How The World's Biggest Wizard School Lost Its Magic
March 31, 2020 10:48 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by storytam (13 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Super interesting read and the photos were gorgeous. Thanks for posting! This article sent me down a brilliant rabbit hole of learning about wizardry-inspired LARP's.
posted by sweetjane at 11:49 PM on March 31, 2020

This is a crazy story and a sad but fascinating read, thanks for sharing it.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 12:01 AM on April 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Very good article. Raasted definitely sounds like an oblivious monster, the worst kind.
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.
I don't understand how there could be a libel suit when a sentence above this it says the woman didn't name the person in her original post.

I guess that Lean Larp company lucked out by picking 2020 as their year to take a break.

I will be $10 that Book Schwartz listens to MBMBAM.

I made a "documentary" about larping for a college class in 2006, it was a weekend at a summer camp & it seemed pretty fun. I wished I was less uptight so I could get into it more. The prices they quote as seeming too high seemed like the amount people are already paying (or were paying) to go to conventions all over the country all the time. I'm sure there would be a market for this if they ran the business the right way.
posted by bleep at 12:30 AM on April 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

*or, yknow, there used to be a market.
posted by bleep at 12:34 AM on April 1, 2020

Given the history I know of most folk promoting themselves as 'safety consultants' and 'experts' in LARP have either emotionally abused peers/partners, or actively support and argue for using conventions to hook up with fans, nothing surprised me.
posted by geek anachronism at 12:59 AM on April 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

I attended the first two Learn Larp events in the US, and as someone who has spent his whole life playing games and participating in weird interactive experiences, they were amazing on a scale I honestly would not have been able to imagine beforehand. And I don't even really like Harry Potter.

There just isn't anything like the emotional investment you build when you are immersed in a universe, 24 hours a day, for days in a row. The production was incredible. The locations were incredible. Hell, even the classes and exams (!) were incredible. I dropped in on a wizard-doctor exam where students had to cut open fake stomachs with real scalpels and perform magic surgery while elbow-deep in blood and organs.

I had hoped to one day go to Poland for an event, but I couldn't ever make it work. The Learn Larp events had such a massive focus on player comfort and safety (the mandatory consent workshops we took should be standard issue at all colleges), it would have been heartbreaking to see the way things were being run at the castle.

It's hard to imagine right now when an event like this might happen again, which is legitimately tragic. There aren't a lot of spaces in the world that feel like magic, and this was one of them.
posted by Jairus at 1:12 AM on April 1, 2020 [11 favorites]

I see this pattern of bad behaviour so often in LARPs and immersive entertainment, which are fundamentally awful businesses because they require such a high ratio of entertainers/artists/actors to audience. They prone to exploiting workers for their love of the art, and it's why I'm also wary of projects that rely heavily on voluneer labour. There's nothing wrong with it in principle but it so often leads to exploitation of many kinds.

And when you have really tight-knit communities where everyone is friends *and* business partners *and* industry contacts, people are understandably reluctant to speak out. In fact I am persona non grata in a couple of immersive theatre communities because people don't like me criticising this stuff – they take it as a criticism against their friends and themselves.

Yeah, people had life-changing experiences in this LARP. At what cost, though? Sexual harassment? Fuck that.
posted by adrianhon at 5:55 AM on April 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Which is not to say this is inevitable for all LARPs and immersive entertainment, of course. I know good companies and teams out there. And exploitation also happens in other industries. Yet it feels uniquely ugly in this case.
posted by adrianhon at 6:09 AM on April 1, 2020

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 behavior 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.


The actual events sound like they were (mostly) amazing for attendees, minus the skeevy stuff, and ignoring the slow-moving financial disaster, employee mistreatment, etc. It's unfortunate that there wasn't a successful transition to having responsible leadership that could make this sustainable and fully non-skeevy.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:13 AM on April 1, 2020

The thing I want to know, which was not addressed in the article, is WHY exactly they were in debt and so far behind. There’s some talk about bad business decisions but like: why were current ticket sales having to go to pay off past ones /while/ everyone is being underpaid? Was the pricing not sustainable for the kind of event they were trying to put on? What actually happened?
posted by corb at 7:10 AM on April 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

I remember coming across an ad for an immersive Rocky Horror-based LARP weekend in Poland. My first reaction was not: wait, Rocky Horror? but wait, Poland? But it's clear now that that was a great place to find an inexpensive castle.

As a nerd, I am involved in some hugely mockable stuff, but there's a list of stuff I will not participate in, either because it blurs the boundaries between fantasy and real life or requires me to spend time around people who are likely to reject the concept of boundaries entirely. I went through a hell time with people like that once and I won't do it again. Immersive cons are on that list. People like Claus are why.

“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.”

I mean fuck this on every possible level.

Still, I know that Learn Larp and other youth-oriented LARPing experiences can be very positive experiences. You just need grownups running the show, people who are sensible and don't mind roleplaying Bad Dads because they know why it has to be done. (And they aren't interested in taking further advantage of those daddy issues.)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:40 AM on April 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I agree that the photos are stunning. The immersion into magic must be almost total.

The paragraph that made me go GODDAMMIT CAPITALISM was this one:
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?
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:02 AM on April 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

corb: Basically, yes, the pricing for these events is often completely unsustainable for paying everyone involved a proper wage. Then you have the usual issues of many entrepreneurs underestimating things like taxes and overheads.
posted by adrianhon at 12:28 PM on April 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

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