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Dystopia Rising: Q&A about zombie RPG

Zombie Mondays With the continued cult status of the television show The Walking Dead and the apparent success of the spin-off Fear The Walking Dead, it would seem that popular culture’s love affair with post-modern zombies is not waning anytime soon.

But long before AMC adapted the popular zombie comic into a hit television show, the influence of the genre that George A. Romero essentially created with the 60s’ cult classic Night of the Living Dead was felt in roleplaying games – not RPG video games but the original pen-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Michael Pucci, CCO of Eschaton Media, adapted the concept of the living dead to this milieu with his game Dystopia Rising. While this is not the first tabletop roleplaying game to use the concept, he and co-creator Ashley Zdeb have definitely put their own stamp on it. The game can also be played as a LARP (Live Action Roleplaying) event (more details are available at

Geeksagogo had a conversation with Pucci for Zombie Monday.

Geeksagogo: When did you and Ashley decide to create the game?

Pucci: Dystopia Rising was originally written as a live action role playing game back at the end of 2004 through the middle of 2005. Just under seven years ago the game first went public as a LARP that was open for public play. The table top version of the game was originally started back in 2003, but it was a project that I was working on with limited available time. The tabletop RPG was published in hard copy for the first time in 2005.

Geeksagogo: What sparked your interest in this particular genre?

Pucci: The post-apocalyptic and horror genre has been a subject of interest of mine for a very long time. I grew up a fan of George Romero zombie films, suspense oriented horror films, and post-apocalyptic movies like The Blood of Heroes. When I was old enough to understand it I found the barely hidden social commentary in Romero films fascinating given how it related the undead to different aspects of the mob mentality of humanity as a whole. Making analogies for blind consumerism, racism, and jingoism while entertaining viewers with sprays of blood and continuous building suspense just really struck a chord with me.

Geeksagogo: What sets your game apart from All Flesh Must Be Eaten and Dead Reign?

Pucci: The difference between Dystopia Rising and games like Dead Reign or All Flesh is that Dystopia Rising is not a "oh look there are zombies here in our modern day" game. Dozens of games do scenarios where the initial zombie outbreak occurs in modern day and the players have to deal with a world during the initial outbreak. Dystopia Rising takes place many generations after the apocalypse. The world has become an irradiated wasteland, supplies are short, strange religions and cults have popped up, and the world has existed for many generations with the existence of the undead. Zombies are not as much the primary threat as they are an environmental hazard that post-apocalyptic survivors deal with on a regular basis. Zombies are not some new threat that the people of the world have to deal with, they are an ongoing aspect of day to day life that the average survivor deals with on top of the issues of their post-apocalyptic survival needs.

In addition, in the world of Dystopia Rising humans no longer exist. The plague that wiped out the world has caused a number of mutations to cause a series of Strains that are the infection carrying remains of the human species. Players know that turning is inevitable, and, that it’s not a matter of if a party member is going to turn; it’s a matter of when.

Geeksagogo: As far as I know, yours is the first significant zombie LARP. Thoughts?

Pucci: It’s sort of surreal. Dystopia Rising began as something I made for my friends to play. I loved the genre and hated 99% of existing LARP mechanics. So I wrote a new system and world for my friends. When we first started running DR we had maybe 60 people showing up to games. By the end of the first year we hit an average of over a hundred and needed to find a new place to play. At the start of year two we had a new place to play, and the game jumped from just over 100 players to regularly over 250 players. We then started writing additional support materials and opening a franchise network. I ended up writing something like 1,300 pages of blueprints, LARP story teller guides, community guides, economy guidelines, and player care documents to support the networked LARPs. My partner and co-founder Ashley hired software developers to create our own custom database system, we started producing material support for game operation, and somewhere over the movement of a years of work we went from a game of 60 or so people to a game of 5,000+ people across the US and Canada. By the end of this year it is projected that we will have 20 chapters running, and by summer of 2016 we should have between 25-30 chapters running.

Geeksagogo: What was the most difficult aspect of getting your game off the ground?

Pucci: The most difficult part of getting a game running is all of the legal and business aspect that almost no one sees. Franchise law, intellectual property rights, copyright law, freelance contracts, and working with 3rd party companies. At least for myself, building and operating a single massive event is sort of old hat now. Ashley and I have worked together for over 10 years organizing games and events. The difficulty is when you need to work with the vision, work ethics, and skill sets of other people within guidelines set out by federal and state business operation guidelines. The same rules that apply to a massive international fast food franchise apply to a growing LARP franchise, which is difficult on a logistical and economic level.

Geeksagogo: A lot of LARPers have embraced games like Vampire the Masquerade, which deals in part with moral relativism. How does this concept translate into your game?

Pucci: We focus heavily on gray area morality questions. When you are dealing with scenarios such as food shortages, lawless territories, gang warfare, slavery, and post-civilization environments we end up with a lot of situations where good people do bad things for what they think are the right reasons. While many other games focus on applying moral relativism and conflict in more player character to player character situations we focus more on player character to non-player character triggered antagonism for complex subject matters of questionable morality. This allows players to interact with and play with morally dubious or questionable activities while reducing the victim impact of the other end of these actions via non-player characters instead of player characters. This isn't to say that their isn't player character to player character antagonism and overall douche-baggery, but in a world where everything "out there" wants to kill you and destroy you, players are more inclined to work together instead of working against one another.

Geeksagogo: Where are the LARP events typically held? How many sites are there?

Pucci: We currently have 18 franchises across the US and Canada that run from coast to coast. Most events take place at multiple hundred acre properties that have a combination of cabins, tenting areas, and undeveloped areas used for wilderness settings.

Geeksagogo: What are the basic mechanics for the LARP? For the tabletop version?

Pucci: The LARP uses a lightest touch contact safe combat system. The entire mechanical system for the LARP is available as a free PDF download via DriveThruRPG as well as available in hard copy. As for the table top it uses the Mass Action System, which is the same system used in games like Project: Paradigm. It is a simultaneous action resolution system that applies priority to player actions instead of initiative, and encourages group play and teamwork over lone survival techniques. The system uses a combination of playing cards and D10s to allow players to assign priorities to specific types of actions, that way all players are working in together in rounds.

I found that most initiative systems that allow one person to act while everyone else was breaking out their iphones and ipads waiting to resolve their actions disjointed for table top play, and, I wanted to make a system that encouraged in character communication during combat instead of relying on out of character mechanical cause and effect play. If you didn't know that your party member was going to turn tail and run away from the fight, there should be the opportunity for you to get stuck in the fight instead of choosing to immediately follow their lead.

Geeksagogo: What do you and Ashley do as for work? Do you have professional or outside interests that helped in development of the game?

Pucci: Ashley and I run a game publication company and multiple LARP franchise companies for a living. In addition we both handle trans-media contracts via our publication company (script writing, freelance writing for other companies game world, etc.)

Geeksagogo: Is your game attracting more seasoned role-players or people that don't typically role-play?

Pucci: Depends on which game you are talking about. For the DR LARP, we mostly attract first time players. Part of our franchise marketing design is instructing new franchise owners to not promote to try and take players from other games. Instead, we encourage them to find community interest in tangential fields of promotion. Established veteran gamers either have a product they are super loyal to, with no interest in trying anything else, or will show up to your game if you present a high quality event. Let your quality draw people in who are already in the market, and build the LARP community larger by introducing LARP to people who have never LARPed before.

For our table top lines, DR tends to be more established RPG fans than new RPG fans. Our other game lines that use card based systems or system light designs tend to draw new RPG fans in. Traditional pen and paper RPGs tend to have a larger threshold to overcome to learn to love, so, new players are picked up easier by closed box strategy games and CCGs.

Geeksagogo: I noticed a few supplements on Will there be prequel supplements set at the beginning of the zombie crisis in a more recognizably contemporary setting?

Pucci: We have novels, supplements, and materials via DriveThruRPG and Amazon. We find that DriveThruRPG offers better production and sale assistance than Amazon does, so in the future you will probably find more and more of our materials through DriveThru instead of Amazon.

As for the story before the fall, after the 13 book run of Dystopia Rising (not counting novels) is complete it is our intent to release the prequel story via the CHRONOS system. But even with the precursor story, the game will not take place in your traditional "Oh my god, the zombie apocalypse just started right now" sort of setting. While that story is fun, it’s been told a hundred thousand times in RPGs, movies, television, board games, card games, video games, and every other medium you could think of. When we release our precursor story, it will most likely have a timeline that ends with the watershed point of the world falling apart instead of focusing primarily on that moment.

Editor’s note: People involved with the game helped raise money to fight cancer. Read about it here.

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