Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Graves and Circuses: Whitby (Night's Black Agents)

It's no joke, trying to find Dracula's last resting place. According to this Guardian article, tour guides in Whitby, the town most closely associated with the Count, are forever being pestered by visitors eager to see his grave. One went so far as to fake a tombstone and place it strategically, along his favorite walk. A local vicar picked a tomb with an unreadable inscription, and told anyone who cared to ask that this was, in fact, Dracula's own.

As devotees of the Dracula Dossier will know, Whitby is a potential location in the campaign. Really, it had to be; a Dracula-centric story that ignored Whitby would be impossible. The protagonists can try to track down Dracula's resting place, which as scholars of the novel will know is suicide George Canon's grave. However since there's more than one possibility, including at least two fakes, finding it may not be a simple task. In the Dossier, Archaeology is the operative ability, but it might be interesting to throw in something more unusual.

Asking the tour guides probably isn't the best way to go, since few of them are as interested in accuracy as they are in prompt payment. However asking around the local pubs - Streetwise, Oral History, possibly Cop Talk under the right circumstances - leads the protagonists to Melania, a woman who came for the Goth festival four years ago, and never left.

NAME: Melania, aka Janet Proctor
ROLE: vampire expert, possible Renfield
DESCRIPTION: late 30s early 40s, heavy makeup, cyber/futurist dress sense with lots of brass and goggles, heavy rings (-1 damage)

INNOCENT: Melania's an IT guru, and during the day she freelances for local business in Whitby, helping them with their IT problems and fixing or designing their websites. When out and about on business she abandons the Goth look, though she still wears what could best be described as Romantic Business attire. She came to Whitby years ago for the Goth Festival, and fell in love with the place. She was already a devotee of all things Dracula and vampire-related, and the lure of being able to live in the most famous vampire landmark town was too much to resist. She attends the Festival religiously every year, and helps run it. An amateur artist, she usually has a trader's stall during the Festival.

There is very little she doesn't know about Dracula, or Stoker. She hasn't got the free time to organize a walking tour of her own, but she advises those who do. She's also a collector, and may have in her possession a minor item or a fake, but probably not a major item. Likely candidates include a Cameo, Spirit Board, or Vampire Hunting Kit. Her most prized possession is a second edition of Stoker's classic; if she finds out that the characters have the first edition, she'll do pretty much anything to get it.

ASSET: Edom placed her in Whitby as a lamplighter, to keep a watchful eye out for anyone who might come following the Edom trail. Her role isn't to interfere, but to misdirect, and to alert higher authority. One word from her, and a pair of Jacks will make their unobtrusive way to Whitby to deal with the problem. If there is a dead drop at Dracula's grave, Melania's the one who planted it.

MINION: Dracula remembers his time in Whitby all too well, and his memories are not fond ones. He put Melania here some time ago, to check on Edom assets within Whitby, and to determine if his old enemies are preparing anything significant here. So far, Melania's reports have been reassuringly undramatic, but Dracula's still deeply suspicious of the place. In this incarnation, Melania may be a Renfield, given unholy powers by her vampiric masters. This version may have more potent items than mere fakes or minor artifacts; Renfield's Journal, say, or a genuine Spirit Board. This Melania loathes Goths and the whole subculture, and would love nothing better than to switch back to severe business attire, Canary Wharf style, but when in deep cover in Rome, you do as the Romans do.

INVESTIGATIVE ABILITIES: History, Flirting, Electronic Surveillance, Data Recovery, Notice, Traffic Analysis

GENERAL ABILITIES: Cover, Digital Intrusion, Hand to Hand, Surveillance

ALERTNESS MODIFIER: +0 or as Renfield

STEALTH MODIFIER:    +0 or as Renfield

That same Guardian article also claims that Stoker went to Whitby because his patron, Henry Irving, once operated a circus there. It's the first I've heard of it, and I have to wonder if the writer wasn't making that bit up. Irving would have been running the Lyceum from 1878 onwards, in partnership with Ellen Terry. If he had the time to dash down to Whitby to play circus ringmaster, he wouldn't have needed a Stoker to be his business manager. He did spend much of his very early career with stock companies all over the north of England and Scotland, so perhaps that's where the story comes from. That would have been in the 1850s and 60s, when Irving was a very young man. He would have gone to London by the middle 60s, and from that point on he'd have spent most of his time there.

But say for a moment that Irving did go to Whitby as a member of a stock company. He might easily have interacted with Dr Merryweather as he was building his Earthquake Device, or done business with the early incarnation of Billington and Sons; probably just Billington, at that point. His ghost is supposed to haunt the Garrick Club, but if there was a compelling reason for his spirit to return to Whitby - perhaps he did encounter something there that he told Stoker about, inspiring the Irishman to follow in his hero's footsteps - then he might be seen there, particularly if the suicide's grave is disturbed. The theatre he performed in could still stand; Whitby's practically overrun with relics of the past, so one theatre more or less wouldn't make much odds. Suppose for a moment that this same theatre decides, perhaps as part of the run-up to a Dracula anniversary or as some festival, to perform Dracula. Perhaps his lead actor will be possessed by a very familiar spirit; Irving never played the Count in life, but Stoker was very keen on seeing him try. This could be Irving's last chance to play the role of a lifetime!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: The Dracula Dossier (Night's Black Agents)

I backed this Kickstarter to physical copy level, but the copies have yet to arrive, so this review is based on the .pdfs alone.

If Ken Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan are, at this moment, incarcerated in rooms with very soft furnishings, and only given crayons to write with, the Dracula Dossier is the cause. This improvisational Night's Black Agents campaign setting, complete with the unredacted print copy of Stoker's first edition Dracula and a massive Director's Handbook, is beyond huge. It's one thing to write up Stoker's Dracula with little 'Dracula's a great big meanie' notes in the margins; after all, Stoker's done the heavy lifting there. It's something else altogether to take that text, all those marginal notes, and a hundred other things besides, turning it all into a 364-page document complete with supporting characters, locations, rival agencies, and Dracula's many possible conspyramids and plots. I'll give you my conclusion right up front: if you have any interest in the Night's Black Agents setting whatsoever, this is a must-buy.

The unredacted copy of Stoker's Dracula is as complete as any vampire aficionado could wish for. By complete, I mean it includes absolutely everything, including appearances from Kate Reed, curious journalist who some of you may recall from Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series; Inspector Cotford, unlucky official investigator into the De Ville menace; and Francis Aytown, damned artist and photographer who stumbles into horror and cannot stumble out again. All these characters were part of Stoker's original concept but, for one reason or another, were removed from the final text. An author's caprice, or the hidden machinations of a government agency determined to hide the truth?

Interspersed with the text are notes from previous owners of the book, who used it as a guide when carrying out their own vampire investigations. Some of these notes may contain vital clues, while others may be false leads, mistakes or other red herrings. Which is which? That's for you to find out, but bear in mind that every last one of those notes, no matter how trivial they may seem, has an explanation written down in the Director's Handbook. In fact, they have more than one ...

Hence my not-entirely joking quip at the beginning of this screed. Just as an exercise in collating data, never mind the purpose, this thing is a massive undertaking. If you're any kind of student of Stoker, you'll find layer upon layer of meaning here, and each layer translates to yet another node, or character, location, item, plot thread. Imagine trying to put all that together, yourself. Then be grateful someone else did it for you.

The Handbook takes all that information and runs wild with it. Sixty four different supporting characters, half a dozen detailed vampire-hunting official agencies, locations galore, sinister side plots, hideous monsters like Erzabet Bathory, Lilith and Count Orlok, Nodes glorious Nodes, side trips to Hong Kong, Argentina and elsewhere, random establishing shots, objects mystical and mundane, four detailed capstones, plus ... but you get the idea. There's a whole lot of plus going on.

What makes this unique is that each and every one of those possible locations, nodes, characters, items and so on are discussed in several different ways. First, if the thing in question has no immediate link to the Conspiracy one way or the other. Second, if it is an asset, belonging to one of the spy agencies tasked with finding and recruiting, or killing, vampires. Third, if it has fallen to Dracula, and is now part of his Conspyramid. If it's an item or a location, then the text may also discuss options, such as is it genuine, is it a major or minor item, is it a fake? Is this location Hot, as in a really important place, or Cold?

Should you go to Carfax, for example, there are several different ways the Director could play it, many different items or supporting characters you might find there, and many different consequences. What this means in play is that the characters can never be sure what they're going to discover, nor can they take anything for granted. It also means that the Director can play this several times, maybe with the same group, and it will never play out the same way twice.

Which leads me straight to my only caveat: this probably isn't suitable for neophyte Directors.

It's not that it isn't great. It so very much is, but there's so much going on here that, if you haven't got a few years under your belt, you may find it intimidating. Its improvisational nature means that it lacks the structure a new Director may need to get going.

Let me compare it, for a moment, to Horror on the Orient Express, and say why I'd recommend the latest edition of Horror to new Keepers.

Horror is huge. There's tons of things to do, a mountain of stuff to read, and at first glance it seems intimidating. However it has solid internal structure; the Keeper always knows where the campaign is, in the narrative, and can easily determine what's going to happen next. The latest edition in particular is very newbie-friendly, and while there's a lot to absorb, it's not impossible to digest. It would definitely be a challenge for a new Keeper, but it would be a challenge that could be overcome.

I'm not sure the same could be said for the Dossier. Its improvisational nature - which I endorse and enjoy very much - and the metric ton of stuff in it, means that it's very easy to get lost in its labyrinthine innards. For a Director who's had a few years of gaming, this will not be a problem. However as someone who indulges in improv theater from time to time, I can tell you that confidence is key. As an actor, even if you're playing a weak character, you need to be utterly confident in yourself and your ability to play a weak character. That's the only way to convince, and entertain, your audience.

I wonder whether a new Director would be confident enough to pull this off. Or whether one mistake - and there's really no such thing as a mistake in improv, but try telling a new actor that - will lead to two, and then more, as the Director gets more and more nervous.

That is my only caveat, and to be honest, I'd recommend a new Director buy this even if that Director never plays it as written. It's a masterclass in how the game is constructed, and how it can be played.

At the moment it's not available, but Pelgrane lists it as Printing, which means it should be on sale very soon. Meanwhile, let me offer my personal thanks, not to the authors - though they deserve every plaudit - but to my fellow Kickstarter backers. Thanks to your funding, something wonderful has been created.

Now let's make our players' lives a vampire-haunted misery!

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Skulls, Nosferatu, and Film Legend: Murnau's Skull (Night's Black Agents)

By now many of you will have heard that legendary silent film director F.W. Murnau's skull has been stolen from its resting place in Stahnsdorf, Germany. 'Satanists' have been blamed, which is a convenient short form for 'half-witted jackass.'

Murnau, director of such classics as Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh and The Haunted Castle, was one of the preeminent figures of the German Expressionist film movement. Though he worked until his death in a car accident in 1931, producing over twenty features, Nosferatu, made in 1922, is by far his best remembered film.

Based on Dracula, but made without seeking permission from Stoker's widow, Nosferatu achieved notoriety thanks to the eerie, and rather ghoulish portrayal of the vampire, Orlok, by Max Schreck. Schreck, an actor more familiar with comic roles, managed to create a vivid, otherworldly vampire in Orlok, one that stuck in the public imagination long after the film was burnt by the widow Stoker for copyright infringement. Though most copies went to the bonfire, a version survived, smuggled and passed on by generations of film buffs and collectors.

The company that made Nosferatu, Prana Films, did not survive Stoker's holocaust. However Murnau was made of tougher stuff. In the war, he'd fought as a pilot, surviving eight crashes; what was a mere financial setback compared to that? He went across the water to start a new career in Hollywood, becoming one of the first recipients of the then newly-created Oscars, for his 1927 film Sunrise, often hailed by critics as the greatest film of all time. His early death in 1931 robbed us of a great talent.

As far as the robbery goes, the police have yet to recover the skull. Droplets of wax at the site have led to speculation that the skull was stolen for ritual purposes. Frankly, this is rubbish. Possibly it was stolen by would-be occultists, but as a rule, skulls aren't particularly useful in ritual magic. However they make excellent set dressing, so it's entirely possible that someone with a flair for the dramatic decided that Murnau's skull would make an excellent adornment for whatever it might be they have planned. Mind you, that could apply as equally to a death metal band as to spotty teenage Satanists. Incidentally, without scientific examination one skull looks very much like another to the untrained observer; I would expect a few Murnau fakes to turn up, over time.

Regular readers will recall that this isn't the first time skulls have come up. However the missing skull in that instance was probably stolen by phrenologists hoping to learn more from the shape and bumps on the skull, and phrenology has long been exploded as a pseudoscience.

All that said, who in the Night's Black Agents world would want Murnau's skull, and to what purpose?

A collector might want it, someone with a love of early silent cinema. Owning a piece of Murnau would be like catnip for a truly deranged completist. Expect the lair of someone such as this to be full of movie memorabilia, from posters to autographs to original prints. Perhaps several of Murnau's lost films, like Four Devils, could be found in this person's vaults. This role could as easily suit a Renfield, or a mortal, as one of the Undead. As a twist, perhaps the ultimate collector is insulted that someone else stole Murnau's skull, and is out for revenge.

A necromancer might want it, to summon up the ghost of Murnau himself. This might be done to learn more about the silent film era, or about Nosferatu itself. Perhaps this person thinks that Schreck wasn't the main actor at all; it's long been rumored that Nosferatu was played by an actual vampire. A vampire hunter might see this as a means of tracking down prey he's been seeking for a very long time. An alternate version would have a necromantic film lover put the whole gang back together, all the cast and as many crew as can be unearthed.


  • Perhaps a would-be vampire hunter thinks that dust from Murnau's bones would make a great bane, for a certain kind of vampire. 
  • The Conspiracy may have found a way to resurrect the dead, and one of them thinks that Murnau would make an excellent subject. 
  • Someone hoping to please a Conspiracy asset may have dug it up as the ultimate gift for her beloved. 
  • Perhaps Murnau himself became a vampire, and his early death was a cover; if his secret's been discovered, someone might have dug down to see what really is hidden in Murnau's grave. 
  • Perhaps the ghost - or the something else - of Greta Garbo decided to unearth it, to make a companion piece with the Murnau death mask that Garbo kept with her. 
  • Ordinary would-be occultists, or kids, dug it up, and now they're the target of a very annoyed Conspiracy asset who doesn't like having his idol's grave disturbed.
That's it for now. Enjoy!

Monday, 6 July 2015

Sand and Conflict Antiquities (Night's Black Agents)

So how does the Conspiracy get its money, anyway? It takes vast sums of cold hard cash to keep those combat choppers and armies of mooks on the payroll. Not every vampire is like that ultimate trustafarian, Dracula, with stacks of gold bullion stashed away in the dusty caverns under daddy's castle. Some of them have to work for a living; but what do they do, and what kind of payout can they expect?

I'm going to discuss two possibilities here, both ripped from the headlines: sand smuggling, and conflict antiquities.

Conflict antiquities is a topic that's been in the news frequently of late, due to its links with Isis, and the conflict in Syria. Briefly, in conflict zones organized bands of looters strip antiquities sites of anything valuable and portable, sending it to the antique shops of Europe for a quick buck. The process is helped by the traditional, mercenary attitude of collectors and dealers, a characteristic that has provided fiction with many memorable antiheroes. Most dealers don't inquire too closely into the antecedents of the items they sell, and the collectors care even less than the dealers. At the moment, profits from the trade are funding terrorist groups, but in the past it's kept many a crime lord and would-be dictator for life in clover.

Incidentally, in case you were about to argue that at least the antiques are saved for posterity, rather than destroyed, it's worth bearing in mind that the profits from each 'saved' antique go to fund the activities of the same people determined to destroy those same antiquity sites.

Religious fanaticism won't be denied, but even the fanatics are willing to bend a point to keep the movement in funds. The money's too good to resist; items flow from the conflict zone to nearby intermediary markets in, say, Turkey, before making its way to the West. It's organized looting on a massive scale. "Every day we are getting calls about Syrian gold, Syrian mosaics, Syrian statues," says one antiquities dealer. "Damascus is being sold right here in Amman, piece by piece."

Arguably the Conspiracy has a slight advantage over the ordinary looter, in that some of its members may be old enough to remember where all the best antiquities sites are. In any case, wherever the Vampires fit in the chain, it's a cinch that they're making a mint. The interesting thing about a chronicle of this type is that you can set the scene nearly anywhere, from a Middle Eastern marketplace to an oh-so-exclusive antiquities dealer in, say, Rome, or Bonn, or London. You're probably talking about several Nodes worth of the Conspyramid, from the original looters out on the sharp end, to the people organizing transport, to the vendors, and possibly also one or two of the more highly-placed collectors.

Now we've talked about that, let's talk about sand.

It's big business. Everybody needs it, and there isn't enough of it. Construction, manufacturing, technological development; it all comes, ultimately, from sand dredged up from river beds and beaches. Fresh water sand is best; you don't want to be fighting salt corrosion from sand impregnated with the stuff. Desert sand's no good, as you need it to have those rough edges, allowing it to bind together.

Ecologically this is frequently a nightmare scenario.Wisconsin's sand rush is not without its cost. "Your clothes are full of it, you can’t roll your car windows down," says one Wisconsin native, living near the Oakdale sand mines. "The breathing part of it isn’t good. You can just feel it in your throat, feel it in your nose." But that's in the United States, where you can, occasionally, oppose an industrial development on environmental grounds. Places like India, on the other hand, where there are few rules and little will to enforce them, are another question entirely. There are over a dozen nations heavily involved in illicit sand mining, and again, there are indications that profits from these scams flow back to, among others, terrorist groups.

From a Conspiracy perspective, sand lacks the sexiness of antiquities smuggling, but it's a lethal trade, worth a fortune, and might appeal to technologically-proficient vampires looking for raw materials to build their sinister devices. Or who just want to build a city in the middle of nowhere. Construction materials aren't cheap, after all.

As with antiquities, the most useful element of sand smuggling is that you can set the story pretty much anywhere. Once again there's the blasted, gang-run danger zone, where life is cheap and bribes frequent. Even if there is an actual authority, you can bet that the cops and government types will not be on the characters' side. Then there's the transport arm, and finally the delivery site, where the product is then divided up and shipped off to wherever it's needed. That could be Washington DC, or it could be Dubai. Or anywhere else in between, really; the choice is yours.

That's it from me. Enjoy!