Truly Terrifying Vampires (system neutral)
This system neutral pdf clocks in at 26 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 2 pages of advertisements, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 21 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
So, in a nutshell, this pdf represents a kind of brainstorming tool for the GM, one specifically geared to helping you with making vampires. We thus begin with a brief discussion of how most vampires have become laughable and trope-ridden in media representation, and endeavors to find way to make them fearsome once again.
The pdf then proceeds to isolate three important components that represent aspects of what can be used to make vampires interesting once more: The first would be the Fear of the Unknown, which is something that cannot be overstated in its importance: Varied abilities, bloodlines and weaknesses can do a lot to help you customize different threats without them going stale. That standard vampire statblock from your Bestiary or Monster Manual? Never, ever use it. Vampires shouldn’t be just another thing to beat down.
The fear of catalepsy and disease, rampant in the Victorian age, which saw the rise to infamy of the vampire motif in popular fiction, is another aspect that can easily be adjusted and modified for the game. The notion of plague-bringing and consumption, which tied in with the erroneous medical “knowledge” of humors, added to the symbolically-charged blood drain, though the pdf does not give this historical context.
Thirdly, the fear of the unholy would be next. Now, these three core fears are nice first angles, and the pdf does note implementation strategies for the game itself, but I found myself puzzled to see the obvious left out.
Vampires are creepy because of their psycho-sexual connotations. Fear of blood and fear of the flesh are inextricably entwined on a metaphysical level, and Stoker’s novel was this scandalous due to the pronounced upheaval and contrast to the social strata and, in particular the horribly limited means of sexual expression available to Victorian women. There is a reason early vampire novels are often read as a form of criticism in Feminism. Indeed, there are plenty of progressions we can see to this date in that regard: While Dracula was originally anything but appealing, aesthetically, the allure of taboo-less, violent and aggressive sexual conduct is a leitmotif to this date, at least with proper depictions of vampires. Twilight et al. serve a different semantic and fantasy, but the “dark and handsome stranger”, the “vamp” indeed is alive and well today. And can be utterly terrifying and horrific…but I digress. I assume this component was cut out in order to avoid any mention of sexuality, since the subject matter is taboo in the US. At the same time, this is a horror-supplement and as such, is aimed at a mature audience…so yeah. It strikes me as odd.
The second part provides basically a DIY-generator for vampires. You roll once to determine whether a vampire is alive or undead. Then, you roll a d6 for living vampires, a d8 for undead ones, to determine how they became vampires. These are…underwhelming. “Forced into cannibalism by starvation,” “cursed by a witch”, “killed savagely”, “committed suicide”…perhaps that’s me being a jaded prick, but I didn’t need those. They’re kinda boring. Run of the mill.
Next up, you roll 1d4 to determine who they are – we get a table for living and undead vampires, each. Living ones could be hermits, a local family, an inmate in prison, for example. Undead have three means to leave their grave – clawing through the coffin, lifting it or turning to smoke, bypassing all. These…don’t tell me anything about who they are. Just how they rise. The 4th entry doesn’t have the vampire rise at all, and while it doesn’t tell me anything about the vampire, chewing their lips, tongue and shroud, thus generating diseases in the area, is interesting and an angle I can see worth pursuing. There are tables for living and undead vampires to determine the frequency of their hunts, with living vampires getting 4, undead vampires 6 entries. These are okay. We get 4 sample goals for living vampires, 8 for undead vampires. Stealing the soul of the ritualistically consumed, hunting only to drink blood, feeding via dreams, an Alp-like feeding over the sleeping. There are a few very basic entries here, but also some that quote more rarely seen concepts. A d8 table for living vampires and one with 12 entries for undead ones provides an answer to how they “look” like. The table for living vampires include preternaturally young-looking folks in 3 of the entries (somewhat redundant) and entries like “especially attractive/muscular” are…there, I guess. Open sores and a bad small are two tells also noted here. The undead vampire dressing includes having hair fallen out, being stark white…and one entry is “Their skin looks normal.” Come on. We don’t need an entry for that!
The next page is only half full and sports a d10 table for living vampire abilities like “exceptionally fast/strong/dexterous”, being able to befriend folks or disorient them with the voice. There also are 10 undead vampire abilities noted, which includes shifting into mists etc., massive leaps, causing roots to grow or targets to suffocate, etc. This section would have been more immediately useful if the book had committed to a system…and then, it could have been a bit more extensive, for most of the abilities sported on the page are hard-coded in the vampires of most systems anyways, making it, as a whole, not too helpful.
Okay, the next table is a real winner: Vampire derangements! 20 of them, to be precise. Taking a long time to respond, lecherous looks, becoming very touchy/feely, being unable to walk (dragging yourself with the arms, paranoia, constantly picking scabs…this table is gold and the best in the pdf so far. I’m gonna skip ahead for a bit to another one page table of 8 entries that provide classic means of repelling a vampire. While moderately detailed, there are new things here for veterans. Mirrors, garlic, grotesqueries, hawthorn…the latter two may be new for novices of vampire lore, but not for anyone who has taken a closer look. The pdf then proceeds to name 4 ways of preventing a living vampire from rising as undead, 3 to end an undead vampire’s haunting and 4 to defeat them once and for all. Nothing new here. Drown them. Kill them. Burn them. Stuff the mouth. Stake them. We’ve seen that all before.
The next section is another one that really, REALLY suffers from being system neutral. The pdf sports two pages that are devoted to the tricks of vampires – having vampire blood spatter on you can provide bonuses, but also carries a temptation and curse. Means to resist, vampires being high level and hard to kill – design aesthetic-wise, I can get behind all notions expressed here. At the same time, the immediate usefulness of the material is hobbled by the insistence of not adhering to a system. To give you an idea: “After the encounter, make some sort of Willpower
save (average difficulty).“ Yeah, sure, I can translate that to every single game I play. Problem is that the boon of the tempted condition does not translate. Average difficulty determining can also be problematic, as there are plenty of games where this does not exist. This section feels like templates or 5e-monster features, diluted down to this state. And yes, the pdf does quote specific rules: Being cursed by a vampire can result in a 25% of rising as one – something that can only be broken via wish, in direct violation of pretty much every rule regarding curses in any game that sports the wish spell I know. In short: This section is faux-system neutral. Instead of championing ideas, the pdf seeks to sort-of-half-way present rules, but not really. That doesn’t help anyone.
The pdf comes with a non-form-fillable work-sheet (why isn’t this fillable?) as well as two sample, filled versions. The pdf concludes with 14 different plot seeds/adventure hooks. There are a few solid ideas here.
Editing and formatting are pretty good, I noticed no undue accumulation of glitches. Layout adheres to a solid two-column full-color standard. The artwork within is stock art and photography on the cheesier side of things. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Chris Stevens’ “Truly Terrifying Vampires” started off as a well-intentioned book; the observations in the beginning, while not exhaustive in their discussion, are sensible and generally present a well-founded reasoning. The underlying sentiment is valiant indeed and something I certainly can get behind.
That being said, after this section, the pdf comes somewhat apart. The pdf is advertized as a book that is intended to help you make vampires horrific, and it spectacularly fails at that job. After remarking how trope-ladden and done the concept of vampires is, the pdf fails to provide anything beyond the plainest of vanilla vampires. Flip open and Vampire: The Masquerade or WoD-book, and you’ll find better inspiration. Similarly, scouring the old AD&D Ravenloft MMs, Warhammer’s Vampire-armybook or a dozen of other supplements will yield infinitely more compelling material.
Did we really need a table to tell us that holy symbols or garlic or mirrors were bad news for some vampires? Really? Each of the playmodes of Night’s Black Agents is more interesting than this…and does the angles for disease, a focus of this pdf with its “blood spatter-equals tempted/cursed”-mechanics better.
The only metric by which this makes an improvement for vampires, is the one where you only know the glittering kind. But then again, you’re bound to have found other supplements, with concise rules, that provide a more captivating diversification here.
In short: The system neutral dressing generator, which was supposed to provide the jamais-vu, the creative, the idea that transcends systems, that makes it worth adapting to your game of choice…is remarkably bereft of unique ideas. The abilities and ideas presented are almost universally already hard-coded into the stats for vampires for most games.
The brief “rules”-section, on the other hand, shows some promise; it feels like it once was a guideline, a template of sorts to make vampires for one system more deadly, less wimpy…but systems have different assumptions, different rules…and that also includes the representation of aforementioned dressing. Where the dressing section, where system neutral components and details should have kicked the varieties and strangeness wide open, and instead opted for vanilla vampires, this section would offer actually nice rules-tweaks, if it adhered to a system properly.
This, to me, feels like a generator written for a system and its vanilla Monster Manual/Bestiary vampires. With, at one point, perhaps some ideas for codified powers, taken out of the context of the original presentation, applied into a generator. Then, alas, the rules were thrown out, made abstract, and we’re left with a boring, uninspired generator and rules that are not worth the hassle of translating to a system.
And don’t get me wrong! I wanted to like this! There are traditions of vampiric monsters in pretty much every culture on this planet, all with unique angles…but we don’t get any here. Neither do we get something weird or far out. This is paint by the numbers, standard vampires. And I don’t understand it. At all.
After the per se well-reasoned introduction, how could this pdf fall into exactly that been there, done that, no longer scary pitfall it so harshly criticized in the first place??
I can’t begin to tell you how much I wanted this to succeed. Where is the vampire with the mosquito-proboscis? The one that drinks your shadow? The living snow-storm? The thing that lives in light and travels through mirrors? There are PLENTY of supremely creative, uncommon and exciting twists on the vampire out there, but this has none of them. The pdf both fails regarding its mission statement, its generator, and its rules don’t warrant the hassle of translation. The 5 introductory pages are a decent reading experience, though.
Unless you are utterly new to anything vampire-related, unless you have never played Vampire, never read Dracula, seen Nosferatu or heard about Bathory, in short, unless you barely know what a vampire actually is supposed to be, this will have nothing for you. I really try hard to find the good in a product and shine a light on it, but I am hard pressed to do so here.
I guess, if you’re really that innocent regarding vampires, if you have no idea regarding lore, etc., then this may have some value. I don’t know. It’s not an expensive pdf, but frankly, I can’t rate this higher than 1.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
You can get this pdf here on OBS.