Balancing Immersion and Limitation in Dystopia Rising

Aurora Vex in Dystopia Rising
Image copyright Lacy Clagg.

Roleplaying is good for me, and not in some abstract sense. My mental health noticeably worsens when my gaming outlets dry up. As such, there have been several times in my life when I have sought out new games in the name of mental well-being.

I found Dystopia Rising during one of these quests, introduced to it by an old LARPing friend. It’s a boffer LARP, where players are armed with foam swords and nerf guns to fight off zombies and raiders after an apocalypse.

Because it has such a strong physical component, it’s taken me a year to really understand my limitations in the game. I started off overly protective of myself, because I really had no idea what my capabilities are nowadays with a metal hip and broken vertebrae.

One of the great things about Dystopia Rising is the inclusiveness it tries to provide. There’s a lot of accommodations for physical limitations. You can, for example, wear an orange headband, indicating you are a “non-com” (non-combat). If someone is going to injure your character, they point and yell damage rather than swinging a foam sword at you. You don’t need permission to wear the headband. It’s your choice, and taking a swing at a non-com can get you ejected from game.

I routinely stay in “med cabin,” where I can sleep without fear of being raided by zombies, which is vital for me, as poor sleep aggravates a host of medical problems. I also generally need to lie down a couple times in the afternoon because of pain, exhaustion, or both. It took me a long time to not be self conscious about it. The fact that it improved my enjoyment actually made me feel worse about it. I felt like I was cheating because I was escaping what I consider the worst parts of game.

The thing is, I consider those things the worst part precisely because of my limitations. Some players love being dragged from sleep by the groans of zombies and the screams of compatriots. They enjoy forcing themselves to stay awake long into the night to guard against the undead. For some people, these are the things they come for.

So I’m not escaping some objectively bad part of game. I’m escaping the parts which are bad for me. It’s supposed to be challenging, but it’s also supposed to be fun, and when you give up the fun because you feel you have to suck it up and be as tough as everyone else, it’s no longer a game.

It can be tricky balancing all this with the immersive experience Dystopia Rising means to deliver. Events are meant to be weekends of constant danger where characters have armed and armored themselves against the horrors of the Wastes. For some players, this means impressive costumes made from metal and leather and collections of vials and bottles representing all of the things they carry.

Cassie as Aurora Vex

For some of us, however, it can’t be. I only have a fraction of the strength of some of these players. My armor is a long denim coat with patches of fake leather and pop tabs representing chain mail. That’s what I can move in.

There’s a lot of debate right now about how much phys-repping should be required. On one hand, it’s absurd for people to carry hundreds of pieces of scrap metal (represented by cards) on their person. On the other hand, phys-repping even a reasonable number of items is a burden on some of us.

I totally understand, even envy, the joy some have of being totally immersed. But it’s also a game, a roleplaying game. Cassie Beyer is not surviving in the Wastes; my character, Aurora Vex, is. Cassie Beyer would be dead within a week, even if the zombies didn’t find her. Vex isn’t troubled by things like a need for medication, osteoporosis, and fibromyalgia. I’m pretending to be someone I’m not. I’m pretending to be much more able-bodied than I am. That’s the point of roleplaying.

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