If Captain Kronos (1974) was an RPG...

Time to look at another movie and see what ideas we can find to improve a role-playing game session or campaign. This week, the 1974 Hammer horror movie Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, written and directed by Brian Clemens.


The Original Movie


It may not come as an enormous shock if I reveal that Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter is about a chap named Captain Kronos (played by Horst Janson) who hunts vampires. The setting is sort-of generic 18th century Europe, give or take, and the young maidens of a small village are meeting with mysterious and horrible deaths, ageing into withered old crones in a matter of seconds. Luckily the local doctor was in the army with Captain Kronos, who turns up with his sidekick Hieronymus Grost and a gypsy girl named Carla they picked up on the road.


Grost and Kronos agree that it looks like there's a vampire on the loose, and launch their investigation of the killings. But even if they can figure out who the undead lurking in their midst is, there remains the important question of coming up with a way of dealing with him or her...


No less an eminence than Sir Christopher Lee declared that Captain Kronos was the worst film Hammer ever made, which I would say was a rare example of the great man getting it wrong. It does diverge from the classic vampire mythology in a few ways, but always interestingly and entertainingly, and the film's mixture of black humour, well-choreographed swashbuckling action and (mild) camp is hugely enjoyable, explaining why the movie retains a cult following even now.


Here are a few ideas for things to steal from this movie...


I'll Carry the Sword, You Carry the Books


One thing I always encourage when our group is beginning a new campaign is the idea of niche protection - by which I mean that every character in the group should have their own unique thing, their special way of shining. Some systems and settings virtually have this baked into them - if you're playing a game based on Star Trek, you're likely to have one character specialising in engineering, one in science, one in flight control and navigation, and so on - but with others in can be something you have to specifically think about.


If the heroes of Captain Kronos were a PC group, niche protection would not be an issue: Captain Kronos himself is the muscle, a fantastically skilful swordsman with incredible reflexes, Grost is the brains of the outfit, an expert on vampirology and the occult, and Carla - well, the obvious choice would be to say she is the 'face' or infiltrator of the team, a role she essentially adopts before the end anyway. Kronos gets the big sword fight at the end (it's his movie, after all), but everyone gets to make a contribution along the way.

Vampire Hunting the Hard Way


One striking thing about Captain Kronos is the way it shows up what an easy time of it Peter Cushing tends to have when playing Van Helsing in Hammer's Dracula films: someone's already been bitten or died, and all he really has to do is hang around their house or the graveyard until a vampire of some description makes an appearance. The Captain Kronos characters don't have it nearly so easy: they have to make a proper investigation, which involves setting up a rudimentary vampire-detection system (this involves dead toads in boxes), questioning the local villagers, and so on. There's lots of good material here for an investigative scenario, even in more of an action-horror style game.


The characters have the added problem of also needing to figure out a way of slaying the vampire once they identify it - the movie suggests that the traditional sunlight or wooden stake don't always work, and there's a blackly comic sequence in which, having captured a vampire thrall, the characters test various methods of execution on him. Setting PCs the same kind of challenge (perhaps having seeded a few clues earlier in the scenario) could be one way of making this type of scenario more than a no-brainer search-and-destroy mission.


Build Around Your Heroes


One thing which sometimes makes it tricky to simulate traditional horror movies in an RPG is that they're all about the villains: they get their name in the title, are played by the most famous (and best) actor in the movie, and get all the best scenes. (Stoker's original novel Dracula, on the other hand, lends itself more readily to an RPG dynamic: Dracula hardly appears in the second half of the story, and the Club of Light could easily be a PC group.)


Captain Kronos, on the other hand, is much more about the protagonists, who are interesting and distinct characters, and the story is structured so they get to play to their strengths and enjoy their spotlight time. You wouldn't necessarily expect a swashbuckling swordsman to get much to do in a vampire story, but - conveniently enough - it turns out the vampires in this film can only be killed by being impaled on a crucifix, or a sword made from a melted-down crucifix. Having availed himself of such a weapon - another interesting crafting challenge, giving the support characters something to do - the stage is set for a quite lengthy and elaborate duel to the death between Kronos and a vampire swordsman.


Obviously, there'd be a bit of back-and-forth between players and GM at the planning stage of a campaign in this style, with the GM perhaps explaining the type of setting he or she had in mind and some possible character builds, and the players then working within that. RPGs are a collaborative form, after all, and this extends to the conception of campaigns and stories as well as the events of particular scenarios.

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