Sunday 17 July 2016

Longcon 2 - GM's report for the Dracula Dossier

LongCon is a unique British RPG convention that lets you play the same game with the same group and GM all weekend. Last year I played in Dr Paul Mitchener’s awesome One Ring game and offered to run something for him to play as thanks – he chose Nights Black Agents and I had the many resources from the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter to use… 

I recruited 5 good players via Facebook back in mid February who I knew and thought would be a good mix. In my experience, most awesome games start with the words “We had a great set of players” and this is never more important than when you are going to be spending 2-3 days together and gaming non-stop. We confirmed numbers in April and in May I created a private G+ group to organise character creation and talk about what we wanted for the game. I explained NBA was a mix of Bourne Technothriller and vampiric conspiracy horror, but I wanted to throw in the more British elements of Ultraviolet (great UK vampire hunter show) and some John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Here is what I wrote “So thats the game I want- a modern day, fast-paced technothriller with shifting grounds of trust and betrayal and a peculiarly British sense of espionage, all mixed with a healthy dose of Vampire lore and the supernatural”. And you know what, I think we achieved that along with some powerful emotional moments, exciting action scenes and an impossible moral dilemma. 

Mechanically it was a Mirrors (a game about Trust and betrayal) plus Stakes (high stakes, world changing drama) and a touch of the Russian Roulette capstone ending (the climax is Dracula trying to enslave Vladimir Putin) . The Dracula Dossier is an improvisational campaign toolbox that lets the GM select a palette of NPC’s, locations, plot’s and villains- it has a great core concept (British Intelligence tried to recruit Dracula in 1894, the eponymous novel is a barely redacted after-action report). I decided that vampires were Damned souls who could be cast back into hell when slain, but they would return to walk the earth (heralded by shakes and quakes) when their slayer died to explain why Dracula keeps coming back to life. Only another vampire can kill them forever and Vampires also can act only out of sin and never virtue. This meant the minimum number of vampires in the world is always 1, a plague of evil you could never entirely get rid of. And it also set up for enticing the players to consider becoming a vampire in order to kill Dracula forever, but at the cost of their soul – how to choose between lesser and greater evils? Moral dilemma’s are often the best challenge for any group as you cant shoot or dice roll your way past them. 

One issue with the Dossier is that as the product of both Kickstarter stretch goals, Ken Hites comprehensive conspiratorial knowledge leading to ever expanding nodes and connections (personally I still think trying to tie the passing mention of the Aerated Bread Company into the conspiracy is a step too far) meant that I had way more material than could ever be used, and for a 2 day campaign I had to hack back the extraneous growth and focus on the core of the campaign. So, I decided to keep the focus on Edom, Dracula and only use 2 cities- London and Bucharest. Keeping it simple and straightforward (using cleartext names mostly) kept it on track in our short amount of play time. 

In the spirit of that philosophy there were only 3 vampires in my game- Dracula (sin of Pride), Lucy Westenra (Sloth) and Mina Murray Harker (who’d become a vampire after 3 bites and decieved Van Helsing. Her motivating sin was Wrath against Dracula). Lucy Westenra was being secretly killed again once a generation by the Seward family line/Legacies and mostly confined to her crypt in Kingstead Cemetery. Mina was the 1894 Edom vampire who’d managed to suborn the agency over the years with mesmerism and cunning. She knew she couldn’t kill Dracula personally- too much chance of him dominating her or killing her, so she’s been recruiting and setting up agents to kill him whenever he resurrects. The PC’s are the latest group she’s going to manipulate and fire at him. Dracula last resurrected in 2011 and is looking to lure Vladimir Putin to Romania so he could Renfield the leader of a superpower. Ultimately Mina was a villainous intelligence analyst and asset handler and her interventions drove the plot. 


We had 5 PC’s,- Dr Mark Seward, shrink, hypnotist, medic and scientist for MI5. Expert on bio weapons. Sister is Jacqueline ‘Jack’ Seward, haemotologist and secretly Dr. Drawes. Her deal with Edom is that they didnt recruit Mark. Mark also knew Oakes (Duke Elah) who was an old friend and mentor. Drive: In the Blood 

Toby Greengrass – hacker, analyst and infiltrator for MI6. He was married to Hopkins (though she never spoke of the Dossier to him) and seeks revenge on those who killed his wife in 7/7, initially believing it just to be terrorists. Drive: Revenge 

Mary Morris- thrill seeking driver, asskicker from the Met Counter Terrorism branch and Quincey Morris Legacy. Born in Romania and losing her mother, her solace is Uncle Alan. She was recruited by Edom who had kidnapped her grandmother. She is Edom Duke Iram, the driver. Drive: Thrill Seeker 

George Esterhase – aging spook able to pass between borders with ease. Looking to retire soon from MI6. Solace is Uncle Peter (Guillam) in France. Our Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy reference/ LeCarre legacy. Drive: Patriotism 

Razvan Albescu – older ex-Romanian Secutitate hitter and wetworker, he seeks atonement for his past, after leaving his pregnant Romanian wife when he defected he never got back in contact and now has an almost equally estranged UK family. Nominally Catholic, he’d mentioned when setting initial Trust that Mary Morris reminded him of a girl whose mother he’d killed back in Romania. Drive: Redemption 

Venue: we were at the Garrison Hotel in Sheffield (site of other UK gaming cons such as Furnace, Seven Hills and ShaCon) and in the summer in the top floor verandah- covered by canvas and with glass frontings. While we had some rain and humidity, overall it was well lit (except after 9:30 pm) and pleasant – like playing in an open sided tent. We were alone so could use the glass in the walls to blu-tack up various props and documents and prop up both a small corkboard and giant white board and play some background music. 

Music- I had built 2 main playlists for ambient background music- Espionage- consisting of Thematic Pianos’ Bourne Legacy music (instrumental only), Jack Reacher soundtrack, Arlington Road soundtrack, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (recent one) soundtrack and the themes from Homeland, James Bond and Mission Impossible. The ‘Vampire’ soundtrack saw less use but consisted of Ford Coppola’s Dracula sound track (two different versions), Silence of the Lambs soundtrack (great for building tension) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The one off funeral background music was Funeral Bells, Jerusalem, The Lord is My Shepherd and Adagio for Strings.(the saddest music ever) Generally anything without lyrics lets players focus on the game while letting the music set a background tone. 

Props – I’d raided the Hawkins papers and used some of the original Committee reports on recruiting Dracula for background plus the one about Earthquakes in history to give them baseline knowledge. I’d created an Executive Summary of Dracula Unredacted for those who hadnt read the full book before the game (2 had, 2 had started, 1 hadnt). I’d also done a bureaucratic access list as to who’d had access to the Dossier since 1990 – and while it listed the various ‘C’s in MI6 and dates of access by a myterious ‘D’, it also hinted at murder and assassination of those who’d seen it without authorisation. The dates alone were a clue aimed at Revenge-driven Toby Greengrass. From the PDF of the Cards I printed off and cut out lots of head shots for a cork-board backed conspiracy collage. One of the players managed to bring along a huge white board to to help map the conspiracy and elements- it gave the whole thing a great police show/operational command vibe which was great. We also had lots of Index cards so whenever someone created a Contact or Cover or prepped a Safehouse, then they’d grab a card and write on it and we’d stick it up on the wall for all to see. Again it was great for organisation and keeping all the disparate elements visible and memorable. 

Timing: We had 3 players and I arriving at the venue on Friday evening, so I suggested that to get into the mood we play a session of “Fury of Dracula 3e” board game as we couldnt start then, but I wanted to set a theme. I almost used the board game map as a prop for an inter-city chase scene across Europe, but I’ll have to save that for another day. On Saturday we had the players all assembled by 10am and we played until 12:30. Session 2 was longer and more intense- 2 till 6ish. Then the game moved to Bucharest and ended on a cliffhanger for Sesssion 3 (8pm- 10pm) before the low light meant we couldnt see dice results. Saturday evening was then dominated by drinks in the pub and a terrible wedding party in the hotel that didnt quiet down till 2am. On Sunday we resumed with Session 4 from 9:30 till 13:00 and then concluded with session 5 from 2pm till 5pm, including the debrief and epilogues. 

Plot Outline and thoughts: 

My thought for a complete campaign arc was to begin with them as normal agents from a mix of backgrounds assigned to an inter-agency task force to monitor a ISIL inspired terror cell in Romford , near London. I wanted to establish ‘normalcy’ for a team of professionals before it gets ripped away by the machinations of Mina. Then something would happen inside the surveilled house and a few would run out in utter terror. I wanted the players to think “What could possibly frighten a suicide bomber?”. They would find the Dossier inside (stolen & planted by Mina, the attacker). They would get burned, and forced to seek meaning for these events and a trail of clues would seek out Dracula to kill him. I also wanted there to be a moral quandry for them to debate, so I made sure they learned that while they could kill Dracula, it would be a temporary thing that only lasted till the slayer died. Edom would offer them the chance for one of the PC’s to become a vampire and kill Dracula forever – is it better to sacrifice yourself and become a monster to defeat forever a more dangerous greater evil? 

I wanted to weave characters backgrounds into the plot from the beginning. The most obvious was to have killing Lucy Westenra be a thing the Seward heir does every generation on the death of the last slayer. Mark Seward had been estranged from his father so we open with Mark and his sister Jack attending their fathers funeral. As Mark leaves, the priest hand-delivers a letter from the deceased telling him that vampires are real and he should kill Lucy Westenra in her crypt. Thats crazy talk, but its useful set up. Toby Greengrass too is mourning at the same Kingstead cemetery for his dead wife – I mention how the flowers he’d carefully arranged now shook fell down when Alan Sewards coffin went into the ground. Then we cut back to the other 3 PC’s as the day shift of their Romford surveillance. Mary’s Romanian grandmother was her motivator as Edom leveraged her to ensure Mary’s loyalty. Rasvan had occasional references to his famil(ies) but that kicked more in when he returned to Bucharest. George Esterhase’s motivation was more patriotism and some lingering shame over Toby Esterhase’s activities during WITCHCRAFT in the 70’s.

Session 1: Funeral, Toby visiting gravestone. Seward gets fathers letter, disbelieves it. Surveillance of the terrorists. Something happens. Chase scenes, horror movie investigation. Discovery of Dossier and cover up. Mary drops a dime. Investigating Kingstead Cemetery at night- into the crypt and fighting Lucy Westenra. Mary recovers the Westenra Brooch and accidentally contacts Dracula. World news- terrorist attacks in Moscow and Bucharest. G8 summit called. 

Session 2 - Fake call out back to base for Rasvan, George & Mark- a trap! Assassin sent to Toby’s home. Mary to the rescue- killing Nails. Retreat to Staithes. Interrogation of Osprey and his execution by a crazed Toby before he could spill on Mary. Rest & recovery. Mary dreams of red eyes and white teeth. Mark tries hypnotic intervention- makes contact with Dracula. Discovers Dracula is in Bucharest. George and Mary have a heart to heart- she confesses she is Edom. Mark reaches out to Oakes. World News- G8 summit to be held in Bucharest. 

Session 3- Travel to Bucharest. George makes contact with SRI. Rasvan has a domestic drama when he meets his ex-wife, she rejects him. Toby investigates Fabricken Leutner. Mary discovers grandmother was in Strasba Orphanage. Rasvan and George meet their SRI contact on a misty bridge only to discover that the SRI is compromised and the agent is pulled into the mist by Dracula! However he left behind intel to show Dracula is targeting someone at the G8! 

Session 4- Rasvan and George evade Dracula and take sanctuary in church. Recuit Father Vaclav and get holy water. Reaching out to Edom about Dracula- offer of safe passage back to England from Oakes to discuss face to face. Given an offer – one of the PC’s can become a vampire in order to kill Dracula forever. Led by Mark they refuse as a group, but Rasvan and George go behind their backs and Rasvan volunteers to become a vamp. Mark finally talks to Jack who reveals she became Dr Drawes so that he didnt get recruited into Edom, just as her father had sought to spare them the horror of their heritage- a family of martyrs. 

Session 5- Rasvan becomes a vampire under Mina. The rest sett up the lure they spread rumours to reach the SRI that Putin will be in a secluded forest dacha the night before the summit. Fight at the Dacha with Dracula. Mark distracting Dracula with a Hypnosis MOS and psychically linking for a crucial round. Toby bailing out and abandoning the team to go after Edom. Rasvan reavealing himself as a vampire to hurl Dracula clear and George nuking him with a rocket launcher next to the petrol generator. Rasvan finishing off Dracula with a double stake. Rasvan succumbing to blood lust and almost devouring Mary before George terminates him. 

Starting off with a kinetic dual chase sequence as explosive vest clad IS-sympathisers race through Romford in utter panic. Twin chases on the white board kick us off at high gear! 
Exploring Lucy Westenra’s sealed crypt in Kingstead Cemetary… at night. Then the player jump when the coffin lead burst off and Lucy was savaging them… 
Intriguing and battling with Edom assassins when their Burn Notice came through. Toby searching through Hopkins things when he hears a creak on the floor below and has to hide in a coffin water tank to stay hidden. 
Mary working on a distraught, angry Toby, winding him up until he burst into an interrogation run by Rasvan and Seward and put a shovel through the skull of captive Edom agent Osprey just before he was going to reveal Mary was a traitor. 
Hypnotic interrogation of Mary who’d picked up the Westenra Brooch and had attracted dream espionage from Dracula to discover he was in Bucharest. 
George counselling a distraught Mary that it wasnt her fault and seeing her sob everytime he said that. Mary confessing she was an Edom spy who’d told Edom that they’d seen the Dossier and so earned them a Burn Notice. 
Rasvan trying to woo back his long abandoned Romanian wife with only 2 interpersonal skills- Flirting and Intimidation. She sobbed at his return, slapped him, started to reconcile and then when he was saying “I thought of you every day” remembered the letter she’d got from his UK daughter and started hitting him again! 
Rasvan and Mary wandering through Strasba Orphanage and Mary gradually remembering she’d been brought here years ago by a younger Rasvan… after he’d killed her mother in front of her. 
The ethical debate between Seward, Rasvan and George on becoming a vampire. Rasvan ready to do it, since ‘He’s done worse’ already. 
Every time the dysfunctional Seward family tell each other important things about vampires… way too late. 
Rasvan revealing he was a vampire, apporting into combat to tear into Dracula and throw him into the other room to open up a shot on him and… George firing a rocket launcher at Count Dracula. 
In the exploded ruins of the dacha, Rasvan biting into a pinned Mary’s neck, about to turn her… when George executes him with crossbow stake, per his pre-vampire living will. 

Epilogues – 
Mary retires to Romania, away from Edom and nursed by her grandmother due to her terrible injuries. 
Toby goes a bit mad and start’s trying to kill Edom one by one on his own. He dumps the Dossier onto Wikileaks but most dont believe it. 
George and Mark try to reform Edom, joining the conspiracy to see who can be saved and who needs to be eliminated. However Mark finds himself signing the Burn Notice and kill order on Toby after Wikileaks…. 
Rasvan’s letter reaches Mary telling her that he damned her soul to make up for killing her mother. He and Lucy will be slain by Mina when Mark and George eventually die. 
And in the shadows, Mina chuckles as her thoughts turn to new sins…. 

Final thoughts- this was a truly incredible game with many, many high points. We effectively made an critical incident operations centre with our various props and it worked perfectly for organising the investigation. We had a lot of immersion and constant roleplaying both with the GM and more importantly between the players- when discussing the moral dilemma we had players passionately up on their feet, pacing back and forth as they expounded. There were some really touching emotional moments, especially Mary’s two conversations with George and Rasvan. The combats were fierce and bloody, and the pace generally kept up . I’m eternally grateful to the players who all bought into the game and committed to it. It was a big ask, but fortunately the LongCon system lets people put in the investment and see it realised over the weekend. I felt like I had the whole plot juggling around in my head, but there was always something I could throw in. However it was exhausting and I’ve spent most of the rest of the following week decompressing or sleeping from it afterwards. 

My great thanks to John Dodd for organising LongCon and making the logistics so easy. My eternal thanks to my players for such a great game- Dom for leading the team to the whiteboard and making sense of it all, Julian for some standout emotional confesssions, Nigel for his descent into bitter madness, Paul for his quiet psychiatric support and family conversations, and Guy for hilariously always making things worse when he tried talking to people… Thanks also to Simon Rogers and Gareth Hanrahan for looking over my initial premise and to Jonathan Turner for the excellent Technothriller Monologues that we used several times.