What Is A Vampire?
Carlos: What were they, psychos, er...?
Seth: They look like psychos? Is that what they look like? They were vampires. Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don't give a fuck how crazy they are!
-- From Dusk Till Dawn
We live in an era saturated with vampires. They infest our televisions, films, and books, and with each new author comes a different type of nightstalker. Some, like the vampires of Twilight (and Dracula, lest we forget), don't need to fear burning to ashes in the sun. Others, like the bloodsuckers in True Blood, must be invited inside before they can enter into a private home. Vampire myths and superstitions of former years have met with the tropes of gothic literature and the habits of Hollywood to provide too many details for a vampire to cope with. So, authors are forced to choose which details to keep and which to discard - and Storytellers will have to do the same. While the books have always had their own ideas and parameters, Vampire players have also seen fit to change the rules to suit their own tastes.
They say the devil is in the details, and when it comes to vampires, this is certainly the case. The details are going to set your vampires apart from others and are going to determine how the audience reacts. The more that vampires look like corpses and treat people as animals for the slaughter, the more outright threatening they seem. On the other hand, when the differences between the living and undead are downplayed, the fear and awe they inspire is toned down as well. If you want your audience to be wary of vampires and to fear them, they must have elements that chill as well as fascinate. The recent complaints by some vampire fans about the Twilight milieu stems from the details that fail to satisfy readers who want certain threats from all vampires.
Some people judge vampires based on a spectrum that runs from badass (strong, violent, beholden to no one) to wussy (romantic, sexual, sensitive to emotions). For some fans, a vampire who doesn't feed on humans and doesn't fear the sun doesn't qualify as a vampire. For others, the lure of the vampire doesn't end when they start being nice to humans. For many authors and enthusiasts, the vampire is a careful balance between these extremes and is more interesting because they blend contrasting urges.
Aspects of Undeath
Recognizing the major elements that are used to define the undead can help us understand what it is that we like our vampires to represent or what we want to explore in our stories. Remixing these elements can help us spice up the image of the vampire, which can become too familiar when they show up with the same basic strengths and weaknesses in each book and movie. And paying attention to these aspects when using vampires in our games can lead to new mysteries, new systems, and new twists. Games like Vampire: the Masquerade and Vampire: the Requiem encode these details into gameplay and dice mechanics for a distinctive experience. A game that focuses on survival might highlight the difficulties of hunting and controlling hunger, for instance. But even these things might need to be changed if you want your vampires to take several days to change into a vampire - or if you want them to sparkle in the sun.
Bans and superstitions: Vampires have been said to despise garlic and to be turned by holy symbols, or to be unable to cross running water or to cross the threshold of a home uninvited. Some are tied in a mystic way to the soil of their native land and must have it to replenish their strength. Yet others cast no reflection in mirrors. Many of these odd restrictions would make it very inconvenient for vampires to travel (such as being unable to cross running water) or to hide very well, but they could also add flavor to the vampire's struggles. Different weaknesses could also apply; in True Blood, for instance, vampires are subdued and helpless when bound by silver.
Blood: One of the most obvious signs of a vampire is that they can’t gain nourishment from food and regular drinks. Their bodies aren’t able to process anything except for blood. A number of traditions hold that the blood has to be fresh, newly shed from living beings, while others allow that vampires can drink from corpses or from blood that’s been preserved. And while vampires can usually feed on animal blood, many tales make it clear that animal blood is less satisfying and less filling than blood from humans.
Bloodlust: Hunger for food is utterly gone and replaced by a demanding desire for blood. Vampires will crave what they need, and when they are hungry it can be difficult to concentrate on mortals as people instead of food. Perhaps Kindred will be able to smell the blood in someone, or they'll see a pulse beating beneath a person's skin. This could make a vampire lose control and take their fill violently, and many vampire tales draw on the struggle caused by this unnatural thirst.
Creation: Rarely are Kindred born as undead babies. Most tales require that a vampire feed on a living person, usually to the point of death. An exchange of blood is common to explain why the earth is not filled with vampires; simple feeding is not enough, but if a vampiric sire gives some of their blood back to their victim, that person will rise as undead. Sometimes, vampires will also need a few days in which to die and transform completely, or they will need to go to ground while the process takes place.
Discolored pallor: A number of tales state that vampires are discolored due to being undead. Most of the time, vampires are portrayed as pale and pasty, without actually rotting – a state between fully living and fully dead. This kind of difference is rather noticeable and makes it harder for vampires to hide, but it also makes them seem even more unearthly. Sometimes, vampires will normalize with fresh blood in their system; after feeding, they take on ruddier hues for a while.
Immortality: A vampire's body does not generally develop beyond the age they were when they were Embraced. The normal life cycle is cut off and further physical degeneration doesn't occur. Along with this comes a general immunity to diseases and other health conditions and the need to change social circles every few decades to avoid suspicion. In some cases, vampires return to the state of their Embrace each night; their hair regrows to the same length that it was when the vampire was reborn, for example. This means that, in order to change their appearance, a vampire has to rework things at the start of each night.
Internal organs: The internal organs of Kindred are supposed to cease functioning after they rise from death. The most mentioned is the lack of a heartbeat and breathing; those automatic movements don’t happen any more. Blood is no longer filtered through the circulatory system as it used to be. Vampires might not bleed when cut. These changes are the reasons that vampires in many stories can’t reproduce normally.
Lethal measures: Sometimes it is particularly difficult to fully kill a vampire. Some folk tales call for vampires to be buried at a crossroads (and sometimes facing down). Other times, a vampire must be decapitated (and occasionally, their mouths must also be filled with garlic). A wooden stake has been a way to paralyze or kill many vampires, and fire seems to hurt most of the undead without much trouble. Traditional and mundane weapons, like knives and bullets, have a reduced effect on vampires, so these weaknesses are vital to know.
Natural weaponry : Many Kindred are able to grow their canines to a length that helps them draw blood from their victims. Sometimes, being bitten by a vampire induces euphoria, as well, sedating (and stimulating) the victim as the hunter takes its meal. In a few cases, vampire bites can be magically sealed once the encounter is finished; other times, bites are left to heal on their own. Vampires who do not have fangs must always carry a weapon or instrument to draw blood. Some vampires are also allowed the power to grow claws as a kind of natural defense.
Predatory nature: Since vampires must carefully stalk and subdue their prey, and since their prey consists typically of wily humans, vampires are known to have predatory instincts. They view people as prey, notice fine details, stalk with purpose, and otherwise give people a shivery sensation of being hunted. Such a thing will cause fear in some people but will attract others, as confidence is a byproduct. Sometimes this also makes vampires gruff, pushy, violent, and cruel. These harsh reactions are natural, strong, and first; vampires of this type must reign themselves in considerably to deal with humans without violence.
Reproduction: This aspect divides different vampire traditions in a major way. In some vampire milieus, it is just not possible for vampires to impregnate others or to become impregnated. Sperm and ovum are not produced and menstruation ceases. In most World of Darkness games, this is the case. But some set-ups allow for the half vampire, a person who is born with one vampiric parent and has some vampiric powers. Others allow for two vampires to reproduce through pregnancy, but only by extraordinary means (like magical interference).
Sunlight: Many vampires have an extreme and quickly fatal reaction to sunlight. An overcast day can be enough to make a vampire's skin start to burn. This really reinforces the idea that vampires are solely nocturnal creatures, out of necessity more than anything else. It introduces a lot of challenge to get things done and to appear normal when you can only deal with people during nighttime hours.
Supermen: Vampires are generally stronger, faster, and more alluring than mortals because they are mystically bolstered. The same quality of the blood that gives them eternal youth and life also fuels superhuman abilities of the body. This also extends to amazing abilities to heal most damage in a very short period of time. Even if a vampire doesn't have outright magical powers, they are likely to have blessings of the body.
Supernatural powers: Many magical abilities have been attributed to vampires, although it seems that different vampires can develop different powers in just about every milieu. Some can fly, others can change shapes, and many have been known hypnotists. Sometimes a vampire will learn abilities from their sire; other times, they will develop unique skills on their own.