I Was a Vampire Roleplayer
If you, like me, grew up in the 90s, then, you may have been lucky enough to experience the wonderland of strange lipstick colors, DIY hair dye jobs, techno music and vampire role playing games. If you were not so fortunate, come now and hear the un-shocking truth about vampire roleplaying. Let me tell you of a time before Twilight and MMORPGs when the games were on paper and vampires were sexy but never sparkly. The game of choice was Vampire: the Masquerade. V:tM could be played as either a tabletop dice game like Dungeons and Dragons or a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game. Produced by a Georgia-based gaming company White Wolf, V:tM had several subtitle-happy companion games such as Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, Wraith: the Oblivion, etcetera. All these games shared a universe known as the World of Darkness, which was described in several of the source manuals as a “Gothic-Punk” world. The universe created by White Wolf was compellingly peppered with mythological references, obscure vocabulary and interesting alternate histories. In short, it was like crack to the sort of nerdbrain that thrived on Joy Division, etymological dictionaries and Bulfinch’s mythology.
One of the things that made V:tM more interesting than a typical hack-and-slash role playing game was the focus on building characters. As a vampire player, your character had two archetypal personalities, your public persona and a private, concealed personality. Rather being defined by a character class (what you character does) and alignment (good or evil) you could decide to be a Benefactor/Predator or a Scientist/Martyr. Your character belonged to a Clan which dictated what sorts of vampire powers you’d have. Clan affiliation also dictated your weaknesses. For example, the Toreador Clan were your basic Anne-Rice-style fancy lad vampires, making lots of art and devoted to beauty. One of their powers was the ability to emotionally manipulate people around them—think stage presence—but their weakness was that they could fall into a paralyzing fascination in the presence of beautiful artworks or people. Your vampire powers operated on a system of finite willpower points. I think this system would be a wonderful one to implement in real life. As in “I’d love to have the salad instead of fries, but I’m all out of willpower points today, so . . .” Willpower points were regained by sleeping, feeding or other actions dictated by your personality type. In the live game, the powers operated inelegantly. For example, if your powers made you invisible, you’d cross your arms over your upper chest—hands touching shoulders—and everyone would have to pretend they didn’t see you creeping around. Even worse were the intangible powers, which would lead to dialogue like this:
“I just used my powers to make you do my bidding.”
“Oh, okay. What do you want me to do?”
“Go over there and ask that girl if she’s got a boyfriend.”
Since most of the people I played with were in high school, our characters’ concerns fell often into one of the following categories:
- Being sexy and mysterious.
- Shoving it to The Man.
- Killing each other. Preferably with explosives.
These goals took some doing to act out in a suburban park or in one of our back yards. It was hard to be sexy and mysterious when your mom drops you off for the game. Even harder than that was convincing all the people loafing around on your back porch that they’ve just been in a hellish explosion. LARPing with your school chums also led to plenty of awkward moments when trying to decide if the person talking to you was the kid from math class or Destructo, the Undead Viking. Generally, you’d just ask if they were in character, but by the time people started feeling comfortable slipping out of character, the game would devolve into a night of hanging out in a parking lot.
The live-action game usually ran like a chaotic play about a deranged city council. A major premise of the game was that vampires engaged in a conspiracy to control humanity and conceal their existence from same. An easy plot was to call a meeting about some outlier whose sloppy feeding habits were threatening to reveal the existence of vampires. It’s hardly surprising that the game attracted a lot of Drama Club members highly devoted to acting out their awesome vampire characters. At live action games, the players tended to dress the part—lots of black leather jackets and thrift-store black lace dresses—and to put on British-ish accents or Enunciate. Dramatically. And crisply. The system required a folded up sheet of characteristics and powers you had. This was kept on your person and consulted when an interaction required you to engage in verbal conflict with another player. In the case that your attributes or powers were matched to your opponents, you could decide the matter with a round of rock-paper-scissors overseen by the rule-enforcing Storyteller. (I guess that by then, people had figured out that Dungeonmaster had other connotations.) Imagine, if you will, the tense confrontation between a rebellious young punk and the be-suited stiff representing the repressive social order. The harsh words and open contempt. The powerful deciding throw of rock versus scissors.
The post-Columbine hysteria about the sinister practice of Vampire LARPing led to a brief spike in the game’s popularity before an almost total loss of media interest in the game. For those of us who played, the fear was totally misplaced. We weren’t keying ourselves up to be psychopaths. We were just escaping into a world where we could be glamorous and powerful. Monday morning would shuffle us back into the system, but Saturday nights we could rule the world.