If your General dies, you have not lost the game. You are on something of a time limit, as your forces will be falling apart around you, but if you’ve managed to establish a strong enough lead you’ll probably still be in with a chance. This is doubly true if you’re playing one of the rather good scenarios which don’t run off Victory Points and consequently don’t leave you with a three or four hundred point deficit to handle.
However. Everyone knows about the “death of the General” thing and you’ll just have to accept that people will be gunning for your chief neck nibbler from the word go.
To this end, avoid the Zombie Dragon and the Winged Nightmare. Those things are flying deathtraps: they make your General an easier target for conventional shooting, bait for every war engine and magic missile that can draw line of sight to them, and will frequently leave their passenger stranded halfway to the enemy lines. This isn’t to say that neither model has its uses. A Count on a Winged Nightmare makes an excellent secondary Lord for 3000 point games, as does a Master Necromancer on a Zombie Dragon.
The safest place for the Vampire Lord or Count in charge, however, is in a unit of similar sized pieces where they can benefit from Look Out, Sir and whatever protections any magic flags being waved around can provide. Said unit will also need a Champion, as Vampires do not want to be fighting in challenges. I take the view that anyone daft enough to issue a challenge when they can see a Vampire in the unit has brought along some sort of pixie trick that will give them the edge in said challenge, and so I invariably punt a unit champion or a Wight Lord in to fight first and see what happens. For my part I prefer my Vampires to be mulching the enemy’s normal troops and racking up combat resolution while protecting slower and more fragile Undead from being mulched in their turn, and so very seldom issue challenges. Besides, anyone who accepts the challenge will be confident they can win it and anyone who refuses the challenge has now kept a character safe from having any attacks placed on them.
I used to put my General in a nice big unit of Grave Guard as part of a Victory Point denial strategy. The idea was that one unit accounted for about half the available VPs on the table, and was as hard to kill as possible, thereby ensuring that most opponents would be stuck playing for the draw because they just couldn’t crack that hard centre. Since those days I have cooled on the topic of Grave Guard somewhat and also realised that my Skeleton units need the help more, so my Generals tend to roll with the Core infantry these days.
Wights are the key to surviving an untimely General detonation. Their high Leadership and credible fighting stats mean they can keep on trucking even if cruelly deprived of vampiric overlordship, and the Wight Lord is capable of keeping a unit of Skeletons going for quite a while on a solid Leadership 9.
I always take a Vampire General. This is partly bullheadedness — it doesn’t say Warhammer Armies: Necromancers on the front of the book, does it? — and partly my conviction that this army needs its Lord choices to deliver fighting prowess as well as pure spellcasting power. This does create something of a quandry, though, as the General wants to be in the thick of things using their combat stats but also wants to be well away from anything that can do them harm. This is another reason why I like to bring a Wight Lord along: a tricked out Wight can deliver or accept challenges on behalf of the General and ensure that said General’s high number of solid Attacks are committed to mulching enemy line troops.
I also keep my General on foot. This started with me being quixotic as I don’t like many of the mounted Vampire figures (except Mannfred), but I also find that a mounted General often speeds off and leaves the bulk of the army bereft of support it badly needs. As I said up top I prefer my cavalry in a flanking role which they’re quite capable of filling by themselves. Your mileage may vary: in particular, the Blood Dragon Vampires benefit from being mounted up and spearheading a cavalry charge up the middle, and having tried to make footslogging Blood Dragons happen I have to admit that’s for the best.
The superficially unimpressive Vampire Counts Battle Standard has quite a lot going for it. On a pure “making your points back” level this thing has paid for itself if it saves even a single Black Knight from turning into horrible Lancashire cheese.
Beyond that, it synergises very well with Ethereal units in particular. A Spirit Host base can’t be raised from scratch, but if one survives on a single wound it can have the other three glued back on through judicious Invocation of Nehek to the face.
A Banshee or Wraith within 12” of the big flag can tank single lines of cavalry, monstrous infantry or chariots almost indefinitely: they might lose combat by one point for being outnumbered, but the Battle Standard will absorb that loss and keep them in the fight for as long as it takes to bring more suitable force to bear.
Finally, don’t forget about your Ghouls, or the living auxiliaries available to many themed lists. These units take Break tests and consequently like having a big flag around as much as anyone else does. The real challenge isn’t so much finding a use for your Battle Standard as keeping everything that wants to be within 12” within 12”.
As above, so below. Proximity to your General allows Undead units to march and living auxilia to stick around in combat. I often find that 12” is enough to get my army across the board, but that things fall apart in the second half of a typical game as my fast units overextend as a result of pursuit or necessary charges into the back line. My General will often go haring off after one target while my poor Knights are left ponderously turning back into the fray on their own basic Movement of 7.
This can mean I end up losing my lead and occasionally even the game as units are left unable to support each other. Quite often I’ll test to restrain pursuit and let an enemy go, because an Undead unit that’s out of position is functionally out of the game in a way living equivalents just wouldn’t be.
The exceptions to all this are Ghouls (who can march anyway), Bats of all varieties (who fly a set 10” or 20” and don’t care for marching in the first place) and Banshees (who can march regardless of where their general’s at). These units are all cheap enough to be sent haring off in hot pursuit, and can move back into the lines under their own steam. The same is technically true of a Vampire Thrall or Wraith, but I find the heroes want to stay in the battleline for the most part.
Word must also be given to the various units Summoned via Bloodline powers. These are a bit pricey and won’t always get you a unit that makes a difference in combat, but they will get you a unit that can charge fleeing enemies and either chase them down or keep them fleeing, while the rest of your army keeps its focus on the rest of the enemy’s.
While there are limited bait-and-flee options available to the Vampire Counts (Ghouls, and the various living units that replace them in the alternative army lists), I’ve often found this tactic to be a poisoned chalice. The thing is that bait-and-flee tactics work best for armies that want to delay combat, which isn’t the case for the Vampire Counts.
Unless the incoming enemy does a lot of damage you’re probably better off fighting a round of combat at an appropriate angle, taking your lumps and counter-charging on your own terms than having them stall out beyond your own threat range and having to repeat the whole process next turn. I find that it’s better to pin enemies down than draw enemies out, allowing my army to maintain its focus and draw the metaphorical noose tight rather than having to use it as a lasso, if that makes any sense at all.
More than anything else, fear is the key to winning games with the Vampire Counts. You only need to win combats by one and, provided you have weight of numbers on your side, the enemy will break. In the complex ebb and flow of the middle turns, this means choosing a combat you want to win and sinking your resources into that, boosting unit sizes with Invocations and ensuring attacks hit home with Hellish Vigour, and allowing the rest to go hang until you have the resources to support them.
Opponents which cause fear themselves can become a bugaboo if you’re not careful. It’s easy to find yourself stuck for options in the face of Ogre Kingdoms or Nurgle Chaos or runed-up Dwarfs but don’t forget that terror trumps fear. If you’re going loaded for Ogre, you’ll benefit from a big terror-causing unit at the centre of your army: this will ensure that fearsome foes auto-break like anyone else when you sink resources into beating them. This is why Nagash gave us the Hell Banner: learn to love it.
Terror-causing characters are also good for managing the impact here: you may not be able to auto-break monstrous infantry with a Wraith but you can force through a fear test and have them hitting on sixes or refusing to charge, giving you better odds of surviving combat or fighting on your terms.
Enemy Unbreakable units are only really a problem if they’re right up in your grill (the Rat Swarm in particular is the bane of my life, as the Skaven will be merrily blasting into combat while I have to chew through the damn thing). Most armies can’t field that many Unbreakable troops and most Unbreakable units will bog down fighting a Spirit Host like anything else.
The real peril, in my experience, is frenzy. Frenzied units are functionally immune to fear and terror until you’ve beaten them in combat once, and their increased Attacks make those combats a dicey prospect. One hates to lean on the Spirit Host for everything but it really is the best unit in the Vampire Counts roster for a reason. The only problem is that one Spirit Host can’t stall an entire army of Savage Orcs or Khorne Chaos Warriors, and this is where we have to go back to first principles. If the unit doesn’t have amazing Strength, throw some Black Knights into it and trust to their high armour save to keep them there until you can commit magical resources to winning the combat. If the unit does have amazing Strength, draw it into a bad position or clog it up with summoned Zombies and focus your efforts on the combats you can actually win.