Nothing can save us from Steven Moffat’s train wreck of a Dracula adaptation. Sometimes, though, a proper hate-watch can be a powerful source of inspiration. That was the case for Alex Eden who created the tabletop roleplaying game, Vampunks. The following article is an abbreviated interview with Vampunk’s creator, which covers how he finds sources of inspiration and his strange tale of being compelled to create a gothic cyberpunk game. Spoilers for Moffat’s Dracula ahead (but don’t worry, you’ll be better off knowing these spoilers if you subject yourself to watching it).
JONATHAN WILDER: Where do you usually find inspiration?
ALEX EDEN: When it comes down to it, seeing something in media– a movie, a TV show, a game– that you just go, ‘I like that, there’s something cool about that,’ and starting with that as a base can really get you going. And see, how do I make it my own?
Something has got to trigger it. Be it something in my daily life or something I read about, ‘Hey, that’s an interesting, weird thing.’ I can have a lot of fun just getting the ball rolling. I use that inspiration hunting at first to start the fire.
Is it usually more spontaneous, or do you find yourself actively searching for inspiration?
I’d say spontaneous. Inspiration is at its best when it comes naturally. If you try to force it too much earlier on, then you’re not gonna have fun with it and you won’t be as compelled by your ideas as you can be.
What other tabletop roleplaying games have served as inspiration for you?
Well, for sure, Curse of Strahd for the classic tropes of gothic horror that Vampunks kinda riffs on. In terms of other systems that inspired me, I like a lot of the OSR stuff because there is a focus on simplicity. The tone of Vampunks is a lot goofier than old-school dungeon-delving games, but there’s that shared aspect of a small set of rules just to figure out how you handle conflicts and just leaving a whole lot of room for roleplaying.
When I originally made Vampunks, I thought it was going to be this one page thing. I was looking at Big Motherf’in’ Crab Truckers. A very hilarious one page roleplaying game, just being like, ‘Hey, you’re crabs and you drive trucks. You have one thing for rules, dive into it.’ I want to make a system that you can dive into in an instant.
Vampunks, for sure, expanded beyond that, but there was still that focus on simple systems that someone who isn’t familiar with RPGs could easily figure out. But, somebody who is familiar can see that there is a little bit of crunch here. I wanted to find a nice balance between something like Fiasco where things are free-form and something like D&D or crunchier systems where you do have to think about your stats. I think the osmosis of the two together is very fun.
Let’s shift focus to the thing that initially inspired Vampunks: Steven Moffat’s Dracula. How did you end up watching this series?
It was my buddy Mellissa, “It’s so cheesy– it’s so bad. You gotta give it a shot.” I was just shaking my head– it can’t be that bad. Dracula is a classic. And then I watched it… it was that bad. It made me furious. Once you get into a series like that where it makes you so angry that you can’t look away, you just have to power through. It was the end of the second episode going into the third where it clicked, where inspiration is forming.
What aspects of that series pissed you off the most?
The things that were happening were goofy, nonsensical, over-the-top, but the characters were treating it so seriously. There’s a way you can do that. I like B Movies where things are silly, but the characters fully believe it– to them it’s serious but to the audience it’s serious. The issue with Dracula and a lot of Steven Moffat’s work is that the atmosphere that you get is that he does not think this is silly. He thinks that this is very deep and very cool, and you should get real into it.
So, when [Spoilers for Moffat’s Dracula ahead] Dracula comes out of his coffin in the modern day and there are helicopters and a SWAT team rushes in… for a moment, it’s like this is so ridiculous that something funny could be here. There is something that could have been good here, but only if Steven Moffat had gone full force and gone insane with it. But he didn’t, he was treating it very seriously.
To me, it was like, ‘No, if you’re going to start a story where Dracula is in the past and then we’re going to cut to years and years in the future. Go all out! Put Dracula in the sci-fi, cyberpunk future!’ Does it sound ridiculous? Absolutely. Does it sound interesting? Yes, it does! And, Vampunks kinda grew from there.
What was the initial seed for Vampunks? You start thinking about sending Dracula to the far future. How does that morph from just Dracula in the future to just vampires in general? How does that morph from the general far future to specifically cyberpunk?
Two major inspirations came after Dracula. There was Daybreakers, which was about vampires ruling over a modern world– literally harvesting humans for blood.
And then, an iOS game from Square Enix– a freakin’ favorite of mine that sadly got pulled from the shelves because it wasn’t making enough money– called Blood Mask. The big premise of Blood Mask is that it’s an alternate history world where vampires are real and everybody knows about vampires. Vampires just rule over Europe. The thing that I found so cool was that it would go over various things that existed in the real world, like subway systems, various political organizations, and things like that. But, what if a vampire did that? Why do subways exist? Clearly the vampires want to create an underground society and this is their first attempt to see if that’s possible.
I don’t want to make a world where these vampires are not really vampires– they’re vampires in actions, but explained by hyper-science. I wanted this to be goofy, like I wanted Moffat’s Dracula to be goofier and embrace the cheese of it all. I wanted a world where it is the future and you deal with all the classic tropes of capitalist dystopia, body modification, pollution, machines run rampant– all this stuff, but it just so happens that vampires were always real.
Why do they exist? I don’t know, but they’ve just always been here. Similar with Vampire: The Masquerade where it plays with vampires in the modern day, but people don’t know about it. There’s the Masquerade. The vampires have to hide the fact that they exist and they have to keep the illusion that the humans are in charge.
I like the idea, realistic or not, that while everybody is dealing with these classic cyberpunk tropes– this legitimate threat of blood-sucking monsters exists. They’re manipulating the system. They’re the ones that want the pollution. They want humans to just be dominated by machines, so that they can just suck their blood more.
You get to be the cool dude with the over-the-top punk aesthetic, fighting spooky monsters and maybe smashing capitalism-run-amok systems and other real world things but with the face of supernatural vampires.
After the inspiration from Moffat’s Dracula, tell me more about the game, Vampunks, that you ended up creating?
It became more of, here is your basic premise and here are your tools to help you expand that premise, but, you the GM and you the players are still painting the canvas. I didn’t want to go so hard on– especially since it’s supposed to be a sillier system– this is how vampires work and this is how the society works. I wanted to give the building blocks and then give the GM the methods of expanding it and growing it, even between missions. That includes your specific tone, how these vampires specifically work, and what the world looks like beyond the narrow area of sci-fi vampire hunters.
Mechanically, it is a simple to learn, easy to expand system. It is three basic stats, a fourth stat that relates to your health and your other stats. It comes down to managing what you’re good at and then improving specific things, with survival and a bit of risk-reward. There’s definitely something there to go a little bit deeper, but nothing so intense that you need like a spreadsheet. You’ll get as much as you put in.
The two major building blocks are the sci-fi setting and the supernatural element. I really want to add robots, cyborgs, and a vampire player class. Right now in the game, you can be a vampire, but it’s a process– you have to risk your life for it. My ultimate goal for a new expansion would be: you can play as a robot now, you can be a cyborg, you can be a mix of things– you can be a vampborg!
One session, you could be a human, but then you die and get your brain popped out. You could put that into a robot body and save up to buy a new meat body. But, oh no, that then that got turned into a vampire, so you decide to become a cyborg! I like the idea of transitioning between things.
I’d love to keep diving into the tropes, like we have vampires. Where are the werewolves? Where are the zombies? Where are the ghosts? If I want to go more for the sci-fi elements, what about a more apocalyptic theme for it– nuclear wastelands. What about mutants? What about A.I.? Then, just seeing, how does this work in the system? What new rules may need to be added? What older rules may need to be tweaked?
I want it to be like a water park. Like, if things are up to code, you’re not gonna drown in the water park.
You don’t know that! You can drown in, like, two inches of water!
That is true! That is true! But generally, it’s not the deepest system in the world. It’s not trying to be the next big, expanded universe. But, there’s so much to do: I can jump on the water slide, I can go in the wave pool, I can sunbathe, I can get a hot dog. It’s nothing you’re going to lose hours of your life into, but it is something you can always jump back into!
I know that you released your Twine game Dream Den recently. Are you working on any storytelling stuff besides Vampunks?
Definitely, I want to keep expanding my repertoire. I finally made a one-page RPG, For Her Elegance. I want to keep exploring fun, narrative-driven systems.
I like the idea of creating alternate systems set in the Vampunks universe. I’ve had ideas for a solo RPG within Vampunks. I love the idea of self-journaling games, which are more like creative writing exercising. Vampunks is about a team and your Punk Wrangler going on these missions. What about the lone vampire hunter? I like the idea of making a system from the perspective of the vampires. You are the Punk Hunters who deal with the Vampunks! I think that is very much like World of Darkness-esque too where they have all these different systems. I’m just seeing where things lead, where inspiration takes me.
Can you give the readers a suggestion to help them find inspiration?
What do you like? Take note of that stuff. It can even be as simple as, ‘Hey, I want to play as a robot with a gun and he shoots other robots with guns.’ That’s fine! Dive into it. Open up a Word document, put down Robot Fighter 6, and see what happens next. Just get the ball rolling. Even if you look at something and say, ‘I hate that. I can do that a million times better.’ Do that!
Vampunks is available on itch.io and DriveThruRPG.
Image from Netflix’s Dracula
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