Tanya DePass on Bringing The Fifth Season to the Gaming Table

Tanya DePass on Bringing The Fifth Season to the Gaming Table

N.K. Jemisin made history when her trilogy of books — The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky — each won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in the year of its release. After a few delays, the world of the Broken Earth trilogy is finally coming to a roleplaying game.

Fifth Season: Roleplaying in the Stillness, is heading to Backerkit on January 24. Produced by Green Ronin publishing and co-developed by Tanya DePass (I Need Diverse Games, Rivals of Waterdeep) and Joseph D. Carriker (Blue Rose, Critical Role: Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting), the book will introduce old fans and new players to the world in Jemisin’s trilogy, known as the Stillness.

DePass, also known online as cypheroftyr, is a powerhouse in the gaming space. An author and streamer, she’s also the founder of the nonprofit, I Need Diverse Games, which supports visibility and access for underrepresented people within the games industry. We had a chance to sit down and chat about Fifth Season before the release of its upcoming crowdfunding campaign.

Linda Codega, Gizmodo: Can you tell me a little bit about the specs of this game? What’s the system like, what’s character generation like?

Tanya DePass: So it’s using a custom version of the Adventure Game Engine (or AGE) system, which is used in some of Green Ronin’s other games like Dragon Age or The Expanse. For chargen [character generation], you take your caste, your specialisation, you find your background, and from there you pick your abilities and focuses. The Quickstart will have a bunch of pregens in it so you can see how things work in the system. Communities (called Comms) are a huge part of the game, and start in chargen as well.

Game play is at two levels: Seasonal turns are just that, four per year, each with a significant event for the comm and rolls for the comm’s success, well-being, growth, and other “actions.” Narrative and Action (round-by-round) game play is character-scale and can “intervene” in some Seasonal events, shifting their outcomes. Characters have to balance survivability and “pushing your luck” to succeed. Optional personal challenges allow characters to gain temporary hit points — called Fortune — for roleplaying with additional challenges, such as disabilities to social challenges or misfortunes. There is a lot of emphasis on player consent and whether they want something portrayed as a challenge and, if so, how much.

Gizmodo: Orogenes, in the Stillness, are very powerful magic-users, and really they’re the only magicians in the entire series. They tend to be ostracised or carefully controlled by government entities. So the big question is… can you play as an orogene?

DePass: Yes. But we had some discussion about this behind the scenes. Because orogenes are all-powerful, can literally break open the earth, like… imagine giving a player all that power and just saying, “good luck!” So if you do play an orogene you’ll answer questions about coming into your power and the like. You’re not just going to be able to use your powers to destroy everything around you.

Gizmodo: What did you enjoy most about the Broken Earth trilogy, and what specific inspirations are going into this game?

DePass: First, one thing that I’m glad Green Ronin did was reach out to me and other writers and devs and designers of colour to make sure that there would be no missteps about the depiction of the world of Broken Earth. If you’ve read the series then you know that there no mistaking that this is a world inhabited by people of colour. It’s very established on the page.

Besides that, the vibe is there, the Stillness is there. Additionally, with the caveat that I’ve known Nora [N.K. Jemisin] for a long time and we’re friends, so, it’s just me fangirling, but her world building is something I’ve always admired. And I think that translated into the game. She does have the final view on all of the pages too, so it’s not like anything is getting out there without her knowing about it.

A lot of people who read the Broken Earth trilogy immediately recognised that the books would make a great game. That’s what sparked the interest of trying to bring it into a TTRPG, because a video game is going to be harder to do, and take way more time and resources. Ultimately, I think it’ll help if people have read the books and are fans, but this RPG isn’t locking out anybody. If someone likes the post-apocalyptic, Afrofuturism, sci-fi vibe, they’ll enjoy the game, even if they’ve never read the books. What I’m hoping is that people who buy the game and play it go back and read the books.

Gizmodo: What sort of adventures does this RPG focus on? Do you guys have any adventure modules in either the full book or the Quickstart?

DePass: So the idea for the adventure included in the Quickstart guide is to act as an introduction to the setting so you’re not totally lost. Playing in AGE is different than what most people are used to, and we want to ease people in. So you start out looking into thefts that affect the com. It’s basically like a whodunit, but in the setting of the Stillness. Scarcity is a huge thing in this game. So while people have to figure out why someone would steal from the Comm, it’s clear that we already know why people would steal.

It’s also a chance to kind of fill out the setting, get to know your abilities, your powers, and show how the storytelling of the setting means that everything does not have to turn into combat. When playing most RPGs, at some point, you cannot avoid combat. But in Fifth Season there are ways to talk to people to avoid it, which is something I love about the book as well. I mean, you can fight… there is a very Nora-esque section title “don’t start no shit” about all this. Really the Quickstart is a way to get your feet wet before you have the whole book in your hand.

Gizmodo: What is the narrative thrust of this game? D&D is a combat simulator, Monster of the Week is a supernatural whodunnit…

DePass: I want to say Fallout 76 but Nora would show up here and stop me. But it’s essentially a survival story. Finding out how to survive between seasons.

You were trying to make it in a world that is determined to kill you. It’s up to you whether you focus on your Comm, connect with other Comms, or you’re roaming the world trying to find your way. Because Nora is such a great world builder, I think this game focuses more on the people and the Comms and the world that you’re in rather than identifying and killing extant threats. No matter what, these are people, you are talking to other people.

Fifth Season is not that kind of dungeon crawl game. If you encounter someone or something aggressive, there’s this narrative opportunity to talk through things. You don’t necessarily have to go in, weapons out, which is, let’s face it, pretty common in both video and tabletop games. We want people to ask, how are we going to resolve this before defaulting to how am I going to murder you.

Relationship bonds with the Comm and other characters (or even beliefs and causes) grant characters bonuses in play.

Gizmodo: How do you combine the epic nature of the Stillness alongside the family drama at the core of the books into this game?

DePass: I think that’s actually easy to do in any RPG because a lot of times people’s character arcs comes down to some kind of familial backstory. I think the open the open sandbox where you’re playing will make that super easy to do. I’m sure people will bring in canon characters, but they’re not in the game as it’s is. People have such great imaginations that they’re probably waiting to bring in NPCs and play out the events of the series.

Gizmodo: How did you centre Comms within this game?

DePass: We wanted to make the Comms important. You start out by creating your Comm and then your characters. We also made sure that the caste system was an effective communal model, where everyone has a job assigned to them in their community. All the jobs have meaning and if you try to do everything yourself, or you don’t have one member of a Comm, everything can fall apart. And that communal living is how everyone does survive.

That is a big part of how you tell the story. It’s why things that your character can do make a difference. Unlike some games where I take all this cool skill that I will never actually use, all these castes and jobs show that you have to work together to solve the problem for a community and survive. So community as a way of surviving is built into the fabric of what you need to do to in order to play through an adventure

Gizmodo: I would love to hear your opinion on survivalism as a Black narrative.

DePass: A lot of times you see post-apocalyptic stories and people of colour are left out. It’s like we don’t exist. You know, The Book of Eli was probably the first time I saw a post-apocalyptic story where the main character was a Black dude.

The fact that people of colour are central in these books, and they’re not only surviving but also thriving and making their own way. Fifth Season says, “Hey, don’t forget about us.” A lot of times we have had to survive because we need to, not because we want to. We had to ask how do you translate that survivalism instinct into 2023, this idea that “I still need to be ready to survive at a moment’s notice.” Black people have always had to be survivalists, but no one has treated it that way.

The Fifth Season: Roleplaying in the Stillness will begin crowdfunding today, January 24.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

While you’re here, why not check out Gizmodo Australia’s guide to what’s streaming this month on Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, Stan, Binge and more. We’ve also got one for all the good movies coming out in 2023 if that’s more your thing.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

It’s the most popular NBN speed in Australia for a reason. Here are the cheapest plans available.

At Gizmodo, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.