#3 of my Top Ten of 2016
This massive hardcover clocks in at 372 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial/backer-lists, 4 pages detailed ToC, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 362 (!!!) pages of raw content, so let’s take a look!
This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a critical, unbiased review.
So, what is this book? Well, first of all, this is the companion tome to the Dracula Unredacted-tome, which is perhaps the most detailed, massive handout ever crafted for a roleplaying game. I’d like to urge you to read my review of this book first before taking a gander at this review here, if only so we’re all on the same page. I’ll wait here.
*tries to look inconspicuous*
Okay, back? I know I’d be a sucky agent. Anyways, this is, in a nut-shell, the Director’s book for the campaign. Surprise. If you were btw. thinking how you, as a GM, can keep tabs of the intentional inconsistencies, vaguenesses and hooks contained in the glorious tome called Dracula Unredacted…well, remember me mentioning the numbers in the review of Dracula Unredacted? You have an index of those here, one that supplement the massive index provided for this book and helps you stay one step ahead of the players. Properly depicted workname-lists and checklists further enhance the options of running this campaign.
Still, structure-wise, this book very much differs from the classic mega-adventure/AP/what-have-you-not. Why? Well, this campaign understands itself as an improvisational campaign -which, I can see, already has some of you roll your eyes. Well, wait a second – basically, this book can be considered to be the single most massively free-form campaign I have ever read…but it doesn’t feel like it – at all.
What do I mean by this? Well, the book is meticulously structured. At this point, we are already familiar with the structuring elements of the Conspyramid and Vampyramid as established structuring elements in Night’s Black Agents-games – but the level of detail that has been provided herein is…well, staggering. If you take one of these and the respective levels inside, you’ll notice detailed, crunch-supported responses to what is happening. From basic information-gathering to burning agents, the response/assault structure of the adversaries in this book, ultimately, is exceedingly, stunningly detailed and sensible – and yes, the stakes are high. Wait, stakes…good note: The book does offer advice on different playstyles – from stakes to burn and dust and mirror, different takes on the subject matter and advice for thematic modifications can be found in this tome.
Another simple reason why this does not feel like a typical free-form-GM-does-all-the-work-campaign is simply the staggering level of detail that has been provided in order to make running this massive campaign easier on the GM: Over 60 location, over 60 NPCs, almost30 strange objects – basically, even if you are not interested AT ALL in running a Dracula-themed campaign, this still remains a superb toolkit for your perusal.
But all those details don’t sound very improvisational, right? Well, here a genius element of this book comes into play. Everything, and I mean friggin’ everything, is utterly and completely customizable. The NPCs? They represent, in many cases, archetypes – but they also are characters: The Icelandic Diplomat, for example, is a fully developed character, with quirky mannerisms, history, ideology – true. But there are alternate names and looks, for one. Secondly, the entries focus on different options – generally, you get at least 3 options out of each character depicted – as an innocent, as a member of the conspiracy and as a direct minion of Dracula – and no, these are not the same, but more on that in the SPOILER-section, Similarly, from photos to jeweled daggers or Báthory’s journals, the artifacts and objects have multiple iterations – they can be major items, often with rules-relevant repercussions upon being used, less important items, fraudulent -and all has been carefully laid out for the director’s perusal.
Players stumble over item xyz too early? Okay, so you change it on the fly to a different iteration of its own, thus retaining control over this part of the campaign. This attention to detail btw. also extends to organizations and locales – from the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels to the Echipa Mortii or the al-Qaeda in Rûm, the respective organizations can have wildly different roles from campaign to campaign and this vast arsenal of different interpretations, ultimately, also lets you maintain control – and easily switch-bait one iteration into another: “While these guys have been made to look like Dracula’s minions, your painstakingly gathered intel now shows…” Similarly, the Rumanian government’s branches have undergone a treatment just as detailed – which, alongside the locations themselves, does show one thing: Authors Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan are history buffs and not only excel at the research of literature and its conventions as depicted in the Dracula Unredacted book – they also did their research here. Admirably so.
Know how impressed I was about Dracula Unredacted making use of the Icelandic Jack the Ripper-note? Well guess what? Their meticulously researched take on the locations and organization and history suffuses this book. I feel obliged to explicitly comment on this due to several facts: For one, a large part of Night’s Black Agent’s appeal lies in the realism of the setting, of it being “our” world. Particularly in research-heavy scenarios with historical figures, there is nothing that demotivates extremely involved players that do research in their spare time more than botching facts, dates, knowing nothing about structure xyz -it breaks the suspension of disbelief and is highly destructive and unpleasant when encountered. You’ll find no such instance herein – the respective locations, with handy maps of both dilapidated oil platforms (that may be prisons or not), cities and castles is precise and steeped deeply in real world lore – both historic and fantastic. Living a short drive away from Munich, I know about quite a few locales; similarly, as someone who had the chance to visit a lot of Rumanian castles, London and Iceland, I can verify that the depiction of these locations is downright uncanny in its presentation. I grossly, grossly underestimated the amount of work the Dracula Dossier would require for a fair assessment – I did research. A lot of it.
And the intriguing component is this: These real-life locations, organizations, etc. – they are fictional…and they are not. While the horrific threat obviously suffuses these places, they also remain grounded in reality – it’s almost to the point at which I’d consider this book’s depiction of places a form of augmented reality. If history is a grand narrative, a conventionalized consensus, then the accomplishment of this book lies in being almost too feasible, like an unredacted version of the things that could be, were vampires real. I may be too cerebral, I don’t know – but to me, this vastly enhanced the overall fear and tension while playing this book – and it enhances the sense of immersion of the players.
More important, should you not care (or care less) about accuracy, will be that, even in this level of detail, the game-play elements are never lost – each entry and locale, everything is simply chockfull with things to do, stability to lose, traps, responses and, ultimately, fun. Have I btw. mentioned that this modularity also extends to the very identity of Dracula and his castle? There are multiple, thoroughly compelling candidates – which you can actually research. Yep. Lunch-break, thinking about the week-end’s campaign? Interested in who the hell this one guy was? Research…and bam, you have meta-game and game generate a cohesive whole. Oh, have I mentioned maps for them? There is a second customization option for Dracula I consider very interesting -but that is, frankly, SPOILER-material and will feature in that section of the review.
But perhaps, just perhaps, all of these tools, all of these details, in spite of the thorough indexing and massive amount of ideas, still feels like it’s not enough to you. Perhaps, you want to have a bit more handholding, a skeleton to put your plot-meat on, if you will? Well, fret notes – beyond the spines depicting how to craft a scenario from Dracula Unredacted annotations, the book also offers alternate ends, campaign frames (think of them as massive templates for the campaign) and an exceedingly-detailed looking glass chapter on Bucharest….but this is where I’m at an end regarding the SPOILER-free territory – I’ll now go into the nit and grit of this tome.
Highly classified! Agents reading further will get BURNED and lose all stability! Agents should, at any cost, refrain from reading on and instead jump to the conclusion. Only Directors are classified to read further. CLASSIFIED. SPOILERS ABOUND.
Okay, so you’re a director and know how to handle this precarious information. Good. What I intentionally failed to mention above pertains to the nature of Dracula. You may not like the idea of supernatural, classic vampires, satanic adversaries of the like – the full book contains a massive selection of items and story-hooks that are based on a scientific interpretation of vampirism, tying Dracula to tellurgic energies, electromagnetism and thus manages to add a new and evocative potential twist to the subject matter – yes, including potentially an experimental rifle with a LONG recharge duration. More importantly, though, this does allow you to mix and match the classic and the unconventional ideas to create your own, unique take on Dracula and his spawn.
The book also has a vast selection of supernatural threats that brim with creativity and, combined with Drac’s stats, make this worth it for the stats alone. But what do we get exactly? Well, beyond the obvious Báthory (who is a capital threat in her own right) to Lilith (an ancient vampire posing as the goddess…) we also cover more exotic characters: – from Abhartach, the blood-drinking dwarf of Irish myth to the Chinese Jin-Gui to Orlok, Jack the Ripper (in a classic, interesting take) and various national vampire programs, we also get some truly exotic beings: Alraune, a plant-like Übermensch-experiment gone rogue or Queen Tera, the supernatural cast of optional characters is glorious. Similarly, EDOM’s forces and the cast of the novel and their descendants in different epochs are covered.
EDOM? Yep, for now things get VERY spoilery – basically, the central focus of the campaign can be summed up as that this branch of MI6, which is btw. also the “conspiracy” beyond Dracula’s own, seeks to recruit vampires for Britain as super-agents. This nefarious cabal operates in the shadows beyond even mainstream espionage and conspiracies and thus is a lethal foe indeed – and reading the unredacted file…well, puts the agents in danger by this force and Dracula – pincered between two truly lethal forces. More intriguing, by the way – the organization’s handlers, potential for double-agents among the player, organization-responses and facilities – all of these can be found within the superbly detailed pages contained herein. Similarly, the cast of characters of Stoker’s novel and their descendants may still be around, may be working for EDOM, Dracula, both or neither – the possibilities, literally, are almost endless and up to the creativity of the director and the responses of the players.
Now I mentioned alternate capstones, right? The expected one, no surprise there, is the showdown with nigh-demi-god Dracula in his own castle. But the alternatives are no less compelling: Whether Dracula’s endgame is becoming a god by ferreting out Zalmoxis, hijacking Russia by subduing Vladimir Putin or a showdown in the remote caverns beyond the inhospitable, exceedingly lethal wilderness beyond the Dracula’s Mill-water fall or bringing final death at his unique, original tomb – the capstones, once again, can be mixed and matched to suit your individual campaign and resonate with diverse, unique ideas and leitmotifs as well as metaphorical charges. And yes, with ample unique challenges and even new characters, these are no mere sketches – they are distinct and lend a unique flair to the respective finales.
I did mention campaign frames, right? Well, the first of these allows you to run a Mythos-version of the whole campaign, completely compatible with Trail of Cthulhu, including a wide array of potential servants, threats and similar mythos-themed notions – AWESOME…and yes, this means that this should be in the library of any self-respecting ToC-keeper, complete with star-spawn and black monoliths. The second frame would be a stakes-frame, wherein a third faction enters the game – the Fourth Reich. Basically, here we have a less realistic blend of Nazi-super-science, pulpy aesthetics and the Dracula myth – including underground cities, powerful super-Nazi-bosses and the like…and yes, emphasis on the occult or the scientific both are possible in equal measure. Finally, the “Onto the Fourth Generation”-frame takes the generation-spanning plot and begins with 1894, then proceeds to 1940, then 1977 and then to the present day, weaving an epic yarn that begins with players directly involved in the incident that actually generated the Dracula-novel in the first place. These alternatives, obviously, can be extensively scavenged by the director to create a thoroughly unique vision of an individual campaign.
There is one more fact: The Dracula Dossier’s Director’s Handbook is not simply a free-form espionage campaign. It also has tie-ins. Particularly novice directors that are a bit out of their league with the free-form structure of this campaign will certainly appreciate that the book ties in with the superb Zalozhniy Quartet campaign and, obviously, The EDOM files. Though, unfortunately, I do not own the latter adventure-collection, I have tried the transition from the former to the Dossier and it worked seamlessly smooth.
It should also be noted that a list of recommend reading has been included for your convenience!
Editing and formatting are top-notch – I only noticed a handful of glitches in a book of this impressive size, making this one of the most refined books you can find. Layout adheres to Pelgrane Press’ superb 3-column full-color standard for Night’s Black Agents and the book is chockfull with awesome full-color artwork – if there is an NPC, he or she will have a great artwork. Add to that great establishing shots and a high art-density in general and we have a gorgeous book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks, while the print copy (which you *should* get) is a high-quality hardcover with glossy, thick paper – a book made to last. My copy also featured a gorgeous cardboard 1-page-sized rendition of the glorious artwork of a potential castle of Dracula.
Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, with support from Heather Albano, Paul Baldowski, Kennon Bauman, Walt Ciechenowski, Justin Farquhar, Elsa S. Henry, Carol Johnson, Marissa Kelly, Shoshana Kessock, Shawn Merwin, James Palmer, Nathan Paoletta, Will Plant, Wes Schneider, Christopher Sniezak and Paul Veccione have created a book that can only be described as a master-piece…and then, it still doesn’t doe the experience of the Dracula Dossier justice.
If you read my reviews of Esoterrorists, Eyes of the Stone Thief or similar books, you’ll notice a tendency: Pelgrane Press is actually becoming rapidly one of my favorite publishers. Much like these absolutely superb tomes, the Dracula Dossier can be considered to be a book that pushes the envelope by means of its depth, customization options and the vast, ridiculous array of unique options herein. Suffused by truly unique ideas and historic accuracy, a humbling amount of unique details and more material than you can shake a stick at, the Dracula Dossier as a whole is an experience that not only ranks among my favorites in my whole reviewer-career, it is also simply superb in just about every way. Its careful research and level of detail, its interaction with Dracula Unredacted – both conspire to basically render this book a nigh unprecedented experience: The fact that Dracula Unredacted generates a real-world experience supported by research undertaken by players enhances the immersion in unprecedented ways. Better yet, this colossal tome’s genius organization renders actually running the campaign a feasible task, even for directors that are new to the GUMSHOE-rules-set: The tie-ins with the Zalozhniy Quartet allow for easier, more structured beginnings to get used to the themes of the game, while also planting the seeds for the highly modular campaign-smörgåsbord contained within these pages.
This book cannot only be considered to be excellence in game-design, it is also educational and pretty much the pinnacle of careful, deliberate and capable research. I honestly sat down with my own copy of Dracula and compared texts. I did research…and ended up being more impressed rather than less by the attention to detail and care that went into this book. Note that most texts, whether academic or otherwise, tend to elicit the opposite response from me.
This is, pretty much, a system-seller experience unlike any other you may have encountered during your experiences with investigative RPGs. It’s, in one sentence, a milestone for our hobby as a whole. Obviously, my rating cannot be anything but a full 5 stars + seal of approval for this masterpiece. And yes, this is obviously a candidate for my Top Ten of this year; in fact, it is a hot contender for the number 1 spot! Seriously – even if you aren’t interested in Night’s Black Agent’s – at least get the Dracula Unredacted book…though, if my prediction holds up, that book will make you get this Director’s Handbook as well. They are simply too good to pass up. And yes, I hope I’ll be able to review more of these absolutely superb GUMSHOE-books in the future!
You can get this legendary campaign here on OBS!
A discounted Night’s Black Agents starter kit with these legendary books can be found here!
The print can be found on Pelgrane Press’ store here!