Speaking as a lifelong nerd, I used to think of LARPing as a hobby for people with more time, money and desire to commit to escapism than me. I had no idea how people got into it. It felt pretty far down the rabbit hole, but I was open to trying it if it came my way.
"The hardest part about LARPing is your first game. Everything after that is easy," says Juliet Meyer, logistics director for the Colorado branch of Dystopia Rising, who holds around 16 years of LARPing experience. Outside of the apocalypse, she works in IT and creative services in the health care industry. Meyer co-runs the Colorado chapter with Director of Storytelling Raymond Bruels III, operations manager for a numismatic company when he's not co-running a haunted attractions-centric mask and props shop.
"Your first game there's the nervousness of what to expect, are you dressed right, is your character sheet well built, what if you don't know anyone, or what if I don't know a rule?" Meyer says. "Costumes can be bought at Goodwill stores or on Amazon, character sheets can be revised, rules can be reviewed, and your new friends are waiting to meet you."
Players' ages range from as young as 15 and 16 (with parental consent), going well into their 50s and 60s. But Meyer describes the typical DR player as "in their late 20s to early 30s, sociable, [and] employed."
"We have participants from all walks of life," says Bruels. "I've met doctors, lawyers, tradesmen, college students, business professionals — LARP does not discriminate and is an open hobby to anyone with an interest or passion."
"LARPing isn't about who you are in your day-to-day," says Meyer. "It's about stepping away from yourself and taking a mental vacation for a few days or a few hours."
In my case, last March a few friends, new to DR themselves, asked me to come along and check out a single afternoon, preseason event. It was affordable and outdoors, and I sorely needed exercise. Plus, I rightly assumed it would be easier to pretend a dead, brown March day was post-apocalypse Colorado than, say, a faux-English fantasy fiefdom. So I spent an afternoon skimming the free rulebook, wrote up a tough-guy bodyguard and built a costume from ratty clothes in my closet.
Over the course of the season, "Lucas" grew from a walking anger problem dressed like off-brand Kurt Cobain into someone three-dimensional, lived-in. As I learned more about the world, it got easier to get immersed. And with a lot of help, I built a more complex costume, too. The resulting pride from making something cool and developing a satisfying character arc is its own reward — you get out what you put in.
Still, the sheer scale and openness that makes the game exciting does tend to build up a perceived barrier to entry for first-timers. Everyone who LARPs has to overcome it — even co-owner/co-founder Michael Pucci.
"My first exposure to LARP was in 1994 with a Vampire game," he says. "At first I didn't really dig it because the people involved in the game were really caught up in their own things and it sort of felt like I was visiting someone else's family reunion. Sure, it seemed like people were enjoying themselves, but I wasn't sure how. I went back to the game a few times and joined a couple friends to try a boffer [foam weapon] LARP called Pandemonium.
"It wasn't until a LARP in Scotland when I was visiting my brother that the hobby bit me. The game took place at a pub, there were scenesters all playing the game and having drinks, and they asked me to NPC [non-player character — a character designed by the storyteller(s)] a vamp hunter."
He started running his first LARP in 1996, taking only a few breaks since. Now 38, he makes his living mostly with LARPing, but that's a pretty recent shift. When Dystopia Rising first debuted in 2009, Pucci and co-owner/co-founder Ashley Zdeb were both employed more than full-time.
"I was working about 70 hours a week on the road as a field manager overseeing licensed businesses and was expected to be on call for these businesses another 20-plus hours a week. Ashley was doing 70-plus hours working for a company that really did not treat its employees like humans," he says. "The entire time we were doing this we were running a game that was regularly 40 or so people out of my house or a park. Supporting this game to the level we wanted to was like having another part-time job, and really we were reaching a point where we needed to change how the overall work and life equation was working... I finally looked at Ashley and said 'I want to run LARPs for a living.' She said 'Well... do it then.'"
Going fully professional was a big learning experience for the couple. But as with anything worth doing, they persevered and have built their game into a collection of small companies that keep them and others afloat. Eschaton Media is the publication arm, producing print and digital materials, like the rulebook. Dystopia Rising LLC handles the franchise network, producing materials and supporting the franchised chapters. And Imagine Nation Collective produces their bigger live events, including an upcoming collaborative event for which they've rented the entirety of the battleship USS New Jersey.