May is winding down, but we’ve got time for one last May of the Dead post. I’ve really enjoyed writing these, and if you’ve enjoyed reading them I hope you’ll decide to stick around. Papers & Pencils updates regularly, and it’s difficult for me to go too long without writing something about the undead. They are so much more engaging than other types of fantastical creatures.
I’m going to make a bold leap, and assume we’re all familiar with the traditional vampire. The one which stays out of the sun, doesn’t show up in mirrors, and sustains itself off of people’s blood. That last point is what I’m going to focus on here: blood as vampiric sustenance. Aside from being dead, feeding on blood is perhaps the most consistent element of vampire lore. Some stories will dismiss vampires being invisible in mirrors, others disregard their weakness before religious relics, but even the greatest bastardizations of the vampire concept maintain the idea that vampires must consume blood to survive.
So…what happens if they don’t consume any blood?
There doesn’t seem to be any definitive agreement on what happens if a vampire doesn’t consume blood. For living creatures the answer is simple: if we fail to consume sustenance, we die. But vampires are already dead, so the consequences for them seem far less certain. I haven’t found any primary source that could provide an answer to this question either. I’m not exactly a scholar, but my limited knowledge of folklore and classical literature has not provided me with an answer. Probably because those traditional stories are not told from the vampire’s perspective, but rather from those desperately hoping they don’t become the vampire’s next meal.
Lacking any definitive answer to the question, we have the opportunity to fill in the blanks ourselves. And I’ve got a few ideas.
The Official Explanation As a Pathfinder GM, I still rely on a lot of my old D&D 3.5 sourcebooks. And on page 9 of Libris Mortis, there is a table which categorizes and quantifies the various undead, how their hungers affect them. It indicates that Vampires are “Diet Dependent” on Blood, and have an “Inescapable Craving” for life force. These terms are defined thusly:
“Inescapable Craving: Some undead have no “bodily” requirement to feed, and could continue to exist solely on negative energy, but are driven to their diet all the same by inescapable cravings. These cravings, denied too long, could turn even a sentient undead to mindless hunger. Once the feeding is accomplished and the hunger sated, the intensity of the craving drops back to tolerable level, but it is a cycle doomed to repeat itself.” -Andy Collins & Bruce R. Cordell, Libris Mortis, Page 8
“Diet Dependent: Some undead must feed on the living to retain either their mobility or some of their other abilities. The link to the Negative Energy Plane for undead of these sort grows increasingly tenuous the longer they are denied the necessary food. At some point, their mobility or one or more specific abilities are suppressed until they can feed again. However, no matter how enervated by lack of feeding, undead cannot be starved to the point of permanent deanimation. A fresh infusion of their preferred food can always bring them back to their full abilities. Most diet-dependent undead can go for 3d6 months before losing all mobility.” -Andy Collins & Bruce R. Cordell, Libris Mortis, Page 10
I cover some of these ideas in more detail below. Personally I don’t find them very satisfying.
Re-Death: I see no reason why there shouldn’t simply be a point at which lack of blood to feed upon causes a vampire to be destroyed. Part of what makes vampires such intriguing villains is that they are notoriously difficult to kill. Take them to 0 HP, and they’ll just turn into a cloud of mist and escape through the cracks in the walls. The only way to kill a vampire is to outsmart them in one way or another. Fool them into entering an area of sunlight, for example, or find their (no doubt well hidden) daytime lair and drive a stake through their heart. Depriving a vampire of blood for a year fulfills the same criteria: it requires the players to outsmart the vampire by first constructing a prison which will hold it, then figuring out how to get the vampire inside of it. Though if you could do that, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just expose it to direct sunlight.
Insanity: Each month a Vampire goes without blood, they permanently lose a little more of their grip on reality. After one month, it’s just little things. They forget minor details, like where they left their favorite candelabra. After two months, they occasionally forget larger things. Whole years of their existence disappear from memory, only to be recovered later. Three months without feeding causes the Vampire to occasionally depart reality entirely, and they suffer vivid hallucinations. After four months the vampire lives constantly in a disconnected state. It knows to avoid that which is dangerous to it, such as sunlight, but it otherwise seems to have no connection to reality. After five months, the vampire becomes like a feral creature, constantly hunting for blood, with no thoughts or concerns beyond finding more and more blood to feed upon. Finally, after six months, the vampire loses its understanding of danger, and will most often wander into the sunlight and destroy itself.
This insanity is cumulative throughout the vampire’s existence. Feeding on blood only prevents the process from continuing forward for another month. Nothing can help a vampire regain lost sanity.
Blood is an Addiction: Vampires are blood junkies. They don’t need it to survive, but they crave it with a desire more intense than they can possibly resist. If they don’t drain at least one victim a week, the cravings become unbearable and drive the vampire to take greater and greater risks in order to get their fix. If, by some miracle, they manage to resist the urge to feed on the blood of the living, there is no amount of time which will free them from their addiction. They will begin to suffer withdrawal pains, and will continue to experience agony until the end of time if they can’t feed.
Blood is Power: Perhaps there are no real ill effects for failing to consume blood. If a vampire never leaves their mark on another neck, then they can continue to exist as they already do for as long as they like. However, it is only through consuming blood that a vampire learns, and grows, and becomes powerful. Immediately following a feeding, the vampire feels a rush of power which slowly fades after about ten minutes. But a small sliver of that power remains. After draining 100 living victims, the Vampire gains 1HD.
Less Blood is Power: Assuming blood is an addiction, as stated above, then what if vampires grew in power the longer they were able to exist without blood? Perhaps the pains of withdrawal are simply the pain which is inherent to being a vampire unencumbered by narcotics. The longer a vampire avoids dulling their mind and their body with Blood, the stronger and smarter they become. The greatest vampires have gone without blood for centuries, and exist in a state of constant pain.
Demotion: Vampires are the highest form of undead creature, rivaled only by the lich. They retain all of their knowledge, their self-awareness, their willpower; everything about who they are remains intact. Even their appearance is unchanged! The only real drawback is that in order to retain everything that they managed to keep from their living existence, they must constantly feed upon blood. If they do not, then as time goes on they will begin to forget things. They will become less self aware, and their willpower will fade. After too long, they will be nothing but a ghast, or perhaps even a lowly zombie.
Blood is Youth: Each week a Vampire goes without blood, their physical body decomposes about the same amount that a corpse would normally decompose in a given day. So vampires who wish to intermingle with human society (as Dracula did) must feed frequently. While those who care less about whether or not they can pass for alive do not need to concern themselves with feeding regularly. The effects of this decomposition would be cumulative, so once you miss your weekly feeding, you’ll never be able to return to a less-decomposed state.
Coincidentally, this would explain the large variance in vampire appearances. In the original novel, Dracula was able to pass for a living human. Whereas the classic silent film, Nosferatu most certainly cannot. Strahd is somewhere in between, as he is often depicted with deathly blue skin.
Last Blood: About six years ago, I started reading a webcomic called Last Blood, which was about a group of vampires attempting to help some humans survive the zombie apocalypse. Its been some years since I stopped following the comic, but it was quite good. And the catalyst for the story was a vampire who went for too long without blood. You ought to read the comic’s explanation, but the short version is that if a vampire goes too long without blood, then they become a kind of “alpha zombie,” which is able to create other zombies, and control them. Not too frightening in a high magic world where zombies are commonplace, but in a low magic world where the the very thought of walking dead is still enough to send a shiver down an adventurer’s spine, this could be an interesting method to use.