Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Grey Ghost Masquerade - by Alexis George

The Grey Ghost Masquerade: An Experience in Immersion
By Alexis George    

            At 4PM on Thursday, my taxi pulls into the parking lot of the Long Beach dock. After nine hours of travel, I finally gaze up at The Queen Mary. The driver points out the window and sighs. “You’re staying on the boat?”
            I nod. “Three nights. There’s an event.” I pull my suitcase out of the trunk, stuffed to the brim with costumes, some DVD’s, comics, and character sheets.
            “You be careful girl. She’s actually haunted. It might be a tourist trap, but you know. Too many accidents, if you ask me.”
            I check in at the front desk. Behind me, several dozen Goths, geeks, and gamers congregate throughout the lobby. Several guys are gathered in the corner hastily building characters. A pale married couple frantically pieces together lanyards with roses stamped on one side. A guy in a Zelda shirt with long hair throws a pile of paperwork at the concierge. “I need these copied within five minutes, and I’ll tip you, I swear.”
            As I wait for the elevator to my floor, the guy next to me taps me on the shoulder. He points to my badge. “You here for OWBN or MES?”
            I stare back blankly. I know words have come out of his mouth, but my brain refuses to register their meaning. “I, uh. OH. Yeah, I play MES[1] I think. Up in San Francisco.”
            He cringes. “Oh, your one of those. I have so many problems with New World of Darkness that I refuse. I simply can’t handle it. It’s all about Accord.”
            I realize I’m completely out of my element. Having been playing one Vampire: The Masquerade game on and off for a year, I hadn’t the faintest idea about editions, other Vampire games, the difference between Sabbat and Anarch, or had even bothered to look into what any of it meant. And I had made my way to the Mecca. There were numerous Live Action and tabletop games happening throughout the con, and I had only thought to look into the two familiar looking games I knew. I decided that this convention would be my crash course in World of Darkness.

            Looking back at my email, the event invitation reads, “We’d like to cordially invite all World of Darkness fans to join us as CCP/White Wolf presents this year’s premiere World Of Darkness event, Los Angeles By Night. This CCP/White Wolf sponsored event will be running September 19-22 at the historic Queen Mary Hotel. Prepare to celebrate the World of Darkness over three days with hundreds of your fellow fans for the best and biggest games the communities have to offer.” I look at the program to see what game is on that night. I devise a plan to jump in without any prior knowledge of what I was getting myself into. I head down to the lobby, where the group of guys is still frantically building characters. “Excuse me,” I say. “Are you guys playing, uh, Sabbat tonight?”
            The guy behind the computer nods. “I’m helping generate characters.”
            “I have no idea what I’m doing, but I want to play, can you help?”
             He nods. “There’s a line, but sure. What’s your concept?”
            “Uh, I’m going to sound like an idiot. But what does Sabbat mean? I mean, I know the clans for Camarilla[2], but I haven’t the faintest….”
            He sighs, and the guy next to him in gold embroider leather pants cracks up laughing. “Okay girl,” he says, “First things first. Sabbat is a lot less courtly than what you’re used to. Camarilla is a lot of Interview With A Vampire and Lost Boys, but we’re like…. The shadowy evil chalice-full-of-blood-drinking-this-is-what-your-parents-were-afraid-you’d-be-doing Vampires. Get that?”
            “Okay,” I say.
            “Okay, let’s get to it.”

            An hour later, I’m in the boiler room of The Queen Mary, dressed the part of a bad-blooded Sabbat. Event coordinators run around with glow-sticks, playing the part of disturbed spirits and evil shadows. A man walks about the room, holding a spiked brown box. His contacts make his eyes completely black. He smiles. “Do you accept my challenge?” he says to me.
            “If I win, I get the grand prize, right? I wouldn’t mind something rare to add to my collection.”
            “A collector?” He says. He’s been introduced to me in character as the Cardinal hosting the Sabbat event that evening. “Very well. Speak to me after the Vaulderie.”
            Gold-pants guy was right. Most of the game consists of a lot of gothed-up guys passing around a prop chalice and praising Caine, the canonical creator of WoD vampires. My favorite player ends up being a drunk guy dressed as a Fraternity brother with a college sweatshirt and a lot of frat chants at the ready. Every time another player gives the slightest notion of appraisal to Caine, he cheers and beats his chest.
            Despite my minimal understanding of what’s happening, the whole thing is a blast. My character, a bookworm and investigator, befriends a malevolent spirit in the boiler room and makes a Faustian pact for knowledge. The storyteller tells me to expect an email with plot, in case I ever want to play the character again.
            “Not bad for your first Sabbat,” one guy says to me.

            Friday, I tour the ship. I buy tickets for the WWII tour and the haunted Encounters tour. The first one ends up being a review of locations renovated during the conversion of the cruise vessel to a wartime ship in the 1940’s. “The ship was only really built to house two to five thousand passengers, but during the late 1940’s they had upwards of 16,000 soldiers and passengers on board. With so many years and so many passengers, there were more than a few incidents,” the guide says.
            During the Haunted Encounters tour, the guide takes us down to the boiler room where last night’s Sabbat game took place. She clicks a remote, and a television hidden in the corner turns on. A cheesy movie about ghost sightings plays. Actors scare hotel guests in horrible costumes while creepy music plays.

  Door 13, the location where a man was crushed to death, and the allegedly haunted hallway where his ghost has been seen running down the corridor.  
            Afterwards, I head back up to the room and get dressed in a secondhand prom dress and fake vampire teeth.
            Friday night is Blood and Betrayal, the first official preview game for the new Mind’s Eye Theater – Vampire the Masquerade edition. They rent out the Queen’ ballroom. When the doors open, a couple hundred gorgeously dressed people pour into the dimly lit room. The Prince[3] of Los Angeles wears a red suit and sits in a throne in the front of the room. To his left, the Justicar[4] wears a lovely blue dress and smiles widely.

The thrones of the Prince and the Justicar in the grand ballroom, pictured here with my father who visited the ship the next day and decided he wanted to be Prince of Long Beach.

            Months of pre-planning and character generation suddenly goes full throttle. Characters immediately begin hunting each other down and forming plots and rumors. The storytellers pass out rumors and plot like Halloween candy. I get called upon to find where Vampire Hunters are hiding near the party and stomp them out. Halfway through the event, the Prince and the Justicar get into a fight and decide to form two teams of ten to take out the hunters. They put forth a challenge for both teams to do it, and the quickest and most efficient one wins. In the back of the room, a voice screams, “It’s red vs. blue!” For the briefest of moments, people break characters to laugh. Then the teams are formed and the game is on. Most stay back in the ballroom to party and finish their own private plots, but I follow the fight out to the hallway.
            I get thrown onto the Prince’s team. While we essentially one-shot every hunter, we work slowly and efficiently. The other team goes in, guns blazing. Game mechanics are relatively simple: In order to attack, we have to throw rock, paper, scissors with storytellers. Based on what our character sheets say, we can retest if we fail or bid based on our stats if we tie.
            When both teams return, the storytellers convene. It’s decided that the Justicar’s team worked faster, and they win the bet. Ultimately, however, anyone who fought gets hailed as a hero. On top of that, a dozen side plots and personal quests resolve around the room. A scepter gets returned to its rightful owner, a Ventrue[5] Queen, via an auction held in secret during the event. The Blood Pit, a fighting ring for the more physically built characters, goes on throughout the night in a back room. Werewolves are fought in a different room, and ghost sightings are investigated. “I’ve never seen a game go so smoothly,” one girl says as we exit.

            Saturday is the big show, the Camarilla MES game. I dress up as Soleil Savant, the character I play once a month up in San Francisco. A number of familiar faces are in the game, locals from San Francisco who also came to con as well as a number of Sonoma players. Over the course of the night, I meet a few dozen players from around the country who have come to game on a haunted ship. I finally interact with people I’ve only met through email.
            The game is involved. Plots that have been going on for months convalesce into a long evening of intrigue and investigation. A murder is solved. A demon may or may not have gotten loose. The host of the event is an androgynous Nosferatu Prince with a David Bowie haircut and sleek gold leggings. His ship, The Grey Ghost itself, is given to a clan of independent necromancers known as the Giovanni upon its reveal as a ferry for lost souls. Following the conclusion of game, a large party breaks out in the hotel known as the Succubus Club. But I make for my room and begin to back for a 6am bus.
            Writing from the bus, I can say the whole thing was beyond any con experience I’ve ever done. I’ve done Comic-Con ten years. I’ve gone to half a dozen different gaming cons and even more events. I’ve done LARP[6] in libraries and hotels. But this was something else entirely. Between walking around the Promenade of a massive ship in a sleek black dress while pale figures stroll by, and watching shadowy fake cultists dart around the boiler room, there was a beautiful immersion involved in this weekend. I’ve heard about LARP in Norway building entire villages for weeklong cons and then having a dragon the size of an RV rolled in. I’ve heard about Naval ships rented out for Battlestar Galactica games. Now I’ve gotten to see something like this up close, and it’s certainly not anything I’ll ever stop loving.
            What makes it so awesome, however, isn’t the location or the costumes, and it’s not about a need to escape. It’s the collaborative effort of hundreds of people coming together to make a story. Every single person who attends fits into a tapestry. I’ve never come across anything so distinctly inclusive or innovative in gaming, and World of Darkness is a perfect example of a game that builds a community and a story from the ground up.
            Also, it doesn’t hurt that it’s fun as hell.

[1] Minds Eye Society. An authorized club of Camarilla Vampire gamers.
[2] The Camarilla is a court of vampires in the Vampire the Masquerade setting. Bound in tradition, they adhere to a strict series of regulations to keep vampire society secret in the fictional world.  It is composed of seven clans, ranging from vampire tropes like Nosferatu, who look exactly how they sound, to Brujah, your Lost Boys lookalikes. The Camarilla is constantly at war with the Sabbat and the Anarchs.
[3] Camarilla dominions are overlooked by a Prince. The Prince oversees the politics of the area and makes sure everything runs smoothly. There are other officials, like the Sheriff, self explanatory, and the Harpy, who acts as a sort of secretary for a lot of the paperwork involved.
[4] Justicars are the highest tier of the Camarilla setting. There is one for every clan of the Camarilla, and they act as the eyes and ears of the Inner Circle, basically the heart of Vampire Society. You don’t mess with Justicars.
[5] A clan of the Camarilla. Once kings and crusaders, they now run Corporations and control the world’s commerce. Players often don suits and fancy dresses when playing Ventrue. For this game in particular, I played the Ventrue CEO of a security company.
[6] Live Action Roleplay. Think costumed people running around with swords in the woods. Or people dressed like Vampires walking around a ship. Murder mystery parties count too.

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