First, What Is CoW Anyway?
College of Wizardry – or CoW, as it is commonly called – is a larp set at a school for witches and wizards at the medieval castle of Zamek Czocha in Poland. It was run five times in 2015, each run with 140 participants playing students, professors, and other inhabitants of the magical school. Joining them are 25 to 50 organizers and helpers who run the show from backstage, playing everything from minotaurs in the forest to ghosts in the hallways.
The larp features a “the-victim-decides” spell system, a brute force design philosophy – and a very large degree of player freedom and sandbox co-creation. But that’s not what we’re going to be discussing in this article.
Going from Established IP to Original Fiction
The first three CoW larps took place in the Harry Potter universe. It wasn’t set at Hogwarts, but at the fictional college of Czocha in Poland, so there was no Slytherin and no Hagrid. However, Harry Potter existed in the fiction (as the head of the Aurors in the British Ministry of Magic), students were sent to Azkaban, and Death Eaters and Dementors both visited the school.
Following a deal with Warner Bros, we had to leave the HP universe behind and construct our own. It still has a lot of Harry Potter feel to it, just like any space adventure will scream Star Wars to the uninitiated, but it’s very much its own thing. There’s no British magic school, no Great Wizard War, no soul-sucking prison guards – though plenty of soul-sucking in general! – and no boy with glasses around whom the world revolves. It’s darker, more gritty, and has room for both demons and sex.
It’s of course still inspired by Harry Potter, but it no longer is Harry Potter. As organizers, we were worried about how this shift from established IP to original creation would be received. It turns out that many players were very happy about it. Some are even happier with the new CoWverse (or whatever it’s called now). For us, it’s been a great weight off our shoulders: now we can do what we want without having to watch out for stuff that could piss Warner Bros off.
And I know that if I ever work with an established IP again, it’ll be in an official capacity. This whole business of not cooperating with a franchise but still living in its shadow has been draining, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Especially since we’re so good at creating worlds of our own. Be inspired by the work of others – but if you want to do something that gets you on the radar of the big boys, either do it with them or do it with them serving only as an inspiration. Learn from our experience and save yourself the sleepless nights I had before we heard where they stood.
Players from 35 Different Countries
Another thing that made CoW 4–6 interesting is the sheer internationality of it. This may not even be a word, but it still fits. For CoW 4–6 we had around 400 players from 35 different countries, including Mexico, Taiwan, Brazil, and Australia. Around 30% were first time larpers, and for CoW 6 the number of first-time players was 40%. That’s crazy. I’d done plenty of stuff for non-larpers – making larps for non-larpers is the main part of my job, after all – but nothing like this. And even when we’ve had a high percentage of new players participating, they were at least all from the same off-larp culture.
Not So Here
Because of this diversity, we did some things in a rather heavy-handed way. We told people that “the other players are not necessarily idiots just because they behave that way” during our briefings, and made it very clear that it was perfectly ok to break the larp and say “Hey – I’m not really comfortable with that. Is it normal where you’re from?” But we were also a bit more controversial and told them at the afterparty that we had a “YES means YES” policy instead of a “NO means NO” policy. The explanation was simple: What’s heavy flirting in one culture might be just polite conversation in another, and it’s perfectly possible to ask someone about consent before you kiss them.
This doesn’t mean that there were no clashes of culture. Of course there were. But by being aware and open about the situation, I think we got a much better result than if we’d just assumed that larpers would get along without any help, as we often do at larps. I’d recommend this to anyone doing international larps. Not only the YES means YES ideology, but also making it very clear to players that it’s ok to come from different places. And of course the question that needs asking is “Was it worth it?”
Hell, yes. Diversity in larps is awesome!
Spinoffs and Inspiration
When people try – or hear about – something they like, many of them want to do something similar. Having others be inspired by a larp is in no way unique to CoW, but the sheer scale is a bit daunting. We’ve been contacted by larpers wanting to make CoW larps in such exotic places as Israel and South Africa, and that’s unusual for me.
So far, only two of the “other CoW larps” have dates and locations: the British Featherstone College of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the American New World Magischola. For Featherstone we just said “Sure! Run with it!” when they asked if they could do something in our world, but NWM is a bit different. Here, we’ve had long conversations with the two main organizers – Ben Morrow and Maury Brown of Learn Larp LLC – and Maury flew over to help us run CoW 4–6 to get some behind-the-scenes experience.
NWM also completely blew up when their Kickstarter sold out in mere minutes, raising $303,877 total for four runs of the game. It’ll be really interesting to see how much of a gateway drug their event becomes in the US, and I’m already looking forward to reading about it in the 2016 edition of this Yearbook.
This is the big stuff, however. On the smaller scale, there are spinoff larps made by CoW players, meetups, online hangouts, tabletop campaigns, etc.. For us, the important thing is that the CoW universe is made to be used by as many people as possible. And while I’ll gladly admit to feeling quite envious when the American CoW raised more money on their crowdfunding campaign in minutes than we’d done in months, I also know that I’m not stepping away from open source co-creation any time soon.
We started this whole adventure borrowing background fiction from someone else, so of course we support others piggybacking on our newfound success. And who knows – maybe in a year or two we’ll be the ones piggybacking off the success of a South African CoW!
A Book of Its Own
CoW 4–6 has also now gotten a documentation book of its own – the sixth in the “The Book of… “ series. So if you’re interested in getting a deeper look into the new and non-HP CoW, there’s a shiny 252-page volume out there for you to gobble up. It’s of course also available for free online, and can be found at: http://www.rollespilsakademiet.dk/cow/thebookofcow4-6.pdf
Self-promotion? Sure. But we’d do the same for any other larp documentation book. After all, sharing IS caring. 😉
College of Wizardry 4–6
Credits: Agata Swistak, Agnieszka Linka Hawryluk-Boruta, Charles Bo Nielsen, Claus Raasted, Cleo Hatting, Dracan Dembinski, Krzysztof “Iryt” Kraus, Lasse Küchenthal, Maciek Nitka, Maury Brown, Mikołaj Wicher, Nadina Wiórkiewicz, René Bokær, Sofie Støvelbæk, Stefan Deutsch, Szymon Boruta, plus a team of helpers
Date: November 12–15, November 19–22, November 26–29, 2015
Location: Zamek Czocha, Poland
Duration: 4 days
Participants: 140 per run (420 total)
Budget: €45,000 per run (€145,000 total)
Participation Fee: €345
Game Mechanics: CoW spellcasting system, CoW alchemy system, Gossip mechanic
Cover photo: Czocha study group (play, Wiktor Chochlik Zaborowski).