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What is a Vampire?

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Vampire portrait by fantasio

"Vampire portrait" by fantasio (resized) used with permission


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 have mutated across countless books and Hollywood films in too many ways to track. So, authors must choose which details to keep and which to discard, and Storytellers should do the same. While the books have always had their own ideas and parameters, Vampire players have often changed the rules to suit their own tastes - and most gamers should consider doing so.

They say the devil is in the details, and when it comes to vampires, this is certainly the case. Details are going to set your vampires apart and will determine how the audience reacts. The more that vampires resemble corpses and treat humans like animals for slaughter, the more threatening they will seem. On the other hand, the more normal they appear, the less fear and awe they will usually inspire. If you want your audience to be attracted to and wary of your vampires, you must blend elements that chill as well as fascinate. Many complaints about the Twilight milieu stem from a fundamental difference in what different readers want out of vampires. In tabletop games, you can create exactly the kind of vampire experience you crave.

Aspects of Undeath

Recognizing the major elements that define the undead can help us understand what we want to explore in our stories and with our characters. Remixing these elements can keep an audience - be it a reader, a moviegoer, or a tabletop group - on their toes. 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 distinctive experiences. You might enjoy the kinds of vampires the gaming books offer and see no reason to mess with a winning formula. But if you find yourself getting bored or if you've never concocted your own undead before, now is your chance. You might only make a few tweaks, but they could lead to exciting outcomes. You could end up creating a whole new mythos.

It helps to develop a reason for why vampires exist in the first place. Even if they don't know their origins, you should. It also helps to figure out the kinds of stories you want to tell with them. Are you hoping for social monsters that might just fall in love? Or are you aiming for skillful masterminds that investigate mysteries? It's okay to choose a few genres that excite you; it's even okay if they don't seem to match. The variations could lead to fun conflicts. From this basic platform, you can pick aspects that make a sort of sense. You can also try to weigh the effects that your choices will have on the stories you want to see. As long as your audience is interested, nothing is stopping you from trying something new.

Bans and Superstitions

In folktales, vampires despise garlic and holy symbols, or are unable to cross running water or the threshold of  a home uninvited. Some are tied to the soil of their native land in a mystical way 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 or to hide very well, but they could also add flavor to their struggles. Different weaknesses could also apply. In True Blood, for instance, vampires are subdued and helpless when bound by silver.


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 see 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.


Rarely are Kindred born as undead babies. Most tales require that a vampire feed on a living person, usually to the point of death. A gift of blood from sire to childe is common. This also explains 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 also take a few days to die and transform completely, or they need to be buried while the process takes place.


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.

Discolored Pallor

In a number of tales, vampires are quite pale due to being undead, without actually rotting – a state between fully living and fully dead. Some can masquerade as pale but normal people, while others are so white that it makes it difficult for them to blend in or hide, but it also makes them seem unearthly. Sometimes, vampires will normalize with fresh blood in their system; after feeding, they take on ruddier hues for a while. In other stories, they might need to pile on makeup, wear concealing clothes, and stay out of bright lights to avoid causing a scene.


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. It's not out of the question that someone could be born with a "vampire gene" that activates at a certain life stage or at random, trapping the person at that age. Along with agelessness comes 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 at the start of 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 make changes every night after waking. But you can play with any of these parameters. Perhaps vampires age if they starve for too long or they start to look younger if they bathe in blood for a period of time.

Internal Organs

The internal organs of Kindred 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. But since vampires are magical creatures, these organs could function some of the time, or at least appear to function, if that works for you.

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, tend to have a reduced effect on vampires, so these weaknesses are vital to know. But the weaknesses your vampires have are up to you.

Magical 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. But what they can do and why is always worth thinking about./p>

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. Do these claws vanish once the scene is over? What makes sense for your milieu?

Predatory Nature

Since vampires must carefully stalk and subdue their prey - and since their prey consists typically of wily humans - vampires have predatory instincts. They view people as prey, notice fine details, stalk with purpose, might have improved hearing, and otherwise give people a shivery sensation of being hunted. Such a thing will cause fear in some people but will attract others. Sometimes this also makes vampires gruff, pushy, violent, and cruel. These harsh reactions are natural, strong, and first; vampires of this type must rein themselves in considerably to deal with humans without violence.


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).


Many vampires have an extreme and quickly fatal reaction to sunlight. A few minutes outside on an overcast day can be enough to make a vampire's skin begin to smoke and burn. More exposure can set them alight and roast them to cinders. This keeps vampires indoors during daylight, even if they're the sort that can stay awake (though some vampires are overtaken by sleep once the sun rises). Being so cruelly burned may seem like proof of being cursed and evil. And even in the modern world, not being able to easily go out during the day leads to challenges in maintaining a household and appearing normal.

Superhuman Strengths

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.


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