Larp and the joy of collective bullshit
Or, how to get over yourself and create like a kid again.
“Professor, I showed this wand to Professor Miclariotic, and he said you might be able to tell me something about the design.”
“Professor, there’s a Golem in the dungeon! What do we do?”
“Professor, I’ve been sorted into the wrong house! You have to do something!”
“Professor, do you have a rune for… uh, impulse… control?”
Pro tip: When someone asks you things like this, just make up bullshit. It feels great.
At time of writing, I’m 37 years old. I like stories. I like games. And psychology. And politics. And improvisation. And thinking about the ways people interact with each other. I like imagination and I’m not afraid to admit it — although it does lead me to do things like spend upwards of 700 euros on a weekend in Poland, pretending to be magic.
Frankly, I have no regrets over playing Professor Grimelda Aloysius Crumplebottom, ex-Hufflepuff, ex-Dumbledore’s Army, now teacher of Ancient Runes at the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Poland. Although, when Claus Raasted launched the project last spring, all of my guilty pleasure alarms went off full steam.
Although my background is in theatre and performance art, I’m a long-time convert to the Nordic larp scene. We do, y’know, serious larps. About being a prisoner, or an abuser, or a person dying of a disease, or a person going through a terrible breakup, or subjected to torture, or immersed in worlds of alternate gender roles, power structures, and privileges. We even have a conference once a year where we have danceoke parties alongside wee-hours arguments about how best to manage psychological safety and the dangers of cultural appropriation. The way I understand things, our roles and narratives and even our morality are all subject to what is considered “normal” in our environment. So, if you want to think about a new way of doing things, one way to do that is to immerse yourself in a new idea of reality. It just so happens that there are a few hundred people who are also into the same thing, so we get to play out our experiments on a pretty grand scale. It’s about fun and seriousness—it’s art.
I’d never actually done a larp before just for fun. And if I’m honest, I did look down on any high fantasy campaigns. Honestly, when you have the potential to bodily put yourself in the closest, safest thing you can get to another person’s lived experience and discover something really amazing—why waste your time on hackneyed tropes that offer plenty of escapism, but so little in potential for reflection and real-world change?
Thankfully, I knew half of the people attending the first Czocha larp, and they were all hardcore torture-me-for-fun types as well. I joined a few other Finns by flying in to Berlin and taking a car from there to Poland. Our roadtrip conversation revolved quite a lot around the theme “I’m nearly 40 years old; remind me what I’m about to do again?”
“How do you pronounce accio?”
“I suppose the benefit of using intellectual property as the basis for a game is that all the players have a shared vocabulary… but fucked if I know that vocabulary!”
“Did anyone actually bring dress robes?”
“Faust, Durentius… what are the other three Houses?”
“I have to know this stuff.”
“I have to TEACH this stuff!”
“I just hope it’s at least as good as Celestra.”
I guess the point is that yeah, we’re a bunch of nerds, but we’re larp nerds first, and Harry Potter fans second. I was probably the biggest HP fan in that car, because I’d actually seen the movies multiple times. Many of us knew in our hearts that playing magic was probably going to be a hilarious amount of fun, but our serious side was also interested in the actual interaction design: how will it affect the game to be playing in such an amazing, immersive environment? Will the high-status characters be able to create game for the low-status ones, or will they spend time frustrated that they haven’t got game? What will ‘downtime’ look like? Are we going to have any time for workshops at all? Will it be a problem that we’re very likely to have players coming from multiple play styles, with conflicting expectations? Is there going to be a kind of “big bad boss” sort of plot, or will we get to focus on the small, interpersonal stories that just happen to be set at a magic school?
You see, creating a big game like this is quite different from creating many other kinds of artwork. It involves a delicate balance between what happens beforehand: site selection, creating guidelines for costuming and props, deciding rules and world info—and what happens during: basically, the entire story. Too much prep, and you have no room to invent. Too little, and players are too free and can’t be confident enough in their choices to make a collective narrative. Of the 180-or-so stories that happened at the larp, no two are the same, and nobody’s story is more important than anyone else’s. There is no protagonist, and you will never, ever know the “whole” story.
I wasn’t expecting to have much of a character at the beginning; all we professors had were the names we created for ourselves. I knew I was going to teach Ancient Runes (really? The boring subject?), and I imagined I’d have a lot of fun being old and crotchety. Also, I wanted to try out ageing makeup with liquid latex, so when I got my actual character outline from the organisers, I was a bit nonplussed to be scripted to be about 35 years old. I would have changed her to be much older, only she had a great backstory — ex-Hogwarts (Hufflepuff), in her seventh year during the Battle of Hogwarts, a member of Dumbledore’s Army, and quite damaged from the war. It turned out I was one of the only characters who had any battle experience at all or any first-hand experience with dark wizards. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what my story would end up being about: trying to impress upon a younger, more foolish generation that war is not romantic and that hubris really is a force that’s bigger than you. So instead I decided to keep the liquid latex for some battle scars and packed it alongside some watercolor paints and makeup.
I was flying out on a Thursday morning, and on that Tuesday evening I sort of realised that my wand wasn’t going to make itself. Two hours later I’d cannibalised a large paintbrush, a leather glove, and a cork, and had a pretty believable prop. I’d been to the local thrift shops in search of costuming using the guideline “anything I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in real life”, and had come up with a costume I truly thought was insufficient—although I decided to balls it out and declare that “the Wizarding world needs more leather jackets” and not worry too hard about my complete lack of absent-minded tweed, good hat, or floppy shoes. Organiser and friend Claus Raasted somehow (magically?) had time over FB chat to assure me that when you’re in a castle and everyone looks pretty good, the overall result is that everyone looks amazing.
He was right, and I was relieved, because I get massive prep guilt. I don’t have enough pep and whizz to prop for games beyond the very basics sometimes—but that’s usually okay, because I have a large capacity for improvisation, and I can rely on it quite heavily to make up for the time spent beforehand. But then you get people like Christopher (Coffe) Sandberg, who collected and created an entire fucking Artefactorium for the game, with everything from catalogued wand reject fragments, a curious time-turner, wee baby dragon skeletons, and a pet phoenix he made out of flash paper. It burned during one of his Magical Artefacts lectures and took a goodly portion of Professor Miclariotic’s beard with it—which was strangely in character for him. He presented props in his classes and probably advised students not to steal things, which naturally players would take as incitement. (One of the Potions professors apparently took delight in sitting in the dark in the potions lab after classes, waiting to frighten the living daylights out of a steady stream of students who came down to pinch ingredients. Did I mention it was clearly the most fun to be a Professor?)
Months before the larp, Coffe also had the grumbling and time-pressed other professors contribute chapters to a textbook that he wrote and made the layout for and had it sent to print and all, together with the organisers. No, that’s right. We spent 3 days in a castle pretending, and one of the prep items was an actual textbook.
I’m rather thankful for this, as by reading my own chapter on the car ride from Berlin to Czocha, I could quite faithfully prep for my own six 45-minute lectures on Ancient Runes. Part of being an improvisation-heavy, preparation-light person is the all-out confidence that at least half of the other people won’t be prepared, either. But in this case, all of the prep-heavy players were experienced enough to know that everything they do is best when shared, because it creates play for others. And those of us on the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants train stepped up our act to repay them by engaging with their work and helping create great scenes.
How to magic
The basics of magic was this: go for it. Cast something and see what happens. And as a player, it’s up to you to make up what that thing is. This is a very Nordic style of play, where outcomes are improvised based on what might make an interesting story, rather than on any numbers, dice, cards, or rock/paper/scissors. If you think that means that everyone tries to have spells work perfectly every time, you’ve never seen Nordic larpers having the time of their lives playing characters in utter misery.
Spells affecting another person (like in a duel) were always decided by the recipient — so even if you had no idea what the other person cast at you, you could decide the effect and act it out. Sure, maybe they meant to cast a helpful spell to make your nausea go away after eating too many Every Flavour Beans, but you misheard it, and it turns out your poor character is now hearing werewolves howling in the distance for the next hour. That’s how magic rolls at Czocha.
I managed to get through the game using my wand about four times—I was the Runes professor, after all. But I was making magical items all the time, drawing, carving, putting wards up in chalk on the building, painting in fake blood in the forest. Still, what made it magic was that others saw them, could look them up in the textbook, and play what they wanted.
Um. And I did actually make a “beer rune” on the ground in the woods before going to fight the (alleged) shade of Grindelwald. Well. I was out of blood, and my degenerate students chose to raise his spirit while we were in the middle of a great party; what else are you gonna do.
The obligatory first-person review of what happened
As the incumbent Staff Speaker (the teacher who makes all the pertinent announcements until a new Speaker is elected on the second day), I stood at the front of a line of Professors, Janitors, Groundskeepers, House Elves, and Ghosts and shook the hands of new and returning students—although as a player, I had absolutely no clue at this point who was my teacher’s pet, who was a newbie, and who was a troublemaker. We hadn’t really had time for workshops. When there is no time for workshops, do the following: make up some bullshit. It will work 95% of the time.
“When I said the Dark Woods is off-limits to juniors, it was an actual school rule and not an engraved invitation! Also, your House ties are to be worn as ties. Not headbands, not belts, and not handcuffs, no matter what you’re getting up to in private.”
I think it was about five minutes into the game that I threatened to take points from the entire House of Durentius if they didn’t put on their school robes for dinner. I was their House Monitor (a role slightly more hands-off than being Head of House at Hogwarts), but all they knew of me at that point was that I looked terrifying and could tell them what to do. Dozens of orange ties scampered off in search of proper dinner attire. I actually felt bad about bossing them around, but that was my off-game voice. In-game it became clear that I’d just given them something to do, something to complain about, something to fear, something to be smug about if they’d remembered their robes, and perhaps a reason to talk to one of their housemates for a minute or two and get to know them. Creating play is immensely satisfying, and once you know that your job in a larp is to “give game” and to react honestly and expressively to the “game” that others give you, you’re ready to roll for the next three days. It doesn’t have to be big. It can just be about a school tie.
Creating a subject was also incredibly gratifying. Ancient Runes only has passing mention in canon HP, which basically meant I was free to do what I wanted. So instead of making it into a translation class, I created a runic discipline of “slow magic”, used frequently in warding and augmenting other objects. Basically, if you think of a wand as a straw, channeling your magic, you can think of a rune as a cup, where it’s held as part of the object. The point was not to come up with the most robust magical theory out there, but to have something solidly playable. I also wanted to level the field between players who would already know runes like the back of their hand, and those for whom they were just chicken scratches. We made personal runes out of our own names (that students used later to sign love letters and nefarious demands), and created objects for each other to help them in duelling, in love, or in protection.
I taught three classes a day—two to Seniors and one class of Juniors. Playing a classroom environment is fantastic, because everyone knows what a classroom is like. Having a familiar structure is something in larp design that allows you to change other things about the world. The context is clear: ask questions, learn something that you can then try on one of your friends or enemies, impress the prof with your curiosity and gain House points, etc. And if I ever felt stuck, I’d simply ask the students what they thought about particular rune or a bit of theory, and we’d be off again. Not to mention the gorgeousness of finally finding my classroom and seeing an entire space filled with candles, hanging parchments with runic alphabets all over them, and slates for practice. (The scenography team were magnificent.)
“Professor, if you made a Golem and used your name sigil instead of a Hebrew rune, wouldn’t that mean it was like, stronger with your magic?”
“Um. Perhaps… although once law enforcement come along and say ‘I wonder who created this Golem, now’, you’d be screwed, wouldn’t you?”
I adored teaching. Although I had to field the most unbelievable bullshit, partially because when you tell students about cool things, they immediately want to use it to take over the world.
“Professor, if you can make a magical object more powerful by inscribing a rune on it, can you make yourself incredibly powerful by putting runes on yourself?”
“Yes! But you become more powerful, which makes the rune more powerful, which makes you more powerful, which makes the rune more powerful—it’s called a positive feedback loop, and cleaning up afterwards isn’t pretty. Look, there’s a reason why you don’t cast Wingardium Leviosa on yourselves when you’re starting out with a wand. Don’t play with this stuff, kids.”
“But you have runes on your body!”
“And that’s why my name has the word ‘Professor’ next to it.”
My advice for any magical teachers out there is do write down and repeat any good improvised theory you come up with, partially because it’s useful, but mostly because the students talk, and will think about what you’ve said, and will come back tomorrow and attempt to make you contradict yourself.
And so that was my character in a nutshell—paranoid, battle-damaged, sharp-tongued but ultimately a protector and an ally of the light. I had a few students who stayed after class to ask me for help solving their specific problems, and even now, weeks later, I feel a particular affinity and protectiveness towards those characters.
Other than that, it’s very hard to keep this under a novella length and still describe what happened to me as a person. I became some people’s favourite professor by being tough and fair and hilarious. I tried to keep my students from dabbling with varsity-level magic without knowing what they were doing. I heard rumours that I’d been turned as a werewolf.
I also had some of my best students turn out to be part of a stupid, stupid cult called the Iron Brotherhood, intent on raising Grindelwald of all people, in order to do some hoity-toity ridiculous bargaining with the dead of Czocha—the ghosts of the legendary founders of the school—I mean, what could possibly go wrong? My very own Durentius Prefect, Octavius Landsvik, who was so brilliant at including everyone and keeping his house in line, turned out to be the ringleader. And he was tried, and he was executed by the Staff, doomed to become a Spirit of the school, wandering the halls forever. His girlfriend, Nikita—who even had the nerve to get me to help her with protective runes that I later found out were to make sure the Ministry wouldn’t learn of their plans—threw herself off the Astronomy Tower in the only act of the night that was stupider than his.
I had spent three days trying to impress upon my students the dangers of messing with Big Time magic; how you might think you’re pretty hot stuff right now, but magic is bigger than you, smarter than you, more dangerous than you, and it is your master, not the other way around. I failed, disastrously. I could have confronted Landsvik when I thought the Iron Brotherhood was nothing more than empty student gossip. In the end I was subjected to Theodric Reisszähne, a Durentius student who wouldn’t say boo to a Kneazle, getting right up in my scarred-up grill:
“Professor, I just want you to know, that you are no longer welcome in the common room of the house of Durentius, and that you have failed as a monitor.”
The little bugger then dashed for the stairs, shouting behind him:
“You failed, Professor!
“You were supposed to keep him out of danger!
“You failed him!
“You failed us!
“Perhaps if you had used both eyes, he wouldn’t have died!”
What can I say, except that René Pedersen, Theodoric’s player, knows a powder keg about to go off when he sees it. I had barely spoken to him all game, and he finally found himself being exactly the right person, in the right place, holding the knife that had been sharpened just for me. That’s the beauty of a collective story when players pay equal attention to giving and getting, and the next turn in your game could come from anywhere.
And the salve? Professor Vellamo, Potions expert. She dragged me, weeping hilariously out of one cursed eye all over my makeup, to the Artefactorium. “The thing is, Crumps, you were there. You know what dark magic can do. These kids have no idea. And we can try to tell them, and we can try to show them, but we can’t guarantee they’ll get it.” A well known, gorgeous story arc: the protector who fails. I had no idea at the beginning that would be it. It was touching and powerful and I can’t wait to do it again.
The obligatory “what didn’t work” part
No larp that I’ve ever heard of didn’t have its holes. College of Wizardry was lucky to have a very robust background story in the Potterverse, so where other original worlds may have fallen apart, Czocha players were quickly and beautifully able to paper over all the cracks. I mean, nobody knows what magic looks like, right? So when someone says “we should cast Priori Incantatem on a this wand to find out what spell it last cast,” everyone around you has to go along with whatever the heck you improvise the effect to be.
There were still improvements to be seen, though.
- For one thing, there were too many darned NPCs (non-player characters; they are “supporting” players who might take the role of a monster or a Ministry official), and they came to us with too much frequency. They were lovely players with lovely characters, but I didn’t see half of them and that was too many. This becomes more of a problem the higher up you are on the authority scale—I had students telling me about this and that creature wreaking havoc in the dungeons, in the forest, in the toilets, which was great, but it was happening about every 30 seconds. I had no opportunity to follow up on any of them. And I had very little downtime—the part I relish where I actually get a bit bored in-character. When I’m in character and I’m bored, I really start to feel inseparable from the world.
- On a related note, it became difficult to know what was important and what wasn’t. In our rules, a professor would always win against a student in a fight (thank Merlin). But it wasn’t clear whether a professor would win against a Vampire, or a bunch of dryads, or goodness knows what. If a professor can’t handle a baddie, then that should mean that the situation is very serious indeed, and we can all collectively take the story up a notch. I really missed having a Dumbledore-type character around, who could be the yardstick of magical skill—if that character isn’t bothered, it’s something we can handle on our own. If that character is getting ready for battle at the gates, we know we’re all in trouble. As it was, our lack of agreement on the severity of one situation to the next meant that you could pretty much take or leave any situation as either life-or-death, or trivial. The same goes with casting Unforgiveable curses—they should be rare, and serious, but if I had a Knut for every time I was supposed to be hunting down someone who’d cast Imperio…
- Also, I really didn’t have time for much more preparation than I managed to do, but it’s incredibly difficult to play the first six hours of a game where you don’t actually know what anyone’s name is, and you don’t know where any of the rooms are in the castle. I still don’t know the names of half a dozen teachers. If anyone invents a very fast way to learn all of this kind of stuff, I’m interested. Of course we solved it by being generous: if someone should know that you both attended the same high school (because that’s not the sort of thing you forget), but they mess up, you gently remind them to get the play back on track. That’s all.
- Group battle was dreadful. It’s funny enough when two players who are a bit practiced at duelling will be quick and creative enough to create a well timed scene, where your spell actually “lands” and the effect is acted out to great hilarity (I’m told there was an incontinento jinx cast at one point, resulting in a player making a dash for the toilets), but group battle is just impossible—group battle in the dark, more so. Chaos, utter chaos. No idea what’s been cast and in what direction, and when, and by whom, and the chances that a large group of people will react in a uniform way is just nil. I don’t know if there will be a good way to design for this, really. But we solved it by players just going for it. We’re here, it’s not working, it looks and feels stupid but there’s no sense in letting it wreck my game, so let’s get through it best we can, and then play on the story later.
- The one thing that was truly difficult to solve and will take more work is the presence of a film crew. Cosmic Joke did a very good job documenting the larp, and the trailer and (very true-to-the-event) documentary are getting hits galore on the interwebs—which is, we assume, good for the project, and its creators, and for larping in general. However, we really need to meet, us larpers and filmmakers, and learn from each other what we should do and what we shouldn’t. It happened again and again that the presence of a film crew not only disrupted the style of play, but probably changed the story—just by being present. Some players won’t walk in front of a camera. Some players won’t speak in case they “ruin the scene”. In particular, less experienced or confident larpers can leave the scene to the more experienced players, which is a big shame. It stops being a larp and starts being a performance, and I don’t think camera crews always notice it happening, because it happens every time they are there. I think we as larpers are nervous about showing the cracks that we’re papering over—the tiny little negotiations that keep the story alive—and we’d rather show what looks like a scripted scene. So we need to stop playing like it’s a fictional movie whenever a camera shows up, and show larping, warts and all. But also, rather like anthropologists try to develop strategies to observe cultures without changing them via the act of observation, I think crews need to think about what we want to film and how. Obviously, documentation is a part of what we do. So let’s do it better.
I think one thing that made the game extraordinary was the constant need to solve small problems with two things: 1) made-up magic (i.e. bullshit) and 2) at least one other person to help you. Larps are social works of art, it’s generally true, but for some reason even doing evil in this game felt positive—perhaps because you were using a vastly creative medium to do it. I’ve never experienced a larp where the aftermath included such an outpouring of positive energy towards the other participants, and I’m at the age where that kind of bonding happens very infrequently to boot.
The idea of “positive play” can sound a bit twee to our sophisticated, cynical ears: what, just put us in a room and ask us to be nice? No thanks, we’ll be over here torturing each other (with safewords of course).
But I suspect positive play isn’t about just being nice. It’s perhaps about being in a situation that makes you open to the creativity of another person. I experimented with this many times with partner-in-crime Aarni Korpela, when we created a fake pop-up dating agency called The Lovers’ Matchmaking Agency. The most important rule, when going on a blind date, was to relax your expectations, look for the best in the other person without putting your hopes in them, and trust that the other person has done the same. When this works, it results in very fast, quite robust bonding between individuals. And while both parties know that it happened “in-game”, somehow we don’t really care. It has a realness we’re willing to work with when the game is over. In many larps I avoid playing with certain players—the chemistry is off, I feel. A few of those players were at Czocha, and I had a completely new experience with them. I hope for nothing more than to bring that openness to other games. Sometimes (especially if you’re noisy and outgoing), in order to be open to the creativity of another person, you have to give them a bit of space to play with you. Just keep the door open a crack, and invite them in to do it their way.
Another influencer had to be the castle itself. Some of the nicest moments in the game were to be had by wandering the castle hallways and passages alone. It’s one thing to play make-believe with a bunch of other people to back you up, but it’s much harder to sustain a solo game. When the environment affords you the impression that the fiction is persistent, it becomes much easier to fall in to play, rather than having to drag it up from your imagination all the time, and it’s really enjoyable. 360-degree immersion, it’s called. And this castle had it in spades. I’d be minding my own business, on my way from one place to another, and it was hard not to believe the quiet suggestion in the back of my head that “well, this is my life now. I’m a magical professor. It’s all real.”
Now that the game has asploded all over the internet, it’ll be interesting to see how the next round of players will negotiate what happens together at Czocha. Some larpers worry that people who are new to larp but experts on all things Potter will find it difficult to hit that stride where you just make things up. I dunno — in my experience, as long as enough people around you are willing to go for it, it turns out very well indeed. As evidenced by this sentiment from the car ride back from the game:
“I’m nearly 40 years old; what did we just do?”
“I’m not sure, but it was totally awesome.”
Check out the team behind College of Wizardry.
And now, go out and play.