Blood Sport

Vampire games lure geeks out of their basements. The results aren't always pretty.

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Most people have no reason to notice Vega Avenue. The one-way street swoops into a highway entrance ramp, and drivers barely glimpse the huge, decaying homes before merging into 75-mile-an-hour traffic.

Vampires prefer it that way.

On the lawn of a home at Vega and West 25th, Peter Wells holds forth on the undead. He looks like one who would know about such things: tall, with a scrappy goatee, and wearing the requisite black jeans and a rumpled black T-shirt under a motorcycle jacket.

He stops mid-sentence when the front door bangs open, and a long-haired young man sticks his head out. "Your mother was a bitch!" the man bellows at unseen werewolves known to be lurking nearby. "Who wants a doggy bag?"

Wells informs him matter-of-factly that a flaming arrow is streaking toward his head. Amid a flurry of hand gestures, the man disappears behind the door. Wells resumes his discourse on vampires.

Vampire gaming, to be precise. Live-action role-playing, or LARP, is like a Dungeons & Dragons game that's been freed from basement tables and combined with the performance aspects of historical reenactment. Wells, a 35-year-old artist and teacher, is elder statesman and spiritual leader to the mostly twentysomething vampire gamers who descended on the Vega Avenue house last summer, after some of their coven bought the place and turned it into geek headquarters.

And that's what Wells and company are -- geeks. Self-described geeks. So it's only natural that their games involve pretending to be predatory immortals, the coolest, baddest monsters ever conceived. Vampires are about as far from geeks as you can get -- which is exactly the point. Those who struggle in the real world can reign supreme in the netherworld.

"Most live-action role-players, at some point, had lives that sucked six days a week," says Wells, who wrote his graduate school thesis on "collaboratively created alternative reality." "The seventh was game day." One local game's informal slogan used to be "We turn geeks into assholes."

For the better part of a decade, on most Friday and Saturday nights, dozens of people have gathered somewhere in Cleveland to embody vampire alter egos. For four hours, they are free-wheeling princes and princesses of darkness. Over endless cigarettes and cans of pop, they scheme to overcome werewolves, feed off the human herd, and stab each other in the back.

No one really gets hurt; essentially, it's improv community theater. Problems that vampires can't work out by talking can be solved by fighting, through a system that boils down to rock-paper-scissors.

Since introducing its vision of feuding vampire clans, Vampire: The Masquerade, in 1991, White Wolf Publishing has sold more than 5.5 million games and books. The company's first release was a role-playing game similar to Dungeons & Dragons: Players sat around a table, and the storyteller -- usually the person who bought the game first -- led them through a homemade plot. The other players described how their characters reacted.

The live-action version, introduced two years later in a box complete with plastic fangs and blood capsules, takes role-playing into actual acting. Players dress in costumes, affect accents, and use a vocabulary of hand gestures to signal superpowers. The characters inhabit a parallel universe of sorts; the story lines that grow out of their interactions are set wherever the players live.

There are still storytellers -- up to half a dozen of them at a larger game. But their role is reduced to merely suggesting plot; vampires seem more interested in politicking among themselves and creating their own drama. Left to their own devices, the immortals gossip like teenagers.

The games are more than just dark flights of fancy. They're the central event of this secretive community. One of the two major Cleveland games, Carpe Noctum, is networked by e-mail to games in 70 cities around the world. Events in Cleveland affect what goes on in Pittsburgh or Chicago, and players can take their vampires on the road.

"We are truly part of an underground world," says Jenna Wolfberg, a round-faced 21-year-old from Willoughby Hills. "The underground geek society."

Three young men and a woman in a short skirt stand in flickering candlelight in the living room of the Vega house, speaking in hushed tones. Two of their number are missing. The storytellers say that one of them, a woman, can be seen tied to the steeple of a church across town. The players discuss their options for saving her.

The somber mood is broken when a dark-haired vampire with heavily lidded eyes lurches into the room. "Dude, anybody want to go on a beer run?" he asks loudly. But he's not oblivious to the unfolding drama; in fact, he has a suggestion. "Dude, I'll go talk to the werewolves, man. I've partied with them before."

The other players watch as the vampiric Cheech stumbles outside to confront the werewolves. "Come on, man, you know me," he cajoles the imaginary lycanthropes. "We've partied together. Here, smoke some of this."

Amused, the storytellers play along. The stoner returns with one of the captives, a thirtyish vampire dressed as a priest (who'd been whiling away his "captivity" seated on the lawn, tapping on a laptop). The rescued vampire lets everyone know that his leg was chewed off in the ordeal.

"Don't worry about it, man," counsels his stoned savior. "Just think real hard, and it will come back."

By day, Wells is a studio-arts professor at CSU. By night, he is a prominent player in Carpe Noctum. He also runs the other major game, Cleveland by Night. He was the principal architect of a plan that ended years of gamers' wandering between nightclubs, community centers, homes, and public parks.

Last summer, Wells and four other hardcore gamers formed Undead Ltd. and bought the Vega house, the vacant lots around it, and a former rooming house next door. The partners plan to live in the hulking rooming house, built 100 years ago for the drivers making horse-and-buggy deliveries for a pie factory.

According to their calculations, income from three other rental properties will cover their mortgage. The five partners will live rent-free. The decaying mansion next door, constructed for the pie factory's owner, will be all games, all the time.

Vega is the first house in the city to be purchased by gamers and dedicated exclusively for their use. It may well be the only one in the country.

"The idea of having a house exclusively dedicated to gaming is the pipe dream of thousands of gamers," says Wells, sitting on a dirty couch in the living room of the former rooming house. "It's just that we did it."

Wells and his partners followed the well-worn trajectory from Dungeons & Dragons to harder stuff. Wells says he was introduced to D&D by his father, a math professor who wrote a science-fiction fanzine in the 1950s and '60s, when he was growing up in Cleveland Heights. While other children were still watching Dukes of Hazzard, Wells was playing Dungeons & Dragons. "I'm a geek, like my father before me," he brags.

Wells was still something of a wallflower when he began haunting vampire games at graduate school in Indiana. He started attending gatherings of Carpe Noctum, run by Undead partner Blair Heiserman, when he returned to Cleveland. There he met the other Undead partners -- loan officer Ken Crawford, autoworker Steve Donley, and contractor Mark Stern -- all of whom went to Elyria High.

Crawford, 36, started with D&D in high school, then continued playing through long nights on watch duty during a two-year enlistment in the Navy. After his discharge, he stumbled across a rule book for White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade in a gaming store in Las Vegas.

"It was when the goth look was in full bloom," says Crawford, a short, soft-looking man. "I picked it up and looked at it and thought, 'Chicks might actually play this.'"

"What I like about this is you get to experience things you don't in real life," says Fred Garber, a computer operator with Howard Stern hair, as he leads a woman by leash and dog collar through a game. She was presented to him as a gift.

"This doesn't happen to me in real life," he says, still incredulous two hours later.

Over the years, psychologists have repeatedly found that gamers are no more likely to be unstable than the rest of us. A study on Vampire: The Masquerade was published in the journal Psychological Reports in 1998. But the murder of a Florida couple in 1996 by a cult of Kentucky teens who got their start playing Vampire: The Masquerade is more memorable.

So gamers sometimes bear the burden of their hobby's bad rap. Last year, Justin Quigley, a quiet, waifish player in Carpe Noctum, was called into his boss's office at the Cleveland State University library, where he works, after his picture was spotted in an online gallery of Wells's art. The boss wanted to know if he was one of those creeps who think they are vampires. "Some people have trouble with reality, and it is usually not the gamers," says his girlfriend, Anya Slaven.

In fact, longtime players say the game is healthy.

"We have a lot of interesting people who are kind of undersocialized. Basement dwellers," says Cass Whittington, former coordinator of One World by Night, an organization that keeps track of plot developments at 70 vampire games worldwide.

Whittington, 37, was the head storyteller of Carpe Noctum for six years. As top coordinator for One World by Night, she received about 1,000 e-mails a day. She wears her bangs short, leads with her chin when she strides, and looks you in the eye while answering questions about her day job on the forefront of "theoretical accounting" at a Cleveland bank. She wasn't always so sure of herself.

"In high school, I was unbelievably shy," she says. "I was so shy, I was the kid that didn't look up and say 'hi' when she passed you in the halls."

Games were her playground, the laboratory where she explored through trial and error how to socialize. Players attempt to be assertive, diplomatic, convincing. And if it fails, well, it's only a character that others reject, not oneself.

"I've seen it happen all the time," she says. "People learn social skills by playing." For a few hours a week, the games allow a social outcast to rise from the basement and inhabit another self, one who fears nothing, least of all the opinions of others. The result, however, is not always pretty.

An overweight vampire with fierce eyes and a goatee breaks off a conversation with a tweedy professorial type and a redhead in a lab coat. Approaching a newcomer, he plants a hand on his shoulder.

"Where are you from?" he demands. "What's your clan? Who is your sire?"

The newcomer's answers come slowly.

"Clearly another mental defective," the goateed vampire announces before steering the rookie into the Mentor condo community center where the game is being played. Along the way, he introduces himself -- Jonas Nimrod, newly appointed scourge of Cleveland, responsible for introducing newcomers to the city's vampire prince.

He leans in to whisper: "My character is an asshole. You know it's nothing personal, right?"

Inside, the game is a nonalcoholic cocktail party, with extra hissing. Vampires chat about imaginary jobs, families, and plans. Occasionally they discuss make-believe philosophy. What's your opinion on the enslavement of wraiths?

As the evening wears on, a small group breaks out of character in a corner. One pudgy young man in clunky boots complains about the Society for Creative Anachronism, the medieval reenactment group that appears to draw from the same crowd. The SCA is too heavy on the mock combat, the man tells his friends. "It is just like high school," he complains. "Everyone wants to be around the jocks."

Afterward, gathered around a couple of tables at an all-night diner, the players are boisterous, stripped of the poise lent by a good suit or slick costume. The conversation is less personal, less practical, even less philosophical than during the game. People seem to drop in and out of the conversation at the wrong point, maybe just half a beat off. Gestures seem overbroad, and the laughter a little too loud.

Wells, who has created life-sized, white-on-black portraits of many local gamers, sees past such awkwardness.

"A lot of them don't have parents who know what they are up to -- or even have parents in the first place," he says. "I look at some kids and think, 'You are being raised by a subculture.'"

At one Cleveland by Night game, players mingled in the darkness of a backyard abutting Cain Park. The werewolves that would eventually encircle the Vega house were on the loose. Rather than brainstorm a solution, a group of 10 powerful vampires decided to cruise around the city in an imaginary car. They stood on the lawn, arranged as if sitting in a vehicle. A mafioso vampire in a white suit and shades spat orders at an imaginary driver: "Let's go to a bar." When a storyteller announced that they'd arrived, a vampire dressed in flannel and jeans mimed bailing out of the car, swaggering up to the bar, and demanding a drink. But the bartender didn't have what he wanted, so after some arguing and cursing (not all of it in English), the mafioso decided to take the party elsewhere. The expedition ended at a strip club, where some members of the group pretended to receive lap dances and speculated on whether the undead get erections.

They didn't have to pretend. The guys were all over 21 and owned cars. But like Jonas Nimrod, they were acting with a self-assurance and forcefulness that the players seem to lack in real life.

"To be an asshole requires confidence and certain social skills," Wells says. "Once we are done with them, they aren't really assholes, but they do have the capability to be."

A few weeks after Undead Ltd. closed on the Vega Avenue properties, the entrance hall of the boarding house is a jumble of boxes. Two big-screen TVs haven't been hooked up, and the fridge is still mysteriously freezing the milk. But the gaming house next door is ready for afterlife. Working weekends and evenings, volunteers have stripped piss-smelling carpet and dragged broken appliances to the curb. A wall partitioning upstairs from downstairs has been torn out, the attic swept, and the rear balcony opened.

The first game held at the house concludes at about midnight, with 30 players -- including half a dozen women -- gathered around the mantel in the darkened living room. Wells calls for nominations for outstanding role-playing. A vampire who calls everyone "dude" and seems modeled more after Up in Smoke than Underworld is awarded a brief round of applause. (In one game, Wells plays a vampire who is a religious fanatic. He has on occasion spent half an hour of game time feverishly praying for guidance on a rosary. Absorption in his character is not just for his own benefit, he says; it raises the level of play among the people around him.)

Wells urges players to sign up for the near-nightly work crews. Then erstwhile vampires, giddy from four hours of make-believe, spill out of the house and back to reality. Jobs that are mostly just work. Schools where they don't fit in. Acquaintances who make fun of their interests, which in all likelihood tend toward Star Trek and medieval weaponry.

It's all filler between games.

Next week, they will pick up where they left off: contemplating the power vacuum in the city's vampire hierarchy. Some of their number have been kidnapped, and werewolves are at the gate. By the glow of the candles, they will talk about the things that concern vampires: Blood. Status. Girls.

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