Tuesday, June 18, 2024

‘A Rat Race Towards Momentary Joy’: How Designer Zach Cox Made The Saddest, Gayest Vampires He Could In ‘Paint The Town Red’

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Everyone loves a sad, gay vampire. The immortal ennui! The feral mixed with the aristocratic! The cravats! The world of TTRPG is one infested with vampires, from the modern day menaces of Vampire The Masquerade to Count Strahd. But in Paint the Town Red, an upcoming release from SoulMuppet Publishing (Gardens of Ynn, Orbital Blues), designer Zach Cox wants to make vampires dirty, grimy, and pathetic in ways we haven’t yet seen. To learn more, I had a chat with Zach about how he went about doing this, the striking visuals, and the perfect playlist for vampiric deeds (the contents of which might surprise you!)

 Paint The Town Red  cover

How do you make Paint the Town Red different from other Vampire TTRPGs?

The elephant in the room is certainly World of Darkness games like Masquerade and Requiem. Any vampire game is forced to compare itself to VtM, in the same way any fantasy game is forced to compare itself to D&D

This means a lot of the classic vampire TTRPGs have a real focus on occult power and combat. At its worst times, World of Darkness games can feel more like a superhero RPG with vampires in it rather than a vampire game. WoD also has a lot of focus on Covenants and Clans, and your character often appears as part of a complicated political organization in their domain. Your characters are tremendously powerful, sexy, connected and treat humans like prey.
Ultimately, the defining feature of a Paint The Town Red vampire is that you’re pathetic. Not always deserving of pity per se (many of them are awful people), but more that they are small, strange and emotionally damaged by centuries of death. The propensity of “weird little guys” in this game is off the charts. 

 Paint The Town Red  Brood art
“Brood” by PrimoPinku

This is a game about being sad. You are relentlessly traumatized by your death and every moment since it. Any joy you have is fleeting and won by the point of a sword in moments of passion and hedonist excess. You will be sad again soon. Your heart is stopped and your blood is cold, but you’re here to party until the sun rises. 

It is possible to be cool and sexy and smart and confident, but only as a thin veneer over what you really are, and only while you’re neck deep in dopamine and “living your best life”. You might be able to get around it by finding friends, family and lovers, but that is a hard battle fought over centuries. To be a vampire is to feel alone, even when you are not. 

With Paint The Town Red, we’ve taken the subtexts of vampire fiction and just make it the text. We want you to have fun being dead (inside). 

How do you go about creating an Undead Nightlife?

We set our adventures in the greatest cities throughout history, where the undeath have gathered to chase the sensation of being alive. The quickstart contains “A Modern Babylon”, set in Victorian London, but we have plans for Ancient Rome, Depression New York, splendid Ghazni, Charlemagne’s Aachen and tons of other places. 

Vampires are drawn to a city by the smell of Joy. Vampires are so completely desperate to feel something that they can smell dopamine on the wind. Joy and Misery both smell distinctly, and the shape of the city is defined by them. Any adventure begins with 3 “Lurks”, a place that smells of Joy where vampires hang out. It might be an inn, a creepy basement, a nightclub, a theatre or anything else. This is where everything happens, and where you go to meet other vampires. 

 Paint The Town Red map
“A Modern Babylon” map by Tom McCredy

There are also “Hollows”. These are places that smell of Misery. Vampires stay the hell away from them, but other types of (even sadder) undead might be found there. They’re sort of like dungeons? Places where a different kind of adventure can happen. 

We then move onto “Contacts”. These are people like you, usually dead but sometimes not, who are involved in the undead nightlife of the city. They are probably sad as well, and they want things.
The best Contacts are the kind of person you’d meet at a party and who’d become the centre of your whole night. They become your friends, lovers, rivals, enemies and anything else. These NPCs are the beating heart of the game and the city, and are a rogues gallery of unusual characters from throughout history, showing up here for the same reason you do. Helping them out forms the bulk of the play of Paint The Town Red, as you try to make friends and improve your life. 

Finally, there are the “Factions”. This is a collection of powerful conservative undead who rule the city and have built it in their image. Conflict with these Factions is inevitable. As you Paint The Town Red, you create chaos and destroy their perfect undeath. For a Faction, people are tools, distractions or obstacles. They use tools, ignore distractions and destroy obstacles. We draw on loads of influences and different types of undead here. A Faction could be a family of vampires, a single lich, a gang of werewolves, an ancient and powerful undead or a cemetery full of skeletons and zombies. 

What ways do you try to create the sort of “fun night out” atmosphere at the core of the game.

So in Orbital Blues, we did “Sad for XP” and in Paint The Town Red we had “Sad for Health”. I’m advancing in my sad-boi prowess. 

Undead in Paint The Town Red have “Pulse”, which is how alive they’re feeling in a given moment. High Pulse means your heart is beating, your blood is warm and you are filled with happiness. Low Pulse and you are a monstrous creature who is clammy, cold and miserable. This works as your health points, but also an indicator of emotional mood. Getting your Pulse up and having some fun is the driving force of a Paint The Town Red session. 

 Paint The Town Red  pages

You mainly do this by Indulging a Passion. Passions are the things that make you feel alive and each vampire chooses one in character creation. Indulging means letting loose and creating consequences. We also track character’s Chaos, a measure of how impulsive and hedonistic they’re feeling, and the impact they have on the city around them. This generates random encounters and other responses by Contacts and Factions. 

Drinking blood is a Passion too. It’s not a biological or magical compulsion of these undead, it’s an emotional one. Drinking someone else’s warm blood feels nice. Your heart starts to beat again. Your blood is warm. Just for a few hours you feel alive again. 

In the game, you go to a Lurk, meet new people, find something to do with your night, find time to Indulge A Passion or two while doing so, and the messy night out begins. Each session feels less like a fantasy adventure, and more like a night on the town with your friends where you make mistakes and chase the sensation of being alive. 

Are there any pieces of vampire media that inspired you?

 Paint The Town Red Vice by  Tiffany Baxter
“Vice” by Tiffany Baxter

For films, I love the What We Do In The Shadows film. I need to watch the series. Blood Red Skies was a lot of fun. Midnight Mass was absolutely great. Only Lovers Left Alive and the new Interview with a Vampire are also core touchstones. 

To make my vampire game, I had to learn from the old masters. I was in a 6 month Vampire: The Requiem 2nd Edition play by post campaign that was the most intense I have ever got into an RPG. The 700 year old Invictus Ventrue Baron Morgan Shawbrook was a couple of days from becoming Prince of London before our game was cut short by player scheduling. Morgan’s reluctant ambition, civic duty and abject misery, as well as the texture of London, has made its way into our game. 

Where did the visual look of the game come from?

I was lucky enough to work with Johan Nohr (Mork Borg, Cy_borg, Into The Odd) as the Art Direction and visual expert of the game. A lot of vampire RPGs feature a huge amount of collage, in world pieces and skeuomorphic design. We wanted to push away from that. Paint The Town Red is clean, stark and vibrant, featuring these blood gutters that spill out of the gaps between the pages in increasing wild intensity throughout each chapter. 

We’ve started working with some incredible artists. The quickstart features work from Johan, Tiffany Baxter, Primopinku and Brian Yaksha, with more art coming soon. It also has a bunch of public domain art in it from various sad dead artists, depicting undeath, history, cities or misery. I think we’ve done a really nice job curating the feeling of the art, and ensuring a consistent tone despite the dozens of artists featured. 

How do you balance hedonism and melancholy? And how does that translate to the table?

 Paint The Town Red  art
“Vice” by PrimoPinku

You don’t need to “balance” it as a GM. The players do it themselves. The vampires are sad and don’t want to be, no matter what the Pulse number says. They’re never really happy. They could stop any time they want, but they don’t. They want more Pulse, and are willing to accept any consequence to get it. 

The game feels like a rat race to momentary joy, which makes me feel like I did my job designing the game. 

Any music recommendations to help get the vibe?

This is such a difficult question because I don’t listen to “metal”, dark academia or whatever music you are meant to associate vampires with. As a result, this recommendation list is frankly fucking cooked. 

All the soundtracks to my work are ultimately jazz, which I feel like a bad suggestion. Pop on some Mount Fuji Darkjazz Corperation or a bit of Bill Evans. Colin Stetson makes his way into everything I write these days too. 

I also listened to a lot of impulsive indie sad girl music while writing this. The trio from Boy Genius, Soccer Mommy, Greta Isaac are all very fun. More brooding indie pop influences the sad stuff too, Do Nothing, Adult Jazz, Flyte, Super Food and Sylvan Esso. 

My recommendation for the best Paint The Town Red music is a weird one: listen to the new Challengers soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It is exhilarating listening to pulsing impulsive sexy intoxicating homoerotic techno music and not knowing if it’s meant to play over tennis matches, emotional breakdowns or threesomes. It’s how I like to live. 

Their Social Network score is also a banger. 

Paint The Town Red will hit crowdfunding this September, but you can try out the free Quickstart here.

Images via SoulMuppet Publishing

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