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Taking A Bite Out Of History

Roleplaying With The Historical Dracula

by J. Ruth Dempsey

The image of Dracula has been set in our minds by author Bram Stoker and by the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi -- dark and suave, gazing out the castle window while the wolves howl below.

"The children of the night," he croons, "what music they make."

However, the gamer who wishes to leave cliche behind and use a page or two of history will find himself with a dilemma: which Dracula? Prince Vlad IV of the tiny country of Wallachia (which includes the province of Transylvania) was a Knight of the Order of the Dragon, in the Romanian Dracul . This gave all his sons and his grandsons the right to style themselves as "the son of the Dragon" or Dracula . Vlad IV had no less than five, possibly six sons; four of whom made a mark in history and carried the name of Dracula -- each in his own way adding to the legend of the dark prince in "The Land Beyond the Forest".

The age of the Draculas (or as the Romanians refer to them, Draculesti) was the fifteenth century, a violent and bloody time seeing the end of the feudal system and the emergence of centralized governments. It was the age of the Borgias and their feuds, of Louis XI "The Spider King" who hung young boys on the branches of trees and imprisoned his enemies in cages. It was an age of absolute power obtained by any means. Why then are we so fascinated by the rulers of a country roughly the size of Connecticut? Why has the name "Dracula" become synonymous with darkness, evil and the undead? Let us begin at the beginning -- with the man who would give this dynasty its name; Vlad Dracul.

The Historical Dracula

Vlad Dracul was the illegitimate son of Prince Mircea, who had sided with the Hungarians against the encroaching Turks. Vlad was sent as a hostage to the Hungarian Court, where he distinguished himself in battle with the Ottoman Empire. It was with John Hunyadi of Hungary that Vlad would go to Nuremberg and receive the prestigious order of the Dragon. At Mircea's death, his only legitimate son claimed the throne, as did Vlad (who was being backed by the Hungarians), another illegitimate son and one of Vlad's cousins. The result was a bitter, bloody feud that could only be compared to the Lancaster-York battles. The outcome of this struggle was watched closely from three sides, by Russia, Turkey and Hungary. The reason was the Borgo Pass, one of the few crossing points where an army could be taken through the Carpathians and into Russia.

At the time of his second son's birth (1431) Vlad Dracul was not in power and would not be for another six years. The ruler of that time was a supporter of the Ottomans and would be removed from office by a Hungarian-paid assassin. His replacement would die at the hands of the Turks. When Dracul finally fought his way to the throne, his first act was to form an alliance with the equally small principality of Moldavia on the Russian side of the Borgo pass. The principalities united to try and free themselves from the machinations of the larger countries and maintain independence.

For a time, the princes were successful, making a pact with Hungary and winning great victories against the Turkish army in Wallachia and Transylvania. In 1443, Dracul and his eldest son, Mircea, were captured by Turkish forces and taken before Sultan Murad II. Dracul was forced to surrender his two younger sons, Vlad and Radu (called "The Handsome") as hostages. Dracul then turned around and joined John Hunyadi's "Crusade of Varna" in 1444.

Oddly enough, the boys were not killed; Romanian historian Radu Florescu in his book The Search for Dracula (with Raymond T. McNally; Warner Books Copyright 1973) suggests they were spared because the Sultan was quite taken with the all-too-eager-to-please Radu. His brother was not so fortunate: Vlad frightened his jailers and, it is speculated, bore the brunt of both physical and sexual abuse.

In 1447, the local nobles (boyars), fearing that Dracul was about to make an agreement with the Turks for the release of his sons, ambushed the prince and his eldest son. Dracul died at their hands and Mircea was taken to a nearby monastery -- to be buried alive.

In October of 1448, a massive Turkish victory killed the leader of the rebellious faction and placed a "tamed" Prince Vlad on the Wallachian throne. His reign would only last a month before he was forced to flee to the Moldavian court. He would stay in Moldavia until 1456 when the twenty-five year old Vlad, styling himself "Dracula" would finally take the throne. His situation was not unlike that of the thirteenth century John of England, coming to the throne after a period of turmoil where the nobles were free to do as they pleased and not at all inclined to obey his orders.

His first action as prince is recorded in the folk tales of Romania:

"When young Dracula took the throne, he summoned to him all the boyars of his reign to a great feast of celebration. When the wine had been flowing freely, he had the nobles brought before his throne.

"Tell me," he said, "how many princes have you seen on this throne?"

"Seven princes I have seen reign," laughed one.

"Twelve," called another.

One older man stood up with a sneer and said, "twenty princes I have seen rule this land -- and I have survived them all."

"Well," said Dracula, "you have seen your last prince on this throne!" And he proceeded to execute 500 of the nobles gathered there." (The number is believed to be exaggerated.)

Radu Florescu speculates that Dracula was acting to revenge himself on the rebellious nobles that had killed his father and brother as well as hammer home the lesson that he was the ruler now.

Not long after the massacre, the Sultan Murad announced he was coming to receive tribute from Wallachia. During his trip he found out the mettle of the man he had set on the throne.

Having been in the Turkish court, Dracula knew that when the Sultan rode, he expected to be greeted by a cheering crowd, usually being prodded on by his Janissary guard. Dracula scouted the Sultan's route and made certain that a crowd greeted him: a crowd of Turkish supporters impaled on both sides of the road with the Turkish-appointed governor and the mayor of the first city along the route on the highest posts before the gate. The earth was scorched for miles to either side, forcing the Turks to stretch a supply line. Dracula attacked the demoralized troops that night. The surprise attack killed many of the Turkish forces but failed to kill the Sultan. Dracula would gain a new name from this battle, Tsepes , The Impaler.

Delighted with Dracula's victory, the King of Hungary sent troops to strengthen Dracula's position and to receive the tribute Dracula's father had promised. Dracula promptly attacked the Hungarians, sending the message that Wallachia was a free, independent state that owed tribute to no one! Hungary fired back with what can only be described as a hate campaign. Utilizing the presses available in Germany, pamphlets previously used to describe the "atrocities" of the Ottomans now began to describe the "atrocities" of Dracula. One of these pamphlets was acquired by the British museum just before Bram Stoker wrote his famous story and may have provided inspiration.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Empire started a campaign to place the Islamic convert, Radu, on the throne. The Russians of Transylvania and the Moldovans, seeing the two empires getting ready to line up against Wallachia, began to court dissatisfied nobles. While all this was going on, Dracula was ruling with an iron fist and a capricious whim. Crime decreased dramatically after a few impalements and disembowlings. A condemnation of the prince's conduct led to the Franciscan order being thrown out of the country. A mistress who lied about a pregnancy was disemboweled. Two ambassadors from the Turkish court who refused to removed their turbans were returned to the Sultan with their headgear nailed to their skulls. The slightest infraction could bring hideous punishment; yet legends speak of men and women winning their way free with a witty or ingratiating remark. Historian Florescu calls Dracula "paranoid" -- and as the old joke goes, "even the paranoid have their enemies."

In 1462, Dracula was attacked from two fronts -- from Turkey came Radu and his forces, from the north came the Prince of Moldavia with Russian and Hungarian troops. Dracula fled to Hungary, where he would be imprisoned for twelve years.

Another Dracula took the throne, Radu. If his brother had terrified people, Radu also sent fear through the populace. A fanatical convert, he began to burn Orthodox churches and destroy monasteries. He was stopped at the shores of Lake Snagov by the patriarch there -- by another Dracula whom history records as Vlad the Monk. The results were twelve years of chaos, then the new Hungarian king forced Vlad Tsepes into a non-aggression pact that also involved the conversion of Vlad to Catholicism and the marriage of Vlad to the king's sister. Hungarian troops attacked the Turkish forces and Vlad Tsepes sat on the Wallachian throne for a third time. The reign lasted for less than a year, and in October of 1477 in a pitched battle on the shores of Lake Snagov Vlad Tsepes Dracula died. It was rumored that he was murdered by his own boyars, who feared his return to power. Radu died not long afterwards and the throne of Wallachia went to their brother, Vlad the Monk.

Romanian folktales tell stories of ghosts that haunt the waters of Lake Snagov. Perhaps it is the two brothers Dracula, continuing their eternal battle for Wallachia. Old peasant lore of the time believed that the soul of a person did not leave the body for forty days, during which time the body supposedly remained uncorrupted beneath the ground. The body of one who died apostate (by converting to Catholicism and to Islam, both Vlad Tsepes and Radu died apostate to the Orthodox church) would no longer be accepted by God's earth after the forty day period. The suffering souls climb from their graves and wander the earth; if blessed by a priest they may be freed, if cursed by a priest -- they become the vampire. Vlad the Monk was as fanatical in his faith as Radu, it is not hard to believe he would damn his errant brothers -- to his own sorrow and possible destruction?

Gaming Dracula

For the gamer, the question remains; which Dracula?

There is the first born son, Mircea, his abnormal death would also render him likely to rise from the grave. Historians speculate that he died young, possibly not even in his twenties. He might be unstable -- even insane and no doubt terrified of an enclosed space. A claustrophobic vampire?

Vlad Tsepes is every inch the prince. He has been schooled in the art of terror, his military strategies carried him through many battles. His weakness is cleverness -- diverted by an interesting story or a witty remark he would stay his hand. Expect him to be fascinated by new inventions. As a Catholic, the traditional cross may be effective against him, but it might not, for we don't know how serious his conversion was. The icons of Russian Orthodoxy might be effective -- but again, maybe not.

Radu is also a prince. He is more sensual, voluptuous. He may also be a homosexual, Florescu implies it. His schooling would have been among intellectuals. He would be fascinated by poetry and literature. He is a Moslem. The crosses of Christianity will have no power over him. How do you stop a Moslem vampire?

Vlad the Monk was dragged from his monastery to a throne he didn't want. He proved to be a stern ruler, perhaps not as bloodthirsty as his brothers. But if his curse turned his two elder brothers into vampires, would he escape the family curse? He might yet be walking, tormented between his faith and his hungers. History records two more sons of Vlad Dracul -- Vlad the Lesser and Milhail. They might have been killed in the various dynastic struggles, they might have gone into hiding -- they might be serving as extra eyes and ears for their more famous brothers.

And there is yet another figure to consider: Romanian legend has it that if a vampire can refrain from drinking human blood for seven years, he will gain the power to walk in the sunlight and to father children - but his sons will walk after death. Vlad Dracul, noble knight in the Hungarian court is seduced by a vampiress, he refuses to surrender to his craving for human blood and regains his humanity -- but what about after his second death

Adventure Suggestion: The Dracula Cup

A golden cup has come up for sale at Sotherby's. It is of Eastern work, circa fifteenth century. Legend has it that this is the golden cup that Vlad Tsepes placed at a spring near his hunting lodge. While he reigned, no one dared to touch it. Radu went in search of it only to find it gone. What will happen to the person foolish enough to buy the Dracula Cup?

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:51:59 EDT

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