Vampire Warrior and Spellcaster Tactics

A reader gently reminds me that I made a promise a long time ago that I haven’t fulfilled yet: I analyzed vampires, but I never did get around to analyzing the variant warrior vampire and spellcaster vampire. How do they differ from the stock vampire?

To recap, vampires are highly intelligent and prudent apex predators, both highly attached to and highly dependent on their lairs—of which they maintain several, just in case. They employ multiple levels of security in these lairs and will parley with intruders to size them up, stall for time and look for an opportunity to Charm one or more of them. They use a combination of Unarmed Strike (to grapple) and Bite to subdue opponents, draw sustenance from them and, potentially, transform them into vampire spawn. They value their continued existence very highly and are not going to engage in acts of stupid bravery; if the situation calls for it, they’ll tactically retreat without hesitation. When hunting, they prey on the weak, vulnerable and isolated.

The warrior vampire differs from an ordinary vampire (as if any full vampire were truly ordinary) in that it wears plate armor, wields a greatsword and has the additional Multiattack option of making two melee attacks with that sword. What does this change?

Well, certainly, there’s no reason for a vampire to become stupidly reckless simply because it’s wearing a tin can and waving a poker. Nor is it going to deviate from its basic desire: to maintain its ability to feed without interference.

The fact that its increased armor class and its greater weapon damage output place it in a higher challenge rating bracket (CR 15 rather than CR 13) does mean it can take on a stronger group of enemies than other vampires can, and this will factor into its decision whether to fight, flee or parley. But the biggest difference lies in how the warrior vampire approaches melee combat itself.

The standard vampire attack, once it’s decided it’s no longer playing around, is a two-parter: first, an Unarmed Strike with intent to grapple; second, a Bite that does both piercing and necrotic damage, the latter of which restores hit points to the vampire. The first does no damage, while the second does an average of 18 points of damage, while giving the vampire an average of 10 back.

A dual greatsword attack, by comparison, does an average of 22 points of damage, assuming both hits land, and restores no hp. (We don’t have to worry about hit probabilities, because the attack modifier is the same +9 no matter what method of attack the vampire is using.) On top of this, a vampire that’s holding a big sword in both hands is in no position to grapple anybody—not without dropping that sword on the ground. So a vampire that’s chosen to wield a sword is committing to a particular endgame: It’s trying to kill its enemies, not feed on them or spawnify them. A living victim is full of juicy potential; a chopped-up corpse is of no use or interest anymore.

How does the vampire decide which path to follow? Once again, think like a predator. Predators, hunting social animals, attack the weak, not the strong. A warrior vampire defending itself against stronger opponents is fighting, not hunting: it uses the sword. By doing so, it forfeits the opportunity to restore its own hit points by feeding. But it has no real choice but to make this trade-off. It has to hope that its extra two points of AC are enough to prevent the damage it would otherwise restore.

On the other hand, a warrior vampire confident that it’s more powerful than its foes and looking forward to making a meal of them is better off not drawing its sword, instead using the standard vampire grapple/bite combo. If at some point it realizes it’s underestimated the opposition, it may then choose to draw its sword after all and fight that way instead. Once it’s made that choice, it sticks with it to the end.

At this point, you may be asking yourself—as I am—whether the warrior vampire is all that much of an improvement over the vanilla vampire. I think the answer is, not really. It’s a variant; it’s not an elite variant. Use it if and when you want a vampire to wear plate mail and wield a sword. The end.

The spellcaster vampire is a different matter. This one’s spell repertoire gives it a variety of extra tricks it can use to take its enemies down. From most to least powerful:

  • Dominate person is big, and it’s the only thing the spellcaster vampire will use its 5th-level spell slot for. It has twice the range of the vampire’s innate Charm ability, removes the target’s free will, and gives the vampire “total and precise control” over the target if it wishes. The downside is that the saving throw is slightly easier to make, and if combat is already under way, the target will probably get to make that roll with advantage. In this situation, it’s better for stopping an opponent in his or her tracks than it is for getting that opponent to do things on the vampire’s behalf. But if the vampire can cast this spell before fighting breaks out—or later on, during a lull in the action—it can be potent. It does not explicitly make the target a willing target for a Bite attack, but I’d say that a command along the lines of “Let me bite you” would suffice.
  • Blight is a powerful single-target attack that’s especially good at taking out glass-cannon enemies around the periphery of the battle, who typically rely on Dexterity rather than Constitution as their primary defensive ability. It does a whopping 36 points of damage, on average, on a failed save, half damage on a success; this means you can reasonably expect to do around 27 points of damage and can potentially deal up to 64. And it’s necrotic, which is thematically appropriate.
  • Greater invisibility is an even better evasive maneuver than the vanilla vampire’s Shapechanger ability.
  • Animate dead is one of those spells that, perversely, is more useful for player characters than for non-player character villains, because an NPC reduced to 0 hp is dead, but a PC reduced to 0 hp is merely dying. On the other hand, the kind of vampire that studies wizardry is probably also the kind that has a corpse storage room in its house. Unless it’s in this room, it probably won’t have the opportunity to cast this spell—but if it does get the opportunity, it will do so without hesitation, and if it has the opportunity to cast it on three dead targets, it will use a 4th-level slot to cast it.
  • Bestow curse is expensive, in terms of action economy, for what it gives the caster, but there is one situation in which it becomes particularly useful for a vampire: the target of the spell is grappled (and therefore already being touched), any incoming attacks are largely ineffectual, and the vampire really wants to spawnify the target it’s grappling. In this instance (and only in this instance, really), it’s worth it to spend one action to cast bestow curse, choosing the bonus necrotic damage die option. This speeds up the rate at which the vampire’s bite drains the target’s hp, which also has the effect of fortifying the vampire. This spell is actually most effective outside combat, if and when the vampire can lure a charmed victim to a place of privacy.
  • Nondetection is how a fleeing vampire keeps its pursuers from tracking it.
  • Detect thoughts might be superficially useful during parley, except that anyone can tell the vampire is casting a spell, so the element of surprise is blown. If the vampire can get a charmed person alone, however, it can use detect thoughts to read its mind without undesirable repercussions.
  • Gust of wind has exactly one useful function: blowing out all the torches in the room just before the vampire flees. Or it could just cast greater invisibility.
  • Mirror image is the very first thing a spellcaster vampire will do when combat breaks out. It’s all upside, no downside.
  • Comprehend languages is a situational ritual for a situation that probably won’t even come up.
  • Fog cloud can slow a fleeing vampire’s pursuers. Additionally, a very sneaky vampire can cast fog cloud, then change shape into mist form (it has to cast the spell first, since it can’t take actions in mist form) and float through the cloud, indistinguishable from it, before re-manifesting and doing something nasty to whoever’s next to it. There’s no point in using a higher-level spell slot to boost it.
  • Sleep is not going to be of any use against PCs of a high enough level to go vampire hunting.
  • Mage hand, prestidigitation and ray of frost are pretty inconsequential, although ray of frost can do 2d8 cold damage (an average of 9 points) to an opponent out of the vampire’s reach.

Nothing in this repertoire alters the vampire’s fundamental strategy of preying on the weak, fleeing from the strong and trying to strike bargains with its equals. Except for dominate person and blight, these spells are mostly damage-control measures, but some of them (greater invisibility, mirror image, fog cloud and, to a lesser extent, nondetection) are quite good damage-control measures. In particular, mirror image is a good substitute for the turn in which the vampire makes temporizing unarmed attacks in order to get a sense of its opponents’ capabilities.

Next: vargouilles.

20 thoughts on “Vampire Warrior and Spellcaster Tactics

  1. For the vampire warrior, a character only needs one hand to grapple a target and a two handed weapon only needs one hand if you are just holding it, so the vampire warrior could do both the grab bite combo and the greatsword attacks and switch in the middle of combat with no draw backs.

  2. The Two-Handed property only says you need two hands to ATTACK with the weapon. You can hold a greatsword with one hand, you just have it resting on your shoulder or with the tip on the ground. Therefore, the warrior vampire could switch at will between greatsword-greatsword, grapple-bite, and greatsword-bite. (With the caveat that it can’t make a greatsword attack while using a hand to grapple.)

    From what I have seen, there is no realistic way to draw a greatsword in combat, so I would say a warrior vampire with a greatsword always has it out ready to fight with.

    1. Greatsword/bite is not an option. The basic Multiattack allows Unarmed Strike/Unarmed Strike or Unarmed Strike/bite (also bite/Unarmed Strike, but there’s rarely any reason to do it in that order). The warrior vampire’s Multiattack additionally allows greatsword/greatsword, but it doesn’t allow the vampire to combine greatsword attacks with Unarmed Strikes or bites.

      You and Rowan are correct that a grapple requires only one free hand and that a two-handed weapon requires two hands only to attack with. But what happens once the vampire has someone grappled? Now, not only can’t it use its greatsword without letting its victim go, it also can’t use Unarmed Attack against anyone else without letting its greatsword go. The two modes of attack are still only about 50 percent compatible with each other, at best. So I still say grapple/bite against weaker foes, greatsword against stronger ones (until it’s forced to flee).

      1. I may have outdated information, but my MM does not specify what kind of attacks the multiattack must be made with (with the limit of only one can be a bite attack, of course). I don’t see any errata that changes this.

        So the vampire could make a greatsword attack then bite a willing, incapacitated, or restrained creature, or vice versa. And if it already has a creature grappled it can bite, release the creature for free, then make a greatsword attack.

        1. Ah, whoops, I see the Warrior Vampire has its own Multiattack that does specify greatsword attacks only. HOWEVER, it is an “additional action option” and the base vampire Multiattack allows any attack so I stand by my point.

          1. OK, so you’re right that greatsword/Unarmed Strike is allowed after all. But you see how grapple/greatsword isn’t possible, right? I mean, not without the vampire’s letting go of the target it’s just grappled.

            Honestly, I think this variant just wasn’t very well thought out.

      2. The vampire can absolutely continue to make unarmed strikes while grappling with one hand and holding a greatsword in the other: kicking and head-butting are explicitly mentioned in the unarmed strikes rules.

  3. I never said anything about grappling then making a greatsword attack? Of course that would be dumb.

    I agree, making it a variant seems like overkill. If they really wanted to call it out they could have just put a sentence that says, “You can give a vampire armor and weapons to make it more dangerous.”

  4. This is excellent! I’m about to run a campaign with a vampire wizard variant as the BB so now I have a good idea of what spells to use. Thank you for running this blog!

  5. For the warrior variant, the ability to knock an opponent out with melee attacks (PHB 198) suggests an alternative strategy: the vampire uses the heavier damage from the greatsword to rapidly incapacitate its opponents; once all the opponents are down, the vampire then has what amounts to a buffet of unconscious but stable victims for feeding, spawn-ifying, abducting, or tying up to save for later. Since it takes 1d4 hours to regain consciousness in the absence of healing, the vampire has plenty of time to decide on and implement a course of action.

      1. You’re absolutely correct. Ran a simple combat sim with a generic party, and the biggest issue (for the vampire) was that the party was able to regularly stand unconscious members back up to rejoin the fight.
        Replayed the fight a few times with both regular and warrior vampires, and found one of the more successful tactics was to drain enemies to death even after they were knocked out (continue to bite until the victim’s hp max is reduced to 0, causing instant no-save death). Even if the vampire is forced to flee after dispatching only one opponent, it still poses a host of challenges to the party.
        Might be a little grim for some campaigns, though.

          1. My pleasure. Thanks for all the effort you’ve put into making our campaigns more interesting. 🙂

      1. Or, to put it in more civilized terms, that would be a high impossible encounter for any party under twenty. But yes, if the gust didn’t dissipate the cloud.

  6. I suspect Detect Thoughts is a spell the vampire spellcaster would use before going to greet a party, rather than after combat started. Then they wouldn’t know it was cast.

  7. Or, to put it in more civilized terms, that would be a high impossible encounter for any party under twenty. But yes, if the gust didn’t dissipate the cloud.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.