College of Wizardry (CoW) was a Harry Potter inspired larp about a fictional magical college in Poland, where students could go to learn advanced magic. It wasn’t Hogwarts, but a place to go after Hogwarts, Durmstrang or any of the other magical schools that exist in the HP universe. Players played students, teachers and staff members at this wizarding college, and supporting non-player-characters played ghosts, monsters in the forest, visitors from the Ministry of Magic, etc. The larp gathered 138 players from 11 different countries, and was run by a Polish/Danish team of volunteers from the organisations Liveform and Rollespilsfabrikken.
The first larp to go truly viral
But none of that is really important.
What made CoW a larp that mattered wasn’t so much the larp itself. Sure, many participants considered it an excellent experience and said so in the after larp survey. But many larps are excellent experiences. Three things made CoW stand out from a sea of excellent experiences:
- Larp tourism
- Massive press interest
- Engaging with IP holders
#1 Larp tourism
First and foremost, CoW was larp tourism. Though it took place in Poland, it was clearly a Nordic larp aimed at a Nordic audience. Most of the game design and communication was done by the Danish team, with the Polish team being responsible for fiction, scenography, logistics, etc. Of the 138 players, 122 were from the Nordic countries, and only one was Polish.
It also sold out in less than 48 hours, with a solid waiting list being established quickly afterwards. The reason for this was simple. The chance of playing a student in the Harry Potter universe at a real fairytale castle was something with broad appeal. And the price was absurdly low, due to the fact that it was held in Poland.
Larp tourism has been going on for some years, but very few larps have been designed with larp tourism in mind. A good example is the German megalarp ConQuest (of Mythodea), which draws more than 300 Danes every year, making it one of the biggest Danish larp events of the year.
ConQuest has participants from all over the world, but is still primarily a German larp made by Germans for Germans. Foreigners are welcome, but do not in any way make up the majority of the participants.
CoW was different. It was created as tourism from the start. None of us expected many Polish players, both due to the price tag and the Nordic style of play. We got one, a Polish history professor with several years of Knudepunkt experience. Some Poles thought it looked interesting, but out of their price range. Some thought it looked boring. Some were even mad at us for doing a larp in Poland that Poles couldn’t afford.
Because we wanted to get as many Poles in on the project as possible, we had a lot of free spots for organisers, who could play NPC roles during some of the larp, and we gave Polish NPCs priority. We also took some money from the project and put it into our Polish organisation, Liveform, and let Rollespilsfabrikken soak up the loss on the project.
Sadly, even with fundraiser larps, we lost €4.000 on CoW, but the two CoW larps we have planned for April 2015 balance out that loss, and we’ll put even more money into Liveform after doing those.
The idea is that while we feel larp tourism is a good idea, we also want it to strengthen the local community and involve it as much as possible, and by putting money in the Polish organisation, we hope to make it possible for them to make other interesting projects for local players.
#2 Massive press interest
On the previous page are some – but not all – of the media that have written about CoW. The list is from the round-up on Nordiclarp.org and if it seems over-the-top, it’s because it is. It sure as hell blew our minds to get this kind of attention.
W hile some of us ha ve gotten good press on larps before, this massive media storm is unprecedented, and as organisers, we hadn’t seen it coming. Suddenly, journalists from Brazilian luxury travel magazines were calling. A Ukrainian company thought CoW was a four-day guided tour of some sort, and a pair of poor American students wrote to ask if there were scholarships available ”at our college”. Others ask if it’s for 3 or 4 years.
On some levels, the amount of interest has been wonderful, while on others it has been a bit bizarre. While larp has grown in popularity in recent years, and Nordic larp in particular has gained more recognition, there’s still a long way to go. Many people still have no clue as to what we do, and if we don’t do our best to educate them, they’ll just keep misunderstanding. However, what we do matters. I’ve talked with journalists from all over the globe, and it’s become extremely clear that Danish journalists know very well what larp is. They didn’t 10-15 years ago, but they do today. My guess is that some of the same goes for journalists in Sweden, Norway and Finland, but I’ve only talked about CoW with a few of them.
One lesson I’ve learned from this has been clear. If we want serious press attention, we need to do spectacular projects that are easy to understand. It doesn’t get much better than ”Harry Potter in a real castle”, or ”Battlestar Galactica in an old warship” (words used to describe the Swedish larp Monitor Celestra from 2013, which also got quite a bit of media attention). We also need to do solid documentation that can be picked up and used. CoW had the British filmmakers from Cosmic Joke present, and their 1:41 min teaser film has gotten more than a million views on youtube. We also had no less than four brilliant photographers present, and especially Christina Molbech’ and John- Paul Bichard’s images have been spread all over the globe. Good documentation makes media mention more likely.
This is not to say that we have any illusions about larp quality and media attention having anything to do with each other. CoW was – according to most of our players – a great larp, and we’re proud of what we’ve helped create, but we’re also completely aware of the fact that even if it had been a deeply unsatisfactory affair, the video and pictures from it would still have looked almost as stunning. Or in other words: we could probably have gotten more or less the same amount of media attention even if our participants had hated the larp.
We have also learned that if we want to move outside our (relatively) small circles, media coverage is something we need to take into account. Not only have we been contacted by larpers from all over the globe who were unaware of our existence, we have also been contacted by large numbers of people who want to try out CoW as their first larp experience. If we’re serious about increasing our numbers, then this is one way to do it.
Finally, it has also become very clear how much of a diff erence it makes to ha ve some words written on your larp’s web page with journalists in mind. Honourable mention must here go to Swedish larper, journalist and TV host Johanna Koljonen, who as one of the first said ”You need to make a page for journalists, because if you don’t, they’ll just write the story anyway”. After we updated the web page with info written with them in mind, stories about CoW in the media suddenly jumped in quality. Having a ”For the press” page won’t get you media attention, but it’ll make the attention you get that much more qualified.
#3 Engaging with IP holders
Last, but not least, CoW was interesting because not only did we use somebody else’s story world, but we also got in contact with the Intellectual Property rights holders. Larpers all over the world have been doing larps in ”known” worlds foralongtime,withoutanyoneeither noticing or caring.
A twenty-person S tar Wars larp at a camp site in Denmark isn’t going to matter any more for the S tar Wars brand than a kid in Texas holding a S tar Wars themed birthday.
Some larps have gone past that stage, and ha ve been noticed by IP holders. M onitor Celestra, set in the BSG world, was one of these, and the Czech larp H ell on Wheels, based on the TV series of the same name, is another. Reactions ha ve been positive, but to my knowledge formal cooperation has been at a minimum. Some larps have been made in collaboration with big-name authors, but not only have these been few and far between, none of the the larps in question have gotten publicity on the same scale as CoW.
For that reason alone, it’s a game changer. We contacted J.K. Rowling’s publishers, who sent us on to her lawyers. They sent us on to Warner Bros’ legal department. WB Legal talked it over internally and decided that while they were fine with what we had done (and maybe even happy with the extra exposure it had given the HP brand), they needed to control their own brand.
This is something we understand completely, and have a lot of respect for. The deal struck was that we were given permission to hold two more CoW larps in April 2015 (which were already sold out), but from then on we should move CoW to its own original universe; a challenge we’re looking forward to.
But while this neither ended up with us working for WB doing HP larps for a living or being engaged in legal battles, it definitely changed the game for me. No longer can we expect to go under the radar unless we try, and maybe we don’t want to.
A few days ago, I wrote to the film company behindthemovieTheGrandBudapestHotel and asked them if they were interested in a joint venture. Maybe they’ll say no, thanks, and maybe they’ll just ignore the question. But there’s also a chance they’ll say ”That sounds interesting”.
Some months ago, I know that I would never even have dreamed of asking. In the end, I believe that’s how we evolve as a scene and as individual larpwrights. By opening up new possibilities. CoW certainly did that. Now let’s just see how deep the rabbit hole is.
College of Wizardry
Credits: Agata Swistak, Agnieszka Linka Hawryluk-Boruta, Aleksandra Hedere Ososinska, Charles Bo Nielsen, Claus Raasted, Dracan Dembienski, Dorota Kalina Trojanowska, Freja Gyldenstrøm, Ida Pawlowicz, Mikolaj Wicher, Szymon Boruta, with more than 20 helpers
Date: November 13-16, 2014
Location: Zamek Czocha, Poland
Length: 4 days
Players: 138 players, 33 NPCs
Participation Fee: €180 for players, €70 for NPCs
Game Mechanics: CoW spell casting, gossip mechanic, Liveform alchemy system
This article was initially published in The Nordic Larp Yearbook 2014 which was edited by Charles Bo Nielsen & Claus Raasted, published by Rollespilsakademiet and released as part of documentation for the Knudepunkt 2015 conference.
Cover photo: The fairytale castle of Zamek Czocha, which served as the location for the larp (Play, Christina Molbech)