Interview: Lead Editor Shanna Germain

I sat down and chatted with writer, editor, and gamer, Shanna Germain, specifically because of her involvement with Numenera, and Monte Cook Games. Shanna is well-known in many venues. She’s a prolific author of fantasy, science fiction, and erotic fiction, as well as nonfiction of various types. Likewise, she’s an experienced editor of both fiction and non-fiction. She’s also an award-winning poet. She calls herself a leximaven, a vorpal blonde, a gamer girl, and Schrödinger’s brat.

Let’s see what she has to say to a few questions.

Monte: You’re a self-proclaimed gamer, and so am I. But the label gets tossed around a lot. What does it mean to be a “gamer” to you?

Shanna: While I love words and I love defining words, I prefer to use definitions that include rather than exclude. So my definition of “gamer” is probably as wide as it can get. If you game in any way, shape or form, and you want to claim the label, I say go for it. I don’t buy into the argument that casual gamers aren’t real gamers or that you have to be at a certain level of experience and expertise to claim the title. The more the merrier, in my opinion. Come to the dice side; we have Chocolate Chip Cookies of Malice.

When I call myself a gamer, it’s a term that is two-fold in its meaning. First, I love playing games of all kinds. My family is full of gamers, from my grandmother (who beats me in every card game ever created) to my little brother (who beats me in every video game that involves a moving vehicle and random curves). For me, being a gamer is about competition, but it’s also about creativity and community.

The second part of being a gamer for me means that game are something I immerse myself in. I don’t just want to play games. I also want to understand how they work, I want to tinker with them to make them better, I want to look at the concept art and hear the designers talk about their ideas. I want to talk about them with other gamers. Sometimes I just want to look at the pretty art and get all geeked out about tentacly things with weird eyeballs.

Monte: Is a tabletop rpg gamer its own peculiar breed of gamer, or do distinctions like that matter?

Shanna: That’s a great question. I think the answer is yes and no. I do think that tabletop gamers can be their own … I’ll say particular instead of peculiar… breed. It takes a certain level of skill and passion to be able to roleplay a character and escape to a fantasy world with a bunch of other people. The ability and desire to read the material is useful, some sense of teamwork is necessary, and imagination is vital.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t crossover or that computer gamers don’t need those things as well. But being around a table with a bunch of other people in a made-up world is a very specific experience, and it isn’t one that’s for everyone. (As much as I want to bring everyone “into the fold,” I’ve discovered that some people just don’t want to be social or in-person with their gaming, and there’s nothing wrong with that).

Monte: What was your first tabletop rpg? How did you get started?

Shanna: I have two answers to this question, actually. Here’s the first one:

My first tabletop game, like with so many others’, was D&D. It started as a happy accident. When I was in high school, I played on the boy’s soccer team (because we didn’t have a girl’s team). So I had a lot of guy friends who were sporty in a very geeky way, if that makes sense. We spent a lot of time listening to Led Zeppelin and the Cure, talking about Lord of the Rings and Fahrenheit 451, and running through the woods pretending we were orcs.

One weekend, one of my friends said to me, “Hey, we’re going to canoe across the lake, go camping, and play D&D. You should come with us.” I had no idea what kind of game “Deendee” was, but I liked canoeing and camping so I said yes. My first game took place out in the woods near Cayuga Lake, while sitting on my backpack and borrowing a friend’s dice. I ended up as a dwarf cleric. That was the last time I let someone else build my character.

Now, the second answer is this: I was recently asked this question in another interview and I gave an answer similar to the one above. Right after it was published, a long-time friend of mine who read that interview emailed me and said, “You are wrong. D&D wasn’t your first tabletop RPG. How could you forget Bunnies & Burrows?”

And until I read her email, I had completely forgotten about Bunnies & Burrows. As a child, I was a HUGE Watership Down fan, and there were few things I loved more than playing that game, even though the dogs (and, in truth, some of the art) scared the hell out of me. So, my very first RPG character was actually a very frightened bunny.

Monte: What other tabletop rpgs have you played?

I’ve tried my hand at a lot of tabletop games over the years, usually lured in by a topic I was interested in (Superheroes! Cyberpunk! Aliens! Vampires!) or by friends who needed another player to round out their group. My taste in games is ever-evolving and I tend to get caught up in one for a period of time and then try something new. Vampire: The Masquerade, Rifts, Darwin’s World and Forgotten Futures were all favorites for a long time. As my playing has evolved, games that lean really heavy on the mechanics are less interesting to me than games that are more story driven. Words, characters and settings really thrill me as a gamer. Rules, technicalities and lots of math? Not as much. I’m also a fan of visuals. I like having things I can look at and touch, so I also lean toward games that include some element of that, whether it’s miniatures, tokens or great art.

Monte: How did the experiences differ?

I think they differed just as much based on my gaming group and GM as they have on the game we’re playing. A good GM and group can make a mediocre game into a great experience and vice versa.

Monte: You also play computer rpgs, as well as massively multiplayer online games. Do you see any crossover points with computer rpgs and tabletop gaming?

Shanna: This is a huge question, with an even bigger answer, but overall: yes, absolutely. MMOs and computer RPGs already take so much of their inspiration from tabletop games. You can see it in the landscapes, classes, creatures, even in their combat rules. Where computer games struggle the most, I think, is in creativity. There is no reason that PCs have to start out killing the same 600 rats at level one. The quest system could learn a lot from tabletop RPGs as well; why is it considered a good idea to send a PC off to gather 100 goat tails? I can’t even imagine that happening in a tabletop game. Giving a player the opportunity to make more creative choices and really develop their character’s storyline in a unique way is more difficult in a computer game, but I think it will be vital to the future of MMOs and computer RPGs.

Monte: Is there anything true in the reverse?

Shanna: I think tabletop games could learn a lot from computer games about providing a more immersive sensory experience for players. What kinds of visuals can be used (either in traditional paper form or via technology) to better showcase the world, the characters, the creatures and the objects? What do things sound like and look like? I know a lot of that falls on the GM’s shoulders, but I think that games could be designed to really give people more sights, sounds, scents and other tangible sensory details.

In addition, we’re seeing more gaming groups try out online options like G+ Hangouts, due to time and location issues. There’s a lot of learning opportunity right now in the technological sense – how can we create gaming platforms that are really conducive to bringing tabletop roleplayers together from around the world? What will that look like? Will we need new language for that (e.g. Will we still be playing a “tabletop RPG” if we’re each at our own table, talking into a computer screen?).

Monte: And now you’re the lead editor of Numenera. Plus, you will also be contributing content to the game and follow-up books. What about Numenera excites or intrigues you?

Shanna: It’s a brand-new game system in a brand-new world, and that makes me incredibly excited. I love high fantasy games and I love science fiction games, so to have the two morphing together really stirs my creative juices. Building a tabletop RPG that is a science-fantasy hybrid from the ground up means anything and everything is possible, not just for characters, world building and creatures, but in terms of how you play the game. Players will never be bored in Numenera, because everything is new and unique.

Monte: What do you feel you bring to the team?

Shanna: I bring a strong passion for making and playing great games, and a lot of cross-genre experience in both gaming playing and fiction writing. I want to push the boundaries of what game playing can be. In a world like this, aren’t any limits to character and world creation, and one of my skills is taking what we know is possible and pushing things about ten steps beyond that. I am looking forward to using the numenera of the old worlds to create wild and crazy landscapes, experiences, creatures, cyphers and artifacts, while still ensuring a game system that’s nicely balanced and easily playable.

As a storyteller and poet, I also bring my love of beautiful language and layered stories to the page. A world comes to life first in the mind and then in the language. Sensory details, lush descriptions, fully realized characters: this is how you truly tell a story and build a world that keeps players immersed. Through the power of language, I plan to make sure they see and feel and hear every tiny detail of their untimely deaths. And their successes too, of course.

Monte: What have the Numenera playtests been like? What have you learned? How is it different from or the same as other games you’ve played?

Shanna: I’ve done a lot of playtesting for various kinds of games, and the Numenera playtests have gone more smoothly and been a lot more fun than most of those. Partly because the game system is so easy to learn and master. That means I can delve right into my character’s skills and put them to use right away. It also seems to free the players up to roleplay and really get into their characters right out of the gate. Because the player characters have skills that tie into the world and into their own background, it sets up a great dynamic for the group. I love the skills that tie characters into each other – for example, the fact that my Nano can “Ride the Lightning” (i.e. fast travel) with another PC means that she already has a built-in relationship to play off of.

Because I love discoveries, humor and surprise in games, I’m also a fan of all the oddities, cyphers and artifacts that come into play. Will my character ever use a feathered hat that floats? I don’t know, but he’ll certainly use the explosive device that he and his friends built from the numenera they discovered on their last adventure. For me, the joy of exploring the Ninth World is that you never know if the things you find will help you, entertain you or kill you. Or possibly all three.


For more about Shanna, check out her website here.