The patrol is nearly finished. Warm stew and maybe a hot shower will soon replace days of canned dog food and frost coated nights. Counting the remaining ammunition of the team would take less than one hand. Raiders and Zed. Raiders and Zed. This time they offered up only fights and the barest of scraps. The squad walks in disappointed silence. No one will consider this outing a success.
Quinn hears it first. A quiet mew of an infant growing into a full breathed cry of hunger, pain, and fear. The snap of a twig and a low grunt marks Zed’s arrival to the rear. One way leads to potential salvation, another towards safety. Behind you is only death. Which way will you go?
It’s been at least four generations since the undead plague. In an attempt to save itself, the peoples of the Earth declared war on humanity. Only Death emerged the victor. With civilization destroyed, small groups of survivors huddle together against each other, against the undead horde. This is the stuff of nightmares. This is the stuff of Dystopia Rising.
The brainchild of Michael Pucci, Dystopia Rising bills itself as a fully immersive Live Action Role Play experience. Players gather monthly at one of the few remaining settlements of humanity to spend a weekend in character while living in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. With hopes of branching out into Europe, the backing of a national organization behind Dystopia Rising ensures an even application of rules and stories, adherence to a certain level of quality, and allows for players and their characters to move around and play with different communities throughout the US.
Inspired by scenes of co-operation and exploitation Pucci witnessed after a sudden storm at a music festival, the often competing motivations of humanity drives this version of the setting. “It became concrete in my mind, right then,” says Pucci. “No matter what happens in the world, we will always have people trying to better themselves at the expense of others while clusters of others would latch together. That sort of human nature, and the way people clung to one another, was the basis of what would later be my envisioning of post-apocalypse culture.[i]”
Organizationally, Dystopia Rising actively seeks to head off many of the issues present in other ongoing games. After hearing about a new game with far fewer of the regular problems that might plague a LARP, Mike Surma, Co-Director of the recently founded Wisconsin chapter found himself instantly attracted to the community aspect of “denouncing [out-of-character] drama of any sort, and the willingness of both chapters and the network as a whole to enforce that concept.”
At an individual level, the game seeks to push the emotional boundaries of the players. “We want to make the character miserable,” explains Jeff Moxley, the Director of the New Jersey chapter, “while making the player happy.” This dichotomy attracted Heather Surma, Co-Director of the Wisconsin chapter. “I love that Dystopia Rising has such a welcoming community, despite being quite a terrifying game.”
Pucci has a specific goal for the players of the game. When asked in an interview “What sort of game experience do you want your players to have?” in 2011, Pucci answered,
Fun? Is that a valid answer? I mean I want players to be able to be as immersed in plot or as sandbox free as they feel while still providing environment and world story that allows players to be a part of the world. Some players love running through the woods and hitting things with sticks, so we make sure those module opportunities exist. Some players love complex riddles and political plots, so we introduce a heavy thread of those as well. Really, if the players want to be scared the opportunity is there. If the players want to fight the opportunity is there. If the players want their heart broken with moral gray area and dynamic emotional tension, the opportunity is there.[ii]
A session typically starts on a Friday night at a dry campsite. The players stake out an area for tent or cabin camping. Some gatherings offer meal plans. Others leave people on their own in terms of food. In any case, players are expected to bring their own equipment and snacks. From the time of “Game On!” that Friday night until game wrap on Sunday morning, participants stay in character, breaking only to fulfill a required four hour shift as an NPC.
Crafting tasks such as fishing, tinkering, farming and brewing all require a commitment to complete and occur in a modified real time environment. Simple jobs may only take a few minutes; more complex, up to two hours. Performing these undertakings allow players ample opportunity to role-play and may force some important decisions. With the possibility of wasting the effort spent during the last 45 minutes repairing armor, deciding to what to do while a horde of zombie-like Zed tries to break in adds tension and a certain verisimilitude.
Character creation and progression focuses on inspiring characters to work together. An individual character will be deficient in at least one area, the jacks-of-all-trades lacking in most. This system shifts a common dynamic found in LARP’s from adversarial to cooperative. Instead of plotting and scheming against each other, characters must work together to survive.
“With a boffer LARP,” the Surma’s explain, “sometimes people have a misconception that there is a lot of Character versus Character fighting. We’re quick to point out, even through example, that the game itself throws massive amounts of enemies at you. Your environment is out to kill you far more than your fellow characters. Players that have shown up with the thought of characters fighting with each other regularly quickly find out that your neighbors can also be your salvation, and that characters are often required to work together to make survival a realistic option.” That doesn’t mean the characters have to like each other. It does mean they have to work together.
The Game Masters and members of Dystopia Rising expects certain things from players. Participants need to physically survive a weekend outdoors by bringing food, water, and shelter. Slightly more than other RP genres, horror requires a clear and strong separation between the player and their character. Horrible things may happen to a character, but they don’t happen to the player. That character is an asshole. That character’s player, hopefully, is not.
The organization disallows certain backgrounds and actions. Rape and sexual assault are forbidden. From the national level to the individual chapters, the group looks to create a “Safer Space,” to accept people of all walks of life at the game. Those unable to respect those different from themselves are unwanted. The game does not allow for out-of-character drama and will remove players for fostering such an environment. “We are here to have fun, and enjoy our weekends together,” say the Surma’s. “Drama is a quick way to kill that fun for others.”
Dystopia Rising has chapters in 13 US states, including Indiana and Wisconsin, and two Canadian provinces. Games cost $20 for the first session, and $45 for every session thereafter. The organization’s website offers information and tips for first time and ongoing players. The site store sells a tabletop version of the rules and setting, for the non-camping inclined. The rustic setting, the intensity of both the action and the character interactions, and the equipment, food, and session costs may mean that Dystopia Rising is not for everyone; but those who play enjoy it immensely and enthusiastically.