lunes, 24 de noviembre de 2014

College of Wizardry - the glory, the frenzy, the chaos (review)

Czocha College of Wizardry. Image by Christina Molbech
'College of Wizardry' was a larp designed and organized by RollespilsFabrikken and Liveform, played inside Czocha Castle, Poland, from 13 to 16 November 2014, based on the Harry Potter universe. I was fortunate enough to attend, and it was a dramatic larp that simulated the start of the academic year on a university of wizards.

It was an absolute success, not exempt from some weak points, but enjoyable, relentless and fresh.

This review is mainly directed at those people who did miss the larp and are interested in attending the next runs.

In a podcast some months ago, the Danish organizer Claus Raasted presented the following points as aims for the larp. Those will be the criteria of analysis for this review:

Based on the 'Harry Potter' intelectual property
'Based' meant that the larp did not take place on Hogwarts, but on a different place inspired by the same world. For achieving this, a ficticious background for Czocha castle was created, as a school of wizardry for those who graduated from Hogwarts and others European magical schools and wanted to perfect their wizardry knowledge. This meant that different Houses, a whole staff, castle ghosts, creatures that lived in the surrounding woods had to be created for the larp, including a sociopolitical situation for the Wizarding World, as the larp took place in 2014, almost two decades after the outcome of the situation described in the books that were its inspiration.

Well, not only the organizers fulfilled the expectations, although they did it in a jaw-dropping way, full of details. Czocha College of Wizardry easily matches Hogwarts as an interesting setting updated to the year 2014 with dark, unsettling and also fun and silly overtones.

Larp inside a castle
This cannot be stressed enough. Czocha is a real castle with secret passages and spiraling stairs. It is hard to explain how cool it really is without being there for real. Pictures can help, but there is simply no substitute to move through the whole old, beautiful castle that is kept in a perfect state. Players even slept in the castle rooms, so there was no single space of non-diegetical location, except for a pair of rooms the organizers had marked for their use and coordination. Also, the surrounding area, grounds and woods next to the castle delivered a total immersion experience.

A reference point in larp - 'You had to be there'
All intentions were in the direction of making this larp as impressive and memorable as The Monitor Celestra or Dragonbane. With the contributions of several players, and the boundless enthusiasm of both the Danish and Polish organizers and collaborators and the experience they have, it was not hard. So it was not a real surprise that the larp was successful and great, but it is not a small feat.

Cinematic larping - The 'Wow!' reaction
The design, the location and props of 'College of Wizardry' were larger than life and astonishing by their own. Just the effort and detail in every piece or element of the larp made anyone to be puzzled and psyched from the start. The intensity of play and obvious, fiery passion were overwhelming, without downtimes.

There were simply too many things to do, too many things to feel and experience. The overabundance was great, as the larp took its participants on its wings and made a lot easier the always difficult, although grateful, process of immersion and flowing.

Sandbox approach to a school (college) simulator 
The setting was a constant generator of coflicts and drama. The factions (Houses), rivalry between them, the preferences of the professors and twenager conflicts assured that everytime, everywhere there was stuff happening. The basis structure of the larp consisted in a competition for the Czocha Cup among the five Houses, and a sandbox approach was the skeleton for this, dressed beautifuly with plenty of details, seeds of things to investigate or interact, secondary characters played by collaborators, more drama and lots of plot.

Everything worked so fine that, even if a lot of the content was unrelated to any other element, it was part of the chaotic rich tapestry of events at 'College of Wizardry'.

The setting was used to attract a large enough crowd, but it was a Nordic larp
Everything - and more - that one could expect from a Harry Potter larp was there in its own way. I am not a fan of the Harry Potter setting, and I was rather looking for a twenager college drama larp in a castle, but even for the hardcore fans the details and richness were amazing. At its core this was a Nordic larp, so there were almost no rules (more similar to guidelines), secrets were there to be discovered dramatically (not to be hoarded) and the competitiveness of the characters contrasted with the eagerness of the players to collaborate creating conflict and troubled relationships.

In short, this was not your average gamist event designed to be "won". That was pointless by design and by the play to lose mindset. Anyway, it was a mainstream larp, so there were no experiments or artistic pretensions.

Aimed to reach different people, not just known players from the Nordic scene
One constant issue of local larp scenes is repeated in each country: players and organizers of a circle are almost always the same, and there are few fresh faces to interact in any given larp, so there is a constant internal feedback but no input from different scenes. Although most of the players of 'College of Wizardry' were Danish, Swedish and Finnish, there were people from eleven different countries and even some people from Denmark had not met in larps before. The mandatory language for communication was English.

Different larp cultures and sensibilities also meant that some compromise was necesary to cater for everyone, so the participants should be wary during interactions. Fortunately, once the event started and took impulse, the different approaches melt and there were no real out-of-the-fiction concerns.

The bigger! better! more! problem
In 2007 Claus Raasted published an article in this book, about how burnout is an issue in larp. It is a risk everytime that one undertakes a huge amount of effort doing an unpaid work of love. Was 'College of Wizardry' a victim of this issue? It is too soon to say, but the larp is repeatable as it is, and the effort was not maddening. Some things did not work as intended, but the organizer team cleverly used to their advantage the setting, location and player enthusiasm.
They did not make promises they could not keep and they did not sell their souls to get things done. So we will see more reruns of 'College of Wizardry' - and even a sequel.

The following are the most successful and attractive aspects of the 'College of Wizardry' experience.

Glorious chaos - One could navigate through fragments of a great tapestry in a grandiose, inspiring way that moved to action instead of enervation or boredom

Location, location, location - Czocha castle is breathtaking and quite accessible. But is is also an old castle, so those who have some problems with stairs should be warned.

The solemn, the sordid and the light hearted - A mixture that, instead of being disfunctional, was seamless integrated.

Lessons - The professors taught their subjects and a student could attend five different classes of forty five minutes each day. Lessons were fun; most of them also enabled new roleplaying opportunities and conflicts.

Constant movement - Every aspect was fluid, and there was no estagnation or downtime.

'Brute force design' success - As Markus Montola commented, using a denomination from Eirik Fatland, the larp was a perfect example of brute force design - creating so many stuff and details that it thriumphed by addition and sheer force.

Highly enjoyable - It was a delight to interact with all the elements that gave the player that fuzzy, warm feeling of having a great time. The post-larp blues of many players has been acute.

Enthusiasm - The sheer enthusiasm of the organizer team was evident, and impregnated every aspect of the event. Perhaps this element will be endangered in future runs, due to routine or the difficulty of a larp of these characteristics.

Creative solutions to the setting problems - The things that were impossible to simulate, like Quidditch or apparition, for example, were outside of the scope of the larp with an fictional reason (spells that forbade flying or teleporting were in place because political reasons). Even with the limitations, the feel and most iconic things were there.

Accessible and charismatic - This was larp made easy, attractive and open to newcomers. No nerdy unfriendly cliques here, fortunately. Even the party at the end of the larp was a success, one of the rare instances when true joy and character experience goes hand to hand and are integrated in the fictional frame.

Czochabook - To facilitate communication between characters, Czochabook (a social network exclusive for Czocha students and staff) was implemented two months before the event took place. Some people did not have time or energy for it, and their experience did not suffer for that. For those who participated in Czochabook, however, the experience was richer.

Dramatic twenagers with deadly tools! - There is something undeniably alluring in a dramatic soap opera of twenty-somethings full of passion and ideals... with the twist that in a moment of angst or fury those same young people can cast horrible and deadly curses at each other.

There were some not-so-wonderful things also to keep in mind. The organization is aware of most of them and they will be likely solved in the following runs.

Lack of character workshops - Workshops were limited to explain the spellcasting and the (awesome) alchemy system and several rules of safety, but there was a complete lack of character workshops to create and facilitate immersion in character.

Limited relationships - Players had to create their relationships with others by their own. Czochabook and facebook support groups were invaluable, although limited in scope. The amnesia syndrome of characters in big larps was present: Senior students who shared lessons and lived together for two years did not know anything about their colleagues or recognise each other.

Playstyle confusions - With so many larp cultures, there was no real effort to communicate and unify them into a common playstyle for the larp, resulting in some minor problems regarding transparency, secrecy and tacit play agreements. At least, there was a basis (play to lose, secret sharing, neverending conflict and drama generation), but not really explained in depth.

Anything goes with combat magic - The freeform and intuitive combat magic system was almost limitless, but allowed for some over-the-top imaginary magic in a way that was nonsensical; some people casted huge physical spells with no FX whatsoever and no consequences afterwards. Some guidelines, limitations and/or aftereffects would be required to better compensate. Or perhaps the organization could just ask the players to abstain from the most spectacular forms of magic.
Even if the larp does not focus on spellcasting and combat magic, right now there is a huge simulation issue if spellcasting is left unchecked.

Out-of-the-fiction words that threaten the larp - Particularly, the word 'CUT', which not only excluded the player who uttered it from the running scene, but stopped absolutely the action. With so many mixed cultures, it is dangerous to give one player the power to stop the whole larp around him. It is better if that player uses the word to escape the scene, so the rest of the people can keep with the running scene if they want. Fortunately, none used it as far as I know, but anyway it is an unnecesary risk.

Houses were not unique - Allegedly, the five houses of Czocha were based in several cultures: Polish (for House Sendivogius), Silesian (for House Durentius), German (for House Faust), Jewish (for House Molin) and Czech (for House Libussa). This was quite interesting in the design document, but with the exception of the names of the founders and some minor flavor, they felt mostly the same. Also, the alliances between some House were not present at all - every House was on its own to achieve the Czocha Cup.

Difficulty of correlating personal background with the larp - Character creation was guided with coachs, and players were allowed to create and modify their backgrounds, although sometimes they were out of place, in a similar way to the larp amnesia syndrome related above.

If too many larp cultural taboos are observed, the larp can lose intensity - Instead of lowering expectations, it could be better for people from other larp cultures to go out from their comfort zones.

Food issues - It seems that vegetarians had some problems with the food, as their choices were limited. Probably it is best to ask the organization about the issue.

The need to accept the premises and ignore plausibility and common sense - This is not a negative point, as much as a warning: anyone interested in this larp should take the premises as they are. Trying to adapt them or customize them for a different personal experience that challenges the vision for this larp blocks any enjoyment. If you plan to attend 'College of Wizardry', flow and have a great time. Don't attempt to undermine it or adjust it to your taste.

A magnificent, intense and powerful larp that should be experienced for the joy and the amazement by those looking for drama, atmosphere and immersion over competition and achieving goals. Check the next runs and just go. You will not regret it.

3 comentarios:

  1. Gran reseña! Envidia sana por no haber podido ir

  2. Great review!

    I absolutely disagree about CUT (it should have been workshopped) but player-safety always goes before immersion. Would love to discuss that further in person.

    That said - great writedown of pros and cons!

    See you again in April or sometime else! :)

    / Petter
    Dariausz Urbaniak, Senior Auror and Prefect of House Libussa