Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Dracula Autopsy

Well then. Twenty-two sessions and almost a year later, my Dracula Dossier campaign is finished. Twenty-two sessions! I think that may be the longest campaign I've ever run; Rogue Trader ran for fifteen sessions, as did The Enemy Within II: Enemy Withiner, and while it did take about a year to play through Horror on the Orient Express back in 1998ish I'm almost certain that we didn't get twenty-two sessions out of it.

You can read individual session summaries here, but now that the game is done and I don't have to worry about spoiling anything for the players, I thought it would be good to have a look at some of the behind the scenes stuff.

Spoilers follow!

Breaking the Rules

The Dracula Dossier is written for Night's Black Agents, a Gumshoe variant, so of course I ran it with a patchwork of Call of Cthulhu, the new Delta Green rpg, Mongoose's RuneQuest II, some mechanics of my own design, and even a bit of Pendragon. I did this because I'm an idiot I kept banging my head against the NBA rules and couldn't make sense of them; it's not a complicated ruleset, but something about the game was not sinking in, so I went with something familiar, the Chaosium d100 system, albeit a hybrid version.

Given that it was such a Frankenstein of a ruleset I think it worked quite well, much better than if I'd used NBA, but as the campaign evolved it moved away from investigation and more towards action; towards the last third or so I did begin to wonder if Savage Worlds would have been a better choice.


One niggling problem with my jerry-rigged rules was that I had nothing in place to model the agents' finances; I would have liked to have seen fewer private jets and more shady deals, with the player-characters having to work to get access to equipment and funds, but they operated with more or less infinite resources and that lacked drama.

I also don't think I made enough of the player-characters drawing heat from the authorities. I modified NBA's mechanics for tracking the agents' notoriety, but when they did get spotted by police, or got picked up on CCTV, and so on, I didn't push back hard enough, so I don't think the players ever felt like they were in trouble.

I think that perhaps building time limits into the campaign would help with this; yes, the agents can lie low for two weeks, but they need to raid the shipping company in the next two days, before the records are destroyed!

Modern Life Is (Mostly) Rubbish

One advantage of running a game set in the present day is that it's easy to research; most people know how the modern world works and it's easy to find out what you don't know; you can Google it!

The problem is that player-characters in a modern setting can Google things too, and that can suck the drama out of the game.

It seems churlish to ban the modern era as a setting for investigative games, but if you're going to be running DD in the present day be prepared for tech-savvy players. Look up how computer hacking works, and the sort of information and services that are available through computer networks. Can the player-characters mess around with the traffic lights in London? Can they access blueprints of the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest? Can they hack MI6's bank account?

These are tricky questions because it's difficult to know on the spot what the answers are. You can make something up about Generic Fantasy World #87 but if you start making things up about a world that's just like ours except it's got Dracula in it, you may get caught out.

One way to avoid the issue is to set the campaign in the dark pre-internet days, and there is some material in the book on setting the game in the 1970's, the 1940's, or the 1890's; in hindsight, I think I would have enjoyed a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy style game set during the Wilson/Heath era.

All that said, there was something quite fun about the players asking "can we do X?" and then everyone using our smartphones to find out.

Who Built the Pyramids?

This campaign was a pain in the neck -- ho ho -- to develop. The Director's Handbook is bursting with content -- it has hundreds of pages of characters, locations, objects, and organisations, not all of which will be used in even the most sprawling campaign -- but is somewhat lacking in practical advice of what to do with all the piles of stuff.

There's a brief example at the start of the book of a conspyramid -- the default NBA campaign structure -- with some of the DD specific elements slotted in, and there is a little bit of discussion on who Dracula is, but that's about it for gamemaster advice. Given how much content there is, I think there needs to be more and better guidance.

Each of the entries in the book gives suggested connections to the others, so it's possible to brute force your way through and then go back and populate your conspyramid, but it's not an efficient process. What I did in the end was use a random generation method -- a deck of cards was released as part of the campaign's Kickstarter -- to get the basic structure, then I filled the gaps with the bits that seemed most interesting from skimming the book. After that I went back and tinkered with the plan so that the connections made sense and there were no dead ends, and I was ready to go.

Except I wasn't because I had no idea how to start the campaign. There is zero advice on how to kick things off, beyond a short starting scenario lurking in the back of the book or a separate adventure released for Free RPG Day. Again, I made something up, borrowing from both.

What does Dracula want? No idea. We are given a number of candidates for who Dracula was in life, but almost no discussion at all of his possible goals, needs, and wants. We know what EDOM wants, or at least what it claims to want, but there's zilch -- not even a list of suggestions -- of what the main antagonist's motivations are. The best we get is some vague references to him hating Turks, and as I was sitting here in March 2016 trying to put a campaign together, that didn't seem anywhere near good enough.

As it turned out my players didn't seem interested in Dracula's goals, so perhaps it doesn't matter.

Excuse Me, Have You Seen Mr Dracula?

The Dracula Dossier looks like an investigative campaign but it plays almost like a hexcrawl, or maybe a pointcrawl. There are clues and connections everywhere and all lead in the end to Dracula, but some are more direct than others; this is what that conspyramid structure is supposed to illustrate.

In theory there are no dead ends in this kind of structure; if a line of investigation stalls and the players can't go any further "up" the conspyramid, they can always go sideways or down to find another route, and perhaps can return later to the original thread to pick it up again once they know more.

I didn't make this concept clear to my players and I think the campaign suffered a bit as a result. There were a couple of occasions where they felt like they'd exhausted a line of enquiry and I think they got frustrated; I felt like they were overlooking other paths when in truth they'd just forgotten, because there were so many threads to monitor.

In the last half of the campaign I started issuing index cards with notes on them, so the players could see what they'd discovered so far and where the gaps were, and I think that helped, but I think it would perhaps have been sensible to discuss the campaign structure with them before we began.

Super Nature

Where the book gives the option of a campaign element being mundane or something more eldritch, I almost always went with the latter. My version of Dracula's "wolf gypsies" were actual werewolves because why not? Bram Stoker's The Jewel of the Seven Stars is also a redacted mission report, so there's a mummy running around too -- the players didn't meet her -- because why not? Jack the Ripper's disembodied spirit is floating around London because why not?

At some point in preparing the campaign it went from The Bourne Identity to Hellboy and I thought that was good and appropriate, but I acknowledge that's not going to be for everyone; I know some of my players raised an eyebrow when things started getting a bit silly, but I think I got away with it and, after all, the Director's Handbook itself allowed the possibility.

On the other hand, the Director's Handbook didn't suggest that an immortal Rasputin was the head of Russia's secret vampire programme. That was all my fault. Nor did it suggest that Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is also a mission report and that Jekyll's potion is an early experimental use of Seward Serum. That's my fault too; yes, the dates don't quite match up but it's close enough.

They are lucky that I didn't make Dracula an avatar of Nyarlathotep.

Fangs for the Memories

I think I got a lot wrong in running DD. I was unused to the format of the campaign, I struggled without robust GM advice, and I made things more difficult by chucking out the intended rules system and using my own. All that said, I think it was a success; everyone had fun along the way and I think the players felt that they achieved something significant when they pinned Dracula down and defeated him.

The Dracula Dossier is not a great campaign out of the box -- I think it relies a little too much on quantity of content over utility, and on the central gimmick of Dracula being the biggest player handout ever -- but with a bit of work it can be a good one, and once it gets going it sort of runs itself. It kept me and my group entertained for half a year, and that's not bad at all.

Update! One of my players shares his thoughts on the campaign here.


  1. I really enjoyed it. I think there were points when we were blundering in the dark and really didn't know what what going on. Instead, we resorted to just blowing things up or taking down vampires when they cropped up. The biggest challenge was motivation for my character - why? Why stick our necks out? We did have our drives, and I should have done more with mine than I did. I think Manoj was very faithful to his. It would have been good to play one or two more sessions after Dracula was finished off, as it was getting more interesting!

    1. I asked Ken hite about the motivation issue at Dragonmeet 2015 ad his answer was more or less "if they don't get involved they'll get killed". I'm not sure how convinced I was by that, but maybe that's because -- as I mention above -- I was reluctant to push back too hard.

      Would it have been a turn off if Dracula turned up, killed everyone, and took the Dossier? Maybe!

      As for the sequel/epilogue, if everyone else is up for it, maybe we can play out the Russian Situation.