Monday, January 19, 2009

Undead Beginnings IV

Finally, I’ll finish this series.

All that’s left of the original undead are the vampire and lich. I realize there are many others, but I don’t care to get into even the Fiend Folio, much less the random, less-thoughtfully generated undead of the 3rd edition. You’re free to make up what you want for those—I’m only setting a sort of template here.

The vampire is a problem. I admit I’ve never actually had one occur in my world, partly because they’re very rare and altogether obvious as a “module” sort of encounter, but also in terms of their muddled biology. I mean, what rules should one apply? Strict rules from the Monster Manual? Anne Rice? Stoker? The Masquerade? Twilight?

Eech to the last one.

Obviously, any use of the vampire is going to require some sort of briefing for the characters while you explain point by point what methods of attack and defense are going to work and which aren’t. It’s interesting to me that while Christianity obviously doesn’t exist in traditional D&D, the vampire is still affected by the “cross.” The cross of what, exactly?

But I’m talking about origins, so all of that is just so much flotsam. Vampires are like others of the undead, in that vampires make more vampires, but what causes the first vampire? The creature is acknowledged to be soulless; but was it born human?

I tend to think not. I prefer the explanation of the changeling, which was a medieval explanation for the appearance of mentally retarded and physically deformed children who had the unpleasant happenstance of being born. The medieval explained these “monsters” as having been left in place of their proper, beautiful children, who were now in the hands of elves and fairies (remember, for elves and fairies, read “spirits”). The replaced children were trolls and such, providing an excuse for them to be exposed (put outside where they would die from the elements), directly murdered or merely abused for every moment they spent on earth. This was not being done to my own child, remember, but to the troll that was left in my child’s place.

Add to this the belief that all the souls that would someday be born as children wait in a great room in Heaven (sorry, Christian myth), and I can present an interesting origin myth. At the moment the child’s soul enters the body (which was said to be at the point of birth), some sort of medical strangeness occurs—the mother dying before the child is brought forth, say. And let’s say, at this precise moment, as the child’s soul hesitates before it can enter into the body, a demon shows up and jumps into the child first. Or the demon shows and the proper soul and the demon contest for control of the body.

Where the demon succeeds, the baby dies along with the mother. Where the souls succeeds, the baby lives.

And lets say, in the case of a very unusual demon, the baby “appears” to live, long enough to escape the dead mother’s body, to disappear in the night—because that is the natural birth of the natural vampire.

Of course, this presumes that vampires age—and I see no reason why they cannot, even at will. It’s only magic.

This makes an interesting adventure for a party. They have a portent that a vampire baby is going to be born; they discover the place and time, and find the mother hours before she will give birth. What will the party do? Attempt to kill the mother? Attempt to keep her alive somehow, only to fail? And when the baby is born alive, do they believe the baby’s soul won, or the vampire’s? Do they dare snatch the baby? Or kill it? What if their magic tells them it is a vampire baby, but no one in the village (all being present at the birth) believes them? What if the vampire baby is the son of the magistrate, or the local lord? Or of the local priest?

Interesting material, there.

This stuff occurs to me all the time. Obviously, my world is not just about combat. But I do really like combat.

So, the lich, divided forever between those who insist is must be pronounced “litch” and those who insist it must be pronounced “like.” Technically, in old English, it must have the second vowel “e” for the “i” to be pronounced long, but rules are meant to be broken. The better alternative is the pronunciation, “licte,” from the German spelling leiche (corpse).

What the hell. When am I going to talk about liches again?

Not a complicated origin here. The spellcaster’s corpse dies, the spellcaster doesn’t want to let go, so the corpse gets animated and the soul continues to inhabit. Classic undead creation. I really don’t have that much to say about it.

I’ve never understood why liches were so feared by players—though they are, as my party recently took a role in encouraging a high level cleric to become a lich and now they are scared down to their shorts. Basically, the actual creature’s power is equivalent to whatever level of spell use they had, mixed in with some undead defenses and the whole brain-in-a-jar principle. It’s this last which is supposed to be so frightening, since if the body is killed, the brain can find another body and start all over again.

Except that, if you’re an 18th level mage, and your brain is in a jar, where are you going to keep it? In the hands of toadies? On another continent? Hell no. You’re going to keep it close by…so you can protect it. Therefore, it’s going to be the FIRST thing the party finds after busting your ass, so wup-de-doo. Unless you want to make an argument that you don’t need a) a dead body to possess once your first body dies; and b) there’s no actual ritual in you assuming control of the new body. Neither of which sounds much like the D&D magic system to me.

Honestly, in some ways I’d rather fight an undead 18th level mage than a live one. The live one is going to be a lot less noticeable (won’t smell as bad) in a crowd, is probably going to have more friends (that undead thing kills even a Facebook tally) and will probably be much less predictable (domicile conditions, status of nearby vegetation and general personality being subject to a wider variety of possibilities). Chances are, I can avoid a lich by simply not entering deep dungeons hundreds of miles from civilization. I could piss off a living 18th level mage by outbidding him at a local auction. Or tripping over him at the races. You wouldn’t know he was 18th level just to look at him, would you?

That about wraps it up. I’ll want to do more of these zoological installments in the next year or so, as I get more and more into the complete overhaul of my Beastiary.


Strix said...

"any use of the vampire is going to require some sort of briefing for the characters while you explain point by point what methods of attack and defense are going to work and which aren’t"

I don't follow you on this point. Are you letting your players poke and prod to discover a target's weaknesses or are you telling them explicitly before/after combat is decided?

I've always had to throw the proverbial kitchen cauldron at a creature until something made it howl, scream or run away. Some players read the Monsters Manual in advance and memorize such things, hence "The Creature The DM Made Up Himself, that can only be played on Friday nights".

I would like to know more about this 'creature briefing'.

Alexis said...

That would be nice, but you and I both know that while your party is playing "let's see if the pool sticks cause any damage," the vampire is going to be draining levels. Let's face it. Most of the misinformation wouldn't be available to your medieval roleplaying characters, as they don't have You Tube and Miramax as part of their experience.

I always assume that a 17 intelligence mage and an 18 wisdom cleric has at least some idea of what they know vs. what the peasants believe.

At some point, lets give a little credit to the mage's mentor, who probably at some point during the fifteen years of spell training said, "You know that thing about sunlight killing vampires? Don't believe it."

I know from experience that you're a believer in letting the players just hash it out on their own, but It just isn't rational to assume the players know nothing.