New World Magischola

Introduction

This June I had the privilege of attending the first run of New World Magischola. This is a weekend-long live action roleplay (LARP) event set in a contemporary wizard school, in the vein of The Magicians, Dresden Files, Harry Potter, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and the like. It’s based on an iconic larp College of Wizardry, held in a real castle in Poland, but brought over to the United States, and set in a world specifically crafted to honor and highlight the history of North America’s various magic heritages. In its scale and design it is unique in the United States, and arguably in the world, as it takes the basic idea from the College of Wizardry, and adds a layer of social re-engineering of the world and the running of the game.

One of the promotional videos of the event, to give you an idea of the location and what it looked like in practice.

In summary, New World Magischola was an amazing event which lived up to every ounce of hype that surrounded it. Read on for a more involved explanation of what it was, and why I liked it so much.

Roxanne Laroche showing off her familiar to Brisha Gonzalez. Photo: New World Magischola

What is Larp?

There isn’t a simple or easy answer, but for me a larp is any event where I and others take on a character different from ourselves, and interact as those characters would. This would technically include things like professional people skills training, some forms of therapy, and renaissance festivals, and I’d indeed include those activities.

There are many different kinds of larps. There are “boffer” larps in which people use foam or latex weapons to engage in actual physical battles; there are many different kinds of rulesets, with characters having abilities and skills that are measured with some kind of rating, and there are clear conflict resolution mechanisms, whether rock-paper-scissors or point addition and subtraction. On the other hand, there are much more social larps, and on the far end of that are so called “Nordic Larps,” of which the College of Wizardry and New World Magischola are examples.

The Nordic Larp web site has a good introduction; some of the central concepts are “play to lose” — instead of trying to succeed in your character goals, you’re open to failing in a task or goal if it might lead to a better story. They’re inherently cooperative shared storytelling. They have a heavier emphasis on verbal and social interaction than solving puzzles or physical conflict. They’re WYSIWYG, dispensing with colored ribbons or hand signals to signify statuses such as invisibility or flying. This all feeds into the goal of immersion, of really being the character. You might think of it is method acting. Being in character, feeling as the character, interacting with other characters and helping them experience the world is the goal, not solving a mystery or achieving an external goal.

New World Magischola

Azra Bloom and Delilah Eversong in a heated discussion.

Photo: New World Magischola

The Magischola larp was done via kickstarter, with ~170 tickets for sale. It sold out in about 90 seconds. The organizers added three additional weekends and all but the last sold out. Each weekend is a rerun with the same characters being played by different people (although some players signed up for more than weekend, or played a character in one, a staff member in another, or volunteered). Obviously there’s a lot of desire to experience this kind of an adventure and be a wizard! Many College of Wizardry veterans attended, as did veteran larpers and industry insiders, but there were also many first-timers who had never larped before. There were young people (18 was the minimum age) and there were parents with their grown children.

The event took place on the University of Richmond campus; with its quirky architecture and great public spaces it was a spread out but wonderful venue. We had two residence halls, a central place for organizational support — registration, game running logistics, store and so forth — and a few classroom buildings. It wasn’t a castle, but it was still great.

The setting is a wizard college; you’ve gone through K-12, and are now at a 3-year program. Magischola is set in current time, and current world events are part of the setting — however, magic is real, and so are werewolves, vampires, fairies and other creatures. Those who can do magic are inducted into the secrets of this world of magic, the Magimundi, and especially descendants of well-off wizard families have next to no interaction with the mundane world that we’re familiar with. There is a strict edict of secrecy and separation, and it is highly forbidden to reveal the existence of this supernatural realm to mundane world. It has its own justice system, governance, economy and education system.

The college had various majors, professors, school officials, and five houses that students divide into. The mechanism for house selection was akin to a greek rush or a sports draft; first year students would submit their preference, and could work to get school points (merits) or do other things to impress their desired houses so they would pick them.

As a student, you go to classes and engage in whatever a student at a wizard college would. The refrain was “This is a game about being a student at a wizard college!” Not a game about being a student and fighting a great evil or monsters; those things were extra. While it might sound anticlimactic, that wasn’t the case at all. So much play and conflict and drama arose from just having different personalities with different motivations and agendas stirring the pot.

Thomas Hall, one of two dorms for the game.

The Magimundi isn’t a derivative work or fan fiction. It’s been influenced by the world of the College of Wizardry, and indeed both coexist in the same universe, but the organizers of Magischola, Maury Brown and Ben Morrow, set out to create a real, complex universe. Since the game is so large and cooperative, there has been a lot of input from many people, and it arguably has resulted in a framework much deeper than any single person could’ve achieved.

Instead of the way an author might want to completely define their world, however, many things about the Magimundi are left intentionally vague, so each and every player can color in whatever they want. The world defines several fault lines; a prison-industrial complex, indentured servitude, past and current injustices against non-humans, forcible removal or wizard children from mundane families, highly classist society where old, rich families play with entirely different rules as the rest of the population, a justice system that is rigid and has old, obsolete laws and struggles to recognize the rights of some groups of the population (vampires and lycans.) It’s easy to either make, or not make, plenty of analogies to real life societal issues. It gives rise to a lot of potential conflict between players: family rivalries, business interest rivalries, differences in opinion on whether vampires are a menace to society or an oppressed underclass and so forth.

The authors of the game and world had additional design goals; questioning power structures we see in the real world, broader gender identities, encouraging empathy and solidarity across character (and player!) identities, avoiding dominance by masculine identities, non-antagonistic game mechanics, emphasizing safety and the value of players, and many more. While a lot of it may sound radical — and it is — the game world felt natural. Having famous figures be gender-fluid (and shapeshifters), having female figures of power, and letting people pick their own pronouns did in no way make this world feel weird. To me it successfully demonstrated how natural an inclusive world can feel. In that sense the game universe took several steps towards a utopia of sorts, or a desired state of society.

On the other side of the coin, there were several players with alternative gender identities or disabilities who mentioned after the game how amazing the experience was; having people trust them with someone’s safety despite their physical limitations, being able to trust others, feeling included and welcomed. This was not something introduced in speeches or instructions; the behaviors of the players in these issues were inherent and fostered by the framework of the game and the world. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but as a social experiment it appeared quite successful in balance.

Wait… What Do You Actually Do?

There is no central storyteller or narrator. There isn’t even a central story or plot. The game started with workshops, introducing basic concepts of wizard spell duels — the caster verbalizes the spell, which is useful both for dramatic impact, giving an excuse for exaggerated body language and whipping one’s wand around, as well as giving the target an idea of what the spell is supposed to do; the target then decides what happens.

For example, wizard Alice goes, “Ha! Let’s see you be so smug with your hair on fire! Ignitus!” and wizard Bob either ducks, blocks, or begins to run around with his hair on fire, whatever he feels makes for the best story.

There was a safe-word mechanism for lowering the intensity of a scene without stopping it (“Largo”), a mechanism for stopping a scene if there’s a real life issue or the intensity is too much (“Cut!”), an unobtrusive hand signal to check whether another player is OK, and an exercise for using “they” as a pronoun. The workshops actually ran everyone through the various tasks, and while the mechanisms were very simple, once you actually do something once or twice, it fits into your routine completely differently than it would after just listening to a lecture. The workshops also moved towards moving people more and more into their characters; starting with basic mechanics, and getting more into game and personalities as they went on.

There were some inherent activities: you went to class, did homework, went to club meetings and events, to breakfast, lunch and dinner and so forth. There were events for the houses; planning for the selection of first years, open houses, initiation, mentee/mentor assignments to mention a few. The professors could assign homework, for example to use a healing technique on another student, or duel three other students. Some of the faculty could ask students to do tasks for them, or mention mysteries. There were some centrally arranged things; if you went through the forbidden woods at night, chances are you’d encounter something, or a chupacabra would get loose, and so forth. None of these were “central” plots; if you were there, you were there, and could elect to engage in them.

There was a central overarching storyline about an evil wizard having rumored to have escaped and heading to campus for revenge, and corruption among the school leadership etc. This played out in a few big scenes at major events, but again it merely set the stage for people to play on as they pleased. You weren’t expected to necessarily interact with the main events directly.

Aside from the above, players made their own plots. They could be romantic plots to get lovebirds together, or keep them apart, or deal with breakups; they could be enacting rivalries; pranking other players, faculty or houses; casting curses in revenge; engaging in illicit dealings of potions; stealing things; trying to prove that chupacabra are sentient and should be protected and so forth. These plots frequently would involve others and cascade on in complex ways.

Some players had set up text roleplay before the event, and had already worked on common history. For example, an amoral hunter left another character badly heartbroken and engaged in illegal trading of potion ingredients to someone who wanted to make a potion to forcibly “cure” or kill any lycans; they did favors to other characters, and were a loyal member of one of the houses. Before long, people discovered the connections, and were left with hard choices — whether to punish the hunter’s crimes, or value house loyalty. Would the heartbroken former lover turn in the hunter for their illegal actions, blackmail them, or do something else to get revenge? It was really fascinating how such basic ingredients resulted in a very tight web of connections and crisscrossing plots, most of which emerged organically from the histories, motivations and interactions of the characters without any kind of central planning.

Harrison Greene had described these kinds of larps as (paraphrasing) “take every Shakespeare character, put them in a room, close the door, and see what happens.” That might give you an idea of the kinds of dynamics that can emerge without any external plotting.

Bleeding All Over the Place!

One of the concepts that is being academically researched and has been formalized in the context of Nordic larps is bleed, the way the emotions of the player and the character cross the alibi or temenos boundaries. While it’s something that happens in most any make-believe to some extent, it’s particularly strong in immersive larps, and indeed may be the goal of players. They want to feel what their character feels.

The workshops and briefing mentioned bleed and dealing with it. The debriefing gave players ways to mitigate it. Many experienced players thought they were familiar with it. They were wrong. Whether at game, or during the following week, it became obvious just how intense the experience had been. Luckily this highlighted another aspect of the game, and that was the amazing camaraderie and support among the players, and the way they supported each other via hangouts and chats and online discussions afterwards.

This is where explaining the allure and impact of the game becomes exceedingly difficult. You put on robes and pretend to be a wizard student for a couple of days, go to wizard prom, and go home. And yet people would break down in tears days later, and either desperately clung to their characters, or had to find mechanisms to compartmentalize and put the characters away into boxes. People with characters who fell in love had to deal with disentangling those emotions from those of their players. My advice to anyone, no matter their background, wanting to get involved in this form of larp is to be very aware of the intensity of emotions, and to plan, even if it requires breaking character and steering events, to end the game on a good note. And yet, to a person, everyone felt that this was one of the most amazing experiences they had ever had, and were hungry for more.

Escapism

I’ve thought a fair bit about what the attraction and draw of this kind of make-believe and play is. I suspect much of this varies from person to person, and even from event to event. For me, the primary attraction is escapism, defined by Wikipedia as “…mental diversion by means of entertainment or recreation, as an ‘escape’ or dissociation from the perceived unpleasant, boring, arduous, scary, or banal aspects of daily life. It can also be used as a term to define the actions people take to help relieve persisting feelings of depression or general sadness.”

During Magischola, I was in character. I did not check Facebook or work email; there was a fairly complete isolation from the normal, outside world. I spent several days completely free of the worries of paying the mortgage, datacenter moves, project deadlines, social obligations and mistakes and things like that. In character there certainly were happy things and sad things, but in many ways they are safe, and simplified. Your character meets another character, and you work together towards a goal or against each other — it doesn’t matter which political party their player supports, or which sports team they root for. Three days in this environment was more effective in wiping away work stress than two weeks on a beach.

There is constant discovery — new magic, new creatures, new people and new mysteries. Not only that, but you can feel the character you are inhabiting learn more about themselves and grow; you get to start from a nearly blank slate, and engage in self-discovery and experimentation in how to solve moral and social challenges.

In Summary

The event wasn’t perfect. Many things went wrong technically (although I only found out about many of these after the fact), and neither I nor several other players quite knew how to get the most out of it, but for a first run it was a spectacular success; really, it was a success even absent any such qualifiers. In particular, the organizers (Maury Brown and Ben Morrow) really care deeply about the experience players have, and are promptly tweaking things that could be better, both technically, world-wise, and in the game culture. Knowing that the feelings and opinions and experiences of the players mattered is a surprisingly powerful detail.

The event, and the world, for all its apparent simplicity was very, very cleverly crafted, and resulted in an utterly amazing experience. I made many new friends, which is unusual for me. This is, without a doubt, the kind of game I want to play in. If this is something you have an interest in, and you ever have a chance to attend one of these games, please do. It’ll be amazing.

Posted by Toivo Voll