141. Larp Design Case Study: Replayability at College of Wizardry
In general, there are two main types of larps out there.
One-shot larps are stand-alone events. Stories, characters and sometimes even worlds are constructed to suit the specific vision and themes of the larp. A famous example of a one-shot larp is the Danish prison larp KAPO from 2011.
Campaign larps are a never-ending series of larps that happen in succession. The story of one episode follows the story of the previous one, often (though not necessarily) played at regular intervals, like once a month. Some of them even have multiple branches sharing an overall storyline. The American Dystopia Rising campaign is a good example of this.
Of course, there are many in-between constructions of various sorts. One-shot larps set in the same world, that follow chronologically, but not story-wise. Mini-campaigns. Linked larps, reruns, prequels, sequels and all manner of strange beasts that defy definition.
I want to talk a little bit about replayability in one-shot larps that are run multiple times, and I’m going to use College of Wizardry as an example.
What is College of Wizardry?
College of Wizardry is a four-day roleplaying experience at a 13th Century castle where you can embrace your dreams of being a student at a school of magic.
The words come from the event’s webpage, wizardry.college. What it doesn’t say is that CoW is a one-shot larp that’s continuously being re-run. Each new CoW “resets” the universe, and each is a standalone. But not completely. Because while each run of the larp is its very own, there are still some things that “seep” between runs — songs, traditions, stories, rituals, etc.
At College of Wizardry there are two main types of roles.
- Students, who study at the school of magic, going to classes, being part of the five Houses of the College, and living the young adult magical life to the full. There are three years of these: Junior, Sophomore, Senior. Yes, it doesn’t follow the normal format title-wise. Don’t worry about it. ;-)
- Professors, who run the school. They teach classes, take care of disciplinary actions and make sure the system works. There’s also a Janitor, some Assistant Professors and oddballs like Librarians and suchlike from time to time.
The students are further sub-divided into five Houses, each named after its Founder. For those curious, these are Libussa, Durentius, Faust, Molin and Sendivogius, and there’s a bit of lore to dive into for each. At the beginning of the larp, all Juniors (the newcomers to the school) are yet to be assigned a House, and a lot of the play of the first 24 hours is centered around the Juniors, their Sorting and the follow initiations.
Eight ways of experiencing the larp
When looking at it in a little more detail, there’s the chance to choose between the following rough role categories:
Juniors, Sophomores, Seniors, Prefects, Professors, Staff Members
Add to that the fact that there are five different study Paths to follow:
Artificiers, Curse Breakers, Cryptozoologists, Guardians, and Healers.
All in all, this means that there’s quite a bit of variety at CoW, even before looking at the characters themselves, with their personality quirks, backstories, dreams and relationships.
There’s also two more categories of experience to be had, though these a bit disconnected from the rest. CoW also has an organiser team, and while its core is made up of people from Dziobak Larp Studios (which runs CoW), there are often freelancers in key positions.
And last, but definitely not least, there’s the chance to be a Helper. The Helpers don’t pay to participate, but get both food and accommodation, and help out with both practical tasks and supporting Non-Player-Character roles like werewolves, ghosts and long-lost family members.
So, in total, there are eight main ways of experiencing a CoW larp.
One can be any of these:
- Staff Member
Each of these has its own distinct flavour, and while there is of course some overlap between being a Sophomore student and a Senior, there’s a huge difference between the Junior experience and the Prefect ditto — even though both are students.
This creates a massive opportunity for replayability
Any larp can be played more than once. Even if one were to go to the exactly the same larp and play exactly the same character with exactly the same people and exactly the same organisers, no two runs are even close to being the same.
This is part of the ephemeral magic of larp, and we take it for granted in a way that sometimes surprises me — after all, most other forms of creative expression in the world follow different rules; even two music concerts with the same setup are much more similar than two comparable larps.
But College of Wizardry is more replay-friendly than most, due to these eight difference “gateway types” it has. Add to that, that the much of the content is loosely defined in the lore and is actively co-created by the participants of a given run (so House Faust at CoW6 and House Faust at CoW14 were vastly different, and lessons in Magical Defence vary immensely between larps).
This replayability isn’t something we designed for this intentionally, when we put together the first CoW in 2014. We were already then thinking in replayability terms, but it was at a different level. We created gender-neutral characters and decided that players would define their own ingame relationships, as a way of making the larp more rerunnable, but we weren’t thinking of the basic design itself as a major feature in this.
Our plan was never to run more than a couple of these larps at best, and when we launched the first one, we weren’t even sure we could get participants for it. Nobody knew that it would turn into a long-running series, with CoW15 just having been played this very weekend.
But here we are, three years later, and the design has proved that it not only works and consistently provides a framework for great experiences, but also that it has incredibly high replayability value.
What does it look like in practice?
We sometimes talk of “the participant journey” when designing experiences. At CoW, we also discuss what that means spread out over multiple events. Of course, we’re still only at CoW15, so we don’t have anything but anecdotal data yet, but there’s already a clear pattern emerging. If it holds true over the course of the next ten years, we’ll see, but for now, this is what we’ve seen:
A new participant (often a first-time larper) goes to their first CoW and plays a Junior. It doesn’t matter much which Path is chosen, because while they’re different from each other, they only matter for which classes are taken.
Then, if the player comes back for a second CoW, it’s often as an older student — either a Sophomore or Senior character, and someone who takes some responsibility in the House. Often it’s the same House as the first time.
The third time is often where the player takes on the responsibility of being either a Professor or a Prefect, depending on temperament and leanings. Some also here choose to “jump House” instead, but the trend is clear.
For those that return for a fourth time, there’s a strong tendency to go for either the opposite of the third time (if you were a Prefect, you now go as a Professor, and vice versa) or choose to go as a Helper and help backstage.
The fifth and sixth CoW visits follow the same pattern. It’s either as a Helper, a Prefect, a Professor or sometimes as a fledgling Junior student, but now armed with a ton of understanding of the larp and a lot of friends in the community. At this stage, players are usually well-known members of the CoW tribe and band together with fellow CoW veterans to create their own play.
There are also a number of unique character positions at each CoW, and sometimes veteran players add their own to the mix. Headmistresses and Headmasters, Janitors, School Counselors and the like all fit into this at various stages, but also add to the high replay factor.
At some point during this, several of our participants flirt with the role of organising as well. Either they come on board as freelancers or volunteers, and if they have the time and inclination, they get more involved with the organisation running the show. A little less than half the Dziobaks started out as CoW players, and then moved on to join the company.
Of course, this “CoW path” doesn’t hold true for everyone. For the first CoWs, obviously everyone was a newcomer, and CoW3 naturally had a much higher percentage of first-time CoW players were Prefects, Professors, Headmasters, etc. than CoW12.
Now, there are those who just love the setting, the community and the larp so much that they return in so many different guises that it’s hard to keep track, but even for someone who isn’t completely mad about CoW, there’s at least 6–7 very differentiated play experiences to be had — again, without taking things like House differences and actual characters into account.
All in all, it makes CoW a larp with an extremely high replayability factor. As organisers we’re very happy about that, since it keeps it fresh and interesting for not just our players, but also for us as organisers.
My hope is that for you, dear readers, this breakdown of how CoW is in replayability terms is useful for your own thoughts about larp design. Replayability isn’t always something to strive for, design wise, but if you want to go down that road, you now have some more insights to take with you.
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