Among the Pines, the Dystopia is Rising

You take the highway into the countryside north of Gainesville, far away from any of the urban centers that would be hit hardest in a brisk exchange of ICBMs. Then it’s two miles up a dirt road called SE Bible Camp Street to the turn-off that goes another half mile through the woods to the aftermath.

It’s a collection of sagging cabins with jury-rigged electricity in among the tall trees and the spiderwebs, where a small village struggles against the monsters, mutants, and zombies that own the wilderness, and the residents struggle for power and wealth amongst themselves. This Bartertown, this Megaton, this Fort Hawthorne from Community’s “A Fistful of Paintballs”, is the place they call Gatorland.

The great grandchildren of the few who survived The Fall don’t really know what happened – only that the last war made homo sapiens an endangered species, and that the map of the continent is now just a wide scattering of places like this, with nothing but Zed, raiders, and dead Walmarts for hundreds of miles between. This is Dystopia Rising – this is LARPing on the epic level.

From their website.

From their website.

This Dying of the Light Is Brought To You By…

Matt Asbell is the Coordinating Director, and he has a face like you’d see around. He looks just like the guy who manages the Winn-Dixie, which is probably no coincidence because that is his day job. This normalcy is a façade for a superlative gamer geek. Born in Honolulu, he came to Florida as a child. He met his wife at a LARP. When queried by email about his involvement in DR Florida, he responded:

“I got started with Dystopia Rising when I was looking for something more out of my LARP experience in the Spring of 2013. I’d done parlor or “salon” LARPs like Vampire the Masquerade for over a decade, and while I still enjoy them, I was seeking a more intense and immersive experience. When some of my friends started talking on social media about this new LARP called Dystopia Rising, I decided to check it out. I flew up to the original game in New Jersey and attended one of the events, shadowed some of their staff, and met the owners and creators of the game. I was very impressed with what I saw all around from the costuming, and the stories the staff laid out for the weekend, to the player investment and involvement in this totally immersive environment. So I decided to put in an application to run Dystopia Rising in Florida. After some extensive world building and plot writing our application was approved and I became the Coordinating Director, along with my partner Adam Lobar, who became the Storytelling Director. Together we invested months of time and resources to building our own staff of marshals and storytellers, crafting weapons and props, seeking out campsites appropriate to run game, and advertising this new LARP in Florida. In July of 2013 we had our first game that included a little over 30 local players and over 20 players from other Dystopia Rising games that came to attend our opening event. Now, over two years later we average over 100 players per event, with nearly a dozen new players every game, and we’re still growing! Being able to provide a game of that size and quality to so many people is a dream come true compared to my roots playing tabletop in my friend’s basement. The community of gamers and friends nationwide and thousands of members deep is absolutely worth every bit of blood and tears that went into making Dystopia Rising: Florida a reality. Every game I get to see my players’ cheers and excitement, to watch their emotions run from terrified screams and desperate tears, to battle charged thrill and exhausted smiles, and see the friendships built and fostered in game and out of game. The community really makes it worth every bit, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Storyteller Director Adam Lobar, left, and Storyteller Ryan Donaldson.

Storytelling Director Adam Lobar, left, and Storyteller Ryan Donaldson.

Adam Lobar is a burly man in his early thirties, with a sea captain’s beard, a surprisingly soft voice, and a resume that includes years on the ballistic missile submarine USS Florida, where he lurked beneath the waves ready to surprise his country’s foes with atomic incineration. This job might have inspired him to think about what comes after LAUNCH.

Born in Miami, he has traveled extensively, especially during his time in the Navy. He made money in real estate after he got back to dry land. Now he lives in Gainesville, and when asked what his day job is, he says, “I do this full time”. He is the Storytelling Director.

An experienced LARPer, Mr. Lobar was first invited to try Dystopia Rising in New Jersey about three years ago, along with Mr. Asbell. New Jersey was where the post-apocalypse started; there are now DR chapters in thirteen American states and one Canadian province.

“At the time, we were skeptical,” Mr. Lobar says. “It was very different from what we had previously done.”

But he and Mr. Asbell was quickly fascinated.

“We started running a tabletop game, just to immerse ourselves into the setting, and learn about it. And from that point on, we decided, ‘This is really for us.’”

It was really, really, for them. One crowdfunding campaign later, and Gatorland was born.

Mr. Lobar is the George R.R. Martin of the irradiated swamps. “I write the plots, and we call them ‘mods’, that go out and tell the story of Dystopia Rising Florida. So I set up the overarching story, months at a time”.

He answers the question “Why?” without hesitation. “I love writing for Dystopia Rising, and I love the interactions that people have with the game. Even when they’re scared, even when they’re running away from stuff…I love the way they have just this great time. Also, I like writing. It gives me a chance to do that and coordinate with the people who now have become my friends.”

If you are going to have a conversation with a Dystopian about their game, you are going to have a conversation about their tribe. Mr. Lobar is no exception.

“One of the things about Dystopia Rising, and I know it’s something that we harp on…the community is one of the best things about this game. And I’ve been roleplaying for probably thirteen, fourteen years now. The great thing about LARP is that you can get in a screaming match with somebody, yell at somebody, even kill their character. But after that, you will grab a beer with them, and just hang out. It allows such a large range of emotion. And it allows people to really experience so many different things that they would be afraid to experience in life, and just let it out. And just allow friendships to form along the way.”

About the writing, he says, “Here, I get to see [my ideas] come to life, which is great.”

Ryan Donaldson is twenty-eight years old. Hawk-faced, tall and thin, he was dressed in black slacks and a black button-down long sleeve when I arrived on Friday night. “I want you to Zed up, that’s the next thing,” is the kind of thing you hear him saying to non-player characters whom he will soon dispatch to come staggering out of the trees.

Storyteller Donaldson, seated, wearing green headband.

Storyteller Donaldson, seated, wearing green headband.

Mr. Donaldson arrived at Gatorland on a corporate reconnaissance mission. “I came here actually to do niche market study for the theme park industry. There’s a lot of really interesting things that are trend sent by Dystopia Rising, so I was interested in checking those out from a marketing perspective. And then I really fell in love with it. It’s a fantastic community, so.” So that was nearly three years ago.

Mr. Donaldson’s day job – what he does, one senses, when he is waiting to play Dystopia Rising – is gamification consultant. He is the guy you hire if you want your corporate branding and intellectual property transformed into a game. But…

“Here at Dystopia Rising, I am a storyteller. While I also of course use my marketing knowledge outside of the actual game floor, on more of a business side point. I, here, on the game floor, assist in the creation of a lot of the amazing plots that people will see out there.”

What this means is that he spends a lot of time at the cabin marked “Cooks”, which residents of this little outpost call “NPC Land”. There he confers with his other storytellers, including Mr. Lobar, marshals his Marshals, briefs his non-player characters on how to cause trouble and heartache, and sends them out into the camp to, “Fulfill a lot of people’s fears, like arachnophobia is very popular…and that really affected a lot of people. And that’s the most rewarding part, because even when somebody is crying after a module, they are growing as human beings. And that’s not something that I really expected to get out of this, but it’s probably one of the most satisfying parts.”

And why is he so interested in this catharsis-through-narrative that Aristotle would have Facebook “liked”?

“Because it’s really ridiculously fun. It’s probably the biggest reason. The community is really fantastic, too. As fun as it is, I feel like I would have been really overloaded with it. If everybody wasn’t so inviting”.

To new players, he has this to say: “The best thing that I can say to anybody who is looking to come for the first time is, definitely, of course, come. But try to make as many mistakes as possible. When people are like, ‘Don’t go run out there!’, run out there.”

From their website.

From their website.


Roleplaying in the Ruins

Dystopia Rising is full-immersion live action roleplaying. They have a game once a month at the Florida Bible Camp in High Springs. It starts at 9:45 PM on Friday night – although many players arrive hours earlier – and doesn’t end until noon on Sunday; although many players stay long afterward, to linger among friends in their future dark age. As I heard from more than one person during my time as The Wind in Gatorland, “you’re sleeping in character”. It’s an improv master class as much as it is any kind of game. The players clearly relish that.

In The Gator Pit, the village pub, I saw one young man in salvaged tactical gear practice his character’s thousand-yard stare for fifteen minutes in the middle of a talkative crowd. On one of Gatorland’s sandy roads, I watched a very large and slow-speaking man in a helmet be tutored in the local laws on killing by a small woman with flame red hair. There was no one to see them until I came along; they just stood there with their shadows in the sun, improvising dialogue.

That's them.

That’s them.

I observed conversations about the weather, about perimeter defenses, about money and business, about other settlements long and perilous journeys away (DR chapters outside Florida); and a lot of hushed, clandestine conversations about the upcoming elections, the true nature of democracy, and whether or not the current “governor” was a despot who should be deposed.

Nobody is getting fat at Dystopia Rising. Never mind the tower of Dunkin Donuts boxes that kicked off the Friday night pre-game. The camp is large and the buildings are small, so if you’re playing, you’re walking – running, too, when the Zeds shamble in, groaning for meat. And although this is DR Florida, the cosplay fashion definitely ran to layers. If it wasn’t tactical vests over t-shirts or leather armor reinforced with rivets and strips of license plates, it was overcoats and woolen scarves, subtropical summer who cares? At Dystopia Rising, they are sweating out the dark age, like gamer geek crossfit.

I was The Wind. This means that I was given a green headband to wear that marked me as non-existent. The staff wear them too. Player characters ignored me unless I put my fist to my forehead, the sign for “out of character”, and spoke to them – or if they mistook me for someone who could help, like a Marshal. On Friday night at 10:00 PM, I went along on the new player mod – we were a group of travelers being led into the settlement by a local guide.

Before we began, I made an announcement that I was not a player. I was The Wind because I was writing an article about –

I was interrupted by a lean man, shirtless under his overcoat, who wanted to tell me that I was totally going to be back as a player the next month.

– and not because I was a Storyteller or Marshal, so please don’t look to me to adjudicate the rules.

Law and order in Gatorland.

Law and order in Gatorland.

This was how I ghosted a frightened mob of people down a sand road at night with pine trees pressing in on each side. Their brains fell out right away. They didn’t watch sectors, they didn’t communicate, they didn’t even sort out who had weapons and who didn’t. They just surged one way and another when the zombies shambled out of the trees at them, or stood around with dumb looks on their faces. When they heard a woman screaming for help up ahead, they broke into a stampede without any thought that it could be an ambush.

Wow, I thought. This is why everybody is dead in the post-apocalypse.

Then we encountered Gatorland’s sentries, and after a tense game of Who The Fuck Are You? between a frightened mob of sheep and a trio of trigger-happy soldiers, it was on to the Gator Pit and integration with the life of the community. It was “game on” for the next forty hours.

A lot of Dystopia Rising is like this. With a hundred or more players spread out over two hundred acres of camp, it is impossible for any one player to really know what is going on. 7 AM Saturday morning, three people I had not met died while I slept, in terrorist bombings of murky origin and motive. You can only watch parts of it, and very often, by sunlight or starlight, you will see eight armed people marching purposefully, mysteriously, together; or you will hear distant screaming and the clack of Nerf guns, you will glimpse a teenaged sub-human mutant loping through the trees, and Matthew Arnold will come to mind.

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

A man has died, screaming promises of vengeance. Storyteller Donaldson adjudicates.

A man has died, screaming promises of vengeance. Storyteller Donaldson adjudicates.

Battles are common, but Dystopia Rising is also full of politics. There are different genetic strains, basically ethnic groups, that jockey against each other. There are different religions. The dominant religion in Gatorland is NukeFam, or Nuclear Family. Mom, Dad, and the kids, the way Rick Santorum remembers it. I also witnessed a nighttime congregation of another faith, the Church of the Telling Visions. Before the last war, everyone had a magic box that would tell them prophesies and wonders, and for the devoted, those days will come again. The priest, with TV antennae sprouting from his shoulders, exhorted the faithful, “Praise NBC, praise ABC, praise CBS, praise PBS! Praise the signal!”

In order to help keep the game going, death is mostly temporary. Each character has an Infection attribute, which is the number of times you can die and rise again. But while you are dead, you experience The Gravemind – a personalized haunted house designed around your character. It is the reason that Storyteller Donaldson exhorts you to, “Run out there”.

“If you’re, ‘I want full hands on! I want gore pouring on me! I want somebody to sponge-bath me in the blood!’? Yeah, we’ll do it. You know, we have people who are specifically trained in that, and have a team devoted towards making sure that if you die, you are going to have the best experience,” Donaldson says.

Once you run out of Infection respawns, though, he explains, “you actually rise as living dead, you rise as a zombie, and you get to attack the town with a horde of zombies based around your character.”

One woman I spoke to is twenty-three years old. Her character’s name is Holliday. She told me, “I live down by Miami. So I’ve got a long drive.” When asked to describe her life in the real world, she said, “I’m a student, a mom, I have an internship. And I also volunteer a lot.”

How did you come to Gatorland, Holliday? “I’m a little bit different. A lot of people came here because they had friends that did it. I didn’t know a single person when I came here. I found it online. I found it online, I contacted our new player Marshal, Eric Hamilton. I asked him a bunch of questions, and I just came out here and loved it.”

She’d had almost no gaming experience before, except for being bored by tabletop RPGs a few times. But Dystopia Rising enchanted her right away. “This is my fifth game in Gatorland. And I’ve also traveled to two other games. In Indiana, which is the Fields of Iron game, and the Pennsyltucky game, which is in Pennsylvania.”

When asked why she keeps coming back, she does not grope for words. “I love the people, and I love their characters. I enjoy all the fun I get to have. It’s a great escape…I get to run around and pretend like it’s the end of the world, and watch people kill zombies. Why wouldn’t I want to come?”

To new players, she would say, “It’s definitely worth it. I love everyone that works here. They do an amazing job, game and game again. The whole entire network, now international, is amazing. And I haven’t met a single person I haven’t liked. And I’ve always had fun…even when I’ve been diseased for eight hours, locked in a room.”

If you talk with a Dystopian about their game, you are going to talk with them about their tribe.

Laura DeLucio Gross was there for the first time. Thirty-eight years old, she was born outside of Chicagoland, but now lives in Gainesville. Describing herself, she says, “I’m an independent student. I’ve been an independent student since high school. I took some college and stuff. But I do air conditioning, and I also am customer service for a citrus shipper here in Florida.”

When asked why she chose to attend DR, she said, “I have a strong interest in the whole zombie look of things. I think that the core society, our communities, are going to be basically our backbone of what’s going to save us in case anything happens.” We talked about our shared opinion that too few people are prepared for emergencies, whether that be a hurricane, home invasion, or civilization being perforated with atomic bombs and overrun by Zeds.

She expresses a keen interest in the workings of small communities under stress. “I think it’s interesting how it displays itself when people are given free rein, and the rules are changed in a way that is more conducive to individuality.”

In the midst of her first DR experience, she said, “So far, I am really intrigued. I like the characters, I like how, um, the backstory? How they definitely put a lot of thought into their literature. So it’s kind of easy to either jump in, and join as a walk-on, and it’s also easy to get the gist of it online. And everyone is extremely helpful. This is probably the most supportive community that I have been a part of.”

By Saturday morning, Ms Gross had already banded together with some other newcomers to form their own faction in the frontier settlement, and her daughter is planning to join her there in an upcoming game. She’s making her own community already.

Some players at rest.

Some players at rest.

Other players.

Other players.

Some more players.

Some more players.

Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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