After College of Wizardry, a Harry Potter inspired LARP set in a magical college and run in a real castle, became such a hit in Europe, an American LARP based on College of Wizardry was developed on our side of the pond by Benjamin Morrow and Maury Brown. The idea for New World Magischola was such a hit, four weekends were filled for its first run. I played a student at the third weekend.
(When I saw the licenses on these two cars in the parking lot, I knew I was in the right place.)
I’d read a fair bit online about College of Wizardry, (it was all over the online LARP communities and mainstream news) so I was quite excited. But I also wondered if the American version of the experience would be lacking by comparison, as CoW ran ran in a authentic 13th century castle in Poland. I knew Magischola was running on the campus of the University of Richmond in Virginia, which looked pretty in the videos, but wasn’t an authentic 13th century castle.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. UR’s campus is extraordinarily beautiful, in all its architecture, landscaping, natural environment, and interior design. Its collegiate gothic style carries a lot of old world charm and has more than enough gravitas in its beauty to be the American tertiary education version of Hogwarts. Believe me when I say my photos don’t do it justice. (I was unsurprised to discover that The Princeton Review named UR the most beautiful campus in the US in 2000.)
But beyond the beauty of the campus itself, the staff of Magischola clearly put in absurd amounts of work making the interior spaces beautiful and immersive. The coat of arms of the school and the individual houses appeared on large banners in the dining hall and outside the House common rooms (I was rather impressed by their designs), and the interior of every classrooms was full of magical odds and ends, books and bottles and quills, to make the school feel real. Again, I don’t feel my photos do it any justice.
There was also evidence of an adorable snipe infestation scattered all over campus.
In the time leading up to my run of Magischola, I read a lot about the design process for the LARP and its inspirations. People talked a lot about it being Nordic style, and how it differed from “typical American LARPs.” Some of the key points:
- High budget/high production values. While I have attended other LARPs with beautiful set dressing/props/costuming, this was by far the most expensive LARP I’ve played and it showed. The black and yellow robes each student was given contributed immensely. Having a ubiquitous visual cue on all of the players really had an impact.
- Workshopping before and debriefing after. We spent Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning on this. I’ve done workshops and debriefs before, but they were somewhat longer for this LARP.
- Collaborative character creation between staff, the players, and character coaches. The staff sent us bare bones characters based on our pre-casting surveys, which we were encouraged to elaborate on, with guidance from character coaches. I’ve played in games where character creation was a collaborative process with the writers, but I think this is the first time I’ve been actively encouraged to add more information to my character sheet after it was sent.
- Player empowerment during the game. Players were given a lot of control over what happened to them, which manifested primarily in two ways.
One, the magic system was subject-determined, meaning the subject of a spell or curse or potion got to decide how a spell affected them (which included deciding the spell fails and nothing happened.) You can watch youtube videos, such as this one, explaining how the system worked.
The spell casting system worked very well when used one-on-one where there was nothing at stake based on the outcome. Practice duels in Combat class were a ton of fun. But it fell apart in groups or when there was something at stake based on the outcome. For example, at the end of Combat class, the teacher declared a free-for-all exercise, with 20 House Points at stake. Students really wanted the House Points, so they were less inclined to allow themselves to lose, and having lots of people trying to get spells off as fast as possible , predictably, made it hard to understand.
And two, players could request scenes from the staff, up to and including the outcome if they chose. There was a form for submitting requests prior to the LARP, and players could also stop by the staff HQ to request scenes during the LARP. This often took the form of players requesting an NPC come visit them or an encounter with some kind of cryptid.
Being able to create the experiences we wanted was empowering and I think really helped players feel like they got everything, plot and character-wise, they wanted out of their weekends. At the same time, I do think there was sometimes a subtle, unspoken vibe that content created and presented by staff was somehow a bit more “real” than content created by players. For example, I decided mid-way through the LARP that my character was a nagual, but because it was a little self-indulgent, it felt slightly hollow for me (and I think for one or two other players who heard about it), not unlike refusing to lose a duel if I wanted to win.
- A de-emphasis of overarching plots. I found it a bit odd to see this suggested as a way NWM differed from “typical American LARP”; many American LARPs I’ve played lack an overarching plot, and there was an in-game problem with ley-lines causing chaos on the school grounds (and affecting the school ghosts), which felt a lot like an overarching plot to me. But the ley-lines/ghost plot lead to one of the most emotional scenes in the LARP for me, as Maison Du Bois worked together to help our beloved House Ghost.
I played Mickey Duggan (aka “Smallfoot” — the term for a juvenile sasquatch), a first year on the Cryptozoologist path (of the Spirit Animal Friend type) from the Thunderbird province (Pacific Northwest) who was very concerned with the rights of magical creatures. As an animal lover in real life, Cryptozoology was a top choice for me in the pre-casting survey. (I created a petition to recognize the jackalopes as an endangered species to use as an icebreaker. I made myself a shirt to wear on Friday bearing my slogan,”Hope for the ‘Lope!”)
I also knew I really wanted the experience of being sorted into a House, so I definitely wanted to play a first year. I embraced the hipster culture of the Thunderbird region (and now I find I’m really into hipster fashion after researching it for my costuming. Not the first time a LARP character of mine’s fashion sense has influenced my own!) I also initially wanted to play a character who grew up steeped in the magical culture, the Magimundi, but when I was cast as mundane-born (muggle-born, in Harry Potter speak), I realized it meant I could dress in a more mundane way and not worry about making references to mundane cultural stuff without accidentally breaking character.
I read most of the material about the setting when it first came out, but found I had forgotten chunks of the history by the time I actually played the LARP. I put off reading the cryptozoology book (a list of magical creatures of North America and their descriptions) until the long drive there. I remembered most of it during the LARP because it was fresh in my mind, but I wish I had also read it much earlier, so that I could have prepared more to incorporate it into my backstory and been able to play out scenes referencing the material.
The workshops on Thursday emphasized techniques for maintaining our personal comfort. We practiced techniques for stopping scenes, for indicating that we were ok with the current scene but didn’t want to it to ramp up in intensity, for asking one another if we were ok out-of-character and responding to such questions, and for exiting scenes in such a way that indicated we didn’t want anyone to question it.
We also went through a few exercises regarding our characters, intended to help us develop and think about our own characters and learn a little bit about other characters we might have known from primary school. One of the exercises involved dividing into groups of four and coming up with two positive relationships between our characters and other group members, and two negative relationships (which meant we had at least one relationship with another person that was both positive and negative.)
It was an interesting exercise, but it didn’t have any impact on my actual gameplay. I wish I’d been able to work out more relationships with other characters online in the weeks or months prior to the game, so that we could have more time to develop them or plan out scenes around them and make them impactful. In the week or so before the LARP, a number of other people posted online regarding creating character connections; I would have liked to have responded, but at that point I was too busy with other prep (costuming and packing and such) to take them up on it.
On Thursday evening, we had dinner that began out of game and transitioned into game when the chancellor gave welcoming announcements. Then we went to House welcoming parties, where the first years had an opportunity to meet each of the Houses in their common rooms. (The common rooms were wonderfully decorated thematically according to the House colors and mascot.)
This was followed by the first club meetings. My character was written to join the Fellowship of the Hydra, a philanthropist group, but one of the topics she cared personally about was the recognition of chupacabra sapience, so I went to the Sapience Advocacy club. Fortunately, at some point, the Hydra club decided to merge their meeting with the Sapience Advocacy club, so I was able to attend both. But I also heard a rumor about a club called the Explorers of the Eternal, which provided a riddle for members to solve, and I love solving riddles, so I ducked out and went to a third club meeting. The solution provided the location of more riddles, which in turn gave the time, location, and password for a second meeting on Saturday night, and I spent the rest of the evening searching for them and solving them.
On Friday and Saturday, I attended classes. As a student on the cryptozoology path, I attended Cryptozoology, Herbology, Healing Tech and Traditions, Combat and Defense, and Magical Theory/Ethics. I also showed up for an Alchemy class just for fun. The teachers did an excellent job in creating a magical academic environment for the students. (As did many others, like the school ghosts and poltergeist and the NPCs who played various creatures.) In Cryptozoology, we met and learned about a chupacabra and a sasquatch. (I asked the latter to the dance; he politely declined.) In Herbology, we made sweet smelling satchels, in Healing, we discussed triage and practiced taking patient histories. In Combat, we practiced dueling with a focus on elemental spells and devised defenses against them, and in Magical theory, we interviewed the school ghosts and then a vampire. In Alchemy, we brewed a love potion.
Attending classes was one of my major highlights of Magischola; it felt incredibly genuine and immersive, overall, very much like my experience as a new college student. I was meeting lots of new people, students and school staff, all at once, trying to navigate a new environment (and getting lost on campus), and attending classes, even taking notes and sometimes finding it difficult to stay awake (not out of boredom, just lack of sleep). Very authentic.
Another highlight was getting sorted on Friday afternoon. I’m very glad I chose to play a first year. We were given a survey before being sorted to indicate our preference for Houses, but all five Houses seemed cool to me in their own way, and I very much wanted the experience of discovering which House I belonged to, so I didn’t express any preference. Genuinely not being certain where I would end up made it very exciting, though out of character, I had a hunch I might wind up in Maison Du Bois because it was the smallest House and the least popular choice among first years (and also had been the least popular choice by players in their pre-casting surveys.) It’s likely I ended up there simply by default. In character, Mickey was something of a rule breaker and trouble maker, and so was surprised to be sorted into the House that produces the most marshalls. Nonetheless, I immediately felt pride in my House and affection and attachment to my fellow Du Boises upon hearing the school chancellor pronounce my sorting, both in- and out-of-character (an example of “bleed out”.) I was the first of the first years to be sorted into Du Bois,and I was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm and warmth, along with a mini blue teddy bear and a grizzly-bear-paw-style fist bump.
In my run of Magischola, Maison Du Bois struck me as sort of the adorably derpy underdog House. On top of being an unpopular choice on the pre-casting surveys, four members had dropped out of the LARP last minute, which is how Maison Du Bois ended up the smallest House. I’m pretty sure we were still the smallest House even after sorting, which put us at a significant disadvantage for the House Cup. Maison Du Bois was known for being just and loyal, which was sort of interpreted as a goody-goody reputation. (We even had the derpiest House motto, “Always Just” and an adorable cheer, “Paws up! RAWR!”) I think we thought of ourselves as Gryffindors, but were actually more Hufflepuff. (Hence my out-of-game nickname for Maison Du Bois: House Gryffinpuff. Or alternatively, House Teddy Bear.) Adorably, some people called us Dubis, (“DOO-bees”), and dubi happens to mean teddy bear in Hebrew. During our House initiation rituals, I was assigned an older student as a mentor, who called me “Tiny First Year Cub” and various variations thereof. I think it was in part because she forgot my character’s name, but I didn’t mind at all. I loved it. I loved my mentor. I loved Maison Du Bois.
In retrospect, though I’m selfishly really glad I didn’t pick a preferred House before being sorted, part of me wished I had expressed a desire to be in Maison Du Bois — I think it made the presidents of the various houses happy when they heard about first years who wanted to join them, and I think the Maison Du Bois presidents didn’t get to have that experience via the surveys.
And Maison Du Bois came in second place in the House Cup! Despite our low numbers, despite being the underdogs, despite coming in last place in the previous two runs and trailing behind for much of the third run, we came in second place. (We may have even averaged the highest in points per student.) We cheered pretty loudly when another House was announced as fifth place (which I feel bad about, we shouldn’t have done that, but everyone was clearly expecting us to be in last place)… I don’t know how meaningful the House Cup really was, with only two days worth of often arbitrarily distributed points… yet I felt extremely proud. Paws up! (Why the House Cup was being awarded on opening weekend was never addressed — people just kind of ignored the illogical aspect of it. I actually think it might have been better to announce the current standings at the end of the LARP rather than announce a winner and handing out a big trophy. But I guess it was more climactic with a trophy.)
Another highlight was the Explorers of the Eternal. The riddles proved fairly easy, though I struggled with a couple of them because I assumed they had to be harder than they actually were. But I still had a ton of fun putting my head together with other students, working them through, and searching through picturesque spots on the campus for the next clue.
This may sound a bit silly, but I really appreciated how hands-off it was from the perspective of the NPCs. I often encounter puzzles and codes to break in LARPing, but often it’s a single step, and there’s often an NPC to make sure you receive it and guide you through solving it if you struggle. Most modules are hooked by an NPC to let PCs know when something is available to interact with. In this case, the NPC simply handed us the first challenge and soon left. It was up to us to get through it and discover the time, place, and password on our own. No one came to tell us when the Explorer meeting was ready, it was simply out there for us to find at midnight. It felt much more real to me this way.
At the meeting, we met the current head of the Explorers, who proved to be the Chancellor of the school from the early 1800s. (This mysterious time travel conundrum was never explained.) There was a small buffet of food and drinks set out in dark, candlelit function hall. The Chancellor brought out a large wooden crate. Inside, packed with straw for safe keeping, we found a prop unicorn haunch that had been “tapped” — there was a tube sticking out so that we could drain out the “unicorn blood” into vials. The chancellor told us about the properties of unicorn blood. He offered us vials of poison that could kill in ten seconds, but we would just glimpse death if we drank unicorn blood in nine. Like me, my character was a vegetarian, so I hesitated, but also like me, my character was inclined to let curiosity get the better of her.
Each of the players who partook described what they had seen. One saw the angry faces of all those he had ever wronged waiting for him. Another saw nothing. A third said it seemed as though years had passed since he had drunk the poison, and he’d been living in a strange city in the desert. (A version of the Egyptian afterlife.) I decided Mickey, who had the goal of one day attending a Thunderbird in its death ritual, saw a Thunderbird waiting for her. But just as the Thunderbirds donated parts of themselves to the humans who attended them at the end, Mickey came to realize they expected something in return. I was proud of Mickey’s version of the near-death experience, how it tied in to her personal goals, to an element of the setting (particularly one related to Mickey’s home province) and also expanded on it. And I really liked how the reward for the puzzle solving was not a mechanical benefit, but a cool experience and a little piece of knowledge that we as players were invited to inject into the LARP, while still maintaining an element of ambiguity. Were there multiple afterlives? Were they random or did they reflect some truth about each of us? Were we hallucinating? It helped a lot that the space chosen for the meeting was really nice and quite appropriate, atmosphere-wise, and the prop for the crate and the unicorn haunch were really nice. (The blood proved to be a sugary alcoholic beverage, which seemed just right to me. I appreciated the inclusion of alcohol in this LARP — it’s a rare thing in the LARPs I play.) I heard the other runs treated the whole thing very differently, and that it spawned RP outside of the meetings in various ways.
When the current Chancellor announced during meal-time school announcements that a previous Chancellor had, back in the 1800s, left 10 points to a future student, Mickey Duggan, for boldly trying out a strange experiment, it really put a smile on my face.
The last highlight of New World Magischola was the Welcome Ball, the dance that capped off our first week of college. We were all strongly encouraged to find dates to ensure that no one had to process in alone or sit out the first dance, a formal waltz. The school staff repeatedly told us it didn’t have to be a romantic thing — it could just be two colleagues who respected one another and enjoyed one another’s company. Lots of characters, school staff and our House presidents, made it a personal mission to be sure everyone had a date. Oddly, while this increased pressure on our characters to find a date, it made finding a date feel less socially fraught to me out of character, so I appreciated it a lot.
Many of us had taken a dance lesson on the first day of classes, taught by the Chancellor, which was a ton of fun. (The song “Shut Up and Dance” will be forever linked with my wizarding school experience, as it played during the lesson.) I always enjoy an opportunity to dance.
More photos of Addison and Mickey at the dance, courtesy of NWM.
New World Magischola was an extremely fun, immersive weekend, and an unforgettable experience. I had so much fun, I came back the next week (which involved more 4+ hour drives there and back) to NPC on Friday night and Saturday of the Week 4 run. The staff has already announced two yuletide weekends running in December in Ohio. I don’t know if I’ll make it, but I sure would like to return to Magischola! If not, there’s a smaller one day event running in Massachusetts in December, which I’m very happy about. It’s clear from the activity on the Facebook groups since the end of the weekend that people found this to be a moving and bonding experience. Hopefully I’ll see lots of my classmates this December!
(More photos of all four runs can be found on the New World Magischola website here.)