July 31, 2016
“Jeglicher Zauber geht verloren, wenn du versuchst, ihn einzufangen.”
What role does “magic” play in our lives? Is magic already suffused with the powers of the mundane? How does magic duplicate and comment upon the logics of neoliberalism already governing us? To what extent can “rebellion” be realized within a left-leaning institution, and how do such institutions cull and herd their ranks? Is being a wizard the new “it” thing?
These questions have all popped into my head over the course of the past week, thanks to the latest live-action role-playing game (larp) with which I took part. In this post, I will outline the game itself, talk a little bit about its design, go over some of my character’s arc, and conclude with a discussion of the content of this post’s title: introducing major figures of social thought into the curriculum of a magic school. And, of course, royally rocking out while doing so.
The past weekend (July 21-24, 2016), I had the pleasure of attending the third run (NWM3) of New World Magischola (NWM) at the University of Richmond. If you’ve been keeping track of my exploits (or outright stalking me), you’ll note that this was my third multi-day larp experience ever – following the first run of Inside Hamlet and the fourth run of Just a Little Lovin’, which I documented extensively here. Those were Nordic larps over in Denmark, and were a departure for me after I started down the road of Nordic freeform in 2010.
NWM is the American adaptation of the hit European game College of Wizardry, a highly successful blockbuster larp which is to date scheduling its 11th run, not including sequels. Contrary to popular belief, NWM is not the first weekend-long Nordic larp in the United States; that honor belongs to Lizzie Stark’s 2012 run of Mad About the Boy.
Each run of the Harry Potter-esque magic university runs from Thursday afternoon until Saturday at midnight, immersing players in a magical version of the United States known as the Magimundi invented by co-organizers Maury Brown and Ben Morrow and co-created by the player-characters themselves. Thursday evening mark the parties of the 5 student houses and the initial gatherings of the school’s many clubs and secret societies. Friday is the first day of classes coupled with the first-year initiation ceremony into their respective houses. Saturday is the second day of classes, and ends with a spectacular ball and the announcement of the winners of the house cup.
The design of this game focuses on player imagination, co-creation, 360-degree immersion, and emergent plotlines. Overall themes (as far as I could tell) were inclusivity vs. exclusivity, vulnerability vs. coldness, the consciousness and rights of non-human/non-wizard creatures, freedom vs. security, and rebellion vs. control.
Brown and Morrow have deliberately created a larp environment around building empathy and empowering others. When we think about the last 25 years of entertainment larp history, we know that’s often not the case. Vampire: The Masquerade-based larps, the centerpiece of the medium and hobby for many years, famously revolve around player vs. player (PvP) conflict. Baalman and Barchmann (2014) write:
Conflict is the basis of the game – the reasons for conflict are a multitude – and the conflicts are never fully resolved or forgiven, any step towards resolution is simply a further step towards new conflicts. (22)
To be sure, conflict is what drives most narratives, and in theory driving for hardcore antagonism in a larp space is a good thing. In practice, however, a larp culture of PvP can produce many nasty side effects as well. Participants trust each other less and, as Sarah Lynne Bowman (2014) has argued, PvP can lead to long-term community schisms that only hurt the larp ecosystem overall. In fact, PvP games too often instinctively draw upon cultures of scheming and conflict that, in fact, are only endemic to the western world.
In contrast, Brown and Morrow advocate for a larp design that includes rather than excludes, that empowers rather than constrains, and that encourages ignorance of social hierarchies rather than deference to them. In their words: “The rhetoric the characters [use] is invitational and not the agonistic or command-and-conquer rhetoric that is programmed into so many games.” Empowerment therefore stems from players being able to have information at their disposal, decide to opt in or out of play situations, easily create alibis to cover certain plot points, and let them negotiate the outcome of emergent fiction. As any expert of improv theater can tell you, the First Rule is to say “Yes, and…” to any fiction or action thrown your way. Information circulates thanks to a state of transparency unheard of in most larps (Brown has said my own essay on transparency helped her formulate design on this front), and then player-characters choose to engage or disengage using a variety of techniques.
Thus the “magic” of a magic school comes from the collective imaginations of the participants, rather than carefully balanced sets of rules and gamemaster-centered meta-plots. Actually, the latter part – the relative deficit of meta-plot – proves an integral part of this design. In cooperative board games such as Pandemic or Ghost Stories, for example, the reason to cooperate can be found in the relentless external threats pounding down on the player-characters from all sides. In NWM, cooperation stems from player-created drama that is often not directly PvP. A student has an unresolved relationship with their monstrous father, and needs fellow students to help summon him. A professor gets into an unprofessional fight with another professor over methodology. A disruption in the ley lines has brought in more vampires, shadows, and werewolves to campus, meaning that the non-human-sapience advocates suddenly have a whole bunch of wandering actual creatures on whose behalf they must now advocate. Each plot thread stems from situations that offer personal or social drama, rather than drama on an epic or worldwide scale. Countering the usual genre fiction trope of the world always being threatened and the PCs always being entrusted with saving it, NWM instead explores the day-to-day weirdness of being at a magic school and the HBO-style drama of powerful-yet-inexperienced wizards figuring out their lives, finding romance, reconciling with their pasts, and taking action against the social injustices around them.
Speaking of social injustices, I should mention the progressive ambitions of the larp. Gender pronouns defaulted to “them/they” rather than “him/he” or “her/she.” Romance plots were presumed to be agnostic of sexuality. Most of the student organizations available had some sort of activist component to them. All of the Magical Theory & Ethics faculty, myself included, were encouraged to instruct students to question authority and rebel against it. Real social issues around the marginalization of certain populations and the investment of large institutions in criminal corporate enterprises emerged in metaphorical form throughout the game. In other words, NWM created a space in which we might enact our own pedagogy of the oppressed and imagine alternate realities in which our own education system encouraged students to speak out, rather than conform.
NWM’s design had us build a temporary edifice of trust – a heterotopia, if you will – so that we could explore both personal themes and themes much greater than ourselves. By turning conflict toward the extant social system, the game’s design had us form real empathy relations with our fellow players as we then began to address social problems all around us. Those characters who exacerbated these problems also demanded our empathy: we needed to figure out why they were prejudiced against chupacabras, or why they chose to defend the evil Foresight Corporation, or why they dabbled in the dark arts, and then make difficult decisions as to what to do about it. The game gave us the necessary information, and then let us figure out what to do with it all. It felt like a breath of fresh air with a whiff of emotional maturity. It created an environment that, like any good classroom, afforded the players to take appropriate risks.
And that’s where I come in.
Professor Kai Hassinger
The character I was given was “K. Hassinger, Professor of Magical Theory & Ethics, 3rd Year.” He’s a Mundane-born (“muggle”) weirdo from Mishipeshu (the Magimundi Midwest) who happens to be a former New World Magischola student. This character opens with the line “You’re a rebel and proud of it” and later continues:
“As a professor, you’re valued for your brilliant, outsider’s grasp of arcane ethics. You’ve tempered a bit, but you still have a hot streak and you delight in challenging expectations and forcing students to re-examine what they’ve learned.”
This was basically a gift to me as a player, because I’m often playing the quirky, outsider character with left-leaning ideologies. Fit me like a glove. And then I thought: “What if Robert Smith from The Cure was my fashion template?”
Thus Kai Hassinger was born.
Kat did my make-up and showed me how to rat my hair, and it took some planning to find goth-y clothing that would also breathe well in the extreme Richmond-in-July heat. I was very proud with the result: an arrogant agitator and rock star with a heart of gold.
My personality came from both former UMass professors (“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!”), as well as my general impression of impassioned iconoclasts throughout history. Also as an iconoclast: he was thrown out of 2 of the 5 houses in his 3 years as a student, and never really graduated as a practitioner of a specific “major.”
For this run, my character had been given leadership positions in the Fellowship of the Hydra, a do-gooder vigilante group, and the monitorship of the Maison Du Bois, the most upstanding house and one of the ones that threw him out as a student. I attributed Hassinger’s membership in the former to his impulse toward action over mere philosophizing, and his possession of the latter as a mysterious form of punishment handed to him by the Chancellor thanks to political maneuvering by his institutional arch-enemy, Jurisprudence Professor Taggart. So I was grappling with a fairly complex character that, at the same time, needed to provide play for others as faculty. But I otherwise had zero character connections listed on my character sheet.
I attempted to reach out to fellow players on Facebook before the game with some limited success. The Mundane players certainly wanted an ally on the faculty, and I desperately wanted – thanks to prior larp experiences – to be situated in some social situation other than “You’re an outsider and a weirdo.” I chose then to double down on my character’s responsibilities to his networks – Faculty, Hydra, DuBois, Mundane-borns – as well as scheduled a rock concert to happen for ~30 minutes on the Saturday of the game (more on that below). At the game itself, I reached out to several professors for more solid relationships. Prof. Alfred Contreras became Hassinger’s former advisor who also was the reason why someone as outlandish as him even had a job. Prof. Kane, the other ethics faculty, also had a very progressive, leftist approach to ethics, so Hassinger immediately formed a tight bond with him. Prof. Taggart became his arch-nemesis, “The Man” he wanted so desperately to take down (but with whom he secretly agreed on many topics). Prof. Barber, a cryptozoologist, became Hassinger’s equally unconventional frenemy… with whom he later found much affinity. Prof. Barlow in alchemy became a fellow disaffected person from Mishipeshu, and eventually his date to the ball. Prof. Ziegler became the other outsider, whose avocation of necromancy intrigued him. Slowly, the pieces began to fall together, but only with much proactive effort on my part.
But no proactive efforts would outrank the feat that was my course preparation.
How do you teach a “magical theory & ethics” course? Let me count the ways…
Seriously, the topic is so, so broad. And it’s so easy to get wrong.
I didn’t know where to begin, so I thought about what I myself as a German professor and graduate faculty member at the University of Cincinnati would be interested in teaching. What I came up with was a valorization and discussion of the works of several of my intellectual heroes: Hannah Arendt, Antonio Gramsci, and Giorgio Agamben. Basically, those strains of continental philosophy that deal with the politics of demarcating an “enemy” and what we actually do with human (and non-human) bodies subjected to systems larger than ourselves. I wanted to smuggle these thinkers into the larp, even through their own words, with the serial numbers filed off. In other words, I wanted to teach the players something that I myself was actually an expert in, so that they could then feel like they as characters had also learned something.
The faculty are basically gamemastering their own mini-larps, and I wanted mine to A) overwhelm the students with that “out of my league” feeling you get when you first get to college and B) let the students know that they could comprehend the basics and learn to act on what they’ve learned by the end. I also wanted to model how to disagree respectfully with someone with different – perhaps even repugnant – opinions from oneself.
So I invented a worthy straw man: Prof. Joffrey Leadwale (played to a T. by Chris Bergstresser), a well-established Unsoiled professor from the 19th and early 20th Century whose work Arcanium narum was considered a classic at NWM. My first lesson had an intended three-Act structure. Act I was introducing the students to the Arcanium and letting them swim around in its complexities. Hassinger asked them if they could find a passage that made them angry, and one that intrigued them. Hoo boy, did that get them riled up. And just after the students reached the point when they wanted to tear the argument to shreds, in walks the spirit of the guy who wrote it. (It’s kind of an academic’s dream come true, actually). Act II is an act of tense negotiation in which Hassinger tries to mediate Leadwale’s ideas about the semantics of magic to the students, while also questioning the classist and racist presumptions underlying the text. Students have to figure out how to voice their critiques to a worthy opponent. Act III involves Hassinger sending away Leadwale and then revealing his own school of thought and ethics, called the Alternium. The first page of the Alternium is Hassinger’s radical leftist intellectual statements regarding how magic is integrated into societal power politics. The second and third pages are then quotes from philosophers of interest to those looking at the ethics of power: “C. Schvitt” is Carl Schmitt, “The Q” is Malcolm X, “H. Ardenta” is Hannah Arendt, “M.M. Foqua” is Michel Foucault, and “A. Gambon” is Giorgio Agamben. The fourth page contains Hassinger’s rants against other content in the textbook, again reinforcing his “outsider” status. Discussion then launched into the very nature of power and our capacity to act within larger, exploitative social systems. The students finally had to form groups and tackle one of these 18 simple sociological projects, which involved observing class and power dynamics around NWM. So suddenly, magical school students had to take Antonio Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony and interregnum seriously, or look for signs of discrimination and political economy in NWM. Hassinger helped drive play by suddenly having the player-characters critically analyze the environment around them. The second lesson was mostly about taking their lessons from the projects, and then applying them back to concepts in the Alternium.
The classes were exhilarating to teach, to say the least. Students came in not knowing what to expect, and wound up having to take real-life power dynamics articulated by real-life theorists seriously. He found instant affinity with a host of students who held similar opinions: Hebe Hathaway, Beowolf Gonzalez, Katerina Rosener, Tatiana Bradford, Jasper Creed, Rafael DuPont, and the list goes on. Philosophical questions that directly concern contemporary social politics were foregrounded, as well as a kind of polemics that one usually only sees in graduate-level coursework. Hassinger could behave as responsibly or as irresponsibly as he wanted, a liberating feeling for me as real-life faculty who is otherwise beholden to student evaluations. His class began to swell with auditors from other class years, who had heard a rumor or two about Hassinger’s teaching style.
It was in the Magic Theory & Ethics classes that I felt closest to the vision of this larp: social progressivism in wizard school and presenting students with no easy answers (or an “evil” threat to eliminate).
The out-of-class scenes were not as enjoyable as teaching the classes, at least for me.
Many of the recaps and entries related to NWM often tell the tale in a long character arc spanning the whole weekend. Truth be told, Hassinger didn’t have much of an “arc” – more like a series of vignettes and small arcs. Here are a few to satisfy your interest in “what happened” during the game:
• Hassinger attends the Maison DuBois house reception as reluctant house monitor. He openly reveals his fraught history with the house (having been thrown out as a student) and casts public doubts about the viability of the group to compete for the House Cup. Later: He realizes at the moving House DuBois initiation ceremony conducted by Emily Dwyer and Meridia Hayers that he actually still believes in their causes of “truth and ethics,” and rallies to their support.
• Rafael DuPont, a 3rd-year Lakay Laveau, solicits Hassinger’s advice regarding Avernus prison. He’s got a relative imprisoned there, and knows of the atrocities. Hassinger brings him into the Faculty Lounge to discuss things further, where DuPont also gets to overhear all the drunken faculty gossip. Hassinger advises DuPont to gather the signatures of as many Marshalls as possible, to send a clear message that the next generation of law enforcers oppose this for-profit hellhole. Later: DuPont delivers the petition with 14 signatures. The motion to disinvest from Avernus prison is dismissed by the Chancellor out of hand, and the faculty move to table it for the next (contentious) budget meeting. Hassinger flies off the handle when Taggart’s name is mentioned as being pivotal for the petition to get off the ground, and he throws a temper tantrum at the faculty meeting.
• Hassinger spends much of the weekend debating with his mentor Contreras on the point of acting “principled” in contests such as the house cup. Hassinger takes the side of the pragmatists, advocating House DuBois to be “crafty,” should they want a house victory. Later: DuBois wound up coming in 2nd place.
• During the first meeting of the Fellowship of the Hydra, Hassinger and Faith Myczek look for a direction for this vigilante society, and find in one in sapience rights. One member says it is a pity for us to be holding our meeting at the exact same time as the sapience rights, so we just decide to merge our meeting with theirs. At the end of the major-league activist meeting led by Moxie Brack and Eva Sheridan among others, the gathered group is suddenly faced with a dilemma that Hydra members had to help deal with: a scared chupacabra being hunted down for having killed a wizard’s 12 year-old son. Thanks to the quick thinking of several students led by first-year Sloane Lanczek and the assistance of Profs. Hassinger and Barber, the students heal the chupacabra, conceal it in robes, and smuggle it to safety. Later: On the second meeting of the Fellowship of the Hydra, we discussed the outcomes of our previous struggles and then re-joined the Sapience Rights Advocates for their plans to speak in favor of vampires, chupacabras, and others.
• Because the Chancellor was otherwise indisposed, Hassinger had to take over taking the house cup points for about 3 hours.
• Hassinger witnessed several rituals on behalf of the students: one that brought a greycloak in from its quasi-existence between dimensions (don’t ask), one that permitted the poltergeist Johnny to possess the body of this other guy, and one that brought Alfie the ghost back from the dead.
• Hassinger notices first-year Jasper Creed has been attending his third-year classes and being of a similar anti-establishment mindset. He randomly asks him at dinner if he could be his TA. Later: At the ball, Creed and Hassinger find themselves awkwardly dancing together… and hatching future plans.
Rock On, Everyone
Of course, I also did mention that concert that I had scheduled. I used an impromptu, weird-ass flyer to advertise it…
Looks pretty hip, right?
In actuality, it looked something more like this:
That thing on the left? It’s a gremlin. That thing on the right? It’s a faun.
They both rocked. Hard.
And it didn’t hurt that the Chancellor himself was really into punk music and down with me dominating the Faculty Lounge with a bunch of loud rock songs for half-an-hour. He hauled in more students to see the spectacle. Thanks, Fortinbras!
For those who know my recent larp creations, you know Kat and I’ve put together a wonderfully debauched game called Slayer Cake, which lets you live out your Brütal Legend dreams of being in a magical rock band vying for the title of Overlords of Rock. The relevance here is that I effectively introduced one of the karaoke, fake-guitar-playing sequences from Slayer Cake into NWM so as to introduce an “event” for other characters to participate in. Since I genuinely love playing fake guitar in front of everyone and screaming “Metal!!” then the deal worked out for people on all sides.
The important thing about blockbuster larps is the dispersal of various random events, some of which drive plotline, and others become empty vessels for plotline to fill. The concert was one of the latter: as Hassinger was rocking out to “Wishmaster” and “Paranoid Android,” there were people next door trying to conduct a ritual, others hiding in the concert from their opponents, and others still launching into new character arcs thanks to the music and lyrics. Player-characters projected what they wanted into Hassinger’s own small act of permitted rebellion, and were rewarded for it.
And there was even an encore permitted during the ball, for those who wanted to keep rocking!
A Few Summary Points
NWM3 afforded me an opportunity to be the rebel, rock-star professor I’d always wanted to be, as well as experience some minor pathos around Maison DuBois, my mentor Contreras, my antagonist Taggart, and student-led activism on behalf of issues that they cared about.
• The game’s design encouraged the players to use the wizard school as an allegory of modern liberal arts education and social justice dynamics.
• Professors being allowed to design their own curriculum gives player-characters in faculty roles the ability to steer the game through their lessons.
• Putting some real content that you are passionate about teaching into those lessons is a pretty good idea.
• My character didn’t really experience a life-changing arc during the game, and that’s OK.
• But I got to rock out and help make the experience an enjoyable one for my fellow players.
I send out much love and thanks to everyone who made NWM possible, and hope to be part of this continuing drama as it unfolds.