Adrienne Berry walks into the gaming store in a brown sweater and jeans. After a few moments of friendly chatter, she steps into the back room. When she returns her sensible autumn garb is gone, replaced by a pair of black leather pants, a sleeveless black shirt, a long black coat, and a pair of black, reflective sunglasses. Gone also is Adrienne Berry. In her place stands Laine Black, manipulator and vampiress.
Berry doesn’t actually believe that she is a vampire, nor do the dozen or so other people who join her every Tuesday night at Gallant Games. But, as Missoula’s local vampire impersonators are quick to point out, it’s fun to pretend.
Berry and her friends are members of The Camarilla, a world-wide live-action role-playing organization whose members pretend to be vampires. Live Action Role Play (LARP) grew out of the more traditional dice and paper sit-down gaming, but is different in that the players stand up and physically act out what their characters are doing. It’s a bit like those “How To Host a Murder” games popular at dinner parties, except the players have fangs.
While the idea of wandering around and pretending to be a vampire might seem a little odd, it appeals to many. The Camarilla boasts between 5,000 and 6,000 dues-paying members around the world, and is one of a handful of organizations that promote LARPing.
The Camarilla, however, is the official fan club of the gaming company that made the idea of pretending to be a vampire popular. White Wolf Game Studios, a role playing game maker based in Salt Lake City, created a sit-down game called “Vampire: The Masquerade,” more than a decade ago, in which players created vampires, or “Kindred,” as they like to call themselves. Since then, the game has gone through three editions, and has had more than three dozen sourcebooks printed outlining nearly every aspect of this pastime. As LARPing grew in popularity The Camarilla was created to give its players a world-wide organization for their characters to populate. This means that the actions of a character in, say, Brussels, could theoretically effect the unlife of a character right here in Missoula.
One of the problems that White Wolf ran into when they created “Vampire,” was the fact that vampires, in modern times, don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. The game designers solved this problem by creating a fairly compelling alternate history, dating back to biblical times, that explains why vampires can exist right under humanity’s collective nose without anyone knowing about them.
As the story goes, vampires continue to thrive in an underground sect called “The Camarilla,” named after the closets and backrooms the Kindred hid in during the Spanish inquisition.
After the inquisition came the Age of Reason, where old wives tales about vampires were seen to be nothing more than peasant superstition and stories to frighten children. Meanwhile, the secret masters, the vampires, continue to control the world from the shadows. This then, is the setting for the games that are played every night around the world.
Missoula has had a LARP of one stripe or another for almost a decade. The game has gone through more than half a dozen incarnations, and been under the leadership of more than two-dozen storytellers. It has met in public parks and gaming stores, private homes and condemned theatres, and numerous buildings on the university campus.
Berry, the aforementioned player of Laine Black, has participated in one game or another for about six years. But when she moved to Missoula for school, she had trouble finding her fellow travelers. This all changed when, on her way to a LAMBDA dance, she spied some LARPers on the university campus.
It took three trips by the building to convince her, but when, eventually, someone asked Berry and her friend, April Horinek, if they wanted to play, she dropped her dance plans and joined the fold. Horinek, who joined at the same time, remembers thinking, “Oh my god, they’re going to eat me.”
Neither Horinek nor Berry were eaten, although much of their free time since has been devoured. Virtually every member of the game says that their circle of friends is involved in the game in one capacity or another, and that the game in many ways doubles as a social club. This is apparently true, because both Horinek and Berry met their current boyfriends through the LARP.
The players in this game are varied in background and experience. Most, but not all, have role-played in one fashion or another. They range in age from 18-34 years old, and are employed everywhere from the Boy’s and Girl’s Club, to Domino’s Pizza, to JC Penney. In character, they play eternal, blood-thirsty competitors who are each trying to outdo the other while gaining in power and prestige. While some might consider this childish escapism, its plots and schemes are nothing short of Machiavellian.
“The most satisfying thing about this game is watching a cunning scheme come to fruition,” says McHenry Keith, the player of Helmut Messur.
But LARPing isn’t just about revisionist history and a constant thirst for power and control. The local chapter, and the organization in general, promotes a strongly civic-minded, volunteer-oriented membership.
Most members of the local chapter give blood regularly, and each month there is a drive to give clothing, food, or some other necessity to a needy organization like the Poverello Center or Goodwill. In addition, members of the group have assisted in cleaning up local parks and the historical museum at Fort Missoula.
Admittedly, the players aren’t doing these activities entirely out the goodness of their own hearts. Each time they perform some sort of service to the community, they earn points that ultimately earn them a more powerful and influential character.
Ryan Goble, the player of Jago Fenrir, is the chapter coordinator for the game. This means that he is in charge of the out-of-game, real-world aspects of the local chapter. He has been a member of this organization for about two years, and spends some 10-15 hours a week doing work for the chapter.
“I’ve spent a lot of time and effort making the organization work on a local level,” he says. “It’s a lot like a part-time job except for the fact I don’t get paid.”
Role-playing games have received a bad rap over the years. Concerned parents the world over worry their children, once they start playing these games, are headed down the road to becoming tattooed, pierced cult members. While most players in the local chapter joke about the fine line between fantasy and reality, or lack thereof, they are quick to point out the fact that gamer does not equal satanic cult member.
“I have a kindergarten education, I’ve seen Sesame Street,” Goble says. “I know the difference between real and pretend.”
Many of White Wolf’s books deal with this problem by printing a small text-box in the front of their books labeled “Legal Disclaimer Necessitated by Stupid People.” It reads:
Take a deep breath and repeat after me:
“I am NOT a Werewolf.”
“I am NOT a Mage.”
“I am NOT a Vampire.”
“I do not drink blood, worship Satan, or kill animals or people in the name of a game that I play.”
The Camarilla takes a slightly less smart-assed approach, and deals with this issue by only allowing people who are 18 or older to play in its games, and enforcing a fairly stringent code of conduct. This code includes the obvious concerns, that players may not drink blood or have physical contact with other players in an unsolicited way, but also bars players from attending game events while intoxicated. This substance-free approach to gaming is appealing to many of the local chapter’s players.
“I don’t do drugs and I don’t go drinking at every opportunity,” says Joshua Aronoff, the player Aman, “There are a lot worse things I could be doing.”
Moreover, the experience of creating and pretending to be another person is a creative outlet that allows the gamers to look at portions of their personality that they would not have been able to examine otherwise. After all, vampires exist purely by feeding on the blood of humanity. They are essentially a social parasite. Playing a character whose existence requires the player to hurt and possibly kill others makes for a lot of introspection when the game is played. Players are forced, by necessity, to examine what it is, exactly, that makes their characters tick.
“This game helps you grow as a person,” says Adrienne Berry, “because you have to take on someone else’s persona, and what a character would do and what you would do are often quite different.”
Gaming does bring with it a well-known social stigma. Almost everyone is familiar with the image of a 45-year-old man in gray sweat-pants and a t-shirt four sizes too small who won’t shut up about Theldar the Magnificent, the barbarian he plays every night in his mom’s basement.
Admittedly, there are plenty of gamers who look and act like this, but for every Theldar there is an Aman, or a Helmut, or a Jago, or an Onyx.
“Yeah, we are a little weird, but everyone’s a little weird,” says Kristina Beckard, the player of Onyx. “We all have our quirks, we just take pride in ours.”
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