Let’s face it. With World of Darkness, Buffy, Twilight, all of the Twilight clones, Anne Rice clones, and assorted Vampire Action flicks, Vampires are pretty played out. Except, that is, for in the world of Dungeons & Dragons style high fantasy.
If anything, the Lich has become played out in fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, liches are my first love among the greater free willed undead, but they’re EVERYWHERE. The pinnacle of any undead themed campaign is typically going to be some sort of mastermind lich, hiding away in his musty old tomb, hoping his centuries of planning and learning 6th-9th level spells will pay off in some way to achieve some sort of goal that involves lots of skeletons. Liches are always going to be either wizards or clerics, and have typical wizard or cleric leitmotifs. They can’t really go anywhere or do anything on their own, because it’ll screw up their plan to have it known that there’s a rotting wizard husk shambling about zapping stuff with a rod of ruin while collecting macguffins (except for Xykon, cuz he’s awesome). The Vampire, on the other hand, is a far more flexible villain in any setting, but is an overlooked part of an undead themed campaign.
1. Vampires can be any class
Unless some artifact is involved, pretty much the only people who can become liches are high-level evil magic users or clerics. The spellcasting abilities of liches reflect that they were once high-level spellcasters who gained more powers through being undead. The innate powers of the lich, however, come from their having been spellcasters combined with immortality and some standard undead bonuses (immunity to sleep, cold, etc.).
The Vampire’s powers are derived not from their class in life, but by their vampiric nature. However the vampiric nature should not override class. The Vampire entry in B/X assumes the Vampire is a fighter, but we know that anyone can be turned. The Vampire should retain any class or racial skills in addition to its innate vampiric powers. Feel free to get creative here.
2. Vampires can travel more easily
Vampires have the advantage that they can engage in their own evildoings on a day to day basis when they can’t trust an underling to perform for them. Being able to blend into society, more or less, gives them a huge advantage when they might need to go to a populated area to accomplish something (or simply feed). They might also be able to create trouble for their adversaries, confronting them in person before making a speedy getaway via innate transformation abilities.
As for sunlight, there are two ways to go about it. You can go the modern vampire route and have sunlight be an impossible obstacle for them, only able to travel during the day while in a coffin or underground/inside. Or, for a greater threat, go oldschool. A lot of people forget that Vampires such as Dracula or Varney used to be able to go about during the day. They paid for this in a loss of supernatural strength and ability, but it allowed them a greater flexibility to go about their scheming.
Liches can, in theory, travel abroad. However, being a shambling evil corpse-man greatly limits what one can accomplish in polite society. The vulnerability of the lich travelling abroad would likely be an unacceptable risk in any case, barring the scenario that the lich is so advanced in his plans and schemings that he is travelling with his army. Rather, during most stages of a lich’s plot, he would prefer to use underlings whenever possible, staying cozy in his crypt.
3. Vampires have flexibility of lair
Liches often have devoted an incredible amount of time and resources to the creation of their lair, which is often a crypt, temple or castle built for the sole purpose of housing the lich while he schemes. Acererak must have spent an inordinate amount of time and power to create the Tomb of Horrors. It’s a near perfect stronghold for a monster that, more than anything, doesn’t want to be bothered. Most liches aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and campaigns that feature liches as their villains are looking at the tiny slice of a world’s history during which a lich got a hair up his ass and decided to actually flick the first of the million dominos he’d spent centuries setting up. Vampires, however, are creatures immediate desires of the flesh (Varney, for instance, wanted to be comfortably well-off if he was going to be immortal), and will be a perpetual menace to anyone nearby. And, due to their need to feed, they WILL be nearby.
Vampires may have multiple lairs. That’s one of their strengths. Any place they can get a coffin, they have a resting place. Their powers allow them to bypass most obstacles in any dungeon, and unless there is some powerful intelligent evil, the Vampire will be at the top of the food chain. Wittingly or not, the monsters within will serve as guards. Lairs should not be limited to dungeons, either. Imagine how threatening to the players if they were to find out that the Vampire had a coffin in their hub city? Maybe even in the Inn they were staying at? Anywhere a Vampire has a coffin, a Vampire has refuge. Easier to hunt down and destroy one phylactery than a dozen coffins.
4. Vampires can have a flexible combat package
Liches are spellcasters. Always will be. If a lich is confronted, first things that happen are either a call to raise some minions or a use of charm and hold spells to stall for time. Then, the lich is gonna start rattling off high level spells that will either do massive damage, instantly kill whatever is annoying them, or create some magical plot delay while he escapes. A lich is never going to get off all of the spells in his spell slots, typically, but they’re there to remind you that he’s a high-level wizard. He has a melee attack with unimpressive damage, but paralyzes like a ghoul, but with his spells, he’s probably never going to get down to hand to hand combat.
Vampires have a lot more options they can run through during a confrontation. They have a handful of charms (charm person, sleep, they can use if confronted. Vampires have the option to summon lesser beasts (giant rats, bats, wolves), and will likely do so at the start of combat. At this point, the Vampire may either jump into the fray himself, or make his escape. However, if the Vampire is a spellcaster/cleric/elf as well, he can take pot-shots from his spell list while the heroes are bogged down fighting wolves. If they get through the summoned monsters and/or the Vampire exhausts his spell list, he can use his powers to escape, or he can get involved himself. Vampires are devastating in hand to hand combat. Like ethereal undead, they possess level drain. Double level drain. A vampire hits you, you drop two levels like a rock. Unlike the lich’s paralyze, you don’t get a save for this. If you’re high enough level to be fighting a Vampire, that’s going to be a LOT of XP to make up for. A Vampire might aim to take a few levels off clerics or magic users, as they pose the greatest threat to them. The ability to assume gaseous form at will, combined with regeneration, makes them nearly indestructible in hand to hand combat.
5. Power as a motivation for undeath
Just as evil wizards become liches on a quest for greater power, others might seek out undeath as a means to increase their power. A fighter desires immortality and strength greater than any mortal. Dwarven lords become immortal in their underhalls, unhampered by the sun’s rays. Or a powerful wizard decides that the trade-offs for becoming a vampire seem more advantageous than lichdom; he instantly gains advantages of being a fighter mage with very few of drawbacks of the class limitations. Even elves, who might simply desire to overcome their racial level cap, could make for truly fierce, unique foes.
If I get time, I’ll roll up a handful of scenarios, including party vs lich, party vs vampire as well as lich vs vampire.
For a bonus, here’s a comparison of the stats of Liches and Vampires across 3 editions.