In case you have missed it, I have wrapped up my 5th Edition Game, and we are now running Night’s Black Agents, which has been reviewed here before (Do You Want to Know More?). So far we have played 2 sessions of our Dracula Dossier campaign, with an additional night of character creation. What is the Dracula Dossier? In short, it’s a Night’s Black Agents mega-campaign, kind of like Out of the Abyss, or maybe more appropriately like Curse of Strahd for D&D. The basic version of the campaign requires three books: the Night’s Black Agents core book, the Directors Handbook, and Dracula Unredacted. If you have read the Night’s Black Agents review, a lot of this will sound familiar, as it uses the same set of assumptions, save you replace a lot of the mentions of Vampires with Dracula.
The premise of the campaign is that the events of the novel Dracula are real and did actually happen. British Intelligence at some point decided to throw the other nations off the scent of vampires by releasing the after action report as a fictional book. After all, looking for a fictional character in real life is crazy. Over the years Britain has attempted, unsuccessfully, to recruit Dracula into service of the crown. They have tried again more recently in the modern day, which has allowed somebody outside of the group who knows the truth about Dracula to get their hands on the only surviving copy of the unredacted novel. I know what you’re thinking, didn’t Dracula die at the end of the novel? Well, technically Dracula was not beheaded nor got the business end of a wooden stake, so he would’ve had no problem “rising from the grave.”
The players are modern spies in a world very similar to the current world, and what you assume they know at the start of the game is exactly what you’d assume they know in our world. So Dracula is a fictional character, and they have made way too many movies about him. Christopher Lee played him a ton, as did Bela Lugosi and Gary Oldman. But very quickly they find out that Dracula is all too real, and the events of the book are coming back to haunt the modern day, like any good Gothic tale.
The novel Dracula Unredacted is essentially a giant prop for your game. It is an in-character book players receive that is the full text of the novel Dracula, plus about 25% more content, that is based on Bram Stokers original notes. Most of what it adds is a dropped plot line about what Dracula was doing in London during the events of the book, and most of the short story “Dracula’s Guest” which is added near the middle. Sprinkled throughout that book are annotations written by various people who have gotten ahold of this “unredacted” novel and have investigated things in it. The book itself is actually a very fun read, and I’ve read the original three times before, so coming to this one was like watching a good directors cut of a film I liked.
The Directors Handbook gives you game material on the annotations within the book, providing the layers of a conspiracy. What’s great about this is then the players can simply pick something that catches their eye in the book, and you as the GM can flip to what is referenced in that annotation and then build your session around it. What makes it fascinating to run is that even as the GM, you also don’t exactly know what is going to happen. You are encouraged to have an end in mind (they provide you with four possible endings or you can make up your own) but how the players get there is up to them.
You get the benefits of having a mega-adventure in which is a lot of work is already done for you, with setting locations, NPCs, adventure ideas, and tons of content. However, you don’t have the drawback of the plot-on-rails that comes with most pre-made adventure paths. Because of this, the players have an active role in how the campaign progresses, as it is their decision-making that drives the adventure forward. You also get the best part of having a home-brew campaign, since it’s more of a sandbox and you can respond to player decisions and shift directions when needed. You only ever really need to keep one session ahead of the players, mostly because I have found the freedom to look into anything makes things go in strange directions quickly. So working on a long term arc isn’t a thing you need to do.
There are over 250 annotations in Dracula Unredacted, and all of them can lead to about half as many campaign nodes. The players will probably not visit them all as the campaign progresses (giving the campaign a lot of replay-ability, which is a plus), but that is a lot for the players to sift through. The amount of information they have access to can lead to problems deciding which lead to follow, or as board gamers call it, analysis paralysis. Because everything in the book can lead to some bit of information, instead of focusing on a clue or plot thread, they might get distracted and move on to something else that catches their interest in the book. There are ways to mitigate this, as every campaign point as a “cool” aspect, which provides no information that drives the campaign forward.
Set up for the campaign is much more intense than running a D&D story. For D&D, all you really need to do is read the book. For Dracula Dossier, you need to read Dracula Unredacted (I recommend skipping the annotations at first, which can be distracting) which is a 500+ page novel. Then go back and read all the annotations in that book as there is a story line with them. Then go and read the complete text of the Directors Handbook which clocks in at 368 pages, and make a few key decisions for your campaign. That is the minimum amount of prep, but it is a lot of reading, and processing what you want to do with your game. This is in addition to figuring out the Night’s Black Agents system. While I think the system is very good, most likely your players will not have played the system before, unless your group has played one of the other Gumshoe RPGs.
Also, the campaign itself is a little intimidating. When I first got it, I was sure I had been suckered into buying a campaign skeleton that was going to require a lot of work to flesh out. After reading it for a bit, I figured out that a lot of work had been done for me, and it was a extremely well-made sandbox. But I certainly had difficulty figuring out how to get started, and I have seen similar statements on the internet. The solution, of course, is to just jump in and play it, sink or swim so to speak. When in doubt, they have an example start of the game in the book that’s written very well. I just shamelessly stole that and jumped right in.
I know I mentioned a lot more weaknesses than strengths, I think this is a very solid product and am having a blast running it. However, I want people to understand what they are getting into if they decide to run it. The rewards outweigh the weaknesses by a large margin.
So far we are having a lot of fun, and the players have had shocking and fun moments in each game we have played. The system itself is very rules-light when compared to D&D, which has been a nice change of pace. This is the first “sandbox” campaign I have ever ran, and thus far they have given me everything I need to keep it going. I’m going to give it a solid thumbs up, and it’s worth checking out if anything I have said sounds interesting to you. Also Pelgrane Press is part of the Bits & Mortar program, so you get a free PDF when you buy a physical copy at a participating retailer!
If you want to know more, here are some good sources of information that I used when getting ready for my game.
Update – we are now 5 sessions in and I am super happy. My “rules” for my game are I have to use NPC’s in the book at every opportunity, and I have to follow the Vampyramid, and attempt to incorporate it in the proper order. Why, because why not, I have a personal view that limits inspire creativity. In any event if your running the game the Google+ group is excellent, you should join it if your gonna run this campaign.
Update – 4/9/16
A awesome recommendation from the Dracula Dossier G+ group. Mythgard Academy is running a online class where they analyze Dracula. It’s been a great source of inspiration while I prep for the campaign, giving me tons of awesome ideas for my game. In particular the part where they talked about Dracula’s brides was awesome when one showed up.