It is a dark, thunderous night in Anchorage, Alaska, and Snowphish hangs onto life by a thread. He is a vampire and has pissed off the vampire establishment for the last time. One of his eye sockets is empty and his intestines are beginning to spill out from a hole in his stomach wall. He is in the torture chambers of Aaron Bradshaw, inquisitor.
“I do God’s work,” says Bradshaw from the darkness. “I sin because God commands it. He needs someone to take one for the team, so to say.” Bradshaw’s voice is eerie and feminine.
This inquisition has gone on longer than Snowphish can now remember, and it is about to get worse. Bradshaw casts a spell that will make Snowphish vomit beetles anytime he tells a lie. So he doesn’t lie.
It is a little after 10 p.m. on Saturday night, and I am walking through campus with Weinberg sophomore Matt Faliszek. Faliszek wears plain, rectangular glasses, has a sharp nose and keeps his dark-blond hair in a messy ponytail. He is trim and handsome in the bookish sort of way that indie-pop groups have recently popularized. It’s cold, and Faliszek wears a black pea coat and a brown duffel bag slung across his shoulder. He is tall and long-legged, and we stride across campus with an almost brutal efficiency.
I’ve tried a series of conversation topics on Faliszek: the weather, the recent sounding of a fire alarm in a dorm we pass and the menu at Chili’s, which is where we are heading. Faliszek’s responses are curt and noncommittal, polite but distant. It is when he begins to talk about Anchorage and the vampires who live there that his demeanor enlivens.
Faliszek is a Live-Action Role-Player, or LARPer for short. In that vein, he was also Snowphish — before he was tortured to death, anyway. For five hours twice a month on the second floor of Parkes Hall, Faliszek and 20-plus other individuals go about creating a fictional world that is not quite novel, movie or play. It is a game, but beyond that, no analogy really fits. It’s a complex world that attracts a group of people with such a unique and passionate interest that it often becomes central to their real lives as well.
The first commercially available role-playing game (RPG) was Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop game released in 1974. Since then, an entire industry of role-playing games has been created, and you can find RPGs in just about any Barnes & Noble. Dungeons and Dragons has a character cast not unlike that of The Lord of the Rings. Players can be elves, dwarfs, wizards or (if they’re boring) humans. Many RPGs take place in entirely fictional worlds — the most recent addition is Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar.
The rules that guide role-playing are infuriatingly complex, and LARPing rules are even more involved. Northwestern’s LARPing group, Dead City Productions, uses two different manuals, both about 400 pages long. But the members of Dead City don’t find these rules to be daunting. Rather, players revel in the rules and discuss them with head-throbbing intensity.
Role-playing games, by definition, involve multiple people playing as characters within a fictional world. In this world, the success or failure of any action (picking a lock, swinging a sword, etc.) is determined by a formal system of rules involving a lot of numbers and either cards or dice. For this reason, a duel that might take 30 seconds to complete in real life can take upwards of an hour in a LARP.
Unlike most games, LARPing is almost never about winning or losing. Collaboration, imagination and trueness to one’s character are the explicit goals of any devoted RPG player. Coupled with the stringent rules, this keeps “’I shot you! You’re dead!’/’Nope! You missed!’” scenarios from occurring. At the end of every game night, Dead City’s members vote for best role-player. This incentivizes character realism.
Each player is charged with creating his own character. Devoted players put a lot of time into this process. Biographies are often pages long and are accompanied by “character sheets,” which are numeric representations of a character’s strengths and weaknesses. These are used for reference by numerous people throughout a game. In Dead City, players can choose from several vampire clans (races) and covenants (religious/political affiliations). Characters are supposed to have a major goal that they are expected to complete by the time the LARP is over, like attaining a particular political rank, discovering who their father is, etc. These goals give characters divergent motivations and create conflict. Over the course of a game, characters go on adventures or solve problems in an overarching storyline designed by game-masters/storytellers. Many players also choose to design costumes for their characters. At Dead City, storylines last for the length of an academic year, and the characters are always vampires. This year’s story takes place in present-day Anchorage.
There is no script that LARPers follow. At Dead City, there are six storytellers who have a basic idea of what’s happening, but other than that, it’s all improv. As players interact with each other, storytellers are almost always present, documenting the encounter and refereeing battles if need be.
The LARP does not stop when the game ends and players leave Parkes Hall. Players take part in “down-time actions” throughout the following two weeks. These are plot points developed between characters in the form of e-mail correspondences. When players meet again, it is assumed that everything that was written in these e-mails actually took place. These correspondences range from simple lists that enumerate what occurred to prosaic novellas that read like bad fantasy paperbacks. Faliszek sent me a couple of his own down-time action e-mails detailing Snowphish’s final moments. One section reads: “Snowphish begins to laugh hysterically, tears running from his one good eye and mixing with the alcohol within the empty socket. His head falls to his chest, and as his hair covers his face in dirty, sweaty tangles, the alcohol and tears fall from his face.”
So here is how a scene might work in a LARP: Take, for example, the torture scene found above:
Faliszek is leaning against a classroom wall with both his index fingers curled around two of the coat hooks that line it. He’s been given handcuffs by (in the real world) a sixth grade teacher who is playing the mundanely named Aaron Bradshaw, vampire inquisitor. Faliszek doesn’t wear the cuffs; he only holds onto them as a symbol that he is imprisoned. His (real-life) girlfriend and storyteller, McCormick junior Carly Ho, is perched on a desk with an open binder, diligently and dispassionately taking notes on what is unfolding.
The teacher announces that Bradshaw tugs at Snowphish’s intestines.
“I do God’s work,” Bradshaw says. “I sin because God commands it. He needs someone to take one for the team, so to say.”
The teacher tells Ho that Bradshaw is going to cast a spell on Snowphish that will make him vomit beetles whenever he tells a lie, and the two of them negotiate this with the help of a deck of cards. Now, as the sadistic scene continues to unfold, it is Ho’s job to declare “beetles” or “no beetles” when Snowphish answers Bradshaw’s questions.
“Let me know if I’m about to kill him,” The teacher tells Ho.
“I don’t know, we haven’t been keeping track of damage,” Ho replies.
Post-Twilight, there are some people who believe that vampire LARPing must have some inherent fetishism — and scenes like this make it hard to prove otherwise. But Faliszek sees it as pretty harmless. He describes vampire LARPing as “a means to an end, one of the best ways to be able to do fun and crazy things that aren’t possible in the real world.” The argument that surrounds role-playing is similar (fair or not) to the one that surrounds hardcore porn: Can involved players separate fantasy from reality?
With Dead City, the lines are definitely blurred. The whole concept of downtime actions means the game never officially ends. In Faliszek’s case, things that happen in the game affect his life in the real world too. This is his second year playing the game, and already he describes his social life as being Dead City-centric. Mostly he just sees Ho, whom he met in Dead City. Last year, their characters worked together in game, and now they are dating in real life. Of the 25 or so regular players at Dead City, there are at least five couples, maybe more. The community feels insular.
When Faliszek’s not LARPing or going to class, he’s normally reading or playing other games. He sometimes walks around campus with his earbuds in, listening to music, which seems to limit the amount of human interaction that he has to face. He tells me that he doesn’t LARP to escape, but his Facebook page reads, “I’m a good fan of alternatives to our own reality, cuz lets face it; earth is a little boring :P. [sic]”
It’s a little after five, and around 20 Dead City members are gathering in a classroom that they call “the out of game room,” where players can get dressed, eat and be out of character.
Faliszek is revealing a new character tonight to replace the deceased Snowphish. He is picking his nails, striding through the desks aimlessly and stumbling over his normally carefully chosen words. He’s nervous. He strides over to Ho and gives a one-arm hug that is made awkward by the desk (with a skull-encrusted treasure chest) that stands between them. Faliszek tells the room his new character will be revealed at Court (a meeting of all of Anchorage’s vampires). The character’s identity is something that Faliszek has been guarding very closely from everybody but Ho, who sewed the character’s costume.
Faliszek moves into an empty room with his bag to wait until Court, which is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Here, in secret, he lets me look at his character bio. His new character’s name is Al-Munif Ghazi ibn Wajeeh ibn Miraj ibn Atiqua Azad al Asnam, Sultan of the North — or Al-Munif for short. For Al-Munif, Faliszek wrote a biography titled “The Book of the North.” This reads like an ancient religious text, complete with references to something called “The Goddess Devourer.” Al-Munif has come to Anchorage to spread the influence of his sultanate.
“You can take a look at my costume,” says Faliszek, handing me his duffel bag. I take a peek, but, packed in the bag, it is an indiscernible bunch of cloth. Still, Faliszek’s nerves seem to need alleviating, so I tell him that it all “looks totally badass.”
Next, Faliszek gives me non-player basic training. Walking around with one arm across your chest is a signal for “I am out of character.” I am expected to do this as I walk from room to room. Two arms across your chest means “I am invisible,” which some vampires have the power to do. (Some can also turn into bats, wolves, etc.) An index finger and thumb, shaped in an ‘L,’ positioned in front of the mouth means “Even though you are hearing me speak English, I am actually speaking in another language.”
Other players are getting dressed. One girl is a fifties-era housewife, the politicians are in business suits, and some ensembles are composed of black turtlenecks, slacks and trench coats. A few players have note-cards pinned to their lapels to describe parts of their costume that cannot be conveyed any other way. “Striking features” and “Flanked by two guards” are some examples. Everyone is mulling around and cracking rules-based jokes that I don’t understand. Some of the players are from Northwestern, some are from a nearby college, and even others are alumni — there is at least one guy that I peg at 40-plus.
After players have collected their character sheets and the storytellers have a headcount for who is going to Chili’s after the game, one of the storytellers shouts, “Game On!” Most everyone files out and moves into different classrooms throughout the hall. Each room has a sign posted by the door with a descriptive paragraph telling players what the place is, what it looks like, etc. There is a nightclub, a pirate ship and an art gallery, to name a few.
Faliszek is now standing in the empty classroom, almost fully-clothed in his Arabian-style Al-Munif costume. His ponytail is situated on top of his head as he tries to put on a golden turban, which he fails to do several times. As he becomes frustrated, he turns to the window, which is dark and operates nicely as a mirror, and gives it a few more goes. Finally, he lets his hair down and wraps the turban so his hair fans out below it. From behind, his head now looks like a shiny badminton birdie. Jeans and sneakers show under his robes.
“I’m pretty nervous,” he admits. “I spent a lot of time and a lot of money on this character, and some of the political elite aren’t going to take kindly to him. I hope he doesn’t get killed.”