Dystopia Rising in the Tablet

I recently came across a response to an article on a LARP event. Dystopia Rising, the zombie themed post-apocalyptic campaign live action LARP, which has multiple chapters across the US, ran an unusually dark and disturbing event at DexCon back in July.

A warning: the description of the event is rather disturbing and involves cremation, so if that bothers you, you may not want to read the article, the response, or my own thoughts below.

To quickly sum up the event, a number of players were put in a room with a furnace and some pitiful NPC prisoners. The only way to escape was to figure out how to put out the furnace, and the only way to turn off the furnace was to put humans into it. The PCs are able to resurrect after dying, it is unclear if the NPCs could, as well.

The Tablet, which describes itself as a “daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture,” ran an article on it. Peter Woodworth wrote the response I found on his blog. You can read his post here.

Woodworth lambasts the post for the odd tone with which it attempts to make LARPing comprehensible to readers who have likely never heard of such a thing and laments the numerous inaccuracies sprinkled throughout. He demonstrates the absurdity of the writing style with a parody of the article’s style (with its excessive use of quotation marks and similar inaccuracies) about football.

I started writing a response as a comment on his blog page, but it got a bit long and detailed for a comment, so I’m recreating it here.

First of all, I agree the excessive quotations in the Tablet article are a bit odd, but I recognize that they’re done with the purpose of clarification, indicating what terms, unfamiliar to the reader, are terms specific to the Dystopia Rising and to the community. A significant factor in making the article come off as so awkward is that the terms are perfectly familiar to us LARPers — the reason it comes off as laughably absurd when applied to football is because the average (American) reader is quite familiar with terms like “coach” and “teams”. Maybe it wasn’t necessary to put words like “enemies” in quotations, but I suppose that was the writer’s way of making it clear that these people are only enemies in-game, which is, at least, vastly preferable to making it unclear as to whether or not these LARPers consider themselves enemies outside the game, as well.

I must also mention that I agree that the article does have some very positive aspects — that the author clearly spoke to and included the perspective of a staff member and a number of the players was well done. I also appreciated bringing in some amount of relevant background about LARPing as a whole. The tone of the article, though at times sensationalist, did not seem to be critical or judgmental (though it read to me as incredulous once or twice.) And I think it did paint a vivid picture of the event that makes it possible for people unfamiliar with the concept of LARP to imagine what participating might actually be like.

After reading Woodworth’s complaints of numerous inaccuracies, I reread the article with an eye for them. I can’t comment on the facts specific to Dystopia Rising — I’ve heard quite a bit about it from other LARPers, but I haven’t personally played it. But I can comment on some of the statements that are written as though they apply to all LARP, as well as some of the aspects of the article that seem to be unclear or missing crucial information.

Is it fair to say LARPing offers adults “an intensely intimate community of fellow gamers”? Um, yes, kind of. But without further clarification, this sentence strikes me as misleading. Similarly, parlor LARPs can be campaigns, campaigns aren’t all indefinite, and not all live combat games are campaigns. But I understand where these mistakes come from — there are strong trends in LARP. The description of players remembering what they regret most is misleadingly represented as universal. Similarly, the description of NPCs as “disposable walk-ons” is also misleading. Many NPCs are, to be sure, but someone unfamiliar with the term might come away thinking they always are.

I think the most egregious mistake in the article was in the section on European LARPing, which credits a single person with creating the genre of Nordic LARP and then indicates that the style we call Nordic LARP is the only form of LARP in Europe, completely ignoring the giant that is fantasy boffer, which certainly is not devoid of action. The Tablet article states, “Nordic LARP’s only missing puzzle piece seemed to be action”. Am I mistaken in thinking that Nordic LARP can be credited to numerous LARPers? Can one claim that boffer is “an American genre”?

The article also has a line that states, “[t]he enjoyment of the game should not be based on the concept of what he called a “victory condition.” This is called ‘playing to lose’.” LARPs are not board games — they all lack victory conditions. (Your character’s individual goals lack win conditions, but you can’t win a LARP any more than one can win a movie.) “Playing to lose” implies you can lose, and losing implies winning conditions and losing conditions. But even assuming people try to “win” LARPs” (and I certainly hear that phrase used frequently, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek way of describing someone being very successful at most or all of their character’s goals), one can ignore win conditions and still not be playing to lose — they might simply be indifferent to success or failure.

“LARPers fiercely identify with their characters and feel acutely any existential threat.” No. This is not universal, please don’t present it as such. “Players are determined to live.” You mean, besides the ones playing to lose? Or indifferent to living or dying?

“Pucci had designed the module so that a certain number of people—it didn’t matter if they were NPCs or not—had to be sacrificed before the furnace would burn out, which would in turn allow the survivors to get out of the warehouse.” Earlier in the article, the writer claims that it is unknown where the idea to throw people into the furnace comes from, and that Pucci claims he never suggested anything. I interpreted that to mean that the solution of throwing people in was not intended when the module was written, but now I’m under the impression that was always intended to be the solution, and Pucci simply doesn’t know how the players hit on his intended solution. This remains unclear to me.

More importantly, the article should not have waited until the bottom of the second page of the article to explain that PCs have the ability to resurrect. This fact tells us that the module was about being willing to experience brief pain and an increased “infection level” instead of about death in the permanent sense that we usually think of it. This completely changes my impressions of the module, and renders my reactions to the first half of the article, at best, mislead. I also worry about readers who started the article but didn’t finish, who now have an inaccurate idea of what the module was about. And a crucial fact is left out — are the NPCs able to ressurect as well? Many LARPs include a resurrection mechanic. Some make it available to PCs and NPCs alike, some make it available only to PCs. Whether or not the NPCs would be able to resurrect is very relevant to interpreting the players’ actions.

The article says “Pucci… ensuring that the scenario was both physically and mentally safe for the players, stood to the side and watched.” It does not say how he maintained mental safety, though. And describing the characters as  “…ready to wipe their hands clean of the slaughter” strikes me as sensationalist without any support.

The extended football analogy in Woodworth’s response demonstrates how absurd it is to make the connections and take them too far. In his parody, he implies some kind of meaning is behind games between the Redskins and the Patriots, or the Redskins and the Cowboys. While the Redskin franchise does have issues with racism, this does prompt one to wonder if the Tablet read too far into the content of the Dystopia Rising module.

It is true that unwilling human incineration in crematoriums is prone to remind one of the Holocaust, especially when prisoners are forced to do the work. That several players were Jewish (including one studying to be a rabbi) is unsurprisingly of interest to a Jewish website which explores Jewish thought, though their presence likely reflects the population of the location (DexCon ran in New Jersey), rather than any specific interest in the module for its themes. (Especially if the players had no knowledge of any Holocaust-like elements prior to signing up.)

The inclusion of an NPC who named his brother Levi is interesting to me. While I know many Biblical names have become mainstream and are used across many religions and cultures, the name Levi feels more distinctly Old Testament to me than more common Biblical names, such as Bejamin or Adam. I would not be surprised if the article’s author felt the same, which implies a possible Jewish identity for the NPC. (The name of the player who may have chosen the name Levi sounds rather Irish, and not Jewish, so whether they had this implication in mind is unclear to me.) The fact that “Levi” had died in a concentration camp cements the connection, but details on this are sparse. Did Levi die in some location that the author decided were enough like concentration camps to give them that name herself? Or did the writers of Dystopia Rising include concentration camps, by that name, in their setting? If the latter, I don’t think it’s an unfair stretch to say this module contains commentary on the Holocaust.

The most interesting aspect of the Tablet article, to me, is actually that it exists. I think it’s fair to assume the only reason this article was written and was published on a Jewish website is because the author heard about the Holocaust-like elements, which lead her to explore the topic (and focus on the experience from the perspective of a Jewish player.)

The topic of inclusivity and minority representation in LARP has popped up on a few LARP-related online forums recently. This article tells me that if you write LARPs with a focus on an underrepresented culture, or topics of special significance to a minority population, (either intentionally or not) you are much more likely to attract the attention of members of that minority, and thus introduce them to LARP.

Writing Holocaust-related LARPs is not a good way to do this if your goal is attract new players.(It seems to me as though the Holocaust is a taboo subject in my local community, and I’d much prefer it stayed that way. The only LARP experience I’ve refused to participate in, to date, was a comedic scene in a LARP involving the Holocaust.) But imagine if you ran a LARP focused on, say, celebrating African mythology on a university campus, and informed members of the university’s local African Culture Club. Don’t you think the club might send some members to check it out and maybe even participate?

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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4 Responses to Dystopia Rising in the Tablet

  1. gaylord500 says:

    It’s odd to see something about this so many years after the fact.

    I played in this module – unusual as it may be, it was the reason I started playing in the campaign. (Admittedly, I might have been the only player who became more, rather than less, interested in the campaign as a result.) I’m not sure what I think about it now – not what I thought about it then, perhaps, as I think I’d misinterpreted what was going on back then. I haven’t played the game in a while, although I see it has taken off.

    In retrospect, I think some mistakes were made. But people learn from mistakes and try to do better.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Wow, my brain totally skimmed right past the “2011” in the first paragraph. I wonder why it took so long to get this article published?

      Honestly, if not for the Holocaust aspect, it would probably have intrigued me as well. I would balk at the idea of the crematorium (especially watching “Levi” shove his brother into it), but very difficult decisions and internal moral dilemmas in LARPing interest me.

      Did the NPCs have the possibility of coming back to life in this setting? Would you say it was clear at the time to the players? I hope I can remember to ask more next time I see you. I don’t want to put you on the spot here, but I’m curious about your experience!

      • gaylord500 says:

        Now that I’ve read the articles, I kind of have to disagree with Peter Woodworth’s take on it – I think it’s fairly accurate. But then, I think Peter’s parody of it with respect to football is also a sufficiently accurate description of that (maybe because I don’t really know that much about football…).

        True, there may be an overgeneralization risk in certain parts. And while I see a lot of the quoted people are challenging the Tablet article in its comment section, the article reads to me as balanced.

        To get more specific, some NPCs do come back. I think it was fairly clear that these might not. What I thought happened at the time was that players were intentionally making terrible choices to further uphold the adult horror genre – and this was why characters were actively suppressing/deceiving others into thinking it was only the NPCs’ death that would save the rest of the folks there. To make that happen, the option for volunteer PCs to die instead was actively censored by some characters. It also fit in with what I believed was the general story arc of why the fictional (NPC) Nazi faction had set this trap: to “prove” that they and them were basically alike, and possibly should join forces instead of fight one another.

        What I think happened, in retrospect, was that players could not handle the situation and disassociated themselves from it, but still continued to play on. They put the NPCs into the ovens because they couldn’t deal with the scenario as presented and went to “nope mode”. Denial is a natural psychological reaction to stress. This was probably unexpected – I think what was intended was for the victims to be saved, and volunteer PCs to die, proving their heroism. However, the STs still arguably own the results as the framers, even when it’s players that screw things up royally.

        That said, Dystopia Rising is an NC-17 horror genre game about post-apocalyptic survival. Profanity, such as might be prohibited in other games, is common. It’s also a work in progress. Things are clearer now and improving because the folks that run it are paying attention and trying to get things to work better. In a certain sense, the experience was sometimes like trying to run a harsher Nordic larp without workshopping – and as exhilarating as it may be to fly without a net, nets are there for a reason. Nowadays, I see there are more rules and concern regarding bleed, there’s a bright-line rule against RP on non-consensual sexual matters, particularly sexual violence, and there’s a stronger concern about separating players and characters – these are added since 2011. Is it a game? Yes. Can it be art? Yes – and art ought to be able to deal with the difficult, the ugly, and evil. I admire the attempt.

        • Fair Escape says:

          Wow, that’s a really interesting take on it. And while I don’t know if I can fault the article writer for missing the “we don’t want to deal with this scenario” take on things, but I think it’s too bad a lot of people who aren’t familiar with LARP will come away from this article not realizing this. It’s also an interesting insight into how people can shape the story based on genre expectations.

          …Clearly my browser is screwing with the comments section on the website. I’ll have to try to fix this.

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