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Vamp Town Races

Vein Drain: Alia, a member of the Toreador clan, explores the juicier parts of Mephistion's anatomy while Feyd looks on.

Photo by Jana Marcus

Every Friday night at nine, a band of 50 people dressed in black assembles downtown to plot, scheme, murder and roam the streets of Santa Cruz. But hey, they're so vein, they probably think this story's about them

By Traci Hukill

IT'S A TYPICAL FRIDAY NIGHT on Pacific Avenue. Jungle drums sound from street corners, musicians jangle tunes in darkened storefront alcoves, the bubble man dips his magic wand into a pail of suds and waves it gently overhead, making a huge, fragile orb that trembles in the cool night air before it winks out of sight. Striding swiftly through the dawdling crowd, swathed in black and an imperious air, the vampires make their way to the meeting place.

Real vampires? Come, now. George Bernard Shaw once said, "We don't stop playing games because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing games." Everyone can play, but not everyone remembers how. The unsmiling vampires stalking down Pacific Avenue remember how, and this is the night they choose to play.

Four years ago, White Wolf--an entertainment publishing company specializing in horror games--produced a role-playing game called Vampire: The Masquerade. The game followed a format similar to Dungeons and Dragons, in which players assumed characters with certain strengths, weaknesses and magical powers. Guided by a Storyteller to provide an outline, characters embarked on imaginary adventures. Players sat at tables and rolled dice to determine the outcome of situations. The games were fun, but in a former player's words, they "lacked veracity."

It didn't take long for Masquerade to evolve from a sit-down shtick into a live-action game. Games sprang up everywhere--in Santa Cruz and Monterey, in San Francisco, where hundreds of people play a variation of Masquerade called Camarilla; and in Santa Rosa, where the Storyteller offers the game as a safe, legal alternative to gang activity and drug use. That's just in California. Games also appeared across the country, from New Orleans to New York, and as far away as France and Sweden.

Naturally the game changed with the advent of the live-action format. Players now wear costumes and interact directly. The custom of rolling dice, obviously impractical on a city street, has given way to a system of simple hand signs denoting challenges, time outs and even invisibility. The gestures also preempt physical contact, a point on which game rules are absolutely unambiguous: Don't touch. No weapons. Know when to stop.

No, the vampires don't bite each other, and they don't bite non-players, either.

Jana Marcus

Addams Family Apples: Vampires gather for a midnight portrait. Front row: Camilla, Emperor Norton. Back row, left to right: Michel la Vue, Mephistion, Cameron Emery Todd, Hans-Peter Shatzen, Alia and Feyd.

Allure of Being
Someone Else at Night

SO WHAT'S SO GREAT about it? No fangs, no duels, no stakes through the heart (stakes don't kill, only paralyze, anyway). Where's the action? What's the appeal? The action is in the players' imaginations, and the appeal lies largely in the allure of being someone else for a night.

Like a good book, the game is more about character development than plot progression. Character sheets--literally sheets of paper denoting a character's features, strengths, vulnerabilities and magical powers--are held in the Storyteller's safekeeping and considered the bottom line in this intense exercise in imagination.

Creating a character is seductive business. First you choose a clan. Will your character belong to the clan of Ventrue, the defiant bluebloods? Or would you rather play a Toreador--a sensual hedon with an artistic bent? Seven major and numerous minor clans are available for the choosing.

You pick physical, mental and social attributes for your character. You may be poetic, strong and lonely, or beautiful and clever but slow. You can be anyone you want to be--but nobody's perfect. You must choose weaknesses, too, an Achilles' heel that you always strive to hide. That's why the Storyteller holds the character sheets. Once your fellow players know your vulnerabilities, you're done for.

Character sheets also serve as evidence when disputes arise. Suppose a character named Morgan, known for her agility, is physically challenged by a brute named Gerald. Both players are honor-bound to acknowledge their characters' limitations, and they determine the outcome of the confrontation with two out of three rounds of (to their collective chagrin) rock-scissors-paper. If Morgan wins, then her agility supersedes Gerald's strength and she escapes unharmed. Should Gerald question Morgan's physical ability to duck, they go to the Storyteller, who refers to the character sheets and settles the question.

The background story of Masquerade is exceedingly complex. Basically, all vampires--called Kindred--are descended from Cain. The closer a Kindred's generation to Cain, the more powerful he or she is. Antediluvians are the oldest and most powerful, followed by Methuselahs and Elders, who are forever harassing younger generations. Everyone strives for power--money, influence, sway over other Kindred. The clans coexist more or less uneasily. Backstabbing and double-crossing abound.

Currently in Santa Cruz, the Kindred have been in an uproar since the arrival of two Elders, Francis and Girard, who are battling for the possession of a magical scarab that has the power to bring vampires back to life. The two Elders, masterful manipulators, pit Kindred against each other, creating even more strife than existed before.

Blood Brothers: Vampires rarely smile, as these five gentlemen can attest. Front row: Bob Harley. Back row, left to right: Kyle Grey, Yani Balzac, Alexi Pierce and Michael Preston Croft IV.

Photo by Jana Marcus

Economy of Bought
Blood In the Freezer

THIS IS THE SITUATION that greets the elegant Sydney Macintosh and her bodyguard, Manuel Tiger Rojas, when they arrive at the entrance of Bookshop Santa Cruz, the designated meeting place, on a cool Friday evening in September. "I'm the Harpy of the city," explains the regally dressed Sydney, whipping open a black case and producing a pink business card. "I dish out status and take it away by gossiping. I'm a statusmonger." While she speaks, Manuel stands by with his arms folded, a vaguely disdainful expression on his face.

The card says Import/Export Consultant, and I learn that Sydney, a member of the Ventrue clan and a shrewd businesswoman, froze all incoming Kindred shipments into Santa Cruz last week. She also owns a yacht and, because she finds traditional feeding methods repulsive and she can afford it, she buys blood and keeps it in the freezer.

While she talks, Sydney holds her hand in a position that lets surrounding players know she's not in character. She prefers to remain anonymous and not share her real-world name, ruefully remarking that "there are a lot of narrow-minded people in the world." A 34-year-old professional who lives in Gilroy with her husband and three children, she's been driving an hour each way every Friday night since March to play Masquerade. She's hooked.

"It's really difficult to talk about the game to people who don't play, because they just think you're whacked!" she laughs. "But it's a chance to be someone whom I'm not, a chance to use my imagination instead of sitting in front of the TV."

The real person is friendly and approachable--a far cry from the aloof Sydney, who's mastered the art of the withering look. She describes playing Sydney's aggressive, impatient character as a way to experience power without the risks. "I'm a lot more insecure than my character," she confesses. "This way, I'm not risking anything. There are a lot of risks involved in getting power in real life."

Sydney is new to her--only about six weeks old. Her previous character, the seductive Angelique, was killed in August. Angelique was an opera singer, a siren, and playing her on Fridays was a little like inviting Aphrodite in for tea.

"Since I stopped playing her, I interact with all people, but especially with guys, in a different way," she reflects, then gives a little shrug. "My husband likes it. I think for a lot of the younger people here, [role-playing] is a real way to get their feet wet in a safe environment and then take what they learn into the real world." After a short time she excuses herself and strolls off, assuming Sydney's essence like a cloak. Within minutes she's gossiping intently with other Kindred.

Animal House: Mouse (top), Prince Ursa (center) and Fidelis, members of the animistic Gangrel clan, bring an earthy element to Kindred society.

Photo by Jana Marcus

Bazookas Aimed
Down Pacific Avenue

A BEAUTIFUL DARK MAN, Manuel explains that he is half black, half Puerto Rican, and only recently Embraced, or made into a Kindred. He is also Caitiff, which means he claims no clan. With his help, I identify the Prince of the city, a member of the shapeshifting Gangrel, or feral, clan. He points to a big man well over six feet tall, standing a little apart from the group with one or two clanmembers identifiable by their rustic dress.

In heavy black boots, torn jeans and leather jacket, with a dense beard and magnificent flowing hair, the Prince looks the part. He is the oldest and most powerful Kindred in the area, able to create Progeny--new vampires--in great numbers. Named Bear in real life, he goes by the synonym Ursa in game. He exudes an air of calm authority.

"I've been playing for four years, since the game began," Ursa says. "Over time, it's developed its own history, its own legendary characters. I'm one of the few left from the original game."

Ursa began as a bodyguard to other princes. With luck and cunning, he advanced to his present position. He's seen martial law called in Santa Cruz and witnessed bazookas aimed down Pacific Avenue. It's a testament to the power of persuasive speaking that when he describes these things, I humbly ask, "In game, right?"

A self-described "techie" who repairs game systems and belongs to the Society for Creative Anachronism, best known for its Renaissance Fairs, Bear appears to be older than the average Masquerade player by several years.

"There are high and low points of maturity," he concedes with a grin when asked if emotions run high. "You try to remember, 'It's a game,' and when you get to the end of a game," he shrugs, "you smile."

As we speak, a pale, ornately dressed man with a bright green feather in his hat drifts by, hands clasped behind his back in the classic diplomat's pose. He surveys the area with satisfaction, confers on us a slight nod, and continues.

"That's Emperor Norton," Bear tells me when he's gone. I watch the back of his hat with its bobbing green feather and excuse myself from the Prince's gracious company to follow this guy.

Emperor Norton listens gravely to my introduction, then reveals that he is indeed the great Norton, Emperor of the United States. To prove his identity, he produces a five-dollar bill printed in 1871 bearing the stamp, "The Imperial Government of Norton I."

Emperor Norton is an actual historical figure who came to California as a Forty-Niner. After making a fortune in the Gold Rush and then losing it all along with his sanity, he declared himself Emperor of the United States and, yes, printed his own currency. The five-dollar bill I am holding is a photocopy.

"People think Emperor Norton died," asserts one-year veteran player Craig Jackson, a 28-year-old software engineer. "But he didn't. He was embraced by a Malkavian." Malkavians are a loopy, relatively harmless clan of Kindred, just right for Emperor Norton.

I inquire about the Emperor's role in the game.

"I have no official status," he sniffs. "The Prince dislikes me, although everyone else likes me."

The Look of Love: Mephistion (left) and Camilla, who runs a Parisian brothel in the game, share tastes in fashion.

Photo by Jana Marcus

A Safe Place To
Try Out Being Sexy

PRESENTLY MONARCH AND JOURNALIST alike are riveted by the sight of bodacious dominatrix Camilla teetering down the sidewalk in high heels and a catsuit with studs in all the most interesting places. By the time she's walked half a block past gathering Kindred to the clock tower for a photo shoot, she's a minor celebrity.

"Camilla" actually is 19-year-old Valerie Hazen, a UCSC lit student. With her warm brown eyes, auburn hair and youthful sex appeal, she reminds me that this game crackles with more than its share of sexual energy. All those masters and mistresses dressed in all that black, and Camilla isn't the only vampire in a catsuit. Like other players have mentioned, this is a safe place to try out things like being sexy.

One player is quick to point out that Storyteller David Vignola won't tolerate sexual harassment in game, which makes it an even safer environment for experimentation.

Valerie tells me that Camilla is quite old, actually, and spends a lot of time in France, where she runs a high-class call girl service. "That's because I haven't been playing much in the past two months," she explains sheepishly.

"This is a latex catsuit," she offers. "I love being photographed, and I'm not afraid to drop my clothes."

There won't be any need for that, Ms. Camilla, but thank you. And why, pray tell, do you play Masquerade?

"Why do I like this?" she repeats rhetorically. "It's fantasy. It's so not my real life. My character's a cunning, evil bitch!" she exults.

Her reply echoes the answer of almost everyone who's out under this nearly full moon, playing a complex role in an intricate theater of the imagination. They do it for fun, for the chance to be glamorous or powerful or deranged. They do it to escape the stultifying dullness of television and movies, and because the bars and coffeehouses are jammed with people whose imaginations are paralyzed by repetitive jobs and stupefying entertainment.

In short, they do it because they like to play, and playing, after all, is what keeps our spirits alive.

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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