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!

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