LARP Talk: Heather Silsbee and the Golden Cobra Challenge

I’ve been a fan of roleplaying games—the tabletop kind, or in my case the couch kind—for a long time. I’ve also been involved in, and love, community theater. I only discovered the crossover between the two a couple years ago when I saw something on social media and thought, “What the hell is LARP?” Well, last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with local LARP writer and recent Golden Cobra Challenge award winner Heather Silsbee, and she explained everything beautifully.

Heather Silsbee

Heather Silsbee playing Jason Morningstar’s live-action role-playing game Juggernaut.

Matilda Ruth (TCG): For those who are unfamiliar, what is LARP?

Heather Silsbee: LARP started out as an acronym for live-action role-playing, or live-action role-playing games. Some people argue that it is its own word now, kind of detached from the acronym, but it just means a role-playing game that you act out. It’s very similar to improv theater.

TCG: That brings us right to my next question. How does LARP differ from improv or stage theater?

Heather: They are very similar. I think the main difference is that LARP doesn’t usually have an audience. You still have a prompt, which is your game rules, and you play a character and you act out all their actions but you don’t have an audience except for the other players playing with you.

TCG: Have you considered hooking up with high-school theaters and having the students run the game?

Heather: Several people I know and several people in Larp House, the organization I’m in, also do improv, and we’ve tried a few things like combining with improv theaters in Minneapolis. We’ve all had ideas to combine them, but none have panned out for organizational reasons. There are people who do LARPs for educational purposes in schools and things, but I’ve never done anything like that. I definitely think that’s something that could happen. There is a lot of overlap—in LARP we use some of the same techniques and warm-up activities that are used in improv and theater in general.

TCG: How did you become involved in LARP?

Heather: I started out doing tabletop role-playing. I probably started when I was about 10 or 11. My brother played Dungeons and Dragons; he was a game master and used me and my cousins to test out his games. In college, my freshman year, someone created a LARP based on the Portal video game and ran it at a small convention at my college. That was my first LARP. A few of my friends started running other LARPs out of their houses, and I started playing with them. My gaming community in college overlapped with the LARPing community.

TCG: What made you decide to write your own? And do you call it a script, do you call it a game—what’s the official term?

Heather: That’s a good question. Really it’s just called a LARP. I guess rules text would be the proper name for it, but you could just say, “I read a LARP today” or “I played in a LARP today.”

I got into writing LARPs in kind of an odd way. My friend and fellow Twin Cities person and budding game designer Jon Cole had this idea for a workshop to help people write their own LARPs. He developed it into this thing called LARP Jam. The basic idea is that you split into groups; we were in groups of three. Each group is given a prompt, which is just a few words, and a LARP technique. You are supposed to take that and write a LARP with it. You pass it to each group for feedback and editing. You theoretically come out with a LARP.

The prompt my group was given was “pebblestone lifestyle”—somehow we came up with the idea that the players would actually be rocks. We wrote this game called Still Life, where the players play as rocks and they have philosophical questions about their existence that they will try and answer by talking to other rocks. Jon had heard of the Golden Cobra Challenge, which was in its first year. He says, “You wrote a LARP. Why don’t you submit to the competition?” We did, and it won an award. We’re still trying to figure it out, but a lot of people, for some reason, really like this game about rocks.

TCG: That’s awesome. So you wrote a LARP and it just happened to meet the criteria for the challenge, but now the criteria have changed a little. When you wrote your subsequent LARP Just Lunch, which won a 2015 Golden Cobra award, were you writing specifically for the challenge?

Heather: Yes, I was inspired by the criteria. Since I wrote the first one, I had written a couple others and entered other competitions. I didn’t have any great ideas specifically for this Golden Cobra Challenge. I was inspired by the category representing unheard or marginalized groups; that’s something that is really important to me. I think it’s cool, especially in the gaming community, to incorporate more points of view. When I thought about marginalized groups that interest me and that I could talk about, I thought about people with social anxiety. That’s the inspiration for Just Lunch. I wanted to write a game to show people without social anxiety a bit of what its like. A lot of the reason some people play LARPs is to get an experience or character that would have experiences different than their own.

TCG: Were the three characters in Just Lunch based off people you know?

Heather: Kind of. There are definitely elements of me in the characters. I put out a post on Google+, which is the main social media site I use for gaming purposes, and asked if people who experience social anxiety would be willing to tell me what it’s like. I received a fair number of people who were willing to tell me about their social anxiety experiences.

TCG: You used your own personal experience of social anxiety as an example in your LARP. Was that a difficult decision to make?

Heather: Yes, it was difficult. It wasn’t in the first draft—I had considered it but didn’t add it. Some of my friends suggested they needed more guidance on how to play these characters since they didn’t have experience with [social anxiety]. The best way I could think of to show someone what it’s like or instruct them on how to play the character would be to provide an example of my own experiences. I added it, sent it, out and tried not to think about it.

TCG: The 2015 challenge had entries from all over the world, and the Twin Cities walked away with two representatives this year.

Heather: There really wasn’t a big plan to get Twin Cities people to win. We are just lucky that we have such a pretty big community of LARPers in the area. Most the ones I know came from my college, Macalester College; we were in the same gaming club together. We were able to start our community based on that and absorb other communities based on word of mouth. It’s expanded beyond just Macalester people. It seems like just luck that there are so many people in the Twin Cities are not only interested in playing LARPs but designing LARPs.

TCG: This is your second Golden Cobra Challenge win, but let’s just talk about this year’s award, the one that you wrote on your own. How did you feel when you found out you won?

Heather: Winners are announced at this LARP convention called Metatopia. It’s a convention where people playtest LARPs that are in the works—designers go there to test out their games. The Golden Cobra Challenge emerged from that convention. The winners are announced at an event within the convention and simultaneously posted online. I was at work when I was tagged on Google+ in a message saying that I had won. I was very surprised and happy. I’ve only been writing games for a year and a half, two years now. I was also a finalist in another competition called Game Chef. It’s still very new to me and very unexpected when someone recognizes me for this new hobby that I have.

TCG: What’s next for you regarding LARPs?

Heather: I have a few small projects I am working on. The big thing coming up in 2016 is that four other designers and I are starting a partnership and a Patreon campaign for our games called Glass-Free Games. We plan on launching next month. If you don’t know what a Patreon campaign is, it’s kind of like a Kickstarter. Patreon is more for people with long-term projects.

Between the five of us, we are going to try and release a new game every month. The main goal [in raising] money is to make our games better. We are all starting to dabble in typesetting and layouts, but we would like to be able to pay for art and add a more professional look.

TCG: Where can Twin Cities Geek readers find out more information on what we have chatted about here or contact you?

Heather: You can search within Patreon for Glass-Free Games. The site isn’t active quite yet, but it will be. You can find me on Google+: Heather Silsbee. Larp House is a group of people that run LARPs.

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