“They say much of blood and bloom, and of others which I comprehend not, though I guess what they mean; but nevertheless they tell us all things which we want to know.”

— Abraham Van Helsing, in Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Through the persons of writer-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the BBC (and its pals at Netflix) has vouchsafed to us in this year of our Lord 2020 yet another tilt at the Dracula windmill, this time in a three-episode limited series. (Hereafter, “D2020“. Also hereafter, spoilers.) The specific merits of this iteration aside (which include a rich, Hammer-inspired camera palette and a credibly terrifying Dracula when he shuts up) it also — as with every version of Dracula, or of Dracula — provides a fair few gameable spins on the myth, and on vampires. For example, the bite of D2020 Dracula creates revenants (they look like zombies, but probably use mostly Feral stats (NBA, p. 150)); only a few of his victims survive Infection with enough personality to become true self-willed vampires themselves. The many, many boxes and crates (and habitrails, and fridges) of ferals work very effectively on screen, and likely works well at the table — it makes those warehouse fights more interesting, that’s for sure.

So let’s settle in and dip our fingers in the BBC’s goblet, shall we?

Dracula, hungry for learning

New Power: Drain Knowledge

When Dracula drinks any blood from a human in D2020, he knows their name and something of their background almost immediately. When he drains them, he picks up their entire knowledge base, possibly even including physical skills. (In episode 3, he complains of the taste of a physicist and a professional tennis player.) His language patterns shift, and he even (briefly) picks up a meaningless exercise habit from modern Londoners. Even by smell, he can detect members of a familiar bloodline and something about them.

Vampires with Drain Knowledge gain immediate, surface knowledge of any human whose blood they taste. A big sip (at least 1 Health) gives them the equivalent of a 0-point spend, or a few minutes’ Google search: name, background, emotional state, family connections, etc. Bigger drinks burrow deeper, uncovering closely held secrets; when the amount of Health consumed equals the target’s Stability (or kills the target), the vampire knows every aspect of the target’s thoughts and memories, including buried traumas or brainwashed secrets. (An Agent can resist giving up a secret with a successful Stability test against a Difficulty equal to 4+ their lost Health.) Even a quick gulp (2+ Health drained) provides language and social skills that allow the vampire to briefly blend into the target’s society (the equivalent of 1 point in High Society or Reassurance or another relevant Interpersonal ability); completely draining a suitable target provides technical skills if needed (e.g., a Transylvanian warlord can suddenly use Skype). As a rule of thumb, each point of Health drained past the first provides the equivalent of 1 point in an ability.

In D2020, this seems like a free (almost unavoidable) power; if the vampire can control it, it costs 1 point of Aberrance per target or per scene.

Node: The Jonathan Harker Foundation

The third episode also shares a liter or two of DNA with The Dracula Dossier, not least its covert vampirological operation. In D2020, this secretive medical charity operates out of (and beneath) Cholmely House, a crumbling Victorian building in Whitby near the Abbey ruins. Named for the dead fiancée of Mina Murray, built on the infrastructure of the nuns’ order at the Hospital of St. Joseph and Ste. Mary (DH, p. 230), and backed by mysterious financiers, it conducts hematological research and searches for the body of Dracula, presumed lost at sea with the Demeter. Its staff includes doctors and mercenaries, and its facilities include a glass-walled prison with a remote-controlled sun roof.

EDOM: Obviously, this was the first version of the vampire prison, before EDOM built the holding facilities on HMS Proserpine. In some campaigns, this might be the only vampire prison, or a staging area for Proserpine transfers (DH, p. 178). This also fits a much smaller version of EDOM (even Dustier or more Mirrored than on EFM p. 58), one that has to contract out mercenaries (via a shell corporation) for security instead of depending on the SAS’ E Squadrons. Either way, its guards use the Special Operations Soldiers stats (NBA, p. 70).

CIA: Or the Russians, or the Chinese, or whomever. Some other agency runs the Harker Foundation, tasked to steal a march on EDOM by trawling the seas off Whitby for lost vampires — either prisoners escaping from Proserpine, or vampirized sailors from the Demeter crawling anoxically over the bottom of the North Sea. Or perhaps, as speculated on DH p. 178, Whitby is one of the magical gates to England, so anyone looking to snare a vampire does well to set up shop here. Either way, they have to keep things to one building and use deniable mercs to avoid MI5 or EDOM noticing.

Conspiracy: Boy, Dracula got ahold of a WiFi-enabled tablet pretty easily in that show, didn’t he? What looks like an idiot plot is actually the action of Dracula’s sleeper agents, left behind in Whitby to infiltrate just such a facility. He funds it through cut-outs, and allows it to operate on the “keep your enemies closer” school of thought, and as a way to release useful blood samples or lore into the British medical stream.

Connections: At one point, the Foundation canonically has a Vial of Blood (only a single tube rather than the jar on DH p. 284), and a Legacy (Zoë Helsing instead of Dr. Jacqueline Seward (DH, p. 47) but you can switch those out). Given the number of vampiric revenants lying around (nine in Highgate Cemetery alone), the Foundation may have synthesized any of the Seward Serum (DH, p. 51), Serum V (DH, p. 162), Blomberg Serum (DH, p. 282), or Luria Formula (DH, p. 114). If it’s EDOM, it’s part of Dr. Drawes’ operation (DH, p. 50); it may also employ the Pharmaceutical Researcher (DH, p. 128). Its charity work could overlap or partner with Heal the Children (DH, p. 150). Its mysterious backer might be the venture capital group (or government black budget) behind Nox Therapeutics (DH, p. 162), which might have memos or (apparently) even regular Skype session logs documenting their connection. Since we know it runs human trials on the surface, its tunnels potentially even hold Camp Midnight (DH, p. 252) or the British (or private-sector) equivalent. Given its connections to the Budapest hospital, the Hungarian (DH, p. 94) likely knows enough to set Agents (or the Journalist; DH, p. 120) on its trail.


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

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