LAS VEGAS -- In this city of fake volcanoes and phony pyramids, of bewigged Merlins and buff Caesars, it really should not seem odd that a bunch of folks like to spend their Saturday evenings playing vampire.
It does, though.
And they know it.
Still, they do it. They walk around a desert ranch within sight of the Strip's seduction, slurping deviled eggs and casting spells. "It's raining fire on you," they'll say. Or, "I'm planning on torturing Duncan." Or, ominously, "Be at the graveyard at 11."
Snap them out of character - force them to drop their roles as vampires, werewolves, changelings and wraiths - and they concede that, yes, friends think they're nutty. Parents worry that they've joined a cult.
But they are proud of their fantasies.
More than that, they are addicted, hooked by a global craze known as Mind's Eye Theater, or Masquerade.
Unlike dice-driven tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Masquerade is live-action, role-playing fantasy. In other words, the game invites players to invent fiendish characters - and then become them for a night.
"This is the closest you can come to being (an evil spirit) without hurting anybody," said John Virkus, a maintenance worker by day and a black-clad vampire by night.
Introduced in 1992 by a small Clarkston, Ga., game company called White Wolf Inc., Masquerade has caught on with a vengeance, especially among college students. Many major cities in the United States have such clubs. It has taken off as well in Brazil, Australia and throughout Western Europe. White Wolf has sold more than 2 million copies of Masquerade and related vampire games.
Here on the dusty fringe of Las Vegas, Masquerade is played with particular gusto. And why not? As Karl Vetter, who plays host to the game at his Roadrunner Ranch, proclaims: "This whole town is fantasyland."
Calling themselves the Blood Moon Social Club, the folks who gather at Mr. Vetter's ranch each month exude a creepy intensity. They don't actually believe they're vampires, but they approach the game with such zeal that at times they have to yank themselves out of character. They take their roles quite seriously: If they are playing a paranoid werewolf, they act skittish; if they are striking down a foe with thunder, they demand that other players cringe at the imaginary storm.
Masquerade revolves around an elaborate illustrated rule book known as Laws of the Night. The book explains the quirks of various characters and establishes tribal conflicts, such as a vicious feud between vampires and werewolves.
But the Blood Moon Social Club encourages improvisation.
Thus, a day-care teacher adopts the persona of a blood-sucking belly dancer. A firefighter fancies himself a moping outcast of a vampire. And a middle-aged engineer transforms herself into a spirit-channeling gypsy bent on poisoning a werewolf lair with a plutonium-packed Tickle Me Elmo.
Mr. Vetter says he enforces strict rules for his Masquerade: no alcohol, no drugs, no physical combat. When challenging each other in battle, players determine the winner using the old paper-scissors-rock game.
The rules seem to keep the game safe and quiet. Las Vegas police say the Blood Moon Social Club has not caused any trouble.
Masquerade players elsewhere, however, have at times alarmed authorities. Police in Kentucky last year blamed the game for inspiring a teen-ager to beat her parents to death with the help of four friends who also played Masquerade. And a Virginia man was convicted last year of molesting eight young girls after recruiting them to play Masquerade.
Such stories disgust the Las Vegas players, who insist that the game is just good fun, with no sinister power to twist anyone into deviance. It's about acting and imagining, they say, not about concocting demonic rituals. No one here sucks blood or sleeps in coffins.
A comic book store owner who has long loved schlocky horror films, Mr. Vetter, 44, stumbled onto Masquerade after years of staging his own role-playing games, many with Western themes. Since his first Masquerade on Halloween night 1993, he estimates that more than 2,000 people have played the game on his ranch.
As Mr. Vetter notes, many players see the game as therapeutic. It is a way for them to escape, for a few thrilling hours, bland real-world lives as college professors and blackjack dealers, store clerks and bank managers, high school students and harried parents.
When he steps onto the ranch, Craig Titus relishes the chance to forget that he is an auto parts salesman, a mellow, quiet kind of guy. He pulls on a sequin-studded blazer and looping chain earring and throws himself into the skin of Rolo, a 221-year-old craps-playing vampire pyromaniac.
"I have morals and scruples in real life that I can leave behind at the game," Mr. Titus said. Preparing to stalk off to his vampire schemes, he growled: "I'm not me anymore."