Monday, August 29, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Vampire

Is there a traditional monster that's been more abused by popular culture than the vampire?  The most feared supernatural villain of the 19th century is now a staple of teen romance novels.  Although it pains me to admit it,  Lovecraft has jumped the shark almost as badly; I'd say Cthulhu Plushy Dolls and Innsmouth Swim Team T-Shirts give the Twilight Saga a run for it's money as 'worst emasculation of a nightmare'.

The vampire was once the embodiment of evil; an evil spirit returned from the dead to plague its loved ones as a blood-drinking corpse.   Nowadays, the typical vampire has become the object of teen romance, combining sexuality, Freudian imagery, and the allure of easy immortality.

Not all the modern interpretations are awful; I've seen a few good ones; I liked the premise of 30 Days of Night, and I liked the idea of plague vampires in I Am Legend.  I haven't gotten the chance to read Guillermo Del Toro's Strain.  Anyone read it?  I loved last year's movie Let Me In - the movie is probably worth a review - it's one of my favorite vampire movies.

However, I both loathe and love the representation of the vampire in D&D.

The D&D vampire has various quirky powers and vulnerabilities that call to mind elements of the folklore - things like aversion to garlic and holy symbols, powers like the charming gaze, summon animals, and the shape changing, and excellent representations of the literary vampire's Energy Level Drain attack.  Actually, I'm lying.  Literary vampires don't Drain Life Energy and cause loss of levels, they drink blood.  The D&D vampire is retarded.

The old timer discussion board are full of blather about Positive and Negative energy and Inner Planes and different justifications for energy draining undead and clerical turning; the bottom line for me - the Positive/Negative planes are neat house rule ideas that should have stayed in someone's home campaign and not been institutionalized into AD&D as part of the official cosmology.

I understand why Energy Drain works from a game perspective.  Early adventures were all about kicking in doors and attacking the monsters; the typical monster is only on the stage briefly before exploding in a shower of XP.  It needs to show up and perform its trick quickly before it gets wasted.  A level-draining vampire spikes the tension in a way few monsters can match; the D&D vampire hits hard, drains levels, regenerates, and can turn PC's against each other with its gaze.

But it leaves some things to be desired compared to the folkloric and literary vampire.  Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra, as zero-level humans, are barely a snack for a D&D vampire.  The D&D vampire must be permanently frustrated; all those zero-level humans he touches shrivel into energy-drained husks.  Heck, why does the D&D vampire even bother with fangs?  Here is what I picture when I think of the D&D vampire:

The standard D&D Vampire (via Lifeforce)
I remember thinking Lifeforce was the dumbest vampire movie ever made, when I was what - 17?  Space vampires come to earth flying in a comet, only there isn't a fang in sight.  It's probably worth another viewing, 25+ years later, to watch it without any preconceived notions.  Plus it had lots of scenes with a beautiful naked alien chick walking around.

To distance myself from the Lifeforce experience, I'm going to add a new type of vampire in Gothic Greyhawk.  I'll leave the Lifeforce-esque energy-draining vampire as is, and make that the type of vampire that haunts dungeons and pops out of dark corners to terrorize the players with the threat of energy drain - and maybe they'll ditch the fangs and I'll even let them use the life-force sucking like the movie, played up for its campiness.  The standard vampire still has a good combat role and totally freaks out players, because level drain is the devil.

The new vampire will fill a campaign role as mastermind and parasite.  This vampire will be the traditional blood-drinker; charismatic, seductive and sophisticated.  They'll take a queue from urban fantasy and form cabals and act as the secret masters, trying to remain hidden from, yet influencing, the mortal world.

Energy draining vampires are going to be savage, feral, and relentless attackers, driven by hunger to drain as much life energy as possible; they haunt dungeons and sleep in the earth.  Blood drinking vampires will be able to walk in sunlight, like Dracula, albeit with diminished powers; they'll often "hide in plain sight" amongst the world of humanity while weaving their plots, keeping herds of human slaves and other victims close at hand.  The last thing the blood-drinkers want to do is fight against a bunch of heavily armed adventurers in a fair fight; they're all about using cat's paws.  The two types of vampires absolutely hate each other.

In the near future, I'll post some additional thoughts on the defining characteristics of the energy-drainers versus the blood-drinkers from a social/campaign use stand point.  I tend to mentally group monsters as 'good combat encounters' and 'good campaign monsters' and the blood-drinkers are definitely campaign-oriented.  It gives me the chance to snag a bit of World of Darkness and urban fantasy and slide it into Gothic Greyhawk.  Strahd was an extraordinary example of the energy-drainers; as a powerful wizard, he was able to maintain more control of his savage urges than the standard energy drainers.

The old Karameikos Gazetteer did the heavy lifting for me by publishing a version of the blood-drinking vampire under the name, The Nosferatu.

The Nosferatu (for Labyrinth Lord)
No. Enc: 1-4
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement:120' (0')
Armor Class: 2
Hit Dice: 7-9**
Attacks: 1 bite, weapon, or special
Damage: 1d4, by weapon, or magic type
Save: Former class level
Morale: 11
Hoard Class:
Non-magic:  1250/1750/2300
Magic:  1650/2300/3000

The nosferatu is a special vampire that retains its character class skills and abilities at the same level it had when it died (or at the level of its new hit dice, whichever is greater).  Each nosferatu should be a unique monster generated similarly to an NPC encounter.

The nosferatu has all the powers and weaknesses of standard vampires, but instead of draining energy levels, it drinks blood (1d4 hp per round).  The nosferatu's victims only return from the dead if the nosferatu intended for  them to do by performing a ritual that transforms the victim into another nosferatu.  Very old nosferatu can operate in sunlight.


  1. I informed my daughter recently that I would no longer buy her any more Teen Vampire Drama books, till she has read Bram Strokers Dracula. :)


  2. I used to interpret the vampire "energy drain" as a touch attack, like with a wight. Nowadays, they drain energy by sucking away at a PC's jugular. Slurp, slurp, slurp.

  3. I've always enjoyed Colin Wilson's take on Lovecraftian concepts, so The Space Vampires was pretty much going to be a hit with me. The movie version (Lifeforce) is good, camp fun.

    I agree with you on Let Me In, though I prefer the original version, Låt den rätte komma in. Until that one, my favorite vampire film was Near Dark.

    Which is my way of saying that I love this idea, and I also love that you have reproduced the Nosferatu from one of the D&D Known World modules that I do not have. Thank you.

  4. I haven't seen Let Me In, but I must also recommend the original (English title Let the Right One In). Apparently the unnecessary remake is fine unless you've seen the original.

  5. As I was reading the post I was thinking "I need to comment mentioning the GAZ1 Nosferatu." :-p

    Nice job on the LL version.

  6. Let the Right One in was great, but the remake was pretty good, too. I also recommend the Korean film Thirst.

    Anyway, I like this sort of ravenous beast approach to the vampire. For the City, I went with vampires as junkies which is completely untrod territory, but allowed me to have sauve seducers degenerate overtime into loathesome Nosferatu.

  7. I have 'Let the Right One In' in my netflix queue, but I had reservations; the American version left it very vague whether the girl was a centuries old manipulator, just grooming her next disposable "handler", or whether there was a reciprocal romance. I got the sense the original didn't have that ambiguity. But lots of recommendations here - I'll give the original a viewing.

  8. What's interesting to me is that though the two versions are identical in terms of plot, the different performances make you (or at least me) react to characters differently.

    Oh, and a correction to my comment above, which was intended to read: "which is NOT completely untrod territory..." as I don't want to discount Addiction(1995) and Mieville's vampire in The Scar.

  9. @Beedo. No, there's no ambiguity in the original film, and even less in the novel; it's portrayed as an emerging love story between a very sympathetic but - make no mistake - vicious monster, and a lost, isolated and bullied young boy.