My first encounter with the guys at Liveform and Rollespilsfabrikken was when I attended their game, Fairweather Manor (FM), last November. I had a great time, details of which can be found in my review on this very site. Anyone going back to re-read that, or with an exceptional memory, will see that my trip came about because my friend had attended their College of Wizardry game.
At the start of the year, I decided to sign up for College of Wizardry 7 (hereafter referred to as CoW7), a game running once at again at the incredible Czocha castle in Poland at the start of April. For those that are unaware, the CoW games originated as LARP games set in the Harry Potter universe. After 4 games, the organisers received a polite but firm cease and desist from the serious people at Warner Brothers; and so the games shifted setting to a world entirely dissimilar to that of JK Rowling’s boy-wizard. Adult themes and stories in a darker, grittier world, at a college for older students – The Breakfast Club with wands, Heathers with wizards, The Craft with, well, just The Craft. CoW7, as might be imagined, is the seventh CoW game and was designed to be a sequel, where the rest of the games had focussed on the start of term, this game would have the midterm exams as its key point.
Being a sequel there were a lot of returning characters. With the CoW games being a series of repeated standalone events, there were returning characters from several different runs, but mainly from CoW3 and CoW4. I’ll talk more about the challenges that this threw up later. As a new player, I understood that I’d be jumping into a game with many pre-existing relationships and inter-personal dynamics, and this drove some of my own personal approach choices.
Unlike my time in 1914, this was a game I wasn’t going into alone. A good friend with whom I play table top games every week had also signed up, and so we would be at the game together. We arranged to travel together, stay together and asked the organisers that we be allowed to play a pair of British brothers. The organisers run a bus from Berlin to Czocha on the Thursday of the game, so we decided to head to Berlin on Wednesday, to give us time to catch up with other players the evening before and to make sure that we made the bus rendezvous in good time.
Characters were issued in February, and at this point it became apparent that Simon and I were not brothers and not British. I’d been pre-warned by the organisers that this might happen, and so a quick email exchange later and it was suggested that I write my own character. Simon stuck largely with the character as written, and I tailored mine to fit around him. A pair of mundaneborn (children of non-witchard parents) brothers, the vibe was very much Simon and River from Firefly; with Edwin (me) being the level-headed caregiver and protector of Irvin (Simon). Thus the Dashwood brothers were born.
Characters are the least part of the CoW experience. They are a jumping off point; a base layer onto which you pile your relationships and shared histories. A light outline sketch which you can colour in in whatever way you want. You are free to ignore, change, or otherwise tinker with what you are given. There are no repercussions, as your character has no links to others built into it from the start. This was different to FM and better. Where with FM I had suffered a little from others deciding to change parts of their background that I had an investment in, at CoW there was no such issue. It did mean, however, that there was work to be done.
As I have already mentioned, this was an event with many returning players and characters. An event set part way through the College year, where the characters had been together in class for at least a term already. I had approached FM with the intention of finding my way as the game went on, and regretted it somewhat in hindsight; this time I decided to immerse myself fully in the pre-game and try to go into it with some relationships and plot seeds ready.
The organisers make this easy. There are Facebook groups for every conceivable IC grouping; any that are missing you are encouraged to create and publicise. There are regular email updates and there’s even an IC social network! I jumped into all of these with both feet, determined to ensure that I’d start the game with friends, enemies and history. Simon took a more circumspect approach, but allowed me to push him into conversations with people to figure out some shared background.
I found the process of character building through mutual play online to be very rewarding. Characters had adventures together, conducted through text chat, Google hangouts and IC communications. It became clear who our friends were and who we disliked. I arranged with several players to have relationships with their characters, whether it be best friends, mortal enemies or simply study partners. Not all of these survived into the game, but without them I’d have had massively less fun at the game.
Character construction and layering was helped by the tradition of pre-game workshopping. Thursday started with an OOC introduction and some quick briefings; and then we were split into our houses (an old public/private school tradition) and later our paths (the different magical tracks of study). In each workshop we were given the chance to meet our fellows, talk through what we knew of one another and make relationships where we had none. There were some group exercises designed to show where each of us lay on a spectrum when it came to various issues.
Plots are generally run by the players. Whilst this seems like a weird approach to an old UK player like me, once I got used to it the sense of it became clear. The organisers supply a fully stocked NPC room with crew and costumes to support the player plots. You can request anything of them with enough advance notice. The game uses theatrical terminology to define its structure. So there were 3 acts to the game, comprising scheduled events linked thematically, and then each individual segment of play was described as a scene. A scene could be a lesson, but it could also just as easily be a quiet conversation in a corner with another player. The scenography team are there to help with any requests.
Furthermore there is a tradition of and encouragement towards the so-called “play to lose” approach to the game. I am not sure that “play to lose” is the most apt term, as it is more a “play to create game” or “play for maximum drama” in reality. There are no winners at CoW and thus no losers. There is just the drama that we create together and enjoy together. It’s an opt-out system, where there’s no barrier to involvement in anything, but anyone has the ability to “cut” a scene, ending it immediately. I never saw the cut mechanic needed, but it’s a neat safety net to have in case of over-intensity or discomfort.
This “player-led plot” has two primary effects:
Firstly it means that there’s no such thing as plot. When there is no distinction between character background being played out and some mystery to be solved; where the conversations between players could be about the secret ritual to sacrifice an unborn child or who is taking who to the ball; then all conversations are relevant and so the distinction between “plot” and “not plot” is so blurred as to be meaningless. All of them offer the potential for interest, and thus encourage player interaction. A conversation might lead to sharing a drink and a recollection of that one time in class when you set fire to another student’s robe; or it might lead eventually to a ritual in the dungeon where you stab your younger brother’s stillborn twin through the head with a knife in order to summon death to help a friend sacrifice his life for his ex. (Both of these things happened).
Secondly it means that there is no let up. The game has 120+ players. That’s a lot of individual stories waiting to be told, a lot of communal brainpower used on characters and a lot of scenes happening at any given time. The event plays out like a whirlwind with little respite. There was rarely a moment to reflect, as I swept from dragon summoning to being tortured to furious therapeutic violence to shared despair. If you find that you have no plot, then you can invent something, and collective consensus is the final arbiter of truth. Simon, for example, at one point postulated that the whole castle might actually be a golem containing the spirit of one of the college founders. The following day a group of players conducted a ritual to communicate with it, making this the truth of the matter.
I am sure that you could play CoW at a less than frantic pace. Take your time and let the experience wash over you; but for this old drama queen it was a non-stop rollercoaster of highs and lows, triumphs and failures, laughter and tears. The emotional extremities were there, as my character’s journey took him through the entire spectrum of feelings.
Unlike FM this was no purists game. This wasn’t LARP with an absence of plot and naught but character; this was almost the opposite. It was less about simply being the character, it was about the character doing. It was consequently a little less impactful, the emotion was no less intense, but it was the difference between a deep dive into a calm pool and a white water ride in a raging torrent. Of course, for those days I was Edwin, feeling his feelings and caring about his cares; but Edwin was reacting to stimuli, pushing back against the world and manipulating events. Clayton (my character at FM) had been much more about inhabiting another person. The stimuli at FM were fewer and much more gentle, and thus had more time to soak through to my core. The gradual build of emotions at FM caused a depth of immersion that had a profound effect; with CoW it was more violently immersive and whilst effecting, it was less fundamental.
The game set up at CoW rewards action. In class, there are house points to be gained, praise from teachers to be basked in and exams to pass. In house meetings there is a sense of unity and purpose; of togetherness and family; and plans to be made with your fellows. At night there are curfews to be dodged, secrets to be revealed and rituals to be conducted. There are secret passages to explore, clubs to join and a tavern to relax in. In this sense, the actual play is much like traditional UK LRP.
Where it suffers, in my opinion, is in its very strengths. That any player can generate “truth” is ok, as far as it goes. And everyone is encouraged to leave this stuff as open ended as possible, to allow others to play with it. Generally, the style of play, co-operative and collaborative, meant that this worked ok. But with a massive diversity of play styles from a global player base, there are always going to be fudges and compromises. “A wizard did it” is fine; but after a little while it would be nice to have the odd objective truth lying around. The conflict between the returning players’ different experiences was well handled, with a section of our House workshop set aside for discussing any objective truths that people might like, but there was still the odd moment of disconnection as a new player with events that should have been known by all being unclear. A sketchy world led occasionally to a feeling of slight hollowness.
There’s a tension in the game between those that want to play a school drama; teen/young adult angst and those that want epic magical adventures. The organisers were clear at the start of the game that it intended to be school first, young adult second and magical adventure last. But I’m not necessarily sure that this was communicated early enough. It’s easy for things to escalate, because larpers, and much of the pre-game seemed pretty epic and less school-y. Obviously, this then had a knock on effect in game, and it was difficult to row back from. We managed, but I hope that those with expectations of a more down-to-earth game weren’t disappointed.
I’m also not sure where those that hadn’t engaged with the game ahead of time might have found themselves. I put in a tremendous amount of time and effort ahead of the game to ensure that I was set with people that knew Edwin and liked him and disliked him. I tried to be sure that I would have plenty to do and plenty of people to do it with. I had plots and plans, goals and desires, all prepped before leaving the UK. If I had turned up out of the blue, I could imagine it would be hard, especially for a shy player. The other players were immensely generous, but also the quick fire nature of the game leaves little spare time for hand holding by even the most collaborative of players.
I also think that the workshops would have benefitted from a more structured approach. There seemed a bit of variation between each one, with a very light touch facilitation. Given their importance for any player that hasn’t attended a CoW before, and hasn’t done any pre-larp, they would have been better with more fixed content and then a space for free input at the end. I still found them immensely useful, and will incorporate them into the next game that I run, but they felt a little like a missed opportunity at times.
These small criticisms aside; the game was brilliant. The player base are the largest part of this. Many of them had travelled a long way for the game (Brazil, Canada, the US, as well as from all over Europe); and this was reflected in the desire to have a great time and to help others do likewise. The generosity of play from all the players was great. I never felt blocked from exploring a thing that took my fancy, never felt excluded and never felt (even during the most intense of scenes) that the other player was trying to screw me over, even when their character most definitely was. This open and inclusive style of play carried over to the online sections of pre and post game. I saw none of the bile and vitriol that seems to taint the UK hobby online.
The emotional investment in characters was evident, despite the nature of the game as a sort of one off. There were many people with a clear and deep love for their alter-egos; but there is an understanding that it is natural for the player and character to bleed together and an acceptance of the same. The mutual support that was offered to one another before, during and after the game was heartening; and a lesson that the UK scene needs to learn. Whilst it’s not without its issues, player welfare was a real priority.
I wish I had the space here to talk about all the cool stuff that happened IC over the weekend. The silly curfew dodging that inadvertently led to discovering a true threat to the castle; almost being drowned (for real) in the lake; the amazingly silly herbology exam; rituals, betrayals, torture and redemption. I wish I had space to tell you about the other characters, the amazing classes, and beautiful props and costumes. I don’t have that capacity here to do so, without this ballooning beyond its already epic scale. “Luckily” I intend to publish a companion piece to this focussing on Edwin’s story on my personal LiveJournal (though this will take some time to be finished).
I hope to return to Czocha some time (the sooner, the better). I want to play a more senior student, a teacher, one of the support staff roles… I’ve got ideas galore. I am confident that whatever I choose to do, there will be a ton of game for me, and that the players will be welcoming and inclusive. It’s a brilliant game that seems to straddle a gap between the Nordic tradition and traditional UK games, with a multi-national cast of excellent people. You can find more information at http://www.cowlarp.com.
(The fabulous photographs in this article were taken by the extremely talented Natalia Kaniak. Many thanks for allowing us to use them.)