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.
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."
At 55, with multicolored hair and Sailor Jerry swallows tattooed on her forehead, Johnson isn't your typical vampire gamer. Unlike most of the male players, Johnson embraces the erotic potency of role playing.
"I like it because it's sexy," she says. "Vampires are sexy. They're seductive. A vampire is a creature that has total control over everyone around them. So this game gives you a chance to be someone you're not, and to identify with an idea that was associated as sexy back in the repressed Victorian era. We're living in an era not unlike that now, and we need it more than ever."
At the moment, Johnson is trying to get her own game off the ground. She's posting on Craigslist looking for people to participate. Her game will be based in the restrained, courtly world of the vampire political establishment, called the Camarilla.
"There isn't a lot of fighting in the Camarilla," Johnson says. "It's all about intrigue—who's lying? Who can you trust?"
Johnson is relaxed about the usual prohibition on combining drugs or alcohol with vampire LARPing—"As long as you're not so out of it that you can't follow the story, I don't mind if you smoke a joint," she says—but she does warn prospective players to consider "how comfortable you are with touching."
Johnson has been a vampire LARPer for nearly 20 years, and has fond memories of running years-long, 60-player games. But it's been a while since she's run the show, so she's excited about getting back into it.
"I've spent the last year writing, working up this story, putting together the characters," she says. "Now it's time to set it in action."
As the game's storyteller, Johnson will give her players prompts and put them into situations and interactions with non-player characters. But even though she's pulling some of the strings, she won't have full creative control of the game.
"That's what's great about live-action role playing, is that it's really collaborative," Johnson says. "The storyteller may have an idea of where the story should go, but the players might take their characters in some completely different direction, and you have to react."
ON A RECENT evening, Hansen and Marky Welsh, two of the other vampire storytellers in the Twin Cities, visited Johnson's apartment to coordinate their games.
"The idea is that all these stories overlap and affect each other," Hansen says. "We're building an ecosystem of stories that's overlaid over the Twin Cities."
The current arrangement is that Hansen's bloody mob of Sabbat vampires rule everything east of the river, while Johnson's Camarilla faction holds sway in Minneapolis. Masters's band of "Anarchs" cause havoc wherever they roam.
With nearly 20 years of history in the Twin Cities, vampire LARPing has built up a considerable alternative history that storytellers are hidebound to honor.
"We try to be consistent—if we trashed a bar or blew up a building or something one week, we're not going to go back there," Hansen explains.
Much of this invisible geography and secret history exists only in the institutional memories of local gamers, but increasingly it's finding a home online. Hansen runs a Facebook group called "Twin Cities After Dark" that chronicles the grim goings-on of several active games.
Nevertheless, egos sometimes clash. As the organizer of "Twin Cities After Dark," Hansen feels somewhat proprietary over Johnson's soon-to-launch game.
"It's really great that you're starting this up," he says. "It may take a while to get it really going, but, you know, baby steps. I don't need to be in control of everything—I'd rather get to a point where there are 12 different games in the Twin Cities and I don't even have to know everything that's going on in all of them."
Johnson, who was vampire LARPing when Hansen was still in elementary school, clearly bristles at the patronizing tone, but she keeps a lid on it.
The next week, however, the simmering conflict boils over.
It's the first night of Johnson's game, and everyone is meeting at Cosmic's Coffee Bar in St. Paul. Johnson wants her game to unfold over a long period of time, so all the characters will start out as human and become vampires during the course of events.
This night, the players have been drawn together because they all responded to a Craigslist posting for a "paranormal support group." Johnson's character tells the group her boyfriend recently died under mysterious circumstances, but she has been receiving strange calls on his cell phone from someone who sounds like him. She pulls out her laptop and plays an audio clip that is as eerie as it is indecipherable.
Hansen has been enlisted as a mad-professor type to move the plot along, but his portrayal isn't going according to script. He's playing the role for yuks, while Johnson silently seethes.
The tension breaks only when a pair of conjoined twins, the Hensels, stop in for a coffee. All the fake vampires pause to gawk at the real-life marvel of sisters fused at the torso.
Later that night, Johnson sends out an email announcing that she's fired Hansen and cut all ties with his umbrella group.
"I think he was deliberately trying to sabotage my game, and I don't need that," she explains later. "It's hard enough getting a game off the ground without that kind of thing. This is supposed to be fun."
THE WEEK AFTER the blaze at McGovern's, Hansen's crew gathers at his apartment, which he shares with his dad.
In the game world, their pack of vampires has taken over the entirety of the triple-decker building. The vampire gang manufactures explosives in the basement and detains prisoners of war in the attic.
"Winter's really tough for us, because we're stuck indoors," Hansen says. "It's much better when we can be running around causing mayhem outside."
Sometimes when the vampires are out at a bar or coffee shop, they "feed" on unsuspecting civilians.
"The way we play that is, if you touch someone, that means you took their blood," Hansen says. "So you'll go up to someone at the bar, touch them on their arm, and say, 'Excuse me, do you have the time?' Bam! You just fed on them. There are nights when we'll feed on everyone in the bar. It's a bloodbath!"
But the close confines of an indoor public space have their drawbacks. The players don't want to cause such a disturbance that they have to reveal what they're playing.
"It's hard to explain to the cops why you were yelling, 'I just killed him and threw him in acid!'" says McMann, a veteran LARPer.
So tonight they're back at Hansen's dad's place, chain-smoking cigarettes and debriefing last week's battle.
Hansen, 25, estimates that he spends several hours each day preparing for the weekly game meetings. The schedule was easier to maintain when he was unemployed, but he's managing to keep it up since he got a job last month at Men's Wearhouse. Employee discounts are also helping him expand his character's wardrobe.
Huddled around the glass dining room table, the players update their character sheets to reflect experience points gained in the McGovern's fight. Dead characters are mourned and replacement characters drawn up.
"That's one of the things about the combat-heavy games, is your characters are always dying," says Marky Welsh. "You can't get too attached to your characters. It's a good life lesson actually: Don't get all obsessed with having the perfect character—learn to appreciate the character you have."
Especially missed is Pazuzu, the napalm-tossing stone gargoyle vampire with a 13-inch spiked penis.
"I'm really sad he's dead," says Mike Buttermore, who played Pazuzu. "But I'm moving on. Now I'm playing an old European vampire who doesn't have any skin on his head who's been sent to this group as an advisor. I'm going to research a real missing Nazi war criminal and pretend to be him."
The night's biggest excitement comes when one of the group's newest recruits is hazed into the vampire pack. "Rat Man Randy," as he is called, is a sewer-dwelling Nosferatu so hideous that his player, Shawn Costandine, wears a black ski mask when he's out.
To prove his worth to the pack, tonight Rat Man Randy has to fight a shape-shifting woman the vampires captured and kept imprisoned in the attic.
Randy and the prisoner are locked into the basement together. After a great deal of rock-paper-scissors, the Rat Man has kicked the shit out of the shapeshifter.
Rat Man emerges to hale and hearty congratulations from his fellow vampires. In the earnest tone of a presenter at the Academy Awards, Ichabod praises Rat Man Randy's valor in battle and welcomes him into the pack.
The ceremony concludes with a ritual blood-sharing as each vampire opens a vein into a goblet and drinks from the commingled flow.
THE NEXT WEEK, Hansen's vampires are back on the warpath, this time taking on a cell of rogue anarchist vampires in Landmark Center.
Once again, things go poorly for Hansen's crew. Many of the characters are killed. A huge bomb blows many of them through the windows and into the street. Hansen stumbles out of a melee gesturing to his face.
"All gone!" he bellows. "She sliced my face right off!"
Across the river, Johnson's game is starting to gather momentum. She's leading the paranormal support group on a ghost hunt in the basement of Errant Gear, a fetish-wear shop on East Lake. There isn't any fighting, just a lot of spooky candlelight and lurking specters portrayed by the shop's staff.
Afterward, Johnson beams with joy.
"That was so great!" she says. "It's so good just to play. We spend our whole childhoods just trying to grow up, and then we forget the importance of playing, that chance to release, to explore. Being a vampire is a wonderful thing. I'm going to keep doing it until I die."