Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Dracula Dossier - the final analysis

I've not been keeping up to date with my Dracula Dossier posts, which perhaps I should have done, as it would have helped me with my analysis of what exactly was going on. The Dracula Dossier, written by Kenneth Hite and published by Pelgrane, is a large, sprawling investigative sand box of a campaign. Like a number of other Pelgrane offerings, it is not a linear campaign: it relies heavily on the abilities of an experienced referee to mould the plot to his own requirements. As such, it may not be described as a 'plug and play' option for GMs of Night's Black Agents, the rules system it was originally written for.

We didn't play it with NBA either - we used a homebew mish-mash of Call of Cthulhu and the new Delta Green. As a player, it is difficult to deduce what events and characters stemmed from the imagination of the aforesaid Hite, and what hailed from the fevered mind of our GM. Hence, anything I say needs to be taken with a substantial pinch of salt.

Dracula Dossier took us almost a year to play, although with several periods of hiatus when a full complement of players was not available. While I enjoyed it immensely, I think for me two consistent difficulties emerged from it, one early on, and one roughly mid-way through the plot, which should be raised for those wondering whether to run this.

We had a good bunch of characters, and one aspect you do notice during any campaign is how the characters migrate from being two dimensional facades to well-rounded, consistent personalities. Hence, we had the cold-blooded GRU assassin who never left her agency, and was covertly aiding the Russian vampire project; the initially idealistic German counter-intel specialist who lost his bearings and became focused on purely eradicating the undead at any cost; the Israeli hacker cursed with bad luck and a dubious relationship with her journalist ex-husband; and the meticulous English ladies' man with an amoral streak.

I don't think the team represented a pleasant group of personalities, and they were more than capable of torturing and executing a London antiques dealer, making some student interns 'vanish' in a Russian forest, and exposing a group of underwear models to a firefight with werewolves that got them all killed. In the process a prestigious Belgravia mansion in London was blown up, the top floors of an office block in Rotterdam were destroyed, the parliament building in Bucharest was set on fire, German security personnel were framed for drug dealing, and an elderly Austrian security guard was roughed up in a museum. I could go on.

So we had characters with drives, with motivations behind their personalities. And in the system we were using, drives could be used to a degree to help restore lost Sanity. But as players we could probably have done more with this, I'm just not sure how. One particular issue was why the agents were putting themselves in harm's way, because this influenced their involvement in the plot. We began the story as members of Redline Corporate Solutions, a small industrial espionage outfit based in Zurich, that decided to 'go have a look' when a group of competitors in Malaga went missing. This led to the early discovery that Dracula was in fact real, as was evidenced by watching him carve up an SAS hit squad in graphic technicolour.

I can see now that the character of Natasha, the GRU agent, was motivated by the need the Russians had to gather material on the vampires and the British vampire program. My character, the Israeli hacker Carmel, was already disillusioned by her years in Mossad, and wanted to eventually expose the vampires to the world. To this end she uploaded all the evidence the team gathered to a secure FTP server on a regular basis, with a dead hand activation protocol that would distribute it to select media if something happened to her. I'm not entirely clear on what kept the other agents going - Max, our German comrade, eventually switched his drive to simply eliminating the vampires wherever he found them. But there was no central team goal or objective, other than an early decision to take down Dracula, something we only achieved by realising how keen he was on his brides, and doing for them first.

We also were not entirely clear on what Dracula was up to. A raid on the HQ of EDOM, the British government's vampire handling unit, led us to the conclusion that they were under-resourced and largely just interested in using Dracula as some kind of weapon against terrorists. Yet their control / knowledge of him was limited at best, and our team's knowledge of the European vampire network quickly outstripped theirs. It was also apparent that Dracula's brides were involved in some form of vampire tourism / VIP country club plot, but it didn't seem exactly world threatening and more an excuse to hang out with celebrities like Jeremy Clarkson.

While we celebrated our victory over Dracula eventually, we were still none the wiser on his plans, other than to keep running Romania as his private fiefdom. We provoked his eventual attack by simply assassinating those he cared about (who seemed to be off doing their own thing), leading him into a carefully prepared trap in Russia.

Dracula Dossier is a big and impressive sandbox investigation, and should not be embarked upon lightly. It can take agents the length and breadth of Europe. Think in terms of the epic Call of Cthulhu campaign Masks of Nyarlathotep, but make it more fragmented, more granular. Obviously there are key locations, like London, Bucharest and Munich, but it is down to the players to collate and regularly review an enormous amount of intelligence in every session, which requires focus from them and a helping hand from the GM.

Much has been said by Pelgrane and Hite especially about the unredacted copy of the novel Dracula, which was published alongside the campaign. The premise here is that the novel is the after action report of EDOM's first attempt to recruit Dracula for their purposes in the 1890s, and if you have read the original, the changes and additions are indeed entertaining. I enjoyed revisiting the book and its characters after more than 20 years since I first read it. But players need to be VERY dedicated to read this as a handout for a game, because it requires a high level of concentration to go through it looking for clues / evidence to support the ongoing investigation. GM's will have to judge the capabilities of their own group: if most of you are undergraduates reading English Literature, you should be fine. I don't think it is necessary for playing DD, however, and should be regarded as an additional embellishment for the uber-dedicated.

Dracula Dossier represents a new level of sophistication for the investigative sandbox campaign in RPGs. While I have bought it myself, and will read it, I remain of two minds as to whether I would ever try to run it. Like Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, it is one of those epics that should be attempted by ambitious groups looking for a career-defining challenge, but it is really not for the beginning to intermediate group.

Our GM, in his own ruminations on the campaign, has wondered whether Savage Worlds might not have been a better system for this game, and owners of Agents of Oblivion are advised to take a look at that supplement for a possible basis for running DD. It may also be worth cooking up a customised deck of adventure cards for the players. But that will probably be for a different post. Our campaign did result in a number of major battles which tested the homebrew rules system we were using to its limits, but that may also be because our group has a preference for action and combat to keep them awake of a Friday evening!

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I don't think I handled drives well; I could have done more with them and weaved them into the campaign in a more effective manner.

    As for EDOM, I was trying to get the idea across of it being an under-resourced and struggling branch of the British security services, but I suspect I made the organisation a bit too incompetent, and it's difficult to imagine how it managed to achieve anything.

    I think you're supposed to build a conspyramid for EDOM as well as Dracula, but I neglected that to focus on the vampires' conspiracy, and in hindsight that was probably a mistake.

    I need to investigate Agents of Oblivion!

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