The Blockbuster Formula – Brute Force Design in The Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry

The Blockbuster Formula – Brute Force Design in The Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry

2013 and 2014 may be remembered as the conception of the Nordic blockbuster larp. Two ambitious larps – The Monitor Celestra in Sweden and College of Wizardry in Poland – succeeded in attracting an unprecedented level of international attention from media and players. They did so, in part, by advertising their inspiration from established fictional worlds with large fan followings (Battlestar Galactica and Harry Potter respectively), and by the choice of spectacular and eye-grabbing locations: a naval destroyer turned spaceship, and a castle made into a wizarding college.

Both productions were created by large teams: Celestra boasted a team of 85 people, while College of Wizardry had a team of 20 organizers and helpers, plus 33 NPC players. Although they were partially run by professional larpmakers, they were both nonprofit games[1]While none of the CoW organizers got paid for their efforts, some Celestra organizers got a small payment.. A ticket to College of Wizardry cost €180 and a ticket to Celestra twice as much, but they both provided players with room and board, as well as some costuming, yielding good value for money. The 32-hour Celestra was run three times for a total of 389 players, with plans for remakes. College of Wizardry, capitalizing on the success of the initial 138-player run, sold out tickets to the 2015 re-run in minutes.

However, this is not a story about production. Neither massive production teams, enthusiastic players, nor spectacular locations are by themselves enough to create a successful larp[2]As many participants of the spectacular art festival / forgepttable larp Futuredrome (2002) are probably aware.. This is a story about the design model the Celestra team happened upon in their effort to produce a large larp on a rushed schedule – a model that mixed recent innovations from experimental and progressive Nordic larps back into the tried-and-true approach we will call brute force design. This is a story of how that model was further refined at College of Wizardry, and about how these larps may even set the new norm in how to create action-packed fast-paced larp entertainment for mature audiences.

Brute Force Design

Before the progressive Nordic tradition of larp, there was brute force design. Nobody, of course, called it that – they called it “organizing larp”. We are proposing this name retroactively to describe an approach to designing larps that we often encountered in our own scenes the 90s, and still recognize in many of the larps produced in other traditions.

At a typical brute force larp, designers will use a plethora of techniques to drive conflict and mystery, such as:

  • Characters are split into groups with conflicting agendas (orcs want to kill elves)
  • There are subgroups inside groups (the elvish general wants to attack head-first to show bravery, while the king favors a stealthy approach)
  • There are power hierarchies (the general commands the officers who command the soldiers)
  • There are secrets, which players can discover, hoard, and trade (the general is a traitor plotting to kill the king)
  • There are puzzles that can be solved (assemble a torn-up treasure map)
  • Run-time game mastering is conducted by triggering events, introducing surprises, and inserting messenger characters (an NPC scout enters the tent of the king, informing that a horde of undead is approaching the camp)

The key characteristic of brute force isn’t that it uses any one of the techniques in this list, but that it uses a lot of them simultaneously.

Rather than the less is more approach common in the last decade of Nordic larp design, the brute designer will embrace quantity over quality and insist that, in fact, more is more. The results of that are unpredictable and chaotic, but seldom boring. Some of the conflicts and puzzles might be completely forgotten, while others command center-stage. The larp exemplified above might end in a battle of four armies, the discovery of an ancient treasure, an elvish civil war, or all of these at the same time.

In addition to the philosophy of more is more, a typical brute force design combines the diegetic social structure of colliding power hierarchies, and the dramatic structure built around discovery of hidden narrative, with the assumption that players will play to win.

Colliding Power Hierarchies

Players waiting for the game to start (The Monitor Celestra, pre-game, by Johannes Axner).In a power hierarchy, the higher ranks have the right to command the lower ranks, and expect their orders – within limits – to be followed. Power hierarchies are overt: everyone knows who the boss is. Both these features distinguish power hierarchies from more subtle status hierarchies typically ignored by brute force designers, which describe who is socially dominant, who is allocated more attention, and whose voice is more respected.

Power hierarchies make for easy role-playing. Neither the givers nor receivers of orders should be in any doubt as to how to perform their character’s social role. They also come with clear affordances for dramatic tension: the potential for rebellion is implicit in every tyranny, and every weak leader invites intrigue for succession.

To make things more interesting, though, the brute designer will rarely settle for just one power hierarchy. Instead, games are built around the contested relationships of multiple groups. The simplest possible collision is between two hierarchies pursuing mutually exclusive goals: both the orcs and the elves are looking for the ring of power, but only one side can have it.

More complex collisions happen when characters are given allegiance to more than one hierarchy (i.e. both family and close friends), or when some allegiances are secret and aim to subvert the visible hierarchy.

These collisions serve to furnish the larp with conflict, but they also provide characters with dramatic choices: to serve country or ideology, friend or family.

Discovery of Hidden Narrative

Brute force designs will usually distribute clues and puzzle pieces throughout the game, but they aim to be more than simple treasure hunts. The clues spread through character backgrounds and introduced by NPCs will often combine to reveal back story, the diegetic myths of the past that preceded the larp, and that often impart important further clues on how to win it; for example, by revealing the true motivations of other characters. Buried items combine to form game-changing weapons, or devices that reveal even more of the backstory.

In this way, the larp designer tries to fit the players’ experiences into a larger diegetic narrative, one that began long before the larp, and which is meant to give the unfolding of the larp meaning in the context of that larger narrative.

Playing to Win

The structures of colliding hierarchies and puzzle – solving implicitly invite participants to play to win. After all, outside of roleplaying, puzzles are usually meant to be solved and games about conflict are usually played for the thrill and challenge of seeking victory.

When the brute designer can assume that players will try to reach their goals within a limited set of strategic choices, their behaviour becomes comparatively easy to give direction: the designer only needs to dictate goals and rewards for each individual or group, thereby defining what constitutes “winning” for them, and manage their resources and strategic alternatives.

Playing to win, which is the core of gamism (see Kim 1998), usually requires the players to compromise between roleplay and gameplay. A player may try to achieve a coherent and true-to-genre portrayal of their character, complete with personal flaws that would hinder the character in conflicts of the larp. But the moment the player faces a strategically important decision, those flaws and attitudes are often discarded in order to achieve victory.

Ups and Downs of Brute Force

Playing to win is the default expectation of most people approaching a game, while power hierarchies make for the clearest possible social roles and relationships, and the existence of secret hierarchies and solvable puzzles match Hollywood genres such as the murder mystery, the spy story, and the supernatural thriller. For this reason, brute force larps tend to be easy to play and require little explanation.

The brute force approach easily brings about a string of great scenes and powerful moments for the players.

It is also resilient against mistakes; a malfunctioning plot will be overtaken by a functional one. Finally, the sheer amount of content – more is more – usually leaves each player with plenty of options for what to do next.

The key word, though, is “usually”: the chaos of brute force design provides no guarantees – of anything. And implicit in the model are also a number of dangers.

First of all, players in a brute force larp easily get overrun by a plot train. Secretly digging for treasure in the forest? Too bad. The elves just attacked, and the forest is the battleground. Adrenaline-pumped and ready to fight the final battle?

A pity; the generals just declared a truce in order to to pursue the hunt for hidden treasure. The emergent narrative of one group can easily disable the play of another group; crisis and conflict in particular trump subtler themes.

With power hierarchies comes the risk of plot monopolization: the characters at the top, if they play their cards strategically and sensibly, tend to sniff out and take control of the business of their underlings. Plot for the underlings is tricky to begin with: two kings are easier to write than twenty soldiers, and the designer’s attention – biased by a lifetime of exposure to film and literature – is often attracted to the former.

With the atmosphere of secrecy that hidden narrative and potential traitors tend to produce, the monopolized plots tend to become opaque, known only to leaders and their trusted advisors. At their worst, brute force designs provide great entertainment for the handful of players with high-ranking characters, at the expense of all the other players.

As mentioned, playing to win often leads players to sacrifice character coherence when encountering strategic choices. Increasing the number of plots further fragments the experience: the fisherman’s wife no longer has a function when the larp turns to battle against the orcs.

When overrun by a competing plot train, the player will need to reinterpret their character as someone different, someone who actually has a role to play in the plot. Brute force larps, while they often yield memorable scenes, also generate moments of frustration as players need to internally renegotiate their characters while steering[3]See The Art of Steering by Montola, Stenros & Saitta in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book. around plots and colliding allegiances.

Players do not always accept such compromises. At any given brute force larp of the 1990s, you would find individuals who approached the larp with other ideals than playing to win, culminating in manifestoes such as Dogma 99 (Fatland & Wingård 1999) and the Manifesto of the Turku School (Pohjola 2000) that confronted gamist play from different perspectives.

Dogma 99 prohibited backstory, secrecy, main plots, main characters and “superficial” action – in other words: hidden narrative and colliding hierarchies. The Turku Manifesto insisted that players should approach roleplaying with no other goal than to immerse in character, dispensing with goals such as playing to win, and implied that a coherent and selfconsistent simulation, free of narrative direction, should be the goal of larp designers.

Subsequent innovations in the Nordic larp discourse have served to emphasize, facilitate, and focus on those other ideals, from perfectly coherent simulation to faithfulness to the genre and narrative arcs.

These newer arthaus larps have emphasized relationships over conflict, implicit status over explicit power, life in the trenches over the adrenaline of the battlefield. They have evolved techniques such as workshopping, blackbox scenes and inner monologues to broaden the expression and to help players develop characters deeper.

Some have surrounded their players with a fully immersive 360° illusion (Koljonen 2007) made of impeccable physical representations and simulated access to outside world, while others have done away with physical illusion entirely and used empty rooms with stage lights, symbolic props and non-diegetic music.

Surveying the state of the Nordic larp discourse at 2012, it appears that brute force had fallen entirely out of fashion in this progressive scene.

Brute Force in The Monitor Celestra

The fire security crew from Berättelsefrämjandet (The Monitor Celestra, pre-game, by Johannes Axner).The Monitor Celestra was a larp set in the world of Battlestar Galactica. It was played on the Halland-class destroyer HMS Småland, built in 1951. The game was created around the vision of playing space drama within a beautiful self-enclosed environment of 360° illusion in the spirit of the classic Swedish larps Carolus Rex (1999) and Hamlet (2002).

The organizers went to great lengths turning the museum ship into a decommissioned Monitor-class vessel commandeered for military use in the aftermath of the fall of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. Most notably, the larp featured a system of control terminals for navigating through the galaxy, communicating with other vessels, and fighting space battles.

During the first act, the Celestra found herself stranded in deep space, separated – perhaps irrevocably – from the remainder of humanity, pursued by the vast firepower of the enemy Cylons, with onboard society deeply fractured.

At the first glance, the Celestra design bears resemblance to a typical brute force larp. Celestra featured at least a dozen colliding power hierarchies ranging from Colonial Navy to the civilian crew of the vessel, from the Vergis corporation to organized crime factions. The larp was set in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of human civilization, so which of these hierarchies would command the allegiance of any one character was anyone’s guess.

The game masters had prepared surprises, such as Cylon infiltrators, and occasionally brought in non-player characters to stir the pot. There were hidden narratives to be discovered by piecing together clues and asking NPCs the right questions.

For example, the players could figure out the origin story of the three Cylon models, determining whether they were friend or enemy, and learn to understand the holographic ghosts that haunted the ship. Clearly, the philosophy of more is more was at work.

However, The Monitor Celestra added several elements to the concoction. While not all design choices worked out equally well, we can discern a new model of larp design in the combination of the ones that did.

While these additions were mostly triedand- true design solutions, the way they fit together and complemented each other was new and unique, with the potential to improve significantly on the brute force design model.

Playing to Lose

Most importantly, the Celestra team subverted the brute force tradition by insisting that all participants play to lose. The players were instructed in detail on how to avoid winning the larp, and were obliged to follow that instruction: in fact The Monitor Celestra Briefing document distributed to players proclaimed that “playing to win is for asshats anyway”.

Although Celestra may have been the first Nordic larp to explicitly tell players to play to lose, the idea goes back at least to Keith Johnstone’s (1979) work on improvisational theatre. At previous Nordic larps focused on oppression or tragedy, such as Hamlet, the necessity of playing to lose did not need to be articulated: these larps did not make any sense if approached with a gamist mentality.

Celestra also subverted gamism at its holy of holies, with gun rules emphasizing responsibility and drama over fairness and challenge:

A gun controls a room until another gun is pulled. […] The rule is simple: they get what they want, whereupon the gun is holstered or otherwise removed from play. It’s the responsibility of the whole room involved to play up the lethality of the situation […] When the gun wielder has gotten what she wanted, it is her responsibility to get the gun out of play – by running away (good luck with that), holstering the gun, dropping it and surrendering, or stand down in some other way […] You can never stop someone brandishing a gun from getting what she wants, except by pulling another gun. The second gun now trumps the first.The Monitor Celestra Briefing

Breaking Up Plot Monopoly

In addition to asking that participants play to lose, Celestra featured widespread player duties[4]In Celestra they were called “out of character duties”, but we chose to simplify the expression.. The scientist characters were instructed to share secrets late in the game for dramatic impact, or to introduce other characters to HoloBand equipment used to create diegetic black box scenes in the style of the Caprica TV series.

Civilian journalists were instructed to gather information, to keep everyone posted, and to activate civilians by providing them with news to play on. Corporate middle management had player duties to keep the game dynamic by repeatedly gaining the trust of one of the factions and then switching sides or staging coups.

Most of the player duties served to break up plot monopolies and emphasized playing to lose: to have characters reveal secrets they strategically should have kept to themselves, to involve and inform others of their agendas and back story.

While in a typical brute force larp, power hierarchies end up serving the players on the top, Celestra sought to make them serve the players at the bottom. The tops of the hierarchies received extensive player duties, encouraging them to funnel plot downwards in the hierarchy and make choices leading to better roleplay, rather than making strategically smart decisions.

Being a cog in the machine provides the player with a social role and game content, even when it means running errands or monitoring a comms terminal. By building an elaborate 360° illusion, with technology simulating a fully functional spaceship, such tasks could be set up to give nominally bottom-tier characters agency and relevance.

Being in charge of the comms terminal meant that the messenger could withhold or sell crucial information, and the engineers in the reactor could shut off power to other parts of the ship at a whim. Even when they chose to obey orders to the letter, these characters were exercising agency.

In terms of play experience, though, not all errands are equal. Especially in the first run, some players noticed that tasks such as standing guard alone made for poor play experience.

Playing a leader in this kind of an environment and guiding the experience of subordinates is akin to game mastering without the overview that the actual game masters enjoy: highly dependent not just on player skill set but also on the information provided by the organizers. In the second run leaders were instructed to make people always work in pairs.

Especially after this change, the players at the bottom of the hierarchy had better experiences of Celestra than the players left entirely outside one: It was much better to play a crewman in the engine room than a refugee without a place.

The Power of Established World Material

Players waiting for the game to start (The Monitor Celestra, pre-game, by Johannes Axner).In brute force games, players sometimes have an incoherent understanding of how to behave in the game. This pertains to things such as acting style (should every sentence uttered by elf queens sound like a fateful prophecy) and to diegetic culture (how should an elf scout salute his queen).

Being based on two television shows, Celestra got both the acting style and the diegetic culture almost for free – very few changes were made to the established world material, so everyone could have an equal understanding on how the world worked. Both players and designers drew on the characteristic narrative patterns of Galactica, such as the ever-present conflict between civilian and military leadership.

Another way of controlling players’ stylistic choices is through employing an act structure. An act structure, inspired by theatrical storytelling, divides a larp into temporal chunks with explicitly different play style instructions and even conflict rules. Act structures and player duties have been used in some form in Nordic larps since the late 90s[5]At least since Moirais Vev, organized by Eirik Fatland and others, in Norway, in 1997. , but Celestra may have been the first to combine these with brute force design elements.

The four acts took the game from collaboration against the common Cylon enemy to space exploration, internal conflict, and finally the critical moments that would decide the fates of the Celestra and everyone inside. In the fashion of the 2002 larp Hamlet, player characters could only die in the last act – and indeed, the conflicts inside the ship escalated steadily so that characters dropped like flies in the final hours.

The Celestra Model and The Monitor Celestra

Celestra went a long way in reworking brute force design. By using established world material and slicing the larp into acts with clear purpose, player confusion was reduced and the risk of plot trains going stray was lowered. By asking participants to play to lose and distributing player duties, the tendency towards plot monopolization could be counteracted.

A thorough and technology-assisted 360° illusion made the world more coherent, gave agency to the lower rungs of the hierarchies, and made the Celestra a spectacular aesthetic journey.

In short, this was the secret sauce of The Monitor Celestra:

Brute force + play to lose + player duties + act structure + 360° illusion + established world material.

We’ll call this The Celestra model, although it should be noted that this is the model we, as critics and participants, discern in the functional and mutually dependent parts of the design. For example, some techniques employed in Celestra have been intentionally omitted: the larp featured phantom players, diegetic blackbox scenes and verbally roleplayed Viper battles, which were not essential to the overall structure discussed in here. Thus it is not necessarily the model conceived of by the design team.

How did it work? Amongst the Celestra participants we find those who, two years after the event, cherish the time spent on the Småland as the greatest cultural experience of their life. But we also find players who left in rage and frustration long before the game had ended, and are still certain that was the right decision[6]Eirik Fatland played a Vergis corporation scientist, Markus Montola played the faction leader of the Colonial Navy. Due to the complexity of the larp, these vantage points only covered a fraction of the game: As Montola headed one hierarchy and Fatland was subject to another, the experience of not being a part of one remains underrepresented in this text. Both authors played in the second run of the game..

While these extremes are both unusual outcomes of a larp, they are not contradictory: a larp design may work differently for different players, depending on many factors such as the character they play, their personal preferences in larp design, their personal preparation and so on.

The players celebrating the larp, who are in the majority, will remember it as an important milestone in Nordic larp history – in terms of costuming, scenography, gameplay, technology and design – and as an action-packed, adventurous and emotional journey in an interactive 360° environment.

However, the critical voices are also clear. Some of the worst experiences were had by players who attended the first run, and were caused by errors that were fixed – in part due to constructive feedback from those players – for the second run. But there were also negative experiences reported at the second and third runs.

The impressive complexity of the design, with dependencies between collapsing hierarchies, individuals, and computer systems, made the game very fragile. For example, in the first run the seemingly minor problem of a lack of an instruction manual for the systems – one document amongst hundreds – had game-ruining consequences for many players.

In the second run of the game, it was very hard for players to distinguish fact from fiction in the rumour mill going on inside the game, and solidly determine whether Cylons had actually infected the onboard computers or not. Replicating the clockwork operation of a full battleship with complicated social roles, social groupings and spatial designs was an amazing experience when it worked, but it was highly vulnerable to the disruptive chaos of a brute force design.

While recognizing this, we think it is equally important to recognize that Celestra is celebrated as a major achievement and life-changing event by many players. That many of its production and design choices, such as the unsurpassed quality of organizer-provided costuming or the interaction with mysterious phantoms, were executed perfectly. And that by daring to innovate on such a large scale, The Monitor Celestra set the stage for future larps that could iron out the kinks in its groundbreaking approach.

Robust Adventure in College of Wizardry

Students on the castle bridge. (College of Wizardry, post-game, by Johannes Axner)College of Wizardry was a larp inspired by the Harry Potter fiction, played in the 13th century Czocha castle in southwestern Poland. The game ran uninterrupted for 52 hours, portraying the first days of the school year at the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The game was a combination of school routines (teaching classes, pranking other Houses to lose points, snitching about pranksters) and adventure (sneaking around the basement, fighting Death Eaters, handing out detention for such activities), culminating in a grand opening ball.

In the spirit of the 360° illusion, the Czocha castle served as a perfect environment for this game: not only is Zamek Czocha a fully furnished castle, but it is also a remarkably Potteresque one: it features a cellar for Potions classes, a tower for Divination, a dungeon for Defence Against the Dark Arts, and large dining halls for common dinners. It even comes with secret passages hidden behind bookshelves and panels. To perfect the illusion, the organizers handed out robes and ties that were the required parts of the school uniform, while the players brought in loads of small props, such as notebooks, trinkets, and wands with LEDs to light the tunnels.

Even with no physical combat, CoW was a larp for all senses, where you actually drank wine with frat boys in the common room, actually wrote an essay with a faux quill, and actually sneaked quietly in order to avoid janitors after curfew[7]Players’ contribution to the larp was considerable: for example, Liselle Angelique Krog Awwal made more than a thousand props for the game, Christopher Sandberg organized the professor players to produce a 200-page schoolbook, and Staffan Rosenberg created the Potions laboratory with hundreds of ingredients, tools and recipes. As player-created content was integrated to organizer materials, it is not easy to retrospectively say which parts were in the game “by design”, and which ones should be considered “player contributions” external to the design itself..

According to Claus Raasted, the figurehead of College of Wizardry, some of the design was directly inspired by The Monitor Celestra:

The school setting made it especially easy to utilize this [kind of design]. Teacher/student interaction, house rivalries, bloodline conflicts, former school cliques, junior/sophomore/senior conflicts, etc. The list goes on and on, and all of these structures were good at producing emergent narrative and interesting stories. If you weren’t interested in doing one specific area of play, there were always five more you could dive into.Claus Raasted, personal communication

Since the organizers knew they would have an international and varied audience, College of Wizardry was intentionally designed to be hard to break: according to Raasted, a key component was to disconnect game design from character design, which gave the organizers a lot of flexibility. Once you have a fully functional school larp with all the appropriate structures in place, the larp is going to work regardless of individual students and teachers[8]In Celestra, a similar approach was used in the sense that many character descriptions spent vast majority of text to describe the social structures and out of character function of the character, and very few paragraphs on descriptions of personality, or personal goals. As a major difference, CoW explicitly permitted players to radically work on their characters..

The academic schedule was a perfect example of a design element that was hard to break. No matter what kind of a student or professor your character was, for most of the time the school schedule answered the question of what to do in the game.

Lectures, meals, and club meetings would largely proceed no matter what else happened. Good work catching that Azkaban escapee, ten points for your House, now attend your Divination class before you lose them. The academic schedule interwoven with an act structure[9]Unlike most games with act structures, CoW was played continuously. Diegetic events signified act changes. provided both game content and an arc of escalation and de-escalation, which worked well as a broader framework for emergent stories. Due to the laissezfaire attitude towards characters, the solid backbone of established world material, and everyone playing to lose, College of Wizardry could adopt a strict policy of your character not ours, a policy which would break most games, but made this one more robust:

The first rule of characters for College of Wizardry is that you can change the character if you don’t like it. […] If the character is a troublemaker with a heart of gold, but you’d rather play a cowardly snitch who’s obsessed with the rules, then we’ll change it. The only thing it needs is ideas from you on what you’d rather play instead, and together we’ll make it work.College of Wizardry player instructions

Groundskeeper Petrus Grimm keeps an eye over the school grounds. (College of Wizardry, post-game, by Johannes Axner)This allowed the organizers to max out player agency: players were explicitly instructed that changes pertaining to diegetic facts were allowed even while the game was running. The message was clear: you traveled all the way to Czocha for a 52- hour larp; if it doesn’t work for you, change it. And if you can’t change it yourself, the game masters will help you.

The hard to break principle also showed up in other areas of the game. As staff players were given player duties, if perhaps not as explicitly as in Celestra, the students were liberated to do whatever they liked, as the carefully cast professors would eventually contain any player-created crisis.

The magic system was made hard to break by basing it on the principle of playing to lose: whenever a spell was cast on a character, the target player would ultimately decide the effects of the spell, meaning that student duels would always end in one of the players choosing to lose.

The only exceptions were that no-one could die before the final act, and that the staff would always win magical conflicts with students. While Celestra had a main plotline to resolve that players were able to impact and to a certain extent break, CoW eschewed one altogether.

The staff players adopted even more practices to open up student play. For instance, the organizers suggested that the professors should accept every excuse to skip class, which provided the student players the freedom to swap classes, to go adventuring, or even to take a much-needed nap.

While in Celestra most characters belonged to power hierarchies, in College of Wizardry, every player character was a part of them. In that sense, the equation was very simple as the game only featured three kinds of player characters: students, professors, and a very few members of the janitorial staff[10]While the Celestra had very few non-player characters, College of Wizardry had a cadre of them, ranging from ever-present ghosts and visiting Aurors to monsters residing in the nearby forest. The nonplayer experiences are excluded from this analysis, since there was no uniform NPC experience due to the difference of those roles.. Even the characters who did not belong to secret societies or student Houses were a part of the broader school hierarchy. This structure largely eliminated the outsider caste, giving everyone a part in the community. Indeed, according to the evaluation survey it appears that College of Wizardry worked best for the students, then for the professors, and worst for the less integrated janitorial staff.

The power hierarchy was also very wide and interchangeable: While the ship hierarchies of Celestra could only have one captain and one first mate at the top tiers, the professors were largely interchangeable in the school hierarchy. This took some pressure off their players, lessened the need to find a particular player during the game, and mitigated the risk of a central player being unable to play.

The College of Wizardry design was made possible very much due to the genre and the fiction of the game: the topsy-turvy Harry Potter fiction is forgiving and easygoing, practically the very opposite of the military and naval hierarchies of Celestra. It does not matter if a professor appears a little silly when leaving alchemical ingredients to be easily stolen, or when accepting a spurious excuse for not showing up for class.

Indeed, several professors played to lose by drinking a potion that made everything appear wonderful to them – even the fact that their wonderfully talented students conjured up spirits of the dead and dabbled in unforgivable curses. By removing themselves from the conflict equation, they provided play for people below them in the power hierarchy – such as the group of Auror students left to deal with the issue[11]The Design Document instructed the staff to stay on the sidelines during the grand opening ball when conflicts started to escalate. However, they were not offered a ready solution on how to do this, and it is debatable whether this instruction was intended as a binding dictate or merely a helpful suggestion..

This design, combined with the brilliant 360° illusion of the Czocha castle and the very significant contributions of several players, made the players give the larp rave reviews. Out of the 112 respondents to the evaluation survey, 91% totally or somewhat agreed with the statement “I had a great game”, and an astounding 74%[12]Players attending their first larp were excluded from this figure. of the respondents agreed with “College of Wizardry was my best larp ever”.

The implication of these overwhelmingly positive numbers is not that this was a perfect larp, but that by building on the Celestra, CoW discovered a formula for blockbuster larp: a brute force larp of adventure and escapism, guaranteed to win popular appreciation. The jury is out on whether the new formula can be applied outside the world of Harry Potter, as the disorganized fictional setting of young adult Bildungsroman was an essential part of making it hard to break.

The next, clear step towards improving the formula will be the addition of workshops for character relationships and group dynamics. Indeed, even though the Celestra was already criticized for leaving social relationship development to players’ own internet discussions, College of Wizardry still used the same approach. As a result, the majority of players responding to the evaluation survey expressed their desire for on-site character relationship workshops before the game.

Both of these games would have greatly benefited from just a few hours spent efficiently building relationships and dynamics, and indeed the CoW team will utilize them in the second run of the game.

The Terrific, Terrible Blockbuster Formula

From the late 90s onwards, larp in the Nordic countries (and, increasingly, internationally) has undergone a revolutionary pace of development. By rejecting brute force designs in favour of structural and stylistic innovation, larpwrights have shown that larp can deal with complex and mature themes – from the fraught psychology of intimate relationships to the politics of the Cold War and the social dynamics of the AIDS crisis. The Celestra model combines the traditional brute force larp with inventions from arthaus larp to great effect – perhaps a bit like the Hollywood blockbuster appropriated techniques from popular vaudeville theater and from experimentalists such as Sergei Eisenstein or Fritz Lang. In other words: this is a blockbuster formula for Nordic larp.

The attempts of Celestra and CoW to deal with contemporary politics, such as nationalism and discrimination, were peripheral compared to the action-packed, sometimes thrilling and sometimes comedic events generated by the brute structure. In this regard, these larps were faithful to Battlestar Galactica and Harry Potter that inspired them. While even action movies can find the time to portray compressed emotional and romantic content, in blockbuster larps intimate and serene moments are always in danger of being hit by a stray plot. There might be an unsolvable problem in how to serve the bottom ranks of power hierarchies with enough brute game content without pushing the leaders to steer constantly with both hands full of plot.

While the formula can be improved with techniques such as character relationship workshops, some problems are likely to prove unsolvable: most importantly, the chaotic arrival of competing plot trains is likely to plague these games in the long run.

These risks are inseparable from the sense of action and agency produced by such designs, and must be accepted as such by players and organizers. After all, the blockbuster formula is a formula for an action movie or an HBO drama, not a formula for an accurate documentary or a subtly nuanced performance.

Acknowledgements

A number of players and organizers of The Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry gave their opinion on this paper prior to publication. Although we did not follow all their suggestions, those discussions significantly improved this text. Above all, however, we are grateful to the teams that organized these two larps.

Parts of the school grounds seen from the top of the tower. (College of Wizardry, post-game, by Johannes Axner)

Ludography

  • Carolus Rex (1999): Karim Muammar and Martin Ericsson (game design), Tomas Walch and Henrik Summanen (production and dramaturgy), Emma Wieslander (writing), Mathias Larsson, Erik Stormark and Daniel Krauklis (runtime logistics help). Norrköping, Sweden.
  • College of Wizardry (2014): Szymon “Boruta” Boruta, Dracan Dembinski, Freja Gyldenstrøm, Agnieszka “Linka” Hawryluk- Boruta, Agata “Świstak” Lubańska, Charles Bo Nielsen, Aleksandra Hedere Ososińska, Ida Pawłowicz, Claus Raasted, Dorota Kalina Trojanowska and Mikołaj Wicher, with a team of around 15 helpers. Rollespilsfabrikken and Liveform. Lesna, Poland. http://www.cowlarp.com/
  • Futuredrome (2002): The Story Lab, Riksteatern, Fabel, Oroboros. Kinnekulle, Sweden.
  • Hamlet (2002): Martin Ericsson, Christopher Sandberg, Anna Eriksson, Martin Brodén, with a large team. Interaktiva Uppsättningar and riksteatern JAM. Stockholm, Sweden.
  • Moirais Vev (1997): Eirik Fatland, Lars Wingård, Erlend Eidsem Hansen, Karen Winther, Martin Bull-Gundersen, Andreas Kolle.
  • The Monitor Celestra (2013): Alternaliv AB, with Bardo AB and Berättelsefrämjandet, with a team of 85 people. Gothenburg, Sweden. http://www.celestra-larp.com/
  • Mad About the Boy (2010): Tor Kjetil Edland, Trine Lindahl and Margrete Raaum.

References

  • Fatland, E. (2005): Incentives as tools of larp dramaturgy. In Bøckman, P. & Hutchison, R. (eds.): Dissecting Larp.
  • Johnstone, K. (1987): Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre.
  • Kim, J. H. The Threefold Model FAQ, 1998.
  • Koljonen, J. (2007): Eye-Witness to the Illusion. An Essay on the Impossibility of 360° Role-Playing. In Donnis, J., Gade, M. & Thorup, L. (2007): Lifelike.
  • Fatland, E. & Wingård, L. (1999): Dogma 99. A Programme for the Liberation of LARP. In Gade, M., Thorup, L. & Sander, M. (eds.) (2003): As Larp Grows Up.
  • Pohjola, M. (2000): The Manifesto of the Turku School. In Gade, M., Thorup, L. & Sander, M. (eds.) (2003): As Larp Grows Up.

This article was initially published in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book 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: Part of the crew of The Monitor Celestra before the start of the first run, by Johannes Axner, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Other photos by Johannes Axner from The Monitor Celestra (first run) and College of Wizardry (first run).

References   [ + ]

1. While none of the CoW organizers got paid for their efforts, some Celestra organizers got a small payment.
2. As many participants of the spectacular art festival / forgepttable larp Futuredrome (2002) are probably aware.
3. See The Art of Steering by Montola, Stenros & Saitta in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book.
4. In Celestra they were called “out of character duties”, but we chose to simplify the expression.
5. At least since Moirais Vev, organized by Eirik Fatland and others, in Norway, in 1997. 
6. Eirik Fatland played a Vergis corporation scientist, Markus Montola played the faction leader of the Colonial Navy. Due to the complexity of the larp, these vantage points only covered a fraction of the game: As Montola headed one hierarchy and Fatland was subject to another, the experience of not being a part of one remains underrepresented in this text. Both authors played in the second run of the game.
7. Players’ contribution to the larp was considerable: for example, Liselle Angelique Krog Awwal made more than a thousand props for the game, Christopher Sandberg organized the professor players to produce a 200-page schoolbook, and Staffan Rosenberg created the Potions laboratory with hundreds of ingredients, tools and recipes. As player-created content was integrated to organizer materials, it is not easy to retrospectively say which parts were in the game “by design”, and which ones should be considered “player contributions” external to the design itself.
8. In Celestra, a similar approach was used in the sense that many character descriptions spent vast majority of text to describe the social structures and out of character function of the character, and very few paragraphs on descriptions of personality, or personal goals. As a major difference, CoW explicitly permitted players to radically work on their characters.
9. Unlike most games with act structures, CoW was played continuously. Diegetic events signified act changes.
10. While the Celestra had very few non-player characters, College of Wizardry had a cadre of them, ranging from ever-present ghosts and visiting Aurors to monsters residing in the nearby forest. The nonplayer experiences are excluded from this analysis, since there was no uniform NPC experience due to the difference of those roles.
11. The Design Document instructed the staff to stay on the sidelines during the grand opening ball when conflicts started to escalate. However, they were not offered a ready solution on how to do this, and it is debatable whether this instruction was intended as a binding dictate or merely a helpful suggestion.
12. Players attending their first larp were excluded from this figure.

Authors

Eirik Fatland
Eirik Fatland (born 1976) is an interaction designer, writer and larpwright based in Oslo, Norway.
Markus Montola
Markus Montola is a Helsinki-based game scholar and designer. He is an author or an editor of Pervasive Games: Theory and Design (2009), Nordic Larp (2010), Playground Worlds (2008) and Beyond Role and Play (2004).
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