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I ran two Trail of Cthulhu sessions over the weekend (a stealth proof-of-concept of a possible upcoming setting). At a three or four hour convention game, the pressure of time means every scene has to count. There’s little time for backtracking or encounters that don’t go anywhere, and that pressure’s compounded if you’ve got a table of players who aren’t familiar with the GUMSHOE system. You want to shovel clues and benefits at them whenever you can. There need to be clues everywhere (and they all need to converge and lead onto a small number of possible next scenes, to keep the scenario on track).

Most players quickly grasp the big idea of GUMSHOE, that you always find clues instead of rolling for them, but point spends are a little more confusing. New players ask if they need to spend points for core clues, or think they need to roll like a General Ability, or have trouble even imagining what extra benefit, say, Photography might have. They worry about wasting points, and while I assume them that I’ll refund the spend if there’s no added information or benefit to be gained, I always look for ways to make a point spend seem worthwhile.  I don’t like saying no to new players when they try to engage with the mechanics.

After all, one of the big reasons to have point spends is to help allocate spotlight time. Spending a point is like sending up a flare to the GM marked “pay attention to me! Give me a way to shine”). The last thing you want to do to a new player let them feel ignored. (At the same time, the other last thing you want to do is let a loud and enthusiastic new player dominate the game and crowd out everyone else – and the limited number of investigative spends available ensure that doesn’t easily happen.)

Here are my four go-to ways to make any Investigative spend, even an obscure one, pay off, in the absence of a better idea or suggestion.

Gain A Trusted Contact

Any certainty is welcome in a mystery game. Telling a player “you know this guy and can trust him” is immensely reassuring. If a player asks “do I know any X (astronomers, doctors, people who know about the swamp, people who’ll help me move a body)”, I’ll either suggest a suitable ability, or just tell the player if they pick an ability and spend from it, they’ll know someone who they can trust and rely on – ideally, someone who provides access to another Investigative Ability.

Even just the act of saying “you can trust this guy” is often enough. You might not have ever intended for that NPC to betray or deceive the players, but the players usually feel that certainty is worth the point.

  • Art History: A local dealer in fine art. She’s got lots of Credit Rating and can get you an invite to the Ambassador’s party.
  • Geology: Your old university lecturer is also an expert in Chemistry.
  • Cop Talk: Your buddy on the force can open doors for you that would normally require Bureaucracy.

Gain a General Pool

If a player asks to do something with an investigative spend that’s really better phrased as a general ability test, then instead off a 3-point pool of that general ability. If they make a wild spend for information when you’ve no idea what extra details or clues to give them, go for a 1 or 2-point pool of Investigative Abilities. Phrase it as a pool instead of a straight bonus to give the player more control, and to allow for the narratively satisfying possibility of callbacks.

  • Can I make acid with Chemistry and melt the door? How about a 3-point Explosive Devices pool?
  • I use Bargain on the shopkeeper. What does he have for sale that I can buy cheap? Take 3 points of Preparedness, and later on you can say that you bought whatever item you use here in this scene.
  • I spend a point to Research everything! Um, ok. You read everything in the library related to the case. You don’t find anything that seems immediately relevant, but you can have one point that you can turn into any Academic ability later on, as long as it relates to the case you researched. So, if you find, I dunno, a magic dagger, you could examine that item with the bits of Archaeology you recall from your reading, and get clues that way.

Expand The Scope Of An Ability

Especially for more abstruse academic abilities, it’s common for players to try using them as steamrollers whenever they’re even slightly relevant. (“I have Medicine! I’m a doctor! They should tell me everything about the dead guy’s autopsy”). Interpersonal abilities get repurposed (“I flatter him, saying ‘you’re way too tough to be scared of those mushroom guys.” Is he Reassured yet?”) In such cases, charge a point spend to allow for the more generous interpretation of the ability.

Tangential Flashback

If you’re totally stuck for how an investigative spend could possibly apply to the scene, but the player is adamant that they want to try, consider improvising a brief scene that relates to the spend, but gives a core clue or other information. You can also use such little scenes to drop tangentially-related but spookily Lovecraftian foreshadowing or hints.

  • I spend a point of Astronomy and look out at the stars while the others are talking to the terrible old man! The stars out the window are oddly different – it must be some trick of the light, or a trick of the clouds. Maybe it’s unusually clear here, so you can see more stars. Anyway, you remember one night a few months ago when you came out to a hill near the old man’s shack to do some observations with a portable telescope. Now that you think of, you remember seeing a fire burning that night – and that fire might have been right here, in his back yard. What was he burning that night? (Hints that Evidence Collection or Archaeology might find something in the back garden.)
  • I examine the plants in the garden. Do I get anything for spending a point of Biology? You recall a reference in a biology paper you read in college that talked about the occult properties of certain plants. Out of curiosity – you were a bored biology student – you looked up that second paper, and there you learned that the plants in the garden – sorghum – are associated with a tradition called the Benandanti, a 16th century occult group who claimed to be able to astrally project. (Substitutes for Occult)
  • I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. What?
  • I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. OK. Er. Well, you… know that the table is… ok, it’s made from a hardwood that grows locally. In a forest. And…and in that forest, there are mines running underneath parts of it, and you’ve heard stories about weird stuff there. And dead miners. Buried alive! The roots of the trees there must have fed on human marrow-fat and bones… and now they’re in this table. (There’s another scene in the scenario that points to the old mine, and you’re wildly scrabbling to find anything useful to say.)

The Accretion Disk supplement for Ashen Stars (available from Pelgrane’s shiny new webstore) contains detailed writeups for six common Laser ship designs – the Runner, Hammer, Rampart, Speeder, Porcupine and Hauler. It’s also got deck plans for, er, seven ship designs. Some meson shrapnel interference unaccountably scrambled communications, so the Mandible got a set of deck plans but not a writeup.

With most humble apologies to the noble kch-thk civilisation, this not-food seeks to repair this terrible discrepancy.

Mandible hull view

(Click on the deck plans for larger images)

Mandible

No-one’s closer than a Mandible crew. Maybe it’s the close quarters and lack of privacy on board the kch-thk-designed ships. Maybe it’s the complexity of the ship’s advanced weapons systems and countermeasures that demands teamwork and trust. Maybe it’s the hive pheromones leaching out of the extruded bio-metallic hull struts. As the saying goes, when you sign up on a Mandible, you become part of the ship.

Mandible lower deck

Lower Deck

1. Shuttle Bay

Some Laser crews move their shuttle to the docking pad on the upper deck, and return this room to its original purpose as a ‘boarding ovipositor’. This specialised bolt-on costs 8 bigcreds, and has an upkeep of 1. Activate it at the start of a combat to reduce the threshold for Cripple for Boarding to a mere 9. The Mandible’s two massive mandible-claws lock onto the enemy ship, and the ovipositor punches through their hull, allowing the kch-thk marines to swarm on board.

There are two big downsides to this. First, it leaves the Mandible open to counter-attacks while moving to grab on, reducing all the ship’s Fire and Trickbag specs by 2 each (both Dishing It and Taking It). Second, a crew equipped with an ovipostor might as well go all the way and paint their hull black with skull-and-crossbone flags and rename the ship “Obvious Pirate” – reduce Reputation by 2.

2. Port Cargo Hold

Both cargo holds have forward-facing cargo doors, and the mandibles on the deck above can be used to grab space debris and drop it into the corresponding cargo hold.

Battle Station: Check for Salvage! If you’re at this station when your ship completes Rake, Slash or Destroy, you may make a Systems Design test (Difficulty 6). Succeed, and you grab some salvage from the enemy ship that might be worth something. Roll a d6; on a 1-5, if someone in your crew spends that many Systems Repair, the salvage is worth that many bigcreds. On a 6, you’ve salvaged something interesting, like a damaged-but-repairable bolt-on, an escape pod, some of the enemy’s cargo, or even one of the enemy crew, blown out in an explosive decompression.

3. Starboard Cargo Hold. You can Check for Salvage from this station too, if you want to maximise your chances of finding loot.

4. Hazardous Storage. Commonly referred to as the larder.

5. Secure Storage. This room comes equipped with extensive life-support equipment for sustaining a kch-thk grk’k’a chamber.

6. Access to Main Deck. The spiral staircase is a concession to stodgy quad-limbed not-food – on an all-kch-thk ship, there’s a sort of climbing frame/sphincter structure called a clk-ll instead that’s more comfortable to scuttle up.

7. Translight Drive. Every kch-thk translight drive includes a small shrine to Krdzt-Ktchh (see Ashen Stars, p. 157), the martyred inventor of faster-than-light travel. These shrines are included as a matter of tradition, but some engineers swear that they bring luck to the ships that carry them. When all is lost, spending a point of Kch-Thk History to recite the Convulsive Chant might inspire a merciful GM to let you refresh a few points of Systems Repair or Piloting.

8. Power Core

9. Computer Core. Battle Station: Optimise Output! The Mandible’s computer core is built right on top of its power core to enable this risky tactic. It’s possible to have the computer micro-manage power allocation, quickly shunting systems on and off-line to wring a little extra venom out of the reactors. This counts as hyperclocking (Ashen Stars, p. 92), but gives 3-6 points instead of 4. (Roll a die, and count any result of 1-2 as 3). Associated Spec: Fire (taking it)

Mandible main deck

Main Deck

1. Crew Quarters. Perhaps the most infamous aspect of the Mandible design is the lack of private rooms for the crew. It’s possible to hang plastic sheets or other dividers to break up the space, but there’s no elegant solution short of rebuilding the main deck. (Costs 10 bigcreds and takes six weeks). The lack of privacy may wear on the nerves of more sensitive crew members – it’s a great reason to call for Emotion Suppression tests from Balla, for example.

Mandible ships cannot obtain Side Deals (Ashen Stars, p. 173) involving carrying passengers.

2. Lounge. In an emergency, the floor of the lounge automatically pops open, allowing quick access to the shuttle bay below. Any occupied sleeping pods are then transferred into the shuttle.

Note that in the original schematics for the Manidible design, the ‘sleeping pods’ were originally designated for food storage. This automated system was not created to preserve the lives of the kch-thk crew – it’s there to ensure that they have sufficient food after the ship is destroyed and they reincarnate on board the shuttle from its grk’k’a tank.

3. Sleeping Pods. New crew members may hesitate at the idea of sleeping inside what’s effectively a cryo-stasis pod, but it’s the only private space on the whole ship.

4. Sick Bay. Another concession to the limitations of non-sequential lifeforms. A sick or injured kch-thk is more like to attempt Consciousness Transfer to another body rather than waste time and effort on healing a sub-standard shell. Mandible sickbays are often under-stocked and poorly equipped.

5. Facilities. All your sanitary, food preparation, mating and washing needs in one convenient location! What, does your species not usually combine those activities?

6. Access to Bridge.

7. Sensor Station. Battle Station: Countermeasures Targeting Solution! Spend a point of Energy Signatures to give your Stratco a 3-point pool of Naval Tactics. Associated Spec: Fire (either) or Trickbag (either)

8. Sensor Array Access. The deck plans don’t convey how cramped, narrow and confusing this access crawl-space is. Slither down here in a fight, and you’ve got a bonus 4-point Systems Repair pool that can only be spent on Override or Trickbag repairs. The downside is that it costs you 2 points of Athletics to get in here.

9. Weapons Station. Battle Station: Main Battery Targeting Solution! Spend a point of Energy Signatures to give your Gunner a 3-point pool of Battle Console. Associated Spec: Fire (either) or Trickbag (either)

10. Weapons Array Access: Like the Sensor Array access – 2 Athletics buys you 4 Systems Repair for Fire or Trickbag repairs only.

11. Sublight Engines. The Mandible’s drives are notoriously ‘showy’ – they throw off plenty of visible radiation moments before activation. It’s trivial for an enemy ship to track these emissions and anticipate the Mandible’s movements, hence the ship’s terrible Maneuver (Dishing It) rating. Clever Mandible crews prefer to engage enemies in environments where the ship’s giant glowing abdomen doesn’t telegraph their intentions quite so obviously, such as thick dust clouds or radiation storms.

12. Drives

13. Engineering Control. Battle Station – Suppress Engine Flares! A successful Systems Design test (Difficulty 6) improves the ship’s Maneuver (Dishing It) rating by 2 for one showdown. Fail, and the ship’s Maneuver (Dishing It) rating drops by 1 for the rest of the combat. Associated Spec: Maneuver (either).

14. Auxiliary Monitoring Station. Battle Station – Double-Check Those Flares! If another crew member attempts to Suppress Engine Flares while this station is occupied, that crew member may roll two dice instead of one and take the higher roll.

15. Access to Upper Deck

Mandible upper deck

Upper Deck

1. Bridge. The Mandible’s bridge is something of a tempting target. The canopy is composed of a semi-transparent resin that’s almost as tough as the rest of the hull, but it’s still a weak spot. If an enemy ship successfully Rakes or Slashes the Mandible, all crew members on the bridge take an extra die of damage.

2. Tactical Station.

3. Access to Main Deck

4. Pilot Station. Battle Station – The Krzd Feint: It’s possible to mislead an enemy who’s tracking your engine emissions by shunting plasma out the lateral maneuvering thrusters at the last instant. Pulling off this trick requires a Systems Design test (Difficulty 6). Succeed, and you get to count your negative Maneuver (Dishing It) rating as positive for one showdown. Fail, and you blow out the lateral thrusters and end up even more sluggish, reducing both your Maneuver ratings by 1. You can only attempt the Krzd Feint once per battle.

5. Comm Station

6. Gunnery Station. Battle Station: Devouring Fire. By carefully calibrating the ship’s weapons fire, a skilled gunner can unleash a fusillade that cripples an enemy ship as part of a successful Trickbag attack. If the Stratco wins a Trickbag showdown, spend 4 Battle Console to add the ship’s Fire (Dishing It) rating to the skirmish point haul.

7. Engineering Station

8. Access to Engineering

9. Airlock

10. Docking Pad. The surface of this docking pad secretes an adhesive gel instead of using artificial gravity or magnetic grapples to keep docked ships in place. One neat side-effect of this technology is that it’s possible to ‘stick’ a Mandible to, say, the side of a rocky cliff. It can park anywhere. It’s also possible to glom onto the belly of a larger vessel, hitching a ride without being obviously detectable…

 

Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Blood_splatterImprovising telling but subtle details on the fly is tricky, especially if the players catch you off-guard. They’ve suddenly flown to Iceland to follow a lead you hadn’t prepared, and now you’re scrambling not only to get back ahead of the Agents, but also get a handle on where the overall campaign is now going. With all that to think about, atmosphere and description suffer, and your NPCs become bland stick figures who meet the PCs in, I dunno, an office or somewhere.

Using motifs – ideas that recur in different forms throughout the campaign – can help with this. It’s the classic “constraints breed creativity” trick  – if you’ve got to somehow associate Random Icelandic Dude with blood in the players’ minds, that’ll give you a starting point to riff from and get you off the blank page of the mind. Maybe he’s a farmer, and he’s just slaughtered a lamb when the PCs arrive. He’s a surgeon. He’s wobbling and pale because he donated blood this morning. He’s got ketchup on his face. Anything that suggests blood works.

There are two other benefits using motifs. Firstly, they’re a device to add a feeling of cohesion and consistency to a work. Used properly, they make a campaign with a lot of side trails, dead ends and random weirdness seem more like an actual polished story in retrospect. More importantly (from the rat-bastard GM point of view, as opposed to the lit critic in me), motifs are great for retroactive revelations. If, later in the campaign, you need to reveal that the Icelandic farmer is a minion of Dracula, you can retroactively decide that the blood on his hands was human blood from the hitch-hikers he killed! That bat beating against the window at Hillingham House wasn’t a bit of spooky atmospheric description – it was Dracula himself, spying on the Agents! Every motif can be a trapdoor. Everyone’s a suspect.

Use motifs as modifiers –  instead of coming up with a new NPC/Location/Object, take an existing one from the Director’s Handbook and work the motif into your description. Associate one or two themes with each major faction in your campaign. You might push the Dracula-Blood connection, and reserve Rats for Edom’s spies and thieves.

 

Major motifs lifted straight from the novel:

Blood

Associations: Vitality/health/strength/lifeforce, family & lineage, hearts, passion, wine (through Jesus Christ), stains (guilt), injuries (‘shedding blood’ as a badge of honour).

People:

  • Visible scrapes, bandaged wounds (“cut myself shaving this morning, you see”)
  • Red jewellery or clothing (“in the Whitby gloom, her red scarf looks like blood gushing from her pale neck”)
  • Small bloodstains on collar, cuffs or shoes (“one of the kids had a nosebleed – the washing machine didn’t get it all out”)
  • Eating a rare, bloody steak (“my doctor says it’s bad for me, but who wants to live forever”)
  • Breath smells metallic (“she’s beautiful, but her breath turns your stomach when she gets close to you”)
  • Phobia of blood (“It makes me feel faint – please don’t make that Medic roll in here.”)
  • Drinking red wine (“a rare vintage, laid down by my grandfather”)
  • Cuts themselves while talking to the Agents (“she gets so pissed at you she knocks her glass off the table with an angry gesture. As she’s picking up the pieces, she cuts her finger open on a jagged fragment.”)

Locations:

  • Bloodstains on the ground in or near the location (“looks like someone had a fight outside the office last night – the ground’s dark with dried blood that wasn’t washed away by the morning’s rains”)
  • Dark red walls (“you can almost hear the decorator saying it’ll make the room feel warm and cosy. It makes you feel like you’re inside a hunk of raw meat.”)
  • Red stains or marks. (“The old pipes spit out rusty, reddish water.)
  • Inherited property. (“It’s been in my family for generations. This place is in my blood.”)
  • Sound like a distant heartbeat (“some piece of machinery in the basement’s making this rhythmic hammering noise, thump thump thump thump, and the vibrations go right up your spine and echo in your ribcage”)
  • Nearby medical facility (“there’s a blood donation van parked in the car park of the community centre across the street”)

Objects: 

  • Reddish colours, stains or markings (“the diary’s written in dark red ink”)
  • Bloodsucking things nearby (“after wading through the leech-infested marsh, you find the buried box”)
  • Emotional reactions (“your blood runs cold when you look at the portrait”)
  • Inherited object (“to think that Quincey Harker once wielded this knife! It fires up your blood!”)
  • Evocative hiding place (“you find the diary inside an old winepress in an outbuilding”)

Bats and Rats

Associations: Filth and disease, nocturnal predators and scavengers, hiding in holes and caves, unclean animals, eating insects

People:

  • Rat-like features (“she’s got very prominent front teeth, like a rodent”)
  • Skulking demeanour (“he’s in a corner of the bar, so well hidden you nearly miss him.”)
  • Gnawing or scavenging (“he starts burrowing through the piles of reports and letters on his desk. It looks like this guy’s a total packrat.”)
  • Disconcertingly good night vision (“even though you’re hidden in the dark shadow of the hedge, he looks right at you and sniffs the air, like he can smell you”)
  • Pet rat or bat (“I found it in the garden this morning. Poor thing was starving. I’m feeding it with an eye-dropper.”)
  • Taste for cheese. (“It’s an excellent variety of Edom. I’m sorry, Edam.”)

Locations:

  • Visible mouse hole in the skirting board (“You can’t help but notice a small hole behind the desk, littered with chewed scraps of paper”)
  • Mouse droppings on a surface (“the kitchen hasn’t been cleaned in years. Mouse droppings and worse in the cabinets.”)
  • Scratching in the walls (“you try to sleep, but there’s a mouse running around the walls near your bed. It sounds like it’s trying to claw its way inside your skull.”)
  • Rats crawling over garbage. (“There’s a back door in a garbage-strewn alley. Rats look up at you with brazen curiosity as you pass, utterly unafraid of you.”)
  • Animal brought in to keep the rats down (positive spin: “a small terrier bounds into the room, something tiny and furry caught in its jaws. It shakes its head violently and there’s an audible snap a the rat’s neck breaks. The dog drops the body at your feet.” Negative: “a white cat, more like a furry rugby ball than anything else, snores lazily on the couch, ignoring the mice darting across the floor”).
  • Bats crashing into windows or beating against them is a classic, and always good for a jump scare. Players are a cowardly and superstitious lot.

Objects: 

  • Stored with rat poison (“you find the gun under the sink, behind some black bin bags and a box of rat poison”)
  • Unusual interest from bats (“as you leave the graveyard, you see a huge number of bats settling in the nearby tree. Suddenly, there’s a thump as one of them flies low and slams into your briefcase, as if it knows what’s inside.”)
  • Animal tooth marks on the object. (“The coffin’s been chewed by rats.”)
  • Animalistic decorations (“you can’t find a printer’s name or publisher on the book, suggesting it was privately printed. There’s a little symbol on the spine that might be stylised bat.”)
  • Evoke animal imagery when describing it. (“Thick grubby electrical wires, like a cluster of rat tails,run into a brass port on the underside of the machine.”)

Mirrors

Associations: Illusions, trickery and sleight of hand; deception; vanity and the ravages of age, espionage and double agents (‘wilderness of mirrors’), parallels and counter-examples, reversals.

People:

  • Seen first in a mirror (“he stops to look in his reflection in a shop window”)
  • Mirror shades (“the border guard is wearing mirrored sunglasses”)
  • Has a hand-mirror or very shiny surface to hand (“he has the annoying, childish habit of angling his watch face to catch rays of sunlight and bouncing them around the walls and into your eyes”)
  • Dopplegangers & duplicates (“you see an older, heavyset man with thick brows, wearing overalls. It’s only when you get closer that you realise it’s a different man. It’s not the Russian.”)
  • Mirroring body language (“she leans forward, copying your stance. Psych 101, creates a feeling of shared experience and promotes bonding and trust. Damnably effective when you look like she does, too.”)
  • Shadow duplicate of Agent (“The name’s Hayward. You must remember me. I was the year behind you at Cambridge, you know, and was on the Bucharest desk after you too. Our paths diverged after that, of course – I never left the Service.”)

Locations:

  • Prominent mirror in room (“the lobby’s huge, but the full-length mirror running down one wall makes it feel like you could meet an aircraft carrier here for coffee without inconveniencing anyone”)
  • Reflected or symmetrical structure (“her office is in the east wing, just across the quad. The only building is a copy of itself, so much so that when you look across the courtyard, you see three figures much like yourselves in the corridor opposite.”)
  • Still, reflective water (“The pond outside Carfax Abbey is long gone, but water pools on the Meath road in much the same place, reflecting the wintry skies.”)
  • Broken mirror or glass. (“The windows around the back are all cracked. Looking for a place to peer in, you’re momentarily arrested by the sight of your own reflected eye staring back at you.”)
  • Silvered or glassy surface. (“It’s art,” she says doubtfully.”The owners like it.”)
  • CCTV Cameras (“The security post has a bank of monitors showing all the feeds. You can see yourselves crouched in the corridor outside the post.”)

Objects:

  • Fake or duplicate item in same place (“he collects 19th century maps, so it’s only after sorting through a dozen Austro-Hungarian surveys of the mountains do you find the annotated version you seek.”)
  • Hidden behind a mirror (“searching the bathroom, you find a syringe behind the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet”)
  • Copy of original document (“the original files are gone, but you dig up a photocopy.”)
  • Wrapped in silver foil (“the inner crate is lined with some tin-foil-like substance, interleaved with swatches of ballistic cloth”)
  • Image of Agent or key NPC (“A sketch of your own face stares out at you from the first page. It must be a sketch of your great-grandmother. The resemblance is uncanny.”)

Other motifs from the novel: Revenants and the Un-Dead, Superstitions vs. Technology, Stories Told Indirectly

 

 

If you hang around my social media presence (or Ken’s, whose twitterings are to mine as Dracula is to a small fruit bat), you may have seen this funky diagram floating around.

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It’s a map of every (or nearly every) node in the Dracula Dossier and the connections between them. I ostensibly built it as a proof of concept to show that you can start anywhere in the campaign and theoretically fight your way through that chain of clues all the way to Dracula, but mainly because I had gone a bit mad from cross-referencing annotations, which is why it looks like something you’d find in Renfield’s cell.

(It’s done, by the way, in Scapple, a very simple mind-mapping program. There are doubtless other more powerful and/or cheaper apps that do the same thing – I know people who use Campaign Cartographer – but Scapple was both easy and already on my machine, so I went for the lazy option. There’s a free trial of Scapple if you want to play with these maps – and it even exports straight into Scrivener for all your Edom-fanfic needs.)

That crazy mish-mash of a chart is utterly useless as a reference, of course, but mapping the nodes visually can be a handy tool for the harried Director. Here, for example, is a snapshot of a campaign that’s just started.

CU120

Discovered Clues
The players have decided to investigate annotation CU120. That annotation references the Jewelled Dagger, the Satanic Cult, Carfax, and Dracula’s safehouse network. Last session, the players began by using their contacts in Sothebys to research the provenance of the dagger. They then poked around Carfax and the old safehouse network, where they ran into the MI5 Agent and got warned to stay away from matters that don’t concern them (Make Inquiries on the Edom response pyramid). Unperturbed, they guessed that there might be hidden, unmapped tunnels leading to the cellars of the old Carfax building, and spend Network points to obtain ground-penetrating radar gear from the Seismologist.

So, what’s likely to happen this session? What should the Director prepare for? They haven’t followed up on the Satanic Cult lead yet, but if they do, the Psychic will probably come into play as an occult expert or the heir to the cult. If the Agents question him, he’ll point them at Coldfall House.

The Seismologist is currently just a background character who provided them with useful gear (dropping “canon” NPCs in as Network contacts is a fantastic way to enmesh the players in the world of the Dossier), but as soon as they realise he knows something about Operation Edom, he can point them to his old work colleague, the Retired Computer Boffin.

The Mole Hunt Who’s Who

Here’s a map of who-knew-who (or who was “supposed” to know who) during the 1977 mole hunt.

1970 Mole Hunt

 

You’ve got Cushing right in the middle, as the liaison between Five and Six. He’s got all his contacts and experts in London on the left side of the map, and the ongoing mess in Romania on the right. (Look at the Sculptor, off on her own unconnected to any other node – she’s a wild card in the investigation, a backchannel to connect any other two nodes.)

Plot 201

You can use these maps to plot different facets of the investigation. For example, say one of your players is really excited by the prospect of black magic, of forbidden tomes and underworld sorcery, and another one wants to get into the investigation of the war on terror and keep things relatively low-key and gritty. By pulling a selection of appropriate nodes into a map, you can find places where these two spheres of interest intersect, so both players get what they want out of the campaign. Here, I’ve grabbed a bunch of campaign elements that I know pertain to either the occult or terrorism, and smeared them across a canvas to see what suggests itself.

Occultvswaronterror

Right away, we’ve got a clear line of inquiry that runs from the DIFC Tasker through Holmwood and the British intelligence establishment through the Black Site stuff in Bucharest and into Al-Qaeda in Rum. We can hook in some occult elements along the way – maybe AQIR have gotten hold of an earthquake device (presumably, the one left behind by “Van Sloan’s” team in 1940. And that Spirit Board, sitting in the middle of the map – it’s tantilisingly close to the “Black Light” Black Site. The idea of interrogating people from beyond the grave could be fun, and reminds me of the Dead House in Munich.

We also have a bunch of smaller clusters or wholly unconnected nodes. Has the Archaeologist uncovered the Scholomance? Is the Caldwell Foundation operating out of the British Library? What’s the deal with the Bookseller?

Plot 202

Here’s a more evolved version of the same map, and the Satanic Cult comes to the fore.

Occultvswaronterror2

You can see how they’re pulling the strings on both sides of the war on terror. Through Philip Holmwood (Minion version) they can influence Edom’s choice of targets. Through the Tour Guide, they’ve put the Medievalist (now an AQIR sympathiser) in touch with the Bookseller who supplied the Earthquake Device. The Caldwell Foundation is carrying out its own investigation, using the Psychic as a double agent – but the Cult are making arrangements to flip the Psychic by providing him with his longed-for copy of Le Dragon Noir. Maybe if the Agents can intercept the Smuggler, they can stop their plan and keep the Psychic on the side of the angels.

The Archaeologist is still off to the side, not really linked into the main plot. That’s fine – I can drop hints and foreshadowing relating to him that might never pay off, or I can bring him onstage later on if the campaign’s heading for a big setpiece involving the Scholomance or Zalmoxis. Similarly, I’ve left the Enigmatic Monsignor floating – I’m suddenly taken with the idea that the Black Site Interrogator’s off-the-books dabbling in necromancy have plunged him into religious terror, and the Agents could flip him by posing as priests and reawakening his lapsed faith. (Glancing at his writeup, I note that Ken has serendipitously given him an older brother in the priesthood – I might retask the Enigmatic Monsigor for that role).

Note the Arms Runner’s connection to Leutner Fabrichen and from there to the Syrian General. If the players get bogged down, I can have them run into the Arms Runner, giving them another avenue of investigation that’ll lead back to my main plot.

The other key map to your campaign, of course, is the Conspyramid. As you play through, keep building the Conspyramid from the bottom up as a tool for pacing. For example, here’s how part of the Conspyramid might look in this case.

Partial Conspyramid

I’ve added the Romanian Ministry of, er, Cult-ure as a Level 3 node to bridge the gap between the Tour Guide/Bookseller and the Cult itself.

(The upcoming Dracula Deck of cards works great for this sort of visualisation, too, if you don’t want to spend hours entering every node into Scapple again after forgetting to save the first two times, he muttered bitterly. Here’s a Scapple document containing every single node, also available in XML.)

EF cover_350The upcoming Edom Files, yet another part of the I-can-justifiably-use-the-word-epic-at-this-point epic Dracula Dossier series, is an anthology of eight missions, ranging from 1877’s Stoker: First Blood to the present-day Harker Intrusion . These missions can be used as one-shots with or without reference to the larger Dossier series, or as Flashbacks within a regular Dossier campaign, or – for the truly heroic – as part of a century-spanning Unto the Fourth Generation or Fields of Edom game.

One of the nice things about having an anthology of historical scenarios in a game about immortal monsters is that you can play with horrors in the past and reasonably expect them to survive into the present, making those historical missions more than just backstory.  If Edom fails to kill Carmilla in 1948, during The Carmilla Sanction, then she’s still around in 2016 to menace your Agents. That hellish mountain lair in First Blood is still there in the present day. For each scenario, we’ve included an encounter – a person, place, object, node or ravening monster – that might survive into a contemporary campaign.

In fact, due to a slight miscommunication, we nearly included two for the Carmilla Sanction. Ken’s NPC works better in the book for sinister plot purposes, so here, rescued from the cutting room floor, is another encounter tied to that mission.

Object: The Vordenburg Diary

Appearance: A handwritten manuscript from the late 17th century, written in a mix of Latin and German, that describes the occult research of a Baron Vordenburg, who was troubled by vampires when living in Moravia (present-day eastern Czech republic).

Supposed History: Baron Vordenburg – the younger baron, the one who shows up in Carmilla – described how his ancestor was a lover of Countess Karnstein, and when she became a vampire, he studied the curse and resolved to leave notes on how to find her tomb and destroy her when she rose again. The Baron’s notes may have been part of the bundle of papers in the possession of Le Fanu when he wrote his novel; Carmilla may have removed them to her new fortress, where they fell into the hands of Edom or the occupying Russian forces.

Major Item: The book contains detailed observations on vampire physiology by Vordenburg – observations that can only be the result of extensive experimentation on captured subjects. It discusses methods of dispatch, feeding cycles, the relationship between the vampire and its tomb, and lists several vampiric creatures destroyed by the Baron. For good measure, the Baron has also transcribed key sections of other texts (like Le Dragon Noir, DH p. 273, and reading it gives a 6-point pool that can be spent on Vampirology, Diagnosis or Occult Studies – or on general ability tests when fighting a vampire. Close reading with History also turns up links to other vampire hunters (possibly the Vatican, the Hospital of St. Joseph & Ste. Mary, DH p. 230, or the Fortified Monastery of St. Peter, DH p. 144).

One small downside – the book was written after Carmilla implanted post-hypnotic suggestions in the Baron’s mind and blood, and reading the original diary (but not a copy or scan) exposes the reader to the vampire’s influence. Call for a Difficulty 6 Stability test on reading the book; failing doesn’t cost the reader any Stability, but opens up a psychic connection. Cue dreams, nocturnal visitations, and an obsession with anagrams. If Carmilla’s still active, then she starts targeting the reader as her next victim. If she was destroyed, then she possesses the reader (if female and of a suitable age) or someone close at hand (a Solace, maybe), slowly conditioning her victim to seek out another vampire and return Carmilla to un-death in a new body. Diagnosis spots the signs of possession.

Minor Item: As above, but the Baron’s notes aren’t half so comprehensive, and there’s a lot more extraneous material about lesbianism. A cruel Director might make the notes on vampirism actively misleading or dangerous – maybe Carmilla deliberately had Vordenburg write the diary as misinformation, and it points towards some location or relic that Carmilla desires. A Vampirology spend spots the errors; if the players don’t make a spend, then give them a clue pointing to a trap laid by Carmilla.

Fraudulent: It’s a fake, written by Carmilla herself in the 1930s. The book contains no useful information, but it’s still got the hypnotic curse. She wrote it as a trap for Edom; optionally, it might be the key to the 1977 mole hunt, and the mole is some woman possessed by the spirit of Carmilla. Check out the library file on the book with Research to find out who read it last, and hence determine who’s secretly Carmilla – maybe the Balkans Specialist (DH p. 91) or the Sculptor (DH p. 100) or Lucy Blythe (DH p. 41). Perhaps there are several psychic doubles of Carmilla running around.

Connections: Doubtless Van Helsing (DH p. 31) and the Hungarian’s grandfather (DH p. 94) were contacts of one Vordenberg or another. The Former Gehlen Org (DH p. 82) might know what became of any Vordenberg Legacies that are still alive.

 

Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.

 

EEF cover_350ight desperate missions against the Un-Dead!

From the mountains of Bulgaria to the streets of Berlin

From the Russo-Turkish war to the War on Terror

From 1877 to the present day 

For the Dead Travel Fast

Operation Edom is the top-secret section of MI6 dedicated to thwarting and, ultimately, controlling the Un-Dead. Open the Edom archives and read the sealed files to learn the true shape of the 20th century.

  • Stoker: First Blood (1877): In this prequel to Dracula, British adventurers exploring the Balkans thwart a vampiric horror.
  • The Carmilla Sanction (1948): As the Soviets seal off Vienna, an Edom hit team hunt the notorious vampire Carmilla – but can they find her among all the decoys she’s created?
  • Blood Coda (1971): A Romanian ballet company defects to the West, but there’s a vampire hidden among the dancers. Hunt her down before the curtain rises.
  • Day of the Wehrwolf (1981): A prisoner exchange for a captured Edom officer leads the Agents into a race against time to stop the bombing of Radio Free Europe.
  • The Slayer Elite (1980): A mysterious employer hires a team of elite mercenaries to carry out an operation in England. Their target: Edom.
  • Four Days of the Bat (1989): Edom investigates an attack on one of their hidden stations, while outside the Berlin Wall falls and the Soviet Union collapses.
  • The Moldavian Candidate (2005): A long-cold Edom case file is the key to thwarting a Conspiracy plan to assassinate the American vice president and escalate the war on terror.
  • The Harker Intrusion (201-): An entry vector to the main Dracula Dossier campaign, giving one way for a team of Agents to acquire the stolen Dossier.

The Edom Files is part of the Dracula Dossier series. It stands alone as a compendium of one-shot adventures, but combine it with the Director’s Handbook to flash back into Edom’s history, or play through it all as a century-spanning epic!

Status: In development

Edom Field Guide Cover_350Drink from the chalice, and join the ranks of the unseen immortals.

You’re on the inside now.

You know what must be done to defend Queen and Country, to defend everything we’ve built, everything we stand for. You deserve access to the innermost sanctum, and this is your key – the EDOM FIELD MANUAL. It will tell you everything you need to know about Operation Edom – what we do, how we do it, and what we’re working towards. It will also teach you how to handle our special assets, and how to put them down if they go rogue.

For more than a century, the top-secret operation within MI6 codenamed ‘Edom’ has defended the United Kingdom from the machinations of the Un-Dead. This book describes the operation’s history, methods, and tradecraft, initiating you into the innermost secrets of the British vampire program.
For players – create your own Edom officers and hunt vampires with the sanction and backing of the British government! Immerse yourself in the clandestine world with eyes-only documents and briefings. Call on Dukes for aid and counsel, gather intel with the aid of Edom’s networks of informants, and gear up with specialised anti-vampire weapons and tactics. Use the Fields of Edom campaign frame to play the spies hunting for the stolen Dracula Dossier, or defy your masters and complete the original mission by taking Dracula down for good.
For Directors – Build your own Edom with a guide to the operation’s structure and methods. Two dozen non-player characters give you a supporting cast for Edom-centred games. Explore Edom’s secret history and render its shadowy present in vivid detail. Advice and campaign options help you bring the operation to a thrilling conclusion – or a bloody catastrophe.
So watch for the cup-and-blaze mark and the hand signal. Keep your kukri close, and remember your training. Four generations of agents have passed the cup on to you – do not falter at the last!
The Edom Field Manual stands alone as a guide to a vampire hunting program. Combine it with the other books in the Dracula Dossier series for insight into Edom its machinations.

Status: In development

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A Secret History Unearthed. A Legendary Horror Walks Again.

Presenting an epic improvised campaign for Night’s Black Agents Roleplaying Game. Do your Agents have what it takes to face the Lord of the Undead himself?

The Dracula Dossier follows in the fully improvisational path of the award-winning Armitage Files campaign. Players follow up leads in the margins of Dracula Unredacted, a rare edition of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece that reveals the terrifying truth behind the fiction. They’ll chase down the real characters from Stoker’s novel, their descendants in the present, and the British agents caught in the backblast.

Dracula's Castle_350Directors combine these leads and notes with pre-prepared elements in the Director’s Handbook, including:

  • Conspiracy nodes, eerie locations and vampiric beasts
  • More than 60 supporting characters in vampiric, heroic, or in-between versions
  • Different versions of the real Mina Harker, Abraham van Helsing, and the other stars of Stoker’s novel — and their modern-day successors, descendants, and survivors — who can drive the story in any direction the players look.ZZ_Spread pages 186_187 (Carfax)

Players choose which leads to track, which scarlet trail to follow. The Director, using the clear step-by-step techniques in this book, improvises a suitably blood-soaked thriller in response to their choices. Clear advice to players and Directors on improvisation, with extensive examples and guidelines, helps you set the scene. Together, you will read and write your own unique version of the Dracula Dossier.

Follow the clues to end the story once and for all, and close Project EDOM forever. You will find, hunt, and kill Dracula, the king of the vampires.

If you survive.

 

Buy the Director’s Handbook in PDF or print now

 

Authors: Kenneth Hite, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan Stock #: PELGN05
Artists: Stefano Azzalin, Francesca Baerald, Gennifer Bone, Jeff Brown, Tyler Clark, Dennis Detwiller, Nyra Drakae, Dean Engelhardt, Melissa Gay, Brittany Heiner, Jérôme Huguenin, Chris Huth, Christian Knutsson, Anna Kryczkowska, Erica Leveque, David Lewis Johnson, Pat Loboyko, Rich Longmore, Amanda Makepeace, Juha Makkonen, Angelus Nex (Tina X Filic), Olivia Ongai, Margaret Organ-Kean, Nathan Paoletta, Jen Estirdalin Pattison, Brittany Pezzillo, Jeff Porter, Danielle Sands, Biddy Seiveno, Patricia Smith, Ernanda Souza, Marc Steinmann, Ashley Vanchu, Alicia Vogel, Britney Winthrope Contributors: 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, Phil Vecchione
Cartographers: Olivia Catroppa, Chris Huth, Will Jobst, Gill Pearce, Joachim de Ravenbel, Simon Rogers, Ralf Schemmann Format: 368 page, full colour hardback

 

Director's Handbook_front_cover_350The macro level of a Dracula Dossier campaign emerges from the Conspyramid and Vampyramid charts, as well as the instructions in the opening section, How To Use This Book. Those charts are the framework for your story – as in any Night’s Black Agents game, the aim is to shoot your way up that Conspyramid, level by level, while dodging the antagonist reactions dictated by the matching level on the Vampyramid. Each conspiracy node points to another, and another, until everything closes in on Dracula. So, the players identify a Conspiracy node, or NPC, or location. That gets slotted into the Director’s Conspyramid on an empty slot at an appropriate Level (either the lowest available slot, or one connected to the previous node that gave the clue pointing to this one). They investigate that node, beat it up until another clue falls out, and follow that clue to the next node. Drop in an available Vampyramid response whenever the Conspiracy gets annoyed, and repeat until Dracula drops dead. Again.

Individual scenes require a little more improvisation. The first step – once the players have decided what clue they’re following up on, either from Dracula Unredacted or a previous scene – is to flip to the appropriate writeup in the Director’s Handbook and decide which variant to use. Is this NPC an Innocent, a spy agency Asset, or a Minion of Dracula? Is this location Hot or Cold?

As a rule of thumb, go for more innocents and red herrings early in the campaign, go for more Assets in England or when they’re closing in on Edom, and go for more Minions in the latter stages of the campaign or when in Romania. You could even mechanise if you were so inclined.

Roll

1-3: Innocent/Cold

4-5: Asset/Hot

6+: Minion/Hot

+1 if the PCs are following a strong lead

+1 if it’s the middle of the campaign/+2 if its the endgame

Each writeup lists one or more abilities that gets a clue, and that clue points to another NPC/Node/Object/Location. Use that structure as the spine, around which you improvise a scene.

For example, if the PCs are investigating the MI5 Deputy (DH p. 95). The Director decides that the Deputy is still an active Edom Asset; the listed abilities there are Diagnosis and Tradecraft (as well as Notice and Research, but those are for going the other way, pointing the players towards appropriate entries in Dracula Unredacted). Diagnosis sounds fun – maybe the Agents have to sneak into a hospital and question the Deputy while he’s undergoing an MRI scan. A fight scene around a giant magnet could be interesting if, say, a Conspiracy minion shows up…

If inspiration hasn’t struck, consider the following prompts for complications or intrigue:

For Innocent NPCs

  • How do the Agents approach the NPC? (How would you react to half-a-dozen suspicious criminal types showing up on your doorstep?)
  • Do the Agents meet the NPC at home, or work, or some other location? What’s the place like?
  • What are the Agents interrupting when they arrive?
  • Does the NPC have a reason to hide what he or she knows? Does the NPC know the value of the information?
  • When did the NPC last talk about this topic? With whom?
  • Do the players actually need to talk to the NPC, or is this a heist more than an interrogation?
  • Have the NPC treat the PCs as heavily armed genies – what would you do if a bunch of heavily armed criminals offered you a favour in exchange for information?
  • Who else is nearby? Who’s watching? What about animals?
  • Does this scene need to be complicated? Is it better to just give the players the clue and zoom onto a more exciting encounter?
  • Why hasn’t the NPC acted on the information? Why are they still innocent?
  • How can I get this NPC into a fight with the Agents? A chase?
  • What motifs or images can I work into this scene? Blood? Death, disease and decay? Immortality or unnatural youth? The burden of history? Terrorism and the surveillance state? Volcanoes and the secrets of the earth? Sunset or sunrise? Dreams? Diaries and letters? Brides? Bats?
  • Is Dracula nearby?

For Asset NPCs

As above, plus…

  • What’s the NPCs’ escape route from this situation?
  • Public places make for safer meeting places. Pick an Establishing Shot location (p. 254) and have the PCs meet the NPC there. Look at that writeup for ideas.
  • What usual item or precaution has the NPC got hidden around his or her home?
  • Was the Asset briefed on how to deal with people asking about the Dracula Dossier? If so, what’s their standard operating procedure? Stall? Point the PCs to a trap? Turn the tables on them, and pump them for information? Lie and sell the PCs on a false story?
  • What does the intelligence agency want from the PCs, if anything? Does the Asset NPC share that desire?
  • Is the Asset recording the conversation? Is the location bugged?
  • Who wants the Asset dead?
  • How often is the NPC in contact with his or her intelligence agency? How do they communicate?
  • How long will it take the Asset to report this contact with the player characters?
  • What would it take to flip the Asset? Does the Asset want to be bought out?

For Minion NPCs

As above, plus…

  • Is this Minion aware of the true nature of the Conspiracy, or do they think they’re working for something more mundanely malignant? Or is the NPC a lone madman, caught up in the psychic turbulence of the Count?
  • Is the Minion planning on luring the PCs into a trap, in which case he or she meets them somewhere private or dangerous, or trying to deflect them away, in which case a public meeting place is more appropriate?
  • Is this an action scene, where the PCs are threatened? Or is the goal to disturb or confuse them? (Am I planning on eating bugs, or eating them?)
  • How will the NPC use the Agents to advance the Conspiracy’s goals, or curry favour with the Conspiracy?
  • What’s the worst thing the NPC has done for Dracula?
  • What omen or weirdness telegraphs the NPC’s corruption? Is the corruption physical or spiritual?

One final point – in any improvised campaign, especially a stupendously huge and complex one like the Dracula Dossier, it’s inevitable that you’re going to make mistakes. You’ll let the wrong information slip, or you’ll forget some telling detail. (It’s especially likely that you’ll contradict the Annotations at some point, as the players can cross-check those at their leisure after the game session). If you do make a mistake, you’ve got a get-out-of-jail free card you can use to solve almost any error: mind control.

The error that the players picked up on wasn’t a screw-up – it was a subtle clue to Dracula’s involvement, so you can congratulate them on picking up on it. Of course, now that they’ve seen through Dracula’s attempts to cover his tracks, you’re obliged to hit them with another antagonist reaction from the Vampyramid…

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