In November of 2014, 180 part-time witches and wizards descended on a Polish castle for a weekend of live-action role-playing. Dropped into the universe of Harry Potter, they made friends and fought the forces of evil while doing homework for Defense Against the Dark Arts and vying for the House Cup. "By the time the game ended on Saturday night, I had prophesied the resurrection of a dark wizard, fed a faun a lollipop, snuck down a secret passageway in my pajamas to join a secret society, and battled a fellow student to a standstill in a magic duel while trying not to trip on the dress I'd worn for the dance," wrote participant and veteran larper Shoshana Kessock. "And of course, I aced my Magical Artifacts class."
College of Wizardry, as the experience was called, was a carefully produced Nordic larp — a form of role-playing that's heavy on atmosphere and light on hit points and spell damage calculations. Nordic larpers stay in character for days at a time, weaving their own stories into a loose larger plot. And while College of Wizardry definitely wasn't the first Harry Potter larp, it captured public imagination in a way few other projects have. "Larpers have been doing larps set in their favorite fictional universes for years, all over the globe. What made CoW stand out was that it got so much attention," says organizer Claus Raasted, a prolific contributor to the world of Nordic larp.
When the team decided to hold it again, the project appeared everywhere from BuzzFeed to USA Today. Tickets for the upcoming April run, which cost around $350 apiece, sold out in under two minutes. Today, anyone who missed out will get another chance — and potentially a much bigger one. Today, Raasted and the team are launching an Indiegogo campaign, seeking $50,000 for a November 2015 encore show. At $120,000, they'll add another. At $175,000, College of Wizardry will play three times in November.
And if they get $1 million, they buy a castle.
The team probably won't end up with Czocha castle, the current site, but they promise to acquire and refurbish an "honest-to-Merlin castle" in Poland. That's potentially great news not just for would-be wizards, but anyone else who wants a larp-friendly space. If they manage their "crazy goal," says Raasted, College of Wizardry will become a regular event that runs four to six times a year, depending on interest. Beyond that, there are tentative plans for larps about Robin Hood, the French Revolution, and more.
"There was never a time when it looked like it would become a licensed event. It was a dream ... but so is going to Mars."
College of Wizardry is by far the most high-profile larp right now, but in the coming months, it will lose one of its major selling points: the brand recognition of Harry Potter. After press coverage started rolling in, the team got in touch with rights-holder Warner Bros., which allowed them to use the name through April if they removed any references thereafter. Was there ever a chance of turning it into an official Harry Potter larp? "There was never a time when it looked like it would become a licensed event," says Raasted, wistfully. "It was a dream, of course, but so's going to Mars."
Raasted says reworking the content has actually been fairly easy. "When we first began working on CoW, the idea was to make something that felt like Harry Potter without being Harry Potter," he says. "We were interested in giving the 'magic school at a real castle' experience more than in trying to re-create an authentic Harry Potter experience." The original larp was already set far from Hogwarts, with its own set of competing houses. But obviously, the cultural references remain valuable. "If I make a larp about an ad agency today, I can say, 'It's a bit like the Mad Men TV series, but set in the present day and focusing on lack of morality,' and many people will know what I'm talking about," says Raasted.
That desire to step straight into a specific imaginary world — to become human fan fiction — is often harnessed in straightforward ways. The week before College of Wizardry's proposed November date, the team will also be running Fairweather Manor, which bills itself as "a Nordic larp inspired by Downton Abbey." Sometimes, they're more unorthodox. Raasted is currently collaborating with Danish fantasy writer Josefine Ottesen to turn parts of her latest story into larps, like a collaborative reading tour. "I think that we'll see more and more larps using existing story universes, and more and more cooperation between larpers and authors / producers," he says.
The sudden fame of College of Wizardry doesn't totally faze him. Nordic larp, as its name suggests, has seen some mainstream success in and around Scandinavian countries, where educators and government officials are interested in its hands-on, empathy-building approach to serious topics like xenophobia and war. In Germany, the government helped fund an independently organized Battlestar Galactica larp. But in America, where larps have entered pop culture mostly as a joke, Raasted thinks it's a big step. "I don't think I'd say CoW took larp to the mainstream," he says. "But we at least poked through the ice."