Cheyenne Rain had never been to wizard school. Or Poland, for that matter. But all that was about to change.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include details relating to the allegations that a Dziobak writer had engaged in sexual misconduct. Those allegations were subsequently retracted following a libel suit. We regret the omission.
Rain, a cosplayer and makeup artist who posted tutorial videos on YouTube, opened her Facebook messages one day in December 2016 to find an invitation to a long weekend at wizarding school. Czocha College was famous as one of the premiere destinations for magical learning, offering courses in subjects like alchemy, conflux studies, invocation, and magical theory, all within the halls of an 800-year-old castle tucked into the southern Polish forests.
The school’s organisers wanted Rain to attend for free, in exchange for shooting video for the event and covering it on her YouTube channel. “I was incredibly excited,” she said. “I had a feeling it would be a game-changer.” In March 2017, Rain boarded a plane to Berlin, where a bus would take her to Poland. Once she arrived at Czocha Castle, Rain would go by another name: Willow Jones, witch. This was because Czocha Castle was the setting for the College of Wizardry, a Harry Potter-inspired larp.
Larping, from “live-action role-play,” is part analogue game and part improvisational theatre. Rain had been fascinated with it for years, and she wasn’t alone. Larpers around the world dreamed of going to College of Wizardry. Dziobak Larp Studios, the Danish-Polish company that ran College of Wizardry, had built a reputation as the minds behind some of the most polished, professionally-produced larps in the world.
The entire weekend was a magical fever dream. Rain’s character, Willow, was a technomancer, a kind of magical engineer that reminded her of Arthur Weasley. She wasn’t a numbers person in real life, but that didn’t matter. Her fellow larpers accepted Willow no matter how Rain played her. “It was really surprising to me how much everybody cared about telling a good story and collaborating with each other, as opposed to just winning a game,” Rain said.
For the next year, Rain kept attending Dziobak larps as a mixture of participant and influencer. Her travel costs weren’t paid for, but the free and discounted tickets kept coming as long as she kept posting videos of her larping adventures. At first, she was thrilled. She got to return, over and over, to the closest place to Hogwarts she’d ever been.
“The fantasy didn’t last for long. As she got a closer and closer look at the company’s operations, Rain started to wonder whether the company’s leadership was paying enough attention to accusations of sexism, workplace abuse, and power differentials in the larp scene. She was particularly put off when a Dziobak employee posted an over-the-top public letter about one of Rain’s friends, also a Dziobak larp participant, that revealed intimate details of the larper’s life (though the friend later retracted the allegations that prompted the letter).”
What’s more, Rain was slowly coming to realise that Dziobak was constantly on the verge of financial collapse. “Little by little, it started to become very disappointing,” she said. For a while, she was torn: Dziobak’s larps were some of the most transformative she’d ever attended, but what was the price? By August of 2018, she’d made up her mind, and cut ties with Dziobak.
On March 5, 2019, Dziobak abruptly shut down. To many of the College of Wizardry larpers, the news came as a shock. But to Rain, and to anyone else who had worked with Dziobak, it had always been a question of when, not if, the seemingly robust studio would fold. Allegations of financial mismanagement, worker mistreatment, and sexual harassment had dogged Dziobak and its CEO Claus Raasted for years. Dziobak was no castle built of stone, but a house of cards.
In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, even those in the know weren’t sure exactly what happened. A Swedish production company stepped in to rescue the remaining College of Wizardry events for which tickets had already been sold, and fans put in over $US100,000 ($173,228) on Indiegogo to make sure the events were run as planned. College of Wizardry would survive, but under the helm of another company entirely. The company’s other larps, Downton Abbey-inspired Fairweather Manor and vampire-themed Convention of Thorns, were cancelled for good.
Over the course of the last six months, Kotaku interviewed nine people who were employed by Dziobak as either full-time staff, part-time contractors, or unpaid volunteers. Some of them spoke anonymously, out of fear of retaliation both from former Dziobak management and the larping community in general. They described a company that demanded too much work for too little pay, based on the idea that workers would accept bad conditions in exchange for a dream job. Salaries got delayed, invoices went unpaid, and a merger that might have saved the company fell through. Dziobak’s leaders, rocked by constant scandals in the larping community, struggled to sell tickets while haemorrhaging money.
Over the course of multiple interviews, Raasted broadly agreed to his former workers’ claims that Dziobak’s disordered finances were part of the company’s undoing. Dziobak’s financial situation got increasingly dire as the years passed, he said, and worker compensation was “a major issue.” Months of research went into setting adequate salaries for Polish workers, he said, and while Polish workers were paid less than Danish ones, he felt that this was fair. Still, he acknowledged that no one on the team earned as much as they deserved. Raasted said that the Dziobak staff was close, and they had all been in service to the common goal of larp design. There was no sexism or workplace abuse, he said.
After most of Dziobak’s key staff members resigned en masse in October of 2018, the company managed to stay open for another five months. But Claus Raasted said he had no choice but to shutter Dziobak the following March. “I had borrowed money from everyone I could and was left with a personal debt of more than $US1,000,000 ($1,732,276),” he said via email. “Everything I owned was put into that company, and I’m going to be spending the rest of my life paying off those debts.”
And yet, even as Dziobak dug itself deeper and deeper into a financial hole, it created games that everyone agrees were absolutely life-changing experiences.
Larping has been around for decades. It’s just had something of an optics problem. When they hear the word “larp,” many people still think about the video clip, circa 2003, of a man in a kilt, running around someone’s backyard and shouting “Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!” over and over as he hurls bean bags at a fellow larper dressed in a raggedy potato sack.
But as nerd culture continues to overlap with the mainstream, larping has gotten cooler. And nothing announced its transformative potential better than a promotional video for College of Wizardry published in December of 2014. Expansive shots showed a stone castle, complete with turrets, towers, and a massive stone bridge, nestled in the thick Polish woods. Inside the castle, sorcerers labored over alembics in candlelit dungeons, practiced wandwork in libraries filled with old books, and danced with wizards in the grand hall. The video promised all the magic of Harry Potter, only this time it was real—real, that is, for anyone with the guts, imagination, and funds to travel to Czocha Castle. College of Wizardry was a fantasy larp, yes, but as far from Lightning Bolt Man as one could get.
The College of Wizardry was closely identified with its founder. A tall, broad-shouldered Dane with shoulder-length hair and a thick beard, Claus Raasted appeared in promotional videos to combine the shagginess and warmth of Rubeus Hagrid with the rakish charm of Sirius Black. “Have you ever dreamed of being a witch or a wizard?” he said in one 2015 video for College of Wizardry. “Maybe I can help.”
Media breathlessly covered the videos. “Wizardry school in Poland is the next-best thing to Hogwarts,” read the headline of a Mashable story from December 4, 2014. A piece in People declared that College of Wizardry “may be the ultimate getaway for Harry Potter fans.” For anyone who had hoped a letter from Hogwarts might come in the mail one day, College of Wizardry seemed like a miracle. There was substance behind all the hype, too. Participants describe the scenery and costumes as top-notch, the lore impeccably detailed, the centuries-old castle just as beautiful as it looked on film.
“It’s an epiphany moment when you walk across the bridge,” said Cheyenne Rain, an American larper who has participated in eight different Dziobak events. “We all cry when we see the castle for the first time.”
“The first thing many people would say was: ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for changing my life,’” said Philipp Jacobius, formerly a producer at Dziobak.“It fuels me to this day—the knowledge that what we did was life-changing.”
Getting to Czocha Castle in the first place required major financial buy-in. First there was the ticket cost, which started at 180 euros (about $US199 ($345)) in 2014 but soon climbed to 375 (about $US415 ($719)) once Dziobak realised just what people would pay for its work. Then there were the travel costs. For European participants, round-trip flights cost around 100 euros ($US110 ($191)), but for Americans and Canadians, that number could be exponentially larger. An American larper from an urban hub like New York City could expect to pay, at bare minimum, about $US500 ($866) for a round-trip flight to Wroclaw or Prague, while a larper from a city with a smaller airport might have to fork over even more.
On top of that were the taxis, the buses, the hotels in layover airports. Nicole Winchester, a Canadian player who started out as a participant and eventually took on freelance narrative design gigs for Dziobak, said that travel as a participant would cost her around $US1000 ($1,732) to $US1500 ($2,598) per larp, with costumes and props totaling anywhere from $US75 ($130) to $US300 ($520) per weekend.
“Ticket pricing for larp organisers is basically hell,” said Winchester. “Price setting that covers everything and pays everyone decently while not making players scream ‘highway robbery’ is near impossible. But, she said, “it’s totally fair to criticise high-priced larps as inaccessible.” Still, hundreds of larpers made room in their finances each year to travel to Lesna, Poland. They would pay anything to step inside the magical worlds they loved.
Dziobak’s sort of larp wasn’t about hit points, dice, and mana. Maths rarely played into it at all. Larping at the College of Wizardry was more like an extended improv show where the players were also the audience. While it was all meant to feel loose and free, each larp was in fact tightly plotted by Dziobak’s writers.
There were the overarching story beats that drove the entire larp’s plot, like the Sorting of new students into the five houses of Durentius, Libussa, Sendivogius, Faust, and Molin, and the grand party on the final day of the larp. Then there were the relationships between individual characters. Participants could choose between creating their own character or receiving a character sheet written by the College of Wizardry team. These characters had intricate backstories and unique motivations meant to propel them into scenes with other larpers. Participants could also use Facebook groups created for each run of the larp to plan relationships with other players. Using “Looking for Relations” posts in the Facebook groups as a means of connection, two larpers might decide that their characters were best friends, ex-lovers, or siblings, for example.
During the larp itself, which would begin on a Thursday evening and run until the following Sunday, players used all those pre-designed structures as springboards to act out improvised scenes. The result: Every participant got the chance to live out dramatic arcs as compelling as any written by J.K. Rowling. Which was the point, after all.
“When people ask us, ‘Why participate in larp?’ the answer is simple,” said Aleksandra Ososinska, a character coordinator for College of Wizardry, in a promotional video for Dziobak. “It’s a little bit like being part of a movie where everyone is the main character in their own story.”
“The most important aspect is the freedom in the design for people to co-create; the characters, the world, and in the end, the experience,” said Claus Raasted.
College of Wizardry made hundreds of participants’ dreams come true. Several people described the interactions they had at College of Wizardry as some of the most intense and realistic of their larping careers.
“There was a moment when I was standing on the bridge at Czocha. We had to save one of my friends, somebody in my house, in Durentius,” said Winchester, describing the first College of Wizardry run she attended. “I was the healer. It was all me. And I was standing there and time was counting down. There was ‘blood’ on my hands that she’d spit up. I looked at the blood on my hands in the light from the lanterns coming down, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, this is real. This is happening.’”
Returning home felt like stepping into reality after a vivid and enchanting dream, and Winchester knew she had to get back to Poland as soon as she could. She bought tickets not just for another run of College of Wizardry, but for the inaugural run of Convention of Thorns as well.
There are other larps all over the world, but most don’t even come close to the production values that Dziobak was delivering. Most larpers make do with whatever they can find: a nearby park, a stretch of woods, a large-ish backyard. Those larps can be just as creative and transformative for players, but they also require more suspension of disbelief. College of Wizardry required far less pretending—as Raasted put it, the castle “just screams ‘wizard school.’”
It wasn’t hard for players to pretend when they really were in a European castle, honeycombed with hidden passages and built in 1240. They really did get robes and wands, even if the latter did not technically function. In the classrooms, professors were actually giving lectures on subjects like technomancy and theory of ritual magic.
There was something special, too, about flying into an airport in Dresden, Wroclaw, or Prague, then taking a bus to the small Polish town of Lesna, where Czocha Castle is located. Lesna is part of Silesia, a region that covers parts of Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. The Silesian province contains Poland’s largest stretch of unbroken forest, as well as almost 100 medieval castles. It’s a location that’s practically made to order for folktales and fantasy.
All this made College of Wizardry a “destination larp,” or a larp that’s as much a globetrotting vacation as a roleplaying game. Dziobak marketed College of Wizardry as the experience of a lifetime, and it was not kidding. The game, which pulled out every imaginable stop for its players, was one-of-a-kind.
But these sorts of experiences don’t just spring up overnight. It took talented people working for months on end to create larps. Sometimes, these workers jumped at the chance to work a dream job, only to regret it later.
In 2008, when she was 15 years old, Agata Swistak decided that she would run larps for a living.
This was not an easily achievable goal. Swistak grew up in Katowice, an industrial city in the Silesian part of Poland. Compared to the Nordic countries’ long-standing tradition of larp, Poland’s larping scene was still minimal, and there were barely any games in Katowice. But an hour outside the city was a field where, during vacation season, a few hundred Poles assembled to camp out, drink beer, and play a series of short larps. Swistak tagged along with a friend’s family one year, and fell in love. One larp started off as a scenario about daily life, but the organiser then revealed that the players were dead. The setting shifted to the underworld, where players had to judge the souls stuck between heaven and hell. Swistak was entranced by the creativity of the scenarios and the enthusiasm of the participants. “I felt like this was a big thing, and people had to hear about this,” she said.
Swistak began organising larps for her friends. Within a year, she and several other Polish larpers decided to start a cultural nonprofit, seeking funding through a European Union program that gives funds to citizens who start such organisations. In 2012, Swistak and her team founded Liveform, which quickly became the largest officially-recognised larping hub for Polish players. Their headliner game, a dieselpunk scenario called New Age, quickly became one of the biggest larps in Poland. Only three years after Swistak had sworn to run larps as a career, she was well on her way at the age of 19.
If Swistak wanted to be known for her work outside of Poland, however, she would have to start engaging with the international Nordic larp scene. That highlighted a major issue with Nordic larp: the difference in wealth between the average Eastern European larper and the average Scandinavian larper.“If a larp costs, let’s say, 275 euros, it’s a reasonable weekend adventure for people living in Denmark earning 4000 euros a month,” said Swistak. “It’s completely unacceptable for Polish people who earn 600 euros a month.”
By volunteering at Knutpunkt, the premiere larping conference in the Nordic countries, Swistak and her larping crew got free admission, although travel costs were still expensive.
In 2014, Dracan Dembinski, the president of Liveform, ran into Claus Raasted at a Knutpunkt party. A key figure in the Nordic larp scene, Raasted already ran two larping organisations: Rollespilsfabrikken, a non-profit for running children’s larps, and Rollespilsakademiet, a for-profit company that teaches the educational benefits of larp. He was usually a featured speaker at each Knutpunkt conference. It was 4:00 a.m., both men were drunk, and the creative environment of Knutpunkt was infectious. The conversation that ensued would become part of Dziobak’s founding lore; Raasted would later recount the story in a 2016 publication titled The Book of College of Wizardry.
Raasted and Dembinski shared the desire to put on a Harry Potter-themed larp in a castle that looked like Hogwarts. Dembinski, however, actually had a list of prices for renting various castles in Poland. Raasted couldn’t believe how cheap things were in Poland. He could rent an entire castle for as little as $US25,000 ($43,307) for a long weekend.
“If you’re right about this,” said Raasted, “we should talk more when we’re sober.”
Within a week of the conversation, a bare-bones website for College of Wizardry was live. The only information it proffered was a date, a location, some pictures of Czocha Castle, and a theme: Hogwarts, but for university-aged wizards. Raasted had “started ticket sales before going to the location,” Swistak said, “before meeting anyone from the crew.” The larp, to be produced in partnership between Liveform and the nonprofit Rollespilsfabrikken sold out in two days. One hundred and thirty-eight people had spent $US200 ($346) each for a larp taking place eight months later, without knowing anything about what the larp would entail.
Some members of Liveform were wary of the intense haste of the operation and lack of organisation, and didn’t participate in designing College of Wizardry. Swistak was on board from the beginning. She’d just turned 20. She’d enrolled in university courses three times, but real school wasn’t for her. A magic school, though… Designing one not only seemed thrilling, it was something to do with her time. Swistak volunteered to help with volunteer coordination and scenography, an essential part of larp creation that mixes theatrical stage design with experiential design.
In June, Raasted and a team from Rollespilsfabrikken met Liveform at Czocha Castle for the first time. “We were blown away by the location,” said Swistak. “It was amazing.” The Danish and Polish groups laid down the framework for College of Wizardry while on the grounds of Czocha. The larp would be a volunteer effort, they decided. Ticket sales would go to facility, food, and scenography costs. Neither Liveform nor Rollespilsfabrikken would make any money.
As November approached, Swistak and the rest of the team were nervous. What if the larpers didn’t fall under the castle’s enchantment, the way they had? What if they couldn’t translate the magic of Harry Potter into three full days of larping?
They didn’t have to worry. The first College of Wizardry was a roaring success. Participants played Quidditch in the courtyard, dabbled in the Dark Arts in the basement, and ventured into the Forbidden Forest, where volunteers portrayed magical creatures like leprechauns and werewolves. According to Raasted, a player survey found that over 80 per cent of attendees said it was the best larp they’d ever done.
Rollespilsfabrikken and Liveform had caught lightning in a bottle, which was obvious to anyone who participated. It was also obvious to anyone who watched the promotional video that came out the next month and launched College of Wizardry into the media mainstream.
In the video, the headmistress of Czocha College of Wizardry stands on the ornately-carved balcony of the castle’s great hall as robed students stream in. She recites a rousing speech cobbled together from Dumbledore’s lines in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: “You are all welcome this year back to Czocha. Now, it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” The camera pans across the hall, showing the rapt faces of robed students. “I’d like to announce that the Dark Forest is no longer out of bounds.” The students cheer.
What the promo didn’t capture was the constant disorder behind the scenes. Some of the costumes and supplies came late—“the ties arrived in the courtyard while I was giving the opening briefing,” Raasted said. Backstage, the volunteers running the larp were constantly trying to keep the game from collapsing. “Organizationally, it was a total mess,” said Swistak. “I have no idea how we succeeded in running it. Nobody was prepared.”
At one point, the larpers nearly caused property damage to the old castle—which, it turned out, wouldn’t have been a major issue.“In Poland, you can do anything. In Poland, nobody cares. You want to make a hole in the wall? You can do it. Just hide it, or buy vodka and bring it to the reception ladies,” said Swistak, rolling her eyes.
“That actually happened,” she said. One of the guests knocked an expensive marble statue off of a staircase during the afterparty. A volunteer, Swistak said, “ordered people to put it back where it was. He took two bottles of vodka, went to the reception ladies, and said, ‘You didn’t see anything. Here is some vodka.’” This gesture, she said, was enough to smooth things over with the castle.
Just a few weeks after the first College of Wizardry, the team announced a second run. They also decided to make the rest of their larps for-profit. According to Raasted Rollespilsfabrikken had taken the economic risk for College of Wizardry and wound up about 4,000 euros ($US4,454 ($7,716)) in debt. Nobody wanted that to happen again. Until 2016, Liveform, Rollespilsfabrikken, and Rollespilsakademiet would continue to co-manage the larps in a complex tangle of international banking and logistics. In 2016, the groups created Dziobak Larp Studios as a brand name in order to prevent confusion.
While the larps were ostensibly a collaboration between members of the Danish and Polish companies, the Danish team handled all finances, the headquarters were in Copenhagen, and Raasted was in charge. Danish funds even paid the rent on Liveform’s headquarters in Poland. This all seemed reasonable at the time, since Raasted was the most experienced larper attached to College of Wizardry and had experience running for-profit enterprises. “All of the financial power was mine,” said Raasted.
Swistak tended bar to support herself while she continued to volunteer with Dziobak through the second and third runs of College of Wizardry. After the third run, she realised she could no longer justify giving so much time to Dziobak for free. “I was pumping myself up to go and talk to Claus and tell him that I’m not going to volunteer anymore. He has to either hire me, or he doesn’t have a main scenographer and volunteer coordinator for his events anymore,” said Swistak. “And before I started the conversation, he offered me a job.”
As the official volunteer coordinator, Swistak was now a contractor for Dziobak. Her starting wage was 2000 Polish zlote per month, or around $US500 ($866). While that number would be criminally low in the U.S., it was slightly higher than the Polish minimum wage. “It was quite a good salary for an entry-level job doing what I love in Poland,” Swistak said.
Raasted also hired several other members of the team that had built the first College of Wizardry. None of them, including Swistak, had official contracts. Instead, they signed tersely-written freelancing agreements. The agreements didn’t cover tax deductions or health insurance, so Polish contractors had to navigate both those minefields on their own. Swistak’s parents helped her pay the cost of health insurance, but other Polish workers weren’t so lucky, and went without.
Raasted said he looked into different solutions to help the Polish workers pay less money in taxes. One solution involved classifying them all as sex workers because sex work is legal, and untaxed, in Poland. Ultimately, he said, “we decided not to do that.”
By the end of 2015, the College of Wizardry effectively had two departments, which were separated by nationality: the executives in Denmark and the boots on the ground in Poland. At the beginning, this was not an issue. Buoyed by its initial success, the group that would become Dziobak began planning two other larp series. Fairweather Manor, which launched in 2015, was a Downton Abbey-inspired larp that took place at Moszna Castle, a two-hour drive from Lesna. While Fairweather, like College of Wizardry, was merely inspired by its source material, the other new larp, Convention of Thorns, was an officially licensed Vampire: The Masquerade event. It took place in 2016 at Książ, the largest and most meticulously-restored castle in Silesia.
All three larps offered free tickets, though not free transportation, to participants who agreed to serve as an NPC. An NPC, short for non-player character, is usually an experienced larper who, like a chorus member in a musical, plays any role necessary for a scene, often slipping into a dozen different roles over the course of a weekend. Players could make ad hoc requests for certain NPCs to play out scenes with them, with commonly-requested roles including family members, nemeses, and magical creatures. During the run of a Dziobak larp, players could come to the NPC headquarters, submit an NPC request, and receive a “scene slot” later that day.
It was Swistak’s job to fill an NPC roster for each larp, make sure each NPC got from the airport to the castle, and run the NPC headquarters all weekend. The work was exhausting, but she loved it. For a while.
By the time Claus Raasted launched College of Wizardry in 2014, he was already one of the most well-known larpers in the Nordic countries. As the head of two larping companies, Raasted had developed a reputation as a dynamic speaker who mixed flashiness with enthusiasm. He spoke almost every year at the Knutpunkt larping conference, which was held in a different Nordic country each year. With his experience, his broad smile, and his almost childlike faith in the power of larping, Raasted became a natural figurehead for College of Wizardry.
But he also had a reputation as someone who didn’t know when to stop a game that had become dangerous. Between 2014 and 2019, three rumours would dog Raasted at every larp: that he constantly pursued (and sometimes harassed) women during Dziobak events; that he profited off the labour of Polish workers who were not compensated adequately; and that he made risky business deals in foreign countries.
Raasted said that he did hook up with women at larps, but strongly denied harassing anyone. He acknowledged that no one was paid enough for their work, but said that it was he who took on the majority of the business risk. And he freely admitted that he didn’t know what he was getting into with each project, but that he was proud of Dziobak’s work in the Middle East.
“I was impressed by his charisma. It is quite easily noticeable,” an ex-Dziobak worker said of meeting Raasted. “He is a charismatic person, and also a crazy man.”
Today, Swistak and other Polish members of Dziobak wonder if Raasted knowingly took advantage of them when he formed the company. Books Schwartz, a former Dziobak employee, said that the Poles didn’t know Raasted’s reputation the way that the other Danes already did. “By the time he started the company, he had already alienated a lot of the serious people who were organising larps in the Danish scene,” said Schwartz. “There were a lot of Danish larp organisers who would not work with him or collaborate with him, but the Polish larp organisers did not know that.”
When asked about this, Raasted was quick to agree that some Danish larp organisers did not like him. He said these feelings were “because of the way I ran my nonprofit, because of the way I ran my business, because of the way I run my life in general. Some people think I am a sarcastic son of a bitch.”
One of the reasons why Danish larp organisers might have preferred not to work with Raasted was a presentation he delivered at the 2013 Knutpunkt conference. Raasted was a frequent speaker at the Hour of the Rant, a beloved part of Knutpunkt that functions like a comedy roast for the larp world. In his portion of the panel that year, Raasted implored larpers to stop objectifying Danish men. It was a satirical routine in which he invited several Danish larpers on stage to eat apples, signifying that they were “forbidden fruit.” But some who were present were shocked when he began to show pictures of real women who, he said, had had sexual relationships with male Danish larpers.
Raasted confirmed that he had given the presentation, and that he had meant it to be funny. Not everyone saw the humour. “I made a public apology at the end of the event, which was well received by many, but that doesn’t mean [the presentation] didn’t cause harm. It did,” he said.
Raasted describes himself as an “active feminist.” Others say he frequently crossed boundaries and allowed a culture of sexual harassment and assault to take shape at Dziobak events. “He never seems sketchy or anything,” said one former contractor. “It didn’t seem like he was somebody that you shouldn’t trust. …You don’t really know what he’s like until later. Then you’re like, ‘Oh, ok, this is all a front.’”
Raasted was quick to acknowledge that he did hook up with people at larps. “I spent almost 10 years in an open marriage,” he said, “and we both hooked up with people at parties in our various scenes. My scene was the larp scene.” Despite being the head of a prominent business using social events for that business scene to find new dating partners, Raasted said he doesn’t see this as a problem. Once Raasted became the head of Dziobak, he developed a reputation for hooking up with young women, both inside and outside Dziobak events.
Raasted does not deny any of these incidents, or find them problematic. “I’ve met many amazing women that I’ve then had a fling with,” he said of the people he encountered through the larping social scene. But others, both Dziobak workers and larpers who attended Dziobak events, found it questionable that the head of one of the most prominent larping companies consistently hooked up with customers. “I know that he hooked up with girls at College of Wizardry after-parties,” said one Dziobak worker. “I saw him do that many times.” That person felt conflicted, and wasn’t sure if Raasted’s behaviour was a problem.
Some workers interviewed for this story drew attention to the ages of the women he pursued. At one point, a member of a Swedish men’s larping Facebook group wrote in a post that Raasted had kissed a 17-year-old and hooked up with a 19-year-old at a party that was part of the larping scene, but not hosted by Dziobak. Raasted confirmed the accounts, but did not apologise for his actions, in an internal memo he sent to Dziobak staff in September 2017. “[I] was (for reasons that are neither here nor there) very drunk and danced a lot more than I normally do,” wrote Raasted.
Of his encounter with the 19-year-old woman, he wrote: “We were (it seems) pretty outrageously making out at the party, and some people were not happy about that. Some because they felt there was too big of an age difference. Some because they just felt we should get a room. This is at least what I have been told, since I will openly admit that this part of the evening was hazy.”
When asked whether he paid attention to potential differences in power between him and the women he hooked up with during his time as Dziobak’s CEO, Raasted responded that he “was very aware of the power dynamics at play, and did my very best to be respectful of those.”
Although Raasted said he didn’t mean to make waves, he also didn’t seem to understand the pushback when he blurred the lines between his work life and his social life. As Dziobak grew larger and more influential, and as other companies began using the College of Wizardry model for their own wizard larps, Raasted’s ethically dubious behaviour would draw more and more attention.
In 2014, Maury Brown went to the first run of College of Wizardry, and it changed her life. Years prior, as an English major at the University of Virginia, she thought she’d be a natural fit for groups like the Society of Creative Anachronism, a medieval reenactment group that hosted tourneys and armoured combat. These groups dangled the possibility that Brown could try on identities other than that of a college freshman living in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
What Brown found instead were groups obsessed with number checks and labyrinthine rules, like a live-action version of Dungeons & Dragons. Even more disappointing, most of the participants were men who were unwilling to see past Brown’s gender. “I chafed at the roles that were available to women,” Brown said. “It was very much, ‘women do this, women do that, women are ‘m’lady.’” Brown had no interest in being called “m’lady.” All she wanted to do was make armour, learn how to fight, and tell stories together.
When Brown graduated college, she left her early forays into larping behind. She took corporate jobs, then got a masters in education and taught English, but she never quite shook the allure of larping as a way to spin collaborative tales.
In 2013, Brown started a PhD program in new media. “I was interested in looking at roleplay, and how larping, which is embodied roleplay, could change norms and behaviour—and through that, change the world,” she said. As she researched, Brown realised that a larping revolution had quietly been taking place across the Atlantic for the last two decades.
Nordic larp, which began in the Scandinavian countries but now refers to a specific style of roleplaying, is all about “collaboration and collective creation [and] unobtrusive rules,” according to Nordiclarp.org. The games are often serious, experimental explorations of cultural hopes and anxieties. For example, Monitor Celestra, a Battlestar Galactica larp run in Sweden, dealt with the annihilation of most of humankind and the survivors’ struggle to find peace in the aftermath.
Brown realised that Nordic larp was the roleplay genre she’d been searching for her whole life. She attended the 2014 Knutpunkt conference and met Claus Raasted, who was gearing up to launch the first College of Wizardry. Brown knew she’d kick herself if she didn’t go, so she bought a ticket to one of the first runs.
In November of 2014, Brown arrived in Poland. She was expecting an effortlessly thrilling experience, like Harry Potter taking the train to Hogwarts for the first time. But her trip from the airport to Czocha Castle was closer to Harry and Ron flying the Weasleys’ car into the Whomping Willow. “There was a bus that some people took, but that had already left by the time my plane arrived,” she said. “I travelled from downtown Wroclaw out to rural Poland, trying to get through with my college German.”
The bus that Brown was on arrived in the town of Lesna at 8:45 p.m., after the larp had already started. After she got off at the Lesna bus stop, she waited for about 20 minutes, wondering if she’d made a massive mistake. She’d never even been to Poland before, and now here she was alone, in a rural town where she knew no one.
Then she heard the screech of tires. “This Volvo came screaming down the street and spun out, and the side door popped open. And I looked in, and there’s three dudes that I don’t know. And I was like ‘College of Wizardry?’ And they’re like, ‘Yes, get in.’ And I was like, ‘I’m either gonna die, or I’m gonna go to wizard school.’”
The Volvo lurched up the hill. Czocha Castle, silhouetted in the dark by the light streaming from its windows, appeared on the horizon. Maury Brown’s first weekend as a student of witchcraft and wizardry was about to begin.
Because she was late, there was only one robe left, and it didn’t fit Brown’s tiny frame. Embracing the spirit of larp, Brown rolled with it. She belted the robe so that it didn’t trip her, met up with her new classmates in House Durentius—called “Roosters” after their house mascot animal—and changed her backstory on the fly: Her character had enemies who had waylaid her on the way to school, stealing all her things. As with all the best improvised stories, the other Roosters took her tale and built on it. Now the robe wasn’t just a spare, it was a loaner from the Durentius prefect, a hulking Danish man. “Durentius was a lovely group of people,” said Brown. “We became family.”
The rest of the weekend was just as magical. Because the larpers felt secure to be as creative as they wanted, storylines between Brown and other characters developed organically. “I just went with so many things,” said Brown. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna go out into the forest.’ And there was a leprechaun! And the leprechaun was selling me something on the black market.”
By the end of the weekend, Brown knew she had been right: College of Wizardry was the larp for her. “I was like, ‘Look at these people. Look at how they uplift each other,” she said. “Look at how they don’t need to yell numbers at each other.”
But the larp wasn’t perfect. There was an element of chaos to the weekend, not just because it was one of the first runs of College of Wizardry, but because there weren’t enough safety precautions. According to Brown, she witnessed players get into scenes that caused real tears, or bruises, or both. “There weren’t enough boundaries,” she said.
Larping is unique among games in that players can get both physically and emotionally hurt. Like a sport, players use their bodies to play the game. A chase scene that isn’t properly negotiated might end with a larper falling down a flight of stairs and twisting an ankle. According to Agata Swistak, sprained wrists and ankles were some of the most common physical problems, along with hangovers, food poisoning, and travel-related exhaustion. “People coming to College of Wizardry often cut sleep and forget about water and food because they are so amazed and distracted by the experience,” she said.
Then there’s the emotional transference of embodying another person. As with method acting, players must mentally shoulder a character’s ambitions, desires, and anxieties. Consider a scene in which two characters have an intense conversation. Maybe they’re in love, maybe they hate each other. The players also have to feel some of that love or hate. And since it’s impossible to completely divorce fantasy characters from personal memories, as well as real-world politics like race, gender, and class, those scenes can be difficult.
Without proper preparation and guidelines, scenes can have lasting consequences for the players. When emotions from larps cross over into players’ day-to-day lives, it’s called “bleed.” Lines between fantasy and reality blur, like ink spreading on damp fabric. Bleed isn’t always negative, but when it is, it can have destructive emotional consequences for larpers.
Swistak said that there were often moments when participants felt “sad, lonely, angry or hurt … and needed to cry it out.” (She made sure that at least one Dziobak staff member was always on call as emotional support for players who needed to talk out what they’d just experienced.)
Maury Brown returned from Poland inspired to bring the Nordic larp ethos to the United States, perhaps with some improvements. “I came back going, ‘Freedom! Great. Still need boundaries,’” she said. Brown was convinced that College of Wizardry could be the jumping-off point for more larps of its kind that were both safer and more accessible for larpers in the United States. In November 2015, Brown and her romantic partner, Ben Morrow, another larp enthusiast, founded Learn Larp, LLC. They launched a Kickstarter campaign for New World Magischola, a larp set in the same fictional universe as College of Wizardry. (The Polish larp was now more generic in its theming, following a cease-and-desist letter from Warner Bros.)
Brown and Morrow decided to ask for $US35,000 ($60,630) to put on a larp at the University of Richmond in Virginia. The university’s Gothic Revival architecture meant the location was as close to Czocha Castle as the United States could manage. Raasted and Charles Bo Nielsen, another of the College of Wizardry designers, would serve as on-site advisers. New World Magischola and Czocha College would be “sister schools” in the same fictional universe. Brown knew that the United States had a massive market of Harry Potter superfans, but she wasn’t sure if they’d Kickstart a larp. She didn’t have to worry. Within an hour of launch, the campaign had earned $US150,000 ($259,841). By the time it was over, Brown and Morrow had raised over $US300 ($520),000, over eight times what they’d initially sought. New World Magischola went on to run for four weekends in June and July of 2016.
It was an exciting time for Nordic-style larps around the world. With both College of Wizardry and New World Magischola raking in money and publicity, the possibilities for wizard school-inspired larps seemed endless. “They have this very broad appeal, not just to larpers, but to people who are into the idea of wizard school,” said Sharang Biswas, a New York City-based game designer and interactive artist. “These larps were attracting a lot of people who had never larped before, but they also attracted people whose primary larp outlet was foam weapons-style larping in the woods.”
But the explosive popularity of these larps meant frequent bumps in the road of the design process, and frustration for both the Learn Larp and Dziobak employees who made the games.
In 2017, Agata Swistak was promoted to project manager for College of Wizardry, and relocated from Katowice, Poland to Copenhagen, Denmark to work from the main Dziobak office. Swistak was excited to leave: Poland has some of the most restrictive reproductive health laws in Europe, so she was ready to move somewhere that, she hoped, would be more egalitarian. Plus, her then-partner lived in Copenhagen.
The move was difficult. “I was in a new country and doing work in a new way,” she said. “Also, I was extremely underpaid.” Swistak received a bump in her salary when she moved, so she was now making 7,000 Danish kroner (about $1,732) each month. However, there was a large difference in the cost of living between Katowice and Copenhagen. The average salary in Copenhagen is 21,150 kroner (about $5,370) a month. Claus Raasted told Swistak that he knew plenty of students who lived on the same amount that he was paying her, so she tried her best to make her finances work out.
She couldn’t do it. “I ran out of money, and I had to borrow money from Claus to pay my rent,” she said. Swistak insisted that she needed a raise, not just to survive in Copenhagen but to compensate her for the gruelling hours she worked during event seasons. Now that Dziobak was juggling three headliner destination larps, plus whatever contract work that Raasted and his Romanian business partner Paul Bulencea could drum up, Dziobak workers never stopped moving. “When we were travelling and at events, we were working up to 100 hours a week,” Swistak said. She and the rest of the Polish team spent up to 150 days each year preparing, running, and breaking down larps in the three castles they rented.
When Swistak moved to Denmark, she received an official employment agreement. It was the first time she’d had one. However, something about it bothered her. “My job agreement said that I work 25 hours a week,” she said. “Because if that salary was placed next to 37 hours, which is the norm in Denmark, somebody in the government would pay attention to it and check why I’m getting so little.”
Swistak felt increasingly like Raasted was taking advantage of the entire staff. “We would make more if we went to 7-Eleven and worked as cashiers,” she said. “We would make more if we were cleaners in hotels.” Denmark doesn’t have minimum wage laws, but the lower end of the salary bell curve is about 16 euros an hour. Swistak was making eight.
Raasted said that, since there was no minimum wage, Dziobak didn’t break the law with Swistak’s employment agreement. Still, he admitted that Dziobak didn’t pay workers what they deserved. “Workload and compensation were a major issue,” he said. He wished he could have paid workers more, but, he said, running an international company was more difficult than he was prepared for. Raasted also compared Dziobak’s low-pay, high-workload model to that of a typical tech startup. “It’s not exactly a secret that at startups, there’s sometimes little overlap between what the formal papers say (working hours, for example) and what reality is,” he said. “On the other hand, except for when they were on events, people could work when they wanted, there was no oversight on time spent, and there was a pretty insane level of personal freedom.”
Swistak did not feel that she had much freedom from work at all. After a year in Copenhagen, her body could no longer handle the stress, and she was admitted to the hospital for overwork. When she came home, she demanded that Raasted raise her salary and pay for her therapy, and he agreed on both counts. He bumped her pay considerably and paid for teletherapy with a therapist who was a native Polish speaker.
“I think it’s cool that he took responsibility for this and decided to pay for my therapy,” Swistak said. “But I also think that he should have paid me enough that I could afford it myself, you know?”
Being in therapy helped Swistak realise that Dziobak was the quintessential toxic workplace. Yes, she was creating larps for a living, just as she’d sworn she would when she was 16. But the drain on her health wasn’t worth it. With the help of her therapist and Polish coworkers, Swistak decided she would quit by the end of 2018. Until then, she would keep her head down and try to prevent Dziobak from going off the rails.
Despite her best efforts, 2018 was a disaster.
When Books Schwartz was hired by Dziobak at the beginning of 2018, it wasn’t their first time working for a destination larp. They’d just finished a year-long stint on staff at Maury Brown’s New World Magischola, and Schwartz and Brown had not ended their business relationship on good terms. Schwartz hoped that Dziobak would be an opportunity to start over.
Like Brown and Swistak, Schwartz had discovered larping in their teens. A friend persuaded them to come to Wayfinder, a summer camp in upstate New York that mixed outdoor adventures with larping. Schwartz, a huge fantasy fan, found the experience freeing. “We were experimenting with being a hero, being a villain, trying on different identities,” Schwartz said. “At the time, I was just in the process of figuring out my identity as a non-binary person, and I could try out different genders.”
As they got older and went to college, they never stopped larping. Schwartz spent their summers managing larps for kids and teens, first at Wayfinder and then as the head of larping at Trackers Bay, a wilderness survival/larping camp. Still, they wanted more.
In 2016, they went to the Living Games Conference, an American larping conference similar to Knutpunkt held in Austin, Texas. There, they met Maury Brown and Claus Raasted, who were both keynote speakers. Schwartz already knew who both of them were. Raasted styled himself as the brains behind the massively successful College of Wizardry, and Schwartz already had a ticket to the very first run of Brown’s New World Magischola which would be held just a few months later.
Speaking with Raasted at the conference, Schwartz asked him for advice on how to run larps. “Claus basically said, ‘If you want to really know how to run one of these, you have to come to the castle. You cannot be told, you must experience it. You should come be an NPC. Here’s the person to email. I will tell her you are coming.’ And I went, ‘OK!’”
Schwartz sent a message to the email address Raasted had given them, which was Agata Swistak’s. She wrote back, confused. Her NPC list for the upcoming run of College of Wizardry in November was already full, something she’d told Raasted. But, she said, she could put Schwartz on the waiting list. Would that do?
It would, Schwartz assured her. In the meantime, they flew to Richmond, Virginia for the first run of New World Magischola, which left them “blown away.”
“It was intense and emotional,” Schwartz said. The character they played, Blair, was an anti-werewolf bigot who loudly protested against werewolves getting rights in wizarding society. During the larp, a character played by one of Schwartz’s friends was outed as a werewolf. As Blair, Schwartz kidnapped the other student in a misguided effort to cure them of lycanthropy.
The plot arc peaked during a dramatic scene in which Schwartz, who had dragged the other student to a picturesque gazebo in the middle of University of Richmond’s Westhampton Lake, force-fed the werewolf a home-brewed “cure.” Other NWM students rushed to the werewolf’s rescue, shoved Schwartz aside, and performed an hour-long healing ritual while the werewolf writhed and screamed in pain.
The scene was powerful and suspenseful, but it was also safe. Schwartz, an experienced larper, had taken time to talk to their fellow participant about what would happen. “They said, out of character, ‘How do we wanna play this? Do you wanna just kidnap me?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, totally. How about on that island over there around 4:15? Once people are getting out of classes?’ ‘Cool, what if our other friend who’s playing a prophet has a vision of you kidnapping me so that he can announce it to a bunch of people?’ ‘Yes! Do we wanna talk about how the scene ends?” “No, no, let’s leave that up to the other players,’” Schwartz said, recounting the conversation. “That allowed us to calibrate.”
Schwartz appreciated the emphasis that New World Magischola put on safety. After the larp was over, they were excited to learn that they’d gotten off the waitlist to be an NPC at Czocha Castle, at a run that Brown and Morrow would be attending as players.
Schwartz loved College of Wizardry, and they loved serving as an NPC, having to improvise different roles requested by players on the fly. “The most common request is their character’s dad who does not like them, and they want to stand up to their bad dad. Just bad dads all the way down,” Schwartz said. “It’s because there are a bunch of twentysomething queers with parental issues that they haven’t worked out in therapy yet.”
Schwartz handled some NPC requests for Brown and Morrow, who were impressed with their work. Schwartz began volunteering on Learn Larp projects, which eventually turned into a paid freelance gig: developing Magischola Prep, a summer camp version of New World Magischola for kids. Since Schwartz had a background as a larping camp designer, they were well-suited to the job. They signed a contract stipulating they would develop a structure for the camp in exchange for a payment of $US1,500 ($2,598).
As Schwarz worked to translate a weekend experience for adults into a week-long summer camp for teens and tweens, they realised that Learn Larp’s vision of a 300-kid larp was overly ambitious, and convinced Brown and Morrow that a group of 30 would be more reasonable. Meanwhile, they began to notice that the main design team was understaffed and overstressed. According to Schwartz, they video-chatted Brown and offered to extend their freelance agreement for $US7,500 ($12,992) more. Brown agreed, and assigned them work for both Magischola Prep and New World Magischola.
That summer was the craziest of their life. “I worked very, very hard the summer of 2017,” they said. Schwartz said they ended up working every run of New World Magischola in addition to Magischola Prep. “All of us were working from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. pretty much every day. It was exhausting.”
When the summer ended, Brown didn’t pay Schwartz the extra money they’d discussed over video chat. When Schwartz asked about it, Brown said they had designed a summer program for 30 kids, not the 300 she had wanted. Schwartz replied that they’d worked every session of New World Magischola, too. Brown’s response: Schwartz had not completed all of the work they’d informally promised to do over video chat, and Brown had to hire someone else to fill in the gaps.The two went back and forth for months as they tried to decide the value of Schwartz’s work. Eventually, Learn Larp paid out most of the $US7,500 ($12,992).
Brown maintains that Schwartz did not complete the work that she’d expected of them. Schwartz, on the other hand, still believes that Brown’s expectations were unfair. They said underpayment is a huge issue in the larping industry, and Learn Larp was no exception. “Even if the full amount of the contract had been paid, I don’t think it would have been fair compensation,” Schwartz said. The sheer amount of work that we were doing, the intensity of it, the exhaustion and the emotional labour of it… If you actually converted it to an hourly wage, it would have been absurdly well below minimum wage.”
After that summer working for Learn Larp, Schwartz began eyeing Dziobak for a job. They knew Dziobak had flaws, but they didn’t know that Dziobak staff members like Agata Swistak were also growing despondent over pay rates. And not only that, they were also becoming increasingly worried about the increasing number of PR gaffes and scandals in which Dziobak constantly found itself mired.
Ever since the first College of Wizardry, Claus Raasted had his sights set on corporate and government clients. Businesses who saw College of Wizardry’s success and figured out that larps could be monetized needed people to design larps for them. Tourism officials realised that destination larps brought an influx of visitors and cash to remote sites. According to several ex-Dziobak employees, Raasted’s plan was to court these clients as a way to make Dziobak financially solvent.
The first time this plan raised eyebrows was when Raasted made a deal with Yas Waterworld, a water park in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. In 2016, Raasted met Paul Bulencea, a Romanian experience designer and author of a book titled Gamification in Tourism. Bulencea had never heard of larping before he met Raasted, he said. When he heard about College of Wizardry, he was blown away: “This is how I imagined the future of tourism,” he said over email.
For the next three years, Bulencea would bring pitches for international projects to Raasted, and the two would turn the pitches into larps using Dziobak’s people and resources. “I was giving him suggestions based on my conceptual vision,” said Bulencea, noting that it was Raasted who “led” all the projects.
When Bulencea met Raasted, the Romanian designer had been working on a pitch for a tourism project at Yas Waterworld. Together, they developed a larp they called “Legends of Arabia: Quest of the Pearl Tribes.” The larp, which took place in December 2016 on the grounds of the park, was meant to keep tourists’ attention after the rides had closed.
When Dziobak team members found out about the project, some of them were upset. The UAE has a long history of human rights abuses, such as labour rights abuse and ‘disappearing’ political dissidents. However, it’s also one of the wealthiest, most tourist-friendly countries on the Arabian peninsula. Several contractors ultimately agreed to go to Abu Dhabi for a month to design and run Legends of Arabia.
From the outside, the project looked questionable at best and like cultural appropriation at worst. Promo photos showed Raasted and Bulencea wearing traditional Emirati clothing. Only one person of Arab descent worked on the team.
According to Raasted, it wasn’t supposed to be like that. Other Arabs were slated to contribute, he said, but were turned away at the border because of their nationalities. The sole Arab contractor who made it was only allowed through because of their Jordanian passport. As a result, the team wasn’t as diverse as Raasted had expected, and some non-Arab members were uncomfortable. “It was a little bit like Arabian Nights,” said one person who worked on the project, referring to the famous collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, early translations of which often exoticised the Middle East.
Two sources who were on site for the larp did say that an Emirati team oversaw the design, provided a basic storyline and costume guidance, and signed off on the larp content before any water park guests participated. “I was like, ‘I don’t know about this,’” said one person who worked on the project. “But at the same time, this is the look that [Yas Waterworld] wanted.”
The person said they were ultimately conflicted about working on Legends of Arabia. The UAE relies heavily on migrant laborers from South Asia and North Africa, and the Dziobak contractor said they witnessed laborers subjected to racism and labour abuse. They knew that their passport from a Westernized nation kept them from receiving the same treatment. “They build beautiful cities, but it’s a brutal, brutal culture in some ways,” said the contractor.
After the month-long project concluded, the Dziobak staffers who had been against the Yas Waterworld project breathed a collective sigh of relief. At least that was over.
Then Raasted went to Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia is a terrible place. It’s an absolute monarchy, a rigid class society and it scores low on human rights indexes everywhere,” wrote Raasted in a memo to all Dziobak employees and contractors in November 2017. “Why are we going, then? Because there is a slight chance to make a real difference here.”
Saudi Arabia was in the midst of planning its Saudi Vision 2030, a complex set of initiatives meant to diversify the country’s economy. The consulting company McKinsey was managing the Vision 2030 project, and one of the areas they’d pinpointed for tourism development was Al-’Ula, a desert valley that housed the 2,000-year-old ruins of a walled city. One of the ideas McKinsey had was to create a destination larp in Al-’Ula. They had invited Paul Bulencea to pitch a larp concept to Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s tourism board. Would Raasted be interested in joining the pitch process, McKinsey wanted to know?
He was. At the end of November, Raasted flew to Saudi Arabia, where he scouted Al-’Ula along with Bulencea and then pitched the tourism board on a Library of Alexandria larp. In exchange, Bulencea and Raasted received 25,000 euros ($US27,843 ($48,232)). Despite having written in an internal memo that “[the trip is] going to make some money that we badly need,” Raasted told Kotaku that Dziobak did not get any money from the trip.
Once again, some Dziobak workers were upset. The UAE had a bad track record with human rights, but Saudi Arabia was worse. Raasted said that Dziobak split down an ideological line. “One group said, we need to go to the dark places to light the torches. Another said, we should stay away from the dark places because eventually they’ll get better. We should boycott them until they learn how to light torches of their own.” Raasted believed that larping was a way of lighting those torches. Others didn’t. One worker, who said they didn’t trust Raasted to properly ensure the safety of any team members he brought along, slowly began cutting ties with Dziobak.
Raasted didn’t seem to understand why some Dziobak members didn’t approve of the Saudi Arabia trip. “Claus kept asking, ‘Why aren’t we excited?’,” said another worker. “I was like, ‘This is morally ambiguous. That’s one thing. Another thing is whenever there will be a project, I am not going to go there, because I am a woman.’” She would feel unsafe, she said, and she didn’t know whether she’d be able to take on a leadership role because of attitudes towards women. (The country’s “guardianship” system, which forbade women from travelling or applying for passports without the permission of a male relative, is only now being dismantled.)
Ultimately, the larp never happened, and the Saudi tourism board now has plans to construct a resort near Al-’Ula instead. Raasted doesn’t regret the trips to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. “Some of the work that I’m most proud of today is working on culture change in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
In the meantime, Raasted was still under frequent scrutiny for his attitude towards women. At the end of 2017, a larper who had attended Dziobak events accused a Dziobak contractor of sexually abusing her. She didn’t name the contractor, but a Dziobak writer subsequently published an 18-page open letter denying all the claims. His letter included over 130 screenshots of text and messenger conversations, many of which revealed unrelated, private information about the customer’s personal life.
Many members of the larp community saw the letter as an intimidation attempt. “I was definitely worried that he was writing characters for vulnerable young women,” said larper Cheyenne Rain. The Dziobak writer resigned from Dziobak and filed a libel suit in Canada against the woman who made the allegations against him. That suit was later settled with the woman retracting the allegations she had made against the Dziobak writer. When Raasted posted news of the writer’s resignation to Dziobak’s Facebook page, he included a link to the Dziobak employee’s open letter.
Raasted faced immediate backlash. In linking to the letter, he had made the accuser’s identity public to anyone who followed Dziobak on Facebook. Raasted deleted the post and put up a new one, this time without the link, but the damage had already been done. Larpers like Rain were angry at Raasted for failing to think through the implications of sharing the writer’s open letter. Though Raasted wrote a public apology letter, a freelancer who had done narrative design work with the Dziobak writer, Nicole Winchester, resigned over Raasted’s handling of the situation. She was also bothered by what she saw as abuse of Polish workers, as well as Raasted and Bulencea’s trip to Saudi Arabia.”
“It was not to my benefit to resign,” said Winchester, who said that she had no other job prospects at the time. But morally, she felt like she had no choice.
Raasted himself continued behaving in ways that some described as sexual harassment. One worker described an alarming scenario that unfolded while she, Raasted, and others were staying in a hotel for a contract job. The worker said she was being harassed on social media by someone connected to the organisation Dziobak was partnering with, and she wasn’t sure what to do.
She asked Raasted if they could meet up to talk about it, and Raasted invited her up to his hotel room to chat. “So I come by his room, and he’s literally in his underwear,” said the worker . She laughed it off, even though she felt strange about it. “We work it out. I leave. And then I think about it later. And I’m like, ‘Fuck, your employee’s coming to tell you that they’ve been harassed.’ And your response is, ‘I’m just going to greet them at the door in my underwear’?”
Later, when she described the incident to her husband, he said it reminded him of Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my god, it is. It’s a Harvey Weinstein story,’” she recalled.
Raasted said that he doesn’t remember an incident matching this description, but that he “wouldn’t be at all surprised if that had happened.” He added, without being asked, that he sometimes held meetings in a pool, while everyone was wearing swimwear, during Convention of Thorns. But he doesn’t believe any of his behaviour would be classified as sexual harassment. “If someone tries to imply that this was about gender rather than just about being relaxed dress code wise, I’d disagree vehemently,” he said.
Raasted has his defenders, like Paul Bulencea, who told Kotaku that he had never seen Raasted behaving “in an unethical or disrespectful way” toward women. But other Dziobak staff members believe that not only did Raasted routinely disregard the power dynamics inherent in a relationship between a male CEO and female workers, but that he was a threat to women who attended Dziobak larps. Over the years, various Dziobak staff members had added any player who violated the company’s code of conduct to a list of people who were refused entry. In 2018, that list was passed on to a new team appointed to handle both customer and volunteer safety. By the summer of 2018, Claus Raasted was on the list, too, something he didn’t know until asked to comment for this story. (“I was not aware that there were Dziobak staffers put me on such a list in 2018, no,” he said via email.)
Raasted had lost the trust of some Dziobak workers, and his name on the list made clear how hard it would be to repair those relationships. As the company hurtled towards a financial precipice, that job wouldn’t get any easier.
Back in 2017, as the year was about to end, Agata Swistak persuaded Raasted to offer Books Schwartz a job as a member of the so-called Swistak Commando Unit, which managed both College of Wizardry design and volunteer operations. Schwartz eagerly accepted, though they knew the job meant working with Claus Raasted, whom they’d already come to distrust.
In the spring of 2017, Schwartz had volunteered as an NPC at College of Wizardry: The Challenge, a Triwizard Tournament-style event that brought together Czocha College of Wizardry, New World Magischola, and Nibelungen, the German branch of College of Wizardry. Raasted released a design document late and with few concrete details about the larp structure, angering players who had already bought tickets and forcing Schwartz to take on a large chunk of design work they hadn’t expected.
Schwartz wasn’t eager to work with Raasted again, and they didn’t like the annual salary of $US20,000 ($34,646) that Raasted offered, but they took the job anyway. “It was a life dream. It was a dream job,” said Schwartz. “I got paid to go run larps and live in a castle in Poland, and I had the best coworkers in the world. We had the best player community in the world. We had an actual 13th-century castle with a dozen secret passages in it. It was a magical fairy tale dream come true.”
Every ex-Dziobak team member interviewed for this article repeated that idea. They had been handed a job so full of creative freedom, so imbued with magic, that it seemed too good to exist. And didn’t doing what they loved require sacrifice? Wasn’t a design job like this worth the struggle of accepting a low salary? Because of these beliefs, they tolerated as much as they could before they buckled under the stress and poor wages, a common theme in every sector of the games industry.
During the first half of 2018, Schwartz lived with one foot in the United States and the other in Poland. When they were running College of Wizardry, they stayed in Czocha Castle. When there were no events to run, they had no choice but to go home to the U.S. After all, they couldn’t afford an apartment in Poland or Denmark in addition to an apartment in the U.S.
If Dziobak had an HR department, Schwartz might have been able to ask for help through official channels. In early 2018, it seemed like the company might get big enough for that to become a reality. Raasted had plans to merge Dziobak with Imagine Nation, an American larping studio known for running events like the zombie apocalypse larp Dystopia Rising. Dystopia Rising, LLC, Imagine Nation’s sibling company, is run like a franchise. It has chapters all over the United States. “It’s the exact same as Subway,” said Ashley Zdeb, CEO of Imagine Nation and former CEO of Dystopia Rising, LLC. “I have, currently, 19 branches.” If the two companies had merged, the resulting entity would have been the largest larp studio in the world.
But Imagine Nation and Dziobak didn’t merge. Once Zdeb started poring through Dziobak’s financial records, she realised that the company was headed toward disaster. “We knew they had debt,” she said. “We had no idea quite how much and how bad it was.” After several months, Zdeb still had no idea how much money was being spent per Dziobak larp. Every time she spoke to someone at Dziobak, she discovered some new debt.
Raasted said that this was because he was constantly taking out new loans in order to keep Dziobak afloat. “To say that Dziobak had cash flow issues would be an understatement,” he said. “Salaries were delayed, one very patient employee wasn’t paid for half a year, and things were a chaotic mess.”
None of this comforted Zdeb. Another thing that bothered her was the work agreements that Dziobak employees and contractors had signed, which were so vague that she could barely understand what they meant. “It might be fine in Denmark, but my American brain was like, ‘Oh, that’s a half-page that maybe talks about the fact that they’ll do work,’” said Zdeb.
Raasted and Zdeb mutually called off the merger in the summer of 2018. Zdeb didn’t hold any hard feelings against Dziobak or Raasted, whom she still considers a friend today. Just different business styles, she figured. Still, she wanted to save herself and Imagine Nation team members the anxiety of sorting through Dziobak’s financial quagmire.
“Everything was always an emergency right now,” she said. “Everything always had a sense of panic to it. And that’s stressful, you know?”
Before the merger failed, most of the Dziobak staff had a vague sense that the company wasn’t doing well. Sometimes they wouldn’t get paid on time. Sometimes larp budgets didn’t get approved until the last moment, or invoices from the castles were ignored. But around the time Imagine Nation backed out, Raasted posted a financial spreadsheet that included salary information for every employee and freelancer in the company Slack. “Financial information had been available before to people who wanted to see it,” Raasted said of his decision to publicly reveal this information. “But I wanted to force people to learn the facts so they could have intelligent dialogue. And that failed.”
Looking at the spreadsheet, the Polish workers had several realisations that made them queasy. First, Dziobak was teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Income from ticket sales was not being set aside to pay for future larps, but was instead being used to pay off invoices from larps that had happened over a year ago—”eating the future to pay for the past,” as Raasted would later put it.
Second, the Danish workers were being paid far more than the Polish workers. The difference was starker considering the two countries’ healthcare systems: while both countries technically have universal healthcare systems, Denmark’s is much stronger. Polish citizens, on the other hand, often end up relying on private health insurance, a cost Dziobak wasn’t paying for.
Third, because the Imagine Nation merger wasn’t going to happen, the international and Polish teams wouldn’t have the chance to appeal to an HR department. “That was the moment when I lost faith in the company,” said one of the Polish workers.
Raasted confirmed to Kotaku that the Danish team had been making more than the Polish team, but said that he believed the rates were fair. “The Polish team was paid quite a bit less than the Danish, but relative to national income, they were paid quite a lot more,” he said.
Raasted tried to quell the unrest, but it had reached a fever pitch. The Polish staff members had been working days that sometimes lasted as long as 14 hours. During the failed merger, few people knew who they reported to, or who was in charge of which department. One person had recently seen a doctor, who told them that their arduous work hours were having a terrible effect on their physical health, similar to what happened to Agata Swistak in 2017. Something had to give.
Several members of the Polish team spent days writing out a plan that overhauled Dziobak’s finances. The plan was based on the operating budget for a standard larp, as well as information from the salary spreadsheet. The overhaul included some drastic measures, such as downgrading some full-time employees to freelancers and letting other freelancers go. At the beginning of 2018, Dziobak had about 40 employees and contractors. Some of them worked for the “Thunder Group,” an informal name for the collective of Dziobak Larp Studios, Rollespilsfabrikken, and Rollespilsakademiet. Some of them worked for both Imagine Nation and the Thunder Group. After the Imagine Nation merger fell through and the Thunder Group separated back into distinct teams, Dziobak’s numbers were cut in half, to about 20 employees and contractors.
The Polish team wasn’t even sure what all the remaining people did. “We were like, ‘Why are they here? Why are they earning twice as much as we do?’” said one worker. The Polish team didn’t like the idea of cutting anyone, but if the company was to survive, they believed that a complete restructuring was necessary.
Around the beginning of August, the ad hoc financial planning committee asked Raasted for a meeting so that they could go over their plan with him. The meeting did not go well. Raasted allegedly alternated between accusing the team of ganging up on him and threatening to let everyone go. “What Claus took from this conversation was, ‘Fire everybody,’” said a person who was present.
Raasted maintains that the committee “proposed the plan based on emotions” and threatened to quit on the spot if their demands were not met. “I tried to explain that even if we fired everybody, including themselves… that would only solve one third of the problem. We were too heavy in debt to be able to save our way out of the problem,” he said. In Raasted’s opinion, the committee’s actions sealed Dziobak’s fate. “I have the debt. They can feel that they were the real victims,” he said.
Raasted began calling the committee “the Polish rebellion” and “Polish war dogs,” which made the Polish team feel like Raasted valued their work even less. Anti-Polish discrimination, especially in Western European and Scandinavian countries, has been a problem in Europe for centuries. Some of the most common stereotypes suggest that Poles are lazy, stupid, aggressive, and underhanded. The team felt like Raasted was openly playing on those stereotypes.
Raasted confirmed that he used either “the Polish rebellion” or “the Polish war dogs”—he says he doesn’t remember which—but said he meant it affectionately, not offensively. “Most of [the team] I knew incredibly closely, through thick and thin. We’ve done crazy stuff together,” he said. “But that feeling may have happened.”
During the next week, about half the remaining Dziobak workers were laid off, none of them from the Polish team. One Polish worker only narrowly avoided being laid off: Raasted allegedly planned to cut their job, too, but other Polish workers persuaded Raasted that the staff member was essential. “If not for those two coworkers, I would be fired,” said the worker. By the time the layoffs were done, Dziobak only had about 10 full-time team members left. The Polish team was aghast. They’d wanted a reduction, yes, but not at this scale.
At least one employee was still devoted to Dziobak, no matter the cost: Philipp Jacobius, a producer who had joined the company in 2016. After attending a College of Wizardry run, he turned down a well-paying job at Expedia for the chance to work at Dziobak. Though he acknowledged the company’s flaws, his passion won out in the end. “Nobody should work for just the money,” he said. “Everyone should work on something that they enjoy doing.”
Not only did Jacobius forgo his salary for six months (with a promise that he’d get paid back eventually), he loaned the company 50,000 euros ($96,600). “I believed in what we did, and unlike some of my former colleagues, I believed in Claus as a leader,” he said. The layoffs drove a rift between Jacobius and his coworkers, one that would only get worse over time.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Books Schwartz was packing up their sublet apartment and preparing to move to Copenhagen. They were excited, since living in Europe meant no more trans-Atlantic flights. Sure, there were wrinkles. They still didn’t like Raasted, and they’d paid $US1,000 ($1,732) for a work visa application that Ashley Zdeb, then acting as head of both Dziobak and Imagine Nation, said the companies could not afford to cover.
“Given that Dziobak couldn’t even cover payroll for the majority of its employees, I let Books know that the additional cost [of the visa] wasn’t possible,” said Zdeb. Schwartz said the application got rejected, apparently because the salary Dziobak was offering was too low. (Raasted said he does not recall Schwartz’s visa getting rejected, but that he would have paid the fee if he’d been aware.)
As Schwartz packed, they got word about the layoffs. “I messaged Claus and I was like, ‘Claus, hey, half the company’s just been laid off. I’m moving to Europe in three weeks to work for you. Should I be worried?’” In response, Raasted called them. Schwartz wasn’t going to get fired, Raasted said, even though he said that the Polish team wanted that. Instead, Raasted said he had fought to keep Schwartz. “It was pretty transparent emotional manipulation to get us to trust him and not trust the rest of the team,” said Schwartz. “Which was absurd, because all of us were talking to each other all the time… It was buck-fucking wild.”
Schwartz was stuck. Someone else was scheduled to move into the room they were vacating in Boston, and they already had a place in Copenhagen. “I was like, ‘There’s not a lot else I can do,’” they said. “I will go with the assumption that I will not stay longer than a couple of months, and I will immediately start looking for other work.”
When they arrived in Copenhagen, the Dziobak office was empty. The entire Danish team had been laid off, with the exception of two employees, who were on vacation. Raasted’s other organisations, Rollespilsfabrikken and Rollespilsakademiet, shared the building, so Schwartz set up camp in their offices. Still, Schwartz found the experience “completely demoralising.” Things would improve when they went to Poland to run the fall larps, Schwartz thought. They had to.
During the first week of October 2018, Dziobak imploded. It was so fast and so strange that staff members look back on that time and wonder if it really happened.
The implosion began in the days leading up to College of Wizardry 13. The staff was calling it “the Cursed CoW.” The larp would actually be the 21st run of College of Wizardry, but as the original 13th run had been cancelled the year prior due to low ticket sales, the designers decided to bring back College of Wizardry 13 as a Halloween special, jokingly leaning into the idea of the “Cursed CoW” as a weekend at wizarding university where everything went wrong.
“If only we knew, if only we knew the fire we were playing with!” said Schwartz.
A few days before the larp began, Raasted created a first draft of the company’s 2019 catalogue. He was in Copenhagen and the rest of the Dziobak staff was preparing Czocha Castle for an influx of larpers, so Raasted sent the catalogue mockup over Slack. The staff was aghast at what they saw. Ticket prices for the following year’s events were listed at 1,000 euros each, rather than 400 to 650. What’s more, the document was filled with descriptions of larps that no one had even begun to design, like a werewolf larp, a family-friendly version of College of Wizardry, and a space opera called Endless Void. One event was a Robin Hood-themed larp that cost 3,000 euros. Another was supposed to take place at a location that they knew had outright refused to host any larps. “It was just a bananas catalogue,” said Schwartz.
Raasted wanted each worker’s name and picture in the catalogue, ostensibly to put a human face on the company. But nobody wanted to have their name attached to the document. “Of course it was all done with temporary placeholder pictures and a generic font, because he fired the entire graphic design and marketing team,” said Schwartz. “So he had cobbled this together himself and it looked like garbage.”
“We were like, ‘Well, shit, what do we do? This is clearly the last straw. We cannot have our names on this and let this go out and be sold to participants,” they said. The remaining team members knew that selling as many tickets as possible was the ultimate goal, since Dziobak desperately needed the funds to pay off previous castle invoices. Several times that fall, Czocha Castle staff had nearly kicked Dziobak out mid-larp for failing to pay invoices from the last season.
Speaking to Kotaku, Raasted said that launching so many new larps was something the company had done in previous years, and the 2019 catalogue was not a way to secure quick money. Then Raasted volunteered something truly surprising: He had considered selling tickets to a high-end larp at a premium location, then cancelling the larp a few months later and refunding the participants. But the larp would never have been real. Its actual purpose would be to float Dziobak what equated to an interest-free loan. “I couldn’t borrow any more money, but maybe we could get people to sign up and pay 50,000 euros, which we would then give them back,” he said. In the end, Raasted decided that taking money for a nonexistent larp would have been “shady” and chose not to do it.
“It became clear to us that this company could not run forever,” said Agata Swistak, who had survived the layoffs. “At some point, it will fall.” One by one, six of the 10 remaining staff members, including Schwartz and Swistak, messaged Raasted to say the same thing: They would stick around for the rest of the season’s events, but. once the season wrapped in December, they were quitting.Raasted would lose most of his Polish team, including the most experienced members.
Nobody waited around for Raasted’s response, because there was no time. Two hundred 200 people were about to show up to Czocha Castle. Dziobak had a larp to run.
The Cursed CoW went off without a hitch. “We did our best to give the players a great experience,” said Swistak. On Sunday night, Swistak was giving her customary end-of-larp speech. Ever since she became the production head of College of Wizardry, she had delivered a speech from the balcony of Czocha Castle’s great hall, thanking the players for their efforts and reminding them to be respectful at the afterparty. “People were clapping and crying, and we were super happy,” said Swistak.
And then, from the doorway leading to the balcony, a deep, masculine voice boomed, “Greetings!” It was Claus Raasted, and he had his six-month-old baby strapped to his chest. The team had no idea he was coming. Raasted, said Swistak, pushed her out of the way—not hard, but enough to move her aside—unstrapped the baby, and lifted her over the balcony like he was holding up baby Simba from The Lion King.
“He was expecting a massive round of applause and a hero’s welcome from the participants. But most of the participants had no idea who he was, because he almost never actually went to the larps anymore,” said Schwartz, who was sitting, dumbfounded, in the audience below.
“Everybody was like, ‘What the fuck is happening?’” Swistak said. She was dumbfounded too, but she was also angry. “It’s really a feminine moment, when a dude interrupts you speaking in front of 200 people because he thinks he’s going to be funny,” she added.
In the audience below, some people were having panic attacks. They’d all had interactions with Raasted that gave them the impression he emotionally abused his employees. His unexpected appearance was more than they could bear, and they quietly left the great hall.
Using the larpers of the Cursed CoW as a captive audience, Raasted announced that this larp would be the last for several crucial Dziobak staff members. He invited those who were leaving to come up on the balcony for a round of applause. “Mind you, this was in fact the fourth of thirteen back-to-back events,” said Schwartz. “So this was very much not the last time they would see us there unless he was trying to fire us.” As the players looked on with confusion, Schwartz, Swistak, and the others wondered: Was this a test of loyalty? Were they getting publicly fired, effective immediately? Also, why was Raasted still holding his baby?
Eventually, three people, including Schwartz, went up to the balcony and tried to smile as the crowd applauded them. Afterwards, as the afterparty began, they all tried to hold in their confusion and hurt, but it was too much. They asked Raasted to leave, along with his baby and his girlfriend, and spend the night in a nearby hotel. “I said, ‘OK. I think that’s weird, but I’ll do that,” Raasted said.
Some of the staff thought that Raasted was trying to manipulate the situation to his advantage, and that he brought his baby and girlfriend along to make himself look as innocent as possible. Others thought he was just clueless. According to Schwartz, the truth was probably both. “I actually believe he was shocked,” they said. “I also suspect that he was also trying to control the narrative. He was worried that we were going to make an announcement of our own.”
Raasted said multiple times that he regretted coming, and that he’d tried to boost morale the wrong way. “I thought it would be a nice surprise,” he said. “But I never should have done that.” He maintained, however, that he neither pushed Swistak nor cut her off. He may have touched her back in passing, he said, but that was it. If anyone thought otherwise, it was unfair criticism, he said.
“One of the nice things about being a white, cisgender male is that most of the world is made for your benefit,” he said. “One of the not-so-nice things is that sometimes you are the villain by definition, and a little bit of collateral damage is the price you pay. And that’s fair enough.” A moment later, Raasted’s tone changed: “I came because I was the goddamn owner of the company.” Raasted and his family flew back to Copenhagen the next day. The rest of the Dziobak staff cleaned up the castle, loaded the larpers onto buses out of Lesna, and prepared for the next event. They had another nine larps to run.
After the Cursed CoW, Raasted didn’t just have to contend with angry employees. He once again had to deal with angry members of the larp community. A customer who had been upset to see Raasted interrupt Swistak and push her out of the way at the Cursed CoW posted about their frustration on a private Facebook group.
This is honestly a very hard thing for me to write, because I understand there could be major repercussions for myself mentally, emotionally, and career wise. However, after this weekend’s events I reached my breaking point.
Friends, it’s time to discuss Claus Raasted’s behaviour towards women in his company and in this larp scene, and it’s time to come up with some solutions to the powerful men in our international scene and how they impact us.
This weekend was College of Wizardry 13, which was being run not by Claus, but by Agata Swistak who has taken over the administration of these events for sometime. She was lead organiser and made sure that everything was going well, and generally taking up the full burden of the entire event along with her crew, many of them non binary or women. They provided a solid event, and at the end after the larp was done Swistak made a gorgeous speech or rather she was in the middle of a gorgeous speech and about to thank her NPCs and Helpers when uninvited and unannounced Claus (who no one knew was coming) burst through the doors and essentially pushed her aside at her own event and spoke over her.
His speech was about how many of the crew (including Swistak) were leaving and how this was the last time they’d all be together (except Swistak mentioned earlier they had many many more events to do, proving this grandstanding false). Many players were brand new and had no idea who he was, since he had not been coming or running these events for some time. His presence was completely a surprise for literally all but one person (an employee of his who was not on the event team) and because of this at least one person had a panic attack as he is on their list of unsafe attendees.
In short: He took over an event he wasn’t even organising, in what looked like a power play to undermine a female organiser who recently turned in her resignation. This is not new behaviour. I have personally witnessed him harass and belittle the same women continually, and have also been treated to this treatment. Many times when discussing Claus I am told the following:
1. He listens eventually.
2. He’s just Danish. So…
3. He’s come a long way.
4. There’s nothing we can do.
5. Everyone has a “Claus moment”.
What I witnessed at Cow 13 was unacceptable, and I am no longer willing to watch the women in his company and in the larp scene be swept aside and told we can’t say anything or do anything about powerful men who undermine, prey upon, and otherwise belittle women. This behaviour is unacceptable, and we all deserve more.
Larpers began leaving comments on the post that detailed their problems with Raasted. Some described times when they felt like Raasted had sexually harassed them. Others brought up rumours of Dziobak’s financial instability. The comments kept pouring forth from larpers all over the world, as if a dam had broken. The larpers, most of whom were women, were clear: They were not going to tolerate Raasted any longer.
On October 10, 2018, three days after the Cursed CoW, Dziobak announced that, though Claus Raasted would still be involved with the company, he was no longer its CEO. “We don’t know yet what the future holds, but we have every intention of running the events already planned,” the post reads. “Our production team is currently running Convention of Thorns and they still have a busy schedule ahead of them.”
When Kotaku asked about his removal as CEO, Raasted at first sidestepped the Facebook thread. The chief reason he stepped down, he said, was because he was fatigued. “I was worn out and exhausted and barely functioning, and trying to do five jobs at once, while not getting proper sleep. On top of that, there were people (both inside and outside Dziobak) who had lost trust in me as the leader of the company,” said Raasted.
When asked directly about the Facebook thread, Raasted said that “there were online discussions that made me question whether all the pain of being the front man for Dziobak was worth it. I decided that it wasn’t, but tried to find a solution where the company could live on under the leadership of others.”
For the rest of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, Dziobak remained in operation. Ostensibly, the company was preparing to run the new larps they had advertised for 2019. Meanwhile, the workers who had left Dziobak at the end of 2018 were trying to figure out what their lives meant without Dziobak. “In January, something just broke,” said one former staff member. “When I quit and I came back home, I had a breakdown which lasted over a month.” They attributed the breakdown to the constant stress they’d had to handle over the previous year.
On March 5, Dziobak shut down for good. Raasted, still acting as the head of the company even though he was no longer CEO, made the announcement in a public memo titled “The Dream Is Dead.”
“Dziobak Larp Studios is halting operations. And it hurts like hell,” he wrote. All employees and contractors were fired, and all larps were cancelled. Creditors remained unpaid. However, Dziobak would not be filing for bankruptcy. Raasted didn’t want the loss of control over company property that comes with declaring bankruptcy under Danish law. This way, Raasted could be savvy about selling off Dziobak’s assets, he argued in the memo.
Larpers who bought tickets to an upcoming larp called Gangs of Birmingham, which was scheduled for March 24 through 26, peppered Dziobak’s Facebook page with questions. Some were understanding of Dziobak’s financial failure, but others were furious. Not only had they shelled out hundreds of euros for the ticket, but they’d already booked flights to and from the UK. According to one ticketholder for Gangs of Birmingham, most people ended up getting their ticket money back. However, there was no way to get flight refunds. “It’s kind of a sensitive subject,” said the person, who asked to remain anonymous.
For a few days, the fate of College of Wizardry was up in the air. But before the week was out, The Company P, a Swedish production company, posted an Indiegogo campaign raising money to keep College of Wizardry alive at Czocha Castle. Eager College of Wizardry fans poured money into the campaign, which drew in $US100,000 ($173,228) by May 1. That was enough to keep the planned spring events going. The Company P re-hired some Dziobak staff to make the transition between companies smoother. For the larp participants, little changed. (Christopher Sandberg, head of The Company P, initially agreed to answer questions over email for this story, but ultimately did not respond.)
As for Raasted, he said that he now knows Dziobak never had a sustainable business model. “Dziobak is a stellar example of how not to run a larp business,” he said. “It was built on enthusiasm and willpower, and as it got more and more into debt, I kept trying to make the dream work instead of realising that the fundamentals were broken. Lesson learned.”
Raasted also said he is personally $US1,000,000 ($1,732,276) in debt to various creditors. “I’m going to be spending the rest of my life paying off those debts,” he added. “But such is life. You gamble and trust it’ll turn out OK, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Raasted’s initial response to Kotaku was via a seven-page Google document full of answers to Kotaku’s queries. Over and over again, he admitted that he had made mistakes. What he seemed only vaguely aware of was the effects those mistakes had on others. After all, it’s one thing to gamble with creative visions and personal dreams. It’s another to gamble with the livelihood and mental health of a workforce that, at its peak, included 40 people.
Books Schwartz compared it to the hubristic downfall of the Fyre Festival. “A lot of us [ex-Dziobak team members] watched the Fyre Festival documentaries together,” they said. “It was very anxiety-triggering, because so many quotes people said were word-for-word things we’d heard from Claus.” Like the workers who had their lives upended by the Fyre Festival disaster, some ex-Dziobak workers are still grappling with the effects of the company’s crunch culture on their lives.
Agata Swistak hasn’t given up on designing larps as a career, but now she’s looking for sustainable, healthy employment. She hasn’t been able to find a job that fits that description, so she’s been a freelance larp designer since the beginning of 2019. “I think in the future, I would like to start my own company,” she said. She conceded that her new dream might sound strange, given her mistreatment at Dziobak, but she said she still wants to “create those spaces, like we did at College of Wizardry, where people feel safe and can have meaningful connections.” But first, she said, she has to focus on herself. She didn’t have enough time to do that while at Dziobak.
The American company Learn Larp still exists, but its future, too, is uncertain. In the summer of 2019, Maury Brown and Ben Morrow had to contend with a lawsuit from the College of William and Mary, the site of 2017’s New World Magischola. According to the lawsuit, Learn Larp failed to pay almost $US70,000 ($121,259) in facility fees. “There were breach of contract issues on both sides,” said Brown, who mentioned that William and Mary failed to provide ADA-compliant facilities to New World Magischola participants with disabilities. The lawsuit was settled in August, according to Brown. (The office of the Virginia attorney general did not respond to a request for comment.)
Brown was dismayed to see a wave of news items with headlines like “A Harry Situation” and “Virginia College Wants Wizardry School’s $US70K Debt To Vanish.” “My attorney was like, ‘This is like a contract dispute. I do 10 of these a day,’” Brown said. “It’s only in the news because it’s not a pizza shop or whatever.” She added that she was afraid the larping community would use the lawsuit as a reason to lump Learn Larp in with Dziobak as a failed business venture.
But New World Magischola has experienced a drop in attendees over the years, according to a Facebook post from October 17, and that means that Learn Larp will not run its flagship game in 2020. “The larger-scale larp event market, in the US and abroad, has grown. This has made players selective about where to spend their discretionary funds and time off,” the post read. Instead of standard New World Magischola, the company is pivoting to smaller events at boutique venues, like Punderson Manor near Cleveland and the Mansions on Fifth in Pittsburgh. “We expect NWM to return in 2021, very likely on the West Coast,” Brown said in a follow-up conversation over email. In addition, she said, Learn Larp needs downtime. “We also feel that NWM needs a rest so we can revise the lore and the design and give our producers and directors a break.”
Books Schwartz has left the larp design industry for the game design industry, and has moved to Beijing as a creative lead for the mobile game studio Microfun. Earlier this year, they reached out to The Company P and offered to work on the new version of College of Wizardry, but didn’t get an offer. However, they’re impressed with the Swedish company’s work so far. “I think College of Wizardry can, with reasonable, functional business management, be a very profitable enterprise and a stable business plan,” they said.
Schwartz is adamant that blockbuster larps as a whole still have the potential to create transformative, yet safe fun for designers and players alike. “I hear so many questions about, ‘oh, even College of Wizardry failed, blockbuster larps were a mistake!’ And I just want to shout that no, actually, College of Wizardry was successful!” said Schwartz. “The problem was Claus and his terrible business decisions. Blockbuster larps can still work!”
While Raasted may be severely in debt, the crash and burn of Dziobak has apparently not affected his ability to market larping to tech, entertainment, and travel companies. In 2016, Raasted and Bulencea began producing the College of Extraordinary Experiences, a business-to-business conference. When Dziobak folded, Raasted, Bulencea, and Philipp Jacobius started a new company, with Bulencea as its CEO, in order to keep running the College of Extraordinary Experiences. According to the event’s website, guests in 2020 will include screenwriter and producer Marti Noxon, a staff writer from the CW television show Charmed, and a senior producer from Apple.
Larping is based on the strength of collective imagination, of people who decide that the rules of reality don’t apply for a while. The people who make these larps possible, however, are not imaginary. Just as players experience the world of a larp bleeding into the rest of their lives, larp designers have to deal with the real-world consequences of the larp industry, like low pay, poor mental health, or sexual harassment.
Businesses that run larps have to figure out how to fix these problems if they want to survive as an industry. “If you’re going to profit from [larping] in some way, which I’m not even sure you can do at this point, acknowledge that this is not a normal business,” said former Dziobak freelancer Nicole Winchester. “Acknowledge that you have to keep people’s emotional safety in mind.” Companies that ignore this rule may find that they burn bright for a moment, but disappear noisily, something like a lightning bolt.
Elizabeth Ballou is a writer and MFA candidate in game design at NYU’s Game Centre. Her horse in Stardew Valley is named after pasta. Her World of Warcraft character is named after Martha Stewart’s horse.