Today, I’m going to talk a bit about Dystopia Rising: New Jersey. For those that don’t know, this is the New Jersey branch of a post-apocalyptic horror survival game that spans across the United States. For the past few months, I’ve worked as the game’s Director of Storytelling, managing storytellers and bringing the world to life. And I’ve loved every minute of it.
First, I’m going to tell you a bit about my history with the game. Before becoming the director, I was a storyteller. Before I was a storyteller, I was a coordination marshal. Even before that, I was an avid player, attending almost every month to enjoy an escape into the apocalypse (I started back in 2012, when I was covering DR:NJ as a journalist. I know. I’ve played a LOT.).
Because of this history, I have a very good sense of what happens both “on the stage” and “behind the scenes” when it comes to running the game (Seriously. One of these days I’ll write a blog post about the ridiculous things we’ve had to deal with on a staff side.). And that’s exactly why today, I’m going to talk a little bit about the game’s “gang system.”
The in-character name for the DR:NJ game is “Hayven.” Because Hayven is right on the suburbs of “Old York” (the name for the fallen city of New York), the game has adopted the same system that can be seen within the Dystopia Rising source books: the gang system. It encourages players to form groups as their characters, and then work within these groups (and with other groups, or “gangs”) to solve issues that may be occurring around the town.
Now recently, I’ve heard all sorts of reasons why the gang system was first introduced. I’ve heard that it was to encourage conflict. I’ve heard that it was to stop conflict. I’ve heard that it was to “divide” the town.
The fact of the matter is, none of these are correct. The gang system was largely implemented because of a little-known issue: information transfer. Games often use in-game ways to solve out-of-game issues, which is exactly what happened with the gang system.
Back in the day, people (including myself as my character, Alexa), would go out and gather information about plots and story. We would then tell the Council (aka: the five or so characters in charge) about what was going on, and then they would decide the town’s fate.
There were a few issues with the Council and this system, which is exactly why the gang system was then introduced. What were these issues? Great question.
The Council Wouldn’t Always Share All of the Information. Many times, Council members would either forget to or just didn’t share information with the rest of the town. This meant that any plot would literally only hit about 5 players—which obviously doesn’t make for a good game. Not only that, but you wound up with situations like Tristan Falls, where a core group of people only told selective information to Hayven—and the result was the mass killing of an entire town.
Players Were Afraid of Engaging Plot. Part of engaging plot is making mistakes and having fun! We want our characters to suffer as we have a blast getting them into trouble. However, many characters were “punished” by the Council for engaging in plot negatively. This resulted in a lot of people just passing the buck rather than going on modules.
Council Members Got Headaches. You’re in power. You’re in charge of everyone. It’s great, right? Wrong. Even the Council members disliked the Council. They were blamed for any decisions they made (and most decisions in the post-apocalypse are a double-edged sword), they couldn’t keep anyone happy, and they generally felt like they were “going to work” rather than playing a game. Most characters who were part of the Council became bitter and jaded over time.
In order to break this issue, the gang system was instituted (Side note: Even if Hayven had chosen to side with the Ayesea, there still would have been a “group” system of some kind. The players chose Old York in the end--which is why there are now gangs.). This put the power in the hands of several groups placed around town. ANYONE could be in charge—as long as they had 10 members and 20 credits. Not only did this allow information to flow more freely through the game, but it also gave people the ability to engage with plot. Since it was introduced, I’ve seen different people engage with plot, and have not seen another “Tristan Falls” incident.
Does the gang system have conflict? Sure. Does it not have conflict? Depends. The fact of the matter is, it’s done what it’s set out to do—which is put information into the hands of the players. Like it or not, the gang system is an effective system—and one that’s fun to roleplay with friends.
Show off your gang pride with patches. Set up banners. Decorate your gang’s area. Be happy about being in a group where you can work with one another. And if you don’t like your gang? Then you can always create your own group.
See you in the apocalypse, kids.