The Great Hall was packed with people from one wall to another. Everyone was gathered around the long tables where we took our meals, under the banners of the Houses that made up the Czocha School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We waited in our robes as the teachers gathered, then called up all the first years to stand in front of the student body to be Sorted. I went up with my fellows, an uncertain grin fixed nervously in place.
We first year students had spent the better part of time since our arrival trying to impress the older students in the various Houses, so they’d give recommendations to recruit us into the House we wanted. I had angled myself towards House Molin, the quiet, serious, studious House, whose symbol the Golem was taken from my own real-life Jewish background. I even made friends with a couple of Libussa, a house that seemed high energy, creative and friendly. I went before the whole school and thought, much like Harry Potter: Just not Faust. Don’t put me into Faust.
Names got read off. My friend Josh, playing Clorian Lockhart, got sorted into Libussa, where my friend Abigail was already playing an upperclassman. A new friend got sorted into Molin, and when he went over I was sure I’d be following. Then came my turn.
I stood for a moment, struck dumb. Durentius? I hadn’t really even considered Durentius. I had met two girls who were cool from their House, but I hadn’t interacted with anyone else. I looked towards the other tables as Durentius cheered and I hesitantly went over to their side while the rest of the Sorting went on. A weird look was stuck on my face, I was sure, as I tried to keep my expression from conveying my disappointment. It would be insulting to my new House to look disappointed. I had to give them a chance, didn’t I? But I was failing. My expression was frozen, there were tears in my eyes, and when we went off to our initiation, I dragged my feet. I didn’t understand it. Why didn’t the other Houses wanted me?
I could explain the rest of the evening in detail: the awesome initiation ritual, the great opportunity to get to know new people who were part of House Durentius. Over the next twenty-four hours, I would come to love the House as fiercely as I identified with any Harry Potter house. I came to appreciate my fellow Roosters, even if I felt a little out of place. That was sort of normal for me. I had never been to a regular high school growing up, one with co-ed classrooms and social occasions like balls, or even the ubiquitous experience of asking someone out on a date. I felt painfully awkward, shy, and nervous, and I translated that well into my character, so much that the experience of playing Katarina Iguanis at College of Wizardry was a great exploration of first few days of a terribly neurotic, socially unprepared young woman’s time at college.
It was also a perfect lesson for how I, as a player and maybe as a person, was kind of an asshole.
One of the greatest parts about going into a new live action roleplaying game for me is creating a character. I take a lot of time to craft the inner workings of a character, connecting their personality to the experiences and events that have shaped their lives. I work with the established fiction provided by the game staff and the setting, as well as connect with other players when I can to make backstory connections so we might come into play knowing one another in character. When I step into the game, I might tweak things in terms of backstory or personality if I encounter a particular trait that isn’t working. But for the most part, I come in with a largely developed idea of how my character existed previous to the events of the game.
I also ask myself a single question while creating a character: what does this character express from my own personality? This question is an important one, even though it might sound a little precious. A friend of mine once called me a method LARPer early on when I started up in the hobby, and it’s absolutely true. I use real life experiences and feelings to connect to my characters in an effort to give a better roleplaying performance. In the process, the experience of playing these characters often gives me a chance to explore those very same feelings, reflected back at me in the events of a LARP, in the consequences a character faces. Sometimes, what is reflected back can give me a startling glimpse at my own personality, my privilege, and my life.
And like with the example above, it’s not always a pretty sight.
Going back to my first night at Czocha. I had spent the whole day immersed in the life of Katarina Iguanis, a first year witch at a new school, with all the terrors that first day at a boarding school might bring. She had exams to study for (which I actually had to study for before going to bed), rumors of Death Eaters and monsters on the grounds (there were and it was terrifying), a future career to decide on, and a dance to secure a date for, all while trying to make new friends and navigate a giant, confusing castle. So, typical for a Harry Potter game. But when I went back to my room, I lay awake in the dark after chatting with my roommate Clorian about the exciting day. I felt myself slipping out of character as I thought about what had gone on. I put down Katarina’s mindset and instead inspected the day’s events with the eye of Shoshana, the LARPer. And what I saw about my own behavior gave me a twist of my stomach.
The fact that I’d been disappointed to get into Durentius bothered me. The emotions it raised in me had been intense. Why hadn’t House Molin wanted me? Had I come off as too needy, not smart enough? Was I annoying when I came to talk to them? Or maybe too cocky when I sat down at their table? And what about Libussa, was I too serious or nervous? Was I, as so many kids have worried in their lifetimes, just not cool enough?
These were all pretty typical responses for a student facing disappointment, but the feelings that arose from the Sorting had resonated with me as a player as much as me the character. I had felt disappointed, but more than that, slighted. I felt a roaring sense of anger that I couldn’t have the experience I wanted, because I had been put in a House I hadn’t chosen, nor really considered. I’d seen one or two Durentius running around and wrote them off as frat boys, behavior that I often find irritating in my real life, and so I stayed away from the whole House. This was not the experience I wanted from my LARP. I’d flown from the United States, across an ocean, to Poland to be a part of this once in a lifetime opportunity game. I certainly didn’t want to spend it in a House that felt uncomfortable to me, where I felt out of place. Wasn’t I certainly entitled to the experience I wanted out of such a pricey unique game?
As I lay in the dark, I felt those same feelings rise back up and I got a chance to examine them for what they were: really, really shitty.
It sometimes takes a reflection of yourself, held up in front of you, to smack you in the face about the person you are and what you believe. In the experience of being Sorted into House Durentius, I was forced to face down as a person my own feelings about being rejected, about how I judged people, and the expectations I had about what I should and shouldn’t ‘get’ out of life. I was struck first by the fact that I have always believed that we shouldn’t judge the worth of people as good or bad, but only identify actions that may be harmful. I always believed that gave me the chance to be fairer to people, to not judge too harshly.
Instead I was faced with the fact that I had pretty much written off the Durentius members as not worth my time or consideration because of their boisterous nature. I wrote off in fact the entire group after only seeing one or two of their members! And I also realized, and this was the part that stuck me, that I had snubbed them because I thought their mascot wasn’t as cool as the others. Who wants to stand up and sing a song about a rooster, rather than a lion, a dragon, a golem or a phoenix? This one aesthetic choice had led me to turn away from people who could be new friends, all because I didn’t like their symbol.
What struck me next was my sense of entitlement. My anger at not getting my way, not getting what I wanted, had been staggering to me. First, I’d presupposed that the people making the decisions had known what I wanted, like they could read my mind. And furthermore, I had just blatantly assumed that I should get what I wanted, automatically. I had come all this way, after all, I was owed something. That was what my feelings were saying, even when my higher brain was screaming what I know for a fact: that in this life, we are owed nothing by anyone.
I had forgotten the rule of being grateful, grateful for what I had been given. I was at a Harry Potter LARP in Poland, experiencing something few LARPers were able to do. I’d traveled there thanks to a generous graduation gift from my parents, and had recovered enough from a brain surgery earlier in the year so I could even be there. I was at the game with three of my good friends from the United States, who had embarked on this epic adventure with me at my cajoling. And we were roleplaying with some of the most awesome Nordic LARPers I knew, making new friends from across several countries. I was in such a privileged position, so lucky to be where I was, and yet I was unsatisfied because I had been rejected from the in character houses I wanted. More so, I had been kind of shitty about it to the other players in my new House, stand-offish and dismissive, when they’d tried to be kind and welcoming.
I was, essentially, being an asshole.
I wanted to be all of this:
When really I had turned into a hell of a lot of this:
It took me some time to untangle all my feelings and realize where they came from. I lay in the dark, knowing I should sleep because I had exams the next day, but I wanted to get these feeling sorted. I’d gotten a good look at myself reflected in a mirror, darkly (or maybe a mirror, LARPly) and I didn’t exactly like what I saw. I was intent on trying to address the issues before continuing play the next day.
I can’t in good conscience say that it worked. College of Wizardry was a very intense LARP, full of a lot of character bleed and personal revelation. By the end of the event, I’d cried over being rejected for a date for the ball, had a near anxiety attack over the peer pressure about having to have a date in the first place, shouted down fellow students about dark magic coming to destroy us all, and felt the terror of hiding in the woods from Death Eaters out to resurrect an ancient evil.
By the end of the game I had been through an emotional rollercoaster. But thanks to that night of lying in the dark, considering how I’d acted, I spent the rest of the game thereafter letting down my guard to the rest of House Durentius and trying not to be such a shitty new friend. I embraced my fellow roosters in my own socially awkward Katarina Iguanis way, and out of character came to love the House, enough to order a patch of the crest to stick on my bag back home a year after the game. That patch is there to remind me of the lessons I learned playing Katarina Iguanis, lessons that went far deeper than herbology or defense against the dark arts. I’d gotten a good look at myself as a person thanks to that LARP, and I was committed to changing what I saw, for the better.
A year later, I still carry those lessons with me. As I do the lessons of playing every single character I have in the past, and every one I do now. Through LARPing I’ve learned what it felt like to betray a lover, to watch a friend commit suicide, to rig political elections, and to commit murder in righteous fury. With each of these in character experiences, separated from the ‘real me’ by a wall of alibi provided by the game, I have also been given a glimpse into my own feelings and myself. And the look hasn’t always been pretty. But I think that’s one of the reasons I keep going back to LARPing. I’m a big believer that life in all its darkest places, in all the messy and unreasonable and negative spaces, can also be a source of learning. You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, and maybe (if it’s me who’s cooking) throwing some egg all over the counter and dropping the bowl a few times. Life and learning can be messy. But doing so in a game, where there are barriers between you and your character, where there is the alibi of saying “this is not entirely me who did this” can also give you the perspective to step back and say: “wait a minute, how much of that really was me?” And it’s that lesson that, to me, is an invaluable tool for growth as a person, as well as in character.
LARP can show you, through your characters actions, that out of character you might be a little bit of an asshole. But maybe, it can also show you a path to explore that inner asshole, and reflect on whether that’s where you want to be.
In my case, I embraced my inner Rooster. I sang the song, I loved my House, and I learned that spot judgements about people suck. And I learned a great theme song. I shouted “Valor! Diligence!” at that game and aspired to maybe having those qualities in my life a little more, if only when looking into myself.