"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, January 7, 2017


"I write to tell you how very much I have enjoyed reading Dracula. I think it is the very best story of diablerie which I have read for many years."

Letter, Arthur Conan Doyle to Bram Stoker

Dracula does not immediately present itself as a spy thriller, until you stop and think about it.  Here is a foreign power from the shadows of Eastern Europe, secretly buying up properties and planning the covert invasion of a Western democracy.  Here is an illegal immigrant smuggled into the country, a terrorist in the deepest sense of the word.  Here is a foe secretly recruiting the young and the vulnerable, brainwashing and turning them to his cause.  Here is a conspiracy that threatens the Crown.  Academics have wrangled over how exactly to classify Bram Stoker's 1897 masterpiece for more than a century, and many have described it first and foremost as invasion literature, the fear of the foreign creeping into society and taking it over.  Seen in this light, it becomes a spy thriller, or at least lends itself to being one with a little help.  That is where Ken Hite comes in.

Some of us have been Hite groupies since the days of Chaosium's Nephilim, and despite a wide variety of RPG credits (he was the line developer, for example, of Last Unicorn's Star Trek: The Original Series) he is probably best known as the guy you go to for painstakingly researched horror games.  We're talking Secret Societies and Major Arcana, we're talking Mage the Sorcerer's Crusade and The Cainite Heresy, we're talking GURPS Cabal and the definitive edition of GURPS Horror.  The list goes on.  Of late he has been with Pelgrane Press, writing the exceptional Trail of Cthulhu around Robin Laws' Gumshoe system.  But it is with The Dracula Dossier, a campaign setting for his Gumshoe-powered game Night's Black Agents that Kenneth Hite outdoes himself.  This thing, ladies and gentlemen, is a masterpiece.

Hite describes NBA as "Jason Bourne meets Dracula," but this is selling the core rules short.  Offering a wide variety of play modes, styles, and options, Agents could just as easily be "George Smiley meets Lestat," "Richard Hannay meets the alien energy drainers from Lifeforce," or "Jack Ryan meets Miriam Blaylock."  Essentially it comes down to the player characters being spies who discover, and take on, a massive vampire conspiracy, but both the type of spy thriller--from gritty, paranoid conspiracy tale to cinematic shaken-not-stirred action--and the nature of the vampires can be tailored to taste.

Agents was good, but the appearance of The Dracula Dossier elevated it to amazing.  While it consists of a full line of materials, I will be talking specifically about two books here; Dracula Unredacted and Director's Handbook.

The backstory goes like this:

In 1894, British Intelligence attempted to recruit the ultimate deniable asset, a vampire.  Their assets--George Stoker and Armin Vambery--had uncovered the existence of these creatures nearly two decades earlier on the front lines of the Russo-Turkish War.  Spymaster Peter Hawkins sends a young agent, Johnathan Harker, to bring the vampire in.  Transport is arranged for him to Britain and a safehouse secured.  But this vampire, Count Dracula, cannot be controlled.  He turns on his handler and launches his own schemes.  British Intelligence has no choice but to recruit others to terminate him.

In the fall-out of this mess, George Stoker's brother, Bram, is assigned the task of collecting all pertinent documents (diaries, telegrams, newspaper clippings) to prepare the after action report.  For whatever reason, the original is then heavily redacted and released to the public as a misinformation campaign.  The rogue branch of Intelligence that attempted to recruit Dracula, Operation Edom, goes underground.

Neither Dracula, nor Edom, surrenders so easily.

In World War II Edom attempts to recruit Dracula again, and in the 1970s realize Dracula had left behind his own network of agents that was preying on British Intelligence and feeding secrets to the Romanians.  After the terror attacks of 7/7 in 2011, Edom crawls out of the woodwork yet again, hoping to recruit Dracula to eat his way through Al-Qaeda and ISIS.  But like the back of the book says, "Dracula cannot be controlled and Edom cannot be trusted."

This is where the players come in.  Intelligence agents, they come into possession of the original, unredacted Stoker report.  This is the complete record of the 1894 operation, annotated over the years by three different Intelligence agents (one in the 40s, the 70s, and the present day--charmingly they use the work names Van Sloan, Cushing, and Hopkins after the actors who played Van Helsing).  Using this file, the "Dracula Dossier," they follow up its clues and attempt to hunt down the vampire once and for all, taking on his own massive conspiracy and Operation Edom in the process.

None of this does justice to the immensity of what Hite and co-author Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan have done here.  Dracula Unredacted is Bram Stoker's entire, full-length novel, published with hundreds of annotations scrawled in the margins in three colors of ink by the three different "Van Helsings."  Each of these corresponds to an entry in the Director's Handbook that offers several different takes on what the entry might mean.  Dracula Unredacted is then given to the players as what has to be the most amazing player handout ever conceived, and they use it to steer the campaign.  The players read it, and decide which entries to investigate.  The GM then consults the Director's Handbook and responds by taking the option that best suits his campaign.

For example, Lucy Westenra finds a brooch on the beach in Whitby.  An annotation mentions that this item was not found among her personal belongings after death.  If the players chose to pursue this clue, several different locations for where the brooch might be found are given in the Director's Handbook, as well as options for the brooch's significance.  Is it an occult artifact that calls out to vampires?  An ornament Dracula gives out to his agents?  Just a simple piece of jewelry with no significance at all?  Each choice leads to other options, allowing the players to follow the trail of clues back to Dracula.

In essence we are talking a sandbox campaign here, with the novel itself serving as the map.  The players go where they deem best and the GM responds.

The Director's Handbook also helps the GM set up the structure and purpose of Dracula's conspiracy, as well as determining what sort of vampire the Count really is.  Everything is a choice in this campaign, from the true names of the principal characters (was "Johnathan Harker" really his name, or was this a cover identity) to their exact roles (Quincy P Morris...a Texan?  Really?  Or was this an elaborate cover for an Edom agent or minion of Dracula?).  The end result is that no two playings of the Dracula Dossier would ever be the same.

For hardcore Stoker fans, Dracula Unredacted is a treasure unto itself.  While it is essentially the original Stoker novel, Hite and Ryder-Hanrahan have gone back into the author's original notes to replace characters, subplots, and events eventually cut from the novel.  These have been flawlessly inserted and repurposed.  I will say no more without spoilers, but the way Stoker's famous Dracula's Guest is put back into the book is a stroke of genius.  Even just reading Dracula Unredacted alone is a game of figuring out where Stoker ends and the new additions begin.

Because this is set in the modern day, because just as in our world Dracula was published and made into umpteen films, plays, and television programs, Dracula Unredacted is not even the players' only resource.  Nothing stops them from pulling out their smartphones and tablets in the midst of play, Googling historical figures, locations, and details from the text.  Hite hasn't just made shit up, he's drawn on a ridiculous number of other sources and references for players to chase down.  Again, this makes the Dracula Dossier a genuinely one-of-a-kind experience as reality itself conspires to further the tale.

If you have the kind of group that likes to be genuinely challenged--not just falling back on dice rolls and optimizing character stats--this is for you.  It will push players to the limits of their own ingenuity as they match wits against Dracula and attempt to dismantle his schemes.  If you like gothic horror, historicity in games, globe-hopping spy thrillers, you need to own this.  It is truly unique.