It all started out so innocently. We’d done a Trail of Cthulhu one shot. Hey, we seemed to like the system. Maybe we’ll try a Night’s Black Agents one shot. So we get to the second session and being somewhat insecure, at least for a GM–a position which requires more than a big of ego–and also because I’m feeling a little out of my depth, I ask if people are enjoying the game.
Oh yes, they are. A lot. And, to be honest, I am as well. Back when I was a larvae in high school and my first summer of college when I moved back home, I ran three games: Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and James Bond 007. So espionage and horror comes kind of naturally to me, even if we never mixed the chocolate and peanut butter back in high school.
Now when you talk about Night’s Black Agents, the elephant in the room is the Dracula Dossier. For those who don’t know, it’s a huge improv campaign posited on the notion that a little group of British Secret Service agents in the 1890s came up with the idea of recruiting a vampire as a British intelligence asset. The mission failed, and the novel Dracula is a redacted version of the mission report, issued as fiction to distract from the reality of the mission. This little group formed an internal unit within MI6 called Edom that has since tried several times to recruit a vampire and is back at it again. It’s an absolutely amazing concept for a campaign that’s matched by an equally amazing set of resources. And loads of people talk about how much they’d like to run it or play it, but a lot fewer people actually try because it’s so complicated.
And did I mention that the scenario I picked for a one shot is perfect as a lead in to the Dossier?
There’s no question, running this campaign is insane. There is nothing like it. It’s a terrifying high wire act over a pit of wolves with vampire bats nipping at you…
First, it’s just a ridiculous amount of material. When I first started gaming, D&D modules were either 16 or 32 pages. (The ratio of 16 being a function of TSR’s printer.) The Dracula Dossier consists of The Director’s Handbook (372pp) which is the main “campaign book,” the Edom Files (194pp) a set of additional scenarios many of which have clues about the Edom organization and Dracula, The Edom Field Manual (114pp) which is both a GM resource book on the Edom organization and a handout for agents, and the Dossier itself, a completely rewritten and annotated version of the novel Dracula (490pp). That’s 1,170 pages of material. Plus assorted handouts replicated from the above.
And it’s not a standard campaign, it’s an improvisational one. They get the Dossier, the entire novel Dracula, with all the material cut from the final edition, plus additional material from Pelgrane Press. That’s their handout. Four Hundred and Ninety pages. Then they pick up clues as they want, chase them, and as GM, you have to react.
From the GM’s point of view, that amount of freedom and information is terrifying. To help you, the Director’s Handbook has a list of NPCs, locations, organizations, and other sources. Each one comes with several different versions that you can mix and match as you like. In one Dracula Dossier game, Van Helsing may be a long-dead Vatican agent brought in to clean up after the messy Edom operation. In another game, you might make him a member of Edom, still alive and running things behind the scenes, kept alive by regular infusions of vampire blood. In one game, Dracula may be running a string of orphanages as blood farms, in another Edom may be using them to experiment on children, and in a third, they may just be a red herring.
There’s enough going on here that it’s not really practical to just “wing it” at the table. Most of the NPCs/locations/etc have at least several hundred words of material written about them. So I’ve been doing a lot of prepping, really more preparation for a game than I’ve done in my 30-something years of running games. I started with a read through of the Director’s handbook and quickly realized, it was far more than I was ever going to take in.
I needed to make notes. Lots of them. That led to a bit of a side trip as I invested in a whole bunch of new pens–I love good pens–even good cheap disposable pens and nice notebooks (think Moleskin but different) for the purpose. Then, I restarted reading my way through the Director’s book, taking relatively primitive notes along the way. Ok, I like this idea, I’ll make her work for Edom. Oh, that sounds terrible, I’m going to leave him out of the game. And so on.
Then the metaphorical red pen came out. A lot of my ideas changed after reading further because all of these NPCs and organizations and so on interact with each other. I started to see ways I could use this or that resource that only made sense in context of being linked to someone else. So I took my scrawled notes and rewrite them into a more organized final framework.
For the overall conspiracy, I ended up going backwards, and figuring out some big things like who Dracula’s Wives are, where his castle is, how big Edom is, what “legacies” (descendents of past Edom operatives–or as above maybe some of them are still “alive”) are in play.
One thing I haven’t found very useful is the conspyramid. I think the problem is the campaign just feels way too big for it. I look at the pyramid and I just don’t see where anything we’re doing in the game fits into one. There’s too much here and too many options. The Dossier materials also only list a Count Dracula cospyramid and I’m finding that Edom is taking over the position as “the baddie” rather than the Count. So I’m juggling two conspiracies and right now trying rather desperately to think of ways to move them from pursuing Edom to pursuing Count Dracula.
But at least, I have a frame of the campaign and I’ve written up a few little side missions and how I feel different NPCs will work together.
For week to week planning, we made a friendly agreement between players and GM to fill me in at the end of sessions about where they think they’re going. Then, between sessions, I make notes of all the clues they found in the session we just played, and then I go through them and make sure I have good followups ready, and I sketch out a brief idea of how I expect the next session to go, and I come up with a new group of clues to move them to where I think they’ll go after that.
Of course, that can all fall apart. The “next session” stuff has worked out really well, but I’ve been far less successful at keeping that second session ahead. My players always seem to go in a different direction and once we’re playing, it always seems to make perfect sense to me. So I go back and reorient, then try to figure out where I can fit in the other things at a later date. Ironically, one of the more irritating aspects has been that I can’t get them to a good location to actually hand them the Dossier itself, which is beginning to drive me crazy.