Sleepless Nights: Vampire Psychology

I’ve written a bunch of posts about the game mechanics of character creation for vampire PCs. In this one, I’ll step outside that rules-oriented view a bit and gather my thoughts regarding other aspects of what vampires are like in Sleepless Nights.

What are they like, then? Any answer I give here is necessarily tentative and provisional, because the final fact depends so strongly on the players. I don’t like to overdetermine things before I run a game (and that applies, on different scales, to both campaigns and individual sessions); the ideas I can come up with beforehand are never going to be as interesting from the shared point of view of the group as are those I arrive at in dialogue with the players. I’ll just give a tiny example: in my long-running, hiatus-prone fantasy campaign, The Gates of Mournwater, one of the players wanted to play a character who was very long-lived and over a hundred years old. I hadn’t planned on including any playable nonhuman races, but in conversation with this player we arrived at the concept of the Old Blood race, remnants of a more ancient stage of humanity, who age at roughly 1/3 the normal rate (while appearing superficially as roughly half their chronological age). Old Bloods, very few in number, gradually became a major part of the setting and a central conduit for one of the campaign’s repeating themes, the weight of legacy and heritage on lesser descendants of the powerful. That’s the sort of thing I most love as a gamemaster, so I want to prepare the soil for any seeds the players end up sowing.

In the context of this post, that means the nature of the vampiric condition is largely in the players’ hands. I’ve done quite a bit of preparatory work on the mechanics front (more than I intended, but I’m a sucker for fiddling with Gurps), so I’ll have a clear baseline to work from. Rules-oriented players are welcome to tinker with the template and abilities, while for those who are not so inclined, I’ll do my best to enable character creation without delving into anything more complicated than the stuff in Gurps Lite.

My approach to the less crunchy stuff is the same, and that’s what this post is about. It’s there for players to fall back or build up on as they choose, and for me to start with when designing – or improvising, more likely – vampiric NPCs.

Vampiric Compulsions: Fear and Bloodthirst

When a vampire kills with its bite, the victim first dies, and then rises again as a vampire.* This is significant: the vampire who rises does not merely have the physical substance of the victim, or even that and his or her memories, but is the same person. It is not a demon that possesses the corpse, or a newly created entity that inhabits it, but a continuation, in a different mode of existence, of the formerly living human. This necessitates the existence of an immaterial soul that can survive the death of the body and return to it through the action of the Nocturnal force. How this soul relates to the physical brain and body is a mystery. As the soul regains its connection to the now undead flesh, it keeps all memories, capacities and characteristics that were present before death. In game mechanical terms, all the character’s mental traits are retained. On top of these, however, are overlaid certain properties that are characteristic to the vampire and imposed on the soul by the Nocturnal force.

The vampire racial template includes three mental disadvantages: Phobia (Fire), Phobia (Sun), and Uncontrollable Appetite (Fresh human blood). The first two are experienced as irrational, overwhelming fear: a candle, or a beam of sunlight through a gap in a curtain, dominates the vampire’s consciousness, and focusing one’s attention on anything else, or taking any action other than escape requires an effort of will. This fear typically takes the newly-risen vampire completely by surprise: it is the perception of the object of fear that initiates the phobic reaction, whereas the thought of sunlight or a warm fire retains the pleasing associations it had during the vampire’s life. This gradually changes as the vampire adapts to its unlife: the idea of fire becomes frightening, and the sun may haunt the vampire’s dreams. Any kind of light starts to feel unsettling, and the vampire finds itself drawn to crypts and caves, far from the open sky and from humans who always bring light with them. In modern times, when light has become divorced from fire, and is plentiful at night, this shift in attitude is mitigated, but a vampire who has risen before the invention of electricity likely remains deeply distrustful of any kind of illumination.

The vampire’s overpowering desire for blood likewise presents itself differently in the newly-risen and the long-undead. At first, this is an alien urge that suddenly overtakes the senses. The compulsion to clamp its teeth on a pulsing neck and suck is frightening, thrilling, and confusing. As time goes by, it is assimilated into the vampire’s psyche: the older vampire is not only compelled, but also motivated to feed. This change permeates behavior. Early in its unlife, a vampire has the full range of human desires: its appetite is roused by the smell of delicious food; a glass of wine promises a warm, relaxing sensation; it feels attraction and sexual longing at the sight, smell, and touch of those it would have desired in life. However, while its desires are those of the living, the only way for the vampire to satisfy those desires is by feeding. The food and wine taste the same, but the instinct is to spit them out rather than swallow, lest it lead to retching; an intimate touch brings no pleasure, just a heightened urge to bite and feed. In time, these human associations fade. A vampire can learn to will its body to display the outward signs of sexual desire and to perform a semblance of the act, or to chew and swallow food convincingly only to vomit it out later, undigested, but these are only tricks to camouflage its condition: physical pleasure comes only from blood, and the memory of other pleasures fades. (Such tricks can be bought as perks.) A person with exceptionally strong or uninhibited tastes (disadvantages like Gluttony or Lecherousness) experiences them like before as a vampire, and they may resist the transition to a blood-only scope of desires. It is typical, also, for them to color the taste for blood: a vampire who loved to indulge in drink will be drawn to drunken prey, and one that sought sexual conquests compulsively will find a beautiful human, or one in the grip of sexual passion particularly difficult to resist. (The availability of suitable prey requires a Self-Control roll for personal disadvantages like these; a failure is treated like one for Uncontrollable Appetite.)

The desire to feed is powerful, whether the vampire experiences it as separate from, or well-integrated with, its self. It does not, however, eradicate the vampires other concerns, particularly its instinct for self-preservation. In practice, this means that the vampire can behave inconspicuously in the presence of humans, even though it is always conscious of the opportunity they present. Typically, indulgence can be inhibited except when certain conditions are met:

  • Blood is required, that is, the vampire is injured or has not yet fed tonight. (+2 to Self-Control at full HP; conversely, -1 for each 2 missing HP, assuming base HP in the 20-29 range. A vampire that fails its Self-Control roll gets a new roll at full HP, and a new one at a cumulative +1, after every further turn of using Leech.)
  • The vampire has an opportunity to feed with no fear of being revealed. (+2 to Self-Control in the presence of mortals, but -2 if the potential prey is alone and either willing or unconscious.)
  • The prey is close enough to smell or touch. (+2 to Self-Control if the vampire keeps at least 5 yards between itself and the prey, but -1 if the prey is closer than at a normal conversational distance, -2 if touched, and -3 for an extensive touch, like an embrace.)
  • Blood itself is visible. (-2 at the sight or smell of blood. Only blood taken directly from a living human can sustain a vampire, but any blood rouses the feeding urge.)
  • There are no distractions. (+2 in combat or other frantic action; -2 if the vampire must focus fully on observing or interacting with the prey, e.g. a vampire physician treating a mortal patient, a vampire artist painting a mortal model, or a vampire investigator interrogating a mortal witness.)
  • Contact with the potential prey is prolonged. (+2 for a fleeting contact of a few seconds or less; make another Self-Control roll every hour in the presence of the prey.)

When the thirst takes over, the vampire is still not forced to abandon reason (unless the Self-Control roll fails critically, in which case only an immediate attempt to bite will do), but may do its best to entice or coerce the chosen victim to a secluded place, or to postpone feeding to deal with something urgent, but only for a short while: eventually, the vampire will be driven to satisfy itself without regard for the consequences. (Make another Self-Control roll every minute of delay at a cumulative -1 per minute; a failure means you have to bite immediately.)


Another aspect of vampiric mentality is the call of vampiric hibernation, a condition resembling deep sleep, and outwardly indistinguishable from death, except the apparent corpse does not decay. Vampires can enter this state voluntarily and maintain it indefinitely. (This is made possible by the Metabolism Control advantage with the limitation Hibernation only.) While hibernating, the vampire’s body does not undergo the same constant deterioration as it does when animate, so no blood is required to maintain its function; in fact, the body slowly repairs all damage while hibernating, including that suffered from lack of blood. (The Draining and Unhealing disadvantages are not in effect when hibernating.) Vampires do not experience the need to hibernate as a compulsion like they do their fear of fire and sunlight, and their thirst for blood. (It’s also not a disadvantage, as it does not inconvenience the character.) Instead, it’s a languorous presence at the back of the mind: the promise of hibernation is a respite from strain, worry, and fear, and a vampire wakes from hibernation refreshed and active. It can be speculated that this behavior is adaptive, in the sense of natural selection*: even the most careful and inconspicuous vampire risks detection each time it feeds, and the risk grows as more and more victims display the unexplained symptoms of anemia and memory loss, and attention happens to fall on a person who is never seen during daylight hours. One way to attenuate this risk is to not feed repeatedly on the same person or in the same area, but every time it moves, a vampire must find a new, safe sleeping place. In addition, if potential hunters are already alert to the pattern of vampire victims, moving to a new territory and bringing that pattern along can exacerbate rather than reduce the danger of being revealed and destroyed. Hibernation is an alternative: an absence of a few months will mean all one’s victims are fully healed and interest in their condition will have waned; after a few years, even dedicated hunters will likely have moved on; and by hibernating for decades, the vampire can ensure that its former presence is remembered only as a curious bit of history or folklore. Of course, after such an absence the vampire must fabricate a new identity, but it is necessary to do so periodically in any case. Combining the two tactics, by seeking out a safe, secluded place hiding hole far from one’s current lair, and then hibernating there before re-emerging, is an effective way to avoid detection, and a typical one.

With the exception of the matters discussed above, rising as a vampire imposes no additional changes on personality or emotions, at least directly. Over decades and centuries the vampiric psyche may gradually deviate further and further from the human norm, but these changes are unpredictable and idiosyncratic, deriving from the interaction between the vampire’s base character and its particular experience of unlife. Typically, but not universally, vampires become more and more detached from humanity, and more focused either on simple survival, or some personal habit or goal that gradually takes on an obsessive quality as its scope increases to encompass multiple human lifespans.


Vampires can experience the full range of human emotions, and at least early on, they have a human’s emotional needs. Very few of them are capable of thriving entirely alone, and the question of satisfying a longing for companionship, conversation and empathy while preserving one’s secret and maintaining control of one’s feeding is one of vital concern for many. The typical solution is to maintain a cover identity and interact with humans through it, regularly but somewhat superficially. Forming close relationships with mortals dramatically increases the risk of being revealed, but total detachment is difficult to maintain. Over time, vampires that do try to distance themselves from mortals become more comfortable with solitude, and may come to dehumanize either others or themselves in different ways.

The Question of Evil

Vampires are not necessarily evil. This statement is true in two different senses, differentiated by the definition of the word: whether it is used in a metaphysical or a practical sense.

Firstly, vampires are not metaphysically evil. They are not demons, nor have they sold their souls to one, and the Nocturnal power that animates them is one of fundamental significance to the cosmos of the game setting, but it is not a moral principle. The setting is, in fact, one defined by moral nihilism (in the academic sense): good and evil are not part of its fundamental fabric, but exist only as abstractions of human ethical thought. Nevertheless, the manifestations of the Nocturnal force are typically dangerous to humans, and if it has any kind of will or agency, it may be best described as malevolent in character.

Secondly, rising as a vampire does not make one a sadist or psychopath; it is possible for a vampire to preserve itself without ever actually harming a human (by hibernating frequently), or, more likely, to take only small amounts of blood from its prey, barely enough to inconvenience them. That being said, unless the vampire somehow receives its prey’s freely given, informed consent, feeding is by necessity an act of violence and coercion, even if relatively minor. Furthermore, a vampire always places any human it interacts with to varying degrees of danger, since the threat of compulsive feeding is always present.


* It is necessary for contagion that the victim truly dies; one who is bled, even severely, but survives, is not at risk of turning. This is one reason why vampirism does not become an epidemic: the amount of blood required for survival is small enough that a vampire very rarely ends up killing its prey.

** This point was raised by sir_pudding on the SJGames Forums. It’s very difficult to estimate how adaptive a tendency to hibernate is, however, because while it increases the individual’s chances of survival, it also reduces the average number of offspring produced in any given time. So a more hibernation-prone vampire would have fewer offspring, but each of them would be more likely to survive a given length of time than the descendants of a less hibernation-prone vampire. In light of such a dynamic, we can predict that a more dangerous environment, one in which the probability of detection and destruction is high, would select for more hibernation, and one in which the threat of detection or destruction is low would select for less hibernation. A similar dynamic might be at work regarding the tendency to kill one’s victim: a strain of vampires that kill more often also grows more quickly, and eventually exhausts the capacity of its territory to support it. Once they run out of humans, the vampires would be forced to either enter hibernation en masse or turn on one another. A multitude of vampires hibernating underneath a ghost town, its every inhabitant sucked dry? It might have happened. A strain that combined high lethality (and therefore contagiousness) with a tendency to relocate frequently, on the other hand, might well lead to a global pandemic, a vampire apocalypse, in short order. In fact, there is an enormous selection pressure for just such an eventuality. Why has it not come to pass yet? The events of the campaign will no doubt shed light on this.


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