Humans are herd animals. Herds meander, move in an uncoordinated way. But vampires are pack animals. Predators. And packs move with strategy and intention. That’s what makes vampires so scary. They’re different than predators that exist in nature. Wolves, for instance, are predators too—but wolves look like wolves and vampires can look like humans, hiding among our herd in plain sight. Hunting us.
Disclosure: The author is performing in an upcoming production put on by The Company P. This production was cast with assistance from Jackalope, the team behind The Night in Question. This piece was written before auditions began and published after the author accepted the offer to perform.
These were some of the concepts we talked about in the character workshops the evening before The Night In Question, thinking about what it means to be a person and what it means to be a monster.
Those thoughts were still on my mind in the early evening of the next day, after my friends and I pulled into the grassy parking lot at Cauldron’s Keep, the rural venue where Jackalope’s Vampire: The Masquerade LARP event is held outside of Austin, TX. As folks gathered for the start of the game, I stood among them, preparing myself for the night’s events with tense anticipation. I wore the costume I had worked so hard on, but my fangs were hidden behind my curled lips, the fuzzy prosthetic ears meant to represent my bestial nature covered by my hood. The official beginning of the game was signaled by an eerie announcement, with sirens and the sounds of frightened people faintly audible in the background. “Where were you on the night in question?” we were asked, and I was struck by the sensation of knowing something that others didn’t. I felt like a predator hiding among the herd in plain sight.
To understand how I was feeling, first one must understand the premise of The Night in Question. A blockbuster LARP designed and hosted by Austin-based studio Jackalope LARP, it’s a White Wolf licensed Vampire: the Masquerade game that self-identifies its genre as “Texas splatterpunk.”
The premise is this: the year is 1998. The Sabbat, a political faction of vampire supremacists and religious zealots, are preparing a siege on the city of Austin, hoping to overtake it from their rival faction. Local vampire packs have been gathering intel for months, and war packs have arrived from out of town to be reinforcements, but they still need more soldiers. The game takes place the night before this siege at an illegal field party outside the city hosted by the local Sabbat and attended by swaths of unsuspecting mortals. For the attending vampires, it’s a combination recruitment drive and celebration—an opportunity to bolster their numbers before they launch their attack, and a last chance to feast and party in case they fall in battle the next night. For the unsuspecting mortals, it’s a horror show—what was meant to be a fun night gone tragically wrong.
This was the second time Jackalope ran The Night in Question scenario, and the second time I played in it. The first iteration took place in November 2018, and I played a human—a biology student and drug dealer named Scooter Rex who was trying to decide whether or not to drop out of college, a decision that was made easier for them when they were embraced into Clan Malkavian during the course of the game. Counterintuitively, I had such a good time last year that I almost didn’t want to play again. The night was so unique, so immersive, that I felt like I had conquered it. I already witnessed the horrors of the Night in Question and told an amazing story. How could I expect it to be as immersive the second time? How weird would it feel to experience the same night again, played out a different way?
Ultimately I couldn’t chance missing out on an excellent game, so I decided to go, but made myself a promise that I would try to make my second experience as different as possible from my first one.
The first thing that meant was building a very different character. Last year I started out as a mortal, and this year I was fortunate enough to nab a vampire. (Character creation features pre-built character concepts that you choose and then flesh out; most people start off as human and are turned into a vampire during the in-game mass embrace.) Enter Fox Ghostwood of Clan Gangrel, the leader of a local pack named the Shadowseekers, specialists in subterfuge, infiltration, and shrewd information gathering. Fox’s story was essentially one of imposter syndrome. He was new to his leadership role and worried about making a strong first impression. But any fears he had about his own aptitude would have to stay quiet: in a hyper-competitive predator society, he knew the other vampires would eat him alive if they sensed any weakness in him. Fox’s focused ambition and intense desire to prove himself couldn’t have been more different from Scooter, who had a chaotic proclivity to do or say whatever was on their mind without thinking it through first. So in that way, he was perfect.
Playing a vampire instead of a human completely changed the feeling and character of the game. The first time I played in The Night In Question, it was a horror game—the foreboding feeling of dread that hung heavy over the night dominated my experience when I was playing a mortal. As a vampire, the mood changed. While that feeling of looming apprehension remained in the air, it was almost intoxicating because I knew my friends and I were the ones orchestrating it. It felt, in many ways, more like a traditional Vampire: the Masquerade game because I had more traditional vampire worries, like political intrigue and pack dynamics, on my mind.
In other ways, playing as a vampire made for a slightly less immersive experience overall. Naturally, knowing what to expect dulls the magic a bit. But primarily, there’s a sense of responsibility that comes along with playing a Sabbat member, both in and out of character. Being a vampire in a game where most people start off as human makes you a shepherd of other people’s experiences. I was the one who knew what was going on and that gave me the ability to guide the trajectory of the night’s events.
But with great power comes great responsibility, and I did feel like it was my job to make sure other players, especially newer players, were having a good time. (In that way, and because it requires more knowledge of Vampire: the Masquerade lore, I think playing a vampire is a role better suited for more experienced players.) I found myself thankful for Fox’s backstory about feeling unprepared for his new leadership position; it mirrored how I was feeling about taking a more influential role in the game. The fact that my emotions were in sync with my character’s was oddly comforting.
But I was still feeling the added pressure. When I was playing Scooter, all the thoughts that were running through my mind were Scooter’s alone. Playing a human is about discovering the beast inside you for the first time, and there’s something very freeing about letting that feeling consume all of your attention.
Playing Fox was totally different. My brain raced with thoughts of strategy the whole time—how my character could get ahead politically, yes, but also how to include others in the game. Scanning the crowds for people who seemed alone and left out. Thinking about who I should embrace, how to negotiate with them and how that scene would go. Mentally preparing for how I should address my pack during our rituals to make sure it would be memorable for them. I knew that how I acted would affect the quality of the game for those around me, not just myself, and it felt important to me to do a good job.
It had its upsides too! I was busier during the game, and I like to be busy, because it makes me feel like I’m getting the most out of a one-night event that I spent weeks preparing for. It was fun to have a bunch of fledgling vampires following me around like ducklings and looking to me for guidance—and it was intensely rewarding when some of those players thanked me after game for helping make it a good experience for them.
And it didn’t prevent me from enjoying myself and my character. In fact, I realized that all the time I spent observing what else was going on at the party meant that I was doing a great job playing Fox, the sneaky information gatherer. I had the pleasure of quietly observing other people’s powerful in-character moments, and in addition to the out-of-character reward of seeing that they were having a good time, I also got to selectively share some of that information for my own (in-character) benefit, which in turn furthered the plot of the game.
It was a pretty perfect arrangement, all in all, and it lead to my best moment of the night: when my shrewd political machinations paid off and were noticed by the high leadership, I was anointed as the “Bishop of Secrets”—a powerful position in the Sabbat and an enormous honor. (When folks came up to congratulate me after the ceremony and I was called by my new title “Your Excellency” for the first time, I felt an acute sense of gratification both in and out of character that once more put Fox and me in perfect sync with each other.) My takeaway? When you make a point to care about other people’s experiences, the reward is a better game for everyone, including yourself.
Jackalope knows this. That’s why their oft-repeated motto is “people are more important than LARPs.” That’s why their games are based on the Nordic-style consent mechanics rather than traditional game systems and rules. It’s why they hold mandatory safety workshops prior to the event and it’s why topics like real-world bigotry and sexual assault are off-limits. (We had a specific conversation this year about how the game being set in 1998, when homophobic slurs were common, isn’t an excuse to use slurs. “It was wrong when we did it then and we know it’s wrong now,” said Jackalope organizer Matthew Webb during the workshop.) It’s emphasized to the players that the safety and comfort of everyone there is ultimately more important than having a good game. The beauty of this approach is that when everyone is in a situation where they feel safe and comfortable, having a good game is practically inevitable.
And when I talk about immersion, don’t get me wrong: the event overall is still extremely immersive. That has everything to do with the care put into it, both by the organizers and by the other players, which has only increased since its first incarnation. Cauldron’s Keep was already an amazing site last year and there were a number of improvements made for this year’s event: more separate rooms, more lights, and a sectioned-off graveyard area, for starters. The star of this year’s show was the blood rave. (I know what you’re thinking and yes, exactly like in Blade.) They rigged up the dance floor with overhead pipes and showerheads that connected to a full-sized barrel full of fake blood. When they played the music to signify the blood rave was about to start, people rushed to the dance floor to experience it. (I still know what you’re thinking and yes, it was the song from Blade.)
Being among that revelry made me feel, for a moment, like a real vampire. The sheer amount of blood at this event was spectacular and ever-present—and often used in creative ways to make memorable scenes. One of the most dramatic moments I witnessed was a fight in the monomacy pit where one of the participants filled his mouth with blood before the fight started, so when his opponent won the fight, he was able to spit the blood mist into the air such that it looked like it was spraying from his wounded neck.
Like I said, Jackalope staff aren’t the only people going all out and it shows. The players bring a ton of content and value on their own. The loving care people put into their elaborate costumes is astounding—and really adds to the ambiance of a game that’s meant to make you feel like you’ve been transported back to 1998! (Even I got caught by the costuming bug this year and took the time to hand screenprint my own Sabbat vest that I legitimately think helped my confidence level on game night.) Last year, I was dealing fake “drugs” that were just represented by Jolly Ranchers. This year, one of the other players made and shared pill bottles full of fake pills made by filling empty gel caps with various colors of sprinkles. Two players really celebrated the nineties and even put together an in-character zine. (They accepted in-character submissions of art, poetry, interviews and opinions in the weeks leading up to the event, and then distributed printed copies of it at game.) When it comes to immersion, these are the touches that make it feel real and they only happen if you foster a community that cares as much about the game as the organizers do.
Ultimately, it’s that community that keeps me coming to Texas for Jackalope’s events time after time. I remember walking nervously into a BBQ joint last year to meet the other players for the first time, scared that I’d stick out as “the media person” instead of part of the in-group. But they took me in as one of their own, and this year, I was swarmed in the hotel lobby by old friends wanting to catch up. Jackalope has created the environment for such a community of creative and welcoming folks to flourish. During the workshops, we did a show of hands for how many people were attending their first LARP. It was a little under half the room, and when the veteran LARPers clapped and cheered, I found myself getting emotional—it was just such a far cry from the stereotype of gatekeeping gamers! Perhaps there’s no in-group after all, just people who want to have a good time pretending to be vampires together, as friends.
A third iteration of The Night In Question has already been announced for September 12th, 2020, and tickets are on sale now!