Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vampires are really, really old

I have a pet peeve that I'm sure I've mentioned before: When it comes to immortals, whether vampires, elves or highlanders, some series like to toss around numbers like they're meaningless when they're not.  The average person doesn't really have a true grasp of the scope of history, hence my other project (History Lesson), beyond broad eras.  He knows about World War 2, and the Civil War, and then the Middle Ages ("That's the bit with the knights and princesses, right?") and then Rome, and then "a really long time ago," and everything in between gets very fuzzy.  As a result, you have vampires from the Civil War, and then vampires from the Medieval Age, and nothing in between, which makes me grind my teeth.

To help you understand my frustration, I've built an infographic (Yay for pictures!).  For comparison, we're going to use Vampire: the Requiem's measure of immortality, as I think that's a pretty well thought-out standard, though these ideas could probably apply to just about anything.

We start off, appropriately enough, with a baby:

What a cutey.  Imagine that this baby was born yesterday.  He's represents the newest generation of humanity, those born in the 2010s.  We'll let every child, European or American, Chinese or African, rich and poor, punk and straight-arrow, nerd and jock, all be represented by this one baby.


If we assume his mother was 20 years old, and that her mother was 20 years old, and so on, we can go back in time one generation, and 20 years, at a time.  A human being lives, on average, 80 years, so if we have a child when we're 20, and they have a child when they're 20 (we're 40), and our great-grand children are born when we're 60, and our great-great grand children are born when we're 80, so we have just a chance to see them born, touch finger to finger to pass on the torch, and then pass away.  That means the great-great grand-father of this child might have served in WW2.  This stretch of time, 4 generations, we tend to call "in living memory," since the eldest among us were around to see those things.  Such a "living memory" might look like this:

You'll have to forgive my choices here.  Obviously, I'm representing entire generations with a single person, a single picture, and anyone with a passing familiarity of these years will see the gross simplifications I've made.  Our punk girl represents children born in the 90s, with Gen-Y's explosion of strange subcultures.  The gentleman with a phone represents a yuppie, which is more of an 80s thing, but he'll serve to stand in for those  of us born during the 70s (we're the businessmen right now anyway), with Gen-X's tech savvy.  The hippy, of course, stands in for the Baby-boomers, those born during the 50s and got a chance to rebel during the 60s.  The soldier represents the silent generation.  Technically, if we followed our 20 year limit, he'd be born in the 30s, which is too young to participate in WW2, and so I'd plot a Noir character or one of the Mad Men there, but WW2 is very recognizable, so I'll leave it there.

To get an idea of the scope of those years, stop and think of all the games you've played.  Have you played in each of these eras?  I've certainly played games set in both the cutting edge present (Gen-Y), and the present of my youth (Gen-X).  I've played in a Vietnam campaign (Baby-Boomers), and while I've (surprisingly) played in no game set in the era of the Silent Generation, I've certainly played computer games that celebrated their greatness.

Vampire: the Requiem describes a neonate as a vampire who was embraced less than 50 years ago.  They typically maintain a great deal of their humanity because the people they knew in life are still around.  Towards the end of this phase, their supernatural nature is pretty obvious to anyone, as they haven't aged while their friends and family have, but those friends and family are still around.  A good example of this sort of character in TV land is Mick St. John from Moonlight.  While the series isn't great, I enjoyed the fact that he wasn't an ancient vampire from the dawn of time, just a guy who had been around since world war 2.  He even met some very elderly people who recognized him and feared him because of his youth.  They also made a point of explaining how he'd spent his years as a vampire, giving the sense that they had accounted for time, something many series fail to do.


After neonates, Vampire: the Requiem classifies the second category of vampire as "Ancilla."  These represent vampires who have been vampires for between 50 and 250 years.  These resemble what you'd expect a vampire to resemble: They've outlived friends and family and settled into their vampiric existence.  They squabble with other vampires over power and succulent vessels, and while they still retain some of their humanity, they are clearly monsters at this point.  To represent 250 years, we add to the previous infographic:

Technically, this is 240 years, but it still brings the point across.  An Ancilla would have been embraced somewhere in the second or third rows, and he's lived one to two human lifetimes.  He comes from a different world, but not a completely alien one.  For example, a vampire born embraced in the 1790s likely grew up in America, and still is in America.  Firearms have been the weapon of choice all his life, and have merely improved over time.  He was born after the industrial revolution and while some of the changes wrought in his lifetime are surely shocking, the idea of things like machinery and science are nothing new to him.  The world has changed a great deal for him, but nothing we can't conceive of.

Again, I remind you that each picture represents a single slice of life from that generation.  Our Napoleonic character could just as easily have been replaced by someone out of Pride and Prejudice, for example, or someone gothic like Lord Byron, or the gold miner replaced by a Mormon, and so on.  A vampire who has lived through this much has lived through more than "12 people," but 12 generations, each with their own ideas and advancements.  I'd explain more of the little details, here, but you'll have to forgive my lack of time.

For your own personal comparison, in your role-playing career, have you touched on every generation there? I certainly haven't.  I've played pulp games (right between WW1 and the Depression), and games set in the Wild West, so I've got the first and second row, but the third is tricky.  I don't think I've played in anything explicitly set there, though I've watched plenty of movies or TV shows inspired by that era.  Our vampire, however, has lived through every one of these moments...

Bill Compton represents a pretty solid Ancilla.  He was embraced during the Civil War, putting him somewhere in the middle of that chart, and he behaves the way we would expect a vampire to behave.  He comes from a different world, with different manners and different values, but he's forced himself to adapt.  He carries a lot of baggage too, having left his sire, embraced a childe of his own, and gone through several paradigm shifts over his long life.  The writers of True Blood also make a point of discussing his life.  Though there are some blank spots (What did he do during the 40s?  The 60s? The 1890s?) we do at least get to see more than just the civil war (we get to see the roaring 20s, for example).

Other solid examples of Ancilla include Louis, from Interview with a Vampire.  Unlike Bill above, Anne Rice accounts for every year of Louis life, and we can see exactly how he grew from a neonate to an Ancilla on the verge of becoming a true elder.


Vampire defines "Elders" as any vampire older than 250 years old, but in practice, it suggests that vampires older than a thousand years tend to get a death wish, and its rare to see elders beyond this, so we'll classify elders as between 250 and 1000 years old.  In this amount of time, elders have often been elders longer than they've been Ancilla and Neonates combined, never mind human.  They tend to have almost no shred of humanity left, having completely embraced what they are.

To give you a visualization of what that looks like, here's an infographic that took me hours to put together (don't say I never gave you anything):

That's... really really long, isn't it?  It's huge.  1000 years is 4 times as long as 250, and an Ancilla is already 3 times older than most humans will ever live to be, so an elder is well more than 10 times older than you'll ever be.  But those are just numbers.  It's easy to lose sight of what that really means.  Remember how I said that every picture wasn't a person, but a generation, and that generations are diverse, filled with  numerous fashions and ideas and interesting people?  Every picture up there, every one, represents people our vampire could fall in love with, fight against, form alliances with, and embrace.  A vampire who has lived through all this has seen Christianity sweep away the pagan idols of Europe, watched knights rise from guys in chainmail with kite shields fighting vikings to becoming crusaders to becoming men with massive swords wrapped in steel, only to watch them get cut down by the rise of the gonne and pike... and then cavalry and infantry and bayonets.  He's seen swashbucklers, pirates, revolutionaries, monarchies fall and democracies rise, all the way to our era of computers and spaceships.

To grasp just how much time there is, has your RPG career touched on every line (never mind generation) above?  Most of us have played in the top three, and the next two have been touched on in swashbuckling games, but we seldom distinguish them much.  The next three lines have grown more popular lately with the Tudors and the Borgias, but most of us haven't played in that era unless we know a history buff, though things like Warhammer are set more-or-less around the early point of that.  The rest gets chucked together into "Fantasy gaming," ignoring the nuance of the middle ages.  Again, every picture up there is a generation, thousands of people (sometimes millions).  Those people lived lives, loved, fought, had children, and died, and our hypothetical elder chronicled it all.
Selene from Underworld is an example of an elder, though I hesitate to call her a "good" example.  She was born in 1382, putting her at the 8th row.  She's seen a huge swath of history, and yet all we hear is that she was embraced "in the middle ages" dot dot dot FIGHTING WEREWOLVES.  She's an example of what not to do in a vampire game.  Despite all the lives she's seen come and go, she never thought to question her orders until the movie starts rolling.  She's never fallen in love until just now.  And for all her age, she's not particularly powerful either.  She's a great example of just picking an interesting era and/or a really big number (she's over six-hundred! years old!) and not thinking about what that means.

Eric Northman, from True Blood, is another great example of that problem.  He's over 1000 years old (from 900 AD), so one would think he's vastly powerful, and yet he's depicted as a peer to Bill Compton, who is less than a 5th of his age (It'd be like equating a 50 year-old professional with the work of a 10 year-old).  Clearly, the writer wanted VIKING GUY but didn't think about what such a person would have experienced in his huge lifetime.  Why not just pick some 17th century swede?

Lestat and Armand from Interview with a Vampire work pretty well as elders.  Lestat barely qualifies (born in 1760), and yet we have a keen sense of the weight of his years.  Armand is significantly older at 500 years and close to Selene, above, and yet absolutely shows his years better than Selene does.  He comes across as an elder, as someone who's a little alien, who's shed his humanity so long ago that he barely remembers it.


The new vampire doesn't really have a word for those who are beyond elders.  The old Vampire called them "Methuselahs" and "Antediluvians."  We have no real classification for them, but we can assume that they're any vampire that has aged past 1000 years without succumbing to the death wish that tends to consume such vampires.  This makes them exceedingly rare, simply from attrition alone.  Ancients might be as alien to vampires as elder vampires are to humans, since there's no upper limit on how old they can be.

I'm not going to present a graphic.  My fingers would break from all the pictures I would have to find, crop and paste into such a timeline.  I will point out a couple of characters, though.  First: Godric, Eric's sire.  According to True Blood, he's described as over 2000 years old.  So, take that bar above, and double it.  That's how old Godric is.  Does he come across as Ancient?  Not to me.  He does come across as an elder, though.  If they'd made Eric more like 400 years old, and Godric 1000, they would have fallen far more in line with vampire's philosophy (which isn't necessarily better than having their own, but I do find the lack of difference between a 150 and 1000 year old vampire rather jarring, which suggests that something is off in True Blood).

Methos, above, isn't a vampire at all, but an Immortal from the Highlander (TV) series.  Now, Highlander's actually pretty good at discussing the age and the weight of years that the Highlanders have, what with their constant flashbacks and their intertwining stories.  Methos, however, is over 5500 years old.  Take the bar above, and multiply it by 6 at least.  The amount of time he's gone through simply breaks the mind.  To their credit, they suggest that he's forgotten more than you'll ever remember, and that such much time has certainly worn on him.

Still, I have yet to see an appropriately alien ancient as one might expect, except possibly the Queen of the Damned, but I never finished watching that movie.

So, the next time you're thinking up a vampire (or an elf, or an immortal) I beg of you, rather than pick some well known point in history, consider the actual scope of time.  History is filled with interesting stories, and there's nothing wrong with picking a more conservative age for your vampire.  300 years is still a hugely long time.  Save the 1000 year old vampires for the truly old, truly strange, truly powerful, not just "I want a knight in the modern day."

One last graphic, for your pleasure:


  1. Hi Dan,

    You gave me a few things to think about with this blog. Thanks! :D

    By the way, did you read the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles? In her books are several ancient vampires which I believe you might find interesting because I think these characters do act according to their age.

    The movies both don't show much of the backgroundstory of most vampires, and in QOTD the story has been altered, leaving out most of Marius and Akasha's story.

  2. Additional comment (and some spoilers)

    In True Blood, Bill Compton challenges the Queen of Louisiana to combat, and she sneers "I'm more than twice your age!" So apparently, in True Blood, age matters. And someone who is capable of being Queen of Louisiana is between 300 and 450 years old (if she was 450+, she'd probably say "I'm 3 times your age!").

    And Eric is 1000 years old. So it really isn't a case of True Blood having an alternate approach to age, it's a genuine case of inconsistency :(


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