Dicing with Dracula – Adapting Bram Stoker’s Novel as a Tabletop Game

Abbie Hope, postgraduate student at Edge Hill Nineteen Research Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies, reflects on the challenges and research opportunities of adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a table-top skirmish game.

Image: Crooked Dice Game Design Studio

2022 marked the 125th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To celebrate the occasion, Bram’s great grand-nephew Dacre Stoker and writer Dr Chris McAuley of the StokerVerse teamed up with Crooked Dice Game Design Studio and researchers from Edge Hill University to create a faithful adaption of Stoker’s Gothic masterpiece in the form of a tabletop skirmish game. The project was led by games designer Karl Perrotton, managing director of Crooked Dice, and Dr Peter Wright, games writer and lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at Edge Hill University.

The team, which included twelve students from Edge Hill’s Creative Writing and English Literature programmes, worked for more than eight  months to address the unique challenges of adapting the novel for the perfect gameplay experience including: How to redesign Crooked Dice’s 7TV rulebook in a way that would be accessible to both experienced players and fans of the novel who might be new to the gaming format? How to adapt character and locations which established the visual, physical experience of the game? And perhaps most importantly of all: how to adapt the narrative structure of Dracula for the combat-based systems of a table-top skirmish game? Join me for a sneak peek at the adaptation process and the research which went into creating 7TV: Dracula.

Dicing with Dracula

7TV: Dracula requires two players who can choose whether to act as the ‘Crew of Light’ – which includes Van Helsing, Mina Murray and Quincey Morris – or play as a villain on Team Dracula alongside the vampire brides, Renfield, and The Great Dog. However, we created more than 20 additional characters that you can add to your cast of heroes or villains, from the Borgo Pass tribesmen, to the inmates of the asylum, or the villagers of Whitby. Whichever cast you choose, the ultimate goal is to triumph in a set of five battles based on important locations in the novel: The Transylvanian village, Whitby, Lucy Westenra’s tomb, Carfax, and Castle Dracula.

Caption: Main character models. Crooked Dice Game Design Studio.

Gameplay is a turn-based system common in many skirmish games. For a novel like Dracula, however, where vampires must sleep in the day and humans are subject to perilous night journeys and supernatural visitations, we developed a diurnal game play system. The game moves from day to night and the strengths and attributes of your characters will be increased or diminished depending on whether you play as a human or a creature of darkness. Each character has their own special skills and powers which have been adapted from the original novel and which players can use to win the battles. These include Lucy Westenra’s ‘Beauty in Death’, The Vampire Bride’s ‘Feline Grace’, and Van Helsing’s ‘Grim Purpose’.

However, skirmish game campaigns – a series of linked battles – require multiple unique chapters in which the heroes and villains must engage in weapon-based combat – even if these weapons are of the supernatural kind. Dracula in its original epistolary format does not easily allow for location-based combat. The only real fight happens at the climax of the novel when the Vampire Hunters, led by Van Helsing, finally face-off with Dracula and his brides:

 ‘all four men of our party threw themselves from their horses and dashed towards the cart. I should have felt terrible fear at seeing Jonathan in such danger, but that the ardour of battle must have been upon me as well as the rest of them; I felt no fear, but only a wild, surging desire to do something.’ (Dracula, ch. 27)

The team were able to adapt some of the famous scenes of the novel, like the arrival of the Demeter and the staking of Lucy, as sites for skirmish-based gameplay. After that, we had to get creative whilst sticking within our remit of adapting action in a way that felt faithful to the spirit of the novel. Peter Wright explains that ‘There is an interesting omission early in the novel where Jonathan escapes from Castle Dracula and many, many pages later Mina finds out that he is recovering from his experiences in a convent. We thought it would be nice to do an escape scene where Jonathan escapes and is pursued by Dracula’s forces and helped by Transylvanian villagers.’[1] This addition, playing out a scene that is implied but never seen in Stoker’s text, gave us our important 5th skirmish setting for the game.

Thankfully, creating the physical table-top set-ups against which these combats take place proved to be a far easier task than we first imagined. Dracula is a naturally theatrical novel, thanks no doubt to Bram Stoker’s career as business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End.[1] From Dracula’s castle and the topography of the Borgo Pass, to the streets and graveyards of Whitby, the team scoured the details of the novels and had the benefit of Stoker’s own notes as relayed by Dacre Stoker himself, to create faithful maps and scenery against which the game is played.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIrSHdUmRks

Whitby map – illustrated by Dave Needham. Crooked Dice Game Design Studio.

Fashioning Dracula

Readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the table-top skirmish format will likely know that games often feature intricate character designs, complete with character cards listing traits and powers as well as metal or plastic miniatures which must be visually distinct from one another and enhance the visual aspect of gameplay. Our game is no exception, and my role was to research and render historically accurate costumes to inform the design work undertaken by Karl and miniature sculptor Ernst Veingart.

At the very start of the process, I met with Karl to discuss the challenges of designing characters to such a small scale. The miniatures really do live up to their name and I soon discovered that any kind of costume detail had to be visible on a figurine around 28mm high! I had studied Victorian fashion and dressmaking in my own research, from the 19thC collections of the V&A to the works of Mimi Matthews, and I was determined to preserve a sense of historical accuracy while paring down the intricacies of late-Victorian fashion to suit the demands of the format.

And then there’s the problem of pop culture perception. We all think we know how Dracula looks – from Lucy’s excessively large wedding gown to Dracula’s billowing, red cape. 125 years of cinematic reworking and visual borrowing have shaped our impressions sometimes far beyond what is described in the text itself. I was determined to create costumes for characters that Stoker would recognise as his own if he were to see them today, whilst also paying subtle homage to many beloved adaptations. My first mission was to drag Lucy Westenra away from the wedding dress stereotype that has become associated with her. Whilst popular culture frequently depicts dead Lucy is a wedding dress – most famously in Coppola’s 1992 film – the novel itself only describes her as wearing ‘the cerements of the grave’ and a ‘lawn death-robe’ (Dracula, ch.16). I began researching death-robes, looking at post-mortem photography, and calculating the limits of what an upper-class noble’s wealth such as Arthur Holmwood’s could buy for his never-to-be bride. The result was a flowing, white cotton gown that nods towards Arthur’s economic status with an intricate and lavish lace trim.

For Mina, I wanted to create an outfit that reflected the intelligent and sensible woman of the original text. In the Borgo Pass scenes she is dressed for travelling, in sturdy boots, a heavy cloak and gloves, and we had to emphasise the texture of the furs so they would be visually distinct in 28mm format.

Caption: Crooked Dice Game Design Studio.

But the stakes were always going to be highest when it came to the design of Dracula himself. I worked with my fellow MA 19thC Studies student, Sophie Roberts, to create a giant inspiration board including stills from some of the most famous Dracula adaptions. From this, we combined historical artefacts, such as the Order of the Dragon medallion, with costuming features most prevalent throughout Dracula’s pop-culture history, from the high collar of Bela Lugosi to the red sash seen in Netflix’s Castlevania. The character sketches were then assigned their own colour palettes and fabric annotations to be made into 3D models by Ernst and eventually into white metal miniatures to accompany the game.

Adapting the 19th Century

Bringing a novel which was written at the tail end of the nineteenth century into the twenty-first century was inevitably going to require our team to navigate some complicated topics. Dr Madeline Potter, gothic advisor on the project, author of the forthcoming The Roma: A Travelling History (Bodley Head/Harper Collins) and researcher of 19thC Irish Gothic, explained how the offensive portrayal of the Romani people had to be carefully re-evaluated for adaptation:

‘The Roma have become stereotypical tropes of Gothic literature. In Stoker’s novel, they work for the Count and they’re described as ‘without religion’ and ‘almost outside all law’. Because we needed to maximise playability, historical context could not always be fleshed out and explained in detail; and we needed to have two teams: the ‘Crew of Light’, and the ‘baddies’, associated with the Count. This meant that our adaptation posed particular problems, and we were keen not to demonise the Roma by having them on the villain team. After much discussion on the history and condition of the Roma in the region, we opted for removing racial-ethnic associations from Dracula’s helpers, and so the villains who help him were re-imagined as tribesmen who had sworn allegiance to the Count’

EHU Nineteen researcher Laura Glancy helped the team navigate the complicated representations of mental health through the character of Renfield and the asylum setting:

‘Though Dr John Seward’s private asylum implements the reformist ideals and the therapeutic patient care outlined in the 1890 Lunacy Act, the novel addresses various ill-defined medical concepts that are now recognised as pseudoscience. By acknowledging the effects of the exploitative and often dehumanizing practices of the past, and the impact that such treatments would have had on the wellbeing of those at risk, we were able to portray the characters sensitively.’

The game coincides with a larger project undertaken by EHU Nineteen Research Centre at Edge Hill University to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s legendary novel. In November 2022, Dr Laura Eastlake and Dr Madeline Potter hosted the Recovering the Vampire: From Degeneration to Regeneration conference, which explored how vampires (which have so often been read as figures of degeneration and cultural anxiety) might function as figures of recovery, regeneration, and community. The event featured keynotes by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Professor Catherine Spooner (Lancaster University) alongside a Q&A with Dacre Stoker himself and the launch of the 7TV Dracula game. Organizer Laura Eastlake said:

‘The game is a brilliant illustration of how Dracula as a story – and the vampire as a cultural figure – brings people together. Whether it’s the fantastic team who developed it, to the gaming communities who will play it, the legions of vampire fandoms around the world, or broader things like international Dracula tourism, vampire stories have a part to play in community-building and regeneration.’

And when it comes to community-building, the game could not have gone into production at a more important time. In 2021-2, with the world beginning to emerge from the isolation of COVID restrictions, the gaming industry saw a huge resurgence as families and friendship groups relied on games as a way back into community and connectivity. Now, with the game and its miniatures available from Crooked Dice Game Design Studio, we hope you will join us too.

[1] See especially Barbara Belford, Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003) and Catherine Wynne, Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage (London: Palgrave, 2013) on Stoker’s theatrical career.