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Kenneth Hite is the author of over 50 books, and one of the biggest Cthulhu fans working in roleplaying games. Through Pelgrane Press, he’s been working on horror titles like Trail of Cthulhu and vampire vs spies conspiracy thriller Night’s Black Agents, a game which has seen its latest supplement, The Dracula Dossier, hit Kickstarter a few days ago. It’s enjoyed great success, exceeding its target within a matter of hours. I sat down and talked with Ken about the Dossier, and what those unlucky enough to face off against the most dangerous vampire in history can expect.

Adam Gauntlett: Which three words best describe Kenneth Hite?

Kenneth Hite: Let’s see … Writer, Dilettante, but what would be the third one? Lunatic? Occultist is a good one, though it has connotations of belief that I do not share. Fortean, I think might be excellent!

Gauntlett: You’ve been in the writing business since the 1990s, full time since 1996. If you could get into a time machine right now and tell yourself one thing about your career that your 1990s self really needs to know, what would it be?

Hite: So far my career is doing well enough that I don’t have too many missed paths. It might be ‘go to more computer game conferences’ and ‘get more computer game writing gigs,’ since those pay an order of magnitude more than tabletop games, by and large!

Gauntlett: Your work is one of the mainstays of the GUMSHOE system …

Hite: In addition to Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, I do Ken Writes About Stuff, that’s every month. I do around eleven pages worth of new material, and some of those are GUMSHOE, looking in on specific subjects like martial arts, voodoo, there’s one on Goetia coming up. Some of them take on discretionary topics like the Nazi Bell project, and some are campaign frames, like Moon Dust Men about alien crash site investigators in the 1970s, or The School of Night, occultists, poets and spies in the 1590s. But the majority, the preponderance of them are what I call the Hideous Creatures series, where I look at any individual monster from the Lovecraft mythos, trying to understand as many different angles, so you have a bunch of different things to do with, say, Deep Ones. That means your players will never go, ‘oh look, wow, Deep Ones, we’ve never faced them before.’ The whole point of Lovecraft’s monsters was that they were original, so people wouldn’t go ‘wow, werewolves, never seen that before.’ It’s my attempt to bring some of that uncertainty back that Lovecraft put in.

Gauntlett: What attracts you to GUMSHOE, as a system?

Hite: First of all, I’m attracted to it because it’s the system that Simon hired me to do my own Cthulhu in, so I’d love it for that alone! But it so happens to be a very, very elegant way to run and play a game. If you’re a trad gamer but you’re closer, maybe, to the narrative or story end of things, and less the tactical side … for example, when I play GURPS the system, I never use all the bells and whistles in it, because I’m attracted to the elegance of that 3d6 bell curve and being able to apply it across a broad variety of situations, and the GUMSHOE system has that same level of elegant simplicity. Except we haven’t spent twenty five years adding to it! So you can still see the elegance at its core. It also suits my style of play, where I provide all kinds of scenery and detail, clues and things that stick out of the sides, and I think that if you read the stuff that I write you can get an idea for the kinds of things that I play, because I write the games I want to play.

Gauntlett: Once upon a time you told an interviewer that you were working on ‘a “vampire spy thriller” GUMSHOE game that needs a good title.’ Well, now it’s got one, Night’s Black Agents, a quote from Macbeth. What persuaded you to use that sweet title?

Hite: I picked it because of the Macbeth connection – I’m a big Shakespeare fan, as I think pretty much every literate English speaker should be – and I liked the ambiguity of the quote. It talks about the crows and other damned agents that are going to come out and do Macbeth’s bidding, but spies are literally black agents, in the sense that they do actions under the cover of night or outside the view of society. I liked that the Night’s Black Agent could be a vampire bat, or a spy who’s hunting vampires. Also, it’s a title of a Fritz Leiber anthology, and I’ve been a Leiber fan since forever, so it was a nice little way to tip my hat to him, on the QT. I mean, he invented the urban fantasy genre, which is, in a sense, what Night’s Black Agents is part of. I wanted to give him the shout-out!

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Gauntlett: Describe the Dracula Dossier for the uninitiated.

Hite: The Dracula Dossier is an improvisational, collaborative campaign for Night’s Black Agents, which means that the players will find their own way into the large body of mystery, and the Director or GM will then pull things out of the source material, to run whatever danger the players have pointed themselves towards. The Director will continue to build a scene ahead of the players, as they follow up on the clues that they have decided are the plot, a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure.

What the players have is the original first draft of Stoker’s novel Dracula, which wasn’t a novel, it was Stoker’s after-action report from an 1894 British Intelligence attempt to recruit a vampire. But when Stoker wrote the report, Intelligence said ‘No, we can’t have that,’ so they cut it down to remove all the sources and methods, and they then told Stoker to publish it as a novel, thus spreading disinformation and creating plausible deniability. If anyone ever traced Dracula back to them, Intelligence’s response could be ‘Dracula‘s just a novel, I don’t know what you people are talking about.’

As these things do, the bureaucratic organization assembled to recruit Dracula took on a life of its own and became Operation Edom, which is eventually absorbed by MI6. Edom sees this as a chance to feather its bureaucratic nest egg, and possibly prepare to do another deal with Dracula. Nobody quite knows what it is or its true extent; that’s one of the campaign mysteries the players can uncover.

So in 1940, when the British are desperate to keep Romania out of the Axis, someone says ‘We can revive operation Edom from 1894, and we could have Dracula join us as the ruler of Romania against the Axis.’ Of course that went about as well as you might expect. The survivor of that SOE mission into Romania writes his annotations into that first draft of Dracula.

Then, in 1977, a leak from MI6 into the Romania Securitate [Directorate for Internal Security] gets uncovered. MI6 is trying to hunt it down, and Operation Edom is like, ‘Oh. You know what? That might have happened because we had a Romanian running around in London who could control minds and create immortal servitors.’ Another analyst finds the Dossier, adds his own annotations, and goes one step further, putting a trigger or flag in M16’s computer mainframe so that, if anyone tries to recruit Dracula again, that original document will be forwarded to other intelligence analysts, blowing the gaff on the Dracula scheme.

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Well, in 2011 enough chatter has built up that the document drops into another analyst’s hands, and sure enough, they start looking into it. Right after 7/7 [suicide bombings in central London] MI6 is like, ‘No, seriously, ANYTHING is on the table,’ and Edom says ‘We’ve got anything; we’ve got a 500 year old vampire who really hates Muslims. This could be a win/win for everybody.’ So they reactivate Dracula and this time they’re somewhat controlling him, in that they’re feeding him some targets. The question is, of course, who’s controlling whom? Is Dracula just playing along, has Edom finally found a way to weaponize Dracula, and how much collateral damage is it allowing, because it seems like it’s an awful lot. It all becomes yet another great success for Operation Edom. The 2011 analyst further annotates Stoker’s manuscript, and then disappears.

That collection of annotations and the original Stoker manuscript drops into the hands of your player group, and they now in the present day are hunting down Dracula, using the clues that have been gathered over four generations of MI6 operations, and they can follow those clues in any number of directions. That’s what makes up Dracula Unredacted, which is what we’re calling the Stoker volume plus those annotations, and that leads you into the Director’s Handbook, which at current writing is 280 pages worth of locations, conspiracies, NPCs, objects, items and other things that can show up in your game. You’ve got a giant book of encounters and NPCs, a lot of fun in itself, and each NPC, for example, has an innocent face, an Edom asset face, and a face where they’re a minion of Dracula; which version it is depends on how the Director feels like shaping the story, in response to the players saying, ‘No, we think this oil company executive looks dodgy, we want to find out what’s going on with him!’

Gauntlett: A lot of people are going to get the 1890s connection, the World War Two connection, and the modern day, but why did you opt for a 1970s British spy storyline as well?

Hite: First of all, I wanted to get that Len Deighton, John le Carré mole hunt paranoia spy thriller connection. I’m a huge le Carré fan, I thought the recent Tinker, Tailor movie was terrific, but in addition that era is important in the British history of espionage. It’s right after the Cambridge Five [Soviet double-agent] scandals are finally beginning to detonate, and the intelligence community is beginning to realize that all of its problems didn’t go away with Kim Philby. There’s a lot of retrenching and looking around for people to blame, which is what le Carré picked up on, and you’ve also, providentially, got a big earthquake in Romania in 1977.

Since Stoker draws a connection between Dracula and earthquakes, I sort of drew it out a little further in the course of the Dracula Dossier. It turns out, according to the research, there’s a big earthquake in Romania in 1940, there’s another in 1977, and a third in 2011, so those all seemed to point me towards the period!

Also, if you were to go all the way back to 1894, or even 1940, you are dealing with very old NPCs! I needed at least one more generation to play with, and the mole hunt is the perfect, tangled mystery. Nobody knows what’s going on, which makes it perfect for a Director to use to create doubt and uncertainty. The Director’s going to know whether or not Romania went to the Axis, but there is no way to know whether there was an actual mole, or whether they found the right mole. There’s still plenty of argument over the identity of the fifth man in the Cambridge Five, or whether or not Oldfield was a mole, and that’s part of what this project is commenting on. This kind of Watching the Watchmen problem isn’t just a British thing, but obviously in this case it’s the British who brought Dracula onto their shores!

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Gauntlett: When I checked Kickstarter this morning, you were over 400% funded [£40,000+ on a £10,000 ask], and you still have over 20 days to go. How do you design stretch goals, and is there a stretch goal you’d never do?

Hite: We show one stretch goal at a time, and have a batch ready for reveal. The way we did it was, we went through list and decided what kind of goals we wanted, whether production, nicer art, things like that. We wanted to be able to put more stuff into Dracula, to have the resources to write Van Helsing’s notes, since Van Helsing is an enigmatic figure even in the novel. Some of it is just more stuff that we can put in to the book, in terms of encounters and NPCs. Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, my co-author, and I went back and forth talking about cool things, saying ‘Let’s have him go to Turkey, because Dracula – if he’s Vlad Tepes at least – goes to Turkey, and in the novel Dracula hates the Turks, so we can drag the Turks into this.’ We noticed that Italy shows up in the origins of the book, sort of, so we figure out what’s vampiric or conspiratorial in Italy. I came up with some of what we call capstone scenes, or finales; one of them has Dracula vampirizing Putin in an attempt to end all this foolishness of sneaking around, so he can just rule Russia and be in control of nuclear weapons. Another capstone features a place in Romania called Dracula’s Mill, a waterfall that goes down into a cave, and it seemed like a good Eiger Sanction scene, with a physical confrontation mixed with a little Descent -style dungeon crawling adventure. Depending on the kind of ending you want, you choose the capstone that suits. Finally there’s stuff that can be added either as part of the dossier as sidequests or as part of the major campaign.

We do offer props as part of our backer reward levels. There’s an Ouija board and vampire hunter’s kit there at the ‘I am a much bigger fan of Ken and Gareth than I am of my wallet’ level [minimum backer level £1,000 or more]. Mostly T-shirts, badges and other physical rewards add to shipping costs, not play. It’s much better to create goals that are part of play, not just things that you wear. We’re a game company, in the final analysis, not a T-shirt company.

Gauntlett: One thing that doesn’t seem to have been mentioned so far is music or soundtracks, and I know you’re a huge James Semple fan. Are music stretch goals likely?

Hite: Obviously people will have to rush right out and pledge a lot of delicious pounds to find out, but I will say that if you have dreamed forever that one day James Semple would write a Dracula Suite, the excellent way to make that happen is to keep pledging money and see what shows up. I’m a big fan of James Semple personally; I’ve never had a soundtrack before and now I have two of them thanks to him. I’d love to go for the trifecta and hear James Semple riff on the greatest vampire story ever told. I think that would be terrific, and we would love to get to a point where that becomes a viable stretch goal!

Gauntlett: To close out on a fun note, as you’re a huge cinephile, which movie or movies do you feel best exemplifies the Dracula Dossier worldview?

Hite: That’s a little bit tricky, because there are films that feel like parts of the Dracula Dossier, and bits of other movies that feel like the Dracula Dossier. There was a very terrible movie called Dracula 2000 that began with a heist to break into where Dracula’s coffin is stored, so if you just watch the first ten minutes of that movie, maybe that exemplifies it best! I would say you could build a Dracula Dossier movie out of that, and maybe Satanic Rites of Dracula, which is a terrible Hammer film, but which is still one where Dracula’s out there conspiring to overthrow Britain as opposed to bothering Ingrid Pitt every now and again! You could use those two and the very mediocre movie The Killer Elite [2011], a nice narrative where two secret branches of the SAS go to war with each other, which again has a good Dracula Dossier vibe to it. The 1977 mole hunt could be a very good Tomas Alfredson double feature, Let The Right One In paired with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy!

You can check out The Dracula Dossier on Kickstarter or at the Pelgrane Press website.

Disclosure: I have backed this Kickstarter, and have written for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu.

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