When Kevin suggested we get dinner together, I thought he was asking me on a date. He actually was asking me to run a Vampire: The Masquerade live-action role-playing game with him.
The dating would come later; we celebrated our 11th anniversary in August. But this proposal was key to building the trust and teamwork at the core of our relationship.
Unlike most Vampire LARPs, where people can play the same character for more than a decade, Northwestern University’s Dead City Productions game reset every year to ensure that freshmen would enter on relatively equal footing to the upperclassmen. We barely interacted during Kevin’s first year, but the following year we found that we’d both independently chosen to play similar characters.
That year’s game runners, called storytellers or STs, had built a game where the city was only loosely ruled by the hierarchy-obsessed Camarilla. That meant players would have the option to play characters that were usually restricted: the violent vampire supremacists of the Sabbat and independents with their own agendas. But rather than seize on the novelty, we both decided to play staunch members of the Camarilla.
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We felt like it would be a fun challenge to be forces of order in an inherently chaotic city, a machine the other characters could rage against. While other players showed up to games dressed in leather jackets and corsets, we projected our authority by wearing suits — holdovers from our time competing in high school speech and debate tournaments. We were both studying political science and would use arguments from Thomas Hobbes and Machiavelli to justify Camarilla rule.
We hadn’t planned any of this ahead of time, but the similarities made our characters natural allies and made us want to get to know each other better out of character. It’s what made Kevin think we’d work well together as STs, and what made him ask me out on a real date a few months after that first dinner.
Our relationship really grew the following year once we took over as Dead City Productions’ STs, working with two other Northwestern students running a game for about 30 people for five hours every other Saturday. The four of us spent Friday nights together planning how our plots would play out and ways to integrate each character into the story based on their own interests and backstories. Between games, we also fielded emails from players looking to use their characters’ influence on the game world to do everything from procure maps of the sewers to dig up bodies to reanimate as zombies. We stuffed envelopes with character sheets, tokens representing blood, and rumors that each character had picked up about what was going on in the city.
No plan survives contact with the players, though. Over the course of a game session we met up in the hallway of the building where we played — which ironically had a church on the first floor — and shared an “ST huddle” to recap what happened and what we were planning on doing next before we heard someone shout “ST!” and had to scatter to answer questions and adjudicate combat.
It was often stressful work, but rather than strain my relationship with Kevin, it brought us closer together. We both came to appreciate each other’s sense of humor and creativity and trust the decisions we had to make on the fly. We loved hanging out after the game and laughing about what had happened that night and the various secrets we had in store for players.
We went on to play in and run several other games together. Kevin’s a master of mechanics who knows how to command a room, while my comparative strength has always been predicting plots and the actions of other players. I once woke him up at 3 a.m. because I figured out that the STs in a particular game were planning on having werewolves attack the city. He didn’t appreciate that, even though I was right and it meant our characters were ready for battle.
Seven years later, our fellow STs and many Dead City Productions players attended our wedding. Many of them also found their significant others through our LARP. In fact, Vampire LARPs around the world have proven to be a surprisingly popular way to find love, which was particularly true at the height of the game’s popularity in the ’90s and early ’00s — a time before dating apps and widespread social media use.
Tim Madsen was playing in a Chicago Vampire LARP as part of One World by Night, an international network of games set in the shared universe known as the World of Darkness. When he saw Sarah Hopps walk in, he said, he immediately thought, I’m going to marry her someday. They’ve now been married for more than 20 years.
Sarah had driven almost 1,000 miles to Chicago along with two or three cars’ worth of friends (from her Georgia LARP) who were looking for vengeance.
“A character got killed, and we were furious,” she said. “[Tim’s] character was trying to calm us down and talk us out of doing anything rash.”
Tim regularly traveled between LARPs in Springfield, Illinois; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Chicago, but this was Sarah’s first time visiting another game.
“I was this squishy little 13th-gen Toreador with no points on my sheet and everything was very scary and intimidating,” she said. “[Tim’s] character had a big position in Chicago and had so many points and was really important. It was hot.”
Catherin O’Sullivan met Shay McAulay at her first Vampire LARP in New Zealand. She spent the first game hanging out in the background, watching and listening to other players until she was eventually roped in by a veteran character who wanted to know what she’d overheard. She enjoyed the escapism and hanging out with the people she met both in and out of game, including McAulay.
Their romantic relationship started seven years later, when McAulay was playing the Prince, the Camarilla term for the vampire ruler of a city. His character needed a date for a ball involving characters from another game, so he decided to ask O’Sullivan’s character to join him.
“As we walked out of that particular scene, I just turned around and said, ‘I wish somebody would do that in real life,’” O’Sullivan said. “A couple of months later, he did.”
They’ve been married since 2008. In 2015, they did a vampire-themed vow renewal in Las Vegas along with some friends from LARP.
Monica Marlowe also met her future husband at her first Vampire LARP, which she went to with her brother in Cincinnati.
“We walked in and [Andrew], who is all of 5-foot-4, was yelling in character at one of our friends who’s over 6 feet tall,” she said. “I really liked him.”
Andrew Marlowe’s first impression wasn’t as favorable. He was Prince and Monica was part of a Sabbat pack that quickly started recruiting more members through its twisted in-character games. One night the Sabbat brought a copy of Operation to represent a body they were dismantling.
“She was a pain in my ass,” Andrew said. “Everybody joined her. It wasn’t even close.”
That game fell apart, and they spent years playing together in other LARPs and tabletop games before getting together.
“I had to tell him he liked me,” Monica said.
“Actually, four or five people had to tell me,” Andrew added. “I am notoriously clueless.”
They’ve been married for more than 23 years. Monica had been playing RPGs since high school, and while she’d encountered sexism when trying to join Dungeons & Dragons groups, she found Vampire LARP much more welcoming to women.
“Vampire and the World of Darkness are very [narrative-driven], and women are trained pretty much from birth to be political machines,” she said. “We have to learn to move within the hierarchy of other women in our schools and play the catty game. LARPing allows you to shed everything about yourself that you don’t want and be all the things that you do. It allows people to explore who they are in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in the presence of strangers.”
That gender parity was part of what appealed to Tim Madsen, who started LARPing as a teenager.
“I could smoke cigarettes and there were girls there and everyone was dressed up and they looked really cool,” he said. “I was like, Wow, this is way better than hanging out playing Magic: The Gathering with some dudes.”
The Marlowes know 10 couples that formed through LARP. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, about 90 to 150 people would gather in a bar in Cincinnati where the bouncers and bartenders had their own character sheets so they could intervene if anyone acted inappropriately without breaking immersion. After the game, they’d head to Denny’s to socialize out of character.
“LARPs give you opportunities to mingle with people who have shared interests and the same nerdy hobbies you do,” Andrew said.
“It’s just like a dating service,” Monica added. “You go to a game and you find somebody that you like. Some are one-night hookups, some are lifelong relationships, and some are just friends. There’s a joke where you ask, ‘Is this sex in-character?’”
The Madsens also know many other couples who met through LARP, and most of the friendships they’ve maintained for the past 20 to 30 years have come from those games. While Sarah notes you can form bonds through any type of social club or organization, Vampire provides a unique blend of in-character and out-of-character interactions.
“In D&D you’re playing heroes, while in Vampire you’re all politicking against each other,” she said. “That can cause rifts between people, but I think it also encourages a lot of social awareness in a way you don’t necessarily have at a small five-person tabletop game.”
McAulay prides himself on being very good at manipulating other characters, but O’Sullivan said that never concerned her as his wife.
“It was all part of the game,” she said. “I was reasonably certain he would never do that to me in real life. He knows what would happen if he tried.”
The Marlowes no longer LARP, but they typically tried to avoid conflicts by playing characters on the same side, though that didn’t always work out. Once, at a convention, Monica was bored and her character made a big scene and got killed, leaving Andrew without an ally.
Sarah Madsen tries to stay true to her characters regardless of what Tim’s character would think. They stopped playing regularly when they had kids, and haven’t played together recently because Tim’s character will have to kill Sarah’s the next time he sees her, and he really doesn’t want to do it. Sarah wouldn’t give me details for fear that other people in the game will learn all of her character’s secrets from reading this article.
“Prior to that [event], we were good allies for a long time,” Sarah said. “We had minor antagonisms in-character, but it didn’t seem like being married negatively affected our character relationships. I think I can trust [Tim’s] role-play to be separate from our relationship.”
Beyond building relationships, LARP can also let people learn more about themselves and become more comfortable socializing.
“I found ways to be able to talk to people,” Tim said. “Talking to a stranger about my relationships is not something I would have ever done 20 years ago, but now I’m doing it.”
Playing a character also provides a bit of distance that allows for personal growth and exploration, Monica said.
“We have a lot of friends who have come out as either trans or nonbinary because of their experiences LARPing. You can embody somebody that you’re not in such an immersive way that you can kind of hide who you are until you’re willing to find that person that you’re willing to be vulnerable with.”