“The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.”
— Bram Stoker, Dracula
Few undead creatures in D&D are more recognizable and iconic than vampires. As far as boss-level undead enemies are concerned, they’re not the most powerful on their own, with the standard versions losing out to mummy lords by a narrow margin, and to liches by a much larger one. However, as far as their abilities are concerned, vampires are by far the most interesting of all three. With six features, five actions, three legendary actions, multiple lair effects, and a sidebar for adding even more if all that’s not enough, the vampire section includes over 1,320 words of game mechanics, by far the longest in the Monster Manual. (The next longest, if you were interested, is the ancient green dragon (1,205 words) followed by the beholder (1,141 words) and then the mummy lord (1,072 words).)
Unfortunately, the prodigious length of their stat block can also work against vampires, as overwhelmed DMs overlook the ways that the creature’s many features play off each other and allow it to pose a threat to the party. Combine this with the fact that vampire weaknesses are so well known that even an amateur player will be looking at spells that deal radiant damage, and you have a recipe for a disappointing encounter.
Which is why, in this article, we will be looking at how to run a vampire like a truly terrifying villain.
Vampire Bosses Should Never Be Encountered Alone
A vampire isn’t just a vampire, it is a master of evil forces. Just as Dracula was served by three sisters (lesser vampires; the equivalent of vampire spawn in a Fifth Edition campaign), as well as a host of other creatures of the night, a vampire in a D&D campaign should have a small army of followers at its beck and call. Even with its legendary actions, a vampire faces overwhelming odds alone against a fully party, and poses only a hard challenge to a party of four 10th-level characters (a warrior vampire or spellcaster vampire is only a hard challenge for a party of four 11th-level characters).
Adding even just a few allies evens this out considerably. Adding two vampire spawn to the encounter can make a deadly fight for a 10th-level party, and adding one more vampire spawn can challenge even tier 3 (levels 11–16) parties, as their action economy is matched by the monsters. If the vampire is a ‘warrior vampire’ or ‘spellcaster vampire’, even a high-level party might be defeated if they didn’t prepare for the encounter with the right spells and equipment. And with their high Dexterity (Stealth) bonus, the vampire spawn could even be lurking nearby, ready to join their master by leaping in from the shadows and taking out weaker characters.
Of course, a vampire likely has other allies beyond its own spawn. A fiend bound to an amulet, a cadre of mortal cultists desiring the Dark Gift, a menagerie of exotic monsters like death dogs and gargoyles, and many more entities might be found in the service of a vampire. All this to say nothing, of course, of the creatures that the vampire can summon using its Children of the Night feature.
Vampires Don’t Just Chill Out Anywhere
One does not simply
walk into Mordor sneak up on a vampire. They don’t lurk in a lonely tower with nothing but empty moorland for twenty miles around. That’s not to say they wouldn’t live on a moor; rather, they wouldn’t live on an empty moor. There would be packs of roving wolves, their eyes agleam with some fell light. There would be great clouds of bats emerging from sunken caves to scour the skies. Dark stands of trees would seem to conceal movement of things born from your deepest fears. Only after passing all of these would you come to the tower itself—and be invited in to meet the master, whose spies have already warned of your coming.
The tower, of course, wouldn’t just be a tower. It would be a great tower—a stone keep with its own layers of defences maintained by loyal servants of the master. The curtain wall and secondary towers may have fallen to ruin, but the keep is well fortified, ready to withstand an assault. And the vampire would know all of its defences better than anyone else. They chose this place because it suits their needs. It isn’t a random room in a dungeon where adventurers might blunder in at any moment, it is a sanctuary, and one that is heavily protected.
Wherever a vampire resides—be it a city, a town, or an underground complex—their home will invariably be well defended, to the point that surprising the vampire there is all but impossible. When you meet a vampire in its lair, it will be at a time and place of the vampire’s choosing, with the advantages decidedly in its favour (more on this later).
Multiple Resting Places
Unless a vampire is recently arrived to the area or it has suffered serious setbacks, it would have multiple resting places. By transporting large quantities of grave dirt to sites within nine miles of each other, the vampire will ensure that if it is forced to use its Misty Escape from one location, it can make it to another within the two-hour window it has before it is destroyed. The actual number of sites that can be created partly depends on where it transitioned to undeath and what constitutes a ‘significant amount’ of grave dirt, but even a few would be enough to greatly increase its chances of survival.
Vampires Don’t Do Fair Fights
Even vampire warriors who are driven to some twisted sense of chivalry are fundamentally opposed to equitable fights. At best, they’d accept a challenge from a fellow warrior and casually destroy them in a one-sided fight they knew they would win, taking the opportunity to show off their superior skills in battle, honed over the course of centuries—probably even toying with their foe for the first round or two in order to relish the prolonged sense of defeat in their enemies once the vampire has truly begun to fight back.
Any other vampire, however, would be more than happy to have their subordinates swarm their foes, joining in the fight only to sate their bloodlust and feed. Bereft of mortal ethics and given to looking at the living as little more than food, they grant people no more honour than you would a chicken nugget.
A vampire is a predator driven by instinct to seek the upper hand. When establishing its home, it schemes up ways to use the features of the environment to its advantage. If taking over a location, it might order its minions to make modifications that allow it to more easily abuse its Spider Climb and Shapechanger traits. It might use foul rituals and call on dark powers to make the area into desecrated ground (see chapter 5, “Adventure Environments”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). And it would certainly employ traps along the main thoroughfares to its private chambers to ensure that interlopers who had gone past the main line of defences would be especially weakened by the time they threaten the vampire’s sanctum.
Meeting the Vampire
As mentioned above, a vampire is not a creature one runs into by accident, and certainly not to the vampire’s surprise. Mortals, fiends, and even vermin act as spies for the vampire, and when the party finally does encounter the undead menace, it will be on its terms.
The exact nature of the encounter is up to you, but let us consider for a moment what a likely scenario might be. Presumably, you have decided to use a vampire as a villain to fit a certain flavour of fantasy—or to provide a reason for it, as it may be. The flavour in question here is, of course, dark fantasy.
Charles L. Grant, who is credited with originally coining the term “dark fantasy”, defines it as “a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding”. The vampire is an especially potent take on this. Ever since John William Polidori made Lord Ruthven as a dark mockery of his patient, Lord Byron, in The Vampyre, this monster has resonated with audiences as a dark mirror to what we envision humans to be: civilized, intelligent, driven by larger goals. We associate these traits with humanity as a way to elevate ourselves above the beasts. And then the vampire perverts them. They are, at their core, the dark side of humanity, and therefore its greatest threat.
Vampires shine as villains when they fulfill this role. So if you’re wondering how to introduce your vampire, consider having them to the human thing, but for the wrong reasons. The vampire greets the party, invites them to its home, offers them refreshments and conversation. But rather than getting to know the party for their value as people, offering friendship and camaraderie, the vampire is sizing them up, taking their measure and determining their weaknesses.
Throughout this conversation, the vampire should quickly deduce which characters are more vulnerable to its suggestion and target them with its Charm ability. This isn’t a spell that requires reciting incantations or making gestures, and creatures don’t become immune to it on a successful save such that the vampire only gets one shot, so the only way for the party to realize the vampire is slowly but surely turning them to its side is to succeed a Wisdom (Insight) check contested by the vampire’s Charisma (Deception) check. On a successful check, a character is able to detect insincerity or evasiveness from the vampire. If the total of the check exceeds the vampire’s check total by 5 or more, the character might also deduce that the vampire is laying down its mojo.
If the vampire’s attempts to subtly charm the party fail and a fight breaks out, the vampire will take stock of its options. If it has fewer nearby allies than there are party members, the vampire will retreat to somewhere more advantageous, summoning what allies it can and preparing for the battle. If it has enough reliable allies around, the vampire will engage the party, using its Unarmed Strike legendary action at the end of adjacent creatures’ turns to grapple them. It targets ranged fighters first, intent on forcing them to either attempt escape or attack with disadvantage.
The Unarmed Strike ability doesn’t limit the number of creatures the vampire can grapple at the same time, but that’s irrelevant; any more than two creatures directly threatening the vampire prompts it to move away using its Move legendary action—up a wall and out of reach, if possible. From there, it might take a mist form on its turn, using its legendary actions to move around the battlefield as the party tries to deal with the vampire’s allies and reverting to its normal shape on its next turn near an isolated character. Remember that, in combat, everyone is always moving and throwing punches, swinging weapons, and whatnot—all of which is abstractly represented by attack rolls and the like on someone’s turn for convenience—so feel free to describe the vampire coming back to its normal form in midair as it descends on a character, who narrowly manages to deflect its assault and push it a few feet away (into the unoccupied square the vampire comes to rest in).
When the vampire has an isolated target, it will prioritize grappling it and then biting it. Remember, the vampire regains hit points equal to the necrotic damage dealt by its bite (but not the piercing damage), and if the reduction to the creature’s maximum hit points brings that total (not its current hp) down to 0, that creature dies and can come back as a vampire spawn.
With significantly higher Armour Class and a weapon that deals almost 30% more damage than a basic unarmed strike, a warrior vampire is far more content to wade into the fray rather than flit about the periphery.
Ideally, the warrior vampire will face no more than two opponents in melee at a time, and can certainly match two tier 2 fighters—individuals who would be considered exceptional warriors in their own right. If faced with three opponents, the warrior vampire might take the Dodge action on its turn and use its legendary actions to make attacks and manoeuvre about the field.
A warrior vampire’s allies would prioritize neutralizing ranged combatants, especially spellcasters, which even a mobile creature like a vampire might find elusive. If the party includes some spellcasters, the vampire will surely have a few of its own, likely cultists who draw their power from dark pacts.
As per usual, the spellcasting ability makes a vampire a totally different kind of enemy.
Assuming that you don’t revise their spell list to trade out spells that really serve no purpose (comprehend languages? Really? It’s a ritual; you never need to prepare it), there are several really helpful spells that turn the vampire into a truly terrifying enemy. Greater invisibility allows the vampire to make its attacks with advantage and have enemies attack it with disadvantage. Mirror image is a non-concentration spell that practically guarantees immunity from several attacks. Dominate person can secure the vampire another ally, especially if the vampire targets a creature already affected by their Charm and which can be coaxed into not resisting the spell. Blight can ruin the day of any low-hp character. Bestow curse can lock down a low-Wis character for half a fight or make its bite even more dangerous by increasing the necrotic damage dealt by the attack.
A spellcaster vampire prioritizes remaining at the edge of battle, relying on its subordinates to keep its enemies divided and unable to focus solely on the vampire, which would increase the likelihood that it fails its Constitution saving throw for its concentration spells.
To make spellcaster vampires even more dangerous, we recommend the following changes to their prepared spells:
- Replace comprehend languages with counterspell.
- Replace gust of wind with darkness. (See Sunlight below.)
- Add chill touch to its list of cantrips. (9th-level wizards have four cantrips, not three.)
Sunlight & Radiant Damage
A major showstopper in any fight with a vampire is sunlight. More dangerous to a vampire than lava to a mortal, vampires take every possible precaution against encountering it.
Not only will it avoid outdoor encounters during the day, the vampire will immediately break off hostilities and retreat if sunlight is introduced to its environment. A vampire is wary of any spellcasters, especially those of a divine tradition, as it knows that enemies who might offer it a challenge will be capable of conjuring sunlight through several different spells. Spellcaster vampires should always be packing counterspell and darkness, and non-Spellcaster vampires should have an ally nearby who can cast those spells for them. If a spellcaster conjures daylight, all of the vampire’s allies will immediately converge on them.
A typical vampire lair includes multiple rooms where a vampire can retreat to escape the sunlight, and larger rooms will have other defences. Some examples include tapestries that can be torn off the wall and thrown over illuminated objects (if the daylight spell is cast on an object) or used as cover (if daylight covers an area), or large furniture under which the vampire can take cover to get out of direct sunlight. Even in worlds where undead are less common, this would be a weakness the vampire assumes is well-known and would prepare for.
If somehow the vampire becomes trapped in a room where someone has weaponized sunlight, that creature would instantly become the vampire’s sole focus. If it had previously proven resilient to being charmed, the vampire would bend all of its attacks against it, hoping to cause the creature to lose concentration on its spell. If a creature wields a weapon that deals radiant damage, the same thing occurs, though the vampire would prioritize disarming its foe (see Action Options in chapter 9, “Dungeon Master’s Workshop”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide) so that it can dispose of the offensive weapon. And if a character goes about spamming spells like sacred flame, the vampire will prioritize staying hidden (with greater invisibility, for instance) until the offender has been dispatched.
Putting It All Together
Vampires are not monsters to be dropped arbitrarily into a dungeon without the proper context, supports, and preparation. They are old and powerful foes who have slain hundreds, maybe even thousands. Defeating them should require preparation and intelligent tactics, and even then it should be a difficult fight fraught with many dangerous moments where defeat seems almost certain. While you need not develop an entire campaign around the one enemy, as happened when Tracy and Laura Hickman conceived the great vampire Strahd in their 32-page adventure, Ravenloft, the vampire should be a central figure given its due respect. Give it minions, give it motivations, give it a sense of strategy and self-preservation.
Otherwise, you face the very real prospect of this iconic villain of D&D falling flat, to everyone’s disappointment.