Interview with Shanna Germain, co-owner of Monte Cook Games
Say hi, and tell everyone a little about yourself.
Hi! I’m Shanna Germain, and I’m a writer, editor, and game designer. I’m also the co-owner of Monte Cook Games, along with Monte Cook, where we currently have two RPGs, Numenera and The Strange. And if that doesn’t tell you enough about my leans, I also have a dog named Ampersand.
I’ve been a gamer since way back. My first RPG as a kid was Bunnies and Burrows. I was probably about six or seven, and I was super obsessed with Watership Down so a game that let me be a bunny was pretty much the best thing ever invented. Way better than Monopoly, where I usually got stuck being a shoe.
For aspiring ladies who want to break into the role play scene, could you tell us how you got started?
I was a writer and editor for of other things for a long time before I jumped into the game industry. I wrote for health magazines, environmental websites, sex-ed books designed for Mormon couples, erotica collections, porn websites, you name it. I was also the lead editor for Nervy Girl Magazine, a magazine that explored issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality as they pertained to women and the lead editor of a coffee roasting magazine. Those are two totally different experiences, but equally awesome.
When I was in my early 30s, I was listening to a radio program where two women were talking about a new gaming study that had just come out. The study showed that successful, Type-A business women in their mid-30s were the largest growing number of gamers. As they were talking, I was thinking, “Hey, that’s me!” And then the women went on to completely tear apart the study, saying how it couldn’t be true because they didn’t know any successful women in their 30s who could possibly have the time for or interest in games.
It made me so incredibly mad. It was like I was just sitting there watching myself get invalidated. So I decided that I was going to “go public” and start writing about games. My first game-writing gig was for the World of Warcraft Official magazine, and my second was an article about women in gaming for Curve Magazine. I felt like I’d come home. When Monte started talking about this new game he was thinking about making, called Numenera, I knew that I wanted to get involved. I started as the editor because that’s where most of my experience was, and then continued to move into writing as I learned more.
What is very inspiring for me is that you are very open about your work in both Erotica and RPGs. Did you ever dream this is what you would be doing when you were young? Was fantasy always a part of your life?
I sometimes tell the story that my parents were – well, still are – hippies, and they taught me many things about how to move through the world. But one of the most important things they taught me was: You can be anything you want. And then I became an erotica writer and I’m sure they had a few moments where they were like, “Oh, shit.” Thankfully they’re very supportive. My mom even walked around the school where she teaches, telling teachers to put away their copies of 50 Shades of Grey and read my work instead, because it was better. I don’t know whether she’s even read 50 Shades or any of my erotic work, but the thought of her doing that delights me.
To be honest, I think my parents knew what was coming anyway. I was really young when I started writing poems and stories with elements of horror, fantasy, and sexuality.
Sex and death have kind of been my themes, way before I even understood them; I was really just emulating other writers and stories that I loved.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I spent a lot of time avoiding it because I was so scared to fail. Instead I got a TV/radio degree, became a firefighter and a paramedic, went back and got a psych degree, bartended at T.G.I.Fridays (yep, flair and all)… all the while writing in secret, pretending it wasn’t the most important thing to me.
I fell into erotica by accident. I was trying to get published by literary magazines and they kept rejecting my stories for having too much sex. So on a whim I submitted a story to an online erotica magazine called Clean Sheets. The editor wrote back right away, and not only accepted my story, but said he’d pay me fifty bucks. I was like, “I’m home!” This was in 2001, and I never looked back.
I’ve always wanted to be really honest and open about what I do. There are a lot of reasons for that. The first is that I think sex is so often stigmatized and shamed, and I don’t want to contribute to that in any way. I want to loudly and proudly declare that I think sex and erotica are awesome. The second is that I don’t want to ever be in a position where someone else has the power to try and “out” or shame me for what I believe in or do for a living. So I outed myself right out of the gate.
I think it is great how you say 'outed yourself right out of the gate', this is something you also speak about in As Kinky As You Want To Be. Let's turn the tables and say you wrote As Geeky As You Want To Be. Any advice for people who love RPGs in 'outing' themselves to friends and families? I know my mom's first question to me when I told her about me playing role plays games was, "Honey, this isn't a sex thing, is it?" This probably says more about me than her, but still.
Oh, that's a really great question -- and a pretty funny story. I think that everyone's way through that process is different, but feeling out people and gauging their potential reactions is probably a good first step. My first thought is always to go for open, honest communication. But I also know that not everyone is comfortable or able to go that route. I think that humor can be really useful to help people express themselves in uncomfortable situations, so that might be a tool you can use. Also, we have a lot of geek props that can help us speak. Getting your friends and family to join you in a game--maybe nothing hardcore at first-or watch a show or movie with you is a way to welcome them into your interests slowly. When I was almost a teenager, suddenly this showed up on our living room book shelf called "Woman's Body: An Owner's Manual." As soon as my parents left the house, I was all over that, reading it every second, feeling this subversive thrill. It wasn't until much later that I realized my parent's sneaky intentions. So you could try leaving a comic book or a board game or some other fun and geeky thing around and see if anyone shows interest in it. That way, you can talk about the object and it's a gateway to eventually talking about yourself.
Tell us about your latest project. Gimme all the deets!
The book that we just put out is In Translation: The Strange Character Options. It’s a book full of character options that partners with one of our games called The Strange, which is set in modern day Seattle, but also lets you travel to a number of what we call recursions – places created from fictional leakage and other sources. So your character could go to a superhero recursion, or a 22B Baker Street recursion. Or they might be from one of these recursions, like Wonderland or Innsmouth.
Our character building system is a simple sentence, so with this book you can build characters like an Introverted jack who Pilots Starcraft or a Know-it-All nano who Builds Robots. Or an Addicted glaive who Aspires to be Posthuman.
What are the steps you take to start designing a game?
I start with a lot of big-brain concepting. The overall shape and feel of a game is the hardest for me to capture, so I feel like I spend a lot of time sneaking around the house, peering around corners to try and catch a glimpse of the thing I’m hunting. And then I start talking to the dog. She’s very helpful. I also read a lot, everything I can get my hands on, relevant or not. I kind of fill myself like a sponge and wait for odd things to click together and start making sense. There’s also usually some ice cream involved.
Once that very clean and smooth process is complete, I sit down and I start putting words on the page. In that place, it's all about voice and craft. I'm trying to take a living, breathing thing and turn it into something concrete. That is both the best and the most terrifying part for me. Every word I put on the page, I'm afraid I'm sucking the life out of the living idea and just killing it. But you have to just keep going forward and pushing through that fear.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Books, games, TV, music, and movies. Also science. Poems. Pinterest. Games. Almost anything, really. I’m a neophile, so I’m always searching for new things to be excited about. If something surprises me, I’m in love with it instantly.
I am fascinated by the way things fit together. If I watch an episode of Fringe, then read some of Mary Oliver’s poems, then play Dragon Age, my brain starts to slot them all together, to see what similarities and differences there are. And in that space, there’s often something weird or wonderful to start digging into.
I thought Love and Sex in the Ninth World was fantastic and a refreshing take on role play material. It was nice to see MCG making a book centered around taking romance and love seriously, rather than making a joke of it. How did this book come into being, what made you say - this needs to be written?
Thank you so much for saying that. That was very much our goal—to create a guide for love and sex just like you would create a guide for any other aspect of a game. Most of our products start out as innocent little conversations about the weather, and then by then we suddenly find ourselves saying, “Wouldn’t that make a great book?”
For this book, I was marveling in delight at the overlap of people who were playing Numenera and reading my erotic work. I kept hearing from Numenera players who were enjoying the erotic stuff, and vice versa. And I also had a lot of players who just wanted to talk to me about sex in gaming. It was like as soon as they realized I was open to talking about sex, they opened up and all of these stories and questions started coming out. They were just so excited and I think a little bit relieved, like they’d been waiting for a long, long time to be able to talk about it.
I jokingly said to Monte, “I should totally write a book about sex in gaming” and he said, “You should. Who better in the industry to write this book than an erotica writer?” I should really learn not to say things like that to him if I ever want a day off again! But I started getting excited about it. I realized that in our Numenera game, we already had a world that featured people of a variety of genders, sexual orientations, and interests, so the groundwork was there to do a book that centered around the concepts of love and sex in the world while also giving more general advice for handling sex at the table. It’s probably my favorite project to date, because it allowed me to bring two of my favorite topics together in a way that I hadn’t seen done before.
What’s your next project?
We haven’t announced it yet, so sadly I can’t say too much. But I can say that one of the important elements of it will be accessibility for gamers who struggle with issues like dyslexia or autism. We want to look at our font choices, at things like tables and charts, at the use of symbols to help convey meaning. We’re just at the beginning stages of exploring what this might look like and how it might all come together, but it’s been a great learning process so far.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make their own game?
There is no right way. There is only your way. Don’t listen when people say, “You have to do it like this.” That’s just silly. I’ve never met two people whose creative process is identical. Sure, it would be nice if there were rules, because I honestly think that when it comes to game design (and probably any creative endeavor), the hardest part of the entire process is learning what your way looks and feels like. If you just keep at it, eventually you’ll figure out how you work best.
Have a good support team, tribe, or person – and support them in return. They’re going to be invaluable for providing feedback, bouncing creative ideas around, and generally keeping you motivated. I say that as a total introvert—it’s that important.
Have a tenth man. At Monte Cook Games, we use this when we’re making big decisions. If we’re all in agreement, one person turns and argues the other side. It helps encourage creative thinking, lets you see problems that you might not have noticed -- and someone gets to be the bad guy for a little while!
Don’t get discouraged by the bad. The bad is so loud because it feels unimportant next to the good (as it should). Sometimes the bad is your own mind conspiring against you, sometimes it’s negativity on the Internet, sometimes it’s feedback from players or peers. Whatever form the bad takes, it will yell and scream and throw a temper tantrum. It is perfectly okay to just scold it and make it go sit in the corner while you continue to make beautiful things.