

The 1894 leg of the campaign was something of a glorious disaster that still worked better than it should have. I was feeling my way with Dracula. I knew he was Nicolaus Olahus, but not what he wanted or how he was planning to get it or how the Edom recruitment plan had been shaped. I used Count De’Ville, and later decided that he was acting far too incompetently to be Dracula. Obviously, he was someone who’d been turned into a vampire by Carmilla, yep, that’s what I meant to do all along.

I created secret passages on the fly, trying to figure out between sessions where they led and why. I dumped far too much of the Hawkins Papers and other handouts on my hapless players, who struggled to figure out what this meant for them, for their characters, and for what they should actually do. I rewrote sections of Dracula and handed four chapters of the reworked novel to players without bothering to highlight the new material.

I spent the time between sessions recalibrating and trying to account for apparent contradictions and gaping holes in what passed for my plot. And, I managed to fit the pieces into a narrative that actually made some amount of sense.

And by the end, though I’m not sure I saw it then, the PCs had special relationships, each one different.

One PC did indeed have an odd relationship with Dracula in play. She was a psychoanalyst who personally knew Freud. Dracula / Olahus was fascinated by this new field of learning, and their relationship grew out of their interaction in the game.

This was the only special relationship with Dracula, but not the only special relationship. The player who made the initial request created a woman who had seen faeries as a child and had married the man who’d bought her family home so that she could continue to look for them.

And she found them. They convinced her to go travel the universe with them, going into a faerie mound. Her NPC husband followed her.

The faeries were actually mi-go, and traveling the universe means what you’d expect. The player created a very different PC, but seemed happy that the original PC and her husband were traveling the galaxy in mi-go brain cannisters. She pointed out that the happy, if deluded, couple could return to the campaign in the present day, something I’m very much contemplating. The mi-go are not Dracula, but are very much a faction in my Dracula Dossier, and, I hope, an interesting one.

Another PC was bitten by Count De’Ville, which was a mistake on my part. Instantly:

  • The player played the PC as trying to cut herself off from the flow of information.
  • The other players made plans without the PC, including plans to deal with the PC fatally, if necessary.

In other words, while the character had a unique relationship with a vampire, the player had less to do. This is not good. I’ve got a rules hack to use for the future which will probably make this sort of thing less of an issue, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the first hint that a PC is compromised cripples player agency. You don’t want to do that.

However, at the end of the 1894 leg of the game, the PC had been freed of vampiric influence. De’Ville was dead. The player thought about this, and decided that the PC would approach Carmilla to say, “Your lieutenant died. I think that means you have an open position. I would like to fill that.”

That was fine because it did use player agency. The PC became mostly an NPC, with one exception: I let the player play her in the 1977 leg, with mixed success, again due to suboptimal GMing calls I made. But, the character is still around and has enjoyed a unique relationship with a vampire that is very different than the psychologist’s unique relationship with a vampire.

One of the other PCs had a special relationship with someone in Edom, and ended the game deciding to take over Edom from the inside and reform it. And, while he was at it, perhaps he’d look into non-vampiric forms of immortality. As with the PC mentioned above, he returned as a PC in 1977, but as with her, he’s mostly mine now.

The final player had a little bit of everything, in a way. His PC felt personally betrayed by De’Ville because the PC used De’Ville’s diary from his vampire hunting days as a Symbol. Destroying De’Ville made him feel vindicated. He was also a close ally and friend of the PC who psychoanalyzed Dracula, and they had friendly arguments over various symptoms of vampirisim and What It All Meant.

And, he was the half-brother of the woman who went off with the faeries. Two of the other PCs had seen through the mi-go illusion and were shaken, but he was not. He stayed in his half-sister’s ancestral home, training her son in the ways of hunting vampires, and eventually joined his half-sister and her husband on their travels throughout the galaxy.

As should be obvious, the 1894 leg was full of bumps, fits and starts, and mistakes, but was also a fair amount of fun and set the foundation for the rest of the campaign (which… also involved a lot of mistakes, including a repeat of the one involving compromising a PC). We’ve been playing on and off for about five years, I think, and are now in the final leg of Dracula Dossier, set in 2015, starting with the death of Sir Christopher Lee.

The group has changed a little, as folks dropped in and out of the various mini-campaigns and one-shots. It currently has 5 players, 4 of whom were in the original 1894 leg.

Well before the 2015 leg started, I got a similar request from a different player, a request that her PC have a special relationship with Dracula, for Dracula to be obsessed or fascinated with this PC, who, like her 1894 PC, is a psychoanalyst. The player wants to have a chance to resolve some of the issues we never were able to bring to a satisfying climax.

As before, my gut reaction was “No!”, but this time, I was well aware that my gut was incorrect.

For the 1894 leg, I couldn’t agree to anything specific in terms of the relationships folks would have with Dracula because I didn’t even know who he was. For the 2015 leg, I know EXACTLY who Dracula is now. I know what he wants and why and how he plans to get it. Sure, there are details I need to work out, but I know why he might have a special relationship with the player’s character and how that might work, at least as we begin play.

I am not sure I can provide the closure the player wants. While a valid concern, it is not, however, a reason not to try. We’ll have to check in with each other to make sure we’re not misinterpreting things, but that’s true in any RPG.

And one thing the player had the 1894 PC say stuck with me. She said that she was Nicolaus’s last chance, that he’d steadily lose what little empathy he had left with humanity. And I think it makes sense that she was correct. And I also think that, whether or not the 1894 PC and the vampire ever met again, in some way, Nicolaus never stopped arguing with her in his mind. Both were disappointed in each other, and… by all rights, there should be play in this.

And, as for the Special Snowflake issue, and the answer is not “No, you don’t get to be the Special One with the Special Relationship to Dracula.” There are better answers.

One is to give everyone a special relationship to Dracula of some kind.

Another is to give everyone a special relationship to someone who, if not Dracula, is as cool as Dracula in their own way. I have a lot of pieces in play, including the mi-go who are also the faeries and who also run the Scholomance (and one of the other PCs accepted an invitation to take a whirlwind tour of Mars and Jupiter. Her brain has since been restored to her body), several different factions of Edom, an Israeli counterpart of Edom, and walking products of elder thing technology, all of whom are represented by NPCs (some of whom are former PCs). And that’s before we get to Edward Kelley / Abraham van Helsing…

There really is enough specialness to go around.


Lisa Padol has been running GUMSHOE since Eternal Lies came out. She needs to remind herself that she doesn’t have time to playtest everything for Trail of Cthulhu, the Yellow King RPG, and Night’s Black Agents.


The Dracula Dossier reveals that Dracula is not a novel. It’s the censored version of Bram Stoker’s after-action report of the failed British Intelligence attempt to recruit a vampire in 1894. Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan have restored the deleted sections, inserting annotations and clues left by three generations of MI6 analysts. This is Dracula UnredactedFollow those clues to the Director’s Handbook, containing hundreds of encounters: shady NPCs, dangerous locations, conspiratorial nodes, and mysterious objects. Together they comprise The Dracula Dossier — an epic improvised, collaborative campaign for Night’s Black Agents, our award-winning vampire spy thriller RPG. Purchase the Dracula Dossier starter kit bundle in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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