It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and I’m in my Magical Combat and Defense class. My classmates stand in a circle around me, holding hands and chanting. Last period, the most evil student in school put a curse on me, and it’s taken away all of my magic. As the chanting grows louder, I start to tremble. My wand slips from my hand, clattering to the floor. I’m worried. Can I really trust a bunch of first years to pull this off? Well, if it doesn’t work, I’ve still got that vial of black market unicorn blood.
My classmates each point their wands at me and deliver one last chant. Then everyone falls silent. Professor Fitzroy steps forward and asks, “Do you think you’ve got your magic back?”
I take a deep breath and pick up my wand. “Only one way to find out.”
Last year I didn’t even know what a LARP was. Then I met Maggie.
We’re sitting across from each other at a local writers group, trading suggestions on our works in progress, when Maggie confides something to me.
“I LARP sometimes,” she says, looking like she’s bracing herself for a negative reaction.
“What’s LARPing?” I ask. I know it’s got something to do with costumes and foam swords, and based on the secretive way most people talk about it I’ve deduced that it’s something considered really geeky. Too geeky even for me.
“It means live action role playing,” she says. “It’s basically large-scale improv mixed with cosplay and Dungeons & Dragons. Don’t judge me.”
“I won’t,” I lie.
A few months later my brother posts a meme on my Facebook wall about the College of Wizardry LARP. The meme shows a picture of a beautiful old castle, and the text promises a real-life Harry Potter adventure in Poland where “you will learn spells, be sorted into a house, interact with magical creatures, and stay in a replica of Hogwarts.”
Poland’s a bit far to travel to all by myself, but luckily it turns out that there’s a version of the College of Wizardry running for the first time in the U.S. It’s called New World Magischola, and much like when I was an 11-year-old reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time, I’m hooked. (Magischola also has a program geared exclusively for those ages 11 to 17.) Instantly. I’d never even considered the possibility of a Harry Potter theme—I’d thought LARPs were only epic fantasy battle reenactments. I start obsessing to the point where every day I’m poring over the New World Magischola website, reading everything I can about class schedules, getting sorted into a house, and the rules for exploring the Forbidden Forest. I even start having recurring dreams about it.
“That’s it,” I think to myself, upon waking from a particularly vivid one. “I’m going to wizard school.”
At the end of July, I ship off to school with three of my friends via the Hogwarts Express (well, via a Toyota Camry). We’re on our way to the University of Richmond, which is just a seven-hour drive from New York City, where we all live and work. In real life we’re a pretty normal and unassuming group, but in the LARP universe we’re about to become a party of wizard misfits: Kristine’s character is hiding a dark and violent past, Amanda’s is secretly a loup garou, Christina’s grew up in a Seattle witch commune, and mine is a rebellious half-blood (Dad’s a muggle, Mom’s a witch). To embrace my character’s punk nature, I’ve even dyed my hair blue, something I’ve never had the guts to do before.
A few months before the LARP, every participant received a randomized character sheet outlining their character’s personality and background. That way we don’t end up with everyone playing the same sort of character, and it also encourages people to play characters that they might not have come up with on their own. The characters range from goody-two-shoes brown-nosers to pure-blooded bigots to “magical creature rights” activists, and so on. You’re allowed to personalize your character as much as you want, but most people have said how pleasantly surprised they were with their assignment.
That’s definitely the case with us. As new players we decided to just stick with the characters we were assigned. And now here we are, four LARP virgins, on our way to one of the biggest events in American LARP history. We have our wands, our costumes, and our (sugar-free) potions. As big fans of the Harry Potter books we’re really excited, but we’re also worried that the game will be too intense for us. What if we’re bad at it? What if it’s weird?
After arriving, we sign in, put our bags in our dorm rooms, and file into the Great Hall, a.k.a. the campus chapel. The orientation session is led by New World Magischola creators Maury Brown and Ben Morrow, who both attended the College of Wizardry in Poland a few years back. Inspired by their adventures, they decided to bring the experience home to the U.S. That meant raising money, so they launched a Kickstarter that ended up raising over $300,000, almost ten times their initial goal. The Kickstarter, combined with the revenue from ticket sales, allowed Maury and Ben to quit their full-time jobs and start their own LARPing company, Learn Larp.
As they review the rules of the game with us, I notice that Ben has a striking facial birthmark that reminds me of something a Hogwarts professor would have, and that Maury looks a bit like J.K. Rowling herself. It’s kind of perfect.
They explain that New World Magischola is a Nordic-style LARP, a flavor that originated in Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden (places with such healthy gaming cultures that they actually have government-funded LARPs). With Nordic-style, there are no skills or stats to keep track of, no big battles to win. Instead, the goal is total immersion into the fictional world. There’s no shortage of fun and adventure, but the focus is on character, emotion, and personal growth. So this will basically be art house wizard duels.
With their unexpected $300,000+ budget Maury and Ben have also hired an entire staff to help run the event. This includes people playing NPCs (non-player characters), who will be portraying house ghosts, trouble-making students, and magical creatures. When the sun goes down that first night, we’re told that the campus will soon be crawling with gremlins, goblins, vampires, werewolves, wyverns, unicorns, chupacabra, and even a Bigfoot.
“Remember,” Maury says, as we head out to character workshops. “Don’t try to be perfect. It’s more fun to let the unexpected happen. Play to lose.”
At the workshops, a staffer who’d later be playing Marguerite, the school poltergeist, divides us into groups based on our level of experience—one for avid LARPers, the other for beginners.
To my surprise, as my friends and I move to join the newbie group, so do about 70% of the other players. I realize that New World Magischola hasn’t only attracted hardcore LARPers—it’s also attracted people like me: first-timers with a love for Harry Potter who’d jumped at the chance to attend wizard school and experience a more magical life.
That first night, the weather goes from excruciatingly humid to pouring rain, complete with thunder claps and flickering lightning. It’s actually a great ambiance for wizard school, but not very comfortable for a first year student without an umbrella. As I wander the unfamiliar campus, my black cotton school robe growing ever more damp, I duck into a gothic stone building to freshen up. But when I open the bathroom door, I see Chancellor Fortinbras, New World Magischola’s headmaster, at the urinal. I panic.
“Sorry Chancellor!” I call, and run out before he has a chance to see my face. I shake my head, wondering how I could have walked into the men’s room. Then I see a handwritten sign next to the door: “Gender Neutral Restroom.” I’m quickly coming to understand that New World Magischola is a place defined by equality and acceptance. That level of consideration even extends to our nametags, which list each character’s preferred pronoun—”he,” “she,” “he/she,” “they,” “it,” and more. I’ve never been somewhere so outwardly accepting of every identity.
Back outside in the rain, I join a group of students who are being circled by a guy wearing large black wings and a rubber mask—a wyvern. He snarls, and everyone immediately has their wands at the ready. Well, except me. The wyvern charges, and I fumble, but manage to grab my wand just in time and point it at him.
“Um…” I say. My mind goes completely blank. “Um…” I say again, but I’ve waited a beat too long. The wyvern “attacks” the student who had the misfortune to be standing next to me.
I’d wanted to say some beautiful Latin incantation, something worthy of J.K. Rowling. I hadn’t expected to be so awkward. I hadn’t expected to choke. I watch helplessly as the group continues to fight the man in the wyvern costume, my lack of magic—even pretend magic—feeling much too real.
“Play to lose,” I think, trying to comfort myself. “Like Maury said. Play to lose.”
The next day I wake to the sound of Kristine saying, “Sorry…sorry…sorry.” The alarm we set in our dorm room the night before didn’t go off, and now we’re scrambling to throw on our wizard clothes and gather up our notebooks and quills. It’s 8:30, which means that we’ve missed breakfast and most of our first class.
When I arrive at my second class—thankfully on time—a student elbows me and hisses, “Where were you? I hope you didn’t lose house points.” The Hermione Granger in me cringes, but skipping class is totally something my rebellious character would pull. Maybe I’m starting to embrace her after all.
“Play to lose,” I think, smirking.
At the front of the classroom, Professor Fear-Devil Swift bangs his coffee cup on the desk to get our attention. “This is Runic Magic,” he says. “If you can’t handle dealing with evil magic—and a high workload—I suggest you leave now.” No one leaves, and in that moment I feel thankful that I won’t have any real homework to deal with.
“And if you’re hoping to earn house points here, you’ll be sorely disappointed,” he adds. “I rarely meet a student who impresses me.”
I squint at him, certain he’s just playing up his character’s Snape-like nature. Then again, I’ve never met the guy before, so I don’t know where his fictional personality ends and his real one begins.
“Now,” says Swift, “can anyone tell me what’s so special about King Tut’s tomb?”
A guy in Birkenstocks quickly raises his hand. “It’s cursed,” he says. “Or at least, that’s the legend.”
“Yes,” Swift says, without the slightest hint of a smile. “It’s not a legend, though.” He opens a pill bottle labeled “Anti-Curse Medication” and downs the whole thing, crunching on the pills like candy (which it probably is).
“Moving on,” he says, casually.
I come to find that, much like Professor Swift, all of the professors rarely break character. Which makes sense because the people playing professors are experienced LARPers (whereas the newcomers break character fairly often). The most colorful professor is a Gilderoy Lockhart-type named Leo Fitzroy, a world-famous duelist with bright blue hair who every character at the school—even the house ghosts—has a crush on.
At the end of the day, the first year sorting ceremony takes place in the Great Hall. When the Chancellor calls my name, I make my way to the platform, forcing myself to walk slowly so I won’t trip (which I somehow did at both my real-life high school and college graduations). I pause at the center of the stage and take a deep breath, eager to finally learn which house I’ll be in.
My character sheet says that my character, Tiel Finegan, would rather die than get sorted into Maison Du Bois, the grizzly bear-themed house that’s all about justice—it’s the house that her entire family belongs to. Instead she wants to be in Casa Calisayla, the coyote trickster house. (No Hufflepuff or Gryffindor here, those names are copyrighted by J.K. Rowling, and rather than using an anthropomorphic sorting hat, the process here is more like rushing a fraternity.)
I shut my eyes and wait for the Chancellor’s next words.
“Maison Du Bois!” he shouts, and I’m handed a blue tie as the crowd erupts in applause. Channeling Tiel, I curl my lip into a sneer, bitterly disappointed to be yanked back into the suffocating embrace of my family legacy. But deep inside, the real me is having the time of my life.
Above the din I hear the Du Bois students chant in unison. “You have wandered,” they say. “Now you are home.”
By the last day of the LARP, it’s become easier for most of us first-timers to feel immersed in the game’s world, which means that we’re staying in character more and making bolder decisions—especially when it comes to finding a date for the school ball. My date turns out to be a handsome first year student named Virgil Romero—along with his pet dragon, Drayven.
When Virgil picks me up, he’s dressed in a black tuxedo and has his dragon puppet on his hand.
“You look great,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say. “You too.”
“Hey, what about me?” he says, pretending to be the dragon.
I laugh and pet the dragon’s head. “You too, Drayven.”
The evening begins with a mandatory slow dance. Virgil takes my hand and rests the dragon on my shoulder. We begin, and within seconds we bump into the couple next to us. We move away and try again, but this time we bump into a group of three people who are all waltzing together. I start to regret blowing off all the ballroom dancing lessons offered by the school.
Embarrassed, I look around to see if anyone is watching our clumsy display. Instead, I see that everyone else is bumping into each other too. And laughing.
I wonder what people in the real world would think if they saw me dancing with a guy and his dragon puppet. Then I decide that I don’t care.
On Sunday morning, just before heading back to our less magical lives, we all attend debriefing sessions. I’m assigned to a group that meets in what had been the “forbidden” section of the library. Now the books are gone and it’s just an empty classroom.
Once again the woman playing Marguerite, the school poltergeist, leads the session. As she speaks, I notice a guy with his head in his hands, sobbing. Marguerite notices too, and with a pained look on her face, she hands him a tissue.
“Guys, this debriefing room is a safe space,” she says. “It’s okay to cry.”
I’ve really gotten into the LARP, but I don’t feel as if I’m about to get emotional. I start to wonder if I did it wrong.
Marguerite has us break into groups of four, and asks us to have a frank discussion about anything difficult we experienced over the weekend. My group members and I look at each other, at a loss as to who will go first. After a moment, one girl raises her hand and says, “I’m Nina. I guess I’ll go.”
She pauses, tears welling in her eyes. Marguerite runs over with a box of tissues.
Nina says she’s always had trouble with shyness. During the LARP, she’d felt herself falling into those same patterns. “I even skipped some classes on the second day and called my boyfriend crying because I felt so alone,” she says. “But then I finally made it to class, and really got to know people. And, I don’t know, I felt like something changed. For the better.”
“I know what you mean,” says the guy next to me. “I got involved in a plot where we did a séance to help another kid talk to his character’s dead father.” He reaches for the tissue box. “I—I just lost my dad a year ago.”
At that statement, I reach for the tissues too.
He goes on. “I found myself wishing so, so badly that I could do that in real life. But you know what? I actually felt some closure.”
I’d gone into the debriefing session expecting to just talk about all the fun we’d had over the weekend. I didn’t expect to cry. But that’s exactly what we do. We all cry together.
LARPing, I’ve learned, is not for the faint of heart. Much like going away to college or starting a new job or a new relationship, the game forces players to re-evaluate themselves and the way they view the world. That takes courage.
In the debriefings, we’re also warned to be on the lookout for something called “bleed,” which is when you return to the real world but you still feel like you’re in the game. I assume I won’t experience that either.
But when my friends and I return to New York City, by way of Penn Station, we each experience some shock at the transition. It’s strange: I’m constantly scanning the crowd for the familiar faces of players that I know won’t be there, and if someone passes me looking stressed, I have to stop myself from asking if they’re okay. At the LARP, hearing screams and maniacal laughter meant you should run toward it because a fun plot was about to start. At Penn Station, well, it would probably be best to run in the opposite direction.
Before going our separate ways, back to our lives as “mundanes,” my friends and I huddle together for one big group hug. I feel like I’m losing my magic again, only this time no one can do a ritual to bring it back.
We complain to each other that we can’t believe it’s over. That we don’t want to go back. That we can’t wait to do it again. Then we all look at each other, and we just know.
Poland, here we come.
Stephanie Grossman is a writer and marketing professional in New York City who has worked for several publishing houses, including Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. She currently works at JSTOR, a scholarly research digital archive. Her writing has been published in Fiction365 and BOAST. Find her online at anxietyofauthorship.com and follow her on Twitter at @StephMGrossman.