It’s 9:30 at night, and my boss and I are trying to start a campfire in 3 feet of snow. Rumor at the saloon was that 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. 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. I was at Beaver Ranch, a wooded community park in Conifer, half an hour southwest of Denver. Around 150 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 the fictional Colorado outpost town of DedStop. 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 (LARP) game system that takes place at campsites in 16 states, with more chapters set to open this year. It’s all one game. The estimated 6,000 active players in third-quarter 2016 regularly travel from state to state, growing their characters, trading resources and building ties that can be carried to any site. Each of those 6,000 players spends weekends portraying a character of their own design, weaving a massive story that could not have been planned or predicted. They all have their own triumphs and tragedies, unique war stories and the scars to prove it.
I spent several weekends in 2016 playing a character named Lucas, a hardboiled bodyguard and a perpetually anxious psion — he has a few reality-warping tricks, like those cultists. And this is his story.
It was late March, at the Masterson family’s annual thaw party just outside DedStop, on a warm, sunny day. It would be Lucas’ first day of real work in a long time — he’d been hired as muscle for a small trade caravan, the House of Auniks, planning to set up a base of operations in DedStop. Auniks was trying to build his name and fortune. He traveled with his bodyguard, Vadric Lecain, the charismatic psion Char V’elevo, a farmer named Juniper, and a few others.
Not long after they arrived, Juniper noticed something wrong with the water — nothing was growing in the area. She and Auniks approached the Mayor, Razor Rio Elway, to form a posse to look at the water pump. Lucas didn’t know the details — he was muscle, not brains — but someone said something about zombies.
They found the Zed swarming by the waterside, all shamblers — that is, basic “slow” zombies that do nothing but shamble and claw at people. The posse broke through, then formed a perimeter in the rough terrain as more dead moved in. A Sawbones — think impromptu battlefield medic — Quint, went down during the fight. Char dragged him off to the side and shocked him back to life with a quick jolt of psionic power. Lucas wiped the last five minutes of the guy’s memory, and Char fed him a line about being hit on the head.
That memory loss caught the attention of the doctors who attended to him after the fight. A few more people were “hit on the head” that day, and more people grew nervous. Nobody figured it out at the time, but Lucas felt like it was too close a call. He argued with Char, insisting that anything short of imminent death wasn’t worth risking their secret. DedStop was known for a group of violently anti-psionic zealots, so if they came into town as known psions, the House of Auniks would have no chance to gain a foothold.
Lucas arrived in DedStop on a Saturday afternoon in April, delayed by heavy snow. As he walked up the road, he saw the lower tent city, half-covered in snow fallen over the course of the morning, largely undisturbed. He quickly found his comrades at the Playhouse, the saloon that served as the heart of town. The House of Auniks caravan had made the ride up the night before. Being Lucas’ first trade meet, he didn’t know or trust much of anyone outside of the House. The paranoia crept in slowly, but he managed to keep busy through the afternoon — mostly by hunting Zed.
That night, after a supply run, Auniks and Lucas tired of sitting around the saloon and followed a group up to the cabins and their fire pit. That’s when they were captured by cultists, tortured and left out for zombies to chew on.
While he and Auniks were being tortured, he realized his first priority was his boss’ safety and sanity — having Auniks incapacitated would make escaping that much harder. He started insulting the cultists’ torture technique. When the cultists gave up on using them as bait for torture victims and left them out for the shamblers, escape wasn’t an option. The Zed started gnawing on Auniks first, and Lucas flipped. He started screaming “Chew on someone your own size” at the Zed, trying to draw them off of Auniks. And, mostly, it worked. He kept shouting taunts as he grew closer and closer to bleeding out.
Lucas and Auniks survived. Some survivors at the saloon heard them screaming and came to help. They were down to seconds before they bled out, but between the doctors and a priest of The Cure — his rendition of “Friday, I’m in Love” was good — they were walking again shortly. In the course of fixing Lucas’ battered limbs, that priest converted Lucas into a music-worshipper — a member of the King’s Court — though another priest would perform the baptism.
In May, the residents of Dedstop (Dedites) found out that someone had stolen those cultists’ holy book. The culprits were a religious group called the Final Knights, who believe that the nuclear apocalypse was actually a Revelations-flavored apocalypse, and since everyone’s already in Hell, the only rational course of action is to seek power and spread suffering. The book itself was supposedly full of unspeakable knowledge, including rituals to grant psionic powers. And in any case, the Knights’ reputation was for torture and slavery, so many Dedites felt justified in attacking them.
We marched with shields to the front, light fighters flanking, and guns and medics to the rear. The Knights were in the middle of some kind of sermon, their leader preaching from the book. We caught them off guard, but their gunners ripped through the shield wall with ease. A sniper took Lucas down, but an ally forced some powerful hooch down Lucas’ throat, bringing him back into battle. He tried covering the busy medics. Another sniper shot picked him off. A Sawbones — Quint, again — dragged him away to the group’s last defensive line, stabilized him. But the Dedite fighters were routed, and the Knights were on him. Lucas roared, staggering toward the advancing line, limply trying to swing when a third sniper shot took him down. The Knights executed him without hesitation. At least, he thought, Quint got away. As the survivors fled, Char surveyed the battlefield, devastation writ large upon his face.
In the dark of the Grave Mind, the corpse-absorbing collective consciousness of the undead horde, Lucas heard singing. Absent any light, he moved toward the sound, finding Remis Whoreson of Bravo, another casualty of the battle. He heard the song waver and told Remis to hold on. But Remis felt his death was a wasted moment, a major personal failing. Though defiant, he was filled with regret.
Then the rough voice of the Grave Mind began to whisper to Lucas, accusing him of dying for nothing. But Lucas knew this was a lie. He began to whisper a hymn. The Grave Mind kept talking. Lucas sang louder, voice growing to a declaration of his life.
“And you can’t tell me what my spirit tells me isn’t true,” he declared, light suddenly flooding his vision. He and Remis emerged from the morgue, into a waiting crowd. Lucas cried and embraced his friends, happy to be back among the living.
Come June, Lucas traveled south to a town called Briarwood. Their mayor had traveled to DedStop in May, seeking able-bodied fighters. Miners had drilled holes into the Grave Mind, releasing swarms of Zed, trapping civilians and cutting the town off from supplies.
On Sunday, as the Dedites were preparing to leave, someone saw a slave caravan, bound east with several Briarwood residents in tow. The Dedites marched en masse to meet them. They tried to negotiate a price, but the head slaver said the Briarwood slaves were bought already. One of the slaves began to whistle “America the Beautiful,” and a guard attacked him. The Dedites rushed to intervene, but the slaver revealed himself: he was a Toybox, a powerful psionic Zed capable of manifesting its memories of life as illusions. Its guards, fast-running Zed, shrieked, and a horde of undead emerged from the woods.
The Zed were relentless, appearing from the thick undergrowth and charging the rescue party back into town, then farther to waiting caravans.
It took until late July for the Dedites to return home, a trail of Zed behind them and a saloon full of other malefactors ahead. Cleaning up that mess took until late into the night. But there was nothing for it; most of the next day was blocked out for the Freedom Month celebration, a tradition for the rowdy redneck Merican Strain. Given the massive size of the McCoy clan — mostly Mericans — it was a big deal.
With the business of survival being largely all-consuming, town-wide celebrations were rare. But the McCoys set up a massive feast, with food and hooch to spare. During the afternoon, a jam band formed, centered on Sheriff Morgan McCoy and a newcomer named Little Ray on guitars. Little Ray was looking to be baptized into the Court, so Lucas, drunk on the spirit, began to consider going into the priesthood. Conversation in DedStop tended to be the hows of survival. Freedom Month became a rare opportunity to think about the whys.
Lucas didn’t make it to DedStop in August and was mostly away for September. But in August, two priests of the King’s Court came to town: Flame Rider! and Mori. While Lucas was overjoyed to have new members of his faith, it felt like a clear message that he wasn’t needed as a priest.
August was a messy month for DedStop, being election season. In July, the survivors elected a town council with little fanfare: Char, a Yorker named Mercy, Ezekiel “Wheelbarra” McCoy, and Dr. Rue West from the general store. But repeated attempts to rig the August vote for mayor derailed things, and Razor Rio Elway kept the position.
Even worse, someone had been casually threatening violence around town. Char organized a hit mob, but he failed to get a bounty and was tried for murder. He later came out as a psion, further burning good faith. The widespread backlash fueled his shift into a zealot.
Lucas feared for the safety of his secret more and more as Char took bigger risks. The rising odds of Char becoming a threat to the town made Lucas realize something. If Char truly went off the deep end, Lucas needed to be strong enough to stop him. Lucas’ role in DedStop was violence.
Arriving on a Saturday in October, Lucas felt as if a weight had been lifted. With his fate out of his hands, he was better able to deal with more short-term concerns. Char had transformed into a more pronounced manifestation of his theology the night before, with a third arm, a metallic plate growing from his face and an increased aloofness. Lucas took the metamorphosis in stride. It changed none of his plans.
Lucas also talked with another character who recently discovered their psionic capabilities. The character was afraid of the power, of being unable to stop their anger from manifesting as psionic fire. Lucas encouraged them to take a more meditative, diffusive response to their anger, rather than just let it fly. Ultimately, the character listened and felt less afraid.
In November, everything went wrong. During a big Friday night Zed attack, a mutant beast wandered into camp. They’d been hanging around town since mid-summer — they could send out some kind of pulse that hurt psions. It snuck up on Lucas and dropped him, right in the middle of the fight. He was dragged to the hospital and patched up, but he had a strange reaction to something the doctor gave him, and he got massively drunk. He staggered out to search for Char, and found him talking to a large group. They agreed to move to safety, when the beast struck again, dropping Char and Lucas right in the middle of a crowd.
Meanwhile, Char’s zealotry fixed him as the town scapegoat, and some kind of coalition had formed to push him off the town council. In response — or maybe as a pre-emptive strike, Lucas was never really clear on the specifics — Char wanted to lead a coup and overthrow what he perceived as political power working against the needs of the people. Lucas railed against infighting as a pointless waste of time and life, still drunk and convinced he’d be killed in his sleep anyway. He walked away from his friends, off to look for trouble.
But while Lucas was on his self-destruction trip, Char was assassinated. The attackers used a smoke bomb, and there were no witnesses. Though Char had lost face, many still came to hold a vigil and await his return. Lucas had failed his friend, never mind all those who assured him there was nothing he could have done.
Char came out of a morgue frightened and exhausted. He claimed a political rival, likely Dr. Rue, must have paid for the hit, but there was no proof — even Char hadn’t seen his killer. Lucas set off in search of clues and a way to buy time until they had hard evidence. Char, at least, would not retaliate against that trade meet. Nobody got to sleep before 3 a.m.
Lucas spent Saturday seeking work to fund his investigation, mostly as a mercenary. He helped put down an impressive 16 raiders over two raids that day, almost dying more than once. Even then, he was waiting for betrayal.
That night, Lucas drank himself stupid at a holy party held by worshippers of the Light of Hedon, a faith built around the pre-fall seven deadly sins. As an act of prayer, the revelers shared stories of their sordid past exploits. The Hedons’ conviction that pleasure was king when death could come at any moment suited Lucas’ bleak mood.
Rumor came through camp of inbound raiders capable of possessing psions — and possibly others. Even from the bottom of the bottle, Lucas’ conscience rang clear. If nothing else, he refused to be a risk to the rest of the town. He sought Folsom, the Court priest who’d baptized him. Folsom agreed to beat him into helplessness, too weak to hurt anyone should the worst happen. But, over the following hours, nothing came. Lucas left DedStop in the early morning, alone.
Lucas’ story is one of hundreds that ran through DedStop alone in the 2016 game year. All of the characters he crossed paths with has a rich, complex life all their own. And every player behind those characters has their own reasons for coming to the game.
For me, much as I dig fighting off zombie hordes, I enjoy exploring Lucas’ turmoil for its own sake. Dealing with his experiences also helps me practice parsing my own stresses and anxieties. I’m not the only one who gets real-world benefits from this game.
“The leadership and public speaking skills learned in these games translate directly to my personal and professional life,” says Juliet Meyer, Logistics Director for the Colorado branch of Dystopia Rising. “In LARP you learn a great deal about people, leadership, and how to deal with failure (or success) gracefully. It’s a wonderful social sandbox that’s a safe place to learn about yourself and what you’re capable of.”
Co-owner/co-founder Michael Pucci says his LARP hobby is “fun, it’s dramatic, it builds friendships, and it can even be physically exhilarating. LARP is filled with some of the most amazing people I have met in my life from around the globe and has provided me some of the best excuses for experiences ever.”
Check out www.dystopiarisingco.com for more information. The season begins March 31.