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Wednesday 20 July 2011

It won't stay in the ground

About a year ago we ran a short series of posts about the town of Brymstone, a setting for roleplaying games in the land of Legend. I played in this campaign back at Oxford originally, before Dragon Warriors was even thought of. The town was called Sneyp then, though not apparently from the Old English root meaning a marsh, for it was surrounded by farmland and downs. Robert Dale, its creator, later renamed and relocated Brymstone to the DW country of Ellesland where, funnily enough, it seemed like it had belonged all along.

The main thrust of the Brymstone campaign was the tension between the traditional power of local lord, Erek Longsword, and the town guilds that were gaining in strength. This conflict was embodied in the Brollachan, a primordial shapechanger who had settled in the district and seemed to be fomenting strife for his own reasons. I'm keeping the rest of the campaign under wraps because possibly the team at Serpent King Games may want to do something with it someday - and in any case, that decision is Robert's, not mine. But here is a short episode that gives a little of the folkloric flavor:

This incident has nothing to do with the Brollachan storyline, but will provide some light relief for the player-characters, as well as a good fight. The creature in this adventure is not quite the standard sly bloodsucker. Folklore abounds with a number of interpretations of the vampire, after all. The shrewd and scheming tactician personified by Count Dracula is one; this is another.

The characters hear that the villagers of Cradoc's Ford are looking for adventurers to help guard an isolated farm against attacks by a vampire. The young daughter of one of the farmers, Anskar, has suffered recurrent attacks. Local efforts to track the creature down having proved ineffective, outside help is sought. The characters will be expected to arrange themselves into a hunting party by day and provide protection by night. For this they will be paid 25 silvers a day each (payments will be made one day in arrears), and there is a reward of 300 silvers for whoever removes the vampire's head. The villagers will lend a hand if the characters make any attempt to track the vampire, but they will not fight except in extreme circumstances. The vampire's lair is an old forgotten barrow on a low hillock north of Cradoc's Ford (see map). There are no really clear tracks, so unless a search party stumbles across it by accident there is only a 10% chance that even the most experienced trackers (say Assassins of 5th rank or higher) will succeed.

The characters will probably soon see that the best way to catch the vampire is to let it come to them. At Anskar's farmhouse they will meet his ailing daughter Kara, frail and pale but still winsome. Her swain, a youth named Skuli, is also present. He is a very likeable sort, though not particularly charismatic or forceful. However, he is utterly devoted to Kara and will doggedly insist on joining the characters' vigil. They need only watch for one night before the vampire makes its appearance.

Pyron the Reaper (vampire)
Reflexes 18; ATT 22; DEF 2; Sickle (d6+2,6); Unarmed Combat (d6,4); AF1; 30HP; MAG DEF 7; EV 7; move 10m(20m); STEALTH 13; PERCEPTION 10 (darksight); nonmagical weapons (unless of solid silver) score half damage

Pyron can fight until literally cut apart, but effectively only has animal-level intelligence. This does not mean that he is stupid, merely that he cannot reason logically. It would never occur to him to lie low for a week or two to throw hunters of his scent, for example. When approaching his prey he may utter phrases of reassurance ("But wait - Pyron means you no harm..." etc, etc) without consciously remembering their meaning. In trying to imagine himself into Pyron's role, the GM should perhaps consider something like a very long and horrible nightmare. Pyron's conscious mind fell into the sleep of death years ago, and the fragment that remains is primitive, tormented and irrational.

He is not affected by garlic or crucifixes. Because he is just a walking corpse as opposed to an undead spirit, he does cast a reflection. He cannot change into a bat, mist or perform any other Hollywood trickery such as mesmerism. Immersion in fresh running water renders him powerless, and at the sound of cockcrow he must depart to his lair or be destroyed by the first rays of dawn.

In a fight at the farmhouse, Pyron will continue to attack until he is obviously losing the fight. If he manages to retreat (perhaps taking advantage of a chance diversion such as burning logs spilling from the hearth and starting a fire during the struggle - the GM can improvise) the villagers will insist that a hunt is mounted to destroy the monster once and for all. They will not pay the characters any more until Pyron is slain, and will place themselves under the protection of Erek Longsword if threatened.

Pyron's hasty retreat from the farmhouse will have left good tracks, and his barrow should be found without difficulty. Forewarned by now that he is not the kind of vampire they are accustomed to, the characters should no longer be caught off balance by the fact that he is immune to the usual precautions. If they enter after sunrise they will find Pyron lurking in the very heart of the barrow. Bearded in his lair, he fights to the true death.

A distinctive mood may be brought to this adventure by giving some emphasis to the characters of Anskar, Kara and Skuli. Anskar does not entire endorse the youngsters' relationship, so Skuli is eager to prove his worth. So eager that he might just rush into battle against Pyron - and either get himself killed if the PCs do not act quickly, or just possibly end up as the one who slays the vampire and claims the reward. It could be interesting for once to give the player characters the impression that they are not at the centre of the stage, but peripheral characters in someone else's story. Whether that story is one of tragic love, grand heroics, gentle whimsy or broad farce... that is up to the GamesMaster.

There is a small amount of treasure in the tomb, though most of the grave goods are of purely archaelogical interest - just old pots and so on from the player-characters' viewpoint. There is a gold drinking cup worth 900 silvers, silver belt fittings (on the belt around the vampyr's waist) and a necklace of jet (not worn by Pyron; perhaps a last token from a loved one). The silver would fetch perhaps 60 silvers and the jet (prized by sailors as a charm against shipwreck) another 100 or 150. All told, some 1100 silvers. The villagers will claim a quarter share as is their due under local law. Again, they will invoke the protection of Lord Erek if threatened.
As I read through this, I'm aware that Pyron as an archetype has appeared a few times in our games, most recently in Tim Harford's Immortal Spartans campaign, where he dwelt in an ancient tomb by the eastern walls of Rome and was known as "the Etruscan". If your taste is for these gray, loam-smelling, grave-cold vampires, I can recommend Marcus Sedgwick's My Swordhand is Singing and Lindsey Barraclough's Long Lankin as two novels that will send a chill down your spine. In a nice way.


  1. I have a theory that modern movie zombies are – or fulfil the same psychological need as – the folkloric vampire. They are mindless, or at least ill-remember their former lives; they don’t possess any flashy Twentieth Century vampire powers; and, most importantly, they increase in number as they infect the living with their curse – just like good metaphors for disease ought to do.

    Perhaps the gaudy, brooding, inhuman movie vampires are the new lens for the old fairy ladies and knights?

    Of course folklore is a shifty beast, never staying in one shape long enough to be carefully dissected by the taxonomist, and there is rarely any distinction between fairies, ghosts, and the dead in folk stories.

    My favourite (non-fiction) book about the returning dead is Paul Barber’s ‘Vampires, Burial, and Death’. It is as much about the pathology of the body post-mortem as the undead, and, as well as copious stories of ‘real’ revenants, it details all sorts of wonderfully grisly things that can happen to a corpse.

    ‘My Swordhand is Singing’ is a fantastic book, a great antidote to the awful paranormal romances I spend my days dealing with.

    It’s a cold, wet winter’s night here. Perhaps I’ll pull it down and read it again…

  2. I agree, Tom. The Twilight variety of vampire definitely seems to be the new fairy, and zombies are gradually taking on some of the characteristics of old vampire tales - that sense of physical dread, the pollution of death, and so on.

    But as you say, they're all just words. At any fairy gathering you might meet a long-dead friend. In Mirabilis I have a character called the Kind Gentleman - is he the king of the elves? A faerie lord as in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? Old Nick? All of the above?

    Right, I'm off to Amazon to find the Barber book...

  3. PS: Here's a great little story with another variant on the "won't stay buried" motif:

  4. Nice adventure Dave!
    I really like a more Vampire (and less Fairy) for a change!
    Thanks for the book's recomendation.

  5. The folklorist Jacqueline Simpson wrote an interesting article about the revenant tradition in medieval England:

  6. Brilliant article - great find, Tom. I'll be digesting that for ideas for days to come.

    Ikaros - fairy, vampire, wizard, they're all dangerous :)