Monday, February 22, 2010

Four Ways Of Looking At A Vampire

So the girls are vampire hunting. They really don't know much about the vampire yet, and, frankly, neither do I.

But I do know I hate to waste a monster, especially a high-level one, especially with a group of players that've never fought it before.

So I've been thinking about my options, and reading up, and thinking of how to wring every drop of doom and danger and scheming and minion and mood and campaign fuel out of the situation...

(No, you are not allowed to post "Don't worry what tha' other mofos, do! Just do it man! Don't overthink it! i'm sure whatever you think up will be awwesumm!" in the comments. Thinking is my idea of fun. Thinking about how I want this to roll is a pleasant problem to contemplate.)

What follows is not so much four different types of vampires (the pennangalan, the moroi, the strigoi, etc.) as four different kinds of ways vampires are treated in stories. Obviously, there are lots of other ways, (Abbot and Costello Vs. Dracula, for example) but I'm just talking about pre-modern stuff and modern stuff that copies the classic templates...

Puzzle-Monster/Disease-Victim Vampire

(Die! Dracula! Die!)

From this point of view, a vampire is a category of monster mainly distinguished by the fact that it requires special tricks to kill it. Sunlight, stakes, running water, etc. Like a medusa or a hydra. The tricks and rules are well-defined and usually adhere closely, in-game, to the tricks and rules the players know from out-of-game sources like TV and books. The theme of vampire-as-disease-victim (as opposed to vampire-as-curse-victim or vampire-as-personification-of-evil) is important since the idea that there are specific rules for infection is really important.

This is the obvious D&D default vampire.

The nice thing about this aspect of vampires is that there is more broadly-known and consistent lore about vampires than any other monster (like are wights vulnerable to acid? Who knows? But vampires don't like garlic, we all know that), so if you're designing a strategic or tactical challenge using the Old School D&D motto "player skill not character skill" it's hard to beat a vampire for a foe that PCs can really think about before kicking down the door. The more the PCs know about any given situation, the more opportunity there is to see the situation as a strategic challenge. Here are the rules--go!

Typically, if a PC ends up as a vampire, then it's hard to escape sticking pretty much to this model, since it's relatively easy to describe a vampire this way in game terms and then just let the PC do whatever they want.

Movies typically look at vampires this way for the most part because then they don't need as much backstory. Even profoundly arty movie vampires--like Werner Herzog's Nosferatu or Andy Warhol's Dracula, end up, despite all the metaphors involved, having a lot of the puzzle-monster vampire about them.

Spooky Screw-You Puzzle-Monster/Disease-Victim Vampire

(Everything you read in Dracula is wrong)

As above, only the DM goes on wikipedia, looks up "vampire" and reads something like this...

In order to ward off the threat of vampires and disease, twin brothers would yoke twin oxen to a plow and make a furrow with it around their village. An egg would be broken and a nail driven into the floor beneath the bier of the house of a recently deceased person. Two or three elderly women would attend the cemetery the evening after the funeral and stick five hawthorn pegs or old knives into the grave: one at the position of the deceased's chest, and the other four at the positions of his arms and legs. Other texts maintain that running backwards uphill with a lit candle and a turtle would ward off a stalking vampire. Alternately, they may surround the grave with a red woolen thread, ignite the thread, and wait until it was burnt up. If a noise was heard at night and suspected to be made by a vampire sneaking around someone's house, one would shout "Come tomorrow, and I will give you some salt," or "Go, pal, get some fish, and come back."

...and so, instead of the standard post-Hollywood stakes-and-sunlight model, comes up with some weird new vampire with new vampire-killing rules.

While using unfamiliar folklore to define the vampire has the advantage of making it spookier (at least if you go with the old-women-with-the-knives type of thing, the running-backwards-with-a-turtle thing might not exactly bring the arcane terror), it has the disadvantage of taking away the player-knowledge-comes-in-handy tactical aspect, plus it could be read as just a Fuck You from the DM if the players don't know about it ahead of time.

Ghost Story/Curse-Victim Vampire

(Dracula--Love Never Dies)

A vampire is what's become of an individual person with an individual history and so getting rid of the vampire involves somehow tying up the loose ends of that person's life or otherwise dealing with them, possibly in addition to the "usual" vampire-killing methods. Getting rid of the vampire will necessitate finding a lost love, righting a wrong, satisfing an oath, moving a symbolic object etc. The vampire's predatory nature is nearly always pretty obviously a sexual metaphor.

From this point of view the vampire is less diseased than cursed, his or her condition is specific to him or her. Though the vampire might be able to create more vampires with its bite, its own vampirism isn't necessarily the result of another vampire's bite (that would make the vampire less unique)--it could be some sort of divine punishment or the result of an improper burial. This kind of vampire can have unique abilities tied metaphorically or symbolically to its past or situation, and often enacts magical-thinking-ghost-type-behavior-patterns like, for example, if the vampire died by suicide then it lives in a well and tempts everyone who looks in or if the vampire's mortal body was killed by someone with red hair it always attacks people with red hair, etc.

In this case, the vampire is the center of a traditional ghost story--curses and taboos are in effect, and the PCs have to enter this system of spooky thinking in order to get rid of the vampire. It typically appears in an investigative-type situation.

(The closest obvious referent in D&D here would be Strahd from Ravenloft, who always seemed like a sort of a Castlevania-style Dracula-clone puzzle-monster sitting on top of a megadungeon with a little of the romantic ghost-story stuck on top. Probably the proportions of each vary from DM to DM.)

Sometimes aristocratic vampires are this kind of vampire and sometimes they aren't. It depends on whether you're supposed to be sympathetic to- or intrigued by- the aristocrat's history or whether his/her aristocraticness is just basically a metaphor for his/her vampireness.

In general, vampires are scariest when they aren't there yet--and the ghost story vampire emphasizes this aspect. S/he is just sort of an excuse for all the other moody and spooky things--like how in Lovecraft the actual monster is less the point than just the atmosphere of madness and terror that it generates. The plot is the real monster, the vampire is just the thing that gives it a center.

Demonic/Mythic/Evil-Force Vampire

(Dracula--from dracul, meaning "dragon")

A vampire is like a demon or is a kind of demon. It personifies evil forces (generally ones associated with animalistic rather than civilized behavior), and while its nature is vague and insubstantial and partially metaphorical, it's extremely powerful. This is the kind of primal evil from the dawn of time found in the oldest myths and is often distinguished from other demons only by the fact that it drinks blood. It often looks more like a creature than a human. It does not scheme, it simply preys.

Slaying this vampire will require either epic-level skull-splitting with some sort of gimmicks that make the PCs the equal of the mythic heroes that killed these things back in the day or righting some sort of larger-scale spiritual or moral wrongness. This kind of vampire is, above all, blasphemous, and so the solution to the vampire, viewed from this angle, will often involve invoking piety, righteousness, or divine intervention.


It goes without saying that in most stories these kinds of vampire overlap--just as the classic vampire themes of disease, lust, and blasphemy overlap. But in looking at pre-modern vampire stories, it's usually pretty easy to fit the story pretty squarely into one of these three models.

Anyway, six first-level PCs against a vampire is going to be a long-haul adventure, so I've got a while to think about it.


  1. I say "screw you" combined with "puzzle." Don't do "garlic" or "holy water" but don't go DEEP into the folklore. Focus on stuff like OCD rice grain counting-- stuff that is sort of in the "outer ring" of public awareness?

  2. gimmicks that make the PCs the equal of the mythic heroes
    That gives me an idea... there's a big threat, probably some kind of undead thingie. It was defeated once before by these mythic heroic types, but now it's back. The players go questing for information on the mythic types, eventually finding their tomb. Meanwhile, back at the old homestead, the Ancient Evil is pegging about causing trouble, but the old folklore puzzle stuff is keeping it at bay... for now! The players expect to find magic items or somesuch doohickey in the heroes' tomb, but instead find the ghosts of the heroes. Explaining the situation, the heroes agree to help, by possessing the players.

    Just as the old folkloric defences finally begin to crumble, the players return, all boosted by mythic hero Gatorade, fight the Ancient Evil on his own terms, and presumably come out on top. Their job done, the mythic hero-ghosts depart, thus neatly tying up the thorny issue of how to give the players a power boost without seeming like an arse when it's taken away from them.

    All of that sprang from that one line of yours. Thanks!

  3. Have you read the GURPS "Creatures of the Night" book? Lots of nice monster ideas in there. I remember the Dusk Lords - the vampire-like manipulative creatures that liked to pretend they're usual vampires.

  4. I'd go for the Spooky Screw-You Puzzle-Monster/Disease-Victim variety. It gives you the opportunity to customise the vampire, maybe sticking to some basics (e.g., sleeps in a coffin, can't deal with sunlight) but also injecting some campaign-specific folklore (e.g., can only be killed by an attacker wearing a garment belonging to someone the vampire killed). The details of the folklore can tie in with the ghost story aspect, which means a plausible vehicle by which to give clues to PCs who do research. Since your PCs have time, you can introduce the details piece by piece; eventually, the PCs will decide when they have enough info to take care of business.

  5. A combo of the first and second versions or an unusual twist on the first type is the way I always go. I love delving deep into the folklore to find the origins of the commonly known facts and playing on the originsl material more (but not exclusively).

    I sometimes call this the 'inaccurate common knowledge' approach. I use it alot with my faerie folk. You might know faeries hate cold iron but there are also members of the good folk with ironshoes. How can this be? If you go back into faerie lore and find the reason they hate iron (something the players may come across during the adventure)you can find out why sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't and then what to do about it. Another version of this is discovering that what you know about the monster is partially right but is missing some key element.

    There is also the power level approach. Perhaps the longer a Vampire has been around and the more powerful he/she is and the more resistant they are to commonly known vulnerabilities. DC Comics sometimes takes this approach with stories involving their heroes in the future. For example, Superman is hardly effected at all by Kryptonite in many future stories. Another example is Green Lantern and his Corps and their ability to effect objects colored yellow. At present, only rookies have this problem. Experienced GLs like Hal Jordan, John Stewart and Guy Gardener have long since overcome that issue.

    I mean, isn't a lead Vampire a horror-themed supervillain basically?

  6. Barking--
    One thing I forgot to point out is that in the Ghost Story version s/he definitely ISN'T just a supervillain--in the sense that the vampire is really just a servant of a larger story.

    In this case, the vampire is scariest when s/he isn't there yet. S/he is just sort of an excuse for all the other moody and spooky things--like how in Lovecraft the actual monster is less the point than just the atmospher of madness and teror that it generates.

    I'm gonna go stick that in now.

  7. So do you intend here for this to be a long-term villian? The sort of foe who's plots, both minor and major the party foils? And about whom the party can resonably learn a great deal, over an extended amount of time.

    If you're going with a long term villain here then you can do just about any of these. Though you should recognize the possibility of TPK in any non-standard vampire, as the party keeps trying what 'should' work only to have the monster keep coming. Of course that sort of edge-of-your-(perhaps smelly)pants, oh-my-god-run-run-RUN! kind of initial encounter can be just what makes for a memorable villain.

    Or is this a 'simple bug hunt'?
    In the second case you've almost got to go with the basic, default D&D vampire. Since the 'screw you'/Ghost Story elements are either kept secret (in which case the players feel screwed over, cause nothing works) or revealed in a deus ex machina of some sort, in which case why bother?

    Also, I would prepare for at least a few references/quotes re:Buffy and her scoobies. :)

  8. Tom--

    Paragraphs 1-3

    Paragraph 4

    The girls don't watch buffy.

    That's one of the reasons I love them.

  9. Different Tom

    I think that to a degree the screw-you spooky puzzle monster could be profitably combined with the ghost story variety where the particular strategies implemented emerge thematically from the dramatic backstory. i.e. the vampire's vulnerabilities arise from it's own history, bringing that stuff back to haunt it, reminding it of what it once was and what it has lost, or uncovering what was it's nemesis in life could give players the edge.

    great post btw

  10. I think you can go with a combination of two: #1 and #1!

    Have one vampire be the vampire that the player kills, while another (older, less animalistic, more cruel and evil and scheming) vampire is the sire, and leaves the place sometime after the newbie vampire starts running around terrorizing the populace.

  11. As per first Tom...

    "So do you intend here for this to be a long-term villian?"

    That is (sort of) where I was coming from. I apologize but I tend to think of D&D in a superhero comic book context since a) I am more a fan of Johns, Levitz and Wolfman than Tolkien, Eddings and Jordan and b) because while I personally love folklore oriented fantasy, I never connect that with D&D.

  12. I stay the hell away from tolkien eddings and jordan myself.

    I was thinking of actual old stories from actual old places

  13. So, I know you don't want "D00D IT WILL BE AAWSUM!!1!1!1one!"


    I recently had six third-level characters take out a moderately badass vampirella in my dungeon. And they did it pretty much fair and square by using my own dungeon dressing against me. So my advice would be: don't overplan it, and let the story carry you.

    Here's what happened in my world. Jack and Ennis are a pair of ogres who live up on L3, herding rothés and selling the meat to the other dungeon denizens. The party encountered them earlier, and ransacked their bedroom, coming away with, among other things, an ogre-sized tube of lube.

    Then on their way into Carlotta's lair, the party stopped for a while in her study, which was a comfy couch, a fireplace, some brandy, and shelves and shelves of lurid vampire romances. So the party then goes further into her lair, and encounters Carlotta in her coffin. They open it; she awakens in a bad mood, and things start going very badly for the party.

    That's when Aimee (one of my players who basically always plays Smashy McFighty, Foulmouthed Asskicker), announces she's stopping fighting and running back to the library. Well, OK, Carlotta's busy enough putting the hurt on everyone else that she gets away. Then she tells me "I'm looking for that first edition of The Vampire Lestat. The one signed by Lestat."

    Well, Carlotta being who I've clearly established she is, of course that's in a glass display case with a couple of skulls-and-black-candles on the side. It's not hard to find. Smash goes the case, and Aimee goes running back into the boudoir. She whistles to get Carlotta's attention, and then sets the book on fire.

    Well, of course Carlotta drops everything to seize the book and drop on it to put out the flames, and the party gets in a few good whacks while she does that, and then Carlotta decides discretion is et cetera, transforms into bat form, and tries to get out with the book.

    At which point, Aimee says, "hey, I've got that tube of lube. See? Right here on my character sheet," and she's right, and then "I squirt it all over the book," and of course there's nothing I can say but "roll to hit" and of course she does, and so the book slithers out of Carlotta's little bat-feet, and Carlotta has to retransform to scoop it up and the party manages to get her down to 0 HP while she's doing that. Then just out of spite they torch her entire library, because that's just the way they roll.

    So my point is, number one, don't leave first editions and lube laying around in your dungeon, and number two, your players are going to outsmart you so don't waste too much time coming up with your villains' weaknesses because they'll think of them for you.

  14. I'd go for the long-term campaign vampire with a spooky story and puzzle-solving required to defeat it. It could have lots of lesser vampires, ghouls, wolves, witches, gypsies, hunchbacks and other servants and allies. Through interacting with and defeating those creatures the players can discover the clues about how the master vampire works.

    The Doctor Who episode State of Decay might give you some ideas for a different approach to Vampires as well. :)

  15. Why not the "Vampire by being in the wrong place at the wrong time"-type that... didn't quite grew into the role, rather breaking the over-imposed clichee of Vampires?

  16. eating popcorn. thickening blood for the finale...!

  17. Zak sayeth: "I was thinking of actual old stories from actual old places"

    Maybe this'll help:

  18. Who says you can kill a Vampire?

    I mean seriously, the way I read the folklore is "impossible to really kill."

    That's why they do stuff like separate the head from the body and stuff the mouth with communion hosts. It reeks more of the desperate desire to kill this unholy thing rather than a strong knowledge of how to kill them.

    It's not so much, "This will kill the Vampire," as "Well, maybe this will work, but I've got nothing."

    In this case, I'm thinking that there might be no such thing as closure with a real Vampire. "Killing" it might just mean sealing it in it's crypt with holy symbols and hope that some fool doesn't disturb them.

    I also like the idea of alt-Vampires like the Koberman character in Ray Bradbury's "The Man Upstairs" or The Blind Dead from the self-titled Spanish horror series.

    Puzzle monsters with different rules... but one thing about The Blind Dead, they kept finding their way back from Hell even with their eyes gouged out.

    Vampires have been weakened by popular culture from their folk roots, Buffy is an egregious violator in this regard turning them into fodder monsters. I say bring them back to "What do you mean, kill a Vampire? You cannot kill what does not live!"

  19. Well that's the Marvel Comics philosophy.

  20. "Ravenloft = Castelvania" has always been my viewpoint as well... Not so much "gothic horror" as much as "action horror". No one in D&D can be "scared" as long as monsters can be killed, and that's how D&D players deal with monsters.

  21. Count Strahd deeded a church over to Me. Fellow ain't half bad!