Compelling. Intriguing. Thorough. Open. Hella frustrating because I can think of 5 different ways I want to use it and don’t have time for any of them. It’s hard to come up with the right words for the Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook because it is so many different things. On the surface, it’s one of the most thorough sources I’ve seen for an improvisational campaign.
The hook? Bram Stoker’s Dracula is actually a redacted after-action field report of a failed operation in which British agents tried to bring Dracula into the Crown’s service. The redacted version was released as disinformation, but a real copy (Dracula Unredacted) has floated around the shadowy agency, Edom, for generations, collecting annotations. Each generation makes the same mistake—this time it will be different. Surely Dracula will help us fight the Nazis. Surely Vlad the Impaler’s time fighting Muslims means he’ll be willing to fight Al-Qaeda for us.
Right now? It’s going horribly wrong. Dracula is awake. He’s out. He may be helping Edom against Al-Qaeda, but they’re tolerating atrocities and abominations that should make any halfway decent human send Dracula straight to hell. When that halfway decent human, a MI-6 agent outside of the Edom conspiracy (code name “Hopkins”), comes across it, she adds her own horrified annotations and tries to get the unredacted copy into the hands of someone who will use it for good. And that, perhaps, is how your players end up with it. (Like so much in this book, it’s quite open.) Suddenly, you’ve got a target on your back and your neck as both Edom and Dracula come gunning—fanging?— for you. The concept could integrate into an ongoing Night’s Black Agents campaign or be the kickoff for a new one.
In reading the Director’s Handbook, I came to see the ideal campaign as a quasi-book club. Meet for 4 hours at a time, spend 30-60 minutes discussion the book, give the Director a few time to put sticky notes in relevant pages, and launch into gameplay. As someone who’s read Dracula 4+ times and is casually reading Unredacted, this is pretty much my dream gaming experience. But as a potential Director, managing to get my gaming group (myself included) to meet regularly is hard enough, let alone throwing in the book club element. And while I’m good at improvising around a known setting, the thought of incorporating any of the 100+ people/organizations/locations/objects into something at the last moment felt overwhelming since I just don’t have that much experience doing it.
However. The improvisational book club concept isn’t the only way to use the Director’s Handbook, and the authors know it, giving us…
Structure in the Book-ends
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. The writers don’t just dump awesome ideas on you (at times I felt like the dog in this video), they provide a good deal of guidance for turning that into good games. Like a regular Night’s Black Agents campaign, you use the conspyramid. And unless you’ve decided to play as Edom agents and on Edom’s team, you’ll also be dealing with attacks from Edom, who get a second conspyramid. The book provides Dossier-specific overviews of how you might use elements from the book’s rich middle section to populate the both the Edom and Dracula conspyramids as you play.
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.
Once I’d read this part, everything seemed more feasible. I had a better idea of how I could do an improvisational-ish campaign while keeping it manageable for me as a Director. And if that’s still not your wheelhouse, you can just use the spines and campaign frames as is, perhaps populating or improving them for your GMing style with people/places/things from the middle. The Edom Files collection that’s coming out soon will have more of these.
But, frankly, it’s also…
Worth It for the Middle Alone
Even if you’re not planning to run a straight-up game involving Dracula Unredacted, the middle part of this book is a must-have for any Night’s Black Agents GM who wants to create their own adventures. You need locations? There are cities, castles, hotels, prisons, and more. You want a variety of organizations with a vampiric bent or connection? You get everything from mafia to shipping companies to charities. You want some kind of weird artifact for a one-shot or campaign? Well, there are 27 of those. Hell, you want establishing shots to use in an opener, a fight, a chase, a search for clues? They’ve got 14 of those and each has a paragraph on how to use it for all of those purposes.
And do you want people? The book provides 66 NPCs with a variety of professions, personalities, and uses. Like so much in the Handbook, each part of the middle section is full of options. Is this person working for Edom? Are they one of Dracula’s minions? Are they some kind of freelancer or ordinary person? The answer for each is “yes and this is what it would look like.” The authors coordinated a variety of creators to write many of these entries, with the result a delightful variety of ideas.
The middle is parts monster manual, parts gaming supplement, and one of the most comprehensive, inspirational reference products I’ve encountered. Even if you have no interest in bringing Dracula to your NBA game (did I mention how flexible this book is? It even touches on running Dracula Dossier games without Dracula), this part is worth having. To top it all off, the index for this section goes beyond the basics and provides what we in the library business call “multiple avenues for discovery.”
It’s All True
As what would be a sidebar if this were a gaming book, one of my absolute favorite parts of the Handbook is its complete historical accuracy. …ok, its surprising level of historical accuracy. When I first got my hands on the copy that was released with the Kickstarter, I started doing research—they couldn’t be telling the truth about the Icelandic pref…oh, nope, that’s true… Well what about the timing of the earthquakes? Oh. Yep. You can tell Hite and Hanrahan are history buffs and they’ve shared Tweets about other little things that fit a little too perfectly with the project. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but I thrill whenever I work coincidentally-perfect reality into my own historical scenarios and I love seeing it here.
They also provide very helpful sidebars with accurate information. Do you need to know who was in charge of the Abwehr in 19__? Good news, there’s a table with his name along with the NKVD head, British agency heads, etc. Need the name of the real Lord Godalming? Here are three British Viscounts who died in 1894 and their heirs…and how the one without an heir might be the most fun to play with anyway because ___.
It’s Practically (Not Really Actually) an Illuminerdy Product (At All)
Remember the part where they brought in other creators? As a final hook for our fine readers and a note about potential conflicts of interest—Kennon, Elsa, and I wrote for parts of the Dossier project. Kennon and Elsa’s material was incorporated into the Director’s Handbook, which is why I’m the one reviewing it, whereas my scenario, Blood Coda, will be in the Edom Files one-shot compendium.
So, do you want this book? Are you a) a current or aspiring Night’s Black Agents GM, b) someone interested in running a vampire/Dracula game in another system, c) or someone who loves the original Dracula novel and conspiracy thrillers? For A, good grief yes. For B, yes because, while this is definitely meant for Night’s Black Agents/GUMSHOE, you could adapt everything but the occasional stat block for any other game in which you’re going up against vamps and especially Dracula. And for C, from what I’ve read so far I’d recommend Dracula Unredacted (but yeah, you probably don’t need the Director’s Handbook) even to non-gamers who love the original Dracula and conspiracy and want to see what was pulled out of drafts and creative brains.
The Director’s Handbook and rest of the Dracula Dossier can be pre-ordered from Pelgrane Press with immediate PDFs and print books coming soon. I reviewed the PDF copy and cannot wait to get my grubby little hands on my hardcover so I can flip around and fill it with sticky notes. You can check out a preview PDF with a full table of contents and some samples from the middle section which show off just how good it is.