REENFIELD — For 36 hours each month, Silas Sturgill becomes a meaner, sneakier, villainous version of himself that he calls Benji Peroxide.
Benji is part human, part zombie — alien to anything found in Indiana today. He exists centuries after an apocalypse and is trying to survive the aftermath.
Benji is a character in a live-action role-playing game called Dystopia Rising, which is played by thousands of people across the country. Sturgill of Indianapolis is one of more than 150 people who come to Nameless Creek Youth Camp in Greenfield each month to take part in the Indiana’s version of the sport.
Live-action role-playing, or LARPing, is a game in which participants act out the adventures of a character in an imaginary universe. It’s like dinner theater whose actors are also the audience, Sturgill said. The story develops over the course of a weekend, a 36-hour improvisation session in which every movement influences the plot.
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Whatever its definition, Indiana’s Dystopia Rising LARP event is making an impact in Greenfield. The group’s regular visits to Nameless Creek, including the latest this past weekend, help the nonprofit meet its annual financial goals. In fact, the group’s rental fees account for more than half of the fees the camp collects in a year, camp leaders said.
Dystopia Rising follows a storyline written by New Jersey native Michael Pucci.
In his writing, Pucci created a history and a culture that exists years after the world has ended. Humanity as it is known in 2015 is far, far gone, players say, replaced by a mutated mixture of creatures.
Pucci trademarked Dystopia Rising, and his writing turned into a rulebook for a game that is now played in more than a dozen communities across the country. Local writers are encouraged to craft their own plot lines, using Pucci’s work as a backdrop for the story.
There’s considerable freedom in planning each local event, but one rule of Pucci’s is always followed — no two Dystopia Rising events may be conducted closer than 200 miles from another, the idea being that regional events will draw larger groups of people who form a community.
Indiana’s first event was conducted in Nameless Creek in January 2014. Each monthly gathering since has drawn actors from across the Midwest and beyond, with the most recent event bringing participants from as far as Hawaii and Alaska.
Matt Butler of Indianapolis is responsible for bringing the event to Indiana.
After traveling to participate in versions of the game in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas, he sat down and started writing the Hoosier state’s Dystopia Rising story. The story Butler penned tells tales of the Battle of Noblesville, the Fortress of Iu (a play on Indiana University) and the city-state of Munsee.
“Each game has its own feel, its own unique civilization,” Butler said. “There are existing rules in the gaming world, but each has its own flavor.”
Dystopia Rising can be likened to a few things in pop culture today, players said.
Some players compare it to the Mad Max movie series, while others say it’s similar to a video game called Fallout. It’s not too far off from the zombie apocalypse storyline made popular in “The Walking Dead” television series, but Dystopia Rising is set farther in the future, said Danie Davis, an event organizer.
“Take ‘The Walking Dead’ and put us about four generations past that,” she said. “So now, there are people who are half-zombie, trying to survive in a culture with retrogrades.”
On LARPing weekends, Nameless Creek transforms in the players’ minds. They leave their realities at the door, Davis said. It’s most successful when the players combine Pucci’s backstory with their own imaginations, she said. They have to stick to a few set guidelines when building their characters, but for the most part the persona they present during the event is entirely their own creation.
That process is perhaps the most interesting aspect of LARPing, Katherine Majewski said. The game’s creators provide the history of the fictional world. The rest comes straight from a player’s artistry.
Characters’ names often come from the remains of the fictional fallen world, Majewski said. She’s heard of a character named T.J. Maxx and another named Wal Mart, and a whole family in the Texas game uses the last name, Cola.
“These are people we (at the Indiana game) have never met before; we just hear about them from travelers that come from other games,” she said.
Costumes are key to bringing their characters to life, Sturgill said.
Benji Peroxide wears a camouflage jacket and old boots that Sturgill found at a thrift store. A pair of blue jeans drapes across Benji’s chest in a makeshift shoulder holster, holding weapons that are made of only foam in Sturgill’s world but are deadly in Benji’s universe.
Throughout the weekend event, Sturgill does his best to fully immerse himself in the Dystopia Rising world: He brews tea in a repurposed pickle jar (because there are no pitchers in the apocalypse, of course); and he uses an olive jar as a glass because modern-day cups are gone, too.
Writers, or storytellers, are on hand to provide new scenes and situations that will advance the plot, players said. There are battles and deaths, relationships and religions, struggles with good and evil.
“You’re surviving in a harsh (fictional) world with your out-of-game buddies. We’ll travel to other games together. We’ll hang out together,” Butler said. “Its very community-oriented. It’s a community first and a game second.”
With about a dozen games in place and more popping up around the country each year, Dystopia Rising has created a strong network of players. They form friendships with the players they’ve met and even follow the storyline of fictional characters they’ve never encountered in person but have heard about online.
For those who participate in the Indiana game, the monthly trips to Greenfield are like small reunions.
With each trip here, the group strives to leave the campsite better than when it arrived, said Jerry Bell, the camp’s director said.
When the Dystopia Rising group members come to Nameless Creek, they rent the entire grounds for four days, Bell said.
He estimated that Dystopia Rising amounts for 50 percent of the camp’s annual rental revenues, and the group also makes regular donations to the nonprofit.
Players recently pulled together enough money to buy and install a new air conditioner in the camp’s kitchen facility and to purchase new trash cans to be placed around the property.
The guaranteed monthly income, as well as the extra aid, has given Nameless Creek’s leaders the confidence to move forward with construction projects that will expand the camp’s offerings and in turn make it more accommodating for big groups like Dystopia Rising, Bell said.
“Dystopia has made some wonderful contributions,” he said. “They’ve been so good, and it’s such a great partnership to have. It’s amazing what their visits have done to help sustain us.”