Playing in one's imagination, rulebook in hand

    The conference room in Annenberg Hall falls silent as Josh Rayden strides to the front. Clad in a sharp black suit, the Northwestern alumnus takes his place between a reverend and a senator. He begins briefing them about the latest supernatural news.

    “As you all know by now, the sun did not rise over a third of the world today,” Rayden says.

    Everyone in the room pays close attention. They, along with Rayden, are all vampires.

    Before long, Rayden’s briefing gets interrupted by a man dressed in a T-shirt, blue jeans and a headset, who informs the senator that someone in the room wants to “dement” him. A rapid game of rock-paper-scissors breaks out, and the senator loses. He can no longer hear anything.

    “Will someone with telepathy get into my head so I can hear what’s going on?” the senator pleads.

    Welcome to the strangest town-hall meeting around, otherwise known as Dead City Productions. It’s Northwestern’s live-action role-playing club, a student organization merging improvised acting with Dungeons-&-Dragons-style adventures.

    Although President Natalie Bowling describes it as “a place for social misfits on campus to find their niche,” Dead City’s popularity is soaring and its membership has doubled in recent years. Though some of the older players think the group has become less close-knit, the club has nevertheless found a way to create an imagined world potent enough to live, breathe and touch for five hours every Saturday night.

    * * *

    In live-action role-playing, participants create detailed characters complete with abilities and novel-worthy backstories, then become their creations during gameplay. A group of officials, dubbed storytellers, create quests and moderate the affair, making sure players remain occupied and follow protocol. Role-playing is like living in one’s imagination, except that it comes with a rulebook.

    When officials yell “game on,” members discard their real names and habits in favor of their characters’. One girl mutters an expletive while talking with another character and quickly corrects herself.

    “Sorry, I don’t say the F-word in character,” she says.

    During the game, every word muttered and step taken can affect the plot, unless players place their right hand on their left shoulder, the sign for “I’m out of character.” Everyday activities take on new meanings in the game: While roaming the halls of Annenberg, another girl asks a guy for an orange Tic Tac. He begins rattling the tiny plastic container before stopping to ask, “In or out of character?” Only certain vampires may eat the minty “pills” without suffering damage. She places an arm on her shoulder, and then takes two.

    But Bowling doesn’t need to worry about a character faux pas. The Weinberg junior is not only Dead City’s president, but one of five plainly dressed storytellers moving around Annenberg. While players roam “city streets,” Bowling mediates duels and answers questions by whipping out a red rulebook (which combines nationally recognized rules with Dead City’s) that she keeps in her pocket. For Bowling, officiating vampire fights wasn’t always so stressful.

    “When I started playing, there were about 15 to 20 players,” Bowling says. “Now, we have double that, and doubling your player size makes things really hard to manage.”

    Saturday nights appear frantic for Bowling. She runs the pre-game meeting, urging players to donate money for the club into a treasure chest adorned with skull decorations; then she leads a discussion on T-shirt designs. During the actual event, Bowling is frequently summoned by players to watch over challenges or clarify rules.

    “Storyteller!” yells a group of players, getting the attention of Bowling and another storyteller. The game pauses until they walk over, when one player requests to cast a spell on Josh Rayden that would put a large crease in his forehead. The mark wouldn’t affect gameplay, and only be visible to those who imagine it there, but the player says it would be cool all the same.

    The two storytellers talk briefly, and decide the spell sounds fine. The players play rock-paper-scissors and Rayden loses. He now has a large disfigurement on his forehead, and he couldn’t be happier.

    “No fucking way, that’s so fucking cool!”

    Rayden got involved with role-playing games frequently in high school, so he came to Northwestern seeking out a club where he could continue the fun. He’s seen Dead City evolve over the past six years, from a small group to a much larger force.

    “In the past, everyone was a little closer, everyone knew each other a little more,” Rayden says. “Now that it has gotten so many more players, it’s not quite as close-knit as it was.”

    Bowling attributes Dead City’s growth to role-playing’s increased accessibility in recent years. She says the club used to only attract aspiring actors or “gaming geeks.” But lately, Bowling says, “newbies” hail from myriad backgrounds, ranging from engineering to journalism.

    Sisi Wei falls into the latter category. A Medill freshman, she’s currently staring straight ahead at the senator — Northwestern alumnus Michael Downey — who went deaf early in the game. Wei’s character, Toleco “Eco” Raizolde (whom Wei spent many hours writing a backstory for), answered the impaired senator’s request for telepathy; to help Downey hear, she has to keep her eyes fixed on him. At one point, she turns to another player and throws her hand on her shoulder.

    “I never knew staring at someone could be so difficult,” she says with a laugh.

    Wei joined Dead City after the fall student-activities fair, under the impression it was a gaming society. She didn’t know about live-action role-playing and had minimal theater experience (“I was in a play in the fourth grade”). A veteran member living in her dorm persuaded her to go to the new-members event, dubbed “Newbie Game.”

    “I was able to see some amazing people role-play and the amount of improv skill I saw was really, really amazing, and definitely something I wanted to work on,” she says. “And the story was so enticing that I definitely wanted to participate for the rest of the year. I like the challenge.”

    With a half-year of role-playing under her belt, Wei is now the only freshman focused on becoming a storyteller.

    “I really enjoy narrating, and planning things out,” she says. “Putting challenges in front of other people to see what their characters do — I enjoy that.”

    * * *

    Eventually, the dementing spell wears off and Downey regains his hearing. Wei can break her gaze and go on her own quests. At one point in the evening, she joins up with a group of about 12 players, who head to a lounge on the second floor of Annenberg. They are on a mission to break into a heavily guarded skyscraper and save animals from a government experiment.

    Rayden, who plays elder-vampire Hadrian, remains on the ground floor. He graduated from Northwestern in 2006 with a major in theater, and now he’s co-manager of a Limited Too at the Northbrook Court Mall. He is one of several alums who still come on the weekends to role-play with Dead City.

    “Now that I’ve graduated, everyone I work with knows I do this, and they think it’s definitely dorky,” Rayden says. “I’ve been doing this since high school, so I don’t really care. Until you’ve tried, I don’t know how much value your opinion has.”

    On the playground, the kids indulging most in imaginary adventures often face taunting and teasing. In popular culture, role-players get cast as “geeks” or even “freaks.” The Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons, a character who has role-played at various times in the show’s run, is constantly ridiculed for his nerdy ways. When Dungeons & Dragons inventor Gary Gygax died recently, the obituaries about him threw around the words “geek” and “nerd.”

    Bowling says she normally doesn’t bring up role-playing with other people, but when it does come up, she isn’t embarrassed.

    “Dead City has provided me with a society of my own, somewhere I can feel comfortable,” Bowling says. “I can feel okay with being who I am.”

    Dead City Productions appears to be like any other student group on campus, receiving money from ASG (they are a B-status group) and offering undergraduates with similar interests an arena to network. The action during a role-playing event resembles a formal meeting: The majority of a character’s time is spent talking in small groups. The only difference between this and, say, a cultural-club meeting is that the subject at hand is vampires. Many student groups exist to promote a message or sway opinion. Dead City players, on the other hand, perform only for each other, and doing what one enjoys trumps all.

    “I definitely stereotyped people like this before I joined,” Wei says. “But there really is no difference between these people and, say, a person in my math class. These people are great.”

    They may pretend to be vampires for five hours a week, but the students in Dead City ultimately come out for fun and friends. Like any other campus organization, people have a good time and the allure of food can overshadow everything else. Up on the second floor of Annenberg, Wei and the rest of the group engage in one more battle, this time against fierce humanoid beasts. Bowling walks in on the final fight.

    “I need a Chili’s count,” she says. “Raise your hand if you are coming along afterwards.”

    Every hand goes up excitedly, and the players appear to momentarily forget the hellish struggle they are currently trapped in. Some things are just more important than killing a mutant.

    Photos by Tom Giratikanon / North by Northwestern.


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