Its been all business on this blog for a few weeks now, what with that monstrous series of posts on OKRs, so I think its time to take a break and talk about something a bit more light-hearted.
Tormented creatures, cursed with eternal life and an insatiable desire for blood!
Otherwise known as vampires.
So, strap in for a story about subverting player expectations with as many vampire puns as I can manage.
If you're planning on playing through the Dungeon of the Mad Mage and want to go in blind, this blog post spoils an interesting set piece located on the first level.
You have been warned.
One Thing I Could Never Stomach.
Bandits are common antagonists in D&D, especially in the early levels where the stakes are relatively low. They are moderately threatening, relatively intelligent opponents who are more than willing to fight or talk depending on the situation. Their motivations are easy to understand (money) and you can put them just about anywhere without too much of a stretch.
So, by that logic, its not surprising that the first level of the Dungeon of the Mad Mage has a group of bandits. They act as a minor power on the level, competing with other unsavoury elements for territory and shaking down any players who run into them for cash.
But bandits can be a bit boring and cliché, so the designers of the adventure spruced the gang up a nibble, giving them a theme.
The Undertakers (as the bandit group is called) are all failed actors and singers who have decided to turn to a life of crime. They have access to theatrical supplies (i.e. makeup, props, costumes, etc), which means that their disguises are pretty good in the scheme of things
Its a pretty good set up, because its not immediately obvious to the players that they aren't vampires, and most players know that vampires are not to be messed with.
Of course, its not all that hard to figure out that its all fakery, what with the removable fangs and face paint, at which point the gig is up and their perceived threat to the players is diminished.
But what if it wasn't all fakery?
All The Damn Vampires
While preparing to run the adventure, I thought to myself that it would be amazing if unbeknownst to both the players and the bandits, there was a real vampire in their midst.
A vampire with somewhat theatrical tendencies, who saw a struggling group of actors and performers and encouraged them to use their skills to use the vampiric myth to give weight to their intimidation tactics.
He's not the leader of the gang though, that would be too obvious. He's just a member, and as far as the other members are concerned, he's just got a really good disguise and always stays in character.
The power differential between the bandits and the vampire is immense, which makes him akin to an out of depth monster in a roguelike. Like an unexpected chilli in a box of sweet treats. Or a Skittle in a mouthful of M&Ms.
Of course, the vampire doesn't want to just effortlessly slaughter everyone. That's not fun for him, nor is it fun for the players. He's mostly just stroking his own ego by coaching all of the other bandits on how to play a good vampire.
Unsurprisingly, he's a really good coach.
You're A Vampire! I Knew It!
When my players encountered the vampandits, they were cautious, but fairly quickly twigged onto the fact that they weren't really vampires.
So, they were lulled into a false sense of security.
They fought and killed the first leader of the gang, then met the other leader, who was quite good at passing herself off as a vampire. She was bested and her trump card destroyed, but the players were also forced to retreat, so it was something of a stalemate.
When the players came back for another bite, they bested the leader yet again, but it was at this point that the real vampire (P.S. his name is Le'stat) revealed himself by sinking his teeth into one of the players for real.
This was as much of a surprise to the bandits as it was to anyone else, so they freaked out and legged it, leaving the players alone with a true creature of the night. The vampire proceeded to ham it up, enjoying the attention and the opportunity to sample some new vintages. Like a true connoisseur.
He toyed with them for a while, like any apex predator would, but eventually tired of the game and drained one of the players to the brink of death because they were the "tastiest and most interesting".
Then he left, because vampires are fickle and they really did hurt him so he needed to lick his wounds.
From my point of view, the subversion of expectations was glorious with the instantaneous flip from victorious players cleaning up the dregs of the gang to suddenly fighting for their lives being intensely enjoyable to me.
Introducing a real vampire into a bunch of fake vampires is one of the best memories that I have of a campaign filled with a lot of amazing experiences.
But I do wonder how it felt from the players point of view.
They seemed to enjoy it, but I was also enjoying myself so much that I might just have been blind to their real reactions.
Still, I have no regrets.
Subverting clichés and expectations is one of the things I enjoy the most as a game master and I'd do it again without any hesitation at all.
I'm always looking for my necks victims after all.