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LARP'ing with vampires

Atlanta Interactive Theatre brings the underworld to Arts Exchange

On a boiling night in August, two vampires prepared for battle in the parking lot of what used to be Grant Park Elementary, off Glenwood Avenue. One vampire, a snarling beast, stood tall across from the other, a "bastard" that could hug things to death. After an exchange of words, their battle began. One threw paper and the other, scissors.

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This is what it's like watching the Atlanta Interactive Theatre play one of the Southeast's oldest live-action role-playing games, which in August celebrated its 22nd year.

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On the second Saturday of each month, AIT takes over several rooms and hallways of an old school building, which is now the Arts Exchange. It has been based there for almost all of its life.

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It is a hands-off, salon-style game based on the role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade. It's driven primarily by conversation and those rock-paper-scissors battles, called "chops." It has a heavy political bent, too, with the players as scheming and competing vampires of one sort or another.

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The story is actually set in Atlanta, incorporating local landmarks, and gameplay builds the basics of role-playing (combat, questing, spells) into incredible intricacies. A typical session runs about six hours, past midnight, and involves clan council meetings, royalty, and secret plots.

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Players vie for control, or for more power or experience, or whatever else they might desire. They can bring props and costumes — but no giant foam weapons.

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AIT has a rich, weird history. (It briefly played at the Masquerade.) Several of its players have been involved for more than a decade, if not two. Unlike other LARPs, it has never "reset," wiping its own narrative clean.

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"AIT is such a long-term game that it by itself has a reputation," says Mark Delgado, who started playing at the second game ever. "If you go to a different LARP and talk about AIT, you're going to find people that either talk bad about it, who don't like it, or who say, 'Oh, that's that game that's been going on forever.'"

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That part made the months leading up to the August anniversary both novel and chaotic.

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Last year, AIT decided to substantially rewrite its rules — a controversial decision made to make the game more accessible and appealing to new players and players of other LARPs. But the change, which involved protracted, deliberate internal planning and discussion, rubbed some players the wrong way.

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Ash Lovins, one of the three storytellers who guide play and who suggested the rule change, says the old system privileged experienced players in the extreme.

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"In the new system, a first-time player always has a chance to succeed no matter the situation," he says. "I heard many newer players comment on this while we were testing the new rules, saying such things as, 'Wow, I feel useful,' and, 'I finally feel like I contributed.'"

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The new rules became effective in January 2015, following a player vote.

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"Unfortunately, someone will always be displeased with a decision," Lovins says. "AIT did bring in newcomers, but we did lose some long-time players."

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AIT has gone through "lean times" before, Delgado says. Attendance for the games in July, August, September, and October averaged 32 people (though the latter game drew 36 people, the highest of the four months). This creates what Delgado calls a "budget deficit," which can be filled by the money AIT has saved over the years. Monthly rent is about $360; and each player pays $8 each.

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Attendance can be fluid anyway, dipping most in the heart of winter or summer, when the air in the building burns or freezes. (There's no central air.) Delgado says the single-biggest factor in a player's involvement is juggling their real-world obligations such as families and jobs, not how they feel about the game's changes.

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Lovins says attendance has historically been much higher, and he says that AIT no longer has a near-monopoly on vampire LARPs in metro Atlanta. He remembers games in the '90s that drew 70 or more people. (In fact, there used to be five storytellers, but two recent vacancies weren't filled in order to preserve the player base.)

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A player, or players, seems to be contributing a bit extra toward rent now, so their surplus is never too strained, Delgado says. He says whoever it is "is accepting an understanding that right now it's a bit lean, that they have done something potentially that they need to keep the game going until they can rev the attendance back up, rev the people back up." Because to AIT, the game is well worth saving.

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Lovins and his storyteller colleagues say that the players guide the plot. He gave an example of a player who made the decision to rip the landing gear from a plane during its descent (and to later blame it on terrorists), during a quest at Hartsfield-Jackson. "People are unpredictable," he says.

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"I still like AIT and I still have love for AIT, so I'm back to support it because I was told that their player base was not high enough to support the rent of this place," says Mark Mueller-Rougier, one longtime player who was put off by the rule change. He says it's "OK," but an ill fit with the game's history and setting.

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Mueller-Rougier has been playing since 1997. He stopped when he had a child and returned in August, choosing a character designed specifically to stress test the ways in which this new game world might be broken. (His character, who would battle the beast in the parking lot, is married to an even more awesomely powered witch, played by his wife.)

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At that August game, in fact, there were several returning players. Monthly attendance was predicted by some to break 40. It topped out at 33, but also included at least three relative newcomers.

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As the night began, they all gathered together in the building's Paul Robeson Theatre, as they always do, adorned in top hats and canes and punk jackets. The prince wore a Nirvana T-shirt. Three men surrounded the prince as he gave his opening remarks. They were dressed all in black, and one wore a hooded robe. They were lurking. They were invisible. They were very, very deadly. The object of their hunt? A fourth player, who was a member of a shunned group with a hidden third eye. A fifth player, the beast who would battle Mueller-Rougier in the parking lot later that night, had arranged her death.

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She never showed.

??Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a reference to Vampire: The Masquerade.



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