Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Dracula Day! (Or: Vamps in RPGs)

On this day in 1931, Dracula was released in theaters. What better reason needed to talk about vampires in rpgs? In addition to that, Holly's Horrorland is hosting a collection of Valentine's Day vampire posts, and such things are a perfect excuse for me to get off my ass and actually blog.

So let's take a look at some of the ways roleplaying games have handled such a classic monster, starting with probably the most famous example- and let's see what entirely subjective thoughts I have to offer.

World of Darkness (Vampire: The Masquerade, Vampire: The Requiem, etc.)
In the World of Darkness games, the world around you is one filled with secrets. As Tom Waits once sang, "everything you can think of is true," or nearly everything- the supernatural lurks around every corner and in every shadow, hidden from mortal eyes but visible in the trail of mystery and bloodshed they leave behind. Vampires, werewolves, changelings, mages, ghosts, even mummies and demons in Old World of Darkness- all exist, all are playable, and all are part of the way the world works.

Vampires are one of the main attractions of the World of Darkness games, and it's not hard to see why. They are powerful and immortal, and come with a range of archetypes you can play with. Old World of Darkness especially emphasized this, with separate clans allowing players to take inspiration from any number of classic vampire images and characters, from Renfield (Malkavian,) to Lestat (Toreadore,) to Count Orlock (Nosferatu,) to Dracula himself (Tzmisce.) New World of Darkness simplified things and whittled the clans down from thirteen to five, making the archetypes less restrictive though perhaps less characterful. Which system was better can be argued all day, and I'll leave that to other blogs.

My central problem with World of Darkness games in general can be found in the Vampire games- namely, that politicking can take precedence over all else. This isn't true of all the games (especially not Mortal ones,) and I imagine good Storytellers can and have found ways to use the feuding clans as backdrops for personal stories, rather than making the players simply powerful bureaucrats- or has found a way to make the latter fun. In any case, I tend to go to World of Darkness books for writing inspiration rather than game basis; with the powerful archetypes they draw up (especially their Middle Ages supplement,) many an idea or new twist can come to light.

Dungeons and Dragons
Dungeons and Dragons is pretty broad when it comes to vampires. They can be an enemy species in third edition, a player class in fourth edition, and who knows what fifth edition will bring. But for my money, the best place to find D&D vampires is in Ravenloft.

I've talked about the Ravenloft setting (and board game) before, so I'll just quickly touch on a few things. Dark powers have entrapped the most evil men and women from various worlds in a dark and misty landscape, possible to stumble into but near-impossible to escape from. The innocent live lives of fear, the wicked live lives of mixed power and torment, and those who fight against them have a long and hard road to travel. The most interesting aspect for me about their monsters (including vampires, which they give as an example) is that they go back to an old and little-used bit of folklore for them- while bites and curses can turn you, what's more likely to make you a monster is your own sins.

The little evils that player characters commit add up in Ravenloft. Every time they commit one, they must make a Powers Test, rolling to see if the dark powers have taken notice. The chances are higher for crimes like torture than they are for telling lies, but if you fail the role, you take one step in the direction of the monstrous. Perhaps you gain the ability to see in the dark, but find that direct sunlight causes you pain. It might not seem like much- your teammates might not even notice. But the more Powers Checks you fail, the more changes you go through- your teeth turn to fangs, you can only eat raw and bloody meat, your reflection vanishes from surfaces. Commit enough crimes and fail enough checks, and there will be nothing left of your humanity. You are a fiend from legend, a living nightmare, and a non-player character; only the DM can control you now, and only as a villain. The player will have to roll a new character, but what a bang the last one went out with!

My Life With Master
And now, on to the indies! My Life With Master is a narrativistic game, and cares more about storytelling mechanics than about stats for individual monster species. Nevertheless, the game provides suggestions for vampiric Masters, and with a few tweaks, player characters could also fall into such roles.

As I believe I've mentioned before, the premise of My Life With Master is that the players are minions to an evil tyrant, living in a world that resembles the movie version of Eastern Europe (preferably in a castle.) Your Master has needs and desires, which they rely upon you to provide for them. You have your own desires, though, chief among which is love. Can you find acceptance and common cause with the Master's victims and rise up against him, or will you come to a tragic end appropriate for gothic horror?

The rulebook gives a few examples of vampire Masters, and what their desires and personas might be. Feeder-types would be concerned primarily with the exchange of blood, but this could be either a purely dietary practice (the authors conjure up an image of Bela Lugosi swabbing his victim's necks with alcohol to prevent any nasty germs getting in the way) or it can be a sensual sort of feeding, with the Master playing the role of seducer, interested in draining more than simply blood. Your Master could also be a Breeder (wanting to create vampiric brides and progeny, perhaps even to spread their curse across the world,) and it's not hard to imagine one who's a Collector (adding up thralls and brides as if keeping score of their own power.)

It's also not hard to imagine vampiric player characters. Each minion has More Than Human and Less Than Human traits, which the vampire archetype could probably fit into. "Impervious to weapons, except those blessed by a priest" and "must kill and drain humans of blood, unless the blood is given freely" might work, but it's ultimately limited only by the players' creativity. It's not a game to go into if you're out of ideas, but if there was ever a game to play around with classic monsters, this is the one.

Unknown Armies
Remember what I said about World of Darkness games? Well, they are to urban fantasy games what Anne Rice was to vampire novels- not every game has to copy them, but every game has to accept their existence and define themselves next to them. Unknown Armies had to define itself as an urban fantasy/cosmic horror game separate from both World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu, and one of the first things it did was scrap the concept of supernatural entities outside of humanity itself. Gods come from human imagination, magic comes from human madness, demons are dead humans with only their obsessions left in them, werewolves are attempts at possessing animals gone horribly wrong, and vampires? That's just a blood condition found in a few noble families from Eastern Europe.

But if Unknown Armies doesn't have any traditional vampires, it certainly keeps some of their basic concepts alive in some of its magic. Dipsomancers, magicians powered by drunkenness, can suck souls from unfortunate victims to keep themselves alive (an NPC novelist named Dirk Allen has been doing this to many of his unfortunate fans.) Epideromancers would certainly agree with Renfield that "the blood is the life"; they get power from ritualistic bleeding and self-harm, a hideous primal magic that tests the boundaries of life and death. Various spells exist for sapping the life or luck from a person, and to the mysterious Ordo Corpulentus, the difference between their "communion" and a vampire's would be small indeed.

Furthermore, think about this- vampires are popular right now. Girls like them, boys like complaining about how girls ruined them (a generalization, but that's how UA composite reality works.) Movie studios and booksellers are crazy for them, and subcultures exist that model themselves on them. With all that going on in the world, can the ascension of The Vampire be far off?

Food for thought!

Check out more vampire posts over here, and thanks to Holly's Horrorland for the theme!


  1. Happy vampire's day! Here from the hop.

  2. I like that you took the RPG route. Really cool post. Especially appreciated the D&D section.

  3. It pains me to say I didn't know Dracula was released on this day. Glad someone did! Awesome post, and happy Vampire Day!

  4. I had no idea that this day was the anniversary of 'Dracula' being released in theatres. How appropriate for our little sanguinary soiree! Happy Valentine's/Vampire's Day!