Dystopia Rising is, in no small part, about crafting: in addition to the detailed costume guidelines in the rulebook, there are Facebook and Pinterest groups where people compare notes and show off projects, like hand-carved foam weaponry and armor they've made from hundreds of bottle caps. If you're not a regular larper, a veteran cosplayer, or a theater devotee, the bar for a good costume can feel dauntingly high, and that's before you start thinking about how to properly portray your strain of survivor. "Strains" are essentially your class or race, and they help shape the fiction of the world, indicating how other people will respond to you, what weaknesses and abilities you have, and how your ancestors made it through the collapse. They range from jingoistic "Mericans" to patrician "Pure Bloods" to the strain I would end up representing: the mutated, hideous Retrogrades. Generous players helped me assemble a sort of gritty black carapace, made of heavy plastic armor and an oversized duster, and a talented makeup artist slowly covered my face in a fantastic approximation of torn skin and open, weeping sores.

A makeup artist slowly covered my face in torn skin and open, weeping sores

The game has a tabletop rulebook and a series of novels associated with it, but it was originally and is best known as a larp. Everything is done through a combination of game rules and acting, including fighting, which is done with foam weapons or "boffers." If you want to hurt someone, you can do something like swing at them with a club or throw a bag representing a psionic power, while shouting the damage you're attempting to do. If you're a good fighter with a powerful weapon on paper, that number is higher. But you still have to land the blows. While it's not exactly realistic, larp combat isn't an unskilled activity. Plenty of people, myself included, didn't really know anything about fighting, but at least one was an experienced fencer who devoted nearly an hour teaching me how to wield two swords.

I'm not a stranger to RPGs or even entirely to larping. About five minutes after the game started, though, I knew that I was not remotely prepared for Dystopia Rising. I'd flipped through the manual but had forgotten most of what I knew about the complex system of religions, political bodies, and regional disputes that continued from game to game, and my character had only existed for a few hours. Dystopia Rising takes place in a big, complex world, especially when you consider the number of chapters spread across the country. In Hayven, there is a church that worships television signals. A handful of gangs occupy turf around the campground. Characters form tight friendships and rivalries that have nothing to do with real-world relationships. It's not just a game, it's a community.