Interview: Fiona Maeve Geist Talks Dead Planet, Diversity in Gaming, Rotten Sycamores, and More!

This is a treat. For me, anyway. Fiona is one of the authors I most admire in the OSR/indie/DIY/whatever you wanna call it space. She is a gifted writer and has a genuine voice for horror which, if you read this silly blog closely, you’ll probably know is one of my favorite underlying influences. I have wanted to interview Fiona for a long time, almost as long as this blog has been alive, in fact. I wanted to tie it to something, though. All my interviews go along with a book, to give insight to that book and the people behind that book. Finally I decided to use the amazing Dead Planet module as my excuse to interview Fiona, and I am so glad she agreed to a long, meandering, and very personal Q&A. Let’s go!

I like to make sure I ask somewhere in the interview: how did you get started playing RPGs, and what has your road through RPGland been like?

I started playing RPGs near the end of the TSR era because a child therapist believed it would be a helpful thing for me as a creative child with difficulty socializing. I played 2e on and off until high school when 3e came out and sorta chilled on it. I read (and occasionally played) a lot of the old World of Darkness stuff and I have an inordinate fondness for it as something with big ideas—even if they weren’t always successful ideas I think the early works have a distinct vision they are going for that was new? In college I played some Rifts, some Exalted, WFRP (which became a long standing love affair) along with one session of 4e which made me shrug and just not connect with it.

I mostly quit RPGs when I moved to Canada for an MA. Graduate student pools (at least in philosophy) are small and there wasn’t anyone else who played and in a very short, expedited program (3 semesters) there isn’t time to really time for getting a weekly group going. I played a bit with some housemates and did some build-break Pathfinder stuff during my PhD but mostly didn’t play or read much of anything, I ran 2 abortive Pathfinder campaigns and was frustrated with the amount of time character creation takes and how many subsystems there are for something that is relatively straightforward and how involved the learning process is.

I was asked by a friend to help admin a 5e group and I think it was helpful for me figuring out where my disconnects are? I think survival irked me, it was really hard to die until a certain point where combat just because about who lands the first hit. I wanted to run something more like things I remembered fondly from WFRP and 2e and wound up googling “Total Party Kill Lamentations of the Flame Princess” because I remembered inklings of the system having a Tomb of Horrors feel.

I came across Ram’s blog review of Kiel Chenier’s Blood in the Chocolate and immediately bought it and ate the DIY/OSR/Whatever blogosphere while in an academic teaching position that brought me a lot of unhappiness, I wrote some sketches of things, I did some writing with my friend Claire who I someday wanna evolve that stuff into something people run and I think I started commenting on blogs I read roughly a year ago? I made a G+ because Mabel told me to and she told people to follow me? Working for Sean McCoy on the Mothership PSG was my first“not doing editing for PWYC” gig. I started picking up work and Jarrett Crader and Christian Kessler and I started MoonRat Conspiracy (MRC) to work on projects from raw to finished state and working with them is really rewarding.

I’m doing a bad job and this is overlong and as a famous man once said to me “no one likes a name-dropper kid.” So, in short, too many people to list have been part of this process. It’s impossible to be exhaustive, it’s impossible to even do highlights. I really appreciate anyone I’ve worked with or for

As a woman, you belong to what has traditionally been a narrow group of contributors in the RPG space. This is changing rapidly these days. What do you think your role has been there? Where do you see yourself (and the landscape) in that respect in the future?

I honestly don’t know how to answer this because trans women are fairly over represented in indie RPG stuff relative to the estimated rates of trans women existing (which is also a vexed thing that prioritizes medical transition and recognition by bureaucracy over self-identification). I can’t claim credit for people who were already here when I showed up? There are younger people than me who are picking up their craft and in many cases have longer RPG careers than I do? I hope that I can prepare the way for young and talented people and have the foresight to retire before I do something less than I am capable of.

I wanna single out that there is a pretty good way of changing the landscape which is pretty intuitive: find people that you like and respect and pay them for their opinion and work, integrating them into your process—since I think the idea RPGs are this solitary affair probably needs to be axed? The three artists I’m currently working with [NMEAST, Stephen Wilson (@unknownrelic) & Joan Rose-Gordon (@HarpyShellac)] are people I met through talking about stuff I cared about and we got along and I:
1) have no artistic talent whatsoever and
2) am really reliant on people who can visually depict things I write and they’re really really good at that and it’s why I’m excited to finish projects.

But I should say something a bit more meta, so here is my best answer:
RPGs will continue to fragment into subcommunities in terms of design/concept and that is a good thing, because people will be forced to interact with people who aren’t like them and the people who intentionally isolate themselves will wither.

Cross pollination is good and evolution inevitable. I think the idea that there is a singular “OSR” and a singular “Storygames” as tentpoles has masked some serious differences in how people actually do things or what they want to approach.

This diaspora will mean more weird things will cross pollinate, the mainstream will get weirder, the people who pointlessly come up in conversations to tar broad groups of people will quit because their tiny audience is vanishing. More interesting, charming, enjoyable, smart and unique folx will play stuff because there won’t be the burden of unbelievably toxic people.

Hope you like big ol’ questions: How has being a woman changed the games you play, the game books you buy and appreciate, the companies you admire, and your general interaction with the role-playing community?

The short answer is that I don’t think it does?
My characters are predominately women (largely because I reflexively flinch when someone refers to me as “he” even if they mean a male avatar of mine), but I don’t think my tastes have a lot to do with that? I like classic pulps, noir, science fiction, metal, anarcho punk, weird fiction, fashion, experimental lit and film, I like things that reward me for engaging in those things by rewarding adroitness in those things. I don’t like things that don’t make sense to me?

I think a thing that gets lost a lot in the grimdark misery stuff I like is: my level 0 who starts totally unprepared for adventure can—by player skill and luck—become someone of consequence.

I love playing unsuitable characters? I love using charisma to accomplish goals? I don’t think these are unique experiences other than in daily life it’s  unlikely I can have that sort of ascent.

Junot Diaz got canceled for misogyny but he hit a nail on the fucking head when he said that RPGs were the first thing he experienced where kids like him could be heroes. I don’t think it’s possible to conflate being racialized and being trans, but I think people who don’t have a lot of power in the real world like winning by wits and daring? Because those are qualities that they have. I have no clue if this answers your question.

Interacting with the community: I like to think that like there is some pure meritocracy to stuff but I’m sure there isn’t. I try to show up with enthusiasm and be around folx who mirror that. Like, it’s why I don’t really do negative reviews of stuff even if it’s an easy thing?

How do you think your personal experiences – your life, your trials and tribulations – have impacted your art and the art you have worked on as a contributor or editor?

I don’t know how to answer this, I try to be private about some aspects of my personal life. I went through an ugly breakup in the fall and it made me throw myself into work harder to not fall apart, I’m thankful for people who were patient with me and who had work for me or said nice things to me.

3 recurrent nightmares I’ve had since I was a child are in the d100 nightmares chart in Dead Planet? I do a lot of body horror because I find it profoundly horrifying to occupy a body. I use my training in sociology/anthropology/cultural studies/history/philosophy to add and tweak things that I think are interesting or provocative or different.

I think on things that are easier for me to answer:
I don’t think I show up directly in work I edit because that would mean I’m a bad editor, my job is to help the author convey things effectively, make sure internal things are consistent and poke at mechanics and ask questions. If I do a good job, the book runs well and people directly experience what the author envisions before they hack it to their own tastes and preferences and mechanics are clear and scanning a document is easy.

Invasive personal questions are fun, let’s keep doing those. As a transgender woman, what about your personal journey has intersected with RPGs? Have games played any part in your life at large? What experiences within this hobby do you think are unique to your path?

I spent a lot of time in my imagination because performing “young male academic” was rewarded until I was extremely not well. It’s (maybe) surprising how far you can go on that? I think when reality feels unbearably hostile and you have constant anxiety and low self image you spend a lot of time imagining things. I have a pretty routine experience of transition as rejection/isolation—I don’t think it’s unremarkable that people who experience forms of social ostracization find their imagination rewarding?

I’ve played games since I was a very young child and they’ve always been part of my life.
If anything really resonates: Sasha Vykos (the signature Tzimisce vampire) is probably considered bad trans representation but I’ve always liked her? She’s utterly alien, totally self possessed and has a really unique set of goals. Like, yes she is depicted as a bloodthirsty sadistic torturer but she isn’t a fucking victim which is something trans people—especially trans women—are asked to perform in exchange for acquiescence/acceptance. I’d rather be a monster than a victim. I will probably wear a “Sasha Vykos Made Me Trans” tee to GenCon.

On the same theme, you have been very outspoken on your blog and elsewhere about many issues which you consider troubling in our hobby – hypocrisy, nerd fervor, and assorted causes or situations which have divided elements of the community. Your perspective is underrepresented in most of the gaming space. As a result, you are often looked to as someone expected to take the lead in discussing these things. How do you view that responsibility, and how does it impact your creative work and your creative process?

I try to conduct myself in a manner that can be emulated, I try to point out when people’s actions should lead people to question them. I’m not a leader, or trying to take the lead, because I don’t want to do that?

Also there are organizations, initiatives and more put together people that can be looked to for direction? I can only be judged and judged by others based on how I comport myself and who I consider friends.

Mostly? It’s draining, I don’t like explaining to the same stupid person that they’re being a loathsome person daily? Especially when it’s a known quantity? If people would just stop tolerating these people and practice a good intolerance for shitty behavior more people would be in this hobby.

Your history in academia is a particularly interesting facet of your CV, as it pertains to RPGs. You have written and spoken about transgender issues and issues facing sex workers in prestigious fora. What impact, if any, does your time in those studious pursuits have on your art?

Regardless of participation, sex work shapes being trans. We’re a population heavily involved in sex work therefore have transitive association with whorephobia. Sex work is also one of the few industries where trans women can find work, so a vast majority of people I know are involved with or have a history of sex work? The passage of SESTA has been disastrous on that front so that’s part of my reality and probably bleeds into the fact that cops and moral reformers are always monsters in my work. ACAB & such.

My academic background is in interdisciplinary philosophy so I have a lot of stuff I sort of bring to things I write about people or how people think or interact? This sounds extremely banal and I swear it isn’t? I decidedly have sex work show up in stuff I write because it’s part of human existence? I don’t really do high theory around my games or try to make people adopt the same views I have? It’s probably easier to like my work if you have similar beliefs?

Recently you worked with Donn Stroud and Sean Mccoy on one of the most excellent products of the past year and possibly much, much more than that. It’s exceptional. What was your contribution to the project? What are you most proud of there?

Thank you! My name appears first because of alphabetized names and I think it has occasionally made people think I was lead writer (I was not by any stretch of the imagination). So first off: I wanna thank Donn for being a good sport and finding it funny when I tag him on Twitter to correct this assumption?

My contribution started after I pitched patches and trinkets for the PSG when Sean had me look over it (which was a great opportunity) & he liked that; he asked me if I’d like to do d100 nightmares for the first module they were working on. So I did that and then looked over the module and I suggested a few things that are largely procedural content and did some editing work and wrote the Red Tower as an extra dungeon.

I’m really proud of how well I fit in with two people who have known each other for a long time and had already created this vision and I was there helping. So, Donn was gracious enough to let me poke around in corners of his vision and Sean was kind enough to include me as a contributor—also advanced me royalties on it when my laptop died. I’m extremely humbled they both trusted me and took me seriously, it means the world to me. So I am extremely ride or die for the two of them. Also, if they forget to link their kickstarters please remind them.

Dead Planet was a great module. Can we expect more module work from you for Mothership?

Yes! I am working on a project with Christian Kessler that’s a Mothership take on Tomb of Horrors and take from that whatever you want!  BUT—I am not at liberty to discuss stuff about it presently, expect things! Like announcements and a title and a timeline and such when it’s lined up!

I’m a developer for MoSh, so technically I am behind the scenes a lot and have some degree of my hand in everything but also I think the really applaudable thing about Sean is he has a really particular plan but is flexible enough to deal with the vagaries of the better angels of human nature.

You’ve edited a ton of work for Luka Rejec, whose projects range from the extremely open dusty Heavy Metal acid wasteland of the Ultraviolet Grasslands pointcrawl to the intimate, paranoid social adventure of Witchburner. Luka remains the same, but the projects differ considerably in scope and design. How do the differences and similarities impact your approach as editor, if at all?

Both Witchburner and UVG are projects I’m editing/edited with Jarrett Crader (as MoonRat Conspiracy). Luka is extremely easy to work with, is very organized and shows up with basically finished projects that I try to help tighten some of the writing in and make sure are internally consistent.

I’m not really a developmental editor for Luka (which given the volume of ideas that he produces would be impossible for me to keep up with) and I think that’s an important thing to mention because Jarrett and I largely deal with completed work in this case. So, we mostly work on the backend of a project to make sure it is ready for print. Since most of Luka’s stuff goes through his Patreon: it’s usually had some feedback that he’s edited in. So there isn’t a lot of work with asking things like “do these mechanics work?”

On a personal technical level: I apply different sorts of editing for the prose pieces in Witchburner which exist to give a sense of a person in an anecdote, memory, slice of life, etc. than I do in UVG—the sims are different. The goal in Witchburner (which I think it accomplished) was having these really tight minimal rules to hack to whatever you run it in (I’m excited to see people’s results using different systems) and then having the novella parts read like prose and not technical language. So it wasn’t about making sure that something is as terse as possible in some cases but making sure all the word choices are helping to convey the right mood.

Also working with someone who I find it easy to communicate with and where we can lay out our respective approaches and accomplish more than the sum of our talents. Like, humblebragging: we are both really good editors but having someone to bounce questions off of and the assurance they’ll catch bugs in what you are doing is really fucking helpful.

Which is the neat thing about this job is that it is always a challenge to give people the highest value of useability per sentence/word/paragraph/page. Sean has a good dictum about how you can condense and distill stuff (can it be a table? Can it be a chart? Etc.) and working with him, Christian, David Shugars and Luka gives me an appreciation for layout (I probably will never be someone who can “do” layout but I’m an editor who can work with layout and do stuff like soft returns and non-breaking hyphens to make setting up the page easier for layout).

You have been working for some time on a project titled Rotting Sycamores. What is that project, and what sort of game would it play out like at a table?

Rotten Sycamores, 😛
It started as a level 0 funnel based on “Blackwood’s Baby” by Laird Barron and the idea of a really muck encrusted quest (hang military deserters which is done in this woods for traditional reasons we don’t remember), I kept making stuff that implies more about the area and wanted to lean in and make something that does a lot of things without Lore because people found the stag cult and the hapless peasants I made interesting. My goal is to make it really good gallows humor about playing broken people doing horrible things to survive but also that’s a kind of disgusting fun I associate with Logan Knight?

My goal is to have a sandbox that a DM can run as a funnel or have as a location for people to wander around and it works just as well? It’s a unique area to the extent it’s a mix of things I’m interested in: the role of faith in daily life, the way people justify doing bad things to each other, the fact Europe wasn’t this pastiche in a lot of RPGs where there are Bavarian Biergartens, British Pubs, semi feudal serfdom but everything is very clean.

Gambling on bloodsports, getting involved with petty crime, robbing graves, avoiding the law, dealing with the hassles of a place where everyone pretends that a massive and disastrous war is just totally fine amidst shortages, bread riots & etc. are also anachronistic? The location is a pastiche of dissimilar areas but I want it to have some feel akin to the Caucuses where you can encounter a tiger in a pine forest and the Russian empire created an enormous loss of life trying to annex people who were religiously, culturally and (in terms of values) utterly dissimilar and they weren’t even the prize (warm water ports past them were).

Art is often a reflection of the artist. This is especially clear in most traditional media, but harder to pin down, usually, in RPGs. Even the DIY scene, which is far more direct and honest in many ways than the polished big business releases – the layers of fantasy and surreal or unrealistic aspects make it difficult to discern what the creator left of themselves in the work. What can we expect to learn about you or see as a reflection of you in your own personal projects, such as Rotting Sycamores?

I have no idea? I like most of the things I like because of aesthetics so that is probably about me? I like grimy scumfucky people? I make a lot of references to books in stuff I write, I just don’t think people are reading the same books which I guess is a thing I’d like: I’m friends with a lot of the people I read and same for a lot of people whose stuff I run? I think the cool thing about the low barriers to entry for a lot of indie things is you can directly ask people about stuff? Like, I like people reaching out and talking to me about RPGs, I’m excited that really knowledgeable people will talk to me about RPGs, I’m baffled I’m treated as a peer because lingering imposter syndrome from academia is a thing.

What else can we expect from your pen soon? What other projects are you working on where your name will be in lights, so to speak?

I’m presently working on something for Mothership (announcements will happen), on a funhouse/puzzle/bad acid trip dungeon for David Shugars (GMDK) called “Labyrinth of Haunted Memory,” on Rotten Sycamores (which I hope to finish by GenCon but likely will not), on some other things that are in early planning stages?

I’m contributing to Beneath the Canals which you can still back to make more stretch goals happen.

I’m also working on something furtive and horrifying with Luke Gearing (Ennie winning wünderkid and probable genius who coined MoSh), and I have no sense of timeline.

A really important thing to remember is that other people are more organized than me and knowing the order that things come out is weird because RPGs move weirdly and it’s hard to give the enthusiasm that stuff deserves when rattling off stuff I’ve worked or am working on. So, as a semi organized list:
• I edited Silent Titans (with Christian Kessler) which should be in print shortly
• I did proofreading for Troika! which was worked on by the entire MRC—including Corey Brin, who is also layout and a really phenomenal artist and I wish I got to work with them more often—and should be in print shortly.
• I edited Through Ultan’s Door 2 by Ben L which is somewhere in the publishing process
• I playtested STEAL THE EYES OF YASHOGGHUH by Logan Knight and it should be out at some point in the future.
• I’m editing UVG—which you can back on Kickstarter!
• I edited the recently Kickstarted Demon Collective Vol 1 and became the first fatality of “dicks to snakes” in a playtest and it’s presently in layout!
• I am in the early stages of work on an editing project for In Search of Games!
• I edited Orcs!  A High Octane Adventure! for DIY RPG with Jarrett Crader which is about to go to Kickstarter? I think?
•  I edited new editions of Macchiato Monsters and Marvels and Malisons and those are somewhere in the publishing process? I think? Paolo Greco of Lost Pages has the answer!

Non-RPG stuff:
• I write a quarterly essay for Lamplight Literary about neglected women in genre fiction which I really enjoy.
• I’m writing an introduction to a collection of fiction by Farah Rose Smith who is an author I admire greatly.
• My short fiction is seeing print in 2019: “Red Stars / White Snow / Black Metal” (in Ashes & Entropy), “The Lord is an Active Shooter” (Vastarian) and “In the Night We Turn Consumed by Dragons” (Where There Are Dragons).
• I’m a panelist at The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird in March

Now is the part in our fun little adventure where you plug things that you like, contributed to, or are excited about dropping soon. What do you want to shine a light on?

I won’t work on projects for things I won’t play or use. Also there are too many things to list, the world moves quickly. I cannot even begin to list all the people I owe thanks to? So in the spirit of being opaque and pretentious:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand

Wow. So, it comes as no surprise that Fiona’s interview is one of the most interesting, deep, and complicated discussions this blog has played host to. It also comes with some exciting and cryptic news: a megadungeon-y murder-you-immediately Mothership module with Christian Kessler! A poem I cannot begin to fathom the importance of but nonetheless find myself intrigued by! A project with Jarrett Crader for DIY RPG Productions. More of the insane Through Ultan’s Door! And, of course, Demon Collective Vol 1 which has successfully completed funding and I’ve been excited about since the first moments of its announcement.

Anyway. I cannot thank Fiona kindly enough for being willing to cover these extremely personal, complex topics. Her works and her discussions in and around the RPG hobby have been some of the most inspiring and interesting things for me personally since returning to the community part of this hobby. She’s unknowingly influenced or directly caused (see: my Shaman class) several of my posts or ideas in some way. She has helped me to appreciate it as a very complex art form, too. It was a pleasure to get to interview her and I cannot wait to speak again after future projects from her! (And, of course, my apologies for the Rotten Sycamores mistake!)

I am on Twitter, as always, if you need me – shouting @dungeonspossums three times into the Tweet text box will summon me.

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7 comments on “Interview: Fiona Maeve Geist Talks Dead Planet, Diversity in Gaming, Rotten Sycamores, and More!

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