A Lazy Sequence

The Dracula Dossier

Pelgrane Press’s The Dracula Dossier for Night’s Black Agents – successfully Kickstarted a little over year ago – has started shipping to backers.

The Dracula Dossier follows in the fully improvisational path of the award-winning Armitage Files campaign. Players follow up leads in the margins of Dracula Unredacted, a rare edition of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece that reveals the terrifying truth behind the fiction. They’ll chase down the real characters from Stoker’s novel, their descendants in the present, and the British agents caught in the backblast.

I’ve started reading through the campaign guidebook, the Director’s Handbook, and leaving Dracula Unredacted for holiday reading. This book is daunting; there is just so much content.

Ruth Tillman, in her review, writes:

When reading this I went through a bizarre cycle of eager, intrigued, appreciative, and overwhelmed. The first and last few sections were critical for me in sorting out these feelings and figuring out what I could do with the info.…

In my opinion, the best way to read the book is to start with “Opening the Dossier” through “Opposition Forces” and skip 180 pages or so to “Scenario Spines.” This section and the “Capstones” and “Campaign Frames” that follow are the key to avoiding getting a mental stomach ache in the feast of plot hooks and ideas in the middle. While you could simply skip forward from “Opening the Dossier,” the sections exploring the possibilities in the 1894 originals and their descendants and getting into Edom, Dracula, and other factors in play are exactly enough background material to put you in the right headspace as you read spines, capstones, and campaign frames.

I wrote about Night’s Black Agents previously.

23 October 2015

Directors Handbook: Eyes Only Briefing and Opening the Dossier

The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook starts off quickly and gathers speed. The first section, Eyes Only Briefing, is 1.5 pages long, and lays out the big picture prelude to the campaign; its very dense, I will have to review this again later. The next section, Opening the Dossier, covers all the ground work the game master will need to consider before running the game, as well as explaining the structure of the book and how to use it.

I appreciated the discussion of how this campaign may fit into an existing NBA game, or start fresh. The treatment of Unredacted Dracula as the central MacGuffin to get things rolling is smart: not only do the players get to use this as a resource to jump start their investigations, the GM has motivations for Edom and Dracula to throw action at the players till they find their feet. Great for getting a new game going, or for pivoting an existing game. This is an improvement over The Armitage Files (Pelgrane’s prior improvised campaign) which, if my memory serves, only provides the equivalent files as a clue source.

On a purely physical level, the Dossier resembles the sort of government-issue binder that proliferates in every cubicle farm from Kharkiv to Kansas City.

I really want to do what Rickard on the Pelgrane forums has done, and make this into a prop. Hopefully the color printing costs are not prohibitive.

My favourite detail so far: the various pyramids thats make up algorithmic structure of the campaign. The Dracula Dossier adds to the typical NBA conspyramid and vampyramid an additional response pyramid (similar to Dracula’s vampyramid) for the Edom conspiracy. Each response pyramid is given a different purpose and set of conditions for when the GM should use it.

In addition to the pyramids, guidelines for using legacies – characters with connections to the original characters in the book – cover the final mechanism for the GM to track and direct pacing throughout the campaign.

For such an ambitious campaign, its reassuring to have tools for the GM to fall back on as well as manage the pacing.

Don’t overplan — the goal of the campaign is collaborative, improvised play. But it never hurts to have some idea of what might happen next, even if you’re letting the players decide where it happens, and to whom.

There’s a lot to take in in these first two chapters. The next section, The 1894 Network, looks like it will be a lighter read.

23 October 2015

Directors Handbook: The 1894 Network

The 1894 Network covers two sets of characters: the originals (found in Stoker’s Dracula), and the legacies: descendants of the original network. Both groups of NPCs have options for which side of the conflict they fall on.

The legacy characters are a reasonably diverse bunch (although the majority are white). It’s cool to see that five of the nine are women (obviously the ratio isn’t able to be so balanced in the 1894 network). I am also pleased to see that none of the options for the characters are obvious; Hite and Ryder-Hanrahan have given each character great motivations that are sure to provide surprises to everyone.

It is clear that legacies will be core axes for a campaign to turn on.

I'm less sure of the 1894 network. I suspect that I would limit decisions about which side any given character falls on until the time the PCs investigate them; trying to preplan these decisions up front is a recipe for confusion (or many index cards).

The character profile art in this section is really great. Normally I prefer active depictions of characters in RPG illustrations but I think here the decision to use tightly cropped frames and passive poses works well: The characters can cover a very broad ground with the options for innocent, Edom asset, and minion of Dracula where a more active representation could have leaned too heavily on a particular option. Unfortunately, looking ahead to the Opposition Forces section, the quality slumps a little.

The rules for allowing a player to take the role of a legacy are cool (new drive, new background). I can see this option being an appealing choice for dramatically inclined players who are fans of the spy fiction genre.

25 October 2015

Directors Handbook: Opposition Forces

This chapter presents the two primary groups of opposition the players face in a Dracula Dossier campaign: Dracula, and the Edom conspiracy. It also rounds things out with more forces for the GM to use as auxiliary threads outside of England and Romania; I skipped these for now.

The primary characters in Edom are "D" (head of the conspiracy in MI6), and Doctor Drawes. Following the pattern of the book, both are presented with a number of options and interpretations. The rest of the Dukes of Edom are far more utilitarian, with a small blurb about their relationship with the Edom conspiracy, and how they respond to the players. Practical but not exciting.

Edom is just the entree to main event: Dracula. A central strength of Night’s Black Agents is that the GM has the tools to make vampires interesting and scary again. My main concern with the concept of the Dracula Dossier is Dracula: would he be too familiar (lacking the fear of the unknown), would the campaign be tied to the vampires that Stoker presented?

I can shelve my concern. In game terms Dracula is a scary bad ass: his aberrance score alone is off the charts. The vampire build provided as an option, Telluric vampires, comfortably rings true to the familiar aspects of Stoker's vampire, but deviates enough to keep things fresh.

Telluric vampires (vampires powered by the electrical current that moves underground across the globe) are an excellent spin on the traditional powers and weaknesses that everyone knows from the novel and pop-culture. Between this build, and the Linea Dracula build from the core book, the GM has the option to run the campaign with the vampires in any of the four modes (supernatural, damned, alien, mutant).

This section – and various pyramids in Opening the Dossier – pull together the core threads of the campaign. The tension between Edom and the Dracula conspiracy is well orchestrated; it’s nice when a campaign author provides two enemy forces that are clearly interconnected but working toward orthogonal goals, while still giving the player characters room to move and be the heroes.

My final observation before moving on is that the balance between familiar and fresh has been well executed here; the telluric vampires are a high point. I think this is an important move for an improvisational campaign.

Next: skipping ahead to Scenario Spines and Capstones.

2 November 2015