Friday, March 8, 2013

[Rifts:2112] My Take on the Vampire Kingdoms

Art by E. M. Gist
When I first set out upon what was to become my Rifts:2112 project, I imagined that the Vampire Kingdoms were going to be one of the few canonical locations that I didn't monkey with too much. I had fond memories of running Rifts campaigns set in Mexico and the Pecos Empire, and although I remembered there were some rather silly elements of the setting, I figured those could be smoothed away without changing too much.

Then I opened the sourcebook. It had been a while, and I'd quite forgotten just how gonzo it all was.

Now, unlike the total trainwreck of the Rifts Europe sourcebooks, I do still find a certain charm in the Vampire Kingdoms' presentation. If I was interested in running a Rifts campaign using the setting as-written, I don't think I'd monkey around at all with the contents of that book. It's got a wonderfully goofy Hammer Horror take on vampires with a slightly spicy Mexican flavoring sprinkled on top. But, as my take on Rifts is meant to be somewhat more "realistic" (or, at least as realistic as you can get in a setting where mechs and dragons slug it out on a regular basis), the more I read through World Book One: Vampire Kingdoms, the more I realized I wanted to do something of an overhaul.

The core concept would remain the same, of course: Most of the former country of Mexico is overrun by vampires, who have set up various city-states where they rule as lords over herds of mortal cattle. These kingdoms are located in central and southern Mexico, while the northern deserts are largely home to ravening "wild vampire" packs. Because of these wild vampires acting as a buffer zone, the human settlements and emergent nations of the north dismiss the rumors of more sophisticated vampire kingdoms in Mexico.

What I wanted to change was the way vampires were presented, both in terms of flavor and game mechanics. As I mentioned above, vampires in the Rifts setting owe a lot to the Universal Studios/Hammer Horror vampire archetype by way of D&D: they are repelled by garlic and holy symbols, they can't cross running water, they must sleep in the soil of their homeland, sunlight and holy water cause them damage, they can transform into bats, wolves, and mist, and so on. In fact, there are some elements that are taken to even greater extremes. For example, the whole "running water is damaging to vampires" thing gets interpreted as "any water in motion is damaging to vampires" and so we get water guns and water cannons as an effective tool in the vampire hunter's arsenal!

This is all pretty goofy stuff, but the other element that bothered me is that the vampires were the first to get the old "alien intelligence" treatment. Long-time Rifts fans know this one well. The canonical world of Rifts is overrun with these quasi-Lovecraftian troublemakers, to the point of ridiculousness even by Rifts standards. Even during my most rabid of Rifts fanboy days, the idea that vampires were puppets of a Great Old One chafed my hide.

So I was definitely going to drop the whole "alien intelligence" thing and downplay the cartoony vampire vibe all along. But, ironically, it was the cover of the revised edition of Worldbook One that got me thinking about taking it a little further. One of the things I really enjoyed about my re-imagining of Rifts Europe was getting the opportunity to emphasize the original culture of the area a little more than what the canonical material did. As I indicated above, Vampire Kingdoms actually did a better job of giving a "south of the border" feel to the setting, and clearly, with the revised cover, Palladium's trying to emphasize the connection even more strongly. But why then continue to mess around with vampires derived from European folklore? Why not take a look at native Mexican vampire legends?

Some browsing through Wikipedia and GURPS Horror gave me my answer: the cihuateteo. A creepy-as-shit female vampiric spirit that steals children away from mothers and men away from their families. In appearance, they're somewhat like a Japanese ghost, what with the long, loose black hair and billowing white robes. And they can fly. I immediately got a mental image of a trio of cihuateteos silhouetted against the disc of the full moon as they fly through the night. Like I said, creepy.

GURPS Horror categorizes monsters by the primary fear they represent, and puts vampires under "Fear of Taint". The idea is that vampires represent corruption of something that a society holds dear: "This fear is not precisely that of disease or of the unnatural per se, but something between the two. Corruption, decay, unwholesomeness...any rot that spreads is a taint."

I got to thinking. In a post-apocalyptic world, familial bonds and new babies would become incredibly important to survivors trying to rebuild. The cihuateteo, as corruptor of these values, as the rot that spreads through the family and community, literally born of the community's efforts to increase their numbers, then becomes the perfect taint to haunt post-apocalyptic Mexico!

This also fits in nicely with the established Rifts canon that regional legends are actually folk memories from ancient times when magic was more common and supernatural creatures actually existed. And so, with the return of magic to the Earth, the strange energies that created the cihuateteo in long-forgotten times of yore have returned.

The only real problem with this scheme is that it leaves me wondering what to do about wild vampires. In the original Rifts canon, you've got three levels of vampire: master, secondary, and wild. Master vampires create secondary vampires, secondaries create wild vampires. Each type of vampire is further and further removed from humanity, so a master vamp can pass and act pretty much as human whereas a wild vampire both looks and acts monstrous. It's the monstrous, feral nature of the wild vampire population of northern Mexico that leads the Coalition and other human factions to dismiss the rumors of sophisticated vampire kingdoms further south.

Thinking about how to work wild vampires into the cihuateteo story, I began to think about the part of their legend in which they seduce and "debase" men. Clearly, they're stealing babies for the good eats, but the men they keep alive for their other unsavory appetites. But what does prolonged exposure to undead carnality do to a man? Why, it begins to rob him of his very humanity, of course, eventually reducing him to a slavering ghoul, not quite mortal, not quite undead. At this point, the ghoul-man is turned away from the cihuateteo's company and banished to the wilderness. This means that what most "northerners" think of as a vampire is actually an exiled ghoul-servant instead!

So here's how I'd sum up all the above information as a description of the Rifts:2112 Vampire Kingdoms:

The cihuateteo phenomenon is, for reasons yet unknown, strongest in central and southern Mexico, with cases being increasingly rare the further one travels north or south until, once across the Rio Grande or Panama Channel, there are no native incidents of cihuateteos appearing at all. In the benighted lands of los Reinos de los Vampiros, however, communities live in terror of their undead overlords. Any woman who dies in childbirth, if not properly disposed of in a roaring bonfire, will return as a cihuateteo and join others of her kind. The cihuateteo, once risen, stalks mortal prey, stealing away infants to feast upon and grown men to debase with their unholy lust.

Most of these vampiras will operate alone or in small "covens" of 2-5 members, but in some cities to the south, a ruling caste of cihuateteos hold court over docile human populations who have never known life outside the macabre social structure imposed by their undead overlords. These "domesticated" humans know only lives of grinding poverty and fear. Their overlords do not care for their subjects' well-being; in fact, the cihuateteo are well-known for their hatred of pregnant women, and will sometimes even attack pregnant members of their own herd in a blind rage. As for the health of their population, this too matters little. After all, if a woman dies in childbirth, she joins their ranks! As long as their "herd" is kept large enough to produce enough young to feed on and men to take into their dark harems, the Vampire Queens are content.

Out in the country, away from the vampire cities, people try to get along as best they can. But a single cihuateteo can wreak havoc on a nascent community, stealing away both men and babies and leaving the survivors facing a doubtful future, their family lives torn apart, their available workforce much reduced.

When a cihuateto has sated herself on a mortal man, she turns him away into the wilderness. This usually occurs once the man has become a debased and feral specimen, a ghoul who has been warped by prolonged exposure to the creature of darkness. He has forgotten his true self and become little better than an animal. He has also acquired some of the traits of his undead lover, a severe sensitivity to sunlight and a taste for the raw flesh of sentient creatures among them, as well as nearly supernatural strength and endurance. Yet they remain mortal; despite what the cheap pamphlets peddled in El Paso and Juarez may claim, "vampires" are no more susceptible to garlic or holy water than you or I. A stake to the heart will kill them, of course, but so will a couple bullets to the head or an axe to the neck.

Intrepid vampire hunters penetrating further south into old Mexico, however, will begin to encounter genuine supernatural threats in the form of the dreaded cihuateteo. These creatures are possessed of many strange powers, but not many are well known outside the Vampire Kingdoms. With the deathly pallor of a corpse, the fiendish lady vampires seek to satiate their uncontrollable appetite for blood, preferably feasting on the blood of infants and young children. It is said that the cihuateteo can shapeshift into rattlesnakes (leading many communities in Mexico to kill all rattlers on sight, often nailing the carcasses up in a grizzly display meant to warn off any nearby vampiras. Their ability to fly without any apparent means of lift or propulsion is well-documented. Although they are able to operate during the day as well as they do at night, they prefer the darkness, for sunlight causes them excrutiating pain and will eventually kill them. Fire kills them a lot faster, and most experienced vampire hunters like Doc Reid and his Rangers are well-supplied with flame-throwers and fire magic. Like classic vampires of pre-Rifts lore, the cihuateteo can also be laid low with a well-aimed stake to the heart, and so flame-throwers are often supplemented with a bandelier of sharpened sticks or, even better, a quiver of wooden crossbow bolts - engaging a cihuateteo at range is preferable, as they are supernaturally strong and can paralyze mortal victims with their chilling touch.
For the "wild vampires" of northern Mexico, I plan to use Ghoul stats from Call of Cthulhu. I'll post BRP stats for cihuateteo shortly.

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