The vampires gather in Burlington every Friday night at 8:30, April through September. One by one, they slink toward the white marble steps on the park side of City Hall. There they meet their supernatural brethren: werewolves, mages, mummies and changelings. They disperse at 9 to prowl the streets, from Main to Pearl, South Union to the Waterfront. The creatures stalk prey, plot to overthrow the government, and fight to the death. At least, they imagine they do.
These denizens of the darkness are actually ordinary men and women, most of them under 30. They're playing a game called Mind's Eye Theater, a Live Action Role Play game, or LARP. It's like the fantasy board game Dungeons and Dragons, except the board is Burlington. And instead of using tokens to represent their characters, players act the parts themselves. For a few hours a week, they can create an alter ego and live -- or pretend to live -- in a parallel universe, one that is more exciting, and more dangerous, than our own.
To understand how and why LARPers spend Friday nights playing make-believe, I decided to join them for a game. I'll admit that I approached this endeavor with a slight condescension. After all, fantasy role-playing is a goofy, hopelessly nerdy hobby. Whether it is nerdier than learning Klingon or writing Harry Potter fanfiction, I can't say, but it's clearly worse than memorizing all the three-letter words to play in a Scrabble tournament. At least you can win money playing Scrabble. So, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the game, and by the unexpected fondness -- and, yes, respect -- I developed for my new LARPing friends.
To prepare for my adventure, I contacted the Storytellers -- the group of volunteers who organize and referee the games. I found them through their website, http://www.madguild.org. Storytellers don't write the stories -- White Wolf Gaming Company sells the rule books and the broad plot outlines -- but they do direct the scenes. They give players stage directions, and often stand in for pivotal characters if turnout is low.
Each Storyteller in the Friday-night game is responsible for a different breed of monster. Because vampires are supposedly the easiest characters for beginners to play, Vampire Storyteller Patrick Gallagher responded to my query. I suspected I was in over my head when the 24-year-old, who works for a local Internet service provider, sent me a detailed, four-page description of what he called "the basics" of vampirism. I was hoping he could just assign me a character, but that's not how it works. The whole point is that you're supposed to come up with your own.
After perusing Gallagher's notes on character creation, I came up with what seemed a plausible profile. I would play a youngish female vamp, born in 1951 and rendered undead while studying English literature at Smith College in the early 1970s. I called her "Gladys."
Her sire -- the one who administered what they call "The Embrace" -- was her very own roommate, with whom she had been carrying on a covert lesbian affair. Following Gladys' conversion, the two moved into an apartment. They fed for years on unsuspecting Smithies before Gladys' sire left her for an older man. Heartbroken, Gladys wandered north to Montpelier, where she became a celebrated poet, feeding off of her star-struck admirers and the occasional itinerant Phishhead.
It wasn't dark yet when I arrived at City Hall Park around 8 p.m. on a recent Friday. I had come early, as per Gallagher's instructions, to finish building my character. None of the dozen or so "creatures" greeted me as I approached. I felt like a freshman on the first day of high school.
My nervousness was exacerbated by my outfit: denim shorts and a sporty blue shirt. Players don't exactly get costumed to LARP -- nobody had any plastic Dracula teeth -- but most of them were dressed in black. I sat by myself, eavesdropping on conversations about computer-operating systems and "obfuscated Nosferatus."
At 8:20, a man in a black suit and trendy rectangular sunglasses introduced himself. It was Gallagher. He had just finished a last-minute Storyteller planning session. He handed me a sheet of white paper filled with columns, which we used to plot Gladys' character traits. I compiled her personality by choosing from a list of options in one of his rulebooks. I gave her intelligence, empathy and the ability to speak German, just in case.
For her Merits and Flaws, I chose common sense, and I gave her only one eye -- a scar alluding to a troubled past. And for a little mystery, I added, "touch of frost" -- an eerie affect that would suck warmth from anyone who touched her. I almost picked "smell of the grave," but changed my mind. Turning people cold is somehow poignant and tragic; stinking like death is just plain icky.
Around nine o'clock, Gallagher joined the other Storytellers on the steps and announced to the 20 or so players that the game was about to begin. He reviewed the most important rules: no violence, no weapons, no drugs or drinking, be mindful of passers-by, don't frighten anyone or cause a scene.
Then the group split up by species, at which point Gallagher reminded us many people would be starting the game in jail. Lately the U.S. government had been rounding up supernaturals and transporting them to internment camps. "People who were here last week, or otherwise detained, if you could move off under these trees," he said.
Apparently, the police had set up a sting operation and captured Gladys, er, me. Prior to the night's game, I had been on my way to feed and they'd surrounded me. I got cuffed, stuffed into a C-130 Transport, and flown from Burlington to the detention site in Plattsburgh, New York.
I asked Gallagher why the feds were suddenly arresting supernatural beings. He explained that, though most supernaturals try to stay hidden from mortals, the entire lot of them had been exposed in the past few months. An interspecies group had battled a giant, flesh-eating monster beneath the streets of New York, and it had gotten out of hand. "CNN got it on camera," he said. "Ever since, the wall came tumbling down."
Thanks to anti-terrorism measures, the government was rounding up every creature in sight. "The PATRIOT Act has done well for supernatural suppression," he noted as we walked to the prison. Of course, we weren't walking to Plattsburgh; we headed instead to the courtyard next to Purple Shutter Herbs on Main Street. It's set back just far enough from the street to be a perfect LARPing location.
Another woman joined us on our trek: 23-year-old Karen Munnett, a hairdresser from Vergennes. Her vampire name was Melissa, and judging from her soft-spoken, aloof demeanor, she didn't care to talk to me. On the way, we picked up another vamp, 23-year-old Ian Morgan, a.k.a. Dr. Robert Van Owen. He sported a button-down shirt, a bow tie and a brown fedora.
Once at the camp, we had nothing to do but wait. Doc Van Owen struck up a conversation with me. "What clan are you?" he asked in a vaguely British accent. Before I could respond, he switched to his normal American-ized voice to add an important stage direction. "A third eye opens up on my forehead," he said.
I remembered that most vampires don't trust the third-eye tribe, but I figured I was stuck with him so I might as well play nice. It was a good thing, too. A few minutes later, Gallagher told us it was feeding time, so we got ready to pretend to eat. Then he announced that a giant Sabbat vampire was threatening to kill me and eat my blood ration. Van Owen, pretending to sit next to the imaginary Sabbat guy, yelled for the guards. When the Sabbat vamp lunged across the table for me, I ducked. Van Owen tackled him. Together we beat the crap out of him.
In real time, the whole battle would have lasted no more than five minutes, but in game time, it took a half-hour. That's because we had to play Rock Paper Scissors every time we made a move. That's how they decide conflicts in the LARP world. Silly as it sounds, I felt a rush of adrenaline after our fight. "Thanks, Doc," I muttered afterwards, unself-consciously.
Another vampire joined us after the fight: 18-year-old Dionne Marro, a.k.a. Lucy. She had driven up from Montpelier for the game. Gallagher told the three of us that another important vampire was in our midst -- the ancient Russian Nicholai Andropov, who was alive during the reign of Ivan the Terrible.
Since no one had shown up to play him, Gallagher slipped into the role. When some imaginary fighting vampires created a diversion, Andropov beckoned us into an alleyway off the courtyard. As we huddled there, Gallagher-Andropov explained in a thick Russian accent that he wanted Van Owen and Melissa to escape with him. He gestured to me and Lucy. "These two, I have no use for," he said.
The Doc defended us. "I see no reason why they should not be free as well," he countered. I hoped Andropov would agree. After sitting on a cement ledge at the back of the courtyard for two hours, I was ready to leave. But before we could escape, we had to wait for the mages to show up for the big battle scene at the end.
In the meantime, Van Owen waxed philosophical. He told me he didn't want to die a monster. He had tried to save me because he was trying to redeem himself and regain his humanity. The warden, he said, might decide to do away with us any day, by "giving us all a mass suntan." He sighed. As everyone knows, sunlight kills vampires. "There's precious little I can do about that," he said.
Then he and Melissa got up to grab a sandwich at Kountry Kart Deli down the street. "Anybody want anything?" he asked in his Ian Morgan voice. We waited while they ate their late-night snack.
Finally, around midnight, the mages arrived. As they turned the corner into our real-life courtyard, Gallagher announced that several vampires had started fighting in the far corner of our imaginary pen. The guards, distracted by the scuffle, had left their posts. This was our chance at freedom!
Doc, Melissa, Lucy, and I raced into the prison to find Andropov. Then the five of us tore through the compound, looking for a way out, slaughtering the guards who blocked our path.
In reality, we stood quietly in the narrow alley, playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. When Gallagher, taking a break from his role as Andropov, told us we had reached the prison's command center, we re-entered the courtyard. Two mages and their Storyteller faced us -- they, too, had escaped, and were fighting their way out.
Somehow, together we managed to defeat the governmental agents and steal their Black Hawk helicopter, which was parked on the prison roof. My last LARP thought, as we escaped at one o'clock in the morning, was Thank goodness Lucy knows how to fly this thing.