A game they can sink their teeth into Fantasy: Once a week, 'Vampire' role players gather to lose themselves and amass the knowledge that brings power in an alternate world.

July 27, 1998|By Judith Forman | Judith Forman,SUN STAFF

Scattered among Jennifer Toth's belongings are an exercise bike, a Brad Pitt movie poster, dried roses reminiscent of proms past and seven shelves of epic fantasy books.

Six days a week, Toth is herself -- a 22-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed computer trainer living in Cockeysville. But come Sundays, she becomes "Rohan," a warlock vampire roaming the streets of "Chicago" in search of knowledge.

Toth and six other faux bloodsuckers meet at her apartment every week for vampire sessions that run five to six hours. They are devotees of "Vampire: The Masquerade," one of the most popular role-playing games in the Baltimore area.

"It's sort of cliquish, a hip sort of thing," says Jeff Lyston, manager of Legends comic book and game store in Towson Town Center. "There's a whole culture to it. It's like its own little punk scene, taking you into a whole different thing where you can be cool despite what you are in your normal day-to-day life."

In his "normal day-to-day life," Victor Sargent, 32, is an Owings Mills insurance processor, but at Toth's, he is evil private-eye vampire Nick Danof.

"Vampire," he says, is "a kind of improvisational theater, only instead of up on a stage, it takes place around a table. The game is very imagination-driven. You have to have some imagination because you can't see [anything]. This is my character," he says, motioning to a sheet of paper filled with notes and markings.

The basics

To an outsider, the game is hard to understand. The improvisation looks like nothing more than friends laughing, joking and carrying on simultaneous conversations. Reality is not entirely ignored -- a conversation about cheeseburgers erupts when hunger sets in.

The game is based on a 269-page book released in its first edition about eight years ago by Atlanta-based Whitewolf Publishing. The foreword sets the "Vampire" playing scene as "a Gothic-Punk fantasy world ... where the forces of evil and entropy are even more powerful than they are in our world."

Players choose names for their characters and visualize their appearances. Using 10-sided dice and the game book, the seven friends act out a continuous storyline orchestrated by "Game Master" Shawn Chaillou, 23.

Chaillou, a network administrator from Bowleys Quarters, says the game is centered on the players' battles against their vampire characters' tendency toward the dark side. "There is a beast within," he says. "They try to control it and not become evil."

Each character's goal is to gain "experience points" to "buy" physical and mental attributes, degrees of humanity and willpower. The points are awarded at the end of every session on the basis of how much each character learns, how much wit and skill he displays and how true he stays to his character. Distribution of points is up to the Game Master.

Most of the time, the characters are working toward a goal, whether it be joining together to fight a common villain, smoothing out infighting or trying to gain power or knowledge. Recently, Toth's group focused on searching for a vampire who had disappeared. Toth's "Rohan" is also working on improving her skills by learning a new spell. But sometimes, as with any group of people in real life, the characters "just interact and chill out," Toth says.

The seven role-play in plain clothes; they don't wear black, use face makeup or sport body piercings.

"There are people out there in fatigues and combat boots, with black makeup, doing the whole Goth kind of thing," says Sargent, a role-player since age 13. "Nine out of 10 people into role-playing are not like that."

Brian O'Reilly of Baltimore, whose character is Anders Von Trapp, a mind-controlling politician vampire, acknowledges that there is a stigma associated with role-playing games since many attract non-mainstream players in offbeat costumes.

But "none of us actually believes we are vampires or that vampires really exist," says the 21-year-old senior at Johns Hopkins University who is president of the Hopkins Science Fiction Association. "There are nutcases out there who do believe."

Lyston's store in Towson carries about 30 editions of the game book, which range from $10 to $30. Internationally, English-language sales -- including the 65 to 70 game book supplements -- have topped 1 million, said Greg Fountain, Whitewolf's director of marketing. Plus, there are six translated versions.

Lyston says the customer base is a combination of college students and young people into the Goth scene.

While his clientele for most role-playing games is usually only 10 percent female, Lyston says 25 percent of those who buy "Vampire" are women. "It's got a Gothic, romantic feel to it," he says. "Guys are into it for a wide variety of reasons, but women are into it for the romantic angle."

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