I was a little nervous as I walked up the gravel path to the event site for The Night in Question. I had come to Austin, TX, all the way from Buffalo, NY for Jackalope Live Action Studios‘ uniquely immersive Vampire: the Masquerade LARP experience. I didn’t know anyone beforehand, but I had my character, I had my costume, and I was ready to go all in. I’d gotten a ride from the workshops earlier in the day to the event site from a new friend. We stopped for Whattaburger on the way and chatted excitedly in the car about how fun tonight’s party was going to be. It was already starting to feel real.
Content Warning: The trailer below contains violence and blood.
Sidequest was provided with a ticket to the event in exchange for a fair and honest review.
The game was meant to take place in 1998. As we walked up the path towards the just-starting rave, someone commented on my friend’s Nirvana shirt, “Sorry about your boy Kurt.” We chatted idly in character, about how we know each other, what we hoped to do at the party, and nineties current events.
A few minutes later, someone from the game staff came on the loudspeaker to make an announcement: “Ten minutes until the start of game.” It hadn’t occurred to me that the game hadn’t already started from the moment I started walking down the path. It seemed to me that when it all felt so real, the organizers couldn’t really control when the “start of game” was. We were all already playing.
The official beginning of the event was marked by a creepy recorded intro that reminded us of the chilling plot of the game. An illegal rave outside of Austin ended in a tragic, deathly fire, dozens killed. What really happened that night?
(The answer? It was actually a party thrown by the Sabbat, a faction of violent, religious fanatic vampires, and nearly all of the party-goers had become new recruits to their army of undead!)
It seemed to me that when it all felt so real, the organizers couldn’t really control when the “start of game” was. We were all already playing.
“Where were you on the Night in Question?” we were somberly asked. It cast an eerie feeling over everyone there. The recording faded out, there was a moment of pregnant silence and then the music started. We were transported back to 1998, dancing to a soundtrack that included an electronica cover of the X-Files theme song. We were all trying to mingle and have a good time, maybe looking for a hookup or maybe trying to do some business, all with the feeling of impending disaster looming quietly in our subconscious, like a party with something “off” about it that you can’t put your finger on.
Of course, despite the heavy, ominous aesthetic, I knew there was no real disaster impending. I had spent the earlier part of the day taking workshops about how the Nordic-style LARP event would run. Nordic LARPs are a genre of rules-light roleplaying games that value immersion and collaborative storytelling over competition. It was my first time participating in a game in that genre and it was really exciting! The organizers had done everything in their power to ease as much of my nervousness as possible. All 149 participants had repeated together the event’s mantra—“people are more important than LARPs”—and it felt refreshing to participate in a community that was earnest about valuing respect, trust, and consent.
We went over the negotiation system, a way to quickly work out if your fellow roleplayers were comfortable with mock violence or intimate contact using a series of hand signals, which replaced normal competitive rules of play. As an example, if a player opened negotiations with me for intimacy and wanted our characters to kiss, I could respond with “no, I’m not comfortable with that” or “yes, it’s fine for my character but we’ll just pantomime it,” or “yes, and we can really kiss if you want!”
We learned non-obtrusive ways to check on each other to make sure everyone was doing okay out of character. We did a basic stage fighting workshop where the first thing we learned was how to play fight safely, but the second thing we learned was how to really sell it and make it look cool! A character workshop taught us to think about becoming immersed in our characters, how they would walk and move and hold themselves. There was a feeling in the room like we all knew we were about to do something cool, creative, special.
That feeling had been on my mind a lot in the weeks leading up to the event. I already knew quite a bit about my character. Most of their backstory had come from Jackalope’s online character creation process, which helps you pick from a cast of premade characters. By the time I joined the game, there were no vampires left, only mortals. Playing a mortal in a vampire game is a lot different than I’m used to, but I went into it with an open mind and started making decisions about my character with the help of the creation tool. I had to choose why I was at this party, what kind of group I wanted to be in and what role I fulfilled in that group. Especially as someone attending alone, I liked the fact that it automatically grouped me up with several other characters that I would “know.” It was comforting to know that my character would have someone else to talk to, and I chose a character who was part of a group that was already mostly full to make sure I could take advantage of that. Each character had a short backstory, a note about what types of people might enjoy roleplaying them, and a content warning.
I decided to be part of a drug-dealing gang called the “Lab Rats.” My character, I was told, was a biochemistry major who started producing designer drugs when they lost their scholarship, but who but was new and unversed in the criminal underworld. Beyond that, I was able to flesh out a lot of the details about them myself. I named them “Scooter Rex,” a nickname that they got when they crashed their electric scooter into the Dean of the university’s car, the event that lost them their scholarship. (I referenced this event several times in character and other people pretended to have heard about it when it happened, so it ended up being a great little tidbit of world building!) Scooter, I decided, would be a force of chaos, a formerly good student who panicked at the thought that this was all there was to life and exploded out the other side as a reckless adrenaline junkie, suddenly unable to contain all the anger and energy that had been brewing just below the surface.
Playing a mortal was a different experience for me, but it quickly became apparent what was interesting about it from a roleplaying perspective. The ominous feeling steadily built as the night went on. “There are a lot of weirdos at this party. Like, more than usual,” Scooter commented quietly to a couple different people early in the evening. Scooter liked the weirdos; they were making the party more interesting! Other players were scared of them, and their collective unease hung over the party like a miasma.
For me, the tension didn’t last so long. Scooter was one of the first people at the party to be embraced, turned into a vampire themself. I had negotiated prior to the game who would be Scooter’s sire, the vampire that turned them, because I wanted to be a Malkavian, a clan of deranged enlightenment-seekers. So when he found me and my three soon-to-be-siblings a couple hours into the game, I knew I was about to experience a dramatic scene.
New vampires in the Sabbat are called shovelheads because of the way they’re customarily embraced: knock out your childe-to-be with a shovel and bury them, and if they’re strong enough to dig their way out of the ground, then they’re worth keeping. And that’s exactly how we played it out. My “unconscious” body was “dragged” to my grave and soon I found myself two feet deep into the earth, wrapped in a shroud and buried (mainly with hay). Honestly, I’m not sure how long I laid there, crying and listening to passages from the Book of Nod, a sacred text in the Sabbat, being played inside my grave in a way that felt uncannily like they were playing directly inside my head.
I felt my sire’s presence at the edge of my grave and I heard his muffled voice. “Scooter, if you’re upset, why don’t you stop fucking crying and do something about it?”
Anger rushed through Scooter and by proxy, also through me. I clawed upwards through the loose dirt and hay and surfaced in an outraged huff, sticking my index finger angrily in my sire’s face. “Don’t fucking tell me when I should cry or not!”
His demeanor immediately changed and he wrapped me in a hug. “Yes, Scooter, exactly! I’m so proud of you! Now come and meet the rest of your new family.” He led me to them and together we learned about what it means to be a vampire, how to use our new powers, and what it’s like to be in the Sabbat. I experienced Scooter gradually shift from freaked out to thrilled. My reckless, angry queer had just become a lot stronger than the people who would try to push them around, and they were feeling alive.
Afterwards, many people cited the middle of the night as their favorite part of the game—the mounting sense of dread as it became undeniable that the party was becoming a nightmare, the powerlessness to do anything about it as it spiraled out of control. By that point, Scooter was already among the undead and I didn’t get to play that creeping horror. But I realized that my favorite part was actually the exact inverse: the moment that Scooter rejoined the party of mortals after being embraced. After going through the emotional rollercoaster of my death scene, I walked back into the party to be inundated with people I knew looking for me. “Scooter, where have you been?” “Scooter, my friends want to buy $80 off you.” “Scooter, you need to watch out, the Cobras have been trying to mess with us.” I was in a complete daze. How could all these people still care about all this stuff that didn’t matter anymore? In the end, I got my cool experience and they got theirs, and that was what was so beautiful about the game.
The thing that struck me over and over was how real everything felt. It wasn’t just the location, the costumes, the monstrous makeup—though they were all amazing. It was the commitment everyone had to making it real. It was the way people casually walked by me and said, “Hey, Scooter.” It was the flow of the party, the way people moved between the dance floor, the fire pit, the picnic tables, and then back for more dancing, the cliques of friends and enemies moving, mingling, clashing, and flowing around each other like natural choreography. It was the natural way relationships formed and matured over the night, fueled by the traumatic experiences we had been through together.
During our first vaulderie, a sacred ritual in the Sabbat, I opened negotiation for physical contact with one of my new brothers who I’d become particularly close with. “If it’s okay, I want to scooch up close to you and rest my head on your shoulder.”
“You don’t have to ask every time you just want to be friendly anymore. We’re friends now.”
I was struck by that trust and how it was beautifully reflected both in and out of character. Not only did Scooter’s brother trust Scooter enough to sit comfortably arm-in-arm, but the player also trusted me.
During the workshops, the event staff had explained to us that this wasn’t like other LARPs, where you need a storyteller to guide you through scenes. “I’m never going to break character and tell you what you see,” organizer Matthew Webb assured us. “Trust me, what I want you to see… you’re gonna see.” My mind wandered back to this thought at the end of the night, while I stood in a field in Texas, huddled together with 148 of my new friends, watching the facade that we had been roleplaying in all evening literally burn to the ground. This party was over. It had fallen to the Sabbat. The cover story may have been a tragic fire, but in reality, all the tragedy and drama had already happened by the time the fire burnt away the evidence. And if all went well, it was just a preview to the chaos that would happen next in the timeline, in the Sabbat raids on Austin that were the catalyst for my embrace.
“Where were you on the Night in Question?”
Now I have an answer. I was there, and I saw it all.
On the morning after, most of us reconvened for brunch, sleepy but excited to gossip about the night before. Someone came in and jokingly asked the small crowd assembled, “Well, who won?” About half a dozen people excitedly responded “I did!” in chorus.
I was struck by how many of the stories being told were completely new to me, despite being there. At first, it made me self-conscious, like I missed so much of the game, but then it dawned on me that it was just another part of that visceral realness. Like a real party of 149 people, there were too many individual dramas happening for me to be aware of all of them.
My absolute favorite was from the player of a rival drug dealer who I had barely interacted with at the event, who casually started a story with, “So I heard Scooter was talking shit about me…”
I hurriedly cut him off, feeling exactly as if he was talking about me, myself. “Wait, who told you that?”
He waved my question off dismissively. “I don’t know, my buddy heard people talking about it I guess. Anyway, I told one of my customers and asked him to kick Scooter’s ass for me, but I felt a little bad about it later when I found out he was secretly a hunter.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. Not only was I not talking about him, but his friend never found me or confronted me about it. There was drama going on with my own character that I didn’t even hear about until the next day. It truly was a real party that roleplaying just happened to occur at.
Webb was happy about how it went too. “The real gauge of how well the event went was our players’ reactions,” he told me afterwards. “They have been so excited and overflowing with praise that it makes it all worth it. Everyone we talked to said they had fun and they felt safe, and that’s the best thing we can hear.”
The question on everybody’s lips the next day was, are we going to do it again next year? And the answer is a resounding yes!
“Jackalope is already working on the next run of The Night in Question in November 2019, and we’re making it bigger and bloodier,” Webb said. “We’re taking what we learned, and kicking everything up a notch. We’re already selling tickets!” They have other plans in the works as well—an immersive Cyberpunk 2020 event called Cyberpunk: Night City is slated for summer 2019.
The Night in Question is a night I will not soon forget. I feel like I shared something special with the other people who were there. And as I take Scooter and their tales of that fateful party back to my Vampire: the Masquerade games back in Buffalo, my new friends take their stories back to their home games as well. This little nugget of shared backstory binds us and our games together and makes me feel like we continue to share something special even as the night itself fades into a treasured memory.