I’m going to begin my discussion of vampires with a digression: Years ago, I read a book titled (I swear I’m not making this up) Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count. It was written by Loren Estleman in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, and as I recall, it was less cheesy and far more entertaining than you might assume . . . although I don’t think I’ve read it since I was in college, so take that with a grain of salt.
Anyway, there’s one bit of that novel that sticks in my mind as being particularly cool: At one point, Dracula walks right into Holmes’ room, in the middle of the day, and Holmes expresses surprise that Dracula can go out in broad daylight. Oh, sure I can, Dracula says; it’s just that I don’t have any of my supernatural powers when I do.
I thought that was an interesting spin on vampire abilities. One of the crucial elements of horror is exploiting the fear of the unknown: we’re most afraid of a monster when we’re not sure what it is, what it can do or how far it can pursue us. One of the best ways to spice up a D&D game is to take familiar monsters and give them unfamiliar powers, or have the familiar powers manifest in unfamiliar ways. Trolls, for example, are great for this: use the variant that allows severed limbs to keep moving and even fighting independently, and have the troll periodically pick up its limbs and stick them back onto itself, and watch your players wig out. (You may already be aware that this version of the troll originated with a scene in Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.)
It’s so taken for granted in our popular culture that vampires are burned by sunlight, the thought of a vampire who’s merely weakened by it, not hurt—let alone destroyed—would never occur to most of us. The vampire in the Monster Manual is the conventional burned-by-sunlight variety, but what if you removed that weakness and substituted one that merely disabled the vampire’s special features in daylight?
Try this sort of variation out—if not with a vampire, then with some other monster whose powers players assume they already know.
Before I examine the vampire, which is another boss-level undead creature only slightly less powerful than the mummy lord, let’s look at the less powerful vampire spawn, the minion of a full-fledged vampire.
Vampire spawn have exceptional physical abilities, plus above-average Charisma. They receive bonuses to Dexterity and Wisdom saving throws, which combined with their high Constitution means they’re hard targets for any spell resisted by one of the “big three” saving throws, but especially Dexterity. They’re resistant to physical damage from normal weapons, plus necrotic damage, and they regenerate hit points each turn if they aren’t in sunlight or running water. They can’t enter someone’s home without an invitation. They have a high Stealth skill, along with Multiattack in two possible combinations: claw/claw or claw/bite, with bite limited to one of the two actions. Since it’s limited, you can assume that it’s preferred and that the vampire spawn will use it whenever it can; however, a precondition of the bite attack is that the victim be grappled, incapacitated, restrained . . . or willing. The vampire spawn doesn’t have any feature that imposes the incapacitated condition or the restrained condition, nor does it have the power to charm, but grappling happens to be built into its claw attack.
With high hit points and high physical ability scores across the board, vampire spawn have no reason to think they can’t overpower most opponents. But their high Stealth score suggests that rather than rush headlong into melee, they’ll stalk or ambush their victims rather than charge them headlong. There’s also the vampire spawn’s compulsion, which is to feed. Vampires, including vampire spawn, are apex predators. When a predator’s prey are social animals, rather than attack one in a group—who are likely to fight back—it picks off the young, the old, the weak, the isolated and the oblivious. Vampire spawn do the same, but unlike predators in the animal kingdom, they sometimes live and hunt in groups, too. They’re willing to take on any group whose numbers are less than or equal to their own, but not greater. And, of course, because of their Sunlight Hypersensitivity, they have to hunt at night. Sunlight Hypersensitivity is a step beyond Sunlight Sensitivity; unlike kobolds, say, which prefer the dark but may be active during daytime hours, vampire spawn are strictly nocturnal. (Since predators require abundant prey to survive, vampires and vampire spawn are more likely to be found near medium-size towns and large cities, rather than near small villages or in the wilderness.)
Therefore, a vampire spawn encounter begins with one or more vampire spawn stalking one or more player character(s) or waiting to ambush them. They’ll attack with surprise, and their first Attack action will begin with a claw attack with intent to grapple rather than do damage. The second part of their Multiattack will depend on what happens in the first part. If its target is grappled, a vampire spawn will follow up its claw attack with a bite. If the grapple fails but the target doesn’t have Athletics or Acrobatics proficiency, the vampire spawn will recognize this weakness and try again to grapple. If the initial grapple fails and the target does have Athletics or Acrobatics, the vampire spawn will realize it’s probably not going to get a meal out of this one, and it will get angry and try to kill the PC out of spite. It will complete its Multiattack with a claw attack for damage, and from that point on, it will claw/claw—unless, somehow, it gains an advantage, such as flanking (an optional rule, described on page 251 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, that I strongly recommend using). If it’s got advantage, it will try grappling one more time, just to see whether it can pull it off. Success? Munch! Failure? Eh, forget it; go back to claw/claw.
A vampire spawn with a grappled victim will also try to drag it away to a place of hiding, especially if there’s anyone else nearby. It can move 15 feet per turn while dragging its prey.
What if a vampire spawn is attacked by another PC while it’s feeding? While continuing to hold onto its victim, the vampire spawn claws at the attacker for damage—but then its compulsion to feed kicks in again, and it inflicts another bite upon its grappled victim. It still uses its movement to try to drag its prey away, and if possible, it uses its Spider Climb feature to take itself and its victim where the attacker can’t follow. (Unlike the spider climb spell, this feature does not give the vampire spawn a climbing speed—this is confirmed by Wizards of the Coast—so it can travel only 7 feet up a wall in one turn while carrying a grappled victim, or 15 feet by itself.)
Be aware that the vampire spawn’s bite doesn’t just subtract hit points from the victim—it restores hit points to the vampire spawn, equal to the amount of necrotic damage its bite inflicts (but not the piercing damage).
Once a vampire spawn reduces its victim to unconsciousness, it’s satiated for the time being and will return to its resting place, using a Disengage action if necessary to avoid opportunity attacks—unless it’s under orders from a vampire to kill whomever it encounters, in which case it will move on to the next PC.
All vampires, including vampire spawn, have a much more powerful survival instinct than most undead, because their compulsion is to feed—and by extension, to continue their own existence. Reduce a vampire spawn to 32 hp or fewer, and it will flee back to its resting place by the most direct route—which, thanks to its Spider Climb feature, may be straight up the wall of a building and across rooftops. However, if a vampire spawn is under the command of a vampire, whatever commands it’s been given supersede its inclination to save itself.
Vampires possess all the attributes of vampire spawn, plus the Shapechanger, Legendary Resistance, Misty Escape, Charm and Children of the Night features, along with three legendary actions that allow them to move, grapple and bite on other creatures’ turns. In addition, all their ability scores are exceptional, they receive a bonus on Charisma saving throws as well as Dexterity and Wisdom, and they enjoy double-range darkvision. Finally, their bite has the power not just to drain a target dry but to turn it into a vampire spawn.
Vampires are physically powerful; they’re also shrewd. A vampire will never, ever attack recklessly. It chooses its targets with utmost care and values its continued existence over all else, despite its compulsion to feed. It chooses victims it knows are unlikely to be missed—or, if they’re missed, whose disappearances are unlikely to be investigated. It conceals its nocturnal nature by hiring (or charming) go-betweens who can conduct its affairs during normal daytime hours. A lonely or bored vampire may even charm a living mortal into serving as its companion, though eventually, proximity and intimacy will make the temptation to turn this companion into a vampire spawn too great for the vampire to resist.
A vampire that can’t feed by having its agents bring victims to its lair will hunt by going out at night, either alone or in the company of one or more of its agents. Vampires with access to wealth will go out in closed carriages and offer rides to their prospective victims, mostly late-night revelers. Nonwealthy vampires will stick to sketchier parts of town and prey on beggars, burglars and the occasional hapless watchman. The stereotypical streetwalker victim would be an anachronism—that kind of solicitation didn’t happen at night until gas streetlamps were invented—but it wasn’t unusual in medieval times for people to go to sleep at sundown, wake up for a couple of hours during the middle of the night, visit a neighbor during that time, return home and go back to sleep afterward, and a vampire would certainly see such a person as a fine candidate for a late-night snack.
But vampires are careful about this. Unless they’ve been stalking a vampire themselves, PCs are unlikely to encounter one on the street—it will avoid a group of their party’s size. To get in a scrap with a vampire, at least as a group, your PCs will probably have to invade its lair. And it will have layers of security: mortal human guards, vampire spawn, other lesser undead and, if it’s expecting the unwelcome visitors, the aforementioned Children of the Night: swarms of bats or rats or, outdoors, a pack of wolves.
Let’s take a look at that feature for a moment. It’s usable only once per day. It takes 1d4 rounds for the beasts to show up, and they stick around for one hour. Obviously, it would be silly for a vampire to use this ability if it didn’t know its lair were being invaded. On the other hand, this is a slow ability to invoke—and spend an action on—once combat is already under way. If the party are high-level and prepared, the vampire may be destroyed already by the time the bats arrive. So whatever kind of early-warning system the vampire has, at some point, it triggers the vampire’s invocation of Children of the Night. Figure that the vampire has at least one or two rings of security that are enough to keep out run-of-the-mill intruders: burglars, nosy neighbors, Xander. If an intruder gets past these rings—say, physical security such as a castle wall, plus some mortal guards—the vampire goes on yellow alert and summons the Children of the Night to run extra interference. After the beasts come the vampire spawn, then finally the vampire itself.
The feature summons 2d4 swarms of bats or rats (an average of five, a ceiling of eight) or 3d6 wolves (an average of 10, a ceiling of 18). A wolf is a CR 1/4 creature, as is a swarm of bats or rats, so these really are nothing to a serious party of vampire-hunting PCs except interference. They buy the vampire time to make other preparations, or maybe lead a party on a chase in the wrong direction.
A vampire doesn’t want to fight an entire party of PCs unless they’re an easy encounter for it. Vampires are smart: it will take one just a single round of combat for it to evaluate whether a party constitutes a deadly threat. It can easily handle three level 7 or 8 PCs, four level 6 PCs, five level 5 PCs, or six or seven PCs of level 4 or lower all by itself; add a couple of levels if the PCs are already good and cut up from previous encounters in the lair, and add several if the vampire is encountered not alone but accompanied by one or more vampire spawn. If the PCs are this overmatched, the vampire will go for the kill—and take villainous satisfaction in turning the PCs into obedient vampire spawn. If the PCs are strong enough for the vampire (along with any accompanying allies) to constitute no more than a Hard encounter (see DMG 82), and they’re not badly wounded, it will abandon its lair and flee to another resting place. (No self-respecting vampire has just one resting place. It always establishes several. The act of trying to establish a new one might be the hook that allows the PCs to track a vampire down. That’s what happened in Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula.)
The in-between cases are interesting. The vampire won’t want to fight toe-to-toe, but it won’t be ready to abandon its lair yet, either. It will stalk the PCs, looking for opportunities to divide the party and pick off an isolated PC or two.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When the PCs finally encounter a vampire for the first time, it will be at the moment and place of the vampire’s choosing, and it will . . . greet them.
Before the vampire gets into any kind of scuffle at all, it wants to size its opponents up, to find out what they want and whether they can be bought off somehow. It’s compelled to feed, but it also has the Wisdom to delay gratification (avoiding combat now may mean decades of undisturbed feeding!) and the Intelligence to recognize meaningful tells in the players’ behavior. It will be courteous, if maybe a bit conceited, and it will try to keep the PCs talking for as long as possible. It will even suggest compromises and collaborations that serve both the PCs’ interests and its own. But it will also keep its eyes and ears open for any sneaky rogue who thinks he or she can outflank the vampire during the parley and make a Sneak Attack.
Its top priority during this parley, however, is to identify the most weak-willed PC—the one with the lowest Wisdom saving throw, padding elves’ modifiers by +4 to account for their racial advantage against being charmed—and Charm him or her during the conversation. At some point during the conversation, when the vampire has had a chance to observe all the PCs and when it seems like it would make sense to have everyone make a Persuasion or Insight check or some such thing, roll a d20 for the vampire and have every player roll one as well. The vampire is making a Stealth check to determine whether it can Charm its target without being caught. The target is making a Wisdom saving throw against being charmed. Everyone else is making a Perception check against the vampire’s Stealth roll to determine whether they spotted the Charm. (You need to know each PC’s relevant modifier, so that you don’t have to ask.) If the Charm is successful, the vampire will shortly thereafter slip a quip into the conversation that, taken ironically, sounds like wit, but taken literally is a command to the charmed PC to serve and protect the vampire.
Around this time, you’ll need to secretly inform the player of the charmed character that he or she has been charmed. You’ll also need to secretly inform any player whose character caught the vampire in the act, “You’re pretty sure that vampire put the whammy on Erwan.”
If the Charm is successful, and no one else spots it, the vampire may try to Charm another PC, then another. It will Charm the whole party if it has a decent shot of getting away with it. Then, one by one, it will decide whether each PC seems most promising as an agent, a vampire spawn thrall or a juice box.
The parley can end in any number of ways: The PCs and the vampire might reach an agreement! Or the vampire might manage to Charm the whole party. Or, more likely, a PC will get tired of talking and attack; or all the PCs will get tired of talking and attack; or the PCs will insult the vampire, or accuse it outright of charming or trying to charm their companion(s), and the vampire will attack; or the vampire will gain all the information it needs, decide the party is too strong to fight head-on and vanish into a cloud of mist.
If combat ensues, and the vampire goes first, it doesn’t attack immediately; instead, it takes the Dodge action, allowing the PCs to come to it so that it has a chance to assess their combat skill. When one PC comes within melee reach and attacks, it uses its Unarmed Strike legendary action against that PC at the end of his or her turn. When a second PC comes within melee reach and attacks, it does the same thing. If a third PC comes within melee reach and attacks, however, the vampire uses its third legendary action to move away from its attackers without provoking an opportunity attack—climbing a wall if there’s not enough space to simply retreat. After the first round of combat, the vampire renders its judgment about the strength of the PCs and either flees its lair, retreats temporarily or goes for the kill.
If it decides to go for the kill, it does so in the manner of the vampire spawn, using its Multiattack to grapple, then bite, and reacting in the same manner to a failed grapple. But it specifically chooses the PC with the lowest Athletics or Acrobatics skill (whichever of the two is higher) within reach of its movement, not counting the charmed PC, because this is the quickest way to remove enemies from the equation. A vampire that has judged itself capable of defeating an entire party without difficulty will feed on them without compunction, but if attacked while grappling a victim, it will strike its attacker for damage twice, as opposed to striking, then feeding, as a vampire spawn would. It will also use its legendary actions to drain its grappled victim faster and to land one additional unarmed strike on anyone who attacks it. It doesn’t try to drag its victim away from the fight—it’s trying to finish the fight.
If it decides to flee, it will release every charmed PC (bonus action), Shapechange into mist (action) and exit the scene (move).
If it decides to retreat but not flee, it will Shapechange into a bat and fly out of the room. This is misdirection: as soon as it’s out of sight, it will polymorph out of bat form and into mist form, then circle back around and stealthily follow the party. When convenient, it will rematerialize in a place of concealment where it will be able to whisper commands to a charmed PC. When it can do so, it will tell the charmed PC to sneak off from the party, find a hiding place and wait for further instructions. Then it will turn into mist again and reassess its odds. If it can reduce the party in this way to a number of foes that it can more easily handle, it will go in for the kill.
A vampire will use its Legendary Resistance anytime it fails a saving throw. Its saving throw modifiers are so good to begin with that failures will be extraordinarily rare, so it’s not going to worry about conserving its three daily uses of this feature.
Whatever else it’s up to, a vampire doesn’t like being hit with radiant damage or holy water at all (because these suppress its Regeneration), and it will use its legendary action move to get away from a PC who’s inflicting these discomforts on it. If it can’t get away from that PC, it will grapple him or her instead and try to eliminate the problem by eating it.
To vanquish a vampire that’s sized up its odds and decided to fight, the PCs will have to reduce it to 57 hp or fewer and to do so, at least in part, with radiant damage or holy water. At that point, the seriously wounded vampire will take stock. Do the PCs seem to know that it’s necessary to stake a vampire in order to destroy it in its resting place? Do they already know where its resting place is? Can it survive another round of damage at the rate they’re dealing it? Is any of the PCs close to elimination? If the answers to these questions are on balance unfavorable to the vampire, it gives up and flees its lair. If they’re favorable, it keeps on fighting, relying on Misty Escape to ward off absolute defeat—but the more PCs are successfully inflicting damage on the vampire, the more likely it is to choose Dodge as its action, rather than Attack, and use only its legendary actions to inflict damage on the PCs.
This is already an exceptionally long and complicated article, so I’ll save the vampire warrior and vampire spellcaster variants for another day.
- Vampire spawn are strictly nocturnal, stalk weaker or isolated prey, and won’t attack a group larger than their own.
- During its Multiattack (action), a vampire spawn first uses claws with intent to grapple. If it successfully grapples, they it bites; on subsequent rounds, it keeps biting the grappled foe (once per turn). If it fails to grapple, it resorts to claws with intent to damage if the opponent is proficient in Athletics or Acrobatics but keeps trying to grapple if he or she is not.
- If it gains a situational advantage on an attack against a foe proficient in Athletics or Acrobatics, it will try to grapple one last time for good measure.
- A vampire spawn with a grappled foe will use its movement each round to drag it toward a place of hiding at a rate of 15 feet per round. It may also use Spider Climb to do this, but if it does, it can scale only 7 feet of wall per round.
- If attacked while it has another opponent grappled, a vampire spawn will first claw at its attacker, then bite its grappled opponent (Multiattack action). It will also keep trying to drag its grappled opponent away.
- A vampire spawn that has drained its victim entirely will Disengage (action) and depart.
- A vampire spawn reduced to 32 hp or fewer will Disengage (action) and flee.
- A vampire surrounds its lair with layers of physical, living and undead security and exercises great care when hunting in a populated area.
- After PCs have breached its outer defenses but before they get any further, it will send Creatures of the Night to run interference so that it can prepare other defenses, including giving orders to vampire spawn.
- When PCs first encounter a vampire, it will parley in order to forestall combat, size up the party and Charm one or more vulnerable PCs.
- A vampire will flee its lair if it would be a Hard or easier encounter for the uncharmed members of the party and they’re not wounded enough to improve the vampire’s odds.
- A vampire will go for a total party kill if the uncharmed members of the party comprise three level 7 or 8 PCs, four level 6 PCs, five level 5 PCs, or six or seven PCs of level 4 or lower; or if they’re one or two levels above these but at least moderately wounded from previous encounters.
- If the party is too strong for the vampire to attack preemptively but not strong enough for it to flee, it will Shapechange into a bat and fly out of sight, then Shapechange into mist and circle back to follow the party. When it can, it will materialize in a concealed spot and whisper orders to charmed PCs to sneak away from the party and await further orders, then transform into mist again. When the party is finally reduced to a size it can take on, it attacks.
- Vampires target those PCs first who are ill-equipped to resist its grapple attack.
- Vampires use the same combat tactics as vampire spawn, except that when one is attacked while grappling a victim, it uses unarmed strike against its attacker twice rather than use the second part of its Multiattack action to bite its victim. Vampires also do not try to drag their victims away.
- If preemptively attacked, the vampire uses its Unarmed Strike legendary action to strike back at the first two melee attackers who engage it but then uses its Move legendary action to back away if engaged by a third.
- If grappling a victim, the vampire uses its Bite legendary action to drain it faster, then, if necessary, uses its third legendary action to Unarmed Strike any other PC attacking it.
- A vampire uses Legendary Resistance to reroll any failed saving throw.
- A vampire will try to avoid a PC who strikes it with radiant damage or holy water, but if it can’t, it will prioritize grappling and draining that PC over attacking other PCs.
- If a vampire is reduced to 57 hp or fewer while being attacked with radiant damage and/or holy water, it quickly reassesses its chances, and if it doesn’t like them, it Shapechanges into mist and flees its lair. If it thinks its chances are still OK, it may switch to Dodge as its primary action and use only its legendary actions to fight back.
Next: Liches, the über-undead.