An Interview with N.K. Jemisin

We wanted something special for the last three days of the crowdfunder and here it is: an interview with N.K. Jemisin herself!

Check out the Fifth Season RPG on Backerkit now!

Crowdfunding campaign ends this Thursday! Signed Bookplate Bundles still available!


Q: Roleplaying games and speculative fiction are close cousins. What did you find most intriguing about bringing The Stillness to tabletop RPGs? Do you have any experience with RPGs yourself?

I played a little tabletop back in college — Marvel Superheroes, if I recall, and just a little D&D (back then it was AD&D). My group back then was mostly into adventure with a lot of fighting, which I wasn’t much into, but they were my friends. I had fun with them no matter what or how we were playing. Since then, I’ve been invited to join a couple of groups, but just didn’t have time — juggling two careers doesn’t leave a lot of room for leisure. But since I’ve ratcheted down to just one career, things are better, and I’m gearing up to join a new D&D group now. Also playing around with world concepts for if I decide to try GMing for the first time.

As for bringing the Stillness to tabletop, honestly, I’m still just fascinated by the idea of other people wanting to go to this place where the apocalypse happens every Tuesday! For fun!  LOL. But I can’t wait to see people play it.

Q: You incorporated a lot of real-world orogeny, geology, volcanology, and plain physics into your novels. What was the most interesting thing you learned in your research for the Broken Earth?

Mount Rainier. This probably isn’t super interesting to other people, but I constantly see character in concepts and natural forces, maybe because I partially grew up along the Gulf Coast where hurricanes have names, and we speak of them like they’re people… or maybe just because I think like a fantasy writer. I’d been to Seattle before and just thought, “Ooh, such a pretty mountain.” Then I read up on it and realized it’s a Decade Volcano — one of the most potentially destructive mountains in the world. It could wipe out Seattle and Tacoma like that, in a variety of absolutely horrific ways. There are worse volcanic threats out there (there’s a chance the Yellowstone supervolcano could wipe out humanity), but the specific danger of Rainier is its beauty. People want to live near it, and I can’t blame them. I would love to wake up to the sight of that mountain every day — but a population that size in the vicinity of a mountain that terrible is a horror movie waiting to happen.

Nothing but respect for people who choose to live in such places. I get that the ephemerality of it is part of the appeal. I just prefer for my own natural disasters to be slower-moving, and not so apocalyptic.

Green Ronin is based in Seattle so we’re in the blast zone. Lucky us! Nicole, our COO, grew up in Oregon and she remembers the Mount St. Helens eruption vividly.
Q: The Broken Earth Trilogy tells a specific story, but game groups will create their own. What ideas do you think they could explore in the Stillness?

The Stillness is a pretty big world, and there’s lore throughout it that got alluded-to but not shown in the Broken Earth books. I’d love to see people play around with all that hinted-at stuff.  What other secrets do the lorists keep behind their black-painted lips, and why must they stay secret? Were there ever expeditions that tried to sail around the great empty ocean that covers half the world, and did they find anything (maybe like an ancient city full of stone eaters) when they did it?  You’ve seen some of the ways that terrestrial animals and insects change during a Season, but what about the plants or marine life? If a quiet farming comm discovers a huge and dangerous ancient ruin lurking underneath it, how do they deal with that?  How do people have fun in a world that’s constantly on the brink of extinction? There’s lots to explore.

Q: Can you give aspiring Game Moderators a few things to bear in mind when they are making their own stories in The Stillness?
  • The cultures of the Stillness are different from those of our world in one key way:  They understand that rapid adaptation to change is essential for survival.  A typical comm’s structure is modular, with every resource — food, weapons, labor, knowledge — meant to be shuffled around as needed in the event of a Season. This means that comms which opt for democracy or consensus at ordinary times turn instantly authoritarian once Seasonal Law I declared.  Hoarding or charging money for goods and services within the comm is instantly illegal.  Having more children without permission is instantly illegal. A wealthy merchant becomes neither wealthy nor a merchant once the Season comes, because any resources they possess are confiscated for the community pile, and the merchant’s life becomes governed by their caste and its duties.
  • Every person is trained to expect this modularity from childhood, though some keep the lesson in mind better than others. The formerly-wealthy merchant knows better than to protest if their goods are confiscated — but they might do it anyway, because they’re used to the privilege of wealth.  Too much protest means exile.  Meanwhile, members of the Strongback caste are always aware they can be exiled if they aren’t willing to work and obey others.  The partners of Breeders, if not Breeders themselves, must be prepared to accept non-monogamous behavior and to raise a child which might not be their own.
  • The people of the Stillness are exactly like us, psychologically — especially in being prone to react irrationally under stress. The onset of a Season is a critical time in which a community’s survival depends wholly on if its Leadership can overcome the natural human tendency to freak the hell out during an emergency. If they fail, the people of a comm could revolt against their Leadership, wasting resources and effort that should be spent on survival on infighting. Comms that do this rarely survive Seasons.
  • Good Leadership, therefore, requires a balanced approach, discouraging change resistant behavior while not being too heavy-handed. Too much authoritarianism, or totalitarianism, is inadvisable.
  • Seasonal Law is resource-focused but still explicitly anti-eugenicist. Bigotry, which is known to destroy or weaken communities, is illegal at all times. Disability is not a cause for exile in itself, though a disabled person must find a way to be useful; fortunately there are many necessary tasks that can be done by someone with limited mobility or cognition. Medical care is in a permanent state of emergency triage:  those who can be saved more easily are prioritized over those who will need more resources or whose condition is more precarious.
  • Commless people aren’t all bandits. Many are “free spirits” who can’t or choose not to function within the expected modularity — or who want to develop their own ways to survive a Season. Some of those ways, such as those of the comm of Meov in the books, are viable — though the only way to be sure of viability is to wait for a Season and see.
Q: The Fifth Season RPG will be lavishly illustrated. Will this be the first time (apart from cover art) that readers will get to see visual interpretations of the Broken Earth?

No.  The Subterranean Press special editions of the Broken Earth books feature astounding art by Miranda Meeks, and since the books have been published in many other languages, several of the foreign editions have had unique cover art that’s astounding. I also regularly see fanart from my readers that blows me away! But I always love seeing new depictions by skilled artists, and I’m loving what I’ve seen so far from you guys.

Q: We understand that the Broken Earth trilogy has been optioned for a television or streaming series. Can you tell us anything about the progress of that project?

Just that it’s not going to be a TV series anymore, but a feature-length film series; the rights were bought by Sony Tristar. I turned in the first movie script a few months ago.  Beyond that, I can’t say, sorry!

No worries, a feature film series is exciting stuff! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. 

Author

  • Chris Pramas

    Chris Pramas is an award-winning game designer, writer, and publisher. He is best known as the designer of the Dragon Age RPG and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd Edition, and as the founder and President of Green Ronin Publishing. He has been a creative director at Wizards of the Coast and Flying Lab Software and wrote a series of books about fantasy warfare for Osprey Publishing. Green Ronin continues to thrive under his leadership, publishing roleplaying games like The Expanse, Mutants & Masterminds, Blue Rose, and Modern AGE. 2020 is a milestone year for Pramas and Green Ronin, with the company celebrating its 20th anniversary.