Children of the Night: Making Vampires Scary Again
“I am Dracula. And I bid you welcome, Mr. Harker, to my house.”
Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker.
There was a point in fiction and gaming, not so long ago, that vampires were villains. They were monsters and people were right to fear them. They had great strength, speed, and many abilities that normal humans could not cope with. These days, it’s all sparkly skin and brooding angst and self-loathing, with a vampire playing the sometimes-reluctant hero. As a huge fan of vampires, while I don’t have anything against the vampire hero, I miss the days of the vampire being the villain and being feared.
In this week’s Critical Hit to the Blog, I’m going to give you some tips and ideas on how to make vampires scary again.
Bumps in the Night
One of the many things that vampires represent is the fear of the dark, of the unknown. However, it’s not the dark itself that people find frightening, it’s what’s in the dark that is scary. Rats. Bats. Snakes and spiders. All of these things are creeping while you’re sleeping and sometimes, you don’t know they’re there, but you might think they’re there and that’s enough.
The vampire has a few abilities that can allow you to play into that fear of the unknown. The first is Children of the Night. This ability allows the vampire to call rat swarms, bat swarms, or wolves that serve the vampire for up to one hour. Using these allies to harass and harry the PCs can run the PCs ragged, making them use resources that would make a confrontation with the vampire easier. One thing to remember about this ability is that if your base creature is an outsider or has a non-terrestrial subtype, you might want to consider letting the vampire summon other creatures, such as half-fiend wolves or a barghest or hellhounds instead of wolves and a vargouille instead of bats.
The second ability is Dominate. This allows a vampire to control someone as though the vampire had used dominate person by 12th level caster. That means this ability lasts for twelve days. The reason this is frightening is that the PCs can’t know for sure that one of their allies is under the control of a vampire or not. Assuming the party knows that a vampire is involved, this can cause rifts in the party, which can only make things easier for the vampire. Even if they don’t know a vampire is involved, assuming the party posts guard at their camp during the night, their guard could become compromised due to this ability and the rest of the party wouldn’t even know it.
The third and fourth abilities are the vampire’s ability to change shapes. The vampire can take the form of a dire bat, a wolf, or assume a gaseous form. These powers can be used to play a cat-and-mouse game with the PCs. As the PCs chase the vampire, the vampire can change shape, so that they don’t notice the bat, which then starts following them in gaseous form, only to appear in front of them as a wolf later on.
Lastly is the vampire’s spider climb ability. This lets the vampire climb any surface as if they were under the spider climb spell. The vampire turns a corner ahead of the PCs, but when the party turns the same corner, there’s not sign of the vampire, because the vampire climbed straight up the wall and is hanging from the ceiling above them. Since most people don’t think to look up, the vampire can hide easily. And when you add in the vampire’s +4 bonus to Dexterity and a +8 racial bonus to Stealth, this becomes even easier.
Wile E. Coyote: Super Genius
In a previous blog, I talked about how to make your villain really evil and all of those traits can be used with the vampire, but if there’s one thing that infuriates players, it’s having an enemy that’s smarter than they are. Build the vampire as brilliant and don’t forget to add their +2 Intelligence bonus from the template. Pairing the power of a genius with the vampire’s +4 to Charisma and +8 to Bluff, Perception, and Sense Motive can allow you to play the vampire in a way that will prevent the players from being able to tell exactly what the vampire knows and what they don’t.
A genius makes their opponents approach them at less than full power. Therefore, a genius will set up challenges and encounters for the PCs that require the PCs to use up their resources, such as healing potions, healing spells, scrolls, wands, and most importantly, hit points. If the vampire can use minions that do ability damage or ability drain, the party will most likely be weaker when they finally get to the vampire.
Change Things Up
The current view of vampires is that they males are square-jawed and handsome and the females are the most beautiful, most sensual/sexual things on the planet. Even the picture in the Pathfinder Bestiary is fairly sexualized. But if you look back at the movie Nosferatu (1922), the vampire Count Orlock was hideous and looked like an anthropomorphized rat. By making a vampire look different or giving them different abilities than what the players are expecting can make a vampire scary.
One way to do this is add the vampire template to a humanoid creature other than a human being or to add the template to a character that has class levels. A vampire Cleric would certainly be interesting and unexpected.
You could change the gaseous form ability to invisibility or make the regular bloodsucker into a psychic vampire by having them damage Intelligence or Wisdom instead of Constitution. This way, you can let the vampire attack without having to grapple, say an attack range of 30 ft., and the victim could have a Will Save (I’d say DC 25 or so).
My personal favorite way to alter monsters is to use the Monster Modifier by Adamant Entertainment. With a few rolls of the dice, you can completely alter the way a monster looks, how it moves, or what it can do. For example, I was running a module for my Pathfinder group that contained a monster called a barrow spider. The party was a higher level than the module, so I was adjusting as I went. I got to the barrow spider and got out the Monster Modifier. A few rolls of the dice later, the spider was one size category larger, was a different color and had 12 legs instead of 8. The four extra were two human legs and two grasshopper legs, which gave the spider ranks in Jump, which was a surprise to the group.
You can find the Monster Modifier at DriveThruRPG here: Monster Modifier. It’s $2 and in my opinion, very much worth the investment.
By mixing things up, you can really throw the party for a loop. Is the vampire not a spellcaster but can suddenly use fireballs? Is their dominate ability changed to a gaze attack that paralyzes or petrifies instead of commanding? What if the vampire can change into an elemental instead of a bat or a wolf? If your base creature has spellcasting ability and can use alter self (and it’s chain of spells), elemental body, or beast shape, this can also help throw the heroes off the scent by changing into other people, elemental creatures, or animals other than a rat or a bat.
Casting Against Type
The “standard” image of the vampire is well dressed and well mannered. An opera cape and a widow’s peak don’t hurt either. But what if your vampire is nothing but a flying head, like the penanggalen, or a spirit that doesn’t have a physical form, like the lamia from Greek myth (which is totally different than the lamia presented in the Bestiary 3)? In Filipino myth, the aswang was a woman who, after rubbing a magical ointment on their skin, turned into a large bird that flew through the village and released a long, pointed tongue that the aswang would use to drain blood. There are also stories of vampiric rabbits, so using animal vampires is also possible.
Because the vampire template can be added to humanoids, fey, or monstrous humanoids and not just humans, your options expand greatly for the base creature. A vampiric Minotaur. A vampiric pixie. A vampiric storm giant. Let your imagination run wild.
There are a few classic weaknesses of the vampire, such as garlic, the crucifix, and mirrors. Vampires also have an aversion to running water and sunlight. Everyone who has seen a vampire movie will know these weaknesses and act on them. The best way to combat this is to alter or remove weaknesses. There have been jokes and movies that have to deal with Jewish vampires that aren’t repelled by the cross, but are driven back by the Star of David. Use that. If your base creature is part of a particularly strong religion, replace the crucifix with the religious symbol of that religion. If nothing else, that requires the characters to figure out why a crucifix didn’t work.
The vampiric aversion to mirrors was created in Dracula (1897), but has been interpreted as the vampire, being undead, has no soul, and therefore casts no reflection or shadow. If your vampire is a spellcaster or has a spellcaster on their staff, a simple application of the prestidigitation spell can either present a reflection or shadow or, if needed, remove a shadow or reflection to cast suspicion onto someone else.
Normally, a vampire cannot enter a private home or dwelling without permission of the owner, but adventurers usually stay at an inn or tavern; these are public places, so in that case, the vampire can enter freely. And there’s nothing in the rules that says the vampire has to gain permission while the PCs are standing there. If the party is helping with a “vampire problem,” then the vampire might have already obtained permission to enter someone’s house before they were suspected of being a vampire.
According to more modern vampire movies and books, vampires are destroyed by sunlight, but in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula was capable of walking around in broad daylight. He wasn’t destroyed but he did lose his powers, making him more or less a normal human being. This can also help disorient the characters. If they see who they think is a vampire walking down the street at noon, they may be convinced that that person isn’t a vampire.
A stake to the heart (originally it was a spike to pin the corpse to the ground) will kill a vampire and the vampire will remain dead until the stake is removed, unless the head is cut off and the body burned or anointed with holy water. However, in one Batman comic, Batman fought a vampire who had removed his heart and hid it so that the vampire was unkillable until Bats found the heart and pierced it with an arrow. In this case, the heart worked similar to a lich’s phylactery. You can do all the damage to the body that you want, but until you find the heart, the vampire won’t die. This could be turned into a search through a haunted house for the vampire’s heart with the vampire and vampire spawn and minions hunting the PCs.
Another option in making your vampire menacing is to make them Lawful Evil and then team that vampire up with the PCs for some reason. They are ordered to accompany the vampire, but they only have his word that there will be no neck biting in the night (“But he’s evil!”). The party might be tempted to stake their “partner” in the day and be reluctant to trust him when it comes his time to stand guard. Have the PCs (particularly the female ones for a male vampire, males for a female vampire) make Perception/Spot checks when the entire party is together. If they succeed, they catch the vampire staring at their neck. Are they sure he is Lawful Evil? Maybe he’s Neutral Evil and simply playing a game with the PCs and will attack given any opportunity or even the worst possible moment.
This can also go back to the dominate ability. Perhaps the vampire has taken control of one of the party members or an NPC, like a hireling or follower, and the PCs aren’t aware of it. When will this NPC turn on the PCs and help the vampire?
Vampires, for all of their brooding and sparkling and their nice clothes and fancy accents, are predators. Watch other predators like lions and tigers. Do they stop and chat and try to seduce or dominate their prey? No. They chase their prey, bring them down, and tear into the flesh to get what they want. Make your vampire that way, too. If the PCs discover a body, the throat might be slashed open from side to side or the body even decapitated.
Unless the vampire has used its dominate ability, there should be nasty defensive wounds on the body, usually claw or bite marks on the outside of the arms. Since the vampire most likely has a high Strength score (Van Helsing said that Dracula had the strength of 20 men), broken bones and cracked ribs are a definite possibility.
A victim’s best bet is to hope for a Lawful Evil vampire. At least that way, there’s a chance of negotiating their way out. If the vampire is Neutral Evil or Chaotic Evil, then forget it. Unless you want the suave, sophisticated vampire, these two are the vampires you want to make your villains. They have no remorse and will do whatever they want.
Make them savage and cunning creatures of the night. Reduce the bonuses to Intelligence and Wisdom and increase the bonuses to Strength and Dexterity (for better Armor Class) or Strength and Charisma (for more hit points).
Mix it Up
When a party of PCs shows up at the bad guy's door, the group is usually made up of various classes. When facing a (suspected) vampire, have the PC encounter various minions, each with a different skill set. This will make it more difficult to focus on one enemy (the vampire) because the various characters may be needed to deal with a specific threat.
For example, if the party has a Monk, the Monk may be needed to negate an enemy spellcaster. The Fighter, Barbarian, or Paladin (or possibly all of them) might be needed to handle the vampire's "muscle." Clerics might need to turn or damage undead that work for the vampire, as well as healing. And don't be afraid to have the minions switch "partners" on the PCs. Keep the players (and their characters) on their toes!
Looking for Group
Vampires in fiction tend to fall into two types. The first type is the angsty loner who might or might not be trying to redeem himself. The second type is the "nest," where any vampire can come and be considered "family."
Just like any family, these vampires will work together to defend their home. The "savage" vampires will wade in and deal physical damage, while the psychic vampires can target the spellcasters, which usually stay in the back. The "normal" vampires can play the middle, by targeting melee types with their domination ability.
As with the section on mixing it up, vampires often kept human slaves or minions. These helpless or dominated minions might make assaulting a vampire lair more difficult. Do the slaves/minions immediately become enemies? Is it possible to save them? If the party does save them, what happens when the party gets them out? Will the vampire chase the party down to get his slaves back? Will the party be able to fight back while protecting the slaves or will everyone become too vulnerable? What will a vampire's wrath contain?
So, there you go. Some tips and ideas on making vampires scary again.
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