As many of you know, I’ve been a gamer since about the time I could roll dice. I was in fourth grade when my remarkably progressive public school introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons, encouraging my gifted class to play the game as the perfect union of math and creativity (if you remember how to calculate old school ThAC0, then you definitely remember the math part!). D&D was set in worlds inspired by the fiction of Tolkien and other fantasy greats and while I enjoy high fantasy well enough, I didn’t find a game world that really gripped me till Vampire: The Masquerade came along in 1991. They had me at vampires, but the World of Darkness against which White Wolf’s storytelling system played out was what really seized my imagination.
Set in a modern world a step off from our own where magic and monsters existed in the shadows, the V:tM world had all the grit of Film Noir wrapped up in the syrupy decadence of the fin de siecle art. It was Urban Fantasy before the genre existed. I loved it, especially because the White Wolf gaming system placed more emphasis on the story and the characters than it did on the stats and the dice. It provided a fertile platform with which to weave tales and watch characters come to life.
When the V:tM system took the leap from table-top gaming, where 3-6 players met up in someone’s dining room or basement and whiled away the night engaging in a shared story, to LARP, or Live Action Role Playing I had found my niche. Live action was where role-playing games met improvisational theater and collided into something amazing. Costuming, make-up, physical props all could be brought to bear. A simple rule structure governed the magic and powers that were still an integral and interesting part of the game world, but the real strength of a character in a LARP came down to how well you could embody that character.
And for the role-playing naysayers, no, I don’t mean that we ran around nightly believing we had turned into our characters. I mean we learned to act. LARPs got gamer geeks like me — bookish, introverted, and often socially awkward — out of the basement and into a social life. And I say without regret or apology that everything I learned about public speaking, I learned through playing Vampire: the Masquerade. Yes, it was make-believe, but it was great practice for interacting in groups, learning to spot social manipulations, and comprehending the real power of the spoken word.
And, for a writer, the LARP allowed for a very special experience: creating a story and characters that then came to life right before your eyes. I loved it — and for many years, LARPs were my medium. I wrote massive multiplayer games for conventions like Origins and GenCon, weaving stories that could sustain nearly non-stop play over periods of three to four days. It wasn’t uncommon to have 150+ players in those games, and every one of them had a pre-generated character with a backstory that was a short story all by itself, each of them interlocking so the whole thing was one gigantic, living web of plot.
If I have any regret at all from the years between 1995 and 2000 when my LARP writing peaked, it’s that all those stories are nearly impossible to share outside of the medium of the LARP itself. The world I’d created for my chronicle — the Vampire: the Masquerade term for an ongoing gaming story — was a rich and unique creation were White Wolf’s World of Darkness intersected with Lovecraft’s Providence — with a healthy dose of gangbusters for some wild fun. Set in the 1920s, my fictional version of Providence was a confluence of the weird, with each layer of the city’s history peeling back to reveal increasingly bizarre twists. I’ve still got maps, volumes of the town newspaper I wrote up to pass out for each game, lists and descriptions of businesses, a Who’s Who among the town, and meticulously outlined house rules — reams of supplemental material that grew with each event, indelibly shaped by the choices and actions of the players once they had their characters in their hands.
I’ve dragged all of you on this rather long ramble about my gaming glory days because I have found on my hard drive something that I can share that captures some of the richness and intensity of this method of storytelling. Sure, I’ve got skads and skads of those character histories, never mind all the supplemental gaming material — but those are merely pieces and, if taken in stasis, they do not reveal even an intimation of the whole. To appreciate why this method of storytelling so ignited my imagination, you’d have to see the story as it played out. And almost all of the stories from Providence were like one of those great Tibetan sand mandalas — something seen while created, appreciated in its fullness for a moment, and then gone.
Except … in 2009 I did a Providence reunion at an Oberlin college gaming event. And because many of my core characters were played by close friends with whom I have never lost contact, we needed — for the sake of the story — to tie up a few loose ends from the game in 2000 when I quit running the big games to focus on more traditional writing.
And because we were far-flung at the time, that particular installment of the Providence storyline did not take place in real-time out in the world. It took place through an exchange of emails, and once I had each player’s action for a turn, I compiled everything and wrote the story.
It’s still here on my hard drive, all 20k words of it or so. I’d given some thought to editing it into a stand-alone novella, removing the gamespeak, tweaking the tense (it’s all in present tense, to capture the real-time feel of the action associated with LARPs). But that was harder than it sounded. And many elements of the Providence story make little sense when removed from the Vampire: the Masquerade setting — especially my favorite clan of vampires from that game, the necromancer family Giovanni.
But I have a feeling at least some of you will appreciate getting a taste of this favored outlet for my creativity. So, at the risk of confusing a few readers with the gaming jargon that is a necessary part of the tale, I invite you all to come on a little ride with me and meet a few old friends — Antonio, Menecrites, and Karl, Giovanni all, if not by birth, certainly by blood.
To be continued …