Wednesday, March 19, 1997

weekend vampires

"Why have you come here?" Osrich asked me. He was the third one so far to ask me that.

"I've come for the gathering," I said as smoothly as I could. It had worked so far.

Osrich regarded me closely for a moment, and then said, "Do you realize what sort of gathering this is, David? You are in great danger by being here."

Well, so much for going undetected, I thought, and proceeded with my scheme: As an ambitious member of the press, I was willing to cut a deal. In exchange for exclusive information about the political scene in New Jersey, I would help Osrich and his fellow vampires to keep their activities secret.

The offer seemed to appeal to Osrich, who assured me we would work something out that night and extended me his protection. The next vampire to notice I was a mortal was not so inclined to care for me, my offers or my well-being. (Nor, as I would shortly find, was Osrich.)

"Are you breathing?" were Dr. Roberts' exact words.

Before I knew what had happened, this local author and TV personality was talking to one person after another, and pointing at me in a decidedly unfriendly way.

By the end of the night, I was running for my life. No one ever saw me again.

At least, not as that character.

I wasn't taking part in a murder mystery dinner where I was the main course. Nor was I taking part in an innovative theatrical performance where audience and actors alike are swept up into a prewritten plot. Although each comes close, the truth is I was taking part in a live-action role-playing game, commonly know as a larp. This particular larp was put on by Cranford-based Nightmare Productions and was based on gaming company White Wolfs role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade.

The essential premise to the game is that vampires exist and live among us, disguised as ordinary human beings. (The night person you know and that woman who works third shin might actually be vampires.) And, unlike the vampires of movies, real vampires cast shadows and reflections, can cross moving water and can't be affected by holy objects unless they believe they can. (Tbe popular Hollywood image of vampires is one they themselves have perpetuated to make us disbelieve their existence.)

"[A larp is] perhaps the next evolution in role-playing," said Ken Cliffe, vice president of games, editing and developing for White Wolf. "If you're a traditional tabletop role-player and you feel you can't portray your character to the fullest, this allows you to go the extra step."

Daniel Ravipinto, a college student from Berkeley Heights, first became involved in larps in 1995 when he was reading a newsgroup on the Internet about Vampire: The Masquerade. After corresponding with a member of a New York City larp, Ravipinto agreed to give it a try.

Ravipinto says the furl began when his friend, whom he had never met in person before, stepped out of her car, greeted him by his character's name and began talking like they were old friends -which, of course, their characters were.

"At that moment, I realized I had stepped over into something I had never been a part of," he said. "We just slipped into the characters. There was a moment there when reality and fantasy blurred. You're given a character and a motivation, but beyond that, everything is left up to the individual."

Larp players get a variety of reactions to their hobby, ranging from interest and surprise to sometimes even concern.

"The reactions when I mention this to people or when it comes up in conversation [are] pretty interesting: 'I never thought you would do this.' It shows how odd people think this is," said Ravipinto.

And when nonplayers come upon the action, locale makes a big difference in shaping their reactions to the event, In New York, no one paid much attention to the pale-skinned, sharp-toothed players.

"In Colorado, they stare at you and they keep staring," said Ravipinto, who played there last summer.

Since his initiation into larps in 1995, Ravipinto has been to about 10 different gaming sessions in New York and Colorado, and expects to play again when his schedule allows him.

"It's definitely the fun of being what you're not," he said. "It's Halloween for adults."

Ravipinto also connected larps with the ancient customs of storytelling. In older times, a clan would sit and listen to a bard sing epics about their heroes and gods, . In our own society, parents still read children bedtime stories, but there is little family-centeredness surrounding reading or telling stories.

'Role-playing may be a way to recapture that. Whether it's a play or interactive fiction, it's storytelling on an interactive level," he said.

"There's a social aspect to it, certainly," he added. "It's sort of almost an excuse to get together and interact with other people, especially in a society like today where we're supposedly connecting with other people but we're really distant from one another."

While vampire larps are easily the most common, they are far from the only kind of larp played. An organization called NERO sponsors medieval larps, and a Montclair organization called Lyonesse Games holds larps based on White Wolf's role-playing game centered around changelings, the children of faeries.

"We tried it as an experiment, because it's not the most popular White Wolf game," said storyteller Eric Logan. "We thought we could offer people an alternative, something more fun. We decided that we wanted to run a chronicle where all the characters were playing childlings. That's what some people game for anyway ... It's a big game of' Let's pretend' with rules."

In Lyonesse Games' larp, the characters realize they are faeries when they undergo a "chrysalis." As the game progresses, the individual changelings remember more of who they were through occasional glimpses into Arcadia, where they came from. At this point in the larp's chronology, each game is assumed to take place a year after the previous one; once the characters become teenagers, however, game time will resemble real time more closely.

"The whole idea of the larp is so players can feel time slipping away on them," said Logan. "Childhood goes so quick, but then you're a teenager forever ...The whole idea of the chronicle will be eventually for the character [to] grow old and die."

Lyonesse runs the only changeling larp in New Jersey, and one of only two on the East Coast While that exclusivity does grant it some measure of success, the larp has run into some setbacks lately. Two of its most recent larps happened to fall on the same date as vampire larps, forcing the organization to find a new place to play. Although a player has offered the use of his house for the larp, Lyonesse now faces losing one of its members to the Peace Corps.

"It's always been our biggest rule this game will never interfere with our real lives," said Logan. "We feel our lives are much more important than any game. It's a hobby."

Despite these setbacks, Logan is confident the larp will take off because of what he perceives as a need for more creative entertainment than most people can find.

"For the price of dinner and a movie, where you go out and are passively entertained, you can go to a larp," he said. "We believe that larping stimulates your mind; you get a chance to roleplay."

Besides Nightmare Productions, Central Jersey is also host to Capitol Chronicles, a vampire larp set in Washington, D.C., complete with vampires portraying political figures.

"What better place for intrigue and subterfuge than the nation's capital?" asked Nick Stember, whose wife, Maritza, is the larp's founder. Although Capitol Chronicles has only met four times, its larp Saturday attracted 85 players, a success Maritza Stember attributes to the larp's three-tiered approach to role-playing. Events might have a citywide story, such as an invasion of garou (werewolves); a clan-oriented story, in which the clan as a whole has an objective to achieve; and the individual level, shaped by individual players.

Capitol Chronicles also encourages players to keep their characters' humanity rather than playing them as soulless blood-sucking monsters. Players have taken to this approach with gusto. At Saturday's event, two of the vampires were married, and a third, a jealous suitor, tried to disrupt the process.

"That was not a plot that we created. That was not a plot we had any control over. It was a player-driven plot, " said Maritza.

"I'd say that's another thing that makes us a little different from the rest of the larps," she said. "We permit our vampires to experience those emotions."

At my second larp, I played a Malkavian, a vampire suffering from a form of insanity. In my character's case, it was multiple personalities. At times, I was bullying and full of myself At others, I was paranoid, fearful of a vast worldwide conspiracy by "The Six-Fingered Hand" to destroy me. When neither of those was dominant, I was a 4-year-old boy looking for his mommy and throwing a temper tantrum when he couldn't get his way.

I was insane. I was Rhadamanthus, Binkley and Tommy. I was having a thrill.

"We believe there's a big future in larping," said Logan.

Count on it.

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