A vampire is a flexible metaphor. You know, death, sex, change, stagnation, loss of self, loss of agency, having to keep one's real self secret…
YOU OLD TIMERS already know the story.
In 1983 Chaosium went into partnership with publisher Avalon Hill to do a third edition of its landmark RPG, RuneQuest. The partnership was ultimately unsuccessful. Glorantha’s creator, Greg Stafford, was not thrilled with what Avalon Hill did with the game, and by 1989 Chaosium stopped writing material for it. What came after is best left unmentioned in polite company (Daughters of Darkness, looking at you).
After just enough time had passed for all of us to believe Glorantha had died an unjust and ugly death, the setting came back…with a vengeance. In 1992, with Ken Rolston (yes, that Ken Rolston) as the line editor, Avalon Hill published Michael O’Brien’s Sun County, generally regarded as the first flowering of a Gloranthan Renaissance. O’Brien and his team served up a detailed look at Pavis County’s southeasterly neighbor, a Yelmalio worshipping community along the banks of the Zola Fel river. I remember it being the first Avalon Hill product I felt excited about.
One of my favorite chapters in the book as a scenario called “The Old Sun Dome.” Written by O’Brien and Trevor Ackerly, it centers on the original Sun Dome temple, a ruin now abandoned and largely shunned. The story is a long and complex one, but essentially the temple was abandoned after being struck by an earthquake. Closer to the truth is that the temple had been built at a time when the Yelmalio cult—like so many others—had fallen under the draconic influence of the Empire of Wyrm’s Friends. As the relationship between the Dragons and humanity began to sour, the men of Sun County were among those who marched on Dragon Pass to raid them. The result, of course, was the slaughter of every man, woman, and child in Dragon Pass…including the men of Sun County who went to fight there. When disaster subsequently struck the temple it was taken as a sign, and a new, “dragon-free” Sun Dome was built.
Now the last thing you would expect to ever find lairing in a solar temple—even a desecrated one—is a Vampire. Yet this is exactly what “The Old Sun Dome” put there. In the century after the temple was abandoned, an ancient horror moved in, claiming the ruins for itself. The first line of its description gave me gooseflesh; The vampire no longer remembers its name. This was right after Vampire: The Masquerade first appeared, and between it and Anne Rice the era of the “sexy” bloodsucker was upon us. “The Old Sun Dome” zigged while everyone else was zagging. It gave us a creature already ancient when the Dragonkill War occurred, a creature that soon after devoured all of its followers and burrowed deep into the darkness beneath the ruin, more creature than human. The thing slept years at a time, then rose to take pleasure in the only thing left to it…killing. It had no memories of its life, it didn’t even speak its original language anymore. Only Darkspeech. It was a thing stripped of all vestiges of humanity, left with only violence and appetite.
It was a terrific villain, but this was 1992, and outside of games like Call of Cthulhu “narrative” was a bit player in most published scenarios. “The Old Sun Dome” was essentially a dungeon; there were a number of “hooks” included to get you to go there, and once you did it was essentially trying to stay alive long enough to recover what you were after. This was perfect for RuneQuest, but problematic for a HeroQuest conversion. Once I made the decision to drop “The Old Sun Dome” into my ongoing campaign as the annual Halloween scenario, I had to think of adapting it. That meant, finding the narrative.
“Sundown” is probably best regarded as a sequel to “The Old Sun Dome” (though thinking of it as a reboot works too). Set in Sea Season 1621 ST, it is likely a few years after the original, and circumstances have changed.
Though it does not often crawl out of its ruin, the Vampire senses a change in the air. You do not live this long by not taking the long view. The thing feels the coming of the Hero Wars like the onset of an ice age, an inevitable and crushing force. It can’t know about the Wind Stop, but it feels a disaster coming that will soon make its food supply scarce here in the desert. It has made the decision then to go elsewhere.
The problem is the curse it labors under. Gata bound Vivamort and his spawn to the earth; they cannot enter a new location unless they have been invited it. To relocate to a new region or community, it needs a local there to invite it, and prepare the way by certain desecrations of the soil (hat tip to Stephen King’s classic ‘salem’s Lot for this idea). Thus the Vampire has needed what it hadn’t had in centuries…servants.
It started with the neighbors on its doorstep…the Xth Yelmic active militia file. The creature first seduced the guard leader, Vaaron Archibald, playing on the seething resentment he had always had for this assignment…stuck in the middle of nowhere, watching a pile of rocks. It approached him first in his sleep, sending dreams of a reborn Old Sun Dome, a glorious new Yelmic order on the frontier that would stop bowing and scraping to ever-increasing Lunar demands…the Golden Age of Sun County reborn. He, of course, would be instrumental in this. It gave him images of the Stele of Founding, a golden tablet beneath the rubble in the Old Sun Dome that bore the formula that originally blessed this land and called the eyes of Yelm and Lightfore to gaze with favor upon it. With the Stele, he himself could rule.
Once Vaaron was fool enough to descend into the darkness alone, the Vampire had him.
Through Vaaron the Vampire began to work on the men beneath him, until all shared the belief in the restored Sun Dome. Vaaron, of course, knows the truth now, but is too far gone into the Vampire’s shadow to resist. The militia believes it is working for the cause of Yelmalio and Sun County, however.
Their mission—conducted not only by the militia but by the network of spies and agents Vaaron has built up using his Master’s gold and guile—has been to abduct travelers from across Sun County (and into Pavis County and the northern Grantlands) and bring them secretly to the Old Sun Dome. The militia is under the impression these people are being questioned for intelligence. In truth, some of them go to feed the Vampire’s hunger as it builds its strength for relocation. Others it infects, feeding on them and force-feeding them its own blood. This is not transforming any of them into Vampires (that takes powerful magic and is bestowed only on Vivamort’s favored); it simply saps their spirit and allows the Vampire greater and greater control over their mind and wills. In time many of these prisoners will be released or allowed to “escape.” They will scatter and return to their homes, there to secretly begin desecrating the land and giving the Vampire a wide selection of new havens to flee to…
Setting: The Old Sun Dome, Sun County, Prax. Freezeday, Death Week, Sea Season, 1621 ST.
Theme: Loss of Self. When the Vampire feeds it takes the victim’s life and part of its soul. Memories are lost. Personality traits are dulled. The implication is the eventual emptying and becoming a hollow, soulless thing. “There are far worse things than death…” (Dracula, in “Dracula,” 1931)
Stakes: This is one the player characters have a powerful motivation in; the stakes are getting out with their lives and souls intact. A secondary stake is stopping this thing from escaping and infecting other lands, possibly even their own.
Subplot: Resolving the rift between Kalf and Orin that started in The Cradle.
- Runes: Darkness, Undeath
- Ancient Horror, Nameless Evil
- Goals: Feed. Kill. Endure unending. Relocate to better feeding grounds.
- Notes: The Vampire should be a formidable foe. Even if you are using the Pass/Fail Cycle, a direct confrontation with him should never be less than Very High (Base + Mastery). He can enthrall people by making eye contact with them, paralyzing them. His strength is like that of ten men. No mind control spells affect him. He can assume the form of a owl, a serpent, a rat, or a thick mist. He can endure tremendous physical punishment and no unenchanted blade can pierce him. But like the Vampire at the end of Dracula he *can* be killed. Striking a blow through his heart or taking off his head will work (with an enchanted weapon). Remember also the curses leveled against Vivamort; sunlight weakens him (lower the Difficulty to High or even Moderate if fighting in daylight), he cannot cross running water, and the Death Rune presented to him by a Death cult initiate will make him cringe in terror and retreat. Finding him in his grave while he sleeps (at least six hours each day, usually noon to sunset) he is defenseless.
- Roleplay Notes: Apex predator. Anything that talks and stands on two legs is prey. When you look into the past there is only endless nights, killing, and blood. You have no memory of the sunlight, of love, of family, or kin. You cannot remember the name or the face of your maker. But you know there is no Underworld for you. No god is waiting. Your soul is bound to your flesh, everlasting. Survival is your primary concern. But you also must feed, and you know that will become difficult soon. So you are taking this risk, luring strangers in in greater numbers. You would prefer to feed on solo victims, but this is a gambit you must take despite the risk.
- Runes: Light, Truth
- Militia Captain, Deluded Fool, Vampire’s slave
- Goals: Serve his master. The part of him that is sane and whole hopes he can survive this long enough for the Vampire to move on.
- Notes: Vaaron no longer has the powers Yelmalio bestowed on him. The Son of the Sun withdrew them. He tells nothing of this but only the Vampire’s power shields him from spirits of reprisal.
- Roleplay Notes: You have never been fortunate. You have never gotten what you deserved. After your father died in service to the Sun Dome your mother assured you that you were meant for greatness…but greatness never came. As a man you became increasingly frustrated and bitter with your lot; this posting, commanding farm boys at some gods forsaken pile of rubble! When the dreams started coming, and the voice starting whispering into your mind, you knew if was Yelmalio calling you to your destiny. Again, fortune laughed at you. Now that foul thing presses its cold lips against your throat, now it periodically opens the vein in its wrist and forces you to defile yourself. You have lost your free will, your god…but you will get it all back.
“Orin” (Orininus (or-i-NIGH-nus) Prathvi Yuthaldrex)
- Runes: Fire/Sky, Life, Truth
- Former Slave, Liberated Young Man Seeking his Path
- Goals: Now a liberated slave and initiated into manhood, he is thinking about his life and right now wants Kalliva in it.
- Notes: No more than seventeen, his pale skin tanned by the sun of Prax, his hair pale blonde and eyes sky blue…is from the Lunar Heartlands. He is originally from a well-placed Dara Happan family that fell afoul of a Dart Competition. The adults in his family were sentenced to death, the children to slavery. Orin was sold to a wealthy Lunar magistrate soon after assigned to Pavis, and lost by his master in a dicing match. That is where Teolrian bought him. The boy is useful because he is fluent in Trade, New Peolrian, and now Praxian, knows arithmetic, and can read well. While obviously a Lunar, he is by no means a Lunar. He recognizes the Red Goddess and the Emperor as the supreme powers in the world, but culturally he is Dara Happan. He sees the Red Goddess as something that happened to his people, not something they have become. His father taught him that one day the Sun would vanquish the Moon…which is in part the kind of heresy that destroyed his family.
- Roleplay Notes: You have not had family in five years. These Heortlings with their strange ways and barbaric beliefs are not family…but they are close. You are moved by the struggle they fight, by their devotion to kin. You want to help. You are both intimidated by Kalliva and desperate to make her see you as something more than just a traveling companion.
- Runes: Light, Truth, Stability
- Embittered Old Soldier, Half-Mad Hermit
- To stop the thing in the Old Sun Dome before it destroys all he loves.
- Notes: Old Venables was the second-in-command of the Xth Yelmic militia file…until the Vampire started to take over. Consulting ancient records, he figured out what was happening, and what the creature was that had seduced his younger superior and was now enslaving the men. After Vaaron tried to have him killed the wily old fox escaped into the desert, and has been living there for several seasons, brooding over what to do. Entering senility even before all this began, he is now pushed by obsession into borderline madness.
- Roleplaying Notes: You always knew there was evil in the Old Sun Dome, but Vaaron never listened. No, he saw it as a pile of rocks, but you knew. Now the evil has ensnared the younger man, and threatens all the County. You will put it right. Somehow. And all the people dragged down into the tunnels beneath the Dome…you will free them too. The Light commands it. The Light must triumph over the dark.
Jora (YOUR-a) Karsdotr
- Runes: Air, Motion, Earth
- Vingan warrior, Culbrea Clanswoman
- Goals: At the moment to escape the dungeon and find her lover, Janga
- Notes: Jora left Sartar behind her with Janga after killing Janga’s abusive husband…a member of her own clan. It’s complicated; she and Janga were lovers but the latter decided to marry because her father needed the dowry. Her drunken lout of a husband abused her. Jora had enough. Since then they have been wandering between Pavis County and the Grantlands, Jora providing services as a mercenary. Both were taken by the Vampire’s people near Helmford.
- Roleplaying Notes: You are insanely protective of Janga. If anything happens to her, it will be your fault, as you convinced her to follow you to the desert.
ACT ONE: FROM DARKNESS
Beginning: The player characters awake slowly, weakened and groggy. They are fitted with slave collars, preventing them from doing magic. It is pitch black. Clearly someone drugged them and brought them wherever they are now.
They seem to be in a cell. The walls and floor are cold stone. It is dry and not damp. Feeling their way around they can find a bronze-shod door in the wall. Through a tiny window they hear moans, whimpers, begging and pleading up and down the corridor. An icy cold descends. The temperature in the room drops. Someone is screaming in Trade Merciful gods no it is coming for me it is at the door!!! There is bitter cold, a scream cut short…and then the sucking sounds.
Inciting Incident: Now that you have thrown them enough hints to make them understand the terror of their predicament, throw them a lifeline. Either;
- Have one of the characters discover their slave collar is actually loose. It was not fastened properly, or is perhaps defective. This character will be able to remove the defective collar, but cannot remove the others in the dark. They need light for this and should try to get through the door and escape.
- If the group had any NPC Retainers or Followers or Companions, hours after the Vampire retreats from his repast and the sun is in the sky, have that NPC show up at the door. He or she witnessed their kidnapping and tracked them across the desert to here. The character is injured (if it is a Companion it now has 2 hits rather than 3). The NPC will help them escape and knows the way back out.
In either case this is not easy. Getting out of the Vampire’s lair is a Simple Contest at High Difficulty. The player characters are naked, still collared, and have no weapons. It is a tense scene of scrabbling through the near impenetrable blackness, feeling their way. With Option A it is a matter of Luck that they manage to get out into the daylight. With Option B their guide leads the way.
Second Thoughts: If you used Option A and the player characters are on their own, their first priority is probably finding somewhere to hide and remove the slave collars. As they scrabble through the desert looking for a place to hide and do this, they will be approached by a grizzled old man. He looks like a wild-eyed hermit, and seems senile, but his build and the old armor and weapons he bears suggest he was a soldier once. This is “Old Venables.” He will whisk them away from the Old Sun Dome and the militia barracks. You cannot trust them. No. No. There is rot among the men. Muttering to himself, he will lead them to a camp hidden in the desert about half a mile away.
If you used Option B, their NPC ally follows the same path, leading them to a camp half a mile from the Old Sun Dome and militia barracks. There are some weapons there, and scraps of clothing, but not much. There is also food and water. If the NPC is asked how he came by these things he or she will evasively claim to have “found” it abandoned, and tell the player characters they need to get those collars off. The NPC will claim to have collected intelligence by watching and listening to the militia men.
The truth is not so prosaic. Searching for the player characters, the NPC encountered Old Venables, and learned the nature of the threat in the Sun Dome. But Venables, in a fit of senility and madness, suddenly attacked the NPC (this is where the injury came from) and the NPC was forced to kill him. He buried Venables in the desert not far from the camp and then went in to save the player characters. The NPC will not talk of any of these things unless persuaded or forced (roleplay this out). He or she is still guilty and traumatized over the entire incident.
From here on in, whether you selected Option A or B, we will refer to Old Venables OR the NPC ally simply as “the Guide” and “he.”
The Guide helps the characters get the collars of, and he explains what little he has learned of the situation. The militia is corrupted and working for the Vampire, bringing it victims. They have the choice to go back in and try to help those people, or to try and escape.
Going Back In: If the Guide is Old Venables this is what he will insist on, and he will try to kill the player characters in a fit of madness if they chose escape. Their are other incentives; the player characters’ own armor, weapons, items, etc are all down their somewhere. They need to go back in to get them.
Escape: If the Guide is the NPC ally, the players may wish to try and flee. This will mean abandoning all their possessions however. Also, see the Climax below…
Climax (Act One): This is not a fight or an encounter, but a revelation. Have the players all roll a die (or select one of their characters for dramatic purposes). The low roll draws the short straw.
The character still feels drugged and weak, even as the other characters recover. Horrible flashes of memory come and go through his or her mind; being pinned down in the darkness, an icy weight pinning him or her down, cold dead lips against the skin of his or her throat…and being forced to drink something rotten and sickly sweet. Throw in other signs as needed…such as seeing blackness flow through the veins in his or her arms before disappearing again, and the horrifying realization that he or she has lost memories, such as the faces of loved ones, or of home. It should be clear that after their capture the Vampire fed on this character, and he or she is now infected or touched somehow by its evil. Killing it might be the only way to recover what was lost.
ACT TWO: INTO DARKNESS
WE WILL ASSUME from here on in that the player characters go back into the Old Sun Dome. If they don’t…they don’t. Wing it. There will be plenty of challenges trying to elude the Xth Yelmic militia file (and the Vampire come sundown) if they try to make their escape. Make the obstacles about surviving the desert with little clothing or supplies, seeking safe haven and lodgings without money, etc. Throw in a climactic battle against the militia (or if cruel the Vampire). The infected character will remain infected, especially if the Vampire isn’t destroyed, and this can lead to future subplots and forebodings in the future. But the rest of this scenario assumes they return inside.
Obstacle 1: Getting back inside requires backtracking to the exit they left from and eluding any militia patrols (Simple Contest, Moderate Difficulty). In case they scout around, the lay out of the Old Sun Dome is similar to the modern one. There is a three-meter-high wall around the entire complex, and it contains a ruined and weed-strewn courtyard near the main entrance, a Guest House that now serves as the base for the Xth Yelmic militia file, a Gate House, and of course the Sun Dome itself. The gold of the dome still shines but there is a crack in it large enough for people to crawl through. The exit they left from is a door set into the outer wall, a hidden back exit probably intended for escape in the distant past.
Obstacle 2: This is a harder challenge, finding their weapons and equipment (Simple Contest, High Difficulty). It involves feeling their way through the dark (unless they made torches). They find a cluster of cell doors; one of them contains the weapons and loot of at least 20 or 30 people, including their own. There is also a golden dagger marked with Light and Truth Runes, as well as a bronze sword carved with dragons.
The other cells contain prisoners. Remember this is the Bronze Age; locks are not complicated, and the doors can be removed simply by tapping the pins out of the hinges. The two cells here contain an auburn-haired woman, the Vingan Jora, and a young Duck mercenary named Darvan White-Tail. She was abducted at Helmsford, he was taken in Garhound. Jora will go with them because she is looking for her lover, Janga. Darvan will join because he is a Humakti lay-person. He has no real magic to help them, but feels he must stand against this thing.
Midpoint (the Big Twist): The passage leads into the main worship space of the old temple, entering it through a hidden door in the wall. They are in a vaulted space now, beneath the cracked Sun Dome. Assuming it is daylight, sunlight streams down across the center of the floor.
The walls are covered with hieroglyphic like images depicting Yelm as a solar dragon, members of his court, and the many glorious deeds of Yelmalio (whose armor in these EWF-influenced images bears the Runes, Light, Truth, and Dragonewt). The floor was once a beautiful mosaic, and they can still see the red, yellow, and purples of it glinting through the rubble and the dust that obscures it. The floor is itself shattered; a massive crack runs the length of it yawning into a chasm. The edges of the crack look melted…the mosaic tiles fused into glass that looks not unlike the tallow of a melted candle. The same is true of the dome above, which is scorched. Many of the carvings on the walls are just as melted…by a heat intense enough to liquify stone.
Surely this was no earthquake.
On the desanctified altar a stone tablet has been erected, apparently after the destruction of the temple. If anyone can read Firespeech, It tells of a hero named Yamsur the Splendid, leader of the Golden Axles, who joined the Invincible Golden Hoard to raid the draconized cities of the EWF. Yamsur and all his men were slaughtered by the Dragons, but at the moment of his death Yamsur was transported back here, to the temple, wreathed in terrible dragonfire. The flame destroyed the temple along with his remains. The stele concludes that this was a warning from on High never to associate with Dragons again.
As they read the inscription and/or look around, they will notice the floor littered with bones of various ages. Before they can leave, the ghosts here stir. This is part of the curse on the character infected by the Vampire’s blood; he or she now serves as beacon to the Undead.
The ghosts rise and attack in spirit combat. This is likely an Extended Contest at High Difficulty. If the characters lose, they will be possessed.
Obstacle 3: The way forward lies behind the altar, a partially buried door shod in bronze. Rubble will need to be cleared away and the door forced (Simple Contest, High Difficulty). Once done there is a staircase descending into darkness. The air here is hideous; cold, lifeless, dead…as if the life-giving vitality has been drained from it. Even the torches burn with less intensity. Optionally, to increase the tension have them go out completely and force the player characters to relight them with magic.
Disaster: At the bottom of the stairs is what once served as an archives and treasure house. Most of the materials that survived the ruin of the temple were long ago transferred to the new temple. In the center of the the room is what looks like a sarcophagus, a stone rectangular box roughly three meters long and a meter and a half wide. It is covered with a massive stone slab.
If the players believe they have found the Vampire’s crypt, let them. Once they shift the lid, however, they find yet another set of stairs leading down. It is not in fact a sarcophagus at all.
At the bottom of the stairs is an abattoir, the Vampire’s feeding pen. Several dead bodies lie scatted around. One of them is Jora’s lover, Janga, and the Vingan flies into an inconsolable rage, screaming and wailing, vowing revenge on the Vampire. She will have to be calmed, though likely the noise she has made will already alert any one who can hear of their presence. It is probably best to role-play this out rather than reducing it to a contest.
Crisis: The Vampire arrives, drawn by the noise. He is not here in body yet…just in presence. The temperature in the room drops considerably, the darkness beyond the torchlight thickening and deepening. The air is filled with a thousand thousand whispering voices, the pleading of those the Vampire has devoured.
The player character infected with the Vampire’s blood feels its presence seize his or her mind. The creature will command the character to turn on his comrades and start killing them. This the player character must do if he or she fails a Simple Contest at Very High Difficulty, rolled against the character’s highest Rune. If the player character wins, the spell is broken and the Vampire cannot try to dominate the will of the character again this episode. If the contest is failed, the character will attack his fellows and the Vampire will use the opportunity to join the fray.
Act Two Climax: The Vampire itself emerges from the darkness, naked, its body painted with ancient runes from head to toe. It’s black hair is long and stringy, its icy flesh is like dry leather. It’s eyes are two pits of black fire and its fanged maw is permanently stained with blackish blood.
This should be an Extended Contest. Use the Vampire description under Dramatic Personae above. If the Vampire wins, he will not kill the characters, but return them to their cells for an eventual fate worse than death. If the characters win, the ancient thing “dies” with an explosive shudder; from its mouth (or neck if the head is severed) a torrent of souls rushes forth, thousands after thousands of those it has devoured. The body crumbles to dust and bone. The infected player character is now freed of his or her curse.
ACT THREE: INTO THE LIGHT
THE CHARACTERS WILL eventually leave the Old Sun Dome. What follows here in Act Three is all entirely optional; if you feel they have been pushed hard enough already feel free to omit.
Climax of Act Three: Drawn by the death of the Master, Vaaron and his men are at the Old Sun Dome and cross paths with the player characters.
The characters are trespassing, pure and simple, and Sun County law says any who enter the temple are to be executed. On the other hand…Vaaron will know what the player characters have done because he is now finally free of the Vampire’s baleful influence. Use your storytelling instincts then to do what must be done. He is grateful they have freed him, but they have broken a law and leaving them alive might be a liability if they start spreading stories around about what has happened here. The climax is left intentionally fluid for you to play out then. A combat? A parley? An agreement?
Denouement: Jora—especially is she and Janga were well treated by the group—will stay on with the player characters if they will have her. Davran wishes to go straight back to his people, but he will tell the Humakti of what they have done here. He will make sure it is known.
AFTER PLAY REPORT
THINGS WENT LARGELY as written. I took Option B so that Orin—who was estranged from the party last episode after his unexpected conflict with Kalf—would be the one who followed them across the desert to this place and saved them, giving the group a second chance to heal the rift. It just seemed a better and more logical story. Because Orin had stormed off, he wasn’t taken when the rest of them were and was able to follow. Plus, though Dara Happan, he is better able to communicate and and navigate the Sun worshipping culture here, making him the perfect choice to play rescuer.
Vaaran and the militia never entered into the story directly (a pity), but there was no real need or opportunity. After the battle with the Vampire I decided to gloss over the events in Act Three.
Kalf was the one infected by the Vampire, having made the low roll. But it was good that it was him; he is the one with a wife and child (on the way) and losing memories of her really drove the horror element across. This monster steals lives and souls, not simple blood.
They managed to kill the Vampire, though a combination of good play and damnably lucky die rolls. It was all in all a great Halloween romp.
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