If a role-playing game adventure is a single episode of a television series, then a campaign is an entire season of television. And while an adventure can be good, the campaign is where role-playing games flourish. It allows your character to grow, change, and develop.
In Night’s Black Agents, you portray a spy who has stumbled on the existence of a grand vampiric conspiracy. Since you know too much to live, the vampires come at you with everything in their arsenal, from Predator drones to more traditional methods of undead skullduggery, such packs of psychically-controlled wolves and vampire-blood addicted, supernormal humans. The game could aptly be renamed “Jason Bourne Fights All the Vampires” if it wouldn’t send a pack of lawyers after Pelgrane Press.
The Dracula Dossier campaign takes this basic conceit, covers it in awesome sauce, and serves it with a side of fries.
Everyone knows the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A Transylvanian bloodsucker decamps to Victorian England in search of fresh blood, and is dogged all the way back to the Balkans by a determined coterie of vampire hunters. But what if the novel was just a cover story for an attempt by British intelligence to recruit Dracula as an agent? What if the Count was still an active asset being dispatched by MI-6 to terminate members of al-Qaeda and ISIS?
Why, if you discovered that, everyone in British intelligence would want to see you dead, plus Dracula!
How can your players unknot this tangled nest of espionage, conspiracies, and the undead?
They acquire a copy of Dracula, but not just any copy. This is the original, unredacted version of the book, which was written as an after-action report on the original 1894 attempt to recruit Dracula. Furthermore, the volume has been annotated by three generations of MI-6 agents trying to discover the truth about Dracula.
This sounds very cool, you may be saying to yourself. But why is it the greatest campaign of all time?
1. Dracula Unredacted is a genius handout
For all the times the Necronomicon has been used in role-playing games, no one has ever written an actual copy of the Necronomicon to give the players. They have not done so because the venture seems doomed to failure. How could anything you write ever live up to the blasphemous hints about the book provided by HP Lovecraft?
Taking Stoker’s Dracula and adding large swathes to the novel sounds like an equally mad errand. It would take a genius writer to make additions sound like Stoker, and seamlessly flow into the narrative. But the maniac pair of Ken Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan actually did it. They “unredacted” Dracula so that when it’s discovered in-game, you can hand it to your players.
It is also worth mentioning the adroitness with which the pair admixed new characters, plots, and events to Stoker’s classic novel. If one is not familiar with the original work, and opens Dracula Unredacted, it would be difficult to know where Stoker ends and Hite an Hanrahan begin. Check out this sample page to the right, and see if you can figure it out where Stoker ends and the additions begin.
Writing so seamlessly in the voice of another author is no mean feat, but Hite and Hanrahan pull it off. And the believability of Dracula Unredacted as an artifact helps drive the players forward in the campaign. It makes it easier to forget that you are just sitting at the dining room table and that immortal bloodsuckers don’t really want to make a liquor cabinet out of your ribs. It’s easier to forget because there’s this book here that’s real. You can touch it! And the clues to your survival lurk between its covers.
Hite humbly says of this tour de force,
As far as the style goes, Stoker did us the favor of writing the novel in several different voices to match its epistolary structure, so it was easier to channel a little Edgar Rice Burroughs for Quincey [Morris] or a little Jerome K. Jerome for [Francis] Aytown while still sticking to the Stokerian world and to his Victorian vocabulary. Matching Jonathan [Harker] and Mina [Murray] and so forth just came down to each of us having re-read the novel about a dozen times during the project. Oh, and also to us being timeless literary geniuses.
Players must follow the clues in the book to find and kill Dracula before he’s airdropped by coffin to their current location and impales each one of them on a separate satellite dish.
For more handout goodness, check out The Hawkins Papers, which contains over 50 amazing and realistic handouts for a Dossier campaign.
2. Dracula Dossier Augments Reality
All role-playing games are essentially lies, but their lies are so beautiful that we are willing to forget their falsity while sitting at the table.
But Hite and Hanrahan have so skillfully married their lies to the real world that it is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.
This has a marvelous effect on gameplay. Suddenly, it is not just Dracula Unredacted and game handouts that are sources of clues, but the whole world. Bram’s brother George actually fought in the Russo-Turkish War and wrote a book about it afterward. Was it a cover for contacting Dracula? Could a clue to the location of Castle Dracula lie in his book? In Dracula, Abraham Van Helsing is supposed to be a Dutchman, but whenever he gets upset, he curses in German. Could he be a spy for the kaiser? Wikipedia, Google, and all the world’s libraries become fruitful gardens for in-game research.
Ryder-Hanrahan said of this, “[W]e had the work of a century of bibliophiles and geeks picking holes in Dracula to get us started–[W]e didn’t have to go looking for the flaws, we had to explain why the ‘flaws’ they’d found were actually inconsistencies in the Dossier, evidence of a hurried MI-6 cover-up or potential treachery on the part of the principal characters–like the inability of Quincey Morris, the great hunter, to actually hit anything when he shoots.”
Hite added, “[R]eal history goes out of its way to give you perfectly weird hooks that if you didn’t know you were making things up would prove you were right all along about the magic or the vampires. [T]here are way too many things we didn’t need to make up to pick out one favorite from the secret history larder, but… when the Deputy Director of MI-5 in 1940 is for-real named ‘Jasper Harker’ you know you’re on to something even before you discover that his father for-real died suddenly and quite young in… 1894.” (The year the events of Dracula took place… supposedly.)
The Dracula Dossier is not just creating fantasy, it augments reality as surely as any computer game by making the player see a vampiric conspiracy and its shadows everywhere.
3. Improvisational Sandbox
The reason player discoveries on Wikipedia can be incorporated into the campaign is because it is an improvisational sandbox, where player characters are allowed to freely roam without a narrative imposed by the GM. However, the sandbox is given structure by Dracula Unredacted. Players will use the novel and its clues to chase down Dracula.
And it’s improvisational, meaning the GM shouldn’t plan too far ahead. This paired with the sandbox nature of the campaign allows for an unprecedented amount of true collaboration between GM and player over the course of the game. To help GMs with what could be a daunting task, there is The Director’s Handbook. This volume provides the GM with hundreds of locations, encounters, characters, and eerie objects from Dracula Unredacted which can be produced at a moment’s notice at the prodding of a player. A player who notes that Vlad Tepes was born in Sighișoara and wants to go looking for clues there? Turn a couple pages and the GM is ready to run an encounter there.
4. UFOlogical Inspiration
According to writers Ken Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, The Dracula Dossier was inspired by a legendary and mysterious book from UFO lore. Hite wrote,
[I]n 1956… Rear Admiral Frederick R. Furth, Chief of the Office of Naval Research, received a package containing a paperback copy of The Case For the U.F.O., by Morris Jessup. This particular copy bore three sets of annotations in three different colors of ink; the annotations implied a great deal of insider knowledge about UFOs, aliens, and extraterrestrial propulsion. (Or they implied a great deal of time on someone’s hands. You make the call.) Best of all, they contradicted each other, crossing out each other’s notes and leaving the ultimate meaning of any of it a bigger mystery than when it began.
This became known as the Varo Edition, and was for many years impossible to find. (Now with the arrival of the Internet, it can be found with but a click.) Hite wanted The Dracula Dossier to be “the Varo Edition, only with Dracula.”
All this adds up to a campaign with depth, which blurs the edges of game and reality, and where players are empowered to explore the world as they will. In my 25 years of tabletop role-playing, I have never played a game that felt so real, and so bleedingly alive that you might get spattered with gore every time you pull the trigger in-game. Yet because of the campaign’s improvisational nature, it’s low-prep, with an hour of preparation resulting in a week or two of gameplay. And the handouts are so realistic, they’d probably get you arrested for espionage going through an airport. In short, in this one nerd’s opinion, it is the greatest campaign of all-time.
Have a different campaign favorite? Well the gauntlet has been thrown down! Let us know what your favorite campaign is in the comments below!
Read more of Ken Hite’s ravings in the soon-to-be-released Fall of Delta Green!
Check out Eyes of the Stone Thief by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, which is about a dungeon that is literally alive, and eats cities!
All images courtesy Pelgrane Press.