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Title: Playing Dead: Vampires Invade Omaha

Source: The Reader (Omaha Nebraska - www.thereader.com), May, 2001

NOTICE: The following material is copyrighted as indicated in the body of text.  It has been posted to this web page for archival purposes, and in doing so, no claim of authorship is expressed or implied, nor is a profit being made from the use of the material.

Playing Dead
Vampires Invade Omaha
by Katherine Neary

Since Dungeons and Dragons made its debut in the early 70s, hundreds of thousands of variations and permutations on role-playing games (RPGs) have been created for public consumption. While Dungeons and Dragons has gotten its fair share of press, and Magic: the Gathering cards can be found at Target, there is one genre of gaming that has gone largely unnoticed — the vampires. Not a fetish or a cult, these games allow participants to get together and act. For a few hours, these players are the immortal, the powerful and the glamorous undead. 

White Wolf Publishing released Vampire: The Masquerade 10 years ago. Instead of an elf or a knight, each gamer plays a vampire. Instead of a fairy land or a distant planet, the setting is our own world, assuming that every city in the world has a reasonable share of vampires living in it along with any number of supernatural unmentionables. The player doesn’t imagine entering a mystical dungeon filled with earth demons and armed with a magical sword, but rather imagines stalking about the Old Market, armed with supernatural speed and immortality. 

The White Wolf Vampire game gained a huge following upon release. Not only was the game system simple and flexible, but it allowed for a greater emphasis on personality and character interaction. The players got so far into the minds of the vampires they were acting out that it was a natural extension to live the life — if only for a few hours a week. As a result, the people at White Wolf came out with Mind’s Eye Theater (MET) — rules by which to play Vampire in a live setting. There are now hundreds of groups around the world that use the MET rules to Live-Action Role Play, or LARP. In Omaha alone, there are at least three different groups of these gamers who run around pretending to be vampires, having a lot of fun in the process. 

LARPing, unlike any other game, is improvisational acting with no audience. It is played in real time, with the fast pace of natural conversation, requiring quick thinking, creativity, and instant reactions. MET is incredibly safe, with all combat being won or lost with rock-paper-scissors tests. Drugs are not tolerated, and drinking and smoking is rare. No actual weapons are allowed, and even touching another player without permission is against the rules. The players are usually intelligent, kind and often charismatic people. Despite the game’s qualities as a creative outlet and a fun, safe activity for young adults, don’t expect these nice, well-behaved people to be so pleasant once in character.

The Rules of the Game

An immediate difficulty with telling anyone about playing live-action vampire is dealing with misconceptions about what the game involves. Saying “I play a vampire” opens a vein of questioning: Do you really drink blood? Do you think you are a vampire? Do you worship the devil? Especially difficult is the situation that Christian gamers find themselves in. When interviewed, all the players stressed that they know the difference between themselves and their characters. 

Even harder to explain than what vampire players don’t do is explaining what they do. The first goal is survival. A new vampire that is not acknowledged by the leader of the city can be killed by any of the other players on the spot. Once the vampire is acknowledged, he or she has to earn the respect of the community to be included in the action. After the vampire is accepted into the community, other players may lie and manipulate to achieve their own ends if the player is not guarded. Even allies can be dangerous if excessive ambitions put a vampire’s friends in danger. If the vampire can survive all this, then the company of the other characters can be very good and the conversation delightful, though heavily peppered with vampire “in” jokes. The more a player joins in the action, the more “experience points” he can earn toward becoming a smarter, stronger and more powerful character. 

The identifying characteristic of vampires — blood drinking — is rarely played out in the game. In normal play, there is little difference between a person changing personalities, and a person playing a vampire. A vampire character is an exaggerated version of a human, with mental or physical “powers.” In a group of vampires, there are different clans. One clan is extremely artistic. Another clan represents different levels of insanity. Also, different characters have different abilities. One vampire can make another vampire do her bidding. Another can “disappear.” This requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, but is also where the acting begins. For example, if one person crosses his arms over his chest, everyone else must act as though he is invisible. 

Many games are political in nature. The focus of the action involves currying favor with those with power, undermining your competitors and designing elaborate plots to silently take your enemies out of favor with the prince. All this treachery and deceit can lead to violent situations. When the tension has reached a boiling point, the weapons (usually the word “gun” or “knife” written on an index card) will come flying out. Then the hands start flying. 

“OK, everyone point at who you are attacking. Now, who is the fastest? What action will you take? One, two, three, paper beats rock. You missed his gunfire. Who was next?” Sure, 15 vampires standing around playing life-or-death paper-rock-scissors looks silly. However, it does solve the question of whether you got shot or not. Even if a character is “hit,” it takes more than a few measly bullets to take down a vampire. If there is a determined and successful effort made, it is possible for the vampire to reach final death. Sometimes this can be quite a blow for a player, depending on how long she has played the character. Some people have played the same character for four to seven years. Not only are the years of experience points lost, but as one player put it, “it’s like a part of you dies.” 

Other people play multiple, sometimes short-lived characters. If final death comes to one character, the player may be back in the game in minutes, as an entirely different character. A fair amount of confusion can arise from character switching, which is one place where costumes come in handy. Along with strong character acting, a few choice accessories let everyone know which characters they are dealing with. In addition, the right outfit can help get a person into character. While some people just wear their street clothes, other players take this aspect of the game much further. A reasonable costume can be simply made by combining old Halloween costumes and anything black, but many people go the extra mile and spend a large amount of money on character-specific items. One person I interviewed spent $250 on a duster and hat for a character that met final death in under a year. The hat went into permanent retirement. The coat was painted for another character that also died in short order, thus retiring the coat as well.

Vampires in the City 

There are some players who are the stereotypical “gothic” types, and attracted to all things vampire. Other players choose Mind’s Eye Theater because the popularity of the game offers large groups of people with which to play on a regular basis. Some people started on Dungeons and Dragons at a young age — in one case as early as 4 years old. Other people interviewed for this story had never played a role-playing game before live action, and got involved because of the acting aspect. However they started, most players have in common an involvement in more than one game. Most people who play MET have also played the original “tabletop” vampire, as well as other games published by White Wolf that share the same “World of Darkness” (WoD) compatible game world. There is a WoD Werewolf live action campaign in Omaha, although the WoD (vampire) Hunter group is no longer active, having all been turned into vampires. 

The natural hub for all of this activity is a gaming store. At Anarchy Comics and Games, there are vampire rulebooks, T-shirts, and accessories for sale, as well as notices about current games being played. In addition, the store offers a meeting place for vampire LARPers. This is important if no one can host the game at home. While the game is non-violent, many keepers of public areas are not fond of having 20 people dressed in trench coats and vinyl, running around after dark while making statements like, “Everyone with humanity of two or lower is still asleep!” There is little chance of the average person encountering this, since the gamers do not expect bystanders to understand what they are doing. Instead, while the rest of the city goes to bed, the Omaha vampires will continue to meet in private to play out their ongoing saga of politics and power.

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