It’s 7:15PM on a Friday, and I’m parked on a dirt road in the middle of the desert somewhere between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Based on the little information I have, we’re parked about 40 feet from a renaissance faire site in its off season. There are somewhere between 160-200 campers here, equipped with a variety of foam weaponry and shields, and in less than an hour they’ll be transformed into a wide variety of post-apocalyptic survivors ready to fight and kill anything that comes their way for the rest of the weekend.
Such is Dystopia Rising, a popular post-apocalyptic zombie LARP (Live-Action-Role-Play) that’s been around since 2010. With dozens of chapters open all over North America and thousands of registered players, DR has cemented itself as one of the most popular boffer games around (“boffer” being a contact-play system of larp gaming involving foam weapons).
The game centers around the following premise: after the fall of humanity, people have developed various strains of infection built to survive a zombie infested world. Each player takes on the role of a character with one of these strains and chooses a profession with which they must survive in this cutthroat environment. They’ll fight zombies and monsters, hide, run, scream, and lose a lot of sleep during the entirety of the weekend. It’s an intense game that combines the adrenaline rush of a Halloween horror maze with camping (S’mores and murder, anyone?).
Having recently moved to a city near an active DR game, I decided I had to check it out. Having never played a proper boffer larp before, I bought my first foam weapon, a standard sized bat from Calimacil. I gave the book a quick read through, picked out costuming, and bought cheap Target camping gear. I sent dozens of emails asking friends who played what to expect. I ended up making a Doctor named Janey Foxtrot. I packed a small box of gauze, fake blood, bandages, tourniquets and anything else I had lying around my apartment that seemed doctor-y.
When game-on is called, Janey Foxtrot and half a dozen other newbies find themselves on the outskirts of El Dorado, a last hope settlement way out in the middle of murder-hobo county. Our options were limited: either we find a place to live and work in town, or we face miles of deadly zombies (“zed”), raiders, and various other things that want to kill us dead. The first option seemed cooler. We fight our way into town. Turns out, Janey’s a shit fighter. Her health drops after three close calls with zombies. I get patched up at the town’s makeshift hospital. I volunteer my services there to make up for it. They gladly accept it. Within two hours, my tent is set up and I’m on shift.
What follows is about forty hours of intensive roleplay, close calls, terrifying moments, and near death. A whole lot of near death. DR is a deadly game. As a player investing a lot of money and time into playing, the genuine fear of character death is more palpable than a lot of other games. There are players who have been playing their characters for the better part of two or three years who risk losing a hell of a lot of time and investment every time they jump into battle. If your character dies, their infection score determines how many times they can come back into play. Once that number’s out, your character is gone for good, along with your XP and all your time and financial investment. (You can always retire a character for half of that XP on your next character build.) As a member of the Merican strain (read: gun-toting howdy-dos that live off of huge parties and lots of Yee-haws), Janey’s infection score was an awesome 2. That meant if she died twice, she was gone for good.
The game is fully immersive and roleplay heavy, meaning to reap the mechanical benefits of your skills, you have to actually act them out. For a doctor character like me, that means physically roleplaying patching up wounds on patients for at least five minutes. For other characters, like crafters and distillers, it means crafting and brewing items and potions for a set amount of time. Players are encouraged to stay in character the whole of the game length. The only exception being during their four hour NPC shift, when players get out of costume and instead fill in the role of enemies for the town to fight.
There’s a lot of information for new players to digest. The book isn’t short, the mechanics aren’t always intuitive, and registration can be overwhelming. But I found that everyone was more than welcoming and able to answer any questions I had.
For those looking for a roleplay heavy system that will push them to their physical and emotional limits, Dystopia Rising provides a unique and immersive world in which to participate. The game calls for an incredible investment of believability, meaning it asks its players to buy into the dense world the storytellers and other players are attempting to create. Obviously, this will differ from location to location. But, based on my experience with the Southern California chapter, I found that believing in the horror and risk of this world was incredibly easy. Both the staff and the player community work exceptionally hard to create the environment of El Dorado, down to the small details, and it shows.
Dystopia Rising’s LARP survival guide is available as a free PDF on DriveThruRPG (Click here: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/144562/Dystopia-Rising-LARP-Survivors-Guide-20)
To find a chapter near you, check out the Dystopia Rising Network (http://www.dystopiarisinglarp.com)
(If you do decide to play, my player number is 18457. Send me that sweet, sweet recruitment XP when you register.)