World-Crafting: Vampires

Time for the Friday blog post. The good thing is, this week’s post is about vampires! Specifically, the design choices that went into the vampires in Covenant.  Better, the blog post means its Friday, and the weekend’s here.

Everyone Loves a Vampire

While I didn’t want to make When Dragons Die a “vampire book”—I mean, that’s been done, right?—I knew I wanted to have at least some elements of the vampire story in my world.  I did, after all, spend a few years in college obsessed with the Anne Rice books, and to a lesser extent with the game Vampire: The Masquerade.  Oh yeah, and before that, in high school, I devoured Dracula by Bram Stoker and the Ravenloft books about Strahd, like I, Strahd, and Vampires of the Mist.  All excellent reads.

Dracula had the vampire clearly as the tempter villain (the movie painted him more empathetically than the book). Set in Victorian times, Dracula was shockingly sexual for its period. Vampirism is a metaphor for the lure of sex, but even more than that, the forbidden fruit of oral sex.  Gotta love those Victorian norms.

Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles takes the vampire out of the realm of simple monster. Still a monster, he become an anti-hero. This is also true for White-Wolf’s World of Darkness in Vampire: the Masquerade. They featured the vampire as tragic heroes.

With each iteration, vampires took on different powers, and different limitations. Count Dracula was susceptible to holy relics; Lestat was not. However, they had some things in common: sunlight was lethal, and they needed to feed on blood. White Wolf gave the vampires additional powers, far beyond the bounds of folklore.

But one thing the above always had in common: vampires were tragic characters. They had severe flaws, and had to live with the fact that they would never see sunlight again, could never live a normal life, and had to kill (or were likely to kill) to survive. They were given immortality at the sacrifice of their humanity—but more importantly, at the sacrifice of their peace of mind. They struggled with guilt over what they were, and were in danger of losing their humanity.

Contrast to the travesty that is “Twilight”. Ok, I’ve not read the books; I’m going completely off the movies.  The point of the vampire trope is that there’s a downside to being a vampire—no matter how awesome some aspects might be, it still sucks.  Vampires are supposed to existentially suffer.

Vampires that glitter in sunlight and don’t turn into piles of ash do not suffer. Sorry, the “Twilight” vampires are just elves with fangs. It’s as if the very concept of being a vampire, even as a tragic hero, has been stripped from them. Edward is a 12-year-old girl’s romantic fantasy. Nothing more.

A Vampire Apocalypse

So, when I set out to put vampires into Covenant, I had a few design choices to work out. I knew I wanted them to burn up in sunlight—I do have some traditionalist in me—but after that I wasn’t sure. Did I want them to have folkloric limitations like garlic, holy symbols, holy water, and even running water? Or would I take a more modern approach and give them some weaknesses but have nothing faith-based, such as the Anne Rice version?

I decided to go folkloric, with a few twists. The first thing to decide: how are vampires made?  In most folklore and early stories, if a vampire bites you, you rise as a vampire. In more modern tellings, they went with the romantic “I must make you a vampire by forcing you to drink my blood.” This was how they avoided the exponential problem of pure folklore: if everybody who dies from a vampire’s bite rises as a vampire, then soon everyone will be vampires and no one will be left to feed upon.

In other words, a contagion.

Then I thought, hey, why not go with this? Zombie apocalypses are popular, right? Why not a vampire apocalypse?  We don’t need some stinking zombies to have a catastrophic plague undead story, right? No, we don’t!

So, I went with this: vampire fangs inject a venom, of sorts. This venom creates euphoric effects, which causes the victim to surrender to the feeding. If the victim dies with the venom in their body, they rise as a vampire. The kicker was, in Ahmbren, for the first 10 years of the contagion, no vampire could control himself. Every time they fed, they created a new vampire, and soon towns were wiped out.  The converted town populace would spread, and then more towns were wiped out.  Vampire apocalypse.

By the time of Covenant’s start, this has been going on for 8 years. Most human kingdoms have fallen to the contagion, and the living are losing ground against the blood-sucking undead. Until then, no vampire had proven able to control their hunger so as not to drain a victim to death. Until the start of the book… a new faction learns how not to kill their meals, which creates a different dynamic.

The next idea was shapeshifting. Traditional vampires can become bats, wolves, and mists.  In the end, went with a mist-only option. This allows them to travel and fly as a mist, but the mist is also their doom if they starve. It staves off the feeling of hunger and famine, and so a vampire who has not fed will want to spend most of its time lolling about as a living fog… until it’s in the presence of prey.

I decided to go full bore with the holy item thing. Holy water hurts, but does not kill a vampire. Fire kills, as is pretty standard, and the stake paralyzing but not killing is standard for modern tropes.

Finally, I went with a very traditional idea of “home soil.” The vampire can rest on his own homeland, but if he falls asleep at dawn in a foreign land, without a coffin of transported soil, he burns to ash as if hit by sunlight. This concept of “sovereign borders” takes an important role in the story, considering that the vampire’s power stems from the goddess Malhkma, Goddess of Desire, enemy of Athra, Goddess of Civilization, whose domain sovereignty is.

So, in summary, Covenant is a vampire story based on mostly folkloric ideas, but taking the contagious aspect to its logical conclusion: an outbreak of vampire plague… the Vampire Apocalypse!

Until next week, cheers all!
Kyle

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