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The Dracula Dossier Review - King of the Bloodsuckers

Marshall Lemon | 2 Sep 2015 20:00
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Designed by Pelgrane Press. Published by Pelgrane Press. PDF released Aug. 2015. Physical book releases Sept. 2015.

Vampires owe an incredible debt to Bram Stoker's Dracula. This one novel encompassed everything that would define modern vampire fiction, right down to crosses and garlic as pop culture cliches. And that doesn't even get into Dracula as a character, the greatest fictional villain outside of Darth Vader. So it's no surprise that almost every vampire series - from Vampire: The Masquerade to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer - eventually has to address Dracula's place in their worlds.

The Dracula Dossier is Night's Black Agents attempt to do just that, bringing one of the most powerful vampires of all time into Pelgrane Press' world of undead espionage. But instead of simply making Dracula a James Bond villain, Dracula Dossier does something truly unique - placing Stoker's novel at the heart of the experience as a riveting player handout.

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In 1893, British agent Jonathan Harker traveled to Transylvania with a unique mission: Recruit a vampire into the hallowed ranks of British Intelligence. But Count Dracula quickly proved himself no lackey, creating his own intelligence network with the eventual goal of ruling England. It was only through the combined efforts of Van Helsing, the Harkers, and their friends that Dracula's plans were dashed with a stake to the heart. When agent Bram Stoker compiled an especially dramatic after-action report, England's vampire intelligence agency, Edom, edited out sensitive information and published it to sow misinformation about the disaster.

But there's one problem: Dracula survived. Returning at the height of World War II, this vampire lord picked up his operation right where he'd left off, carving out territory across intelligence groups and criminal organizations alike. Agents who hunted Dracula throughout the 20th Century added their own notes to Stroker's "dossier", but no one has been able to close the coffin on his case. Even Edom, once a force to be feared, struggles to keep the Count's actions in check - assuming it hasn't been compromised entirely.

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Now it's 2015. Bram Stroker's unedited Dracula Dossier is in your control, filled with clues about Dracula and Edom's operations. With your fellow freelance agents, you might finally succeed where Van Helsing failed. But the deeper you go, the more Edom becomes aware of your investigation, as does Dracula himself.

When the campaign begins, the players are given Dracula Unredacted - a "first-draft" edition of Dracula filled with margin notes from other investigators. This 476-page book might be the most impressive player handout ever devised, combining the original Dracula novel, settings and characters from Stoker's actual draft, and original content by Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. Even if you never play the actual campaign, you'll find a fantastic story here - technically four, if you count the margin notes detailing events across the 20th Century.

Outside of being a handout players will beg to borrow between sessions, this novel turns Dracula Dossier into a sandbox campaign. Each annotation isn't for show - it has corresponding references in the Director's Handbook to aid the investigation. You'll find notes about still-living CIA agents and Russian informants. There will be hints leading to Dracula's safe houses and Edom's secret bases. You'll uncover the secret histories of characters like Mina Harker, Van Helsing, or Renfield, any of whom might still be alive. Finally, you'll piece together the co-ordinates to Dracula's castle for a climatic showdown - assuming you properly researched how to kill the Count for good.

As you might have guessed, Dracula Dossier has far more content than a single campaign could cover. And that's the point. Dracula's Dossier is improvisational, offering dozens of potential storylines that will even throw returning players for a loop. An NPC might be a vampire minion one campaign, or an Edom asset the next. An ancient mental asylum could be an abandoned ruin, or a prison where vampires are experimented upon. Even Dracula's powers can vary wildly, from the traditional damned vampire to a Lovecraftian monster. As long as you're moving closer to a final confrontation with Dracula himself, all is proceeding according to plan.

This freedom is Dracula Dossier's greatest strength and most damning weakness. Few campaigns truly allow any encounter to unlock a significant clue, a red herring, or a surprise reveal leading to new adventures like this one. But make no mistake - even with the Director's Handbook's extensive resources, your GM has a gargantuan task before them. Dracula Dossier isn't a fixed campaign, but the framework for assembling one. So until you know which clues your group intends to follow, the amount of preparation you can do is limited at best.

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Let's say your group is interested in an annotation about a retired KGB agent. Unless your GM knows the Director's Handbook phenomenally well, they'll have to re-read the entire KGB agent entry, refresh themselves on Dracula Dossier's Cold War timeline, choose ties with Dracula or Edom, and then add some interesting character quirks. As a first-time Dracula Dossier Director, this meant the game screeched to a halt while I took three to five minutes looking up relevant information from the Director's Handbook. And sometimes, all your players might learn from an interrogation is the name of another NPC, so after a half-hour you're starting the process all over again.

Don't get me wrong, the Director's Handbook is a fantastic resource, filled with more than enough content to flesh out your campaigns. But Pelgrane Press has done such a remarkable job of making Dracula Dossier's campaign flexible, that your story barely has a core structure to build from. Some NPCs and location nodes have connecting threads to work with, but not all of them. At some point, you'll have to decide how one NPC knows another, or what special equipment is at a dead drop, without even a random table roll to assist you. When the campaign feels like you're mapping connections on the wall like a police procedural, you're walking a very fine line between engaging your players or being overwhelmed with content.

It certainly doesn't help that the Director's Handbook made some unusual organizational choices. Both Dracula Dossier volumes are constantly referencing a complex timeline stretching from 1894 to 2014. But that timeline itself is only briefly outlined in the introduction, and never explicitly detailed until the second-to-last chapter as an optional campaign frame. This timeline is the closest thing Dracula Dossier has to a narrative big picture, so it's really strange it doesn't get more attention for how often it's referenced.

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Now this doesn't make Dracula Dossier any less fun - it's a spectacular resource that really does generate memorable adventures. In my own sessions, the players found themselves in shootouts, took part in car chases, and accidentally stumbled into a meeting with Dracula with no preparation on my part. But even the most improvised game requires solid familiarity with the campaign and extensive GM preparation. Thankfully, the game is highly replayable - if you completely botch one campaign, you could just start another that unfolds in a completely different way.

Bottom Line: Whether you're mining ideas for an original campaign, or running a secret war against Dracula's powerful conspiracy, The Dracula Dossier is a supplement every Night's Black Agents Director should have. But be warned - its improvisational style is not for the faint of heart, and plays best with a flexible, well-organized GM who can shift gears on the fly.

Recommendation: Do you love Night's Black Agents, Dracula, and have a Director who is imaginative and well-organized? If yes, play The Dracula Dossier at your earliest opportunity.

Disclaimer:This writer is a backer of The Dracula Dossier Kickstarter campaign. This review is based on the Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted backer rewards.

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