There are many ways to tell a character story. Nordic larp design often implies that characters are written by the larpwright(s). Relationships and turning points in character stories are set up from the start, often being part of the overall design of the larp. With authorship comes a certain degree of ownership and control over the character for the larpwright. The player who receives such a character, continues telling a story that someone else started and owns.
German larp design mostly leaves it to the players to bring characters they created completely on their own. Characters belong to the player alone. The story belongs to the player and every larp (and every piece of downtime in ongoing campaigns) is another piece in an ongoing tale, which the player influences as she sees fit. Those characters live whenever and wherever the player decides and often collect years of relations, experiences and tales at numerous events.
This article will explore the effects and implications of a self-written, player-owned character on different levels: How do larpwrights, organisers and game masters incorporate this kind of character into a game? What is the influence on design choices? As a counterweight to the German concept, the article will look into the character creation at College of Wizardry (Nielsen, Dembinski and Raasted et al., 2014-).College of Wizardry is a weekend larp, depicting the school life at a college for witches and wizards in an alternate version of our current reality. Originating from a nordic tradition of pre-written characters, the rerunning larp now faces an increasing amount of characters that are player-written. It will become apparent why both plot-driven and character-driven larps can incorporate self-written characters and how this can enhance the individual player’s experience.
1. The German Concept: Bring Your Own Character!
Talking about “the German concept” of larp characters does not imply that there is only one way all characters are made. The German larp scene includes a growing variety of playing-styles. This article will, however, focus on the most common way of character handling that is typically assigned to German larp. From here on, I will work with the following definition of “the German concept”: A player comes up with a character idea independently from any larp. She developes a background story and traits based on the initial idea, as well as a costume and possibly even props. The character may or may not be attached to the backstory or world-setting of any larp ever played. Anything from using pen & paper inspired backgrounds, references to settings from novels and movies, to free floating ideas is possible. There is no corrective or norm to follow. The only limit that has to be taken into account is the genre of the larp the character is supposed to belong to. As most German larps can still be summed up as based in a “fantasy” setting in the broadest sense, that will be the reference frame for this article.Considering plot, the roots in pen & paper show again: The setting of most larps is “fantasy,” ranging from low fantasy (most characters would be thieves, rogues, healers or knights, plots are about politics, justice and fighting the evil) to high fantasy (characters such as elves and other fantastic races get involved, plots are about demons, rituals, otherworldly menaces and evil witches and wizards, etc). The newly created character may take part in campaigns such as ConQuestCommonly known as ConQuest of Mythodea, mostly referred to as Mythodea in the international scene. (Guess et al., 2016) and Drachenfest (Schlump and Wolter et al., 2016) and may attend any other smaller larps of different campaigns, or events that are not associated with a campaign at all. There are no restrictions: any event can be attended with the same character, even if the different games do not refer to the same setting. The same character can be played in different campaigns.
The word “campaign” is not used consistently in German larp. The biggest ongoing campaign is ConQuest of Mythodea, with three annual events, of which two add to the main plot.ConQuest being the main event. Jenseits der Siegel serves as a prequel to this. Chroniken von Mythodea is set in the same world-setting and loosely tied to the plot of the main event. But “campaign” is also used to describe a loose assemblage of larp settings. Among various, one is well established in Germany: The so-called Mittellande Kampagne. (Deutscher Liverollenspiel-Verband, [date unknown]) This “campaign” works as a giant sandbox. Depicting a fantasy world, it contains various fictional countries, that vary in politics, population, and subgenres. Over the course of years, many larp organisers have established plotlines that tell the story of a freely scalable part of the fictional continent and uncounted one shot larps have been played in this setting. Other campaigns exist under this definition, but are less frequently played upon. (Larp Wiki, 2106) In this article, the term “campaign” refers to events like ConQuest of Mythodea and, to add another European example, Empire in the UK.
Nevertheless, the very structure of the Mittelande Kampagne reflects the German approach to characters and their stories: It creates an environment, in which players have a huge variety of options on which larp to play next with one character and thus determining how the story continues, while the setting remains vaguely consistent as a bonus to the consistency of the character story.
1.2. Roots of the “German Concept”
In contrast to Eirik Fatland’s assertion that nordic larp has its roots in psychodrama (Fatland, 2016), larp in Germany emerged quite firmly from the pen & paper gaming tradition. Presumably the first German larp-like events took place in the late 1980s. The first event which is acknowledged to meet the definition of a larp in Germany and was directed at a public audience took place in 1991 under the name Dracon 1. (Neupert, 2002)
Coming from a gaming tradition, early German larps were heavily regulated by rule systems, which defined what a character could do with a certain amount of experience. As the active larp scene developed simultaneously in different parts of the country, a number of rules systems were published, none of which achieved a leading position across Germany.Prominent rule systems were among others: DragonSys, Phoenix-Carta, Silbermond, That’s live. As German larp develops away from the gamist approach of the early days, WYSIWYG “rules” now mark a majority of the games held. (Bolle, 2010) What they had in common was a game-like structure: Skills were bought with experience points, which were gained by attending a larp. The aim was to translate pen & paper rules to a playable and practical framework for larp. Even the conversion between different rulesets was regulated,Most larp organisers offering a set of “house rules” on how to convert your character from one system to another. enabling players to attend more events with the same character. Attending many larps was, save few exceptions, the only way to get to play a powerful, capable character. As previously stated, this collection of experience points could extend over campaigns and stand alone events alike. The amount of experience points that a character would receive after a larp depended on the duration of the event: One day at the larp was rewarded with a fixed amount of points. The skills and power had to be earned over actual years. Personal and systematic progress of the character went hand in hand.
Today, the strict obedience to rule systems is broadly abandoned. Although many events still o cially follow a rule system, the rules have less influence on the actual game, which mostly shifts to a variation of WYSIWYG, called “you are able to do, what you are able to depict.”“Du kannst, was du darstellen kannst,” commonly referred to as “DKWDDK.”
1.3.Practical: Implications, Influence on Design, Problems and Solutions
1.3.1. Prerequisites: Players “versus” NPCs
From the first events up until now, German larp has developed many forms of organisation and structure. Again, to make the case more clear, I will refer to the best known and widest spread structure, which is also typically connected to the fantasy setting. The larp is run by organisers and a rather big amount of non-player characters (NPCs), aiming at a 1:2 ratio between players and NPCs. The NPC roles vary in quality and importance, but altogether, they drive the plot.
Because the characters don’t come along with a backstory that is inherently connected to the plot, they cannot be used to trigger events. This task falls completely to the NPCs as “tools” of the organisers, creating circumstances that push events forward. Characters and players alike start the larp with very little knowledge about the plot. Their task is to engage in play with NPCs, who carry information about the current in-game situation and try to manipulate the characters for their own advantage, give them mysteries to solve or help them in doing so. They can depict conflicting parties, which try to pull the players’ characters to either side. In general, NPCs are used to make the setting of the larp “come to life.” Dramatic escalation or factors such as time pressure to solve a plot are communicated in-game through NPCs. Depending on the game designers’ choice, NPCs can help move the plot forwards when it is at risk of being derailed by the players.
1.3.2. Challenges for Organisers and Game Designers
Along with this concept of character creation and ownership come a lot of challenges and implications for every party involved in a larp. Game designers and organisers certainly face the most of them. How can you create a plot, not knowing who will be there to take part in it? There are basically two ways to solve this challenge: One is to adjust the game as far as possible to the characters, which is mostly done for smaller events with up to 50 participants on the player side (e.g. Verushkou—Si vis Pacem, Bad Monkeys Crew, 2016). The second option is to let the characters adjust to the game, which has proven to be a good strategy for larger events, like ConQuest and Drachenfest.
1.3.3. Know Your Players
To gather information about the characters that will take part in the larp, many organisers combine the signup with the option to send in information about the background and special skills of the characters. This serves the purpose of identifying significant gaps between the planned plot and the set of people to solve it. Organisers get the chance to adjust their plans according to their audience and create personalized, small scenes for each player. This may be an individual in-game arrival to the site, during which players meet an NPC that in some way refers to their character’s background. It may also be a dream or vision scene during the game that picks up on personal plot hooks which the players gave to the organisers at sign up, intertwining the character’s story and the story of the larp. Less frequently, organisers design (side)-plots especially for the characters that have been announced to the game.
Another influence of gaming tradition can be found in the “character check-in” and “check-out.” This used to be a standard procedure at German larps but has been dropped by many organisers over the course of years. During check-in, organisers go through the written character sheet and check if skills and experience points match and list up the items that a character brings to a larp. The check-out awards the character with new experience points and documents the new status on owned in-game items. The thorough, written documentation of the character makes it easier to switch between campaigns and settings.
Although all these tactics give designers an idea of which characters are at their games and gives them the opportunity to a certain extent to tailor plot to groups, working with player-written characters does have the effect of disconnecting larp designers from their players.
1.3.4. Beat Them with Mass
If an event surmounts a certain size, it becomes undoable to adjust plot personally for each player. The challenge is met by offering a main plot for a certain set of characters, assuming that a fitting constellation will show up and/or that players will steer their characters towards the plot. Additionally, these events offer smaller side-plots. Those are designed for character types that will most likely not become involved in the main course of action and focus more on character game rather than following the more epic setup of the main plot. For example, a main plot could be “reconstruct an ancient magic machine to ward off a powerful demon” while a side-plot about “find out who stole the midwife’s healing herbs” happens. In events that reach a capacity of 1.000 and more players, again like ConQuest and Drachenfest, a part of the larp turns itself into a sandbox.
1.4. German Character Concepts: An Epic Journey
The process of writing characters is surprisingly badly structured and supported in Germany. Knowledge about how to create an interesting and functional character is not spread across players and most larp organisers don’t proactively support character creation for their players. It is assumed that players attend the larp with characters that are ready to be played. The responsibility for the playability of a character lies completely with the player.
For creation, most players deduct from pen & paper experience. For example, they work with sets of questions that a player may answer about their character, determining background and traits, incorporating topics such as religious beliefs, biggest dreams and fears, turning points in life and so on.Such as the sourcebook of the German pen & paper system Das Schwarze Auge, widely known in the German larp community (Römer, 2007, p. 294).
This process of creation leads to a set of recurring stereotypes“My parents were killed by Orcs” has turned into a running gag in the German larp community. Additionally, many character stories are set up according to the archetype of the “Hero Quests.” and a huge amount of character stories that are very similar to begin with. The lack of originality in character stories leads to the common conception that telling another player your character background story is considered bad style both in-game and off-game. This does however not apply to telling the stories that make the character an original person, based on larps that have been played. The sharing of “war stories” around a campfire is an inherent part of German fantasy larp which is valued by many players as a part of what makes the spirit of a good game. The unoriginal starting point is kindly disregarded for the sake of stories that are truly unique because they were actually played out.
The focus of character creation is not on making up a deep, highly dense and well designed character, but more about generating a starting point from which the player can immerse into the larp straight away, letting the course of events and the relationships that develop shape who the character is. This aspect of actually co-creating a character during the game is not unlike the process of creating character relations that takes place before a College of Wizardry run.
1.5. Effects on Player and Playing Style
Owning and playing a character in the long run also has various effects on the player side. These cover a broader range of categories. Starting on a practical level, one may assume that players planning on playing the same character across several events are more willing to put effort and money into costume and props. It can be argued that the longer a character is played, the higher the identification between player and character becomes.
The longer a character story is being told, the more chances arise to form the picture of a natural person, including bad decisions, traumatic experiences, successes, romances, friendships and so on. Characters that have been played over years can grow to be a part of their player. They go through a development that may resemble the actual personal development of their player. “War stories” that a character experienced are told both in-game and off-game.
Consequently, the death of a character is a highly important event to most players that is thoroughly planned to make it a memorable moment that is “worth it.” Players steer their character towards not dying on most of the larps they attend: They are less prone to take lethal risks to not end the story ahead of time, so for example, they may engage in physical conflict, but not without regard to their own safety. In this, the element of literally having leveled up a character with experience points over years certainly plays a part.
2. College of Wizardry — A Sandbox for Your Character
The College of Wizardry larps offer another perspective on how character stories can be told and fitted into the design of a game. There are two parallel developments to be observed with CoW: First, the opening of the initial setup from mandatory pre-written characters to opt-in pre-written characters and secondly, players extending the stories of their pre-written characters beyond the larp. Both developments are supported by the CoW game design.
2.1. Nordic Concept: Pre-written Characters
Locating CoW larps as a middle ground requires a look at the Nordic end of the scale. Just as for the “German concept,” there is no such thing as “the Nordic larp.” The applied approach to “Nordic concept” in this article will follow the idea of what is commonly perceived as “nordic” in the German larp community: Many nordic larps tell a standalone story not situated in a campaign. Characters are often pre-written by the game designers, including at least a basic setup for relations and personal character goals during the game. The characters are usually connected in a way that allow a low ratio of NPCs to players.Of course, the defining aspects of a “Nordic larp” extend these parameters by far and it can be argued if there is a thing such as “the” Nordic larp.
In this setting, the game designers have a lot more potential influence on how the story of the larp will unfold. By retaining control of the characters, they can insert breaking points and levels of escalation beforehand by anchoring characters in relations and background stories. It’s possible to create a more coherent design, reflecting themes and moods in different elements such as plot, set design, props, and characters. The designers access and influence all layers of the game (Stenros 2014). The player takes part in someone else’s narrative, in which the character plays a fixed part.
Opposed to that, the German concept means that a player continues to tell their own, independent character story in the framework that the larp provides.
The more detailed the relations between characters are predesigned and the more their actions and goals during the larp are predetermined, the better drama and escalation can be anticipated and again be incorporated in the overall design. Games which follow this form are consequently much more characterthan plot focused.
It can be argued that a pre-written character story, including connections to others, produces a higher level of drama at a larp than a self-written, unconnected character would experience. The fact that the nordic narrative is often more carefully crafted does not necessarily mean that it turns out as planned. Relationships and storylines that develop on the spur of the moment during a larp can be just as powerful as predetermined developments.
2.2. Practical: Creating a College of Wizardry
2.2.1. Design and Balancing of a Sandbox
College of Wizardry is designed as a sandbox larp. Handing out characters that are only roughly sketched out, is a very different approach than predetermining every connection and in fact, the whole game is set up to give the players the biggest possible amount of freedom both in their playing style and with the topics they want to play on.
“The larp will not fail because a certain character is played differently than it is written; it will just mean that different stories are created. This is important. Your character is your own.” (Raasted, Nielsen and Dembinski et al., 2014, p. 19)
CoW follows a number of design choices that enable both self-written and pre-written characters and even allow the combination of the two concepts in one larp. Similar to the plot driven German larp that has been discussed so far, the key element for CoW is to give the players broad freedom in choosing the focus of their game.
How a certain run of CoW turns out very much depends on how much players indulge into the co-creating aspect of the design. The larp offers both the space and time for different playing styles to coexist. No matter how many demon summonings go on in the dungeon, the college drama can still be gossiped about in the common rooms (Nielsen, 2016). Although the focus of character stories shifts from run to run, the overall framework that ties the larp together will still work.Events that are fixed in time and place, such as lessons, school gatherings, and the Saturday night ball etc.
In a plot driven German concept larp, a lot of how well the larp goes depends on balancing the different kinds of characters. That can be done by announcing the larp to be mainly aimed at a specific group (rogues and thieves etc.) or adjusting the plot to the characters that actually attend, as described earlier. The individuals have a high impact on the game. Opposed to that, the structure of CoW is focused on groups and collectives. The College has to work as a whole and the Houses have to work as ingroups for their members. (Jankovic Sumar, 2016)
This is achieved by a few, but effective fixed balancing factors at CoW: The large majority of players play students. Special roles such as headmaster, teachers, janitor and prefects are assigned by the organisers.This may seem to be understood, but would not necessarily be in a German larp, where there is no given limit to how many kings and queens of made up realms may show up to an event. To make the collectives and groups at CoW work, players have to stick to the Houses and years their characters are assigned to. Whereas the design can take an excess of rich snotty students, evil characters or any other kind of personal alignment, it could not handle one missing House or a school in which no Juniors exist, because the game dynamic evolves around the interaction of Houses on a vertical and years of students on a horizontal layer. The design of CoW as a college eventually unites all individual characters due to the fact that they are all students in the first place. And in this, they are all the same and part of the same collective. (Jankovic Sumar, 2016)
2.2.2. Character Creation
After three runs, CoW went through a thorough redesign, removing all Harry Potter references and setting up a whole new background for the larp. What remained was the choice to hand out pre-written characters, which left vast options for individual interpretation and design by the players. (Again: “Your character is your own.” Raasted, Nielsen and Dembinki et al., 2014) Laid out as an international larp from the very start, CoW had to incorporate a broad culture of players. Openly created characters enabled various interpretations and playing styles. (Nielsen, 2016)
The pre-written characters for CoW have never been balanced on a scale of royals and rebels, werewolves and hunters or other factions represented in the student body. Starting with a very diverse team of character writers and trusting the self balancing power of large groups as well as the natural inclination of players to aim for different styles, the organisers of CoW did not actively adjust characters to balance the game for the first five runs. (Nielsen, 2016)
Relationships to other characters were suggested on an abstract level which fitted the character. For example, a bookworm would be suggested to find study partners, a dashing duellist would be proposed to assemble a group of fans. The characters were written action-focused, giving agencies for all kinds of play (Nielsen, 2016). Accordingly, suggestions for “things to do at the larp” were listed as inspirations to enhance the playing experience.
The option to bring a self-written character was not proactively advertised, but was allowed by the organisers on personal request. For the very first run, organisers put a lot of effort into developing characters together with the players, which turned out to be impossible to uphold with the increasing feedback they received from outside the player community as the popularity of CoW grew. (Nielsen, 2016)
One element of design, however, was written into the characters in order to set the tone for the larp. CoW was designed to be fun experience but also a serious larp, so most characters came with a “darker tone and atmosphere.” (Nielsen, 2016)
For run 10, which is upcoming by the time this piece is written, the option to bring a self-written character has been incorporated into the signup form. A 50/50 division between preand self-written characters is expected for that run (CoW 10, Casting Document, 2016). Many players who’ve previously played with pre-written characters now opt to return with characters they’ve created on their own (CoW 5, Casting Document, 2016). It can be argued that this degree of opening up the sandbox even further is possible because of two factors: the mood of CoW has been successfully established and settled in numerous runs. And a huge part of players keep returning, carrying on this spirit both through their own depiction of their characters and actively helping newcomers and first time larpers to adjust to the setting (Nielsen, 2016). Foremost, this means to pass on the idea of creating an action-focused character and encouraging the creation of character relations.
The combination of both the design focus on collectives rather than individuals and the strong player community enable CoW larps to not only incorporate self-written characters, but merge them with a set of pre-written ones.
2.2.3. Telling CoW Character Stories — Extending the Game
The organisers choice to hand over creative ownership of the characters to the players worked well for a large group of participants. As the runs proceeded, an increasing amount of online pre-game took place. Events leading up to the larps were played out in Facebook groups and chats and collaborative fiction. The social online platform “Czochabook”“Czochabook; an in-game social media platform in which players sign up in-character. The platform mirrors a Facebook-style format and is thus immediately familiar and accessible to most players who choose to engage.” Ashby, Charlotte: Playing around the Event: The College of Wizardry pre-game and postgame, in this book served as a tool for characters to stay in touch and forward their plots (Mertz, 2016). After several games, uno cial spin offs were held,The Debauchery Party, 2015 To hell and back, 2016, CoW5: A Midwinter Night’s Dream, 2016. continuing to tell character stories.
For example, for a group of around 28 people, a story arc developed that started with pre-game before CoW5, extending to the spin off larp To hell and back after CoW5 had taken place, and ongoing text based role-playing up to CoW8, which was set up as a sequel to CoW5 and CoW6 (Jankovic Sumar, 2016). On the final event, most of the character stories of that specific group were led to some kind of resolution. The overall feeling was that they had now been told to a point at which the players could find closure.
This dynamic developed due to the fact, that in the course of intense prebleed (Svanevik and Brind, 2016), bleed and immersion, the members of this group created not only an individual character story each, but a complex network of social connections that shifted and grew throughout the process.
This development was heavily favoured by the action-focused design of the characters in the first place. Starting from pre-written characters, the intensity of the experience lead the players to embracing their characters as their own creations and they tasked themselves with telling their stories in the best (most dramatic, immersive and intense) way possible. Whilst this development in general resembles the German concept in so far as that the storylines evolved over a number of events, there are significant differences. A CoW character cannot be played outside the CoW setting and it is not possible to bring a character from any other larp campaign into the game. Instead of “just” attending more larps with one character, the players of CoW created events, plots and life for their characters outside the hands of the organisers.
At first sight, the difference between the German concept of character creation and storytelling on the one side, and the nordic-inspired approach of College of Wizardry seem to bear a lot of differences. Having taken a closer look, it has become apparent that both concepts enable players to take control over their character’s stories and the option to play them longer, either moving one character from larp to larp, or extending the story of one larp with pre-games, spinoffs and sequels. Both mechanics create high identification between player and character and thus intense immersion during the game.
Both a self-written German character and a pre-written CoW character start as sketches that are designed to allow an action-focused, immediate start into a larp, where they can grow and develop during the game and in interaction with other characters. A part of that process is put before the game for CoW, where players create relations before the game, online and in workshops. As both design and player community favour the incorporation of self-written characters, CoW has successfully opened up to this character concept.
In essence, the German concept and College of Wizardry prove that there are (at least) two core strategies to design larps for self-written characters: One is to adjust the larp to the characters, focusing plots on their backgrounds and skills and giving the characters a strong guidance towards a determined goal. The second one is to do much the opposite: Let the individual characters play freely in a sandbox, where they will be re-collected regularly in various collectives that frame the experience.
Giving players freedom to run their own characters and play them over time—through pre-game or several events—has a chance to make them identify more strongly with their characters and immerse more deeply, even if the character only started out as a list of traits or two paragraphs on a character sheet. The war stories they tell are real, in a sense, not just written as background story. As they play the same character again and again (on Czochabook, in co-creative fiction or across events) they experience, grow, learn, and create stories that are much deeper than what you may find at a stand-alone event with no pre-game.
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This article was initially published in Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories published as a journal for Knutepunkt 2017 and edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand.
Cover photo: Osmond von Bar, leader of the Heereswacht, during battle. Conquest of Mythodea 2016. (Play, Holger Sommer)
|↑1||College of Wizardry is a weekend larp, depicting the school life at a college for witches and wizards in an alternate version of our current reality.|
|↑2||Considering plot, the roots in pen & paper show again: The setting of most larps is “fantasy,” ranging from low fantasy (most characters would be thieves, rogues, healers or knights, plots are about politics, justice and fighting the evil) to high fantasy (characters such as elves and other fantastic races get involved, plots are about demons, rituals, otherworldly menaces and evil witches and wizards, etc).|
|↑3||Commonly known as ConQuest of Mythodea, mostly referred to as Mythodea in the international scene.|
|↑4||ConQuest being the main event. Jenseits der Siegel serves as a prequel to this. Chroniken von Mythodea is set in the same world-setting and loosely tied to the plot of the main event.|
|↑5||Prominent rule systems were among others: DragonSys, Phoenix-Carta, Silbermond, That’s live. As German larp develops away from the gamist approach of the early days, WYSIWYG “rules” now mark a majority of the games held. (Bolle, 2010|
|↑6||Most larp organisers offering a set of “house rules” on how to convert your character from one system to another.|
|↑7||“Du kannst, was du darstellen kannst,” commonly referred to as “DKWDDK.”|
|↑8||Such as the sourcebook of the German pen & paper system Das Schwarze Auge, widely known in the German larp community (Römer, 2007, p. 294).|
|↑9||“My parents were killed by Orcs” has turned into a running gag in the German larp community. Additionally, many character stories are set up according to the archetype of the “Hero Quests.”|
|↑10||Of course, the defining aspects of a “Nordic larp” extend these parameters by far and it can be argued if there is a thing such as “the” Nordic larp.|
|↑11||Events that are fixed in time and place, such as lessons, school gatherings, and the Saturday night ball etc.|
|↑12||This may seem to be understood, but would not necessarily be in a German larp, where there is no given limit to how many kings and queens of made up realms may show up to an event.|
|↑13||“Czochabook; an in-game social media platform in which players sign up in-character. The platform mirrors a Facebook-style format and is thus immediately familiar and accessible to most players who choose to engage.” Ashby, Charlotte: Playing around the Event: The College of Wizardry pre-game and postgame, in this book|
|↑14||The Debauchery Party, 2015 To hell and back, 2016, CoW5: A Midwinter Night’s Dream, 2016.|