A reader gently reminds me that I made a promise a long time ago that I haven’t fulfilled yet: I analyzed vampires, but I never did get around to analyzing the variant warrior vampire and spellcaster vampire. How do they differ from the stock vampire?
To recap, vampires are highly intelligent and prudent apex predators, both highly attached to and highly dependent on their lairs—of which they maintain several, just in case. They employ multiple levels of security in these lairs and will parley with intruders to size them up, stall for time and look for an opportunity to Charm one or more of them. They use a combination of Unarmed Strike (to grapple) and Bite to subdue opponents, draw sustenance from them and, potentially, transform them into vampire spawn. They value their continued existence very highly and are not going to engage in acts of stupid bravery; if the situation calls for it, they’ll tactically retreat without hesitation. When hunting, they prey on the weak, vulnerable and isolated.
The warrior vampire differs from an ordinary vampire (as if any full vampire were truly ordinary) in that it wears plate armor, wields a greatsword and has the additional Multiattack option of making two melee attacks with that sword. What does this change?
Well, certainly, there’s no reason for a vampire to become stupidly reckless simply because it’s wearing a tin can and waving a poker. Nor is it going to deviate from its basic desire: to maintain its ability to feed without interference.
The fact that its increased armor class and its greater weapon damage output place it in a higher challenge rating bracket (CR 15 rather than CR 13) does mean it can take on a stronger group of enemies than other vampires can, and this will factor into its decision whether to fight, flee or parley. But the biggest difference lies in how the warrior vampire approaches melee combat itself.
The standard vampire attack, once it’s decided it’s no longer playing around, is a two-parter: first, an Unarmed Strike with intent to grapple; second, a Bite that does both piercing and necrotic damage, the latter of which restores hit points to the vampire. The first does no damage, while the second does an average of 18 points of damage, while giving the vampire an average of 10 back.
A dual greatsword attack, by comparison, does an average of 22 points of damage, assuming both hits land, and restores no hp. (We don’t have to worry about hit probabilities, because the attack modifier is the same +9 no matter what method of attack the vampire is using.) On top of this, a vampire that’s holding a big sword in both hands is in no position to grapple anybody—not without dropping that sword on the ground. So a vampire that’s chosen to wield a sword is committing to a particular endgame: It’s trying to kill its enemies, not feed on them or spawnify them. A living victim is full of juicy potential; a chopped-up corpse is of no use or interest anymore.
How does the vampire decide which path to follow? Once again, think like a predator. Predators, hunting social animals, attack the weak, not the strong. A warrior vampire defending itself against stronger opponents is fighting, not hunting: it uses the sword. By doing so, it forfeits the opportunity to restore its own hit points by feeding. But it has no real choice but to make this trade-off. It has to hope that its extra two points of AC are enough to prevent the damage it would otherwise restore.
On the other hand, a warrior vampire confident that it’s more powerful than its foes and looking forward to making a meal of them is better off not drawing its sword, instead using the standard vampire grapple/bite combo. If at some point it realizes it’s underestimated the opposition, it may then choose to draw its sword after all and fight that way instead. Once it’s made that choice, it sticks with it to the end.
At this point, you may be asking yourself—as I am—whether the warrior vampire is all that much of an improvement over the vanilla vampire. I think the answer is, not really. It’s a variant; it’s not an elite variant. Use it if and when you want a vampire to wear plate mail and wield a sword. The end.
The spellcaster vampire is a different matter. This one’s spell repertoire gives it a variety of extra tricks it can use to take its enemies down. From most to least powerful:
- Dominate person is big, and it’s the only thing the spellcaster vampire will use its 5th-level spell slot for. It has twice the range of the vampire’s innate Charm ability, removes the target’s free will, and gives the vampire “total and precise control” over the target if it wishes. The downside is that the saving throw is slightly easier to make, and if combat is already under way, the target will probably get to make that roll with advantage. In this situation, it’s better for stopping an opponent in his or her tracks than it is for getting that opponent to do things on the vampire’s behalf. But if the vampire can cast this spell before fighting breaks out—or later on, during a lull in the action—it can be potent. It does not explicitly make the target a willing target for a Bite attack, but I’d say that a command along the lines of “Let me bite you” would suffice.
- Blight is a powerful single-target attack that’s especially good at taking out glass-cannon enemies around the periphery of the battle, who typically rely on Dexterity rather than Constitution as their primary defensive ability. It does a whopping 36 points of damage, on average, on a failed save, half damage on a success; this means you can reasonably expect to do around 27 points of damage and can potentially deal up to 64. And it’s necrotic, which is thematically appropriate.
- Greater invisibility is an even better evasive maneuver than the vanilla vampire’s Shapechanger ability.
- Animate dead is one of those spells that, perversely, is more useful for player characters than for non-player character villains, because an NPC reduced to 0 hp is dead, but a PC reduced to 0 hp is merely dying. On the other hand, the kind of vampire that studies wizardry is probably also the kind that has a corpse storage room in its house. Unless it’s in this room, it probably won’t have the opportunity to cast this spell—but if it does get the opportunity, it will do so without hesitation, and if it has the opportunity to cast it on three dead targets, it will use a 4th-level slot to cast it.
- Bestow curse is expensive, in terms of action economy, for what it gives the caster, but there is one situation in which it becomes particularly useful for a vampire: the target of the spell is grappled (and therefore already being touched), any incoming attacks are largely ineffectual, and the vampire really wants to spawnify the target it’s grappling. In this instance (and only in this instance, really), it’s worth it to spend one action to cast bestow curse, choosing the bonus necrotic damage die option. This speeds up the rate at which the vampire’s bite drains the target’s hp, which also has the effect of fortifying the vampire. This spell is actually most effective outside combat, if and when the vampire can lure a charmed victim to a place of privacy.
- Nondetection is how a fleeing vampire keeps its pursuers from tracking it.
- Detect thoughts might be superficially useful during parley, except that anyone can tell the vampire is casting a spell, so the element of surprise is blown. If the vampire can get a charmed person alone, however, it can use detect thoughts to read its mind without undesirable repercussions.
- Gust of wind has exactly one useful function: blowing out all the torches in the room just before the vampire flees. Or it could just cast greater invisibility.
- Mirror image is the very first thing a spellcaster vampire will do when combat breaks out. It’s all upside, no downside.
- Comprehend languages is a situational ritual for a situation that probably won’t even come up.
- Fog cloud can slow a fleeing vampire’s pursuers. Additionally, a very sneaky vampire can cast fog cloud, then change shape into mist form (it has to cast the spell first, since it can’t take actions in mist form) and float through the cloud, indistinguishable from it, before re-manifesting and doing something nasty to whoever’s next to it. There’s no point in using a higher-level spell slot to boost it.
- Sleep is not going to be of any use against PCs of a high enough level to go vampire hunting.
- Mage hand, prestidigitation and ray of frost are pretty inconsequential, although ray of frost can do 2d8 cold damage (an average of 9 points) to an opponent out of the vampire’s reach.
Nothing in this repertoire alters the vampire’s fundamental strategy of preying on the weak, fleeing from the strong and trying to strike bargains with its equals. Except for dominate person and blight, these spells are mostly damage-control measures, but some of them (greater invisibility, mirror image, fog cloud and, to a lesser extent, nondetection) are quite good damage-control measures. In particular, mirror image is a good substitute for the turn in which the vampire makes temporizing unarmed attacks in order to get a sense of its opponents’ capabilities.