Bringing Tanya DePass to the gaming table on Season 5

NK Jemisin made history when her trilogy of books — The fifth season, the Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Heaven – each won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in its year of release. After a few delays, the world of the Broken Earth trilogy finally comes to a role-playing game.

Fifth Season: Role Play in the Silence, heads to Backerkit on January 24. Produced by Green Ronin Publishers and co-developed by Tanya DePass (I Need Diverse Games, Rivals of Waterdeep) and Joseph D. Carriker (Blue rose, Critical Role: Campaign Setting Tal’Dorei), the book introduces old fans and new players alike to the world in Jemisin’s trilogy known as the Silence.

DePass, also known online as cypheroftyr, is a powerhouse in the gaming space. In addition to being an author and streamer, she is also the founder of the non-profit organization I Need Diverse Games, which supports visibility and access for underrepresented people in the games industry. We had a chance to sit down and talk about it Fifth season before the release of the upcoming crowdfunding campaign.

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

Ask DePass: So it uses a modified version of the Adventure Game Engine (or AGE) system, which is used in some of Green Ronin’s other games, such as dragon age or The expanse. For charging [character generation], you take your caste, your specialization, you find your background, and from there you choose your abilities and focus. The Quickstart contains a number of pregens so you can see how things work in the system. Communities (called Comms) are a big part of the game and also start in charges.

The game plays out on two levels: Seasonal changes are just that, four per year, each with a major event for the comm and roles for the comm’s success, well-being, growth, and other “actions.” Narrative and action-packed (round-by-round) gameplay is on a character scale and can “intervene” in some Season events, altering their outcomes. Characters must balance between survivability and “trying your luck” to succeed. Optional Personal Challenges allow characters to gain temporary hit points – called Fortune – for role-playing with additional challenges, such as social challenge handicaps or misadventures. There’s a lot of emphasis on players’ consent and whether they want to see something as a challenge and, if so, how much.

Gizmodo: Orogenes, in the silence, are very powerful magic users, and they are actually the only magicians in the entire series. They are often banned or carefully monitored by government agencies. So the big question is… can you play as an orogen?

DePass: Yes. But we have discussed that behind the scenes. Since orogenes are omnipotent, they can literally crack open the Earth, like… imagine giving a player all that power and just saying, “good luck!” So when you play an orogen, you answer questions about coming into power and things like that. Not only will you be able to use your powers to destroy everything around you.

Gizmodo: What did you like most about the Broken Earth trilogy, and what specific sources of inspiration do you find in this game?

DePass: First off, one thing I’m glad Green Ronin did was reach out to me and other writers and developers and designers of color to make sure there wouldn’t be any missteps about the depiction of the Broken Earth world. If you’ve read the series, you know there’s no doubt that this is a world inhabited by people of color. It’s very established on the page.

In addition, the atmosphere is there, the silence is there. Moreover, with the caveat that I have known Nora [N.K. Jemisin] for a long time and we’re friends so I just fangirl but her world building is something I’ve always admired. And I think that translated into the game. She also has the final view of all the pages, so it’s not like anything will come out without her knowing.

Many people who read the Broken Earth trilogy immediately recognized that the books would make a great game. That’s what sparked the interest in trying to put it into a TTRPG, because a video game is going to be harder to do and take a lot more time and resources. In the end, I think it will help if people have read the books and are fans, but this RPG doesn’t leave anyone out. If anyone likes the post-apocalyptic, afrofuturistic, sci-fi vibe, they’ll enjoy the game even if they’ve never read the books. What I hope is that people who buy and play the game will go back and read the books.

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

DePass: So the idea for the adventure in the Quickstart guide is to act as an introduction to the setting so you don’t get completely lost. Playing in AGE is different from what most people are used to, and we want to put people at ease. So you start investigating thefts that affect the com. It’s basically like a whodunit, but in the setting of the Silence. Scarcity is a big thing in this game. So while people have to figure out why someone would steal from the Comm, it’s clear we already know why people would steal.

It’s also a chance to flesh out the setting a bit, get to know your abilities and powers, and show how the setting’s stories mean you don’t have to turn everything into a fight. When playing most RPGs you can’t avoid combat at some point. But in Fifth season there are ways to talk to people to avoid it, which is something I also love about the book. I mean you can fight… there’s a very Nora-esque “don’t start no shit” section title on all of 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 power of this game? D&D is a battle simulator, sample of the week is a supernatural whodunit…

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

You tried to make it in a world determined to kill you. It is up to you whether you focus on your communication, connect to other communication or whether you travel the world to find your way. Since Nora is such a great world builder, I think this game focuses more on the people and communication and the world you’re in, rather than identifying and killing existing threats. Whatever happens, these are people, you talk to other people.

Fifth season is not much of a dungeon crawl game. If you come across someone or something aggressive, there is a narrative opportunity to discuss things. You don’t necessarily have to go in, guns out, which, let’s face it, is pretty common in both video and tabletop games. We want people to wonder how we’re going to fix this before we default to how am I going to kill you.

Relationship ties to the Comm and other characters (or even beliefs and goals) grant character bonuses in the game.

Gizmodo: How do you combine the epic nature of the Silence with the family drama that is at the heart of the books in this game?

DePass: I think that’s actually easy to do in any RPG, because people’s character arcs often boil down to some sort of familial backstory. I think it will be super easy to open the open sandbox you play in. I’m sure people will bring in canon characters, but they’re not in the game as it is. Humans have such great imaginations that they’re probably waiting to bring in NPCs and reenact the events of the series.

Gizmodo: How did you center the communication in this game?

DePass: We wanted to make communication important. You start by creating your Comm and then your characters. We also made sure that the caste system was an effective communal model, where everyone was assigned a job in their community. All 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 life is how everyone survives.

That’s a big part of how you tell the story. Therefore, things your character can do make a difference. Unlike some games where I use all these cool skills that I’ll never actually use, all these cabinets and jobs show that you have to work together to solve the problem for a community and survive. So community as a means of survival is built into the fabric of what you have to do to play an adventure

gizmodo: I would like to hear your opinion on survivalism as a black story.

DePass: Often you see post-apocalyptic stories and people of color 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 color are at the center of these books, and that they not only survive, but thrive and go their separate ways. Fifth season says, “Hey, don’t forget us.” Often we have had to survive because we have to, not because we want to. We had to wonder how you translate that survival instinct into 2023, this idea that “I still have to be ready to survive in the blink of an eye.” Black people were always meant to be survivors, but no one has treated it that way.

The fifth season: role play in the silence starts today, January 24, with crowdfunding.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

While you’re here, check out Gizmodo Australia’s guide to what’s streaming this month on Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, Stan, Binge and more. We also have one for everyone the good movies coming out in 2023 if that’s more your thing.

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