Brinkwood: Death to Tyrants!

Brinkwood: The Blood of Tyrants is a tabletop roleplaying game where players build a rebellion to overthrow the blood-soaked vampires that oppress and dominate their world. It’s the second project by the San Jenaro Co-Op to have a successful Kickstarter campaign, where it is currently in its final stretch. It’s also the Co-Op’s first standalone traditional RPG.

We asked Erik Bernhardt, the driving force behind the game’s development, to talk to us about what inspired the game. Read on to learn more about what he loves about game design and about Brinkwood in particular, and why it’s more important than ever not to accept the world as you find it.

Brinkwood: The Blood of Tyrants

I thought there was a lot of unmined space, especially in the parallels between vampires and capital. And then Peter Thiel started literally drinking the blood of the young and I thought, “Well, this is going to be a little on the nose, isn’t it?”

Erik Bernhardt

Your Kickstarter profile says you’ve been designing games since you were a 12-year-old who couldn’t afford DnD manuals. How impressed would that kid be with the Brinkwood that’s waiting for people?

I’d like to think he’d be pretty impressed! It’s a funny thing: Blades in the Dark and other indie games feel almost like they’re light years ahead of where DnD was back in the 90s; some might say they’re still pretty far ahead of where DnD is today. Thinking back to the earliest games I played with my friends, modeled after half-remembered rules from DnD and Cyberpunk 2020, there’s definitely a through line from that all the way to Brinkwood. Maybe this game wouldn’t be all that surprising to my younger self.

What is castlepunk and what inspired you to create this weird, cool, game about revolutionary, vampire-fighting brigands?

Castlepunk is a genre designed to blend the anachronistic medievalism and gothic aesthetic of the Castlevania series with a punk sensibility. I think the inspiration from stuff like Castlevania and Bloodbourne drips off of the game, but I was also inspired by what I thought games like Vampire: The Masquerade and Vampire: The Requiem could be.

Whenever I heard stories about those games growing up, I’d hear about all this awesome costuming and plotting, but when people talked about the game itself, it sounded like a lot of bickering and arguing. I personally found that juxtaposition, of vampires bathed in wealth in privilege who thought themselves masters of an unseen world … but then spent all their time arguing with each other, very interesting. I thought it’d make for a good antagonistic force, one that could be intimidating individually and unstoppable if it ever truly got on the same page, but by its very nature, would never do so.

Vampire bust. Woman with a crown and elegant clothing, and blood dripping from her open mouth.
“Bathory,” by Mohammed Saad

What makes vampires in Brinkwood unique? Why did you choose them as the main villains for the game?

Vampires in Brinkwood are self-made, not created by others or reborn through death. A vampire is “made” when a regular person begins to imbibe Blood Sterling, the alchemical mixture of blood and silver that makes vampirism possible. If a vampire stops drinking blood or Blood Sterling, they will find their supernatural powers wither away and their mortality slowly return. Most, if not all, are unwilling to forsake the “gifts” of the blood, even if doing so would mean they would no longer need to feast upon the blood of others.

There’s been a tradition in vampire lore to make them very Byronic, or to make them addicts or unwilling monsters. While that’s all very well and good, I thought there was a lot of unmined space, especially in the parallels between vampires and capital. And then Peter Thiel started literally drinking the blood of the young and I thought, “Well, this is going to be a little on the nose, isn’t it?” But eh. It worked out.

“The Duke”, by Mohammed Saad

What would you say to someone who asks, “But what if all I want to do is brood and soliloquize in a castle somewhere?”

I really don’t mind, honestly. Vampire: The Masquerade and Vampire: The Requiem have some rough edges, but if what you want is a dark, moody game where you get to soliloquize and politic, those games will certainly scratch that itch for you. Or, y’know, you could also GM Brinkwood, and have a lot of fun leaning into all the scheming and plotting of the vampires, just so long as you’re comfortable with all of your schemes unraveling and ending up with all your characters under the guillotine’s blade.

Why should people play Brinkwood? What is the one thing that you hope sets it apart from other role-playing games?

People should play Brinkwood if the concept grabs their imagination, first and foremost. Or, if they are intrigued by some of the mechanical ideas we’re trying out and want to see how they work in practice. I don’t want anyone to have a bad time playing Brinkwood, or be dragged kicking and screaming into a game. So if you wish you could keep playing Curse of Strahd, or if you want to stake some vampires, this is the game for you. If the idea of putting on masks infused with fae magic that transform you into avatars of vengeance against your oppressors doesn’t get your blood pumping – well then, no hard feelings.

You could also GM Brinkwood, and have a lot of fun leaning into all the scheming and plotting of the vampires, just so long as you’re comfortable with … all your characters [ending up] under the guillotine’s blade.

How would you describe your philosophy when it comes to game design?

My philosophy has shifted over time, but at its core it’s governed by two principles. The first is playability – the idea that the game, at its core, is designed to be actually played. This filters into everything, from how we set up the rules to be as understandable as possible, to how we set up the “user interface” of the books, reference sheets, and character sheets. I feel like sometimes designers start with the idea and work backwards to try to get it onto the table, but I try to start at the table, building the components necessary for play, and then building everything else on top of it. The first thing I design and update is always the reference sheets, since that’s what people are going to spend 90% of their time interacting with.

The second principle is that the game exists at the intersection of the system and its players. In my mind, the game isn’t anywhere near complete until players sit down and start playing it. I see my role as a designer as providing the creators of the game, the players, with the tools they need to make the best game possible for their group. This doesn’t mean I abrogate responsibilities like playtesting, and I do have kind of an expected gameplay loop in mind, but I try to design my stuff to be as modular as possible. I want players and GMs to be able to rip out what they want and not have the entire game fall apart. It’s a challenge, but I think we do a good job of communicating what is and isn’t essential.

Brinkwood map by Brian Richmond

It’s taken a lot of work to get Brinkwood to the point of launching the Kickstarter. Can you tell us more about the team who helped you create the game?

It’s grown pretty large, and I don’t want to short-change anyone, so I’d encourage everyone reading this to check the “About Us” section of the Kickstarter for a full breakdown, and to especially check out the previous work a lot of our team members have accomplished; it’s all great stuff. That said, I do want to call out two of our more behind-the-scenes workers, Dyer Rose and Forrest. They’ve been working tirelessly behind the scenes to arrange interviews, publish tweets, manage our community, and just in general promote the game to a wider audience.

What should players expect when they sit down at a table (whether physical or digital) to play a game of Brinkwood?

I think we do a good job of presenting the concept in the Kickstarter, but first and foremost, they should expect to have fun. Fun isn’t the goal of every roleplaying game, but it is the primary goal of Brinkwood. I think getting everyone on the same page, especially when it comes to the intent of the game, is essential. We use the CATS tool to walk all the players through getting on the same page with regards to the concept and setting, and I think it does a good job of setting expectations as well as intent for a game of Brinkwood.

Brigand in a forest, putting on a mask.
“Forest Scene,” by Olivia Rea

Fae are a staple of fantasy and speculative fiction, not to mention role-playing games. What are you most proud of about the fae you’ve created in Brinkwood?

How custom-built they are. We use a unique approach modeled after the classic “Exquisite Corpse” game, an approach that has players collaboratively design their fae patron at the start of the game. While we certainly aren’t the first roleplaying game to have players collaboratively build the story and background of their game, I was surprised the first time I tried the collaborative approach by how well it worked. You’d think joining together so many ideas would result in something discordant or unintelligible, but with the fae patron, everything always seems to tie together, and the more “out there” elements just add to the mystery and strangeness of the fae.

When I was growing up, I was always given the impression that the problems society faced were too big to be fixed. That’s absurd; if people work together, anything is possible, even a better world.

What is the role of masks in the game? How do pacts, oaths and tragedies help players and storytellers tell cool stories?

Masks serve a mechanical purpose in allowing flexibility to players. Pacts, oaths, and tragedy form a “jumpstart” to the motivations of player characters. We expect players will quickly start setting their own goals and agendas, but they can always fall back on the very personal drama of their oaths, pacts, and tragedies in order to quickly get into the headspace of their characters and start telling emotionally resonant stories.

For people who’ve never played Blades in the Dark or a Forged in the Dark game before, how would you describe the basic premise that made it feel like an appropriate starting-point for Brinkwood?

Blades in the Dark is very much a game about underdogs. You’re criminals, trying to build something up from nothing. It’s a game where you start out sticking to the shadows and slowly develop into an impressive force to be reckoned with. It’s this back-bone of “sneaky” gameplay coupled with a campaign game that focuses on collective development that made Blades an ideal starting point for Brinkwood.

You released a playtest version in June 2019. How has the game evolved since that version, and what are some of the biggest changes you’ve made?

I’ve made a lot of big changes, most of which have been behind the scenes in how the meta-game works. It’s been a process of de-complicating a lot of stuff on the GM’s side to try and make it run more smoothly and elegantly. Hopefully it’s an objective I’ve accomplished!

“Vampire Assassination,” by Olivia Rea

Although it’s a fantasy setting, the game feels very relevant to our current world. On the [insert quest here] podcast, you mentioned that your approach to game themes is “no subtlety”. What is the one takeaway you’d like people to get from fighting vampires in a Brinkwood game?

When I was growing up, I was always given the impression that the problems society faced were too big to be fixed. That’s absurd; if people work together, anything is possible, even a better world. My biggest hope is that Brinkwood helps people test out and learn ways to make their own world better.

What is something you’d like to see more of in tabletop RPGs? (You know, apart from fair pay, decent wages, and creator-owned properties.)

Haha, that’s a tall order in itself. I guess I’d like to see a lot more co-ops, and co-op produced games. I’d also like to see more games from more diverse creators, which (luckily) is the direction the industry is going in!

Are there any people you’d like to thank specifically for their contributions along the way?

I mean, every single person who playtested this game really helped me out a lot. I try to thank everyone who’s done so, but if I’ve missed anyone along the way, please know I appreciate your contribution.

If you could play this game with any group of people, either from history or from fiction, who would you invite?

I really love playing this game with everyone who wants to play it. If I had to pick, I’d say one pie-in-the-sky goal is that this game gets big enough that some of my favorite left-tubers/bread-tubers get together and play it. Because who doesn’t like parasocial relationships?

Kickstarter link

Disclaimer: Erik Bernhardt and ZwodderZA are both members of the San Jenaro Co-Op. ZwodderZA has appeared on several sessions of the live-streamed sessions for Brinkwood on the SJC Twitch channel and is one of the contributors to the volume.

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