Bram Stoker's novel about a vampire lord coming to London was really the redacted case notes about a British Intelligence plan to recruit him. You can battle Dracula as a post-Cold War spy in a months-long RPG campaign with The Dracula Dossier.
The Dracula Dossier is a really a pair of books. First, it's a novel called Dracula Unredacted, by Kenneth Hite. In Hite's version, Britain's spy agency was trying to recruit a vampire in 1894, bringing Dracula to London and quickly losing control. Stoker's novel omitted much of this narrative, which Hite "restores," using case notes from intelligence analysts. It sounds like an awesome inversion of the "period novel infused with supernatural elements" trope.
The second book, The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook, is a massive campaign for the Night's Black Agents RPG (which we are big fans of). Publisher Pelgrane Press describes it as, "an epic improvised, collaborative campaign" that can last more than 20 gaming sessions, although there's a six-session express version. The campaign, a collaboration between Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, will have players traveling to the world to uncover clues in a desperate attempt to thwart Dracula's bloody ambitions.
They've given us a preview of some of the material from the Handbook — a chapter on how to use "legacies" (characters from Stoker's original novel) in your Dossier campaign. What has Lucy Blythe been up to all these years? You can download a pdf of the preview here.
Instead of asking a couple of authors and game designers the same old interview questions, we decided to let Hite and Ryder-Hanrahan interview each other about The Dracula Dossier.
Ryder-Hanrahan: So, Ken, Stoker's Dracula is more than a hundred years old. It's had more movie adaptations and derivative works than probably any other work of fiction. Is there really anything new to be said about Count Dracula?
Hite: Gareth, there's always something new to be said — for instance, in all those thousands of works, I don't think any of them have looked at Dracula through the lens of the espionage thriller. (Well, Kim Newman sort of did in Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha, but he's looked at Dracula through every pop cult lens there is.) Just taking that departure, the novel looks wildly different, and what you do with Dracula in the modern day becomes a wildly different question. And the point of an archetype, a myth, isn't necessarily to say something new, but to reiterate the ancient truth it points up. In this case: "Dracula is evil, and must be destroyed."
But let's go back to first principles, then, Gareth. Did you feel any connection — any BLOOD connection — between yourself and your fellow overworked Irishman, Bram Stoker? What's your Dracula story been like until now?
Ryder-Hanrahan: I've some family background in the theatre, and personal experience in event organization, so I was able to empathize with him in his role as Henry Irving's manager and factotum (and organization and scheduling are some of the unsung skills game-masters have to cultivate). For obvious reasons, I've always thought of Dracula as a very English novel, with its cast of upper-middle-class professions hunting the monster across the chessboard of Victorian London - but a lot of the horror elements strike me as perhaps more Catholic than Anglican, even though Stoker was Church of Ireland.
Hite: I agree with you about the color of Dracula being very strongly Catholic. Those Gothic elements just pour through the novel — and I guess our challenge was to make sure they pour through the Bourne-style spy thriller of Night's Black Agents. How do you think we're doing so far?
Ryder-Hanrahan: As this is a piece in which we get to interview ourselves, I'd say we're doing absolutely brilliantly, and are geniuses the likes of which come along but once a generation. More seriously - I think the contrast between the antiseptic, detached, cooler-than-cool style of the technothriller and the more visceral. bloody, shuddery horrors of the Gothic is a really interesting space to play with. The idea that Dracula's still a medieval warlord who's intruding, with all his violence and brutality and monstrosity, into the modern world is both fun and scary, depending on which side of the GM's screen you're on.
Hite: It was huge fun to write up Dracula's personal, medieval version of the Vampyramid compared to the more distanced, remote "mastermind" version in the Night's Black Agents core book. I mean, when your third-tier response to a threat is "massacre innocent civilians," you know we're not shooting with the cool blue Doug Liman lens any more.
Ryder-Hanrahan: Espionage books are always period pieces, reflecting the fears and enemies of their time. We touch on that in our annotations to Dracula Unredacted, where we talk about the WWII SOE commando team sent into Romania in 1940, and the hunt for a Communist-ish mole in 1977. The modern day stuff has Dracula being deployed against Al-Qaeda, and we bring in present-day geopolitical concerns like Russian saber-rattling, organized crime, the overreach of our own intelligence agencies - are you ever worried about using present-day issues in games?
Hite: I think, by and large, our specific audience are relatively mature, relatively well-informed (and superbly good-looking!) gamers who can roll with a few vampiric punches. Obviously there are some places that good taste prevents us from going — no vampires caused 9/11 or 7/7 obviously — but in the wake of those atrocities, the world does indeed look different, and it looks a lot more like a horror game and a spy thriller than it did before. The espionage genre has to hold on to realism and current events, especially if you're going to add Dracula to it!
Ryder-Hanrahan: When we were updating locations and nodes - organizations, groups and the like - from Dracula to the present day, you grabbed some of the big locations from the novel straight away. Which of them was your favorite to translate to the modern era?
Hite: I really loved finding nine (or more!) locations for Castle Dracula, and of course tackling the old stately home SOE-stylings of Ring, but I think I had the most fun with the modern version of Carfax. Since that whole area of London (Plaistow, not Purfleet as Stoker lied) was pretty much leveled by the Blitz and then by urban renewal I had a free hand — and I finally got to find out what was in the Red Room in Stoker's notes. I kid you not, I've had actual nightmares about that room, and some of them are in the manuscript now.
You, of course, bogarted a lot of the Legacies right away — the 21st century descendants of Stoker's original 1894 team. Is there one of those Legacies that you really think a Director can sink her teeth into?
Ryder-Hanrahan: I'd be hard pressed to stay away from Philip Holmwood, the current Lord Godalming, with his seat in Westminster and political connections - there's a great House of Cards vibe from him (the classic original, of course, not the remake). I also like the Minion take on Lucy Blythe - Quincey Harker's daughter. I've always loved the concept that Dracula isn't a perfectly preserved unchanging immortal - that he gets old, and renews his youth by feeding on the blood of his victims. And the thought of the little old lady in the retirement home, biding her time until she becomes a vampire and can get her youth back... I could work with that.
Of course, since all our NPCs get written up with three different takes, it's entirely possible she's not a vampire-in-waiting, but is genuinely a kindly old woman who knows secrets that you'll need to stop Dracula. Come closer, my child, let me whisper in your ear...
Hite: There's a very dangerous little old lady in dilapidated socialist housing in the Bucharest suburbs, too. Stay away from little old ladies, especially if their writeup is near the sidebar on tetrodotoxin.
Ryder-Hanrahan: Over on the Kickstarter, besides knocking down stretch goals like boxes of earth, we're running a little game where pledgers can choose to back either Mina Harker or Van Helsing. Whichever one gets the most backing is the one who records a wax-cylinder message for future vampire hunters to find. Currently, Mina's got a strong lead - but which of them would you choose if you could?
Hite: I like them both, because they really embody the brilliant tension in the novel — between the old class and the new class obviously, but also between science and superstition. Both Mina and Van Helsing cross both streams, which is partly why they stand out so much against the other hunters. But if I have to pick one, my inner Giles-ness would probably point me toward picking Van Helsing.
Who doesn't love a well-read histrionic occultist with dodgy Church connections and a bag full of knives?
Ryder-Hanrahan: I'd go for Van Helsing too, to continue Stoker's tradition of writing absurd accents.
Hite: Although in the Handbook you speculate that Morris' Texan-ness is a cover, I have always thought that Van Helsing's Crazy Dutch Syntax had to be a put-on, to cover a very precise, dare I say Teutonic? mind.
Ryder-Hanrahan: Morris is obviously a cover identity. One of the joys of this project has been exploring all the idiosyncrasies and co-incidences of the novel.
Hite: I'm just happy we get to put back in all the crazy geology and volcanoes that Stoker took out — and when I found real-life major earthquakes in Romania in 1894, 1940, and 1977, I knew the Dracula Dossier was going to work the way I wanted it to.
Ryder-Hanrahan: I know I started out asking you if there was anything new to be said about Dracula, but with all the material in Stoker's Notes and the thoroughly weird Icelandic translation, it's almost as though even Stoker isn't finished talking about him.
Hite: Yes indeed. No matter how thoroughly you think you've staked him, as the Hammer films taught us, Dracula is always risen from the grave … again!