Interview: Ken Hite, Author of The Dracula Dossier

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I took the opportunity to talk with Ken Hite, author of Pelgrane Press’s upcoming roleplaying game supplement The Dracula Dossier (and collator of Dracula Unredacted).  Essentially, the Dracula Dossier is a roleplaying game supplement (coming out on Halloween, naturally) designed for the horror-spy roleplaying game system Night’s Black Agents.  Click on the player above to listen to my 23 minute interview with Ken, or click here to download the 15.7 MB MP3 file.

Below are a couple highlights from the interview: the first is Ken describing the basic concept behind both Nights Black Agents and the Dracula Dossier itself.

Ken Hite: ...the subtitle that we use is “vampire spy thriller,” and the sort of high concept - the elevator pitch I used to give to people -- is “Jason Bourne vs Dracula,” or if they had seen The Bourne Trilogy "The Bourne Trilogy if Redstone were vampires." The goal being, you’re playing burned agents, deniable agents, agents who are out there on the front lines - mysteriously without resources - and you discover that you've been working for vampires at some point.

And so you have to hunt the vampires to destroy them, because they know that you're hunting them - and they know that you know, so they're hunting you to kill you. So it's “hunt or be hunted:” very much a thriller based game. It's -- unlike most roleplaying games, the campaigns have a definitive end when you have either killed the lead vampires or been destroyed by them, so it keeps a drive going, there’s a narrative. There's a number of sort of sub-mechanics that help focus the narrative and move things along, like a good thriller or thrilller series: so think something like Taken, but only expand it out to a roleplaying game level: or, like I'd said, The Bourne Trilogy, if Redstone was vampires.

Moe Lane: The system runs off of Robin Laws' GUMSHOE system, as I recall. And, also for the benefit of my readers, that’s basically a system that attempts to do roleplaying with the basic emphasis being on investigation, and mysteries, and clue solving, as opposed to say combat, which is what most roleplaying game systems concentrate on.  How do you feel that the spy thriller fiction aspect and the vampire fiction -- how do you find they interact? Was it a hard fit to make?

Ken Hite: No. Spies and vampires have a lot in common. They both mostly come out at night; they're deniable, nobody wants to act like they exist. We all however know exactly what they look like: for something that doesn’t exist -- or something we're not supposed to know about -- we know an awful lot about both things. So they both have a really strong mythology; obviously in the Twentieth Century there was a great of work done to build the mythology of both of them by authors -- and governments, depending.  And the ongoing sort of analogies that people put into vampirism -- that vampires represent some unknown alien force that is sucking away the life of your community -- is the sort of thing that spy fiction also addresses.

The spy thriller classically presents either a traitor at the heart of your heroic bureaucracy, or a traitor who has infiltrated himself into the country -- or into the world, sometimes -- and that has to be rooted out by decisive action. So, again, if you think of Dracula as a foreign agent operating in England: Van Helsing and company hunt him down, and chase him back to his home territory, and terminate him.  And it was that parallel between vampire novels and spy fiction that got me thinking “All right? What if the greatest vampire novel of all - Dracula - is also a spy novel? What’d still be true? What has to be added?” And surprisingly very little has to be removed in any way. it's really just of a matter of sort of telling the rest of the story, not of changing the story in any real respect.

And here’s some details about Dracula Unredacted, which is itself a full-book prop designed to be used by the players as part of the attempt to work out What It All Means.

Moe Lane: ...Dracula Unredacted, which is ostensibly written by Bram Stoker, and it’s basically a rewriting of the Dracula book itself.  Now I’ve read Dracula three or four times, and I was fascinated to see all the stuff that was in there now. Was any of that actually written for the book, or is it all Bram Stoker?

Ken Hite: when we did - well, first of all: thank you very much for the compliment - Dracula Unredacted; in our fiction, in the original first draft of Dracula -- the one that Bram Stoker turned in as the after-action report when Operation Edom (the attempt to recruit Dracula as a vampire asset of the British intelligence service) went wrong, so they had Bram Stoker -- who had in real history done, touched-up other work for propaganda purposes for the Foreign Office, so he's already sort of tied in there -- so they had Bram Stoker write up the after-action report.

So he turns in this great mass of papers, letters, and transcripts of diaries and everything that Dracula of course is, a mass of papers -- which again makes it look a lot more like an intelligence report than like a novel -- and in our version we simply added more papers to it.  So some of what got put back in there, like I said [earlier] is the "Dracula's Guest" [short story] which got left on the cutting room floor when Stoker was writing Dracula; some of it is material that was actually in the novel; some - a lot of it - is expanded work by myself and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, based on Stoker's original notes for the novel.

I mean, you can go to Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia -- or, if you don't want to, you can buy a lovely critical edition by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller that has all of Stoker’s notes lined out -- and there's a bunch of characters, and a bunch of incidents, and a bunch of weird things that are in his outline that don't make it into the book; and we decided of course that a lot of the reasons that they didn't make it into the final book is because they revealed too much, they told too much. So when Stoker cuts out the mysterious psychic Alfred Singleton - Gareth goes ahead and writes him back in. And when [Stoker] cuts out the artist Francis Aytown, I go and write him back so we have Aytown’s journal. We have Alfred Singleton harassing the Inspector Cotford, the policeman who was investigating these murders (he also gets written out of the novel by the way)...

Moe Lane: ...And, of course, Kate Reed...

Ken Hite: And Kate Reed of course: classically, Mina's best friend from school who vanishes out of the novel, except possibly traces in her are left in some of Mina's  and Lucy's letters to each other.  So Gareth went back and expanded Kate Reed and provided us a look into her journalism and some of her own diaries and letters. So we took all of those pieces of paper.  We wound up expanding it by about 25% over the original Stoker finished material. And of course we were doing it, in many cases, based on things Stoker had written, or things that were in Stoker's actual first draft of the novel that got cut, like all the earthquakes and seismology and weird foreshadowing of that.

And then the other thing that we did with Dracula Unredacted is we annotated it by 3 generations of MI-6 analysts, each of whom, as MI-6 continues to collide with Dracula, gets out the original sourcebook, the original draft, the original Unredacted Dracula, and annotates it, based on their own operations. So the SOE operation into Romania in 1940 to awaken Dracula, and recruit him to stop Hitler? The last survivor of that mission annotates Dracula. In the 1970s when they're hunting for that mole, using the occult powers of Operation Edom, and they're thinking “Maybe Romania's getting its intelligence because we had that Romanian count who could hypnotise people and make them immortal, maybe that had something to do with it.” So the mid-level analyst in that mole hunt is annotating Dracula. And then after the 7-7 attacks, MI-6 says "You know what? Look at that! We have a deniable asset who can turn invisible and kill anything and spent his whole life fighting muslims! Maybe we should turn him into a weapon in the War on Terror." And there's a late generation analyst who starts, who discovers that this is going on, and is annotating that first draft of Dracula in an attempt to sort of make sense of what she's seeing in the GCHQ intercepts and the other sort of desiderata of the War on Terror.

And so those three layers of annotations then become the clues that the players in the roleplaying game follow, and they use the Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook to explicate and offer lots and lots of possibilities for what each of those annotated clues might actually mean on the ground.

Do listen to the entire interview. There’s quite a bit more in there, including the weirdness that was the first Icelandic edition of Dracula. Very useful weirdness, though...