Interview with Chris Gunning About The Hammer and the Stake

Today I’ve got some new detail on a project that I’ve seen advertised in a few different places. The Hammer and the Stake is an ongoing Kickstarter for a game of socialist freedom fighters trying to bring down vampire overlords, all set in 1920s Eastern Europe. It’s an evocative idea for a game and the creator, Chris Gunning of Weaponized Ink was kind enough to answer a few interview questions about the project.

So, let’s start simple. What’s the couple-sentence elevator pitch for The Hammer and the Stake to get players and GMs hooked?

Socialist vampire hunters work to bring down an autocratic state apparatus controlled by Dracula. 

The game is set in a VERY alternate 1930 history that assumes Bram Stoker’s Dracula was an imperfect recounting of a real incident that then leads to a vampiric political coup and a reorganization of the borders in Eastern Europe.  The game is a mash-up of philosophy, history, and traditional occult beliefs. 

The Hammer and the Stake (H&S) err’s a bit towards the fiction side of things in the sense that the fiction and legends of the era of the region are the big inspirations and trump history.  We meld that foundation with a dash of real-world philosophy and built the game around that core. 

Image © Weaponized Ink

The game is set in an “alternate history” Eastern Europe during the 1920s with Dracula looming large. The geographic setting makes sense for a vampire game but why that time period?

I wanted to do something somewhat contemporaneous with Stoker’s Dracula since that was my original source of inspiration. I thought about doing WWI/The Great War and decided to try something less comfortable.  At first, picking the inter-bellum was a personal research challenge.  I wanted to learn about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the post-Great War political landscape. 

I am lucky in that I have a very international body of friends and contacts.  I have a couple of friends from Hungary, Romania, and, specifically, Transylvania.  So, I ordered a bunch of books and started a series of interviews and it grew from there.  The time period and cultures were a draw… and I ended up really getting into the research.  A couple of the people I was working with to understand the Carpathian Basin and the lore of the region suggested the time period and it lined up with the Dracula stuff… and yeah.

The mechanics of The Hammer and the Stake are a little complicated, with one player making a 2d6 roll and other people at the table placing wagers on the result to achieve their own goals. Can you walk us through an example roll and explain how it fits the themes of The Hammer and the Stake?

I am going to respectfully disagree with the statement that H&S’s system is complicated.  It is, I think, legitimately different than most other RPG mechanics, and that difference may take some time to get used to… but it is not hard.  It is based on some very old and very enduring games of chance.  If someone can grok craps, roulette, or blackjack… then H&S’s system won’t be hard. 

Craps and roulette were the big inspirations.  In those games everyone is watching the same result and everyone is collectively involved in the process.  In a game where socialists play a role as the protagonists, this made a lot of sense to me. 

Image © Weaponized Ink

2D6 gives us a range of 2 – 12, with 7 being the most likely result (7 = failure) while 2 and 12 (special successes) are the least likely.  A character’s Attributes dictate how many wagers they can make and the Skills define which numbers those wagers can go on. 

Once the wagers are on the table, one player gets to roll the dice and everyone on the table interprets the results depending on which numbers they wagered on. 

Think of it like a Eurogame like Cataan.  In those games a single roll of the dice can yield very different results depending on the players’ positioning on the board.  H&S doe the same thing. 

In this game the PCs are the working class of a strict hierarchy, whose real world counterparts were crushed by the Kingdom of Hungary. Why pick such desperate underdogs as the protagonists for The Hammer and the Stake?

Why fictional socialists?  I wanted a built-in reason for the players to work together.  Building my own factions based on cooperation and collective action seemed like a great way to build that assumption into the game.

I also want a good reason to break the government apparatus. Hammer and Stake want to talk about tyranny and autocracy and make it unambiguous that the players are destined to fight against the Dracula government in an effort to bring it down.  Thematically, playing socialists to accomplish these goals made a lot of sense. 

That said, the socialists of H&S don’t have one-to-one real-world analogs.  This was VERY intentional.  Many of them are based on my research of the region, but each was built to fit the fictional setting rather than be a hard commentary on historic organizations. 

Image © Weaponized Ink

The other thing to keep in mind is that the early vampire and horror lit we are pulling from (Dracula, Carmilla, the Vampyre) all feature desperate and backs-against-the-wall protagonists.  Drawing a line between H&S’s socialists and the characters who confronted vampires in the stories felt natural. 

Also, the metaphors for vampires as proxies for capitalists feeding off the labor of the masses was just too much fun not to explore.   

Readers of this blog and the RPG community in general might know your work from Werewolf: The Savage Age. That is a bloody, vicious setting with horror and violence, probably themes we’ll see in The Hammer and the Stake. How does this horror RPG compare to that horror RPG?

Very different.  Savage Age gives the players tools to make them think they are invincible monsters to then discover that.. uh oh… they are still very vulnerable to different types of vulnerability and loss of agency. 

In The Hammer and the Stake, the players are a bit more like the kids in an 80s horror movie.  They are thrown together with different goals against enemies that want to destroy them.  In this case, “destroy” could mean consume them or regress their psyches into lumpenproles – zombie-like workers whose sole existence is to make the capitalists and aristocrats of Dracula’s government comfortable. 

In H&S the characters need to act to keep their agency.  If they don’t, not only will they regress, but their communities are doomed as well.

One difficult part of writing an historical game is that the world is messy. This period in particular does have a fascist government that’s fun to punch but also that was oppressing and killing ethnic minorities. The communist revolutionaries were fighting against exploitation but also were excluding and sacrificing people in their cause, not to mention the horrific crimes of communist Hungary after WWII. How are you incorporating these details into The Hammer and the Stake with sensitivity?

Image © Weaponized Ink

Alternate history is just a different form of fiction – one that provides us a chance to look at a time period and play with the parameters.

The Hammer and the Stake diverges subtly from our timeline starting in the late 1800s (with Dracula doing his thing) and then very blatantly in 1919 or so (I mean, technically, since Vampires exist it diverges at the beginning of recorded history – but you get my drift).  I very specifically did not want to get into the Hungarian Red Terror or some of the other real-world events that still leave scars today (and I recognize I am not the person to explore those events).  But, like other RPGs set in or around conflict or a world war, I also didn’t want to flinch entirely from the hard historic points. So, I built the setting to make clear there are good guys and bad guys and that Greater Hungary of H&S isn’t anywhere near the same as the real world. 

If people want to explore those darker parts of history, they have the canvas to do so… but that is not the story H&S assumes you will tell.  So, events like the Hungarian Red Terror do not happen in The Hammer and the Stake since our timeline diverges well before those events.  Likewise, the many horrors to come in the ‘30s and ‘40s could exist if a GM wants to explore them, but they are not part of the setting. 

The setting in H&S has its own fictionalized horrors, but that fiction creates a sense of emotional distance that I think is important for a lot of players. 

You’re consciously making this game’s Dracula the refined, gothic version from Bram Stoker’s novel rather than the mythical Vlad Tepes. What parts of the Stoker material are you excited to bring into The Hammer and the Stake and are there any parts you want to leave out?

I am trying to keep as much of Stoker’s intent with his character intact.  That means that Dracula has some pretty crazy powers and weaknesses – the types of powers that have been downplayed in modern fiction and gaming.  For example, Dracula can control the weather.  He (we refer to Dracula as “it” in the game) is also able to walk in the sun with only a diminishment of its occult powers. 

Stoker’s notes are widely available and are a great read on their own.  They have played a very important role in defining the vampiric menace in H&S.

Also?  Apparently, Vlad Tepes wasn’t the basis for Dracula.  It’s a whole thing in the circle of Stoker historians these days.  That, too, is fun to learn about. 

Image © Weaponized Ink

If there are gaming groups out there who have enjoyed vampire hunting games like Night’s Black Agents or 1920s horror like Call of Cthulhu, what fun twists would you like to point out in The Hammer and the Stake as a new experience?

There is a strong “institutional horror” vibe to H&S.  There aren’t just vampires and monsters to fear, those same creatures have a whole state apparatus behind them.  The Greater Hungary of H&S is walled off from the rest of the world, with little information and traffic coming in or out… so the players are on their own against the renfield-proxies, security forces, and collaborators. 

Image © Weaponized Ink

The Kickstarter is ongoing, are there any fun stretch goals or milestones coming up that you’d like to highlight?

We have already blown through five (!) stretch goal and are deep into the sixth.  I am being very careful about stretch goals.  I want to be very careful that I do not overpromise and underdeliver.  The first five stretch goals were designed to augment the $60 pledge level so that there Is a LOT of content there – but they are all projects that are very do-able with the team I have around me. 

We have a supplement on the witches of the setting likely coming up.  I am excited for that one in part because I am determined NOT to be the lead writer for that one.  I want to see what someone with a different perspective can do for the witches. 

There are been asks for T-shirt and posters of the awesome art we have.  I will look into that if/when the stretch goal is achieved – but it will be likely hosted at a different site so that people can purchase on their own after the KS is finished.  I love the art for H&S and it make me really happy others do, too. 

4 thoughts on “Interview with Chris Gunning About The Hammer and the Stake

  1. Tl;dr Dracula naming the country Greater Hungary is weird and doesn’t show the research was well done.

    I saw that mr. Gunning said he spoke to many people from Hungary and Transilvania and did his research which is why I’m kinda disappointed on his decision to portray Greater Hungary as having occupied Romania.
    There are ethnic conflicts to this day in Transilvania, between Hungarian and Romanian nationalists and some political groups are even asking for political autonomy inside the region, on the grounds that Transilvania has been occupied for hundreds of years by the Austro Hungarian empire.
    Choosing Dracula (who has been closely linked and associated with Vlad Țepeș, a Romanian leader) as the leader and naming the country Greater Hungary is also weird. Why not name it Greater Romania? If you wanna keep the Hungary name and its links to the austro-hungarians, why use a Romanian inspired leader and not a Hungarian one? The Bathory family had both reigned in Transilvania and sparked their fair share of vampiric rumours and controversies (and you avoid the overused Dracula cliché, but that’s my personal opinion).
    The ‘sense of emotional distance’ comment combined with the fictional map… It just ain’t it.

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    1. The discussion about Count Dracula is wonderfully convoluted, but there are a couple of points that came up in my research about Dracula while writing The Hammer and the Stake that need to be understood.

      1) Count Dracula as written by Stoker is Hungarian, not Romanian. Count Dracula notes in the book he is a szekler – which would make him culturally Hungarian (and very Hungarian at that). Count Dracula also talks about his proclivity to use his partonomic first, a Hungarian custom… and we know he proudly proclaims to be a descendant of Attila the Hun which also very clearly puts him in the Hungarian cultural circle. Since Stoker clearly wanted the Count to be Hungarian, I was inclined to take the author’s intention at face value.

      2) The connection between Count Dracula and Vlad III (Dracula) is tenuous outside of their shared names. In fact, the connection between the Impaler and Stoker’s Dracula has been solidly debunked by Stoker scholars for over a decade. Hollywood grabbed on to some very spurious and error-filled claims by the individuals who found Stoker’s notes (McNally and Florescu) and have perpetuated it with such gusto that the idea that Vlad III is Dracula has become “common knowledge.” Current research (which I agree with having read Stoker’s notes myself) has come to the very clear conclusion that Stoker did not use Vlad III as a template for Count Dracula. Indeed, throughout Stoker’s notes there is a notable absence of any references to Vlad III. To see what current scholarship on Dracula and Stoker look like, check out Elizabeth Miller, David Skal, and Clive Leatherdale – all of whom convincingly undermine the Hollywood-ized connections between Count Dracula and Vald the Impaler.

      The Dracula of The Hammer and the Stake is Stoker’s Dracula, not Vlad III.

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