Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What Last Month's Halloween Reading Did



I posted very briefly about last month's Halloween reading: Anno Dracula and 'Salem's Lot.  They reminded me of an important lesson I learned, at least back when I read Bram Stoker's original novel, if not earlier.  As Van Helsing realized, he was dealing with a manipulative genius, who for most of the novel proved himself a mastermind always one step (at least!) ahead of his opponents.  In Kim Newman's novel, it is easy to believe that this is how he rises to become Royal Consort and de facto ruler of the British empire (I could say more, but I'll avoid spoilers).  The vampire in Stephen King's modern classic is of the same stamp as Dracula -- a fact which the Van Helsing analogue among the latter-day vampire hunter characters explicitly acknowledges.

Vampires in fiction and gaming should follow this line if they want to evoke the same kind of responses.  The vampire should be more than a feral undead predator of the living.  The ghoul is more on this level, and Nosferatu starts to tilt in that direction.  For myself, I intend to work harder the next time I use a vampire to portray the villain as a creature at least as intelligent as it is evil -- a planner, a manipulator, a strategist of the highest order.  A GM should be thinking about how the vampire could reasonably anticipate players and keep them reactive.  There should be enough cat-and-mouse where the players understand that they are the mice and they are in real peril -- even if they prevail, some cruel suffering on their part would seem unavoidable.

I'd love to hear any stories or tips of effective use of the vampire.

6 comments:

  1. Excellent point, Theo. Another idea that both of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Salem's Lot present, however, is that the vampire is, first and foremost, a monster. It takes the form of a man, but is not moved by gentler aspects of humanity. Hunger--for blood and for power--is what motivates the "traditional" vampire.

    Personally, I'm not a fan of what the vampire has become in most of modern fiction. I'll admit that I enjoy watching True Blood, but my favorite Vampire characters are the ones who are not conflicted about their natures. They are unapologetic, neither for their needs nor their supernatural abilities. When they start to fall into the overly emotional, self-doubt that seems to make so many people swoon over them, they cease to become vampires to me, and shift into roles as pathetic creatures with some peculiar blood disease.

    There isn't just one author to blame for the trend that has turned vampires into the objects of lustful fantasies or role models for brooding emo teens, but I'm ready for it to be over.

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  2. One of the elements that makes Ravenloft such a beloved module is Strahd and an exploration of his motivations. The module also presented him as being one step ahead of the characters too.

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  3. Thanks, Mike. I, Strahd and 'Salem's Lot stand are both basically rewrites of Bram Stoker's Dracula, in my opinion: the first in the D&D world (which broke off to become Ravensloft) and the second in late 20th century America, and as such they maintain this aspect of the Dracula character in their re-presentations. I haven't played I6, but I presume Enrod was following I6 pretty closely in her novelization.

    Paris: I feel like there's a interstice between undead vermin and today's modern vampire, and I heartily agree that this is the space occupied by the classical, and best, vampire. I'm reserving a rocker and shawl next to mine on the front porch, whenever you want to double team some darn kids. I think I am paraphrasing C. S. Lewis here: there is no monster worse than one who was a man, but is no longer.

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  4. I meant P. N. Elrod, said the Nimrod. And to be clear, I don't mean to disparage the novels: I enjoyed them. But I don't think the authors would claim that they were not first and foremost being derivative. It's okay to derive, when you're doing it on purpose. ;-)

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  5. I think a core concept with the vampire is to key in on community. The nature of evil is to destroy itself, and all that you need for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

    A vampire's great tools are inflicting paranoia, self-doubt, guilt, apathy, and greed on enemies. Fracture their alliances, and pick them off one by one (if it is even still necessary.) The great danger is groups working in concert, people willing to sacrifice for each other, and bonds of trust and love.

    This is both tactical and narrative gold. The vampire who wants a hunter out of the way will strike at people the hunter loves. Encourage an overblown sense of responsibility and guilt for either provoking a vampire to attack loved ones and failing to protect them, or for doing what must then be done to the monsters the victims become.

    Spend a little time researching the characters' past failures. Find their past victims, rivals, lovers, family. Strike, so they know you are not bluffing; then threaten something they cannot lose.

    It is this ruthlessness that allows the intelligent and evil foe to gain and keep the upper hand.

    Likewise, characters should play on the vampire's weakness; isolation, paranoia, untrustworthiness, and desperate greed. As varied as the melodies may be, evil only knows one key and a few chords. Provoke betrayal with the servants of the undead. Find allies among past victims. And so on.

    Fun post!

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  6. Great points, Andrew. In a game, I think it would be important to have plenty of characters that the NPC cares about. I think it would be more effective to have a vampire follow Player Characters home than to make him/her the BBEG of a dungeon. Say the PCs unwittingly release the vampire from the dungeon. Then, once they are home and think they are just RPing down time, one of their daughters disappears, there is unrest in their town or among their serfs, one of their spouses starts acting strange, etc. It would be appropriate in mechanical terms because vampires are such a challenge, and appropriate in narrative terms because you'd have to wait until the PCs had NPCs and homes they cared deeply about.

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