Morristown hosts Zombie Apocalypse: The wonderfully weird world of Dexcon 15

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By Juliette San Fillipo

“You know you’ve always wanted to be an elven princess,” I hear Joe Bondi beckon from across an ivy- and candle-laden table at Dexcon 15 on Thursday.

My interest piqued, I arrive at his table and he explains the world of LARPing – Live Action Role Playing – to me in the context of his preferred game.

Bondi is the marketing officer for Knight Realms, a medieval-themed, action-packed LARP game that he promotes every year at Dexcon in the Hyatt Morristown.

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Dexcon 15 is a national, 96-hour spectacle featuring more than 1,000 events, including performances, video games, puzzles, LARPs, raffles, vendors, and even a buffet. The convention has more than 40 LARPs, more than 100 story games, hundreds of board games and card games, and dozens of other “wargaming” scenarios. More than 1,000 people pre-registered.

Dexcon had 550 attendees when Vincent Salzillo, President of Double Exposure Inc., started it in July 1992. His company also runs a year-long LRPG (or Live Role Playing Game) called Avatar System. Salzillo’s goal in organizing his own conventions was to promote new concepts in the gaming industry and create a hub for gamers.

Knight Realms fits comfortably into this world of gaming and imagination that Salzillo has invented as a medieval-renaissance themed action-rich game.

“With Knight Realms we prefer to call it a ‘live acting experience,’ because we all suspend belief together and play,” says Bondi, who participates in Knight Realms games himself.

The game’s administrators recently purchased Camp Sacajawea in Sparta, NJ, to create a “Renaissance paradise,” the ultimate site for live action games and their dedicated gamers. Bondi explains that a player can assume any role he or she chooses in Knight Realms–warlord, thief, and yes, even an elven princess.

But he claims it’s not just what you wear that makes LARPing so exciting; rather, it’s the people, the LARPers themselves, who make the games fulfilling experiences. They all are drawn to Dexcon–four days of nonstop action–for one reason:

“It’s where the gamers are. The people who play these games are the ones who really make them. The game is affected by all the roles people play and it forms a community,” says Bondi.

Ashton Bailey, a recent graduate of Morristown High School and fellow LARPer, agrees that part of the fun is getting to know the other players.

“I think the thing I love about LARP is meeting new people and having a chance to interact with them and tell stories. I think that’s one of the most essential parts of the experience. It’s great how you get to know these great people with really interesting personalities, and see what inspires them, as well as different sides of their personalities and imaginations,” says Bailey.

A LARPer is suited up and ready to play 'Knight Realms' at Dexcon 15 in Morristown. Photo by Juliette San Fillipo
A LARPer is suited up and ready to play 'Knight Realms' at Dexcon 15 in Morristown. Photo by Juliette San Fillipo

Being from Morristown also has enabled Bailey to attend Dreamation, a winter convention at the Hyatt run by Dexcon’s organizers. He admits that he wasn’t too keen on the whole concept until friends showed him a specific LARP game, Dystopia Rising, about three years ago.

“I’ve been playing it ever since,” he says.

Dystopia Rising takes place two generations after a contrived “zombie apocalypse.” The game happens once a month in Sparta, and has a promotional table at Dexcon.

“Most LARP games are based on elves, dragons, etc. This is more hands-on, and it involves zombies and raiders, a very savage group,” says Sean Jaffe, one of the game’s creators.

“Dystopia Rising is about a zombie apocalypse, and against that backdrop, the other biggest threat is the other survivors. This game is really about the American ‘Old West’ – about forging a civilization where there is nothing but chaos,” explains Jaffe.

LARPing involves cranking up the imagination and finding a niche within a game’s storyline and rules. As you connect with other players and game creators, it all seems to click.

“I haven’t branched out in the LARPs a whole lot but Dystopia Rising has to be the best I’ve done. I give a lot of the credit to the players and storytellers who not only enhance the experience of the world and the lore in terms of playing in it but also they’re just nice to have around,” says Bailey.

“There are a number of people there that I already know who I’ve gotten a chance to reconnect and connect with, while I’ve met a whole lot of exceptional individuals like Michael Pucci, Sean Jaffe, and dozens of others who are just a blast to have around,” says Bailey.

The gamer says he seldom gets teased for his choice of extracurriculars. He even has turned some of his friends on to the action.

“I have a few friends from school that I have introduced to Dystopia Rising in particular. Some really liked it and others felt like it wasn’t their crowd. I’ve been really surprised at how accepting of my LARPing most of my friends are, and I get very little heckling for it if any. For the most part I hang out with a pretty nerdy crowd anyways,” says Bailey.

Bailey claims that LARPs are special not because of their hobby, but because of what they do with that hobby – and how their talents shine through.

“Most of the individuals that I consider to be particularly extraordinary are such in their own right – I just happened to meet them within a LARP setting. There are so many talented and wonderful people that I’ve gotten to know through gaming and a lot of them are people that you’d be just as likely to run into on the street or in a restaurant,” says Bailey.

“I think that that’s one of the most overlooked details about the LARPing crowd: It’s the secretly profound populace coming out from masquerading as the mundane,” he says.

When he isn’t LARPing, Bailey plays video- and tabletop games with friends, and creates and consumes music.

“Music has always been a big part of my life, as big as my nerd life in fact. The one other thing I really love is to write. I think that’s one of the major things that really links me to gaming and geek culture: Story telling, telling and being involved in stories,” says Bailey.

“On top of that, I happen to be a huge fan of post-apocalyptic settings and zombies. I mean who isn’t, really?”

Call it theater of the mind. Gamers and enthusiasts converge at Dexcon to sell costumes and t-shirts, promote new LARP games, and display handiwork involved in creating LARP sets and tabletop games. Of course, they play the games, too, sometimes into the wee hours.

“I’ve been coming here since I was 16, and I’m 20 now, so that’s twice a year for four years. It’s awesome. The people here are super friendly, and I get to play a lot of games that I usually don’t get to do,” says Grace Summa, who lives two hours north in upstate New York.

Summa comes to play video games and tabletop games, such as her favorite, Settlers of the Catan. She also likes Morristown for all the town has to offer.

“We love our hotel. This hotel is fantastic. And the fact that it’s in a city means it’s within walking distance of so much,” says Avie Wing, one of the Dexcon event coordinators.

For one weekend each summer, Morristown becomes the center of the LARPing universe, a magnet for zombies, wizards and warlords. One visit and you might just find yourself fancying you’re an elven princess.

Admission at Dexcon 15 is $50 for Saturday, and $30 for Sunday.

MORE ABOUT DEXCON

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