I can't remember where I first met game designer and author Shanna Germain in person. It was probably at Gen Con, where we mostly get to share fleeting hugs and hellos as we rush off to our insane amounts of scheduled events and meetings. I've admired Shanna for a long time now, for her creativity, her work ethic, and I feel blessed to be able to call her a friend.
Monte Cook Games, of which Shanna is a senior designer and co-owner, has a new Kickstarter out for their acclaimed role playing game, Numenera, and I highly encourage you to check it out. Numenera has really accomplished a great balance of giving players something they are kind of familiar with but that's something really different, as well. Numenera 2 is on Kickstarter for a couple more weeks, so please check it out.
Shanna was kind enough to take some time from her crazy schedule to answer some questions for us here at the Once and Future Podcast blog!
Melanie R. Meadors: Can you tell us a bit about the world of Numenera? What do you think sets it apart from other RPGs?
Shanna Germain: Numenera is a science-fantasy setting a billion years in the future. Between our world and that world, at least eight amazing civilizations, many with technologies that we couldn’t even begin to comprehend, have risen and fallen. The Ninth World is filled with crazy devices, creatures, and structures left from those prior worlds—teleportation devices to other planets, octopus civilizations, gravity- and reality-bending machines—all called the numenera.
It’s highly narrative, the players do all of the dice rolling, and it’s a system that gives a lot of autonomy to the players. You can build your character quickly with the sentence: I’m a blank blank who blanks. I also love GM intrusions—little moments where you can say, “And this crazy thing happens! Now what do you do?” They give the players a chance to really get creative and use their skills and abilities in a new and unexpected way.
MRM: If someone has the core rule book for Numenera, what do the new corebooks offer? Why should someone definitely back the Kickstarter and not wait for retail?
SG: The new corebooks take the five years of feedback that we’ve had from players (and, of course, our own play and future products) and work to make the original better. Cleaner, clearer, even easier and more fun to play. It’s not a new edition—the core rules are essentially the same so you can play with an old corebook and a new corebook at the table and it’s no problem.
There’s also a whole new corebook—Numenera Destiny—which offers a brand new way to run a campaign, based on building a new future. We’re increasing the character options for some of the originals (Jacks and Glaives are getting a nice overhaul), adding additional types, foci, and descriptors, and providing all kinds of great new rules for designing, repairing, and building everything from weapons to vehicles to cities. Overall, the goal is more fun and more options at the table.
There are some pretty cool exclusives with this Kickstarter that you won’t be able to get elsewhere, including a book called The Trilling Shard, which is a sourcebook for one of the amazing new cities that we’re putting on the Numenera map. Additionally, a lot of the print levels offer the PDFs for free, which is something that we almost never do (except in Kickstarters), so if you like to have both the print book and the PDF, this is a great way to get those. And, of course, backing the Kickstarter means that we hit more stretch goals, so we get to produce more and better books that we wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise.
Of course, we love our retailers, so if you’ve got a friendly local game store near you, that’s a great place to pick up stuff in the future.
MRM: What is your personal favorite part of Numenera?
SG: The wonder and mystery of the setting. I feel like the real world seems really dark right now, and being able to escape into a place where everything—and everyone—has the potential to take the past and use it to make a better future is something that I really love and need.
MRM: Can you tell us a bit about gender and race etc. inclusiveness in the Numenera game?
SG: We work hard on representation and inclusion in all of our games, including Numenera. This often starts with the art—in our art, you’ll see people of all genders, sizes, body styles, races, sexual orientations, and more. This is equally true in the text. Because we’re creators who care about diversity and inclusion, the worlds that come out of our brains are worlds where it fits for all types of people to be represented and celebrated. Thanks to the technologies in Numenera, for example, it’s as easy to change your gender as it is to change your haircolor, so characters can be anyone they want to be.
The ability to see yourself in a game or a story is so vital and empowering. And so is the ability to see people who aren’t like you, because it helps you develop greater empathy and compassion. We believe gaming can make a better world, and one of the ways that we can do that is by making games that are welcoming for everyone.
MRM: You’ve written a novel based in the Numenera world called The Poison Eater (review forthcoming!). Can you tell us a little about it, and what was it like to write a novel based in an RPG world? Do you find the process of writing in an established world freeing or limiting?
SG: I’ve written a lot of short fiction set in other worlds, but this was the first time I’ve done a novel, so it felt really different. But also awesome, partly because I know the setting well enough that I felt like I could really jump off into weird and cool details and focus on my character’s growth and change in a new way.
Because Numenera is so narrative as a game, it translates easily into actual stories. You don’t have to worry about levels or dice rolls or whether a character could do something or not; if they have the tools or the abilities, they can try to do the thing. They might fail at it, of course, but what’s a story if the character isn’t failing along the way?
MRM: What’s it like to work at Monte Cook Games? Is it as amazing as it seems on the surface? OR DOES MONTE HAVE DARK SECRETS? ;)
SG: It’s as amazing as it seems—and then some. I mean, we work really, really hard, don’t get me wrong! But everyone is so passionate and creative and talented—and we laugh a lot.
It is hard having a distributed company—everyone is all over the country—but we make up for it by having really good meetings, talking on Slack, and spending lots of time together when we do get to be in the same place. Of course, every time we get together, we come up with more ideas for stuff we want to make, so maybe it’s a good idea we’re not in the place that often!
MRM: I’ve reviewed No Thank You Evil! and its expansions here. What inspired you to write this game? Has its reception surprised you at all?
SG: We were inspired by some of our fans, who were tweaking Numenera to play with their families. It made us realize that there was a whole generation of gamers who were playing RPGs with their kids. We really wanted to facilitate that. And as we started doing research into child psychology and kids’ games, we realized that we could try to do even more to help all kinds of families play—we used fonts and text styles that are suitable for children with dyslexia or other reading difficulties, used colors and symbols that support people with color-blindness, and created a system so that children who are non-verbal or who are on the autism spectrum can participate in ways that are comfortable and rewarding for them. We made sure that the art was inclusive all well—we have heroes in wheelchairs and with prosthetics, as well as characters of all genders, body types, and races.
Plus, it’s really fun to work on! I feel like I get to be my seven-year-old self for a little while every time I work on the game.
We’ve been really delighted by the reception. It’s so rewarding to see families playing together, and a number of organizations and schools are using No Thank You, Evil! to teach social skills, provide group therapy sessions, and more. That’s just been incredible.
MRM: As a fellow geek girl, I know first hand some of the challenges present to people of the feminine persuasion. I’ve gone through some phases, such as trying to suppress my feminine side at times, even to the point of scoffing at girlish things, or being all so much about fighting trolls that I didn’t get my creative work done. I think I’ve found a fairly good balance for myself, however, and I do look at you as something like a rolemodel, someone who is doing it right. Because while it’s important to address the issues of sexism and bigotry in the gaming community, it’s also important to remember NOT to let these things prevent you from doing what you love. Do you have any advice for people who are struggling with this right now?
SG: Oh, wow. Thank you for saying that—I feel that way about you too! And, yeah, this is such a hard thing. I’ve always believed in walking my own path, and really ignoring the naysayers. But that’s also really tough on the soul and heart. You have to build fierce armor, in the form of a support system and your own self-confidence. But, honestly, the thing that helps me the most is knowing that someone out there might be looking at me as a role model, and I want to honor that. I want to show that it can be done—you can be your true self and be successful.
Expect respect. Expect that you will succeed. Remember that your time and energy are powerful and finite—choose to spend them only on those who lift you up and light your world. Also, spread joy. Reach out to others. Shine bright enough for yourself and others will see it, and it will grow.
MRM: You do SO much. You write games, and novels, you are present on Twitter, you go to conventions, and even within all of those things, you have various roles (you write in a couple different genres, for instance). How do you plan your days so you get it all done? Do you have any organizational tricks?
SG: Haha! I wish. I do use a bullet journal and Scrivener, and I highly recommend them both for keeping track of ideas, to-do lists, big dreams… anything you want to remember or do someday. I also use Freedom, an app that locks me out of websites (like Facebook!) so that I can get work done.
I think the biggest trick I have is learning what times of day are best for me to do different things. It makes me twice as productive. Mornings—before email, before social media, before the world is awake—are best for poetry and creative work. If I don’t do it then, the day takes over and it won’t happen. I also know that when I feel burnt out on one thing, it’s a good time to switch to something that uses a different part of my brain. So, weirdly, part of my organizational system is to have multiple projects going at a time. If my brain gets tired of writing fiction, I can give it a rest while I tackle some editing or answer some emails.
MRM: Can you describe your writing process for novels a bit?
SG: Only if I can give the caveat that I don’t recommend my process to anyone! I want to be one of those people who sits down, writes an outline, and then makes a book. Instead, I’m a person who has no idea what I’m writing when I sit down. There are a lot of false starts, backtracks, and about 20,000 words of “what am I doing?” before things finally settle in and get moving.
I write a lot by instinct, following the hearts of my characters to try and break them (along with my readers’ hearts too, because I’m evil like that). I tend to putter a lot, writing a bit, and then going back and tweaking, until I get the voice and the language right, then writing a bit more. Really, not recommended! But figuring out your own system is probably the most important (and hardest to learn) part of writing, so once you’ve got that—even if it’s a bad system like mine—you’re most of the way there.
MRM: If a kid came up to you and said, “I want to be just like you when I grow up?” how would you respond? Any words of advice or encouragement?
SG: Go for it! I think one of the worse things we do to young people is to say, “You can’t.” But you can. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. Someday I’m going to grow up and be like all of my heroes (and even if I don’t, I’m doing a lot of things I love on the way to getting there). So, yeah. Try it. Don’t give up. And it’s okay if you’re afraid—we’re all afraid. Do it anyway.
MRM: When YOU were a kid, what did you want to be? How did it change as you grew up, and how did you wind up where you are today?
SG: I wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to read. I won my first poetry contest when I was about 7, by writing a poem about ICEEs—I got a coupon for a free ICEE and I was pretty sure I’d really made it as a writer! But then I got a little older, and realized how hard writing was, and I became afraid. All I ever wanted to be was a writer, and what if I failed at the one thing I wanted? So I did a bunch of other things—I worked on an ambulance and fire crew, got a degree in TV/Radio and another in psychology, did a lot of other jobs. I spent so much time running away from my dream out of fear.
At some point, I realized that I was more afraid of not trying than I was of failing. And that changed everything for me. I started following my dream again, telling myself that I was fearless (even when I wasn’t) and refusing to give up. It was hard at first—a lot of rejections, a lot of people telling me to give up. But I’m the kind of person that really rebels against NO, so in some ways that really pushed me forward. And I’ve had the support of so many people—I wouldn’t be where I am without their kindness and encouragement.
Shanna Germain has worked as a writer and editor for nearly 25 years, and has eight books, hundreds of short stories, and myriad other works to her name. Over the years, she’s won numerous awards for her work, including multiple ENnies, the C. Hamilton Bailey Poetry Fellowship, and the Utne Reader award for Best New Publication.
The co-owner and managing editor of Monte Cook Games, Shanna’s recent works include No Thank You, Evil!, Predation, As Kinky as You Wanna Be, The Lure of Dangerous Women, and The Poison Eater.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her fiction has appeared in Circle Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.