The other night we played Greengoat’s delightful Devil Gut Rock one-pager (PDF), and emerged victorious. And wealthy. MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. Or I guess were implied by the title of this post. And the pictures. So, uh, never mind. Sorry, people who care about spoilers.
The discussion afterward led us to think about Vampires in B/X D&D. As noted previously, Strahd von Zarovich wasn’t much of a threat in the final analysis. So this got me thinking about “ideal vampire strategy.” I’m assuming that Vampires are pretty smart, and that adventuring parties, while prone to doing foolish things, have a pretty pragmatic hive-mind by the time they’re in their mid-levels.
the fight a vampire probably doesn’t want to have
Looking at the B/X Vampire mechanically, it’s got an absolutely devastating double level-drain, respectable conventional melee damage, one of the best Armor Classes for non-dragons, respectable THAC0, and lots of hit points with regeneration. To me this suggests that the Vampire is built to slug it out with one or two targets in melee, sucking them dry.
Adventurers, of course, aren’t going to fall for that. If there’s sufficient space to spread out, the smart play is to attack from a distance with spells, magic arrows, and Turning. (Vampire tip: Pick a fight in a tight space.)
The Vampire’s charm ability can lure reluctant adventurers into melee range for drainage- the Cleric being an ideal target, of course, but the Magic-User a close second. But in the meantime you’ve still got archers at a distance or an especially foolhardy warrior in your face.
The Vampire can counteract that by summoning help. The wolf option seems like a handy choice, but Bat Swarms in B/X automatically disrupt casting and impose a -2 penalty to hit, while Rat Swarms can knock enemies prone on a failed save preventing them from attacking. This might buy a Vampire enough time to melee.
Either way, though, it’s a dicey thing. If the party concentrates their fire, you’re in serious trouble. Your little monster-guys probably won’t delay that for more than a round or two. If things start looking bad – nobody’s been charmed, targets are all spread out, enemies are hasted or there’s a lightning bolt involved, it’s time to run.
Also, fleeing applies with equal force if you get surprised by a gang of adventurers. Once they’ve got a free round, it’s going to be extremely hard to recover from that.
(Note that this advice changes a lot if there are multiple Vampires in the encounter. In B/X a lone Cleric probably can’t turn all of them, and if the Vampires spread out properly and deploy their minions they can probably be enormously more effective. But a lone Vampire is surprisingly squishy under a lot of circumstances.)
targets of opportunity
The other way of handling a party of adventurers is to do the whole “fade into the jungle” thing. Follow them along as a Bat or a cloud of vapor. Wait until they get into some other encounter, and then assume Vampire form and charm or feast on the rear guard. Once the party is alerted to the threat, vaporize and get out of there, only to strike again at some other time.
Another option would be a surprise raid when the party is making camp for the night, probably once spells have been used up and folks are unarmored. That’s one hell of a dirty trick, but Vampires are supposed to be extremely fearsome, highly intelligent adversaries who can travel almost undetectably, so it’s worth trying once.
As noted above, if you’ve got several Vampires or other monsters to back you up, a Vampire can probably hold up pretty well in a dungeon environment. But if it’s a lone Vampire, you may need to think about alternatives. Once a group of adventurers know they’re up against a Vampire, it’s all sharpening stakes, fitting garlic cloves into slingshots, and preparing collapsible bridges over running water.
It’s been twenty years since I read Dracula, but as I recall he mainly hangs out in the background nibbling on NPC’s while the main characters scratch their lambchop sideburns in confusion about what’s going on. Maybe a Vampire is simply an eccentric guy at the royal court using charm for political influence (likely against the Church?), who likes to go slumming amid the lower classes for a snack; he might simply frustrate the party through social or political means.
A more dungeon-ish option is for a Vampire to pass himself off as a Werewolf Lord. Hey, he can change into a wolf; he can summon wolves; who’s to disagree? Then when everyone is running at him with silver daggers and wolfsbane, it’s time for level-drain. (This also suggests that there might be a real Werewolf in the vicinity who’s pissed at all the bad publicity this guy’s stirring up.)
The other consideration, of course, is the Vampire’s coffin. Like the Lich’s phylactery, this isn’t something you want to display too conspicuously, and it may help to have a fake or spare coffin in case the adventurers get lucky. One possibility: bury the coffin under a large cairn or talus, which the Vampire can reach via gaseous form but would take some time for humans to dig through. Another: a coffin on a very high ledge, such that it isn’t normally visible unless someone could fly/levitate/climb walls. Or, you know, just make the thing invisible.
a couple magic tricks
So far as I know, it’s an open question in B/X whether Vampires can cast spells. Certainly a few magic items or special-purpose dungeon design elements can make the encounter more memorable.
Continual darkness is a pretty handy spell for a Vampire. Blocks daylight, and mitigates the blinding effects of continual light.
Sticks to snakes is a mean trick to play on someone about to stake a Vampire in its coffin – maybe this is a magical trap embedded in the coffin’s lid?
Mirror Image not only keeps a Vampire alive a bit longer against concentrated fire, but might persuade the party that they’re hopelessly outmatched and should flee.
Web is a good way to immobilize a lot of pesky enemies and drink their blood spider-style.
Hold Portal or Wizard Lock, either on the lid of the coffin or on doorways to the Vampire’s lair, might frustrate escaping adventurers or otherwise buy the Vampire more time.