V is for Vampire, Very Vaudevillian

Four creatures from my love of Halloween made it into this month’s posts: the pumpkin, today’s monster, and two more yet to come. Given what letters remain it shouldn’t be too hard to figure them out.

Vampires in D&D are highly variable, just like they are in real life conventional folk tales real life. The stock D&D vampire has stock vampire powers and weaknesses, but there are also savage vampires and psychic vampires and hopping vampires and really old vampires who don’t look so good and vampire PC races in everything but name. There’s even a vampire class in 4E, which was as successful at starting a line of monster classes as Dracula Untold was at starting a Universal Monsters movie universe. But you probably know the most important bits: undead monster, sunlight bad, eating people good.

In fact, that’s kind of the problem with vampires. Everybody knows about them. If this is your first time on this or any gaming blog, you can probably still rattle off several vampire weaknesses, in order of common awareness: sunlight, stake through the heart, holy symbols, garlic, crossing running water, a compulsion to count dropped objects (that’s right, The Count from Sesame Street is mythologically accurate). Their powers vary, but the hits include flight, transforming into a bat, wall-climbing, a hypnotic gaze, and creating more vampires from people they drink. Variant and cultural vampires mix and match these or adjust them slightly, like the vampire burned by moonlight, but if your DM says “vampire” you already have an idea of what the creature can do and how you can kill it. You even know ninety percent of how it’s going to act: suavely, from the shadows, controlling minions, and probably all done with a very specific impression of Bela Lugosi.

The mystery of vampires is gone. They’re too culturally accessible. Anything that ticks off enough “obviously a vampire” boxes will send the players running for stakes and official Chosen By PelorTM prayer discs. Even the players who metagame the least can make a fair argument that their characters would know at least as much about vampires as the average television viewer does. But if you mix things up and make your own custom vampire with strange, scary, never-before-seen powers, are you actually using a vampire? Aren’t you just using a custom creature to whom you’ve attached the vampire brand? Why would you do that, except to say the word “vampire” to your players and feel smug when they assume something they have every right to assume? Vampires are defined by their weaknesses and powers. If you change their weaknesses and powers, you don’t get to say you’re using a vampire any more, and if you are using their weaknesses and powers for something else, you don’t get to be surprised or disappointed when the players treat it like a vampire anyway. Vampires haven’t meaningfully changed since the days of vaudeville, and it shows. It’s with some effort that I admit the most original take I’ve seen on them is Twilight, where they’re basically angels who can’t fly.

So if we have to use the creature basically as written without any reskinning or change in flavor, the only thing left is to take the creature as written and either turn it up to eleven or put it in places it doesn’t belong. The vampire class actually does a pretty good job of the latter; a vampire normally wouldn’t go dungeon delving or slum it in a tavern or make ineffectual passes at the party barbarian, but PCs do. As a DM I find the former more interesting, and in the Umbrageous Solidality and the Ghost Opera the players had to fight a nosferatu, a Pathfinder monster inspired by the movie of the same name. As with the umber hulk I upped the horror around the vampire, positioning him safely behind waves of minions and a plan greater than the party could reasonably stop. He killed people, he kidnapped others, and at one point he dominated a party member and left them as a sleeper agent until he needed them. At all times he was ahead of the party, and only by slowly dismantling his support structure behind his back were they finally able to challenge him directly. We played the vampire tropes almost perfectly straight but kept the villain far enough away from the party that they couldn’t steamroll him as soon as they heard his accent.

My favorite part of the villain was actually a metagame joke. I told the party he was hundreds if not thousands of years old and he had weird powers from long ago. Despite a few clues here and there, they didn’t meet him until halfway through the campaign, and then I think only one player put two and two together: he was a member of the 3.5E warlock class. His “powers from long ago” were from a previous edition of the game. They were strange and the players weren’t sure how to react to them, but the nosferatu itself was exactly as written and he was eventually killed by sunlight, probably. We didn’t need to mess with the vampire itself to make it interesting, we just needed to do interesting things with it.

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