“He placed me in a comfortable chair, and arranged the phonograph so that I could touch it without getting up, and showed me how to stop it in case I should want to pause. Then he very thoughtfully took a chair, with his back to me, so that I might be as free as possible, and began to read. I put the forked metal to my ears and listened.”
— Mina Harker’s Journal
Way back in the palmy days of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter, it was decreed by the archons and by the people (i.e., by Cat) that I should spend every waking minute on every podcast that would have me, talking up The Dracula Dossier and generally being publicitous. One such podcast was the wonderful and widely-enjoyed One Shot podcast, which not coincidentally is based right here in Chicago, much like all the most wonderful and widely-enjoyed podcasts are at least so semi-based.
At any rate, One Shot is one of those Actual Play podcasts that the kids are into these days, and so in October 2014 or thereabouts, genial host James D’Amato turned his GMing microphone over to me to run a session of Night’s Black Agents from a necessarily fictive Dracula Dossier campaign.
Joining me and James at the palatial One Shot studios in the glamorous Roscoe Village neighborhood of Chicago for what we later dubbed Session One (oooh foreshadowing) were Grant Greene a.k.a. “General Ironicus” of the Six Feats Under podcast (which has a 13th Age Actual Play you might also be interested in), super-designer Nathan D. Paoletta of the Design Games podcast (co-hosted with fellow super-designer Will “Eternal Lies” Hindmarch), and Zach Weber who doesn’t have a podcast apparently but give him fifteen minutes. (And give him my apologies, at this late date, for spelling his name wrong in the playtest credits.)
Here’s me explaining the rules for Night’s Black Agents in about ten or fifteen minutes to the assembled group: Night’s Black Agents Rules Expo
And here is Session One in all its terrifying majesty:
Session One Part One: Welcome to Belgrade
Session One Part Two: Never Get On the Boat
Session One Part Three: And Quiet Flows the Danube
Session One Part Four: Fear Death By Water
The game ran long, because we wanted to hit a good climax in the adventure, and because all the players were really bringing it. Then we went and got Thai food and went on with our lives.
Well, the Kickstarter delayed itself a little bit, but eventually launched while the Session One recordings were still running on One Shot, and I heard from quite a few people that hearing me run the game was not just great fun but, even better, impelled them to go ahead and back the Kickstarter. So, mission accomplished!
Until … time flowed on as is its wont and Dracula Dossier got itself five ENnie Award nominations and Cat started to think maybe we could stand to have a little more of that One Shot love during the voting window. Fortunately, James had been swamped* with emails importuning him to bring me back on and run the conclusion of the adventure we left so very climactically suspended.
And so, in June of 2016, we gathered again in the dark heart of Roscoe Village to run Session Two. Zach Weber has the misfortune to not actually live in Chicago, so in place of Zach we brought in Darcy Ross, who may very well have a podcast by the time I hit “Publish” on this post but is part of the Gnome Stew bloggoth and of the ConTessa nobility.
And here is Session Two in all its grim glory:
Session Two Part One: New Friends For Old
Session Two Part Two: Art in the Blood or Vice Versa
Session Two Part Three: White City, Black Castle, Red Death
I think there’s something in here for new and old fans alike of the Dracula Dossier universe, and for fans of my game style, and for fans of any or all of the excellent players in their own personae.
* “Swamped” is not a term with legal or mathematical meanings. Some settling of contents may have occurred during shipping. Stunt driver on closed course. Do not attempt.
The Belgrade Betrayal: What It Is And How It Came To Be
This section contains spoilers for the podcast adventure above. Don’t read it unless you are cool with knowing things while you enjoy closely related things.
ENTER FREELY AND AT YOUR OWN RISK
I wrote the first version of The Belgrade Betrayal (as I silently named the scenario) to run at Queen City Con in Buffalo in September 2014. I picked Belgrade because I’d already done the research for that city for (S)Entries, the introductory scenario included in the Night’s Black Agents corebook. For a convention scenario intended to not-so-subtly advertise The Dracula Dossier, I knew it needed to include an on-stage role for both Edom and Dracula, so the player Agents could get caught in the cross-fire, so to speak. So I needed a sample Edom-Dracula op (kill an AQIR cell in Belgrade) and something to go wrong: Dracula double-crosses Edom. (Otherwise Edom just sets Dracula on the players and everyone dies.) That leads to a series of questions I asked myself; their answers built the scenario spine:
What should the double-cross look like? Dracula kills the Edom cut-outs, forcing Edom into the foreground.
Why? In this first version, just to be a jerk and to demonstrate that Edom doesn’t really control him.
How does Edom control Dracula in the field then? By providing his Kevlar-sealed and guarded coffin.
So how does Dracula plan to sleep by day in Belgrade? Dracula already has a place in Belgrade he can hide out and sleep by day, one that Edom doesn’t know about.
What place is that then? Belgrade Castle, where a young Vlad Dracula (unbeknownst to history) accompanied Janos Hunyadi’s relieving army during the Siege of Belgrade in 1456. (Of course he’s hiding in the Castle. He’s Dracula.) Vlad turned while inside the castle, so he can always find rest there. Since I knew Hunyadi had died of “plague” right after the siege, that gave me a nice historical death-ball to roll Dracula-as-vampire up in. Dracula kills Hunyadi and lots of other Hungarian soldiers as the blood-thirst comes upon him — which is why Hunyadi’s son, Matthias Corvinus, imprisoned Vlad in 1462. Ta-daa!
I then came up with the improv-style “name a thing you’ll encounter during this adventure” intro to make up for the lack of proper Dracula Dossier-style improvisation and collaboration and hit the dice. The die, rather.
In that first Buffalo run, the players tracked Edom to the safe-house, rumbled the hospital madman and the party boat rendezvous, and then sensibly refused to follow a coffin delivery onto the boat, watching a confusion of blood and mist and weird cold spots in the IR lenses from the shore. They then doubled back to the AQIR cell, watched Dracula massacre a whole building full of people, and tracked him to the zoo (wolves howling, and I think maybe some drone imagery) and thence to the Castle, where they fought through track-suited Novi Svar Renfield thugs (“Trackulas” they called them), and if I remember correctly one of Dracula’s Brides, to Dracula’s resting place and staked him at dawn. Great fun, everyone had a good time, I forget how many player characters died but it was more than zero.
Changing it up for the podcast, I removed the Trackulas (because I knew that would go viral and not in a good way) and settled in. The improv-style answers fed the play somewhat — I never got to the chess-playing fixer, sadly — especially the bank vault. That meant there was a treasure involved. Time for more questions:
Who are Dracula’s minions if not the Novi Svar? Slovakian river pirates, of course.
What’s in the bank vault? A treasure, obviously, one so important to Dracula that he’ll betray Edom for it. (This answer gave Dracula a proper motive, which strengthened the scenario immensely. If I had been writing it for publication, I probably would have come up with it earlier.)
How do I bring it onstage? Dracula has arranged through cut-outs to buy the treasure, so there’s a seller who can show up wherever the Agents are and look sweaty.
What is the treasure? Proof that Dracula was in Belgrade during the Siege, which means a chronicle of some kind.
In Session One, the podcast players really leaned into the adventure, and to my delight boarded the party boat. I inserted the sweaty Hungarian art dealer, Arpad, but the boat fight took long enough that the rest of the scenario was moot. Or so I thought.
In Session Two, I had to tighten up the explanations somewhat, since Darcy decided to play Hound instead of just another combat monster. (Who would have been introduced by a chess-playing fixer in the park, of course.) Thus the meet between her and the Exposition-Dropping Slovak. Minions monologue about the Master, so that worked just fine. I also knew I needed to tie off that meddlesome priest and prevent the players from reloading the Tranq Gun of Christ. Between the meet with Hound, bombing the priest, and undoing the garlic on Josip the Mad Commando, Dracula’s Conspiracy had a full day in Belgrade, and I knew I could drop echoes of their actions to the pro-active players as the game went along.
Before we started Session Two, I had a bit of time to kill while James printed out the character sheets. So, I decided to punch up the chronicle a little bit, since I knew it would have to come onstage now. So I popped onto Wikipedia and looked up Siege of Belgrade (1456) and discovered this tidbit:
“Taken by surprise at this strange turn of events and, as some chroniclers say, seemingly paralyzed by some inexplicable fear, the Ottomans took flight.”
So that gave me a great line to drop into the chronicle, and narrowed down Dracula’s turning to before the final rout of the Ottomans. So he turned during the worst of the siege, while the Ottomans were infiltrating Janissaries into the lines — hey, what if the Turks were infiltrating one of the feral vampires from Tokat Castle, as seen on p. 251 of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook? That vampire bites Vlad, he kills it, and becomes a vampire.
Damn, James is really wrestling with those character sheets. Guess I’ll see what else Wikipedia can bring me. Let’s Wiki up the Belgrade Castle:
“Legend says that Attila’s grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress).”
The players heard my gasp all the way across the room.
Now that gave me a climax worthy of One Shot. And it also conveniently explained why, if Dracula is a Wallachian warlord, he asks Harker (in Chapter II): “What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” And but me no buts about Attila not having been killed (or put in a suspended-animation sarcophagus) by Church vampire hunters — Michael A. Babcock’s The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun presents a sound-enough-for-gaming case that the chronicler’s version of Attila’s death was a pious legend, and the Scourge of God was killed by assassins working for the Emperor Marcian. Assassins, slayers, it’s basically the same thing.
Fortified with the best possible reveal, I just had to let the players get there, which of course they did because, hey, great players. Listen to them. What gaming they make. Twice.