Creating Play in the Magical Classroom: Part 5

Creating Play in the Magical Classroom: Part 5

Creating Play in the Magical Classroom is a multi-part guide to playing a teacher at the College of Wizardry and New World Magischola larps. While it was written specifically with these events in mind, it can be applied to many other larps and settings.

The texts in this series are written collectively by (in alphabetical order) Maury Brown, Stefan Deutsch, Johanna Koljonen, Eevi Korhonen, Ben Morrow, Juhana Pettersson, Maria Pettersson, Mike Pohjola, Staffan Rosenberg and Jaakko Stenros. The series is edited by Johanna Koljonen.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7

Part V: Authority Awry: Stop, Shut Up, Do What I Tell You

In this series, we have had lots of examples of what is encouraged play for professors. Here are a few examples of discouraged play. Professors sit in a position of authority and players (and characters) will be conditioned to obey them. This is good to an extent — the game needs to function and having students follow the directions of in-game authority figures is an important part of the game continuing to work. However, this style of larp is opt-in, which means a player always must be given a choice about what to play and how to react.

As a consequence, you should refrain from the following kinds of play.

Denying Agency

For example, a professor can offer the opportunity for a character to tell (under a spell) what is on their mind (see above). However, a professor should not suddenly put a character under a spell and then tell them what they are thinking, or what happened to them, or a family member, etc. Remember both the design of the magic system and your position as a teacher inside the fiction actively encourage you to explain what you magic will do – you can do this in an open-ended way (and perhaps even taking some extra time doing it) to allow the player choices and a second to reflect on how they want to play it.

Players should not feel ambushed, or that they have to stop what they were doing or playing as a result of what someone else did to them. An example is a professor turning another student into a vampire without their consent, or telling them that their character’s parents have died, or killing/incapacitating a student or faculty member and exorcising or resurrecting them, unless these scenes have been agreed to beforehand.

Shaming the Player (Not the Character, Whom You Have Agreed to Play Abuse With)

Professors teaching magic are also, on the meta-level, teaching the availability of safety techniques and the importance of consent-based play. A professor should never make it impossible or difficult for a player to use a safety technique such as cut or break, or make it difficult to step away or exit a scene. “Impossible” or “difficult” does not have to mean physically blocking the door or refusing to stop when asked (though these have happened). Because of a professor’s explicit in-game authority, a player who is feeling uncomfortable about continuing (like a student with a fear of snakes continuing with a cryptozoology class that may include an encounter with a snake-like creature), or even triggered by a scene, may not want to opt-out for fear of losing house points or social status.

House points should never be threatened or deducted for off-game reasons, and a player who has their character leave a scene for off-game reasons should not become the object of derision. But unless there is a specific game mechanic in play to signal off-game reasons for opting out, you will in practice not know which reactions are in and which are off. This makes it even more vital to offer students in-game opportunities to leave or not participate.

The organisers can encourage players who opt out for offgame reasons to discreetly tell the teacher-players so, just to make sure their characters will not be punished for it. But actually this can also be handled mostly or entirely in-game, assuming that all players know that playing punishments will be just as much fun as any other part of the larp. In that case, players can choose for off-game reasons to opt out of certain situations, safe in the knowledge that this might either pass entirely uncommented or open the door to a fantastic in-game experience. (For instance, at the first College of Wizardry, then set in the Harry Potter universe, the janitorial staff had students in detention participating in a dangerous ritual to destroy a horcrux).

Focusing the Attention on You, Your Power, or Your Plot to the Detriment of Other Players

For example, a professor is bored at the dance, where students are having a good time. They decide to create a scene that disrupts the scene in progress, for their own excitement and amusement.

The most problematic use of the spell casting system to my anecdotal observations were spell effects that stopped people from doing what they wanted to do, and spell effects that denied players voice (and consequently, agency).  These types of actions tended to disrupt others’ gameplay without providing any “replacement play”. While these are might be enacted by student players on their own, student players are looking to Professors for behavioral precedents. What a professor does in controlled circumstances for entertainment purposes only, has a strong possibility of being reproduced by the student players.  With this in mind, if the outcome of your professor’s interactions with students can be summarized as “stop/shut up”, try to find alternative outcomes that set a better precedent. (Ben Morrow)

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Johanna Koljonen (b. 1978) is a Finnish larp theorist, experience designer, and author. She lectures internationally on participation safety and on the development of the media industries.