College of Wizardry: The Challenge

Last month, a couple of weeks before embarking on my trip to play Cabaret, I was at a very different larp, in Poland. Some of you may remember my exploits at College of Wizardry 10 last year. This was more of the same, with a twist. Whereas most College of Wizardry games are about the beginning of the term at the magic college – or in some cases, the midterm exams – The Challenge lifted its concept from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Three colleges of wizardry had been invited to test their mettle against one another, to foster cross-cultural cooperation, and engage in hijinks, shenanigans, and skulduggery.

One of the photosets for The Challenge was released the evening before Cabaret. Talk about tonal whiplash.

The Red Trio, being totally serious. Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

The three colleges were the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the setting of the main College of Wizardry games, Nibelungen Universität für Magische Bildung und Studien (or NIMBUS among friends), the school for the German-language spinoff, and New World Magischola, the North American college from the larp series of the same name. NIMBUS was the host school and the game was played at the Kliczków Castle in Poland. NIMBUS itself is located in an indeterminate place but probably somewhere in the Harz Mountains of Germany. The colleges all have five different Houses for students, but there is variation in the paths of the students and the subjects taught.

This was the first run of The Challenge. While my CoW experience was the tenth run of the series and there was a certain routine to the proceedings, this one hadn’t been tested out yet. I see myself as a fairly ideal player for a first run of something like this, because I will let a lot of stuff slide before allowing it to impact my game, and it takes a lot to stress me out. Not that a lot of the design issues were even visible to me until after the game. The Challenge was a good game and a great experience, but there’s work to be done yet.

Voodoo and Top Hats

This is where I talk about my character. I’m still not gonna buy you a drink.

My character this time around was Étienne Rabasse, a third-year artificier from Lakay Laveau, one of the houses of New World Magischola. I figured that this was pretty much my only chance for a very long time to get to play a NWM student, so I went for it.

Étienne Rabasse and distant cousin Dárjá Rosenrot, played by my mother. Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

I’d originally signed up for an organizer-written character, but especially the NWM writing team took their time, the majority of players had chosen to write their own characters, and the fairly recognizable popcultural touchstones of Lakay Laveau had started working in my mind, so I finally mailed the lead writer that I’d be creating my own character.

Lakay Laveau is named after its founder Marie Laveau, an actual historical person, who was known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. So I did some reading on New Orleans and the relevant history. Learning from my experience at CoW10, I went for something more outgoing, vocal, and outspoken than Charles Duke had been. I decided Étienne would be more or less a nice person and entirely unconcerned with anyone’s blood status, partly because I knew I’d get enough of that particular theme at Cabaret. He ended up rather what I imagine to be the archetypical Lakay Laveau.

Among my prep, I also put in a lot of hours working on an accent for Étienne, using YouTube videos. I have a knack for accents, but they’re hard. I usually affect a British Received Pronunciation, sometimes Standard American English. Étienne, though, was from the South, and not only the South, from New Orleans, which has a very specific local accent.

It’s also hideously difficult. I don’t know what the specific process for learning an accent is for actors, but at least they get to practice their lines beforehand. To pull off an accent at a larp, you need to be able to dress it on whatever topics emerge in conversation. Dialects are even harder, because you need to be able to use words outside your own active vocabulary spontaneously. Étienne, in the end, spoke with a generic Southern accent that I’m pretty sure hit most states south of the Mason-Dixon at one point or another. No “y’alls”, some French but less than I had planned.

Meet the Press

The regular College of Wizardry has its student clubs – the A.R.M., the W.A.N.D., the Basement Beer Brigade, the Dueling Club, and whatnot. The Challenge had just three: Marconi’s Mumbling Masters, the Devil’s Dealers, and the Snifflers. The first was the radio and the announcers, the second was the bookies and black marketers, and the last one was the staff of The Challenge Chronicle newspaper. Every student was sorted into one of these.

We originally agreed on an editorial triumvirate, with one editor from each school. Étienne was the NWM editor, and I ended up doing most of the work on the paper. If the concept was to produce a newspaper during the Challenge, well, isn’t that the same as a conzine? The execution was simple. I brought in my laptop that I’d prepared with a user account for the Snifflers that would keep anyone away from basically anything that wasn’t the Chronicle’s files. It was always on with the layout file for the next issue open, so anyone on staff – or hell, outside of it but that never happened – could wander in and type up a story at their leisure. At certain times I’d have the accumulated stuff printed out at the GM room – one page, sometimes two.

Spectating the duels. Photo by Ewan Munro.

I ended up doing most of the work. This is not an indictment of anyone else. It’s a big game, there’s lots of stuff going on, challenges and personal plotlines and everything, and it takes a certain mentality to go in the middle of the game to a quiet room and make up a column’s worth of stuff. Especially if English is not one’s first language. Me, I think this is fun, and it also served as character content when Étienne ceased to be a neutral and objective observer and took a political position after a public execution.

We did have a selection of filler material created before the game, but in the end none of it was used and everything that got printed was written during play. There was no shortage of interesting stuff to report on.

As a side note, the issue criticizing the execution was out within the hour. I’m a bit proud of that. Also, “I need to get the morning issue printed” was an excellent justification for getting a hall pass and wandering around after curfew. And if I mentioned in my CoW10 writeup that I wrote more stuff than during actual college courses, I’m pretty sure I outdid my output here.

The issues of The Challenge Chronicle, which are probably not interesting to anyone who wasn’t at the game, are available for download.

The Game Itself

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of everything. The game had something like 140 players, so there was a lot going on pretty much at all times. There were the obligatory rituals at night (we did one at the gazebo! it was awesome!), and werewolves, and vampires, and there was a lot of duelling, and drama, and the most mind-boggling wedding. One of my few regrets is that I didn’t have the time to cover it for The Challenge Chronicle.

And then there was the core of the thing, the actual challenges, the tasks we were given. The game of it. The winning.

In classic CoW, there is of course the House Cup and the race for House Points, but it’s not the main goal of the game, or at least doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly legitimate not to give a damn about points and do your thing, deductions be damned. You can play to lose. In The Challenge, there’s less alibi for that since the characters are there as the school team, the students picked for their skill, talent, motivation or mystical and hard-to-define protagonistiness to represent their alma mater. When you’re there for the tournament, it’s hard to not care about the tournament.

So, playing to lose gets harder to justify to the character, and to the game. You play to win. This is something I feel should be reflected in the design of the challenges.

For the record, I have no knowledge of how the challenges were designed. Some of them were created by the organizers and most by the staff players. Most of the challenges worked well for me and I had great fun.

The duellist Daniel Fabel. Étienne was a fan. Photo by Ewan Munro.

There were a couple of places, though, where I felt that the rule that the target or recipient of a spell gets to decide its effect intersected badly with the goal to win, and the situation looked like the player of an opposing school had the opportunity to screw you over for points. I am merely commenting on the optics of the situation, not that anyone would have consciously done so. It was especially troublesome when the spell isn’t simple, like an attack spell – reacting to breakaleggio in the appropriate manner is easy. The duelling challenge worked fine and was a great show besides. However, dropping into a complex emotional situation is really hard, and while I do have trust in the judge players, it was not obvious or transparent how the challenge was scored.

Mostly, though? Great fun. There were ball games, in and out of the swimming pool! There was a scavenger hunt! There were riddles (which I sucked at)! There were a number of ethical challenges, and one about wandmaking, and one about potion mixing.

Incidentally, the House Cup also made an appearance at The Challenge. Since there were a total of fifteen Houses present and giving each one a common room of their own would have been silly, they were lumped up into five Trios, with one House from each school, who then acted as one to score points in the Collaboration Cup.

Conclusions

Yeah, I had fun. Now at my second CoW, I had a far better idea of how to play to catch plotlines and get into cool things. Yeah, I would go again, especially since of all the castles Dziobak Larp Studios uses, this is by far the shortest trip for me. There were some design issues, but nothing game-ruining and nothing that wasn’t fixable. The food was good, from the point of view of someone with no dietary limitations. I would also like to see how The Challenge would work with the over 200 players it was designed for.

Doing the newspaper was interesting. It’s something I would be interested in revisiting in larp, either at a CoW game or somewhere else entirely. I may pitch an article on the topic for next year’s Knutebook.

Oh, and I also discovered how to get the photographer’s attention: wear a cool hat.

Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

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College of Wizardry 10, or, “I want to go back”

Last Monday, I returned home from the larp College of Wizardry, tenth of its name. Physically, at least. Mentally, I haven’t yet, not really. Emotionally… time will tell.

If the concept is not familiar, CoW is a Harry Potter -inspired larp for 135 players, played at Czocha Castle in Poland and organized by the primarily Polish-Danish team Dziobak Larp Studios. Unlike the boarding school of Hogwarts, the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a university-level institution, where the students are adults and have already graduated from one magic school. Not Hogwarts, though – the CoW larp series started out as a Harry Potter spinoff, but the serial numbers were filed off after the third game. The family resemblances remain, but it is its own thing.

First thing out of the way, when I say “Czocha Castle”, I really mean castle. It was built in the 14th century, is accessed by a bridge, and features both dungeons and secret passages. Like, actual secret passages. While at least one of them is dead obvious by the marks on the floor in front of the bookcase, I cannot get over how cool it is to move a bookshelf to reveal a stone staircase beyond.

The characters are both staff and students – Headmaster, professors, janitor, and juniors, sophomores and seniors. The students are sorted into five Houses. There’s the coldly intellectual and ruthlessly pragmatic Faust, the tight-knit and secretive Molin, the diplomatic and honourable Sendivogius, the artistic and bohemian Libussa1, and Durentius, whose motto is “valour and diligence” but who are really the party house.

The game is set at the beginning of term, starting with the students marching over the bridge into the castle on Thursday evening and ending with the Grand Opening Ball on Saturday night. In between, there’s two full schooldays, a few student parties, the Sorting Ceremony, and lots of drama, relationships, duels, and demon summoning. As students do.

Staff and Students, Living and Dead

The characters are handled differently from what I am used to in Finnish larps. We had the option of either writing up a character ourselves or taking a prewritten one. I opted for the latter because I was aware of constraints on my time, and because I wanted to see how they’re executed. The character was formed of a series of elements. There was their unique background and personality bit – in my character’s case, his mother was from an old and respected Hexblood family, but had married a Mundaneborn, which my character resented and had moved to his grandparents as soon as it was possible – and a number of boilerplate elements like House, what school he’d gone to before coming to Czocha, what was his year of studies, an extracurricular club, and his Path. The paths were Artificer, Healer, Guardian, Curse Breaker, Cryptozoologist. All of the material except House, year, and Path were just suggestions that you could edit, adapt, discard and change at will.

Charles Duke. No smiling.

Charles Duke. No smiling.

The characters were written to be gender-neutral, with a first name initial and a surname. It is thus that Charles Duke, Sophomore of House Faust, student of the Guardian Path, graduate of Stenøya Trolldom Akademiet, and member in good standing of the Alliance for Reclaiming Magic, was born.

Some readers may have twigged on to what was not included in the above – contacts. Those you had to figure out for yourself, and for the avid player, there was ample pre-game available online in the formation of relationships, friendships, acquisition of friends and enemies. People used Facebook, Google+ hangouts, Google Docs, and a special social networking site set up just for the larp, Czochabook.

Or then you could just skip that and show up at the larp. There were pre-game workshops for Path and House, where we figured out a bunch of contacts, how we think about one another, and generally who’s who and what’s what. This worked to a degree, though it’s still on the player to figure out what they want to do in the game and come up with plot. This is not a bug as such, just how the system works. It’s also entirely possible to go through the game just attending class and playing a student in as close to an everyday life it’s possible to have in a school for witchards. There’s also the race for the Czocha Cup and the acquisition of House Points, which offers additional structure and motivation to attend classes, answer the Professor’s questions, do homework and generally come up with stuff. It’s of course up to your character whether they care about all that. Mine was ambivalent; House Faust had won the past six House Cups, and Charles thought such a long streak would breed resentment in the other Houses and complacency in Faust, which would weaken them all as well as the whole of Czocha, where his deepest loyalty lay.

Learn from Your Elders and Learn from Your Peers

So, how’d it go for me? It was a learning experience. Point one: I should’ve engaged in the pre-game. I had a lot of real life going on and deadlines up the wazoo and back again, but I should’ve squeezed in something. The thing is, Charles was written as a kind of a dick. He was Hexist – that is, prejudiced against those with Mundane blood – hated werewolves, and was active in the A.R.M., which was the conservative political club. Additionally, he was House Faust, who have more than a little of the Slytherin in their DNA. Just showing up and playing a dick is problematic, because if everyone else’s character thinks your character is the online comment thread in the flesh, they have no motivation to drag you along into wacky student hijinks, and a lot of your game is going to be brooding in the corner. To my mind, it would’ve required preparing some contacts, both for like-minded characters and a few with a history of mutual antagonism just to keep things interesting. In the end, Charles was much less of a dick than I’d figured him; traditionalist, conservative, utterly humourless, polite and formal.

Another reason to do the pre-game would’ve been to get a better feel for who the character is before being thrown into his shoes and forced me to prepare with more depth. I could’ve figured out the elements which I needed to jettison earlier, and generally been farther along in the process of developing Charles into a person by the time I needed to embody him. Having a history tied to people at the school would have made me answer quite a few more “whys” of his past and personality than I did.

I did have one contact set up before the game; my mother played Assistant Professor Laura Ulfred, my character’s aunt, but we had very little contact during the game beyond her threatening to dock House Faust points if I did not ask my date for one more dance during the Grand Ball, fifteen minutes before the Book of Points was closed for the evening.

House Faust, incidentally, won the House Cup by one point, 536 points vs. Libussa’s 535. The victory was made of the Faust’s Fireball Dragons victory, so many extracurricular activities, homework essays, clever answers and questions in class, trespasses we got away with and such small moments. That one point made it special. Everything we did mattered.

One thing about having a game with so many players is the variety of experience. My genre was comic fantasy, to the point of being harassed with a cube-shaped rooster named Cockblock. I’m reasonably sure that was the experience most players had (comic fantasy, not Cockblock – though that bird got around). However, there were also dark, tragic, and even epic plotlines played out. Two characters died on Saturday night. I think there is room for it all as long as the plots are inclusive. The original source material gets both dark and epic at times, occasionally at the same time.

Magic Will Flow Through Your Hands and Your Heart

So, witchard school. Lots of magic thrown around. Magic in a larp is always slightly tricky since you can code a spaceship navigation system, you can simulate beating people up by beating people up, and you drugs can be so realistic people will wonder for years afterwards what they actually were, but magic doesn’t exist in the real world. Hence, the need for rules. In College of Wizardry, they were delightfully elegant: the target decides what the spell does. Most of the characters were still students and students’ spells didn’t always work as intended. It was always helpful to inform the recipient what you were trying to accomplish, like “Imma set your hair on fire, you werewolf-lover! FUEGO!” This rule was coupled with the aesthetic of “Play to Lose” – it’s more collaborative and usually gets you better story. Of course, this was more or less only relevant when dealing with attack spells, like in duel situations. My character wasn’t so much as threatened with violence, though did end up witnessing a very dramatic one between the gentlemen Rayford Elton and Raiden Grim.

Most of the spells cast were during class, mostly testing stuff on one another. This ranged from summoning the spirits of the dead inside one’s classmates to prank spells like “vox animalis”. There was also a chapter on common basic spells in the student handbook. The Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry Student Handbook, incidentally, is a 559-page faux-leatherbound book that was included in the price of the ticket. It’s also available as a free PDF, as is the Von Schlichtwald Grand Bestiary. There’s also the out-of-character Book of College of Wizardry 4-6, which is a work of documentation. I know they are working on a series of other CoW books, both in- and out-of-character. For a bibliophile such as I, this is a very exciting game.

Reading them was by no means necessary to play, though it did deepen the experience. Still, out of the six teachers Charles had, two noted that the book was useless and one declared it should be burned. The fourth, Professor of Alchemy, on Friday mentioned he hadn’t actually read what the book said about alchemy. The following day, he had studied it and said it was actually quite good, but we should not feel bound by the printed word, so how about each of you pass this book around, tear out a page, and burn it on a candle.

The classes were a big part of the game. While you could skip them (and I did, once) without losing points, they were very entertaining. In Demonology, we summoned spirits of mischief and interrogated angels. In Necromancy, we summoned the spirits of the dead. In Mind Magic, we first simulated different fears and the second day, to offset the heaviness, Professor Nikandros had drinks and prank spells for everyone.

Oh, and in physical education we did knife blocking techniques. The second day, Professor Ikonomopoulos graded the bruises.

Two points for Faust.

Two points for Faust.

You know you’re in it when your sparring partner is the only guy in class who had separate gym clothes2.

Of course, there was also homework. I am fairly sure I have written less material for real-life college courses than I did during College of Wizardry. My favourite was an essay about consent and mind magic.

Listen to the Tide of the Centuries

We also summoned so many demons. There was an excellent NPC system in place. If you needed NPCs, like summoned demons, angels, visiting parents, investigating Guardians, drunk alumni, or harpies, you could go into the NPC room, explain what you needed, what kind of scene it was for, when, and where, and then you’d get the appropriate NPC in the appropriate time and place to do its NPC thing. The results were impressive. So. Many. Demons.

On the topic of drunk alumni, there was an interesting cultural difference to how alcohol is handled in Finnish larps, where in my experience it’s typically “not until the afterparty” or at least strongly limited. Here it was “bar’s open after the classes” and afterwards some of the teacher players remarked that this was the first time the teacher’s lounge wasn’t a drinking club. I didn’t see any disruption because of drunken players. We were all there to larp rather than get liquored up. Some did sleep a little late but that may also have been due to past-curfew rituals in the dungeon. Faustians, I would note, were generally early risers3.

In general, apart from some kitchen hiccups and a certain confusion about our bus from Tegel Airport, the game was extraordinarily well organized. Stuff that needed to happen happened. Information was delivered. When schedules shifted, as they sometimes did, new ones were distributed with such smoothness I barely registered anything had happened. Conveniently, in the setting, magic was not incompatible with technology and I could carry a mobile phone with me. A lot of stuff ran on schedule and knowing the time was important.

Raise Your Wand to What Lies Ahead

Three days is a long time to live in the skin of another person. You discover stuff about them. For instance, Charles was a much less terrible dancer than I am. The game also stuck around for a while, and the morning after I’d returned I first spoke to my girlfriend in English before realizing I’m not in the castle anymore. For a couple of days, I couldn’t really accomplish much beyond gluing myself to the Facebook groups and going “I want back” in Google+ Hangouts. Straight off the plane, it was hard to relate to non-players. This text is already my fourth longer piece about the game, and there’s a fifth one coming, maybe even a sixth.

There’s something magical about the whole experience. I wouldn’t necessarily call it bleed since my character had the emotional range of a dead cod, but afterwards I had all the feels. There’s a sense of community, a feeling of shared experience. Together, we created stories. We made friends. Hearing the Hymn of Czocha, sung both at the beginning and the very end of the game, makes me misty-eyed.

Whether Charles Duke will be returning to Czocha is still up in the air. I think there’s still a good story in him, and it is not dependent on really any other specific characters from CoW10 being present. I might go for a midterm game with him. For another term-starter, perhaps something else. We shall see.

I know that I am returning. The 11th and 12th games are sold out, but the rest of next year’s lineup will be released on December 16th. It may not be cheap, but I like eating noodles.

stuff


1 I only figured it out now. Libussa was founded by the mythical hero Libuše, who founded Prague. IN BOHEMIA.

2 As a point of order, we did a brief OOC negotiation on how hard we’re going to play this and concluded “let’s just do this”. The same repeated on Saturday with another player, on whom I had both reach and weight, but who happened to have self-defence training. I limped for half the larp.

3 Leading to the breakfast table exchange “Why are all the Faustians up so early?” “It’s the nightmares.” My best line in the game and I don’t think anybody even heard it with everybody else talking. Oh well.