“Dracula is the name brand vampire. If you’re watching a vampire movie and it isn’t a Dracula then, son, you need to step up your game.” –Zack Parsons
What would you do, if you were inviting friends to a new campaign about vampires, and one of them asked if he could play Dracula? I said yes.
Sleepless Nights is a centuries-spanning Gurps campaign in which the PCs are vampires. We’re playing each PC’s origin story as a standalone session in more or less chronological order, with the other players taking on one-shot characters. The introductory sessions answer, one by one, how the PCs became vampires.
So, my player wanted to play Dracula, and upon questioning, decided that more specifically, he wanted to be Vlad Țepeș as a vampire; nobody knows yet to what extent his character will conform to Stoker’s conception. But the question of last monday’s session was: how did Vlad the Impaler become a vampire? Multiple books and movies have weighed in with possible answers, I’m sure, but I’m not familiar with any of them, so I felt no particular need to follow, deviate from, or comment on earlier work in the same vein. (I haven’t read Kenneth Hite’s Dracula Dossier either, which I’m sure I should get around to.) Here’s how it played out:
The year is 1475. Prince Vlad, sometimes monikered “the Impaler”, rightful ruler of Wallachia, but deposed by his younger brother, has been a prisoner of the King of Hungary for many years. He has patiently worked to convince the King to release him and back his campaign to win back his throne. His efforts have finally been rewarded, and he’s currently travelling around Hungary and Transylvania forging alliances in preparation for his reconquest.
This is roughly as far as historical accuracy goes in this session. The rest is true only in the campaign.
Vlad has received a letter from a Hungarian nobleman who has promised him 3,000 forints for his campaign in exchange for the lands of a few noblemen who participated in Vlad’s downfall. Vlad has set out at once for his castle, to which an important mercenary commander has also been invited.
I figured 3,000 forints would be equivalent to the same number of real florins, but I’m not sure whether that would’ve been the case historically. I came up with it as a quick guesstimate for what a company of a few thousand men would cost for six months’ campaigning. None of my players are historians either, so it really doesn’t matter. It’s supposed to be enough money for Vlad to make his move, anyway.
Vlad is accompanied by about twenty recently hired servants and mercenaries, and the three other PCs: his squire, Peter von Hesse, sent by the Teutonic Knights to aid in battling against the Turk, 18 years old and full of desire to prove himself; his Venetian mistress Carmen, an adventuress, beautiful and difficult; and his priest confessor, Father Damaskinos, a preacher and herbalist with a bit of a Rasputin thing going. Along the way, they run into the remains of a cloth merchant’s wagon, get a quarrel loosed at them by a freaked out merchant who mistakes them for more bandits and gets mistaken for a bandit in turn, and whom they duly kill.
This was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Vlad and Peter were engaging in chivalry talk, and I decided on a whim to roll a single die for whether they get some kind of quest: the higher, the knightlier. I rolled a ‘4’ but didn’t necessarily keep that in mind as the scene progressed. This fight did eat up into precious game time, but it also served as a low-stakes introduction to combat for Peter’s player, who’d never played Gurps, and a reminder for the others. It’s good to know, before getting into a serious scuffle, that in Gurps, you’re always falling prone, getting knocked out cold by wild swings, grappling in the mud, having your foot crippled, and other such things that don’t tend to happen much in most systems.
The Host and his Gold
As they proceed from fertile lowlands through rougher hill country and approach the mountains, the silhouette of their destination, Castle Báthory, appears against the mountainous skyline.
This was the first time I dropped the name Báthory into the game. I expected some kind of reaction from the players, and got nothing! Don’t they associate the name with vampire lore, or were they just playing it cool? I have no idea.
Lord István rides up to meet them, and accompanies them not to the castle, which he says is being renovated, but to a handsome if modestly sized manor house close by. They’re set up in a suite of rooms, there are pleasantries all around, etc. István promises that the following day there’ll be a play, and they can talk about the coming campaign in the evening, and that the mercenary commander is expected to arrive in a few days.
The next day, they see the play, which is terrible. It’s cobbled together from two incompatible stories and gussied up with clumsy attempts to appeal to Vlad, and the actors playing women are unappealingly masculine.
I rolled 3d for the play’s quality, and got a 6 or something. I don’t know why I didn’t treat this as a skill roll for the performers, and instead went for something more like a reaction roll. I have no idea if there was any kind of theater in Hungary in the 1400s. I imagined this as sort of a travelling troupe, like the plays within plays in Shakespeare, which I’m sure is completely incongruous.
Nevertheless, Vlad is very generous (with borrowed money) to the performers. Afterwards, there is a feast, and Vlad and Lord István exchange gifts. (Vlad did well with Savoir-Faire, and nobody else embarrassed themselves either.) When the feast is over, the two retire for serious talk. Vlad has with him his close companions. (Including Carmen, who doesn’t really have a good reason to be present, but did well enough with her Savoir-Faire that there are no objections.) István, on the other hand, is accompanied by his two Slavic bodyguards, big men with long axes, like Varangians a couple of centuries too late. (These guys had a backstory, but no one ever found out about it.) One of them, Jaroslav, is sent out to fetch “what we’re here for” in Lord István’s words, and returns shortly with an actual chest of gold. It’s a tiny chest, of course, because 3000 gold forints would fit in a coat pocket, but still impressively heavy. All are duly impressed, and Vlad runs the coins through his fingers, contemplating the future. (I loved how Vlad’s player performed him. You could really feel that this was a driven and dangerous, but also mature man.) Then Jaroslav takes the chest back, and, important matters conducted, the host and guests socialize. Vlad beats István at chess and analyses his character. Father Damaskinos notices the other bodyguard, a younger man, keeps glancing at him. Finally, Lord István retires with his bodyguards, and the guests head for their suite. Before parting, the host apologizes that he will not be present the next day, as he is supervising the work on the castle.
Father Damaskinos goes out to a corridor to pray, and just as he hoped, the younger bodyguard comes to pray with him: he’s in a Catholic land, and has no spiritual father to confess to, so the appearance of Damaskinos is a great mercy. The young man is very upset and struggles with his conscience, and Damaskinos firmly helps him to a full confession. (Damaskinos’ player did well both in roleplaying and with his rolls.) He says that he has been party to dishonorable acts under the orders of Lord István and Jaroslav, mentioning girls at one point, and finally reveals that István is planning to betray Vlad and, he conjectures, sell him to his enemies. Damaskinos guides him to Vlad and has him reveal the truth for the sake of his soul. Vlad decides that they will not reveal their hand, but will wait for an opportune moment to obtain proof of István duplicity, and to get their hands on the money, which is hidden somewhere. Peter tells Vlad that while stopping outside in the yard a little earlier, he heard Jaroslav talking to some woman, but could not see the two, as the yard was unlit. (Peter’s player picked Night Blindness as his biggest disadvantage. I though that was just a brilliant touch in a game about vampires.) In Carmen’s bedroom later, Vlad hears the two bodyguards talking, in hushed agitation, apparently while leaving the manor.
The next day, Vlad and Peter set out to scout the area, ostensibly for hunting purposes, and take a game warden with them, while Carmen sets out to spy on István in the castle. She’ll need help to get in through the gatehouse, and uses a straightforard tactic of lewd hints to the manor’s majordomo. He promises to take her to the castle, but not to let her inside, even though he does have access, as the lord has specifically forbidden letting anyone inside. Damaskinos tags along, looking for herbs, and with him puttering about, Carmen manages to manipulate the majordomo to sneaking her in through the foot gate. (Another fun scene, with the poor majordomo gradually grasping that he was being manipulated against his best interests, but too deep in her grip to turn back.)
The Closed Castle
Inside, there is much less evidence for renovations than would be expected, with only a couple of carts of stones, some fresh digging and no work crews. Instead, István and Jaroslav are alone in the chapel house, whose floor has been removed to reveal an entrance to some kind of subterranean structure. Upon discovery, Carmen is smacked unconscious, and the majordomo summarily executed, by Jaroslav. When she comes to, she’s in the chapel excavation, with the two men arguing over what should be done to her: Jaroslav is of the opinion she should be taken underground: “what’s one girl more or less?” István is furious that Jaroslav may have ruined his plans for Vlad. Carmen, always sharp-eyed for the main chance, plays the two men against each other. She promises István that she can help him with Vlad, and that she’s been hoping to ditch him for a new provider, and isn’t Jaroslav being awfully impudent, my lord, etc. This works, with Jaroslav insisting that they put her underground and threatening him obliquely, until István finally loses his temper and starts smacking him with his riding crop. (I hadn’t specified before that he had a riding crop. But it certainly made sense dramatically.) Jaroslav has enough, pulls his sword on his master, and Carmen bolts.
Jaroslav chases Carmen on foot at first, and as he’s being outdistanced by the nimble and less encumbered young woman, turns back to get his horse. (I ran an abbreviated version of the Chase rules from Action 2. They work pretty well, and if there’s ever a 5th edition, I hope something like them makes it to the core rules.) Vlad and Peter are just returning from their scouting mission as they see Jaroslav ride after Carmen, and join the pursuit. Carmen manages to get into the manor and to bar the gate after her, but Jaroslav uses his longaxe on it. The terrified young woman finds one of Vlad’s men, a crossbowman, in the yard, and he and his one missed shot buy her a little extra time to escape. She makes it to Vlad’s suite and starts barricading the door, and Vlad and Peter reach him just outside the suite.
There’s a terrifically bloody three-way battle. (I tried to keep it simple, with no hit locations and no Extra Effort, and with skill levels in the 12-14 range, we even managed without Deceptive Attack.) There’s some back-and-forth, but Jaroslav gets a good hit in on Vlad, who goes down unconscious, and manages to knock down Peter, when Carmen opens the door, sneaks up on him, and stabs him in the neck with her dagger. It’s not enough to kill him, but he does lose consciousness before managing to quite kill Peter.
Father Damaskinos arrives at the scene quite soon, tailed by a crowd of servants, guards, mercenaries etc. They find Carmen beating on Jaroslav’s unconscious face with her shoe. He and Carmen together manage to convince the onlookers about the basic facts: that Jaroslav has gone mad for blood and murdered his own master. An impromptu party immediately sets out for the castle to see if István is really dead, dragging Carmen along. Damaskinos, who’s got some experience as a chirurgeon, gets to work on treating Vlad. Peter, who’s still conscious, manages to crawl up to Jaroslav and finish him off. At the castle, the servants collect the bodies of the majordomo and Lord István. As the sun sets and the somber, shocked throng is leaving the castle, a figure is seen flying out of the old chapel in the darkness.
Damaskinos continues treating Peter and Vlad in the suite. He’s hard at work praying, when something comes in through the window. When he faces it, he faints with terror.
Fright Checks do take people out of the action a lot. RPG Jutsu and Ravens N’ Pennies recently wrote about this issue, and I think I might take some steps if it becomes a problem. On the other hand, mortals feinting with terror with some regularity should not be a problem in Sleepless Nights, and I can simply not mandate Fright Checks for vampires with the exception of Terror, failed Phobia rolls, and really exceptionally horrible experiences.
Peter, still conscious, but only barely, is praying to God to accept him, glad of a heroic death on the side of his master. He hears a strange sucking sound, and shortly afterwards feels a soft touch. “Death, you’ve come for me,” he says, and, almost blind in the candlelight from across the room, looks with fascination on his visitor’s skeletal face as it descends to within a few inches of his own. The visitor is floating above him, weightless in the air, and its ghastly form transforms slowly, miraculously, into the image of a beautiful woman in a diaphanous funeral shroud. “Who are you, dying young man? And who is this other lying beside you?” she asks. “I’m just a squire,” he says, “who has given his life to protect the other. He is Vlad, the rightful and true prince of Wallachia.” The visitor turns her gaze to Vlad. “A true prince, you say? Close your eyes, Peter. You have done well.” He does so, and falls unconscious with infinite relief and satisfaction.
When Carmen returns to the suite, a pale woman is just climbing onto the windowsill with Vlad in her arms. Carmen looks on in disbelief and outrage as the inexplicable bitch leaps out with her man. She runs to the window, but there are no bodies in the yard below. Somewhere far above, her pale figure is speeding through the air with him in her arms.
So, it went well all in all, and completely differently from what I had planned. I figured I’d guide the action into the crypt in the castle, and had thought of a couple of cool creep-out scenes there. But my players refused to go follow Jaroslav three times: as he left with the chest of gold, when he was with the woman in the yard, and a third time when he was heard outside Carmen’s window with the younger bodyguard. No matter! If the voivode won’t come to the vampire, the vampire must come to the voivode. All good ideas can be used later, and the session worked on multiple fronts: I had fun one-on-one roleplaying scenes with all four player characters, they had some nice interaction with each other, the fighting was bloody and frustrating, and the supernatural stuff in the end did, I think, manage to attain some real atmosphere. While in the first session, the vampire at the end used Shapeshifting (Wolf), and was known to also possess the Enslavement ability and some magic, the only Vampirism ability this one displayed was Levitation, at level 4 or 5. More importantly, she suffered from the thirst defect Cadaverous: before feeding, she looked like a skeleton, but after emptying out Father Damaskinos, she gradually reverted back to her living appearance.
I’ve scheduled our next session for a month from now, with a leap back to the 13th century. We’ll see if the player whose origin story was revealed in the first session can make it. If he does, it will be the first time we’ll see a player character vampire in this campaign!