Vampiric Classifications 1: Hierarchy

Ravenloft, Strahd von Zarovich as depicted in the original Ravenloft module, 1983
Strahd, von Zarovich, as depicted in the 1983 Ravenloft module.

If I had to select a single fantasy creature as my favorite, I don’t think there’s any competition for the vampire. I know it’s not a particularly original answer, but I don’t care even slightly. Vampires take everything I love about the macabre, and inject it with intellect, and grace. As monsters they tap into something so primal within the human psyche, that an equivalent to the vampire can be found in dozens of folkloric traditions. And as characters, vampires project an air of dignity, and elegance. The allure of the vampire is strong, which is why so many excellent tomes have been written about them already. The AD&D 2nd edition Ravenloft supplement “Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires” has a special place on the shelf above my desk.

I don’t think my take on vampires is even particularly original. At best you could call it an amalgam of traditions. Regardless of how original it is, though, the way I depict vampires in my games is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I’m happy with it, and the Halloween season seems like as good a time as any to share what I’ve devised. In this post I’ll cover the hierarchy of vampire society, while a later post will detail specific types of vampires.

The basic structure of vampiric hierarchies is the bloodline. Each campaign world has between one and five elder bloodlines active. Typically a bloodline will include hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of vampires, scattered all throughout the world. Relationships between different bloodlines may vary, but no two will ever form anything more than a temporary alliance. It is always the ultimate goal of every vampiric bloodline to eliminate all others.

While vampires of different bloodlines may not have any distinguishing features to a casual observer, the creatures themselves are able to determine what bloodline another vampire belongs to based on appearance. This ability is not magical in any way, but instead is based on minor physical features which may not be regarded as important to a mortal. The shape and size of teeth is a common indication, as is the hue of the eyes and the palor of the skin.

Vampiric Bloodline Hierarchy, v1.0 by LS
My vampire Hierarchy. Made before I came up with the name “Bloodlines,” and was just calling them “Families.” Background image is from Nosferatu (1922 film)

Each bloodline is led by either a highlord, or a queen vampire. Every other member of a bloodline is descended directly from them. Unlike most vampires, highlords and queens were not (for the most part) created by having their blood consumed by another vampire. Instead they are rare creatures who were granted the gift of eternal unlife by a powerful demon or evil god. Rarely the Logos itself creates a vampire when a person of sufficient evil and temperament dies. It is also possible for a mortal to become a highlord or queen if they fully consume the blood of a vampire. This would both destroy the vampire, and cause the mortal to die and rise again as the first of a new bloodline. This last method is almost entirely unheard of, and only a select few know that it is even possible.

Often, young highlords and queens do not last long, unless they sequester themselves in a small area of the world and make no attempt to grow their bloodline. Even then, elder bloodlines are uncomfortable with the prospect of young bloodlines growing powerful enough to challenge them. A newly risen highlord or queen may quickly find themselves marked for assassination by the elder bloodlines if they are not careful to maintain a low profile.

The vast majority of vampires are not highlords or queens, though. Most are created when another vampire drains the blood of a mortal, killing them. The victim (whether they are willing or not), then rises as a fledgeling vampire subservient to their creator. At first, a fledgeling will be completely obedient to and reliant upon their master. As time passes and the fledgeling grows stronger, however, they will gain some measure of independence from their creator. As they grow in power, a fledgeling may become a member of a coven, or soldier for their master. Someday they may even become powerful enough to be a Lord or Lady in their own right. Though no matter how powerful a vampire becomes, they can never disobey a direct order from, nor can they plot against their creator. Nor can they disobey or plot against their creator’s creator, nor any other vampire they are descended from, all the way back to the highlord or queen of their bloodline. This restriction is not a social one, but rather it is a simple fact of a vampire’s nature. Any attempt to plot against one’s master would likely result in immediate distraction, and a concerted effort would only cause a loss of consciousness.

Which isn’t to say vampires haven’t found loopholes in the past. But it is not easy, nor is it common.

Within the first hundred years or so of their existence, fledgeling vampires are expected to become powerful enough to serve their masters as soldiers. Soldier vampires, while not independent from their creator as a lord or lady is, are none the less respected, and normally well treated by their masters. Some vampires are even content to remain soldiers, without seeking to establish themselves as a lord or lady in their own right.

When a fledgeling is not strong enough to rise to the rank of soldier, they are relegated to a coven. These groups, often composed of several dozen vampires, are the lowest rung of a vampiric bloodline. They are regarded as failures who must band together in order to survive. While they do ostensibly serve their creators directly, as soldiers do, most vampire lords and ladies have no use for their covens. Most covens are thus established far from their master’s home, and are called upon only rarely to serve. Covens are only created by common Lords and Ladies. The vampires created by Highlords, Queens, and Firsts are always powerful enough to become soldiers and lords. Though there has been some speculation that these high ranking vampires may merely kill their weak fledgelings to maintain this illusion.

Occasionally an upstart adventurer will actually succeed in killing a vampire lord or lady, creating a hole in the hierarchy of the bloodline. Any fledgelings created by that vampire are immediately destroyed or driven mad by the destruction of their master. Any soldier vampires which do not die protecting their master will likely be recruited by another vampire lord or lady in the same bloodline. If they do not wish to serve another, the soldier may attempt to become a lord or lady in their own right. Covens left behind by a destroyed vampire are either forgotten about and left entirely to their own devices, or destroyed by more powerful vampires who do not wish to leave any loose ends which may cause problems down the line. All of the vampires which were created by a deceased lord or lady become a little more free. However, they are still subservient to the remaining vampires from which they are descended.

In the rare event that a Highlord or Queen vampire is killed, every vampire in their bloodline with 6HD or less is immediately destroyed. Every other vampire in their bloodline takes 1d12 damage per hit die. So a vampire with 10HD would take 10d12 damage if the Queen of their bloodline were destroyed. A bloodline which loses its leader is often reduced to beneath half of its former strength in the space of a heartbeat. When this happens, any surviving first lords and ladies are presented with an interesting choice. They may opt to separate from their bloodline, and declare themselves and their descendants to be a new bloodline altogether. Alternatively, if a single First  is able to consume the blood from, and destroy, every other First within their bloodline, then they may seize control of whatever remains.

Given the nature of vampires, the destruction of a Highlord or Queen almost always results in a bloody scramble for power among the remaining Firsts. After which the victor must move quickly to defend their severely weakened bloodline from any challenger bloodlines who would use this opportunity to destroy them.

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6 thoughts on “Vampiric Classifications 1: Hierarchy”

  1. I like your Hierarchy overall, thought the ‘cannot plot against their creators/ancestors’ thing seems really restricting.

    How would Louis and Claudia have been able to get free from Lestat if that had been the case? Interesting to think about.

    Also, your Bloodlines ideas sounds pretty similar to Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, have you played it?

    1. See my comment below for further explanation of how the “cannot plot against creators/ancestors” mechanic works.

      I’ve not read Interview actually. Nor have I played anything from the World of Darkness. I very much like the flavor of those games, but they’re also storytelling games, which are not my particular cup of tea.

      Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever read any White Wolf products. Go figure.

  2. I agree, the Van Richten’s guides were awesome, a great source of inspiration for any edition of the game (especially since they focus mainly on fluff and not so much on crunch). I also liked the guide to the created and werebeasts.

    Cool stuff. I really like your concept of here of vampire bloodlines, but Bryan has a point. Perhaps a difficult Will saving throw or something along those lines to act directly against the master (with the DC increasing for each step up the hierarchy the commanding vampire is)? That way it would still be very difficult for vamps to kill or disobey their creators, but they could spend the years stewing in their hatred and scheming in their minds… think of how many great stories and movies have a vampire breaking free of his master’s control at an inopportune time or putting into motion complex plans that *indirectly* eliminate their sire (I always liked the idea of using the PCs as catspaws in this gambit).

    1. I’ve currently got Vampires, The Created, The Ancient Dead, and Ghosts. I’ve been so impressed with VR’s Guides that I am eager to find the rest of them. Or, honestly, anything from Ravenloft in that period.

  3. I think the language I used here with regards to the inability to plot against your forebaears was poorly chosen. Maybe it ought to have gotten its own paragraph, honestly.

    My thought is that a vampire is unable to scheme directly against their superiors. A vampire couldn’t simply stake its master in the heart, nor could it give a bag of gold to an assassin and say “stake my master in the heart.”

    But if a subservient vampire were to hear about an attack on their master’s castle, they would not be compelled to warn their master unless they were a fledgeling. Or if a powerful vampire were ever to invite a vampire hunter to dinner, they might let it slip that they spent their time as a fledgeling in the nation of Regalia. They’re not saying their master is still in Regalia, nor are they suggesting that the hunter go there. But vampires don’t often move once they’ve settled on a home, and vampire hunters are inquisitive folk…

    (I’ll need to return for individual responses later today).

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