It's Thursday night. The temperature has hovered around 100 degrees all day, which feels a bit like the inside of an oven to someone who grew up on Canada's east coast. I'm on the ivy-covered campus of the University of Richmond, and it's pitch dark and raining hard. I'm taking shelter in an alcove next to what I think are supposed to be classrooms. The buildings here, all gothic arches and red brick, look pretty much the same to me. Three or four people huddled near me are talking softly and giggling. I wonder if they're feeling as lost as I do.
The woman next to me offers to walk me back to the dorms. She's wearing long black robes, and her pink hair is pulled back into pigtails. She has a magic wand in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
When she's finished her smoke, she suggests we make a run for it, so we do. Sprinting through a torrential downpour in the middle of the night is as refreshing as it is disorienting, and even though I'm laughing, I can't drown out that persistent question in the back of my mind— what the hell am I doing here?
I'm here to larp, of course. Depending on who I'm talking to, I usually describe larping as a very long improv exercise, or as Dungeons & Dragons standing up. The actions of the players are guided by a set of rules, which serve as creative constraints that help players develop their characters and create interesting stories. There are larps for every genre imaginable, and over the years, I've played pilgrims, soldiers, time-travelers, waitresses, gardeners, clairvoyants, and more. This time, I am Professor Benita Zeigler, certified astromancer and professor of divination at New World Magischola.
New World Magischola is an American adaptation of a Nordic larp called College of Wizardry and is considered a "blockbuster" game—that is, it has a high player count (about 120 per run), high production values (professional makeup, prop, and costumers involved), and a big budget (about $300,000 raised on Kickstarter). College of Wizardry began in 2014 as a Harry Potter fan project and unexpectedly exploded in popularity, getting coverage on sites like Vanity Fair and People magazine.
The coverage attracted participants from around the world, including NWM founders Maury Brown and Benjamin Morrow, who were so impressed by their experience that they decided to adapt it for American participants. Though still inspired by the Harry Potter series, Magischola takes place in a completely original fictional universe, whose history mirrors the actual colonial history of North America and incorporates its folklore and magical traditions. Still, many of the people I met at my run were there because they were hardcore Potterheads who were willing to pay, travel, and try an entirely new kind of game to fulfill their dream of going to Hogwarts. Between the strength of its fanbase, and the popularity of its predecessor, the expectations around NWM were incredibly high.
I've been larping for years, but the idea of a blockbuster larp was new and kind of intimidating. I had never been in character for more than a few hours and usually play with a group of five to ten people. How would I manage a whole weekend, with more than a hundred people, many of whom were larping for the first time?
I dutifully pored over the material I was sent in the months leading up to the game, outlining the fictional world, the design and mechanics, my character's personal history and goals, and mundane logistics like travel and scheduling. As a professor, I had to research my subject and submit actual lesson plans and materials. I had never done that much preparation for a larp, by a long shot. Meeting Ben and Maury at this year's Living Games conference, and learning just how much effort they were putting into making an accessible and empathy-driven experience put me at ease somewhat, but I still arrived feeling nervous. How could a game this massive work, exactly?
It works because it's been carefully designed to encourage creative and interesting play, while limiting some of the problems you might expect to encounter when more than a hundred people play a game together—like getting stuck in a plot you have no interest in, or having your boundaries crossed by an over-enthusiastic player. The first day of our four-day experience was spent mostly in introductory workshops that covered safety, a code of conduct, and logistics like parking and meal times, as well as game mechanics and meta-techniques.
Meta-techniques are simple tools that allow players to interact with the fiction of the game as it develops. Larping is like acting, except you're also writing and directing at the same time. Just like a director can call "cut" to stop a scene while it's being rehearsed, a player can call "cut" to stop a scene they are in to take a break, modify it, or even scrap it completely. Every player had that power at Magischola, because the game's design hinges on consent. You, the player, have complete control over what happens to your character. Even if another character casts a spell on your character, you decide what effect it has. If that sounds like it undermines any sort of competitive challenge, well, that's the point. The organizers and players were interested in the kinds of play that emerge when winning and losing are removed from the equation.
We were encouraged to use the "out-of-game" technique—placing a closed fist against your head to speak out of character—to communicate our intentions and desires on a player-to-player level. This isn't considered "breaking" character; it's how we make the kind of scenes and plotlines that are interesting and fun. For example, one player used the "out-of-game" technique to ask if we could hold hands. Our characters had been happily flirting, but he wanted to make sure he didn't cross my personal boundaries. We determined a level of intimacy that felt comfortable to us and then continued our scene.
It's worth noting that while I didn't hook up at Magischola, I know a few players who did. I think it has a lot to do with the way open, frank conversations about desire were normalized and encouraged. It's not just for romantic play, though—emotionally intense play of all kinds becomes much more approachable when you know you can opt out at anytime.
It's Friday night. A fellow professor, who knows that I engage in the forbidden practice of necromancy (I told them out of game, of course, to get the rumor mill turning while Benita herself remained secretive about her illegal practices), has told me that one of my students is grieving the loss of someone very close to him and could use my help. We find an empty classroom and sit in a quiet corner on small cushions. He tells me he is receiving messages from his mother, who was killed just a few weeks ago. But the messages are vague and garbled, and he doesn't know how to respond.
With complete confidence I tell him his mother's spirit is very near and cannot move on. She needs to speak with him—can he do that? He nods. I pour a small cup of water, and tell him to recount a strong memory of her and put it in the water. When he is done, I close my eyes, drink it, and take on her voice.
At first, I know exactly what I am going to say. I lost my mother when I was his character's age, suddenly and violently. I remember what I needed to hear then, and it's gratifying to share that with someone who needs it, if only fictionally. To my surprise, I can't stop there. Words continue to pour out of me. In this character within a character, through layers of abstraction (yet so close to home), I am saying how much I love him, and miss him, and want him to be happy. I'm telling him it's OK to be hurt and angry, and that in time those feelings will fade and only the warm memory of me will remain. I tell him that even though I have to go, my love will be with him always. We say goodbye, and when the ritual is done, we both have tears in our eyes. I'm shocked by my own words, but at the same time, I feel calm and content. In character, I tell my student about his mother's love, how I can still feel the gentle strength of it inside me.
I had some beautiful moments at Magischola, and I know from our post-game debriefs that many others did, too. But don't get the wrong idea—for most of the day, you're going to class. You're getting a (surprisingly good) meal at the cafeteria. You're napping because you were up past midnight in the Forbidden Forest but couldn't bear to miss the morning announcements. The schedule keeps you from getting lost, but over time, most students were pulled into stranger, grander things.
Being a professor separated me from some of the action, but it also allowed me to play generously with what the organizers called "Dumbo feathers." The baby elephant in Dumbo uses his big, wing-like ears to fly, but he lacks the confidence to use them until the crows give him the magic feather—actually just a regular feather from one of their tails. The magic feather doesn't give Dumbo the ability to fly, but it gives him what experience designers might call an alibi: That little bit of encouragement that lets someone do what he or she was able to all along.
As I got to know students, they began coming to me for palm readings or dream interpretations or even non-magical advice. I learned quickly that after listening to students, all I had to do was tell them their aura was glowing a powerful violet, or that their destiny line was running right into their Jupiter quadrant, and they would suddenly thank me profusely and run off. I rarely found out what happened after that. I figured it was probably good.
Teaching, listening, being turned to for advice—all of that strokes your ego pretty hard. I arrived nervous and skeptical, but the more I connected with other players, the more confident and comfortable I felt being Professor Zeigler. I absolutely loved playing that role. I even worried, here and there, that it might be hard to leave her behind.
It's Saturday night. It's the homecoming ball, and I'm getting a corny prom pic with the professor who asked to hold my hand earlier that day. I dance with my real-life partner, whom I've hardly seen all weekend, and who for reasons unknown to me is now in full vampire makeup. We laugh about it, knowing I'll get the full story later. I dance with the professor who I know has a crush on me, while Benita remains oblivious. Her flustered blushing is very convincing. I teach one of my students to do the Time Warp.
A school choir I had no idea existed appears and sings the Magischola anthem, beautifully. I tear up a little. One member of the choir gets down on one knee and asks another to marry him, and my usual revulsion for public proposals hides in a closet somewhere while I laugh and jump and squeal and feel absolutely certain that these two people love each other and will be together forever.
I feel an almost overwhelming joy, and slowly, I realize that the joy belongs to me, not my character. I wonder what else I might be able to take home with me. Her confidence, maybe? Her ability to command a room without ever raising her voice? If I acted those things out, then maybe I could do them for real. While I was reading palms and inducing visions, holding hands and running through the rain, I'd been slowly crafting my own Dumbo feather, a magical weekend to assure me that I could do more than I'd ever imagined.
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