The Alexandrian

OD&D Volume 2: Monsters & TreasureThis is more of a mini-reaction, but during last night’s session I was suddenly struck by something in OD&D’s description of vampires:

VAMPIRES: These monsters are more properly of the “Undead” class rather than Lycanthropes.

Whenever I read that passage, I would think to myself, “Well… yeah.”

But tonight I had an epiphany which may already be obvious to some of you: “Oh! Of course! They could be classified as lycanthropes because they turn into wolves.” (This may be because I’ve been spending a bit more time than usual around Dracula.)

Bit of a digression here: I went to see Blade II in the theater with a large group of friends and friends-of-friends. My most vivid memory of the experience comes from the car ride home, when I listened to someone in the backseat ramble on for 15 minutes about all of the different ways in which Blade II had violated the continuity of Vampire: The Masquerade.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Blade II took it’s fair share of inspiration from the milieu of the World of Darkness. But it is also self-evidently not the same setting and, therefore, not bound by its rules.

With that being said, I do think it’s interesting to note the degree to which roleplaying games encourage us to think about myth and fiction in terms of categories and quantifications.

To explain what I mean, let me digress again: We interpret all media through the lens of our previous experiences with media, a fact that I think can probably be seen most clearly when we are young (and our exposure to media limited). For example, I can remember when any new work of space opera I encountered was first understood in the context of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Star Trek. Unless the author clearly established a delineation, I just sort of assumed that their universe worked like an admixture of the Federation and the Galactic Empire. This wasn’t a conscious choice on my part: It was just that my formative experiences with these works had created a lens through which other experiences were understood.

This is an effect which has been significantly diffused as my exposure to science fiction has broadened and deepened, but this doesn’t mean it’s gone away: When an author invokes the Singularity, my brain promptly plops in a whole gestalt understanding of what that means based on exposure to Vinge and Stross and MacLeod and Transhuman Space and Eclipse Phase and God only knows what else. Because it’s diffused, I think it’s easier for each work to make its unique impression upon me. But that filter of previous experience can’t be fully escaped.

So, to escape out of this recursive sequence of digressions, let me say this: Sitting in that car 10+ years ago, I could shake my head sadly at someone who interpreted all fiction through the lens of a roleplaying game. But it took this sudden epiphany regarding OD&D vampires to realize the degree to which a youth spent pouring over Monster Manuals had planted some pretty deeply rooted hierarchies into my understanding of the fantastic.

Vampires are undead.

So are skeletons and zombies. Actually, the clear-cut and categorical distinction between skeletons, zombies, and ghouls (among other things) is something else that I almost certainly owe to D&D.

And this isn’t just me. And it isn’t just limited to roleplaying games. By vector of fantasy fiction and film and computer, this stuff has seeped into the cultural gestalt.

This was something we talked about during rehearsals of Drakul: I think it’s actually impossible for any person in the modern world to fully appreciate Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I mean, I’m generally somebody who really enjoys reading works with an eye towards their historical context: I get a huge kick out of reading Skylark in Space and realizing that this shit had never been done before. I can feel the vicarious thrill of imagining what it would be like to read that book for the first time in 1928. But with Dracula I can’t quite pull it off: I mean, I can sort of intellectually see that Stoker is very carefully hiding the true nature of Dracula from his readers and treating it as a terrific mystery. I can logically conclude that Victorian readers would be wondering what strange and horrible curse had afflicted Lucy.

But my brain just keeps thinking, “It’s a vampire.” She has bite marks on her neck? It’s a vampire. She’s experiencing acute blood loss? It’s a vampire. C’mon, let’s get with the program. It’s a vampire.

And so forth.

To make a long story short: I find the degree to which pop culture fantasy has eradicated the mystery of the mythic interesting to consider. Perhaps even more interesting is the question of how we can inject that sense of mystery (and majesty) back into our own fantasies.

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7 Responses to “Reactions to OD&D: Vampires as Lycanthropes”

  1. Simon Forster says:

    Good post. Which gets me thinking: how many vampire stories out there, be it books, film, play, etc, have the vampire as something other than undead?

    I’m reading ‘Let the Right One In’ at the moment, and although I am still to finish it, there’s nothing so far that states she is a walking corpse; more implied that if she doesn’t get her blood fix (her being the child vampire of the story) she ages, with white streaks in her hair, weakness, frail.

    Why not have a vampire as something other than undead. Something to try out me thinks; and it’ll work beautifully against players expectations of what they expect a vampire to be.

  2. rorschachhamster says:

    Well, duh, Vampires are not lycanthropic because they turn into wolfes, but because they turn into bats
    Think about it. They are Werebats of the bloodsucking type. The whole wolf thing is probably just a misinterpretation of the bat hybrid form, to speak in 3e jargon (Hm, not my formative years, but funny how I still think along this lines… 😉 ). When the wings of the halfman/halfbat form are to small to carry them into the air, they must crawl along the ground – with fierce jaws and big ears and a fur… you want to take a closer look at this chance encounter in the transylvanian woods? Or do you just run screaming back home, telling of the “demonwolf” you just saw?

    Seriously, though, this post of your’s gives great food for thoughts about almost everything you subconsciously take for granted in any environment…

  3. Vampires: what if? | …and the sky full of dust. says:

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  4. Sebastien Roblin says:

    I wonder if sometimes modern fantasy/sci-fi is too quick to connect the dots for us when describing elements of a fictional universe- obviously these ones are the undead, this is a warp drive, and that guys is part of an order of war priests and so on.

    Even though we may still want to use those concepts, they may be more intriguing if they are not presented so nakedly for what they are, but cloaked with different names and specific contexts and wierd rules and characteristics outside of their archetypes.

    I was thinking about this reading the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant recently, which for all its mixed faults and strengths, bothers to create an original vocabulary for the races and social roles in its setting. I found myself forced to engage with the writing to understand the significance of the various creatures and social organizations, and that made the more mysterious and original even though they were often a context-specific variant of a familiar concept.

  5. Guy Incognito says:

    It took me three tries to get through Dracula for the very same reason, the first 1/2 to 2/3s of the book is a mystery to which we already know the answer.

  6. Sir Wulf says:

    We easily forget how our culture has changed in the last century. Knowledge that our forefathers considered rare and esoteric is available at the touch of a button. Every day, television exposes us to strange lands and cultures. Education fights ancient myths and superstitions, giving us the (often mistaken) perception that we understand and control the world around us.

    Our game rules reflect our time. They codify and organize monsters and magic, stripping away their mystery. We find ourselves arguing with players who don’t understand why a wizard wouldn’t mass produce [i]+2 dragonbane longswords[/i] or who complain that they should be able to cast [i]wall of iron[/i] spells daily, profiting as iron merchants until they grow as rich as King Midas.

    Part of the GM’s responsibility is to create a sense of wonder and awe, weaning players away from their expectation of familiarity. The world should make sense, but its mysteries should far outweigh its familiar aspects. A wondrous blade isn’t bought in the market square, and the cost of magic goes far beyond material wealth.

    Just as magic should always hold some mystery, the eerie inhabitants of fantastic worlds should cloak themselves in fear and superstition. When you tell the players they see a band of goblins, they may sneer to face such wretched foes. The same enemies become a very different encounter after the tales of local peasants speak of cunning goblin-fae, shadow-loving tempters who lure children and favored pets into the forest, there to suffer incomprehensible torments. The few who eventually stumble back from the trees remain mute, blank-eyed automatons forever after. Are these hideous foes mere goblins? There’s only one way to be sure…

  7. Rich says:

    When I saw this post a couple days ago, it reminded me of The Fantasy Trip. I’ve just had the chance to check it out, and TFT offers corroborating evidence of what you’re talking about. In the “Flora and Fauna” section of “In the Labyrinth,” there is just one entry for “Werewolves and Vampires.” It opens like this:

    These creatures are not species; they are sufferers from two closely related diseases. Vampirism and lycanthropy (werewolf disease) are both caused by microorganisms. They have many things in common, including:

    And continues from there.

    Like you say, these categories are so self-evidently separated for most modern genre fantasy / RPG folks that we may not realize that they used to have much less distinct boundaries.

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