Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Vampire's Heart - Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier

There are several different classifications of vampire in Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents game, and this time I want to talk about the Damned variety, designing a vampire type from the ground up.

First, a word on sources. Much of the information I'm going to post here derives from Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages: the Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. My copy's University of Chicago Press, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, 1998. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the material.

The rest comes from a recent news article discussing a new technique whereby video clips have been encoded to human DNA.

The legend of Herle, aka Harlequin, aka Arthur, King of the Dead and leader of the Wild Hunt, goes back to at minimum the year 1000. Before that date there are reports of a ghostly army on the march, but the legends begin to coalesce into the version known to historians at that time, with multiple sightings and reports.

At its inception the army of the dead, if not precisely benign, at least serves a genuine purpose. Its troops beg for mercy, asking the living to give them prayers, or do deeds that will help them escape their torment such as returning borrowed goods, or repaying old debts. One of the most vivid and earliest accounts comes from the priest Walchelin, who told his tale to Orderic Vitalis, a Welsh-born chronicler who, at that time, was living in Normandy. In that story Walchelin is approached by several dead, including his own brother, all of whom ask for aid or for messages to be delivered.

However as time passed the army of the restless dead became stigmatized as Satan's legion. Priests anxious to drive out the last vestiges of paganism told their flock that the warriors, priests and peasants seen in Harlequin's army were actually devils, who took on the form of ghosts to fool honest men into doing the devil's work. This is how, for example, Arthur King of the Britons comes to be depicted, in a mosaic at the Cathedral of Otranto, as riding a goat, Satan's steed.

Herle's restless legions are often seen at crossroads, for 'those places, due to the number of people of all sorts that passed through them, were more polluted than the fields. In these sordid places, the living were shown the true punishments endured by the evil in the hereafter.'  Often they are depicted wearing hoods - 'the hood or the cape is the specific dress of the dead and the instrument of their torment' - which are not really hoods at all, but things of blood and fire which weigh heavily on them. Similarly those of Herle's troop who go armed or ride horses do not really carry weapons, but red-hot things that burn their flesh, nor are their steeds horses but devils disguised as same. As a rule the items they carry symbolize their sin, which is why the warriors carry weapons, but also why the priests and bishops carry croziers and wear monkish habit, and why the peasants are often seen carrying domestic items.

From this tradition, as an aside, we get Dickens' Christmas Carol, where Jacob Marley wears a chain of his own devising, forged in life, which he must wear in death. The deeds which men do in life live on after their death, tormenting their souls, which is why blood is so often a theme; those who spill it are most likely to end up damned.

In Yorkshire there is a tale recorded by William of Newburgh in his History of England, in which vampires are dealt with summarily by the people. When the bloodsuckers first appear, people turn to the church for aid, and after some back-and-forth the clergy recommend putting prescriptions for absolution of the tombs of the damned revenants. However a gang of 'the young' decide instead to disinter the creature and cut it to bits, burning everything except the heart in a bonfire. They preserve the heart because 'its presence would have prevented the cadaver from burning.'

Put all this together, and we get:

Harlequin's Legion

Explicitly demonic entity opposed to mankind and God.

Origin: A soul polluted with evil, inhabiting a corpse. At some point in the past - how far back is up to the Director - a Grand Grimoire was broken up and scattered to the four winds, encoded into the blood (DNA) of especially evil souls. This Codex, if it is ever recreated, will cause the destruction of mankind and usher in the Apocalypse.

Some vampires have parts of this Grimoire engraved in their corpus, and these are the more powerful and magically astute of their brood. The others, lesser creatures, are merely evil, and brought to their undead condition by their more powerful siblings. These lesser vampires do not have the Codex as part of their DNA, but that does not make them harmless or easy to defeat.

One vampire takes on the title of King of the Dead, referred to in literature as the leader of the Wild Hunt. The actual leadership function may vary, but it is this vampire that contains within it the index of the Grimoire. It has a direct link to the very foundations of evil, is exceptionally powerful, and can, with the proper rituals, recreate the Codex. Whether or not it wants to is unknown; it may be quite insane, or perhaps the title of King of the Dead is one that can be stolen by rivals. If the latter, then the Herle may prefer to remain anonymous, to dissuade would-be usurpers from taking its heart.

A vampire may be created by magical ritual, or it may be created by another vampire. If the latter, only a vampire with part of the Grimoire encoded to its DNA can create a vampire; all other vampire types lack this ability.

As a group the Wild Hunt tends to segregate itself into the types it remembers of old: warriors, priests, and peasants. The warriors consider themselves elite, wolves among sheep. The priests are the lore-keepers, the Codex made flesh, who keep other vampires in line. The peasants are everyone else, the ones who lack the special DNA strands. Other vampires mock and despise them, and consequently they bully everyone weaker than themselves - usually humanity.

They can be detected by their hoods. These are not real items, but coronas of blood and fire that form around their heads; the warriors can extend this corona around their whole body, at will. This spiritual manifestation of their sin can only be seen under special conditions: certain high holy days, or at places of especial spiritual pollution. These include modern-day crossroads - subway terminals, airports, and similar gathering places where hundreds, perhaps thousands of people come and go, on their way to one place or another. Vampires avoid these places if they can, which makes travel difficult.

The hoods also appear in photographs or on video feeds, which makes surveillance both easy and difficult. Easy, because the hood is a dead giveaway; difficult, because with the hood on it's impossible to tell who's who.

The heart is tough to destroy, and in many cases impossible. It can be cut out of the body and dissolved in strong acid or similar, but does not burn easily. A peasant's heart can be destroyed. A warrior's can be destroyed with considerable effort and magical assistance. A priest's is imbued with the words of the Codex, and therefore has been touched by semi-divine power. It cannot be destroyed, and can only be bound with magical assistance.

So long as the heart remains, the vampire can be reborn. A corpse is required - anyone's - but once the vampire heart is put in its chest, the creature is renewed. From that point on it can take its original face and form, fresh as the day it died, or it can assume the face and form of the corpse it borrowed. If the latter, the body takes on the appearance of natural decay over time, which can provoke Stability checks depending on the age of the corpse. This only affects appearance, not smell or fluids.

Aberrance: 10 (peasant), 13 (priest), 16 (warrior). The Harlequin probably has a much higher Aberrance, but it's impossible to say how high.

Hit Threshold: base 4, increase to 5 with Vampiric Speed. 

Hand to Hand: -1 (peasant, fangs), +0 (priest, fangs or talons), +1 warrior (rows of razor teeth, bony claws). 

Armor: -1 (peasant, tough skin), -2 (leathery hide), -3 (corona of blood, covering the whole of the corpus).

Free Powers: Darkvision, Vampiric Speed and Cloak of Darkness are common to all. Vampires which have recently gained a new body in reasonable condition temporarily gain Mimic Form, but this only remains viable as long as the corpse stays presentable. As a general rule the first signs of obvious decay set in very quickly; the skin becomes waxy and bluish within half an hour. However people often overlook this so long as the person seems otherwise normal. After three days there is no hope of a convincing Mimic Form. Priests also have Hive Mind - they are all part of the same entity.

See also Death and Resurrection.

Other Powers: All have Heat Drain and Regeneration (between scenes). Priests also use Necromancy and can Summon (zombies). Warriors lack the priest abilities, but make up for it with Vampiric Strength, Wings, and Turn to Creature (varies, often a wolf or bear, but sometimes other animals like a pig, cat, goat or horse).

Blocks: holy symbol, hawthorn.

Compulsions: Must show the sign of their damnation - the hood of blood and hellfire - on certain holy days, and at certain locations, such as holy places, crossroads or areas that count as crossroads, like subway stations. Priests and Warriors can resist this by spending 4 Aberrance, but there are circumstances - particular holy days, or moments when certain stars are in ascendance - when spending Aberrance will not work.

Dreads: dogs, particularly black and white dogs, which are the informal symbol of the Dominican order.

Requirements: Must commit ritual sacrifice to Satan at least four times a year. Must sleep in a place soaked with blood; it can be grave soil or bedsheets.

Death and Resurrection: The body can be cut to bits and destroyed, but the heart remains viable. If the heart is destroyed, the vampire cannot return. If the heart is still within the body, the body cannot be destroyed; it must be cut out first. Otherwise a vampire can walk through, say, a house fire and emerge seemingly unscathed, though its clothes will be ruined. An IED or similar can obliterate the body, leaving only the heart behind. A nuclear blast might obliterate peasants and warriors, but even that will not destroy the hearts of the priests.

It is said that should someone gather together all the hearts of all the priests and carry out a specific Satanic ritual, the Codex will be recreated. That will kill all Vampires instantly, warriors and peasants alike, but create an item of such awful power that the world itself will be shaken to its core.

The priests say they want this, but in practice they delay the apocalypse, preferring instead one more day of life to eternal rest within the leaves of Satan's book.

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

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