Battling the zombie apocalypse in Dystopia Rising

Griffin Swartzell, Colorado Springs Independent

It’s 9:30 p.m. and my boss and I are trying to start a campfire in three feet of snow. Rumor at the saloon was something had been stalking and abducting people in the woods, but right now, all we want is a little comfort and maybe some cocoa.

We’re ready to break out the lighter fluid when three figures emerge from the shadows and, within seconds, beat us bloody with keen weapons and psionic fire.

We are bound and dragged into the woods.

Over the next 10 minutes, they tie us to a tree and torture us — not for information, just for sick pleasure. I grab my boss’s hand and s**t-talk our torturers with all the spite I can muster, trying to distract us both from the pain.

Eventually, blinded, burned and beaten, we are left to call for help — a trap to lure more torture victims. None come. Finally, they drag us off again, break our legs and abandon us to the hollow groan of an approaching horde of shambling zombies.

We’re doomed and miserable — but hey, everybody needs a hobby.

If the zombies and pyrokinetic torture-cultists didn’t give it away, this was a game.

People from around the country had rolled up in their post-apocalyptic finest: thrashed-out trenchcoats, chainmail made from soda can tabs and at least one foam sword inscribed with “LIMBS ARE A PRIVILEGE.” We were there to do battle with hordes of undead and other nasties in a fictional outpost town. We were there to play a game of survival, adventure and horror called Dystopia Rising.

Dystopia Rising, or DR, is a live-action role-playing game — a LARP — that takes place at campsites in 16 states, with more chapters set to open this year. It’s all one game. I was one of an estimated 6,000 active players in the third-quarter of 2016. DR gamers regularly travel from state to state, growing their characters, trading resources and building ties that can be carried to any site.Dystopia Rising

Each of those 6,000 players spends weekends portraying a character of his or her own design, weaving a massive story that could not have been planned or predicted. They all have triumphs and tragedies, unique war stories and the scars to prove it. For instance, I play Lucas, a hard-boiled bodyguard with too many secrets for his own good.

Wisconsin branch of DR

There’s a branch of Dystopia Rising in Wisconsin.

Midwestern survivors flock to the trade town of Steel Horse Crossing, deep within the industrial Ironworks territory. In pre-apocalypse reality, Steel Horse Crossing is located at Camp Manitou, 40 minutes southeast of Green Bay, just outside of Two Rivers. Storytelling director Mike Surma and coordinating director Heather Surma run the branch. Mike notes that while things are a little quieter in the colder months — February’s game saw around 60 players — they usually get 100 or more people a session in warmer weather.

Steel Horse Crossing is one of DR’s newer branches, having opened in February 2016. Mike, a 40-year-old IT professional by day, has been LARPing for 20 years. After traveling to play a weekend of DR, he and wife Heather, then a LARP first-timer, fell in love with the close-knit community and the players’ enthusiasm for the game world. Being some distance from the nearest game, the Surmas decided to start their own branch.

Over the course of a year, they designed Steel Horse Crossing, working with the national branch to develop specifics and make it click with the established world. They drew heavy inspiration from the culture and environment around them.

We “prominently feature Lake Michigan, the Great Lake, as part of our game world, have adaptations of a variety of Wisconsin staples and even represent most of the sports teams in some fashion,” says Mike Surma. “Our Cheesehead raiders are a particularly vicious type of rabid, warmongering threat that looms around the area.”

Post-civilization LARP

Dystopia Rising launched in 2009, but the oldest parts of the game system date back to 2001.

Co-owner/co-founder Michael Pucci was writing it as a then-unnamed pet project between day jobs. It coalesced into its current form in 2008. Inspiration struck while he was at a music festival when a heavy storm tore through, trashing the tent city. According to a five-year anniversary article written by DR social media manager Catherine Griffin, the morning after the storm, a man came through to sell popcorn and hot dogs to the huddled masses for $5 each.

“It became concrete in my mind, right then,” Pucci said in the article. “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.”

That vision presents a world generations after nuclear warfare and zombies wiped out civilization.

During that fall of humanity, some people had chance genetic immunity to the zombie virus and, though infected, they didn’t turn into mindless undead. They adapted, not just culturally, but biologically, diverging into different varieties of sorta-human, called Strains. Strains range from rowdy redneck Mericans to visibly decayed Retrogrades, to blunt, angry Yorkers.

Rules of the game

For all its immersive storytelling, Dystopia Rising is still a game and every game has rules.

Over the 41 hours of full-immersion horror (and very little sleep) in a game weekend, survivors try to form functional societies while fighting off zombies, rabid humans called raiders, religious fanatics, mutated animals, disease and, as often as not, each other. There’s no scoring, no leaderboards, no first place — just survival and storytelling.

Most characters carry weapons — actually Nerf guns and foam weapons called “boffers” — and some focus on fighting. Others become artisans and experts, from brewers and builders to doctors and draftsmen. Many take up faith — cargo-cult religions that have formed around everything from radiation-induced mutation to pre-apocalypse TV and music broadcasts.

DR keeps the math simple. Characters have four big statistics: Mind, Body, Infection and Build. Mind is the capacity to use abilities, like building or combat skills. Body is hit, or life points. Infection is how many times a character can die and come back. And Build represents experience, or potential for growth.

‘Bit by the hobby’

According to staff in both Wisconsin and Colorado, the hardest part of getting into LARPing can be going to that first game. The sheer scale and openness that makes the game exciting tends to build up a perceived barrier to entry. Everyone who LARPs has to overcome it — even co-owner/co-founder Pucci.

“My first exposure to LARP was in 1994 with a vampire game,” he says. “At first I didn’t really dig it because the people involved in the game were really caught up in their own things and it sort of felt like I was visiting someone else’s family reunion. Sure, it seemed like people were enjoying themselves, but I wasn’t sure how. I went back to the game a few times and joined a couple friends to try a boffer (foaDystopia Risingm weapon) LARP called Pandemonium.

“It wasn’t until a LARP in Scotland when I was visiting my brother that the hobby bit me. The game took place at a pub, there were scenesters all playing the game and having drinks and they asked me to NPC a vamp hunter,” referring to acting as a non-player character — a character designed by the storyteller.

He started running his first LARP in 1996, taking only a few breaks since. Now 38, he makes his living mostly with LARPing. But he doesn’t try to convince people to play.

“I just show them how cool the things I am doing are, maybe play one of the videos to share it and if they want to come out to try it then I help facilitate it,” he says. “If they aren’t interested, we get another round at the bar and rack the tables again.”

Getting involved in DR

For those in Wisconsin who are curious, Mike Surma recommends reaching out to him or Heather. Beyond that, the Facebook groups for the game or any given branch stay active. Community members will readily provide answers and advice. The digital edition of the rulebook is free online, too.

The 2017 schedule for the Wisconsin game can be viewed on I’m already itching to get back into it and run for my pretend life. Feel free to come along. A player’s first game only costs $20 and the zombies can always use someone new to gnaw on.

Equality, community are a central part of the game

Dystopia Rising emphasizes that it’s a community with a game — not a game with a community.

Every player shares responsibility for making the game work. Every game, every player takes a shift as a non-player character, spending a few hours as the various zombies, merchants and whatever else the storytelling staff wants to send through the game weekend.

Some players become Marshals, a volunteer staffer somewhat akin to a referee.

DR co-owner and co-founder Michael Pucci designed the game in part to build strong social ties.

It’s one of the things he says sets the game apart in the LARP world.

“Everything in DR comes back to mechanical systems that require players to engage one another to be successful,” he says. “Our biggest difference isn’t in the game but instead is our approach to community. When we first brought out our design of inclusive play to the public, our stance on equality in gender choice and our progressive social focus to the world, we made a very public and definite stance on the culture we were looking to build. By defining the type of culture you want in-house, you are also defining what kind of culture you don’t want in your house.”

Pucci’s companies use a bDystopia Risingroad definition of harassment to describe what players are not allowed to do at DR and other Imagine Nation events. It goes beyond the expected bans on assault, stalking and intimidation. The community rejects all racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. There’s also a blanket ban on so much as mentioning rape and sexual assault. Players have been asked to leave games for joking about it.

In many nerdy spaces, harassment and hate speech remain pervasive. Companies like Microsoft still struggle to curb these behaviors in game communities — voice chat especially can be a dumpster fire for anyone who sounds feminine or nonwhite. But DR’s community was built by and for people who recognize the fundamentals of treating others with respect.

These standards aren’t just heartening, they’re necessary. The game hits a wide variety of stressors over the course of a weekend. Difficult, often gray-at-best moral choices and intense subject matter like slavery and torture come up frequently. Separating those from real issues keeps the game fun. While there’s plenty of in-game drug use and addiction, only caffeine’s allowed on-site. And instead of avoiding the subject of bigotry, DR uses bigotry against in-game religions and “Strainist” prejudices as part of the setting. The rulebook even has pages of Strainist slurs to inspire players. In DR, bigotry only hurts characters, not players.

All defined, none of these restrictions feel forced or even prominent. Players still find plenty of creative ways to have their characters say horrible, repugnant things. Out-of-game, players are too busy bonding over simulated trauma or real-world commonalities.

Griffin Swartzell is the arts and culture reporter for the Colorado Springs Independent.