LARP vampires walk among us

Cosplay on a graduate level

LARP vampires walk among us
Tony Nelson

In the dark alley around the corner from McGovern's pub in downtown St. Paul, a pack of dark figures clusters together in the snow for a whispered conference.

"My bartender friend tells me there are these guys who come in every two weeks," one of the men whispers. "Pointy ears, sharp nails—real feral looking. So it's one of two things: Either they're kindred, in which case maybe we can reason with them..." He pauses, looking around at his fellows with enormous black eyes. "...Or they're werewolves, and we string them up and skin them."

With the precision of a Special Forces squad, the group makes for the bar's entrance. Striding into the back room, they locate their targets: three enormous men gathered in the back by the fire.

Photo: Tony Nelson. Stylist: Nicole Fae. Model: Mari Lanae.
Unlike the vampires of lore,  Tyler Hansen can see his reflection
Tony Nelson
Unlike the vampires of lore, Tyler Hansen can see his reflection

Ichabod, who had spoken in the huddle, gets close to them first. Through some strange trick of the light, the hulking giants seem unable to see him, but he doesn't pass totally unnoticed.

"You smell that?" one giant asks in a heavy Irish brogue. "Smells like vampires."

Ichabod fills the back of the room with a murky, impenetrable haze. The big wolfish men seem to become even bigger and more lupine, looming over the pale, black-clad figures circling them.

The first vampires to engage don't fare well. One is mauled by a werewolf and knocked unconscious, and another gets thrown across the room. A third, seeing how the fight is shaping up, bolts for the street.

"This was ill-conceived," one of the remaining vampires hisses.

"Vampires don't do well against werewolves," his opponent responds.

Suddenly, the plate-glass windows shatter. An enormous winged gargoyle bursts through the front of the pub, momentum carrying it the length of the restaurant and through the wall of the kitchen. Along the way, the gargoyle drops homebrewed napalm bombs made out of tennis balls. Soon the back of the pub is engulfed in sheets of flame.

The werewolves are undeterred. A series of vicious blows incapacitate the gargoyle, and one of the wolves bites off its head. The remaining vampires are spared only because the werewolves bolt at the sound of approaching police sirens.

Limping and carrying their wounded, the surviving vampires creep back to their nearby lair in time to avoid awkward questioning by the authorities.


MANY OF THE people involved that night would vouch for the above account, but it doesn't describe what everyone in the bar saw.

The St. Paul Police and Fire Departments have no record of the incident. Four men in business attire conversing quietly at a table in the back room didn't see the gargoyle smash through the windows. They didn't notice any fighting at all.

What they did see, to the extent they were paying any attention, was a dozen young men clad in black dusters and other vaguely gothic attire furiously throwing rock-paper-scissors while referring to their character sheets. Every move in combat had to be articulated using one of the adjectival characteristics, so the conversation sounds like a nonstop bout of schoolyard boasting:

"I'm brutal enough to tear you a new one."

"Oh yeah? I'm, uh, wily enough to slide out of your way."


"Shit. Okay, I'm brawny enough to slam you into the wall."

"Nuh-uh. I'm vicious enough to bite your arm off."

Welcome to the world of live-action role playing, vampire-style. For more than 15 years, the Twin Cities have been populated by warring factions of vampires, operating just below the surface of your awareness. Like a transparency over a map, the vampires have their own geography and history, interwoven with that of the cities we know. Landmark Center is populated by a deadly gang of anarchist vampires. Magical-weapons dealers have a secret shop over on Snelling. Spyhouse Coffee hosts regular meetings of a vampire front-group. Stashed somewhere in the city is a vast trove of riches, stolen years ago from a clan by its corrupt leader. Local vampires are still looking for it.

This rich alternative reality is the shared experience of a small subculture of vampire gamers, a community that boasts about a hundred participants in the metro area.

An outgrowth of the tabletop experience of 20-sided dice and hand-drawn maps popularized by Dungeons & Dragons, live-action role playing, or LARPing, emerged in the 1990s as a more physical, immersive brand of make-believe.

As in D&D, LARPers create characters with backstories and quantified attributes. But LARPing adds a heavy dose of theatricality and costume play by taking the game out of the rec room and into the public space.

"Live-action role playing is really about storytelling," says Tyler Hansen, 25, who plays Ichabod and runs one of the St. Paul games. "It's not like video games, where it's all about leveling up. This is more theatrical. A lot of us have backgrounds in theater, and you can see that in how we play."


NETTA JOHNSON IS a vampire LARPer, but her games are nothing like the one that burned down McGovern's.

"That's more a boys' version of the game," Johnson says. "Boys like blowing things up and constantly fighting. It's hard to get girls involved in games like that. That's not what I'm about."

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