.They Walk Among Us

(Actually, they lurk around the Cal campus at night pretending to walk among us.)

The sky was clear and moonless the night they stole the whale. Greg Flub, a massive lummox with drool on his chin, kept insisting it wasn’t actually stealing if nobody owned it. Hex iD laughed maniacally into his laptop screen as he poked away at various East Bay truck rental Web sites. They needed a large flatbed, the kind used to haul steamrollers, and due to the late hour the only option was to hot-wire one. When the idea to pilfer the beached whale first arose, Hank Salisbury’s first instinct was to pack his trunk full of dynamite and find a jackhammer.

Every so often, one of them would raise a fist to one shoulder, lean in close, and break character. “This is gonna get messy,” said Hank with a laugh, momentarily reverting to nineteen-year-old Kyle Tracy. Next to him, standing in the glow of a UC Berkeley campus streetlamp, Queenie repeated the fist-to-shoulder gesture. Now she, too, was no longer an anarchistic vampire, just thirty-year-old Megan O’Neil from Mountain View. “Yes,” she said. “Have a glow stick.” She thrust the dying blue thing in Kyle’s direction.

Hands came off shoulders. Hank put the glow stick in his mouth, cigar-style, and the troupe formed a loose circle, like high school kids standing around between classes. In their collective fantasy, the outdoor campus scene morphed back into an imaginary Richmond warehouse. A burly, long-haired anarcho-goth vampire approached, clad in a black trench coat with spikes. “Knock, knock!” he called loudly. Queenie rushed to the door. Hex, played by twenty-year-old Michael Parker, stepped between them, assuming the role of bouncer, and Megan broke character again to brief the out-of-towner: “This is a warehouse in Richmond. Downstairs is filled with E-crazed ravers and a massive pit full of stuffed animals. There’s a staircase up to the office, and we’re all in the office. You’re on the stairs, I guess.”

“Hex is still inside,” Parker explained. “You got any weapons on you? Is your hand cold?” The stranger shook his head at the first question, and nodded at the second as he shook the bouncer’s hand. Vampires generate no body heat, so you can ID them with a handshake.

Talk about your oddball leisure activities. These undead characters are the brainchildren of some of the dozens of real-life square pegs who descend upon the UC Berkeley campus every other Friday night to prowl, fight, feud, and feed. This human hodgepodge hews to laws created by White Wolf, a company launched in 1991 to publish a pencil-and-dice role-playing game called Vampire: The Masquerade. Despite a host of spinoffs, Vampire remains the company’s most popular creation — so popular that it spawned the 1996 Fox television series, Kindred: The Embraced. In 1994, the company expanded on its creation with Laws of the Night, a book of guidelines that laid the way for One World By Night. In this nationwide game of theatrical improvisation, players portray bloodsuckers that hide their existence, yet secretly control humanity by pulling the strings of multinational corporations, the police, the government, even the church. These types of games are called LARPs — for live action role-playing game — and loosely linked Vampire LARPs play out in scores of cities around the US, and as far away as Brazil and New Zealand. Berkeley’s game is called Wasting the Dawn, and in it, Xavier Aubuchon-Mendoza is God.

He’s the storyteller, the local game’s majordomo and the key to its twisted appeal. He approves all new characters, settles disputes, develops plotlines, and generally behaves as judge, jury, and screenwriter. Now thirty, Xavier first played Vampire while attending San Francisco State as a political science major. Before graduating, though, he decided to join the campaign to save Laguna Honda Hospital. And when that ended successfully, he went right out and got a straight job working for an Internet retailer, fulfilling online purchases of Chinese novelty items.

He may have given up on college, but not Vampire, which he now loves so much that he refers to it without a definite article, like a pet. “Mostly I remember being shy and socially awkward, not knowing how to relate to people, so I chose a character who was the opposite of those things,” he recalls. “Game provided a way to explore that side in an environment where there was no real cost to failure.”

Indeed, throwing off social impediments seems the major motivation for the game’s participants. Although they’re certainly not all the teenage nerdlings one might expect — Berkeley’s players range in age from sixteen to fifty, mostly Caucasian, with a handful of Asian Americans and the occasional African American — they do skew toward socially awkward men in their twenties. There’s also a healthy smattering of socially awkward women, most of whom dress to the nines in costumes that lean more Buffy than Dracula. The vampires they create tend to reflect people’s aspirations or compensate for real-life insecurities — they let players be something they’re not.

Take Parker, an animated beanpole with a jovial expression and goggles on his forehead. He’ll soon be a college sophomore, but still brags about being the most computer-savvy kid in his high school. And while he’s a computer major, he’s nowhere near as skilled as his hacker character. Parker also is reserved, but when the game gets exciting, Hex becomes animated, talking louder and faster and spitting out words at a breakneck pace.

Megan, meanwhile, is a large woman, and her whorish Queenie seems designed to rebuke this fact. She wears a tight red corset over a black dress of her own creation, and bounces around like a sexy teenager, leaving the judgment of human strangers behind, at least for the evening. A childlike “anarch” vampire, Queenie speaks in babbled streams of consciousness, which makes interviews challenging. Her sanity returns in waves. She’s competent one moment, bubblingly useless the next.

Kyle Tracy is big in another way, a towering figure with a boyish grin. His character, Hank, is a hell-raiser, and Kyle’s boisterous voice and mannerisms give his vampire the sort of persona you’d expect from a World War II comic book sergeant. “I tried it out eight months ago and I got hooked,” he said of Vampire.

Briana Barber, who plays a vamp named Klar√©, calls herself a LARP junkie. The outgoing, freckled lady in her twenties lives in the Placer County town of Newcastle, but for the past two and a half years she has driven all over Northern California to satisfy this unusual urge. Easily recognized by her hand-stitched patchwork-denim clothes, she plays every Friday night in Berkeley or Stockton, and every Saturday in Sacramento. “This is my theatrical outlet,” Barber said as she pawed through a burlap bag full of medieval armor a fellow player has given her for her craft.

By design, San Francisco and Berkeley hold their games on alternating Fridays, which allows nomads like Briana to LARP twice every weekend. Characters are completely portable. Games in different cities interact via e-mail and transient gamers, and a Web site run by White Wolf contains a worldwide list of storytellers with their contact info. This enables a Berkeley player to export his character sheet to say, Chicago, or Washington, DC, and join in those games with little fuss. All that’s needed is a request from one storyteller to the other.

Xavier does this often, and it’s often done on his behalf. On his alternating Friday nights off, Berkeley’s storyteller participates as a player in San Francisco. While his characters do sometimes appear in the Berkeley chronicle, it’s usually only when he’s been caught off guard and needs a way to move the plot forward at a moment’s notice. He attends the biweekly game sessions in a spiffy three-piece suit with matching overcoat. His girlfriend of a year, Nicole Rudolph, plays too, and together they come off like a socialite couple making their rounds at the newest gallery opening — a far cry from role-player stereotypes. Both in and out of character, Xavier has the poise of a politician. He smiles and looks you in the eye as he shakes your hand firmly, with the implication that your vote this fall would certainly be appreciated. He’s so friendly and outgoing it almost seems insincere on first impression, an attribute that could easily throw off the game’s brooding goth types. Because at its core, Vampire is a distinctly goth activity.

Yet those who participate and get to know him understand Xavier is simply a great storyteller who delights in playing out long and dramatic tales that can take months to evolve. He has the patience of a spider, and when he’s done weaving, his greatest reward is watching his more shy and quiet players emerge from their shells.

That includes people like Kiran Parkhe, a twenty-something Dartmouth student from Bloomington, Indiana, with dark skin and musty black hair. The first-timer had the scruffy look of someone who’s crashing on the dirty couch of a friend with a busted shower. He’s an old high school buddy of Xavier’s assistant storyteller, Alden Shadrick, who’d convinced him to give it a go. Among Alden’s duties is to print out everyone’s character sheets and bring them to campus on game nights. And among the fifty-some-odd sheets was a pregenerated vampire named Frank, a brooding anarch who mopes in corners and sucks the life out of virgins — their blood tastes best, natch. Kiran got Frank, and would spend his initiation partaking, for what it’s worth, in what would prove a legendary escapade within this insular community.

Xavier’s ultimate goals, he says, are to make his players learn about themselves via their characters; to challenge them with tough situations, and turn their experiences into stories that will be retold for years to come. And sometimes players — like the whale thieves — manage to do it for themselves.

As the anarchs stood in their loose circle, chattering about recent events, someone noted that a dead gray whale had washed ashore on the Marin Headlands. This had happened a few days before in real life, and the county was debating what to do with the bloated corpse. The thought set the Sacramento anarcho-goth laughing raucously. “I’ve got dynamite,” he told Hank. “Lots.”

Hank smiled. “Excellent,” he said. The pair headed out through the invisible warehouse door, past the bouncer, and through the crowds of ravers downstairs. In reality, this meant wandering past the dumpsters of Moses Hall and into the Stephens Hall courtyard where most of the game’s players were clustered like guests at a cocktail party. They searched out Alden and told him the anarchs over on the bridge would be needing a storyteller.

Alden’s first move was to relocate the whale with the wave of his hand. In the World of Darkness, the North Bay is enemy turf, controlled by werewolves few vampires can handle. So Alden beached the whale on Alameda Island. He then quizzed the group on its intentions. Hex, Greg, and Frank decided to go search for a flatbed truck, so Alden walked them fifty feet to the loading dock of Moses Hall. Here, in the harsh glow of the building’s floodlights, the four young men settled in for a thirty-minute Berkeley excursion. Hex and Greg sat on the concrete, and Frank remained standing, hands in his pockets as they’d been all night. Alden paced back and forth in deep contemplation. “How am I gonna do this?” he muttered to himself. Hex volunteered that he’d like to hack the security systems of the Hertz Industrial Rental facility on the Eastshore Highway. This he accomplished with a round of rock, paper, scissors.

There are no twenty-sided dice in a Vampire LARP. Everything is determined by rock, paper, scissors, which the players call “throwing chops.” Whether five super-strong vampires can lift a whale. How hard it is to get a flatbed truck over a curb and into position. The amount of money found in the pocket of the virgin Greg just drained.

Vampire also has hand signals. Crossing your arms with hands on opposite shoulders means you’re invisible, and one hand to a shoulder means you’re out of character. The latter is often used to make jokes, ask for clarifications, or, for the anarchs, a way to sneak one of the brownies Megan brought to the game without having to explain how a vampire can eat baked goods.

Hex has his own method of throwing chops: a deck of playing cards, each marked with a rock, a piece of paper, or a pair of scissors. He drew a card at random to match each of Alden’s throws, and the deck was doing him right. Even so, the Hertz facility proved useless: As Greg waited in the van — he’s a real good driver — Hex and Frank searched for a flatbed within the facility’s tall concrete walls. “Do I see any key boxes, or a list of trucks anywhere?” Hex asks. Alden shakes his head no. Frank shrugs, rolling his eyes and keeping his hands buried in his pockets. Alden finally throws against Hex to see whether the trio can stumble upon a flatbed elsewhere. Hex wins, and moments later, they’re driving toward Alameda, or rather, walking back to the other anarch players shouting “Ring! Ring!”

Vampire transcends these direct contacts. Players also exchange e-mail threads between game nights to discuss their characters’ interactions, and Xavier and his assistants must parse this complex web of information weekly, even daily. Lucky that Vampire is his only hobby. It shows, too. Players from Stockton, Sacramento, and SF all interact with the Berkeley LARP, and many like it best thanks to the intrigue Xavier creates. Participation in his game can swell week to week from twenty to upwards of fifty players.

Sometimes this creates headaches for Xavier. Sacramento players, for instance, tend to invest a lot of time and emotion in their characters — there’s not much else to do in the sticks. The longer a vampire lives, the stronger it becomes, and the more statistics and scribbled notes appear on its character sheets. Some can cause insanity with a gaze, hypnotize other vampires to make them slaves, and punch through five feet of steel. The most popular of these powers are combat-related.

Not that it’s always used for evil. John Romanoff, a character created by Rustin O’Neill of Dixon, is a killing machine built to put evil vampires in their place with shotgun and shovel. Rustin wore a scrolling LED belt and a black jacket lettered with the provocation: “This jacket is only black when an asshole is looking at it.” His character spoke in a thick Russian accent. “The last man who angered me,” he said, “I cut him open and hung him up by his entrails!” Moments after this statement, Romanoff and his anarch companions were dancing on the charred remains of a cluster of dead vamps in a San Jose warehouse.

Or, rather, the steps of South Hall. In gameland, the Cal campus simulates all sorts of Bay Area locales. Sometimes a door is left unlocked and the vampires play inside Dwinelle Hall, a modern concrete warren of classrooms, offices, and hallways. Each classroom represents a bar, a warehouse, or the “Elysium,” where all “good” vampires meet as the game begins. Hallways are streets, and the building’s basement is an excellent place to plot another player’s demise. These locations tend to shift each game, so players often stick their heads into a room, put fist to shoulder, and ask: “Where are you guys?”

Depending on the response, the questioner will either enter the room in character or move on. Everyone wanders freely, and no one usually cares if a player wanders directly from a Berkeley bar to a Richmond warehouse. Unless violence erupts, in which case, there is great attention paid to detail.

For even without the Sacramento contingent, there’s plenty of violence. Combat scenes are typically kicked off with the storyteller raising a hand and shouting, “Time stop!” Everyone nearby can then move only according to strict rules. This irritates some less-aggressive characters, who prefer the freeform social interaction of normal gameplay. If the combat involves enough players, it’ll be Roshambo all night, with storytellers pointing at each player in turn to demand an action.

Xavier prefers political intrigue to mayhem. His games thrive on narrative and mystery, not bar fights and dozens of nightly stakings. Sometimes it’s all he can do to keep the Sacto players from starting all-out wars on his turf, and he’s had to ban some of the reckless ones from his game for a week, a month, even a year.

Wasting the Dawn focuses on “good vampires,” a highly relative term. A better way to distinguish the myriad factions is to say there are evil vampires, really evil vampires, and downright demonic vampires. The simply evil are the Camarilla, civilized sorts that meddle in business affairs, the church, and other day-to-day activities of humanity. They uphold the Masquerade, which says no vampire can reveal itself under penalty of death.

The medium-evil ones are the anarchs, young vampires that hate all that’s old and stodgy — like the Camarilla. Where the Camarilla might wear suits or black corsets, the anarchs arrive in black leather with spiked shoulder pads or coochie-cutter skirts with fishnets. As the name implies, they’re all about anarchy.

The seriously demonic ones are the Sabbat, whose purpose is to bring about the End of Times. They kill and maim people in public, and suck other vampires dry to increase their own power. In Sacramento and Stockton, there are entire Sabbat subgames, and in Berkeley they function as Xavier’s favorite plot device.

One night, for instance, Romanoff and some of his anarch pals tracked down a warehouse full of Sabbat loyalists. Alden portrayed one of the super-bad vamps himself, and hornswoggled a player whose character had died earlier in the evening into playing two others. The scene took two hours to play out underneath the lamppost outside South Hall. Once all the right players had gathered, Queenie, Hex, Hank, Romanoff, and a few others marched toward the South Hall steps, arranged as though sitting in a large Ford van. Upon arrival, they piled out, with Romanoff shutting the van’s sliding side door in pantomime. Hank and Greg remained in the van, and Hank futzed with its pretend radio, searching for some Creedence. Once inside the warehouse, Romanoff confronted Alden and the other Sabbat player. After a few tense moments, he broke the tense peace by pulling a fist up from his waist and pointing it at Alden’s head as though holding a sawed-off shotgun. Alden raised his hand for a time stop.

From then on, it was rock, paper, scissors until the three Sabbat vampires were dead. The combat portions of the game are tiresome. Each player can take three steps a round, or perform one action, and since players’ steps aren’t measured precisely, Alden is called upon now and then to walk over and draw the exits, walls, and tables of the imaginary room with his fingers.

After the battle, Alden quietly wandered off to fetch Xavier from the Stephens Hall courtyard. Players fear Xavier’s presence because it means that rules will be enforced to the letter. And Xavier dreads being beckoned because it usually means someone isn’t playing his character well, or worse, is arguing over protocol. In this case, the storyteller arrived in character as an extremely powerful Sabbat vampire named Father Houston, who could have wiped out the anarchs, but instead merely berated them for failing to first harvest information from the now-dead undead. “Before you arrived, you had a lead into Sabbat activities. Now, you have nothing,” he proclaimed, sitting atop a staircase in the pretend warehouse. The storyteller reiterated the sentiment during his post-game summary: Fighting isn’t always the answer.

Xavier hates monitoring combat. He wants players to solve their problems in more sociable ways. Besides, combat can lead to real-life bad feelings. Geoffrey Bayley, a thin man in his early twenties with long black hair, small glasses, and a light nasal voice, was an assistant storyteller for a long time. He’s rules-obsessed and loves nothing more than to contradict fellow players with clarifications that give his character the upper hand. He had to step down from storytelling duties earlier this year, but has returned as a player.

During the interaction with Father Houston, Geoffrey’s character, Ibrahim Kader, tried unsuccessfully to attack some tentacles Xavier’s powerful character had crafted from shadows. These tenebrous servants beat Ibrahim into submission, but not before Geoffrey put in many an irate out-of-character word about how shadow tentacles interact with fire, vampires, and his character’s particular vampire species.

Earlier this year, Geoffrey tangled with a Sacramento player in a floor-length black coat adorned with dozens of shiny buckles and latches: a Hot Topic special. Geoffrey had learned the Sacramento character wasn’t a vampire at all, but a ghoul — a human who drinks vampire blood and acquires some simple powers — and outed him in the Camarilla court.

This dubious act infuriated the young ghoul’s creator, and Xavier had to mop up. He spent twenty minutes underneath the Campanile convincing the goth teenager that Geoffrey’s actions weren’t reason enough to start an out-of-character shouting match. The storyteller listened patiently as the kid pleaded his case. Then they calmly smoked clove cigarettes in the moonlight as Xavier imparted his fatherly wisdom, and the boy returned to the game without a peep.

Xavier’s suggestive powers would make him a deft manager in the straight world. He builds storylines from little clues or thoughts he whispers in his players’ ears at the start of a game, or he might e-mail a player a secret past for a newly created character. His seeds grow, with the players’ help, into full-blown plots. Each game session lasts a night, but plotlines can extend for years — Xavier manages to keep all the intricacies straight in his head, and drive the plot forward with tiny, well-placed bits of information.

The plot isn’t always dark and dreary. It might involve stealing a whale, for instance, although the whale tale only involved Xavier at the finish. Alden oversaw the chops needed to steal the flatbed, hypnotize an army of hobos, pay off the CHP to clear I-80 for an hour, procure crates of dynamite, and sneak onto Alameda Island without alerting local cops. Once there, however, things got difficult. The whale proved too heavy, and Greg had trouble getting the truck over the curb.

Then the cops arrived. Hex tried to whip up some fake permits, but Officer Alden was skeptical that any workers would show up at 2 o’clock in the morning. Alden’s befuddled Alameda policeman finally relented after Hex won a challenge to fax a forged work order to police headquarters. With the whale finally in place on the truck, Hank Salisbury began jackhammering holes into its flanks and stuffing them with dynamite.

The anarchs had hoped to drive the beast into downtown Berkeley and detonate it at sunrise. Their reasons were murky enough, but chaos was clearly the driving force, and it almost looked like they would succeed. But as the truck headed toward the Webster Tube, and Hank stood atop the whale with glowstick cigar in mouth and chain in hand, Alden went to fetch Xavier.

Back on campus, it was midnight and the game was winding down. The other vampires converged to witness this final chapter, which, in the weeks to follow, would become notorious among Northern California’s undead.

Xavier divided this night’s thirty or so players into spectators and participants and then laid down the gauntlet. He cried out in his “OK, this ends now” voice, a high-volume tone that sent his even pitch soaring into higher registers before sinking back to its normal warm flavor. “As you enter the Alameda Tunnel, a black cloak of shadows closes the way you came in. In front of you, the National Guard is deployed, and pointing its rifles at the cabin of the truck,” he said.

From there, things descended into rock-paper-scissors. Hank leapt from the truck and detonated the whale. Dim-witted Greg ran toward the Guardsmen, introducing himself with hand outstretched. “Hi, I’m Greg,” is all he managed before they gunned him down.

And then, with Greg and Hank unconscious, Xavier looked at Kiran, the neophyte who was playing Frank. “What are you doing?” he asked Frank.

Kiran shrugged, hands in his pockets. “Uh, I guess I stay in the truck.” Xavier smiled and pointed at Kiran. “OK, gimme a chop.” Frank lost, and quickly joined his compatriots in the warm embrace of torpor, the place vampires go when they’re not dead, but are no longer conscious. Xavier’s swift justice ended the shenanigans. All four vampires lost their chances for between-game interactions. Hank and Greg were deemed unconscious for a week, while Hex was obligated to clean the tunnel of whale offal.

During the post-game summary, Kiran appeared quiet and intimidated.

“What’d you think?” Alden asked.

Kiran just shrugged and nodded a bit.

“How’d you do?” asked a nearby player in a suit.

“I’m in …” Kiran looked to Alden for the prompt. “I’m in torpor.”

“Hey!” said the suit. “That’s great for your first time! It means you did enough to get killed!”

Frank shrugged again.

Xavier, for his part, was pleased with the whale excursion. “They always manage to surprise me,” he said of his players. “I love getting people engaged and excited, eager to take on some challenge. Plus it’s always wonderful to see such creativity and passion in people.”

For him, the reward is seeing his minions devise their own entertainment for the evening. Though the storyteller did have to step in at the end, he feels pride in his players’ powers of imagination. And that, he says, is what keeps him coming back.


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