They Walk Among Us 

(Actually, they lurk around the Cal campus at night pretending to walk among us.)

The sky was clear and moonless the night they stole the whale. Greg Flub, a massive lummox with drool on his chin, kept insisting it wasn't actually stealing if nobody owned it. Hex iD laughed maniacally into his laptop screen as he poked away at various East Bay truck rental Web sites. They needed a large flatbed, the kind used to haul steamrollers, and due to the late hour the only option was to hot-wire one. When the idea to pilfer the beached whale first arose, Hank Salisbury's first instinct was to pack his trunk full of dynamite and find a jackhammer.

Every so often, one of them would raise a fist to one shoulder, lean in close, and break character. "This is gonna get messy," said Hank with a laugh, momentarily reverting to nineteen-year-old Kyle Tracy. Next to him, standing in the glow of a UC Berkeley campus streetlamp, Queenie repeated the fist-to-shoulder gesture. Now she, too, was no longer an anarchistic vampire, just thirty-year-old Megan O'Neil from Mountain View. "Yes," she said. "Have a glow stick." She thrust the dying blue thing in Kyle's direction.

Hands came off shoulders. Hank put the glow stick in his mouth, cigar-style, and the troupe formed a loose circle, like high school kids standing around between classes. In their collective fantasy, the outdoor campus scene morphed back into an imaginary Richmond warehouse. A burly, long-haired anarcho-goth vampire approached, clad in a black trench coat with spikes. "Knock, knock!" he called loudly. Queenie rushed to the door. Hex, played by twenty-year-old Michael Parker, stepped between them, assuming the role of bouncer, and Megan broke character again to brief the out-of-towner: "This is a warehouse in Richmond. Downstairs is filled with E-crazed ravers and a massive pit full of stuffed animals. There's a staircase up to the office, and we're all in the office. You're on the stairs, I guess."

"Hex is still inside," Parker explained. "You got any weapons on you? Is your hand cold?" The stranger shook his head at the first question, and nodded at the second as he shook the bouncer's hand. Vampires generate no body heat, so you can ID them with a handshake.

Talk about your oddball leisure activities. These undead characters are the brainchildren of some of the dozens of real-life square pegs who descend upon the UC Berkeley campus every other Friday night to prowl, fight, feud, and feed. This human hodgepodge hews to laws created by White Wolf, a company launched in 1991 to publish a pencil-and-dice role-playing game called Vampire: The Masquerade. Despite a host of spinoffs, Vampire remains the company's most popular creation — so popular that it spawned the 1996 Fox television series, Kindred: The Embraced. In 1994, the company expanded on its creation with Laws of the Night, a book of guidelines that laid the way for One World By Night. In this nationwide game of theatrical improvisation, players portray bloodsuckers that hide their existence, yet secretly control humanity by pulling the strings of multinational corporations, the police, the government, even the church. These types of games are called LARPs — for live action role-playing game — and loosely linked Vampire LARPs play out in scores of cities around the US, and as far away as Brazil and New Zealand. Berkeley's game is called Wasting the Dawn, and in it, Xavier Aubuchon-Mendoza is God.

He's the storyteller, the local game's majordomo and the key to its twisted appeal. He approves all new characters, settles disputes, develops plotlines, and generally behaves as judge, jury, and screenwriter. Now thirty, Xavier first played Vampire while attending San Francisco State as a political science major. Before graduating, though, he decided to join the campaign to save Laguna Honda Hospital. And when that ended successfully, he went right out and got a straight job working for an Internet retailer, fulfilling online purchases of Chinese novelty items.

He may have given up on college, but not Vampire, which he now loves so much that he refers to it without a definite article, like a pet. "Mostly I remember being shy and socially awkward, not knowing how to relate to people, so I chose a character who was the opposite of those things," he recalls. "Game provided a way to explore that side in an environment where there was no real cost to failure."

Indeed, throwing off social impediments seems the major motivation for the game's participants. Although they're certainly not all the teenage nerdlings one might expect — Berkeley's players range in age from sixteen to fifty, mostly Caucasian, with a handful of Asian Americans and the occasional African American — they do skew toward socially awkward men in their twenties. There's also a healthy smattering of socially awkward women, most of whom dress to the nines in costumes that lean more Buffy than Dracula. The vampires they create tend to reflect people's aspirations or compensate for real-life insecurities — they let players be something they're not.

Take Parker, an animated beanpole with a jovial expression and goggles on his forehead. He'll soon be a college sophomore, but still brags about being the most computer-savvy kid in his high school. And while he's a computer major, he's nowhere near as skilled as his hacker character. Parker also is reserved, but when the game gets exciting, Hex becomes animated, talking louder and faster and spitting out words at a breakneck pace.

Megan, meanwhile, is a large woman, and her whorish Queenie seems designed to rebuke this fact. She wears a tight red corset over a black dress of her own creation, and bounces around like a sexy teenager, leaving the judgment of human strangers behind, at least for the evening. A childlike "anarch" vampire, Queenie speaks in babbled streams of consciousness, which makes interviews challenging. Her sanity returns in waves. She's competent one moment, bubblingly useless the next.

Kyle Tracy is big in another way, a towering figure with a boyish grin. His character, Hank, is a hell-raiser, and Kyle's boisterous voice and mannerisms give his vampire the sort of persona you'd expect from a World War II comic book sergeant. "I tried it out eight months ago and I got hooked," he said of Vampire.

Briana Barber, who plays a vamp named Klaré, calls herself a LARP junkie. The outgoing, freckled lady in her twenties lives in the Placer County town of Newcastle, but for the past two and a half years she has driven all over Northern California to satisfy this unusual urge. Easily recognized by her hand-stitched patchwork-denim clothes, she plays every Friday night in Berkeley or Stockton, and every Saturday in Sacramento. "This is my theatrical outlet," Barber said as she pawed through a burlap bag full of medieval armor a fellow player has given her for her craft.

By design, San Francisco and Berkeley hold their games on alternating Fridays, which allows nomads like Briana to LARP twice every weekend. Characters are completely portable. Games in different cities interact via e-mail and transient gamers, and a Web site run by White Wolf contains a worldwide list of storytellers with their contact info. This enables a Berkeley player to export his character sheet to say, Chicago, or Washington, DC, and join in those games with little fuss. All that's needed is a request from one storyteller to the other.

Xavier does this often, and it's often done on his behalf. On his alternating Friday nights off, Berkeley's storyteller participates as a player in San Francisco. While his characters do sometimes appear in the Berkeley chronicle, it's usually only when he's been caught off guard and needs a way to move the plot forward at a moment's notice. He attends the biweekly game sessions in a spiffy three-piece suit with matching overcoat. His girlfriend of a year, Nicole Rudolph, plays too, and together they come off like a socialite couple making their rounds at the newest gallery opening — a far cry from role-player stereotypes. Both in and out of character, Xavier has the poise of a politician. He smiles and looks you in the eye as he shakes your hand firmly, with the implication that your vote this fall would certainly be appreciated. He's so friendly and outgoing it almost seems insincere on first impression, an attribute that could easily throw off the game's brooding goth types. Because at its core, Vampire is a distinctly goth activity.

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