Meet Michael Pucci, of Eschaton Media, creators of the zombie apocalypse larp (and soon to be tabletop game) Dystopia Rising. The boffer larp version of this game has garnered a remarkable legion of undead followers in the New Jersey area over the last eighteen months. Michael and his team have their sights set on a business empire though — they’ve sold scripts for a SyFy show based on DR, and are preparing to franchise to a city near you.
Via email, Michael kindly answered a few of my queries about DR, the state of American larp, and his plans for the future.
What prompted you to create a zombie apocalypse larp?
As a fan of both the Mad Max inspired apocalyptic visual design and also the horror genre as a whole I wanted to put together a world that allowed for a grittier and different approach to larping
Zombies fascinate me; I’ve always seen them as a metaphor for banal life instead of some supernatural creature to be feared. I saw zombies in media representing mindless consumerism, mob mentalities, blind patriotism, mindless service jobs, and even mindless small talk conversations. I thought it was fantastic to see cutting social commentary under the guise of a blood soaked horror flick. Translation for the metaphorically inept: we *ARE* zombies and we don’t even know it.
This was really driven home when I went to go see Land of the Dead in the theaters back in 2005. The movie came out in June and a myself and a group of friends went to see it at the end of June beginning of July. The movie had a reoccurring theme of ‘sky flowers’ which were fireworks that caused the huge masses of zombies to stop and look up at the sky motionless for a little bit. The entire movie was a veiled commentary about blind patriotism and government as secluded from the masses.
When we left the movie theater and walked outside the parking lot was filled with people stopped in their tracks. More people were standing on the grass area, some stopped as they were getting into their cars door mid swing. In the sky 4th of July fireworks were going off, and over forty people were perfect copies of the faces I saw the zombies make when the sky flowers were going off. That moment really stuck with me and it carried into my game writing.
How long did it take to create? What was the most difficult part of designing the game?
The concept knocked around in my head for a few years in different formats than it’s current existence, but the actual writing of the system itself took less than a year from the moment I initially did the game and world design. The hardest part about the designing process was ensuring that the game design that worked in initial construction had space to grow five years down the line and would allow for character growth without causing a massive rift between new players and players with ten years of experience.
Almost any game can work for the first year as long as you have an engrossing game world, and ensure that your established players do not completely make your new players feel irrelevant and unable to effect the world.
Was this your first attempt at designing a game?
Oh, god no. This is just the first time I have allowed anyone other than my cats to read my game designs. I have four other completely different larps written as well as a large number of first drafts for other table top games.
What sort of game experience do you want your players to have?
Fun? Is that a valid answer? I mean I want players to be able to be as immersed in plot or as sandbox free as they feel while still providing environment and world story that allows players to be a part of the world. Some players love running through the woods and hitting things with sticks, so we make sure those module opportunities exist. Some players love complex riddles and political plots, so we introduce a heavy thread of those as well. Really, if the players want to be scared the opportunity is there. If the players want to fight the opportunity is there. If the players want their heart broken with moral gray area and dynamic emotional tension, the opportunity is there.
Did you start out with ideas of franchising the game out to say, Seattle? How did that happen?
Part of where I see most game designs falter and fail is in long term or extensive growth planning. When writing Dystopia Rising we included the tools for franchises, networking, cross promotion, and mixed media without having it be a necessary part of the game. While the goal was/is to provide a networked world of larps that allow for a player to travel to interact with new people, play under new STs [Storytellers], and have new experiences we designed the world so that the stand alone game can excel without neighboring games.
Right now, multiple people have expressed interest in starting franchises, from Seattle to San Diego, to Delaware, to Ontario… but we need to make sure we have the right people on board with the right vision to start these games. Dystopia Rising has a specific business and game design that potential franchisers need to understand before getting involved. Right now we have over four hundred active players at our Sparta NJ game, with an average game having 180+ players at it. Franchisers need to understand not only the story telling design of the world, but also the business design so that they can be just as successful if not more so.
Do you think larp is poised to crossover into the American mainstream?
I’m of two minds right now. I feel that larping and gaming as a whole have the potential to step over and become more accepted by mainstream America if the current people who participate in larp and run larps allow it to be.
Is the interest there? Without a doubt. In the past month we have sold a pilot script and future rights to a TV series and also a potential video game to New York TV reps with the intent of the project going to the SyFy channel. The series is based off of one story arc of the Dystopia Rising world, and more over, we were approached, rather than submitting work for approval. If the pilot is picked up, we are looking at a five-year series under the working title Guts N Bolts.
TV executives, movie producers, and the movers and shakers in social America have become aware of the gaming culture as a whole but do not completely understand the world as of yet. With movies such as Role Models, the new 7-11 commercial that uses larping for the punchline, and the upcoming movie Knights of Badassdom I feel as if media executives are just starting to test the waters of the gaming community to see if they can, to a degree, use it in regards to the mainstream.
The same process was applied to other ‘traditionally geek’ forms of entertainment with rousing success. Anime, as an example, wasn’t always something that was a staple of TV. There was a time where fans of anime had to get their fan-dubbed films by making a trip to the underground mall in Chinatown or find it through a friend of a friend. Slowly it was seen as a viable market by the powers that be, and now you can watch anime on TV and buy your favorite miniature monster game at any mega-market.
What needs to happen in order for larp to become mainstream?
I think whether larping becomes acceptable to the mass public of America will rely mostly on the people who are currently running games and the larpers themselves however. Larpers have a tendency to perpetuate the ‘closet gamer’ mentality where they are ashamed to tell their friends and co-workers that they are a larper. This mindset causes larpers to not use the best form of advertisement for their hobby, which is word of mouth.
I also think that gaming as a whole will need to change a little for it to be acceptable on a larger scale. This is a difficult concept to completely express as a game writer and story teller, but, I will give it my best. Table top gaming as a whole has not changed much in the way of technology or format since 1977 with the advent of Dungeons & Dragons. While game systems, themes, and content have changed not many games have actually stepped past the pen and paper approach to gaming. While some people would say, ‘Don’t fix what isn’t broken’, I believe that we have opportunities in digital means that excels well beyond our already existing simple gaming applications. One of the primary focuses of my company, Eschaton Media, is taking old school gaming and applying these tools to more modern approaches for gaming.
The same, in my opinion, needs to be done to extend larp into the mainstream. Latex weapons need to become less expensive and more varied than your standard thee-thou armory. Games need to stop producing more and more ‘clone’ larps and actually producing new themes and environments that can draw in the public (remember, not everyone liked Lord of the Rings). Games need to start organizing themselves more like companies so that they can afford things such as mass marketing, advertisement, professional photographers, and be ready to have a lawyer available IF a media company comes knocking on the door.
Outside of DR, what’s your favorite game to play and why?
Tough question. I personally am a fan of both the Call of Cthulhu universe as well as the Changeling: The Dreaming game worlds. I enjoy both of these two settings because they offer opportunities for moral gray areas, incredible moral quandaries, fantastic world settings, and endless opportunities for creating a world that is custom to the players who are playing in the world. I will play damn near any game at least once…
Bent on ruling the world with an apocalyptic cult following as a young man, Michael found himself distracted and had his focus shifted from the glamorous profession of world conquest to the world of gaming. Willing to try damn near any table top game or larp, as a Storyteller Michael found himself more and more frustrated with systems that focus so much on mechanics that they actually take away from the experience of the players. After wandering the wastelands of gaming basements for almost two decades looking for the holy grail of gaming systems, he decided that if there was to be change… it must come from within. Sitting down with a crack team of zombie-cyborg-ninjas, Michael created the Dystopia Rising setting and began writing both larp and table top rule books.