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LARP-ing at the Crematorium (in a Suburban Hyatt Hotel)

A live-action role-playing game set up a scenario with ‘inmates’ and a ‘furnace.’ What could go wrong?

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Ian Ruotsala/Flickr)
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To be fair, the 40 people who signed up for a bit of costumed fun one July weekend in 2011 did receive advance warning. “This module involves flashing lights, dark spaces, mature themes, horrific visuals, contact boffer [foam] fighting, psychologically unsettling scenarios, and potential scenes of gratuitous violence,” read the introduction to the controversial live action role-play that game designer Michael Pucci had prepped for DexCon 14, at the Morristown, N.J, Hyatt and Conference Center. It continued in all caps: “PLEASE BE WARNED THAT THIS MODULE MAY NOT BE FOR THE SENSITIVE OF HEART, MIND, OR STOMACH. IF YOU ARE UNSURE IF YOU ARE ABLE TO DEAL WITH SUCH SCENARIO CONTENTS, DO NOT ATTEND.”

Shoshana Kessock, 31, was one of the players who had traveled to Morristown from Brooklyn, N.J, that Friday to attend the gaming convention and play Pucci’s shortened sample version of Dystopia Rising, the live action role-play franchise. The game is designed to provide a mixed bag of absurdities: Players, 16- and 17-year-olds with guardians present or adults, engage in improv theater (where they are audience and actors at once) and role-play combat, fleeing vicious human-hybrid monsters and otherwise conniving for their characters’ lives—all while fighting a deadly zombie infection somewhere in the 21st century, after world powers have inadvertently annihilated 95 percent of humankind. With nuclear bombs.

In the game, 14 “strains” of man evolve after “the fall,” including a strain of Pure Bloods who refuse to let go of their memory of pre-dystopian Earth. Others have chosen to follow religions, like the Telling Visions Church, whose adherents worship the mighty “Signal” that was once sent through little black boxes in living rooms, or King’s Court, a music-worshipping cult led by heavy-metal-style priests. To the live action role-play community, known to fans as LARP, Dystopia Rising is a global phenomenon and the peak of the art. LARPing offers adults a break from their mundane societal roles and an intensely intimate community of fellow gamers.

Kessock had been LARPing since 2005. Intimidated but also intrigued by the mature-audiences module of Dystopia Rising, which involves killing in-game “enemies” with Nerf guns and other foam and latex weapons and protecting oneself with Airsoft-style military vests, Kessock and a friend joined in. In real life, Kessock, tall and articulate, was adopted by a Jewish family—her mother was the daughter of Romanian and Hungarian Holocaust survivors—and raised Orthodox, a faith she left as a young adult. For this game, she named her Dystopia Rising character Elizabeth Hall and allied her with the Pure Bloods, a post-apocalyptic sheltered upper class. As a character, “Elizabeth,” who has the uncanny personality complex of sheepish innocence and mulish morals, dodges and—more often than not—pacifies her adversaries by keeping a remove until her principles push her to declare herself. She wears a signature vest dotted in music-band patches, namely those of Breaking Benjamin, Evanescence, and her favorite, Muse.

Before transitioning to live-action, Kessock had played “parlor” role-play, which normally lasts no longer than a few hours. Here she knew she would be tested in a new way—along with other players, warned explicitly by Pucci that the game would bring out dark moral quandaries. In her first game, Elizabeth was nearly killed by zombies and had to be resuscitated by a punk-rock priest. Unlike parlor games, “live combat” games such as Dystopia Rising have a plot that unfurls indefinitely—characters may last three months, or three years, but the world of Dystopia lives on. (Role plays with unlimited time-frames are known as “campaign games.”)

Outside of the convention, players pay $45 a weekend to attend monthly meet-ups at campsites in which scenarios, or “stories,” are outlined for them by the game designer. Players choose their own characters, jotting down their skills and backstory on character sheets submitted to the storytellers at the start and updated on an online database at the end. In so doing, they become the authors of their own avatars. Plots evolve, characters develop. If all goes well, players dress up, have fun, and their real-life counterparts unwind together with post-game drinks. Usually, though, what players say they remember most are the modules in which they made decisions they regret. Like forcing your in-game ally to step out of the way so you can shoot an innocent player with your pistol. Or purchasing and eating a helpless slave-boy because your character is a cannibal. Or throwing the last of a group of helpless inmates into a furnace. Decisions that make the Dystopia characters—and quite possibly the players behind them—cry.

***

Michael Pucci is a dark-haired, bearded 36-year-old and the CEO and co-founder of Eschaton Media Inc. When he is not gaming, producing game materials, writing handbooks, or running meet-ups—which is rarely—he enjoys coffee and Scotch. He describes his gaming style as “wide immersion,” which involves the creation of complex overarching worlds, all focused on entertainment. At age 22, after three years of dating, he had married an Orthodox Jew, although Pucci himself was not Jewish. During their two and a half years of marriage, he celebrated Jewish holidays and kept a kosher kitchen. His father-in-law taught him that their faith was more than the rote of ritual. For these experiences, he understood more than anything that “Nazi” was shorthand for “pure evil.” Eventually, he wanted to design games that challenge people’s moral notions and that demonstrate such things as the idea that the 20th-century atrocity that befell the victims of the Holocaust did not have to be reenacted.

That hot Saturday in July, Pucci and his dozen assistants—“storytellers” who know the scenario well, and marshals, who help with the mechanics of the world—simulated a Dystopian, post-apocalyptic industrial space out of the Morristown Hyatt ballroom. They flipped chairs, tossed tables, hung tarps, and dimmed the lights. They wrapped a punk-rock priest in fake barbed wire made of rubber to make him look like a captive. They set marks for hungry “gorehounds” to be acted out by some of the players. They molded tunnels out of black tarps hung on suspension frames to lead players to a “furnace” at the center of the abandoned factory. (A portable electric fireplace served here.) And then, like a stage director at a small-town traveling haunted house, he prepped the six people who volunteered to take on the role of something like concentration-camp inmates. And he warned players again to expect emotional content and to find a marshal if they became uncomfortable.

The captive forlorn souls were played by extras, “non-player characters,” or NPCs—disposable walk-ons who serve as antagonists to established main characters. They typically play enemies, and they have limited freedom to make their own decisions or control their own destinies. Before the game started, Pucci and his storytellers prepared their NPCs, instructing them that they had been tortured and wrangled into something like a concentration camp by “Final Knights,” a religion whose followers (including Zombies) believe that the post-apocalyptic earth was now a kind of Hell. Pucci asked the NPCs to show humility and elicit pity. If they were rescued, they were to act grateful—even if they knew that their rescue was temporary. The NPCs put on their most vulnerable puppy eyes, quivered visibly, and awaited the other players’ arrival with appropriate amounts of dread.

Pucci’s scenario went something like this: You are in an industrial space after the fall; zombies are everywhere; man-eating gorehounds, too. You are trapped inside; you must search for an exit. There are pitiful inmates, and tunnels, and a furnace. Now, play.

That night, Kessock joined two friends, Liam Neary, a slender 20-something with brown hair and a strawberry-red beard, and Clinton Rickards, 33, a lawyer from Connecticut. This was the third Dystopia Rising game that weekend: The first was designed to welcome new players, and the second was for moderately experienced players—an 18+ adventure. (Players came to call the module “Coney Island,” for its setting and scary carnival-like qualities.) Rickards, who had an affinity for playing NPCs at convention events (to vary his normal play in the role of a lacrosse-playing frat bro or, as his other stock character, a Disney-preaching priest), chose to play an NPC who had recently lost his entire family. Kessock, meanwhile, put on the guise of the big-hearted and clairvoyant teenage girl, Elizabeth, and Neary wielded his usual cowboy gun in the role he had been playing for two years, whom he had named “Tex.”

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LARP-ing at the Crematorium (in a Suburban Hyatt Hotel)

A live-action role-playing game set up a scenario with ‘inmates’ and a ‘furnace.’ What could go wrong?