The Dracula Dossier – writing roleplaying games with Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan.

Today we have a special guest on the blog – Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, who is an author of roleplaying books and games. He’s written for us about the process of creating Dracula Unredacted and The Dracula Dossier, a mesmerising rewrite of Dracula for RPG fans, which was a massive success on Kickstarter. Gareth, who lives is Cork, is also published by Pelgrane Press, another of our small SFF presses spreading Irish talent around the world.


Dracula isn’t a novel. It’s the after-action report of a disastrous attempt made by British Intelligence to recruit a vampire. They learned about the existence of vampires through George Stoker’s and Armin Vambery’s adventures in the Balkans during the Russo-Turkish war, and brought Bram Stoker in to polish his brother’s report. Bram turned in a sensationalised narrative instead of a formal report. Rather than discard it, the spies released it as disinformation, as a novel – stripped of its sources and methods, with key elements redacted, they thought it would be the perfect cover. If anyone found evidence of their botched attempt at bringing a vampire to England, they’d be dismissed as foolish or insane for believing in a fictional monster.

The original draft – the unredacted Dracula – they kept.

Now it’s in your hands.

That was the pitch, and on the strength of that pitch – plus around 100,000 words of game rules, background material, and some lovely artwork – we kickstarted The Dracula Dossier, a huge adventure for the Night’s Black Agents roleplaying game. The Dossier consists of two main books. There’s the Director’s Handbook, full of background details, monster statistics, conspiratorial schemes and advice for the Gamemaster. The other book is Dracula Unredacted, which we intended to be both a novel and a game supplement, a secret history of Dracula’s involvement with the clandestine services across the 20th century.

We knew, roughly, what was going into it. Take Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel and put back in some of the material he removed (like the volcanic eruption that destroyed Castle Dracula at the end). Mix in annotations from three generations of MI6 analysts, in the style of the fabled Varo edition of the Case for the UFO. Add in some more material to hint at the “real” story. We had a plan.

It wasn’t that our plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy. It didn’t survive contact with our friends. We kickstarted the whole Dracula Dossier project, and got nearly ten times our initial target. We racked up forty-seven stretch goals, many of which involved adding content to the text of Dracula Unredacted.

Our first stop was to consult Stoker’s notes on Dracula, which describe his original plan for the novel. As our conceit is that it’s not a novel, but an after-action report, those original plans were clearly elements that Stoker had been ordered to cut out of the final work. Those notes gave us Kate Reed, a reporter and schoolfriend of Lucy Westenra. They gave us Inspector Cotford and the psychic Alfred Singleton. They gave the portrait painter, Francis Aytown. They also hinted at other elements to include, like the Munich Dead House or Dracula’s mysterious banquet for thirteen guests.

After that, we hit Stoker’s original manuscript, which gave us a bunch of extra snippets of text, and the all-important volcanic eruption. In our Dracula Dossier project, there’s a supernatural connection between vampires and volcanos. Van Helsing hints at this truth even in the published novel.

“Were another of the Un-Dead, like him, to try to do what he has done, perhaps not all the centuries of the world that have been, or that will be, could aid him. With this one, all the forces of nature that are occult and deep and strong must have worked together in some wondrous way. The very place, where he have been alive, Un-Dead for all these centuries, is full of strangeness of the geologic and chemical world. There are deep caverns and fissures that reach none know whither. There have been volcanoes, some of whose openings still send out waters of strange properties, and gases that kill or make to vivify. Doubtless, there is something magnetic or electric in some of these combinations of occult forces which work for physical life in strange way; and in himself were from the first some great qualities.”

And Stoker took out lots more references to volcanoes and subterranean vapours, which we happily put back in. The earthquake connection also prompted us to change the dates of the novel to match with real-life quakes in 1893 and 1894 (and 1940 and 1977, which I’ll get to in a minute). While changing the dates, we also stretched out the events of the novel. As written, most of the central action of Dracula takes place over a few short days.

No sooner is Lucy staked than the hunters are off smashing coffins and breaking into Carfax, and Dracula’s forced to flee almost immediately. We wanted to draw things out, to give both Dracula and the hunters more time to leave conspiracies and clues respectively for future generations of spies to uncover. This meant we had to delay Jonathan Harker’s return for months – as soon as Harker gets back to London, he reveals that the Count’s lair is at Carfax and gives the game away. So, we kept Harker in hospital in Budapest for months longer, forcing Mina and Quincey Morris to go fetch him (and letting Morris take the lead in a rewrite of Dracula’s Guest, Stoker’s abandoned first chapter, which we inserted midway through the novel).

Changing the dates required other changes, some trivial (removing several dozen references to snow at the end of the novel, as we had Dracula perishing in August, not November), some tricky (finding another Romanian holiday to replace St. George’s Day) and some unexpectedly useful (discovering that the shifted dates put the night of Lucy’s death on Friday the 13th).

Putting an espionage gloss on Dracula proved suspiciously easy. All of the characters run around having clandestine meetings and investigating conspiracies. Lucy’s meetings with Swales or the Whitby clergyman could easily be cover for some sinister purpose. Harker speaks German even though Dracula expressly asked that Hawkins’ agent not speak that language. Quincey Morris is forever sneaking off and “hunting” offscreen. Arthur Holmwood’s telegrams talk about vital, urgent news that’s never actually mentioned again. Peter Hawkins dies mysteriously offscreen. Once you start looking for conspiracies, you find them everywhere from the characters’ choice of hotel to the strange changes made by Stoker in the description of Van Helsing’s methods.

Dracula’s a technothriller, too, full of cutting-edge technology like kodak cameras, wax cylinder recordings and – in Stoker’s original draft – a maxim gun. All in all, the original novel seemed almost eager to be rewritten and reinterpreted for our nefarious purposes.

Our other source for “original” Stoker material was the bizarre case of the Icelandic Dracula translation. Stoker’s novel was translated into Icelandic in 1907, and Stoker himself contributed a notorious introduction to the book:

“I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight. And I am further convinced that they must always remain to some extent incomprehensible, although continuing research in psychology and natural sciences may, in years to come, give logical explanations of such strange happenings which, at present, neither scientists nor the secret police can understand.”

The Icelandic Dracula (Makt Myrkanna, The Powers of Darkness) deviates considerably from the original, and includes a devilish cabal of bankers and aristocrats in league with Dracula and his brides. That gave us the Satanic Cult of Dracula, several new minor characters, and also reinforced our Dracula/Earthquakes connection – nowhere in Europe is as volcanically active as Iceland, after all…

With the “correct” dates and original text restored, the next step was to add our new sections. Mimicking Stoker’s style and adding new material to such a classic horror novel was nerve-wracking in the extreme. The epistolary format gave us some shelter as we could use other diaries and letters as models for our additions. Some of the new characters had the grace and good manners to stay tangential to the main story. Inspector Cotford, for example, carried out his own parallel investigation into the mystery of Dracula, and conveniently vanishes leaving only his diary behind without saying more than a dozen words to any of Stoker’s characters. Inserting him required relatively little surgery. Francis Aytown – in our telling, the painter hired by Arthur Holmwood to paint a portrait of Lucy, and the first to discover the signs of vampirism in her – is more closely involved in the main story, but he has no, ah, stake in the final outcome and exits the scene rather that get involved in the final chase.

And then there’s Kate Reed, who came damnably close to derailing everything. As a close friend of Mina and Lucy, Kate has every reason to join the hunt for Dracula. As an investigative reporter, she’s got useful skills to contribute. The more of Kate we wrote, the deeper she wormed her way into the novel’s events – tracking down Dracula in his guise as “Count de Ville”, investigating his satanic cult, attending Lucy’s funeral, working with Van Helsing on putting notes in order. It was clear that unless we took drastic action, Kate would remain at the heart of the action all the way through, forcing us to rewrite far more of the novel than we planned.

Like cold-hearted spymasters, we had to eliminate Kate to preserve as much of Stoker’s original prose as possible. Our solution was perhaps a drastic one, but it reinforced the terror of Dracula, and set up one of the major plot threads of the annotations.

The final set of unredactions took the form of letters from “Peter Hawkins”. Those familiar with Dracula will remember him as the solicitor who sends Jonathan Harker to Transylvania in the first place. After putting the events of the novel in motion, Hawkins conveniently dies suddenly of gout – clearly he must have been the architect of the plan to recruit Dracula, and retired his cover identity as “Hawkins” once the vampire was securely in England.

With the original text of that 1894 after-action report restored, our next task was to annotate it. Again, earthquakes anchored our time-frames. We picked major earthquakes that struck the Carpathians in 1940, 1977 and 2011, and wove stories around those dates.

In 1940, in a desperate attempt to stop the Axis powers from seizing Romania and its oilfields, the British SOE parachuted a small team into Transylvania, with orders to wake up Dracula and convince him to take over the country and keep it neutral in the war. One member of that British team carried a copy of the Unredacted Dracula with him, and made notes in the margins of the book describing his experiences there.

In 1977, a mole penetrated MI6 and passed on secret information to the Romanian Securitate – and through them, to the KGB. The only possible explanation was that the mole was the result of vampiric mind control powers, so the vampire-hunting operation was reactivated to track down the mole and plug the leak. One of the analysts involved in that hunt made his own notes and observations in the margins of the book.

Finally, in 2011, MI6 made another deal with Dracula to use him in the war on terror. A vampire, after all, is more reliable and more accurate than a drone strike, although he causes almost as much collateral damage. Turning a vampire loose on Al-Qaeda seemed like a marvellous plan, but a vampire cannot be controlled or trusted. A third analyst got hold of the annotated dossier and made her own additions to the marginal notes. She then passed it on to someone she hoped could use that information to stop Dracula for good – the reader.

Each annotation references material in the Director’s Handbook, letting you use Dracula Unredacted as a handout in a roleplaying game, but the rewritten novel stands alone.

In any exegesis of secret history, there’s a moment when you find yourself wondering if it’s really fictional, or if you’ve stumbled on some hidden truth. Such moments came frequently as we worked on the Dracula Dossier. Take, for example, the tale of Dun Dreach-Fhola, the ‘Castle of the Blood Visage’. The only modern reference to it is in a 1961 lecture by Sean O Suillebhain, then the registrar of the Irish Folklore Commission. He claimed that it was a Kerry folk-tale about a castle of blood-drinking fairies in the Magillycuddy’s Reeks mountains. He never mentioned it again, and there aren’t any references to it in any of the Folklore Commission’s publications – but Bram Stoker’s brother George was married to the daughter of the Magillycuddy chieftain himself. Was O’Suillebhain warned not to speak of his discovery by British spies? Was the tale of Dun Dreach-Fhola a distorted rumour about a secret vampire research base hidden on George Stoker’s lands?

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan