Playing Undead

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Swing on 1 April 1995

“All hail his royal highness, the noble primogen of the Tremere, Lord Julius,” announces a herald as the last of the vampire clans arrives at the Elysium. It’s 10:00 on a cold, wet, moonless night in San Francisco, yet nearly 75 Goth-clad bloodsuckers have gathered at the Arts Pavilion, a huge, circular, outdoor atrium butressed by ornate gargoyled columns, to conduct their weekly conclave.

Lord Julius, the dark-bearded, barrel-chested leader of the Tremere clan has taken somewhat of a gamble tonight. Against specific local ordinance he has created a new vampire – a ravishing young progeny with jet black hair and Wednesday Adams’ deadpan smile. She snuggles close to her master, finding refuge in his huge cape, as the rest of the staff-wielding Tremere clan gather protectively around their leader, ready for battle.

From across the atrium approaches the fair-haired young Prince Vitosius, wearing white gloves and a dapper smile. It is his job it is to regulate the vampire population so that all subjects of his realm will have a sufficient number of humans for feeding. Julius’s sexy young companion is a direct threat to the boy’s grip on power. As the Prince moves into position, toe to toe with his much larger adversary, a hush falls over the crowd. Someone, in all probability, will die tonight.

No, this is not a Ken Russel film but a game called Camarilla. Each of the seventy five or so young men and women here tonight is playing a vampire in a new kind of improvisational, live-action, role-playing game that is taking place, in one form or another, in over 100 other cities across America. Perhaps the most bizarre expression of the vampire craze bookended by Ann Rice on one side and an AIDS crisis on the other, the game is one of the fastest-growing alternative social scenes since the rave, drawing on participants from groups as diverse as Deadheads, computer-nerds, theater jocks, high school students, trust-fund kids, fashion plates, gay cliques, and even girls.

Part Goth-club and part Geek-fest, Camarilla is the latest incarnation of the “Dungeons and Dragons” style fantasy role-playing game, where players create characters using a complex system of rules, and then act out scenarios with one another. Traditionally, this was all done with numbers, and almost exclusively by nerds. A kid who decides to be, say, a Goblin must create a “character sheet” describing himself both in terms of the story and his specific strengths and weaknesses. Out of a total of 100 character points, he could assign a certain number to each of his skills. He might have a combat strength of 10, and a intelligence strength of 3. An overall scenario is agreed upon, and then the players make up the plot as they go along, each working towards his character’s overall goals.

As the improvisational story unfolds, the Goblin may get into a fight with another character. Dice are rolled to decide who wins the struggle – the fighter with a higher combat strength will have a greater likelihood of winning. On the other hand, if the Goblin, who has an intelligence of only 3, hopes to figure out a complex problem, he will need to get a very lucky roll of the dice in order to solve his dilemma. All this is refereed by “storytellers,” who are allowed to play in the game, but must step out of their characters in order to set the scene, settle disputes, make up new scenarios, and do whatever math might be required. Characters can succeed at their quests or die trying, but no one really wins or loses – the story just goes on. The object of the game is to make it all as exciting as possible.

But Dungeons and Dragons took place around a table. Players simply spoke about what they were doing. “I walk up to Lord Julius and plant my feet firmly in front of him.” In the Camarilla, this is all acted out – for real, and with sometimes very real results.

Percival Moore understands this difference well. A mild-mannered computer game designer for an up-and-coming firm called PF Magic, the large, bald, babyfaced 28-year-old played fantasy role-playing games (FRP’s, as Percival calls them) throughout high school. His real-life character sheet is fairly typical of the game players: a shy, Internet-denizen with a penchant for Eastern spirituality and an under-satisfied libido. (Intelligence, 10; Sexual prowess, 3) He can get into a heated debate about video games, “the cartridge-based platform is a thing of the past. Everything is going CD ROM.” But somehow he never got it together enough to feel fully comfortable with women – at least not as himself. “It’s hard to go up to a girl at a club and just talk,” he pines.

Every Friday night, however, Percival undergoes quite a dramatic transformation when he dons his vampire garb. I watch him in his messy studio apartment as he removes his button-down shirt and blue jeans, tosses them onto a pile of old computer magazines and then replaces these garments with tight black leggings, a studded vest, and matching leather belt and bracelets. Slowly but surely, his gestures get broader and his voice becomes melodic. More amazingly, his attitudes about women begin to change. His hopeless litany of “everybody has a girl but me,” changes into an optimistic “girls are the heart of the game. They’re why I play.”

While at a gathering of Dungeons and Dragons the kids get to talk about kissing girls or having sex, at the Elysium, everything is acted out in flesh and blood. “It’s not like D & D,” argues Percival, distinguishing his current gameplaying from his nerdly Dungeons and Dragons past. “This is not like a geek game where you get to pretend to be someone else. You have to be that person.”

The advantage to this, explains Percival as he heads out the door towards the car, is that “I’ll definitely mess around tonight. Cuddle and hug and nibble on necks. Whatever. It’s one of the things we get off on in the game. The heightened eroticism.” But Percival does not expect to “score” tonight. “The guys who are in it just to get laid – they’re pretty obvious. I used to do that. But that’s when you never get laid.” Conquests directly after the game are few and far between. The more subtle technique involves carrying the action of the game into the rest of the week. “I met a girl in the game, she complimented me. We went out to dinner at IHOP afterwards and I started talking to her. She called me up one afternoon because she wanted help with her character. I went over there, helped her with her character, we had dinner, slept together, and then I never went out with her again. It was her choice.”

It’s as if the game itself were designed to create an environment where a half-way socialized nerd can take advantage of his best attributes in order to get laid. It’s a delicate balance. If too many blatantly obvious skirt-chasers come around, the entire game can take on a meat-markety ambiance; but, on the other hand, according to Percival, “if the pear-shaped nerds enforce too many dice-roller’s, ‘boy’-rules, the girls will be scared away even more quickly. The reason the girls play this game is because they get to solve problems emotionally. They can play and they can flirt and they can get results. If everything comes to solving problems through the application of rules, they will not be able to use their wiles and guiles to change the course and flow of the game, and they’ll leave.” The Erotic Vampire Scenario is ready for loading on holodeck C, Captain Picard.

“It was easy to take the Vampire game and make it live action,” Percival explains as we drive down the Haight. “That’s been done. What’s so much harder is creating the flavor of the game that we like so much. The aesthetic of the game. The acting. And the eroticism.”

We pull up to an apartment house to pick up Eve, another player whose gorgeous red hair and earthy beauty make Percival’s point amply clear: These geeks must be doing something pretty special to get girls as pretty as Eve to dress up in sexy black lace and play outside on a cold Friday night when they could have their pick of yuppies to take them to warmer, infinitely more expensive clubs and restaurants.

“I think nerds are cool,” says Eve, a Macy’s menswear salesclerk who joined the game two months ago because several of her favorite male friends had. “Nerds are smart. They’re more interesting than regular guys.”

“And these are nerds who girls don’t have to be embarrassed by,” Percival adds quickly, squirming a bit at being lumped in with full-fledged pocket-protector geeks. “These are datable nerds.”

We arrive at the game and Percival immediately peels off to pursue a tall 19-year-old with chestnut hair and a riding crop. “Last week I chewed on her neck for a while,” Percival tells me as he adjusts his bracelets and beelines for the brunette. “Things are definitely heating up between us.”

Left to my own devices, I begin to wander through the atrium, trying not to think about the cold. But, from the surface anyway, this looks more like a Goth club than a fantasy game. I can’t detect any real plot points or sweeping conflicts. Small clusters of overdressed vampires lurk in every corner, smirking, arguing, whispering, or simply observing the others. It’s fun-house theater with no audience – a kind of living haunted house.

The snippets of dialogue I can overhear only convey an attitude and atmosphere. “Yes, darling,” one elegantly dressed vampire says to his fang-wearing lady companion, “I’m famished, too. We must find some mortals tonight for feeding.”

“I saw some children before who said they were looking for kegs,” she answers, referring to some real-life skateboarders who had come through earlier and tried to figure out what was going on. “I told them they’d be the kegs at this party!”

Another trio discuss a battle they participated in last week. “The Tremere, quite simply, have gotten too powerful,” a young man, dressed like a bullfighter complains in a mock Spanish accent. “Yes,” agrees a hunchback with giant plastic ears and fingers, doing an excellent Charles Laughton imitation, “but the Tremere are destined to take the throne. We had best prepare for this inevitability.”

Holding and maintaining one’s fictional character, intense energy, and air of intrigue appears to be the object of the game. The best I can tell, this is free-for-all social experiment – something like the movie Gothic, where Shelley and Byron psyche each other into increasingly heightened states of consciousness and levels of occult behavior. Eventually, I’m told, major plot ponts may emerge. Until then, though, it’s more like a prolonged acting class exercise, albeit a successful one. These kids have certainly created a fictional playworld: a demonic but tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of precise Shakespearian language, stiff Arthurian formality, clever Shavian puns, and blood-worshipping Genesis P-Orridge morality.

Suddenly, I’m accosted by giggling, chubby boy holding a Slinky. I offer a guarded “hello,” (I’m still not sure if anyone here might really bite me) to which he responds by holding out a marble. I take his gift, and he runs off screaming.

“Don’t worry, he’s just a Malkavian,” says Laurenn Kennedy, an actress/performance artist who drops out of character long enough to explain some of the order beneath this apparent chaos. Everyone present is pretending to be a member of one of several vampire clans, who are all competing for some measure of control over the city of San Francisco. The many different clans of vampires give different personality types the opportunity to express themselves within the game. As Laurenn breaks it down, “Malkvanian’s are exhibitionist, and want to be crazy in real life. People who play Tremere are spooky, and have a mystical spiritual bent. Nosferatus \[that guy with the ears\] tend to be ugly, or think they are. People who play Ventrue want to be military, mighty, powerful or yuppie. Toreadors want to be beautiful club people, and Brujahs just want to rebel.” Each of these clans appears to be based on one of the vampire film traditions. Nosferatus are from the old silent horror movie, Tremere are Lugosi-style scientists, Toreadors are the guilt-stricken romantics of Ann Rice’s Interview, and Brujahs are the punkish Lost Boys. Each clan of vampires appears to be fighting for the value of their own aesthetic.

Except for the rare physical battle, which is usually arranged and choreographed ahead of time by the players and a storyteller, most of the action is conversational and totally spontaneous. Still, any argument can quickly escalate into an all-out group brawl, so it is not without trepidation that Vitosius, Prince of the entire Elysium and a member of the preppy Ventrue clan, approaches Lord Julius of the Tremeres to challenge the elder’s irresponsible spawning of an unauthorized vampire. Everyone gathers around to watch the confrontation, and the tone gets decidedly more theatrical, with the angry pair playing performers to the crowd’s enthralled audience.

Julius’s knowledge of the occult and crowd manipulation (his character sheet indicates that he was Pope before he became a vampire) often give him the upper hand in forging alliances and instilling fear. He smiles broadly as the Prince approaches.

“Greetings, Prince Vitosius! To what do I owe the honor of this visitation?” asks Julius, his Goth-speak sounding lifted from a Mary Shelley novel. The best players are the ones who can maintain and juice up the masquerade with clever dialogue and creative storytelling.

The Prince, through a weak but cordial grin, expresses his “concern about the new progeny.” Lord Julius calmy relates the sordid tale of his new child’s creation. Because of his Papal history, Lord Julius explains, he feeds exclusively on young nuns. Anastaziah, a 14-year-old psychic living at the convent had served as a regular blood supply for him. To avoid arousal while feeding from her, he would always drain her blood into a ceremonial chalice, and then drink without actually contacting her tender young flesh. One evening, however, he bit directly from the teenager’s neck, and became so excited that he drained her of all her blood.

“I lost control of my faculties,” offers Julius, “as we old ones can do when provoked, and rather than lose such a valuable vessel, I embraced her.” As in Interview with a Vampire, the drained victim will die unless the vampire feeds her some of his own blood, turning her into a vampire, too.

The Tremere’s bodyguards salivate in anticipation of physical combat as the Prince manages a polite protest, “I cannot help but –”

\–when suddenly the action stops. Two innocent bystanders approach from the periphery, very confused by the spectacle.

One vampire drops character and whispers nervously to his fellows, “You know, from a distance this might look tremendously like a gang fight…”

“Right,” answers another one sarcastically. “Like that eighty year old woman is gonna come over here and kick our ass.”

The boy playing Julius now pretends he is a mafia boss. “Don’t you ever insult the honor of the Spumoni family again!”

Everyone laughs for a moment as the old couple wanders off. Then, without another word, they all fall back into the stylized drama of the game.

“Sincerely, Prince Vitosius, I apologize for the inconvenience,” Julius says, treating the Prince as a civil servant.

“It’s quite all right. I understand under these circumstances.” The Prince cannot afford a battle. Too many players with too much combat strength would side with Lord Julius. By the numbers, Julius is more powerful.

The elder pushes his advantage a bit, and, with the condescending tone of a Tiffany’s cashier, asks “will there be anything else Lord Vitosius?”

“No, not at all,” the Prince answers, backing away. “I was concerned, but under the circumstances…”

There is a long, uncomfortable pause. The Prince’s few supporters are crestfallen by his lack of resolve. The Prince has gotten nothing, not even a token of Julius’s submission.

“All is well.” The Prince attempts to gloss over the whole affair by reasserting the stability of his realm.

“I’m glad to hear it.” Julius maintains his broad grin as the Prince disappears into the crowd.

One of Julius’s bodyguards gloats loudly, “My lord, did not his nose take on a brownish palor?”

Julius pulls his precious young progeny close to his barrel chest and speaks in a stage whisper loud enough for all to hear. “There is no reason to believe that I shall ever fail to get anything I want in this city.”

Everyone laughs and slowly retreats into separate clusters, where they gossip, in character, about the Prince’s almost certain demise or, like Percival, flirt shamelessly in the hopes of post-game trysts.

Suddenly, there is a loud shriek. Laurenn, the actress, is chasing another female vampire. She leaps onto her victim’s back and begins clawing mercilessly at her prey until she is thrown off and onto the ground. Laurenn shrieks again and, in spite of the efforts of two other vampires to restrain her, attacks once more, shouting “I have to feed! I have to feed!”. She convincingly digs what appear to be her fangs deep into the other vampire’s neck and drinks with frenzied gulps.

A particularly calm vampire approaches the scene and pushes his arm out, as if in a Tai Chi movement, towards the conflict. Laurenn falls off her prey, screams, and then curls up into a wimpering ball.

“Time out!” shouts a tall boy in a top hat, one of the storytellers. “What has happened here is that Sugar Finney \[the vampire played by Laurenn\] is now engulfed in large ball of flame. When it goes out, one of the gargoyles above turns into an angel, flies down and, before we can do anything, spirits the torpored Sugar Finney away. You may now act as is appropriate, the time stop is over.” Laurenn runs out of the atrium. All resume their Goth-chatter.

This battle, I learn later, was a choreographed fight between Sugar Finney and one of her enemies, who over the past several weeks, had been poisoning the “herd” of junkies on which Finney normally feeds. Crazed with hunger, she attacked the vampire, but met with her own demise or, in vampire-speak, the blood-drained state of “torpor.” Now Laurenn has to make up another role if she wants to keep on playing.

Okay, so maybe live-action fantasy role-playing isn’t for everyone. There isn’t even any real blood-sucking going on, except maybe in private bedrooms after the game is all over. But what appears on its surface to be a simple, geeky play-acting game only masks a much deeper set of interactions. The intrigues within the story of this game are overshadowed if not totally eclipsed by the real-life blood feuds between the players. Above all, this is psychodrama.

Tonight, for example, many players were distressed by the sudden arrival of the character Annahstaziah, played by a sexy 21-year-old pierced-tongue dominatrix and club dancer named Katleiah, who they believe worked her way into the game just so she could appear in this article. “She knew you were coming,” several of the younger girl players tell me. “This is why we pushed Prince Vitosius to nail her.” The line between real life and gaming dynamics is a hazy one.

I have questions about all this for Percival, but he is busy nuzzling with the brunette, and Laurenn, now “dead,” is in a corner coaching some newer players on how to perform their roles more convincingly. I carefully approach the small, muscular character who had shot the “fireball” at Laurenn. He is played by Craig, a handsome, black-haired 23-year old with intensely penetrating grey eyes, who has been participating in this game since its inception six months ago. I ask him about Julius’s new progeny and the Prince’s current situation.

With more than a little bitterness, he glances over at the blonde, congenial Prince Vitosius and confides, in character, “The purpose of the prince is to be the strong hand that comes down and cracks knuckles. A strong hand that he does not have at the moment.” I had unknowingly stumbled upon the central rift in this gaming community.

It is no secret to the players of Camarilla that Craig admires Michael Bradley, the boy who plays Vitosius, even less than his character respects the Prince. Bradley’s style of play – his apparent ineffectualness, his lack of foresight, and his reliance on his title in lieu of any earned alliances – make his Prince appear much like the Milton-Bradley-trust-fund-baby Craig understands him to be in real life. “He’ll quit the game before he even loses his title,” Craig tells me. “He doesn’t understand anything about how to play this game.” For the most part, Craig is emotionally reserved and impeccably generous in his dealings with others. “I always think of other people first,” he says. Indeed, he has lent Percival most of the security deposit for his new apartment, “and I won’t demand it be paid back, either.” But when it comes to gaming, Craig clearly judges people by the way they play, and plays people as a way of life.

It’s no wonder. Craig comes from that world of comics, fantasy role-playing, Star Trek manuals, and war simulations that have entertained a subculture of nerds and pot-heads for decades. But Craig was no nerd, and he has “never tried drugs,” he tells me. “Girls thought that was cool. That, and the fact that I didn’t have sex.” Craig seems to maintain control of himself at all times. He speaks in a soft and even tone, choosing his words carefully and seldom blinking. Craig talks to me from behind the counter of Gamescape, the Bay Area’s leading game store, where he advises the minions of gamers with understated, courteous charm. “Yes, either of those packs of cards would have creatures that could strengthen your deck,” he offers one young customer, “if that’s the way you want to play the game…”

From wealthy parentage (he doesn’t like to talk about what his dad actually does), Craig made a conscious decision to turn away from what he saw as the dark side of the force when he was in junior high school. Despite the fact that he was a popular jock, he tended to hang out with “geekier, more intelligent friends,” and spent most of his free time going to industrial and goth clubs, buying black clothes, listening to the The Cure, and playing fantasy role-playing games. In Los Angeles, that was easy. “But,” he explains, “when we moved to Colorado and the kids saw my spiked hair, they spent the whole first day of school shooting spitballs into it. Then, when I became the best soccer player on the school team, I began to see other kids with the same haircut.”

A jock by day and punk-goth by night, Craig had developed enough peer immunity by high school to admit unflinchingly that “Robert Smith is the one guy I’d go gay for.” His parents were consistently unenthusiastic about the horror and goth posters that began to go up on his bedroom walls, as well as his refusal to accept sports scholarships, positions on international soccer teams, membership in his dad’s Greek-letter fraternity, or a career in corporate psychology. Craig’s entire persona seems based on the rejection of hand-me-down conventional values in favor of self-made rules: “For something to be cool for society,” he explains, “someone has to come up with something creative so people go ‘wow, I never thought of that. I’d like to jump on that train of thought. ‘ Well, in the Elysium, we’re inventing whole personas, and make-believe worlds, and giving color to them, and creating alternate lives for ourselves. And that, by my definition anyway, is cool.”

This is probably why, at 23, Craig has become the center of gameplaying in San Francisco. His position at Gamescape as well as the tremendous respect he has earned from his peers has made him responsible for the rise and fall of many a gaming trend over past few years. When Craig got excited by the demo version of a card game called Magic: The Gathering, he and his posse began playing it in coffee houses, stirring up such interest “that by the day the cards were made available to the public, they couldn’t print them fast enough.” Gamers in San Francisco clearly follow Craig’s lead, and when he learned of the Camarilla game organizing in the Bay Area, he brought dozens of new players along with him. Craig’s gameplaying mastery even extends to his bedroom where, he explains, his current relationship manifests itself as “a bondage and domination thing more than anything else. It’s Mental B & D: ‘Be at my house by X time.’ It’s been this way with most of my relationships. People are surprisingly receptive.”

Craig’s nemesis, Michael Bradley, is also a social dominator, but of a very different sort. Unlike Craig, Bradley admits that “me and my friends used to beat up these sorts of kids. I really wanted to be popular.” Bradley is from what he amusedly confesses could be called “the American aristocracy. My mom is in the social register.” While the rumor of his connection to Milton Bradley is false, his family “got wealthy in Hawaii doing construction and building tugboats. Then, after World War II, we got really wealthy rebuilding military bases and stuff like that.” His mom is was a hat model for Vogue, and every generation of father and grandfather on record attended Harvard. “I have one of those pasts that’s delightfully free of oppression.” Bradley worked to keep himself part of the “ass-kissy student social hierarchy” at Salisbury and other elite prep schools until his senior year, when he “came out” as a recreational drug user during a school debate.

Rather than motivating him to break free, Michael’s wealthy upbringing has tended to make him stagnate. “I have a trustfund and I’m very well taken care of,” he admits as we sip wine in his luxury hi-rise. “But the darker side is that it impedes my drive. I don’t have that protestant work ethic. I’m trying to find one of my own.” He came to the Bay Area to take classes at local colleges, but doesn’t study full-time. What Bradley realized on moving to San Francisco where, as he puts it, “the counterculture is the overculture,” is that the kids he used to push down the stairs at prep school have turned out to be the most interesting ones after all. “In retrospect, I’ve seen all the people who were so cool in high school turn out to be not so impresssive. And the geekier ones, the smarter ones turned out to have real drive. That’s the cool thing about the game. I get to have contact with a lot of these kinds of people who I may have snubbed in high school.”

But Bradley has by no means abandoned his access to men of power, hoping someday to run for political office and to use his experience playing Camarilla as training. “As Prince,” he explains unashamedly, “I get to do mock deal-making and try to keep everyone happy. It’s enlightened me on why there is a certain level of corruption in Washington.” Like a modern-day Prince Hal, this dashing young future aristocrat embraces the subculture, but always maintains his ability to disengage and return eventually to the duties of his lineage. His immersion in the world of geeks and tripsters has served as more than diversionary entertainment; it has armed him with the skills he feels are necessary to be a good leader.

Like his character Prince Vitosius, Michael has assumed the role of the game’s host, and he invites me to his luxury condo after the Camarilla to enjoy his weekly post-game wine, cheese, and, bong party. Although utterly social (Percival smooches in the corner with music student), it is at these parties that Michael often lobbies, discreetly, for the support of other players. “We should stage a duel between us,” he suggests to the boy who plays Lord Julius, “that way we can settle the conflict without either of us dying.” As Michael plays it, “The Elysium, more than anything else, is a party.” And, as every Senator knows, party politics is everything.

Craig refuses to attend Michael’s gatherings. He takes his gaming much more seriously, and even resents the way players from different clans “can sit and joke with one another, still half-in-character so shortly after play,” divulging secrets and breaking alliances. Michael, he feels, is using his money and condo to earn friends inside the game. He is not really a member of the Elysium – just a wealthy tourist with prep school values. Craig has worked avidly within the game to remove the Prince from power – presumably to get Michael out of the game altogether. Many, including Percival, expect Craig to succeed. Craig knows the game better. He’s played from the beginning. He understands the rules. He’s a professional. And he’s in the same clan as Lord Julius.

But the next week at the game, something very odd happens. Michael, or is it Prince Vitosius, flexes some muscle. By agreement with another player (who wanted to kill off her own character and start again as someone new), the Prince “murdered” one of the Tremere clan as punishment for their creation of a new progeny. An outrageously bold, or even foolish act, especially considering how he accepted Lord Julius’s apology just last week. So when the Tremere arrive to find one of their clan dead, and the murdered victim’s flowered staff in Vitosius’s hand, it appears that a full-scale war is inevitable. Surely the Prince will be killed, and Michael will back out of the game.

Tonight’s confrontation between Lord Julius and the Prince is even more heated than last week’s. Julius, primed by Craig and others, scolds the Prince for his “simplistic, Biblical system of justice.” Julius, in order to catch the prince off-guard, eventually feigns reconciliation.

“Then I can see all is well,” the Prince says, turning away from the teeming mob of Tremere and other discontents.

“Then you are indeed blind, sir,” seethes Craig with angry relish.

Suddenly, an assassin vampire emerges from the crowd and, at Julius’s command, holds his hands up like guns and says “blat blat.” Talk about anti-climax.

“Time out!” A storyteller has arrived on the scene like a paramedic at a car crash. “What just happened?”

“I shot him with two blood-soaked wooden stakes from a pair of high power crossbows,” answers the assassin.

“Jesus God!” The storyteller is overwhelmed. This action will require that everyone present choose sides and go into battle, perhaps changing the entire course of the game.

I ask Michael if he’s concerned. He turns to me and smiles. “Don’t worry,” he says, putting his hand on my shoulder like I’m the one in danger. “It’s only a game.”

As the seventy or so players who are involved in the all out war that is supposed to ensue begin to tally their combat strengths from character sheets, they realize that most of them will die and have to create new characters if this battle is allowed to take place. A palpable feeling of regret fills the cold night air. Eventually, the storyteller announces that “this never happened.”

As Michael suspected, people like the game pretty much as it is, and would rather violate the reality of the masquerade in order to keep things the way they are: with Michael as Prince, and with a healthy but sustainable rivalry between him and Lord Julius. Apparently, Michael is picking up more politics by playing this game than one might suspect. He understands that events within the game are best controlled from outside the game, and not the other way around.

But I still suspect that somewhere in this group of nerdly, Gothic bloodsuckers there are people for whom fictional political battles, even if they have real world social repercussions, can not satisfy the deepest of vampiric urges. It takes only three evenings of Goth clubbing in San Francisco for me to identify some real bloodsuckers in the crowd, for whom a vampire game is just a cheap substitute for the thrill of true bloodsport. Darna and her partner, who we’ll call Jane, sit in a corner at a club called “Bondage-a-Go-Go,” drinking what they claim to be “home-brewed absinthe” out of a hip flask. Tastes like Ouzo to me, but it does offer a bit more of a head rush, so they may have been telling the truth. Both girls are so gorgeously decked out that, except for a distracting, still-oozing neck piercing on Darna, their offer to let me drive them home and watch some “blood play” seems like a set-up for embarrasment at best, and a chance to get drugged and mugged by a pair of hookers all the more likely. Still, journalistic duty calls, and I drive them in my expensed rent-a-car to what turns out to be a dorm room at SF State.

After all-too-much deliberation (any residual excitement on my part has given way to exhaustion) Darna produces a tiny, sterile, foil-wrapped scalpel blade from her nightstand, and unwraps it as seductively as she can. Jane offers her arm and squints in something between anticipation and dread. Darna gently makes a half-inch incision across Jane’s forearm, about an inch lower than a scar above it. As a small amount of blood rises to the surface of the skin, Darna puts down the blade and licks the wound. She doesn’t offer any of Jane’s blood to me.

I wait for Jane’s turn to cut Darna – or for both of their turn to cut me, but the bloodsport appears to be over for the night. “We only do one cut at a time,” says Jane, “to avoid any chance of infection from wound to wound.” Vampirism in the age of AIDS.

Which is why, all in all, the pretend vampirism available at the Elysium is so much more cathartic, and ultimately dangerous to one’s assumptions about life than any real bloodsport. The extraordinary safety of the game environment allows for the venting of some of life’s more frightening truths.

The passionate Romanticism on which today’s Goth scene is largely based was a reaction to the cold, frightening realities of the Industrial Revolution. Absinthe, nature poetry, and puffy shirts were an homage by the idle, artsy rich to sensuality overrun by the factory, steam engine, and cold profiteering they portended. The modern Goth movement, and certainly this particular masquerade, is both a product of and answer to today’s equally mechanistic Cyber-Revoution. Our equivalent to the wealthy Byron and Shelley, the well-fed twentysomething trust-funders of 20th-century San Francisco, meet one another through computer bulletin boards, vampire MUD’s (multi-user dimensions), or the Goth “home page” on the World Wide Web. But most of them also feel a tremendous drive to reassert their blood-based natures by any means necessary; the isolation caused by digital jobs and IRC (Internet Relay Chat) social lives coupled with the ever-present fear of AIDS has made many young people here in San Francisco desperate for a way to glorify and aestheticize the death they feel growing around and within them. Death, whether by digitization, HIV, or even surrendering to your parents’ values, all amounts to the same thing. As Travis, the real-life practicing occult magician who plays Lord Julius, coins it, “We are all just roadkill on the information superhighway.”

Percival likens the psychic effects of vampire games to some of the most sacred rituals in Eastern spirituality. “In Tibetan practices, you may meditate on a picture of God stepping on a person – and you can imagine yourself as the all-powerful God, or as the person crushed under his foot. In the West, drama is our meditational outlet. We take on the roles, and thus become the thing we fear most.” Like a Hindu staring in devotion at a painting of the beautiful Goddess Kali holding a severed head by its hair, the gamer works himself into a trance that is defined by its very horror. The objective is to summon and then embody the very darkest forces and afflictions imaginable, so that their power can be channeled and ultimately appreciated. Or, if these energies get out of control, to perish magnificently in an all-consuming flame of glory, taking as many other vampires as possible down into the bowels hell along with you.