Six Questions: Monica Valentinelli

Editor? Writer? Game designer? Power behind the scenes? MONICA VALENTINELLI is all of these things and more. She wears so many hats it’s sometimes hard to see her beneath them. Recently, she added a new hat to the collection when she took on the role of brand manager (and writer) for MWP’s new Firefly RPG. Somehow she found time in her busy schedule to answer six questions!

What was the first roleplaying game you played? How did you get from there to where you are today?

The first roleplaying game I played was Shadowrun. From there, I went on to a few other games like Vampire: the Masquerade and a lot of board, card, and video games. I didn’t really get back into RPGs until I re-discovered them through small press games like Obsidian: the Age of Judgement and A/State. That’s how I got started writing for games; I edited and wrote some fiction for Obsidian, then I went on to write a few frenetic, ethereal pieces for Noumenon, which is a game inspired by Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I loved the variety that small press/independently-owned games had to offer and it was a good way for me to learn the business and figure out what I wanted to do next – much like I’ve done with fiction. The other thing that really helped, was reading, reviewing, and playing lots and lots of games for Critiques are a great way of studying the medium you’re writing for; I highly recommend it.

My work with small presses has been a mixed bag. I’ve dived into really fun projects, but over a half dozen or so have never seen the light of day – some bigger than others, too. All the while, I was balancing day job concerns. I’m guessing that’s a familiar story for anyone who’s ever written a story or designed games. There are the things you want to do, and then there’s the jobs you have to take. So, the work I’ve done in the industry has been married to what I had time to do, what matched my skill set and, eventually, who I wanted to work for. I started writing for White Wolf after I won a fiction contest and put together a one-scene scenario for the new World of Darkness. I put some feelers out to write other game fiction with other, larger companies, but right now my games plate is full.

You’re the Firefly brand manager for Margaret Weis Productions. MWP released the Serenity RPG in 2005. How will the Firefly game differ from Serenity? Why are you excited to be working on the line?

This is a hilarious question. I just wrote about this in a blog post titled “Ain’t No Better Place In The ‘Verse…” for Creative Directions. I’m going to be giving semi-regular updates there to keep people apprised of what’s happening for the line. Here’s what I said about the differences between the two games:

“The new Firefly RPG, which is based on the hit Fox television series by Joss Whedon, is scheduled for a 2013 release; the system(s) are currently in development. Margaret Weis Productions did put out a game based on the Serenity movie produced by Universal Studios in 2005. The system for that game was a science fiction flavor of Cortex Classic.”

Why am I excited to be working on the line? Besides the fact that it’s Firefly? 🙂 I’ve been working on this property as a consultant now for six months or so. In every conversation we’ve had, the fans and the show have been at the forefront of those discussions. How do we create a game that’s uniquely Firefly? How do we make Cortex fans of new and classic systems happy? How do we balance business and licensing aspects with creativity? Working on this line is like putting a puzzle together, to best serve a multitude of audiences, address concerns, and produce a great game. The nerd in me is very happy that I have such a beautiful Gordian knot to untangle.

What makes the ‘Verse an interesting setting for games?

In my opinion, the ‘Verse resonates with fans because even though the stories occur in a science fiction context – it’s a very human place to be. We don’t really see the devastation caused by the Unification War, but we know it happened and witness its effects on the characters, much like many of us may not remember World War II, but understand or feel its long-term ramifications. Using that as an example, though, it’s not necessarily the ‘Verse by itself that’s compelling, it’s the characters and how they work together to survive regardless of where they live. If you live in the Core, maybe things aren’t as great as they seem. Once we get out into the Black, we’re not fighting aliens, we’re facing each other.

At the end of the day, though, no matter how gorgeous any setting is, I feel good games always recognize that both the player and the group need to have something to do. It’s not just about what character you play, it’s also about why your crew is together. What’s the point of sitting around the table if you’re not connected? In my mind, this is why Firefly is perfect for gaming, because the further the crew ventures out into the ‘Verse, the more jobs they take, and the more they need each other to make it through.

When you’re not creating and editing games, you write fiction. What inspires you as a writer? What’s your favorite story you’ve written?

I was a storyteller long, long before I discovered gaming. I started writing fiction when I was 9 and specialized in writing while at university. The possibility of all the stories out there and the gift they provide us is what inspires me. The potpourri of cultures, of different lifestyles and ways to be, the history of what has come before and the potential of what will be – there is no end to what can be done or how or why. I love, love, love, love to build worlds and write about characters that resonate within these environments, highlighting the best and worst in all of us, whether that’s to frighten, inform, or entertain.

My favorite story is the one that I haven’t written yet. I realize this is a non-answer and somewhat meta, but as someone who’s obsessed with her art, it’s an honest statement. I never stop honing my craft and, while I need motivation and a cheering section like many writers out there, I’m always looking forward to what’s new.

If I had to pick one, though, I’d say I had a ton of fun with a vampire noir tale edited by Robin Laws dubbed “Fangs and Formaldehyde.” You see, in my vampire world, if the bloodsuckers get too emotional? They die. In point of fact, it’s very messy and involves blowy uppy noises and large splatters. Cue evil laughter in 3… 2… 1… Anyway, this story appeared in an anthology titled New Hero Volume 1, and that book is available from Stone Skin Press.

Tell me about The Queen of Crows, and where you want to go with it.

The Queen of Crows was one of the first enhanced e-books published with reader extras. It takes place in the late 1850s right before the Civil War and is a story about a Navajo shaman who must make a terrible choice. Because it was an experiment, I stuck to a short story instead of a novel, to see what readers thought. I was pleasantly surprised by the very positive reception, because writing about Native Americans, even in an alternate history context, is taboo – especially for, as one reader put it, a “blonde woman.” But, this story is a teeny, tiny piece of a much larger world of magic, mystery, and intrigue. I built that world on a timeline reaching back to the dawn of time. This story here is the origin of a key player in the Violet War to come. Not only do I have an urban fantasy novel set in modern day times, but I also have several pieces of short fiction and an outline for an RPG.

So what happened? Well, remember that time versus money thing I told you about? Yep, that was part of the reason why this project stalled. Living up to my namesake, the Queen of Perfect Timing, the release preceded the iPad by a few months. Needless to say, formatting images for the iBookstore and eBooks was part of the challenge, as the technology physically couldn’t match my vision at the time. Even now, it’d have to be an app or require a lot of programming to make it fit. That’s the downside to coming up with something cool; once you make it, limitations will throw you off-kilter.

Confession time. When I’m worried about work, my creativity is swallowed up by a plethora of bad Cthulhu jokes and abysmal reality checks. Now that I’m having fun? I’m diving in with abandon and can visit make-believe land more often. Business plan was activated in January; I’ve got a great group of readers and a ton of initiatives in the works like updating the website, etc.

It’s scary, sure, but I’m really hoping people will dig these stories and this world in particular.

What are you looking forward to in the months ahead?

I’m trying not to! I’m really grateful I have the projects I do, because I had a dry spell (coupled with nights ending in obligatory fist shaking at the universe) and it turned me into a sea slug. I don’t think there is anything harder for someone who wants to make something – no matter what that “thing” is – for a living. The fiscal realities, coupled with the knowledge and time involved, can cause a person to go mad. At the same time, I don’t want to focus on that aspect with my readers, either, because that undervalues them. My job is to give them the best stories and games I can, and give them a reason to revisit my work again.