Ego Check: Jennifer Steen of Jennisodes

There are an amazing array of available podcasts devoted to roleplaying games. One of the podcasts you should have in your rotation is Jennisodes, which is the creation of Jennifer Steen. With almost 100 episodes, Jennisodes offers a fantastic collection of interviews with a variety of movers and shakers in the RPG universe. I was able to turn the tables a bit on the creator of Jennisodes as she spoke with me about working on the podcast, developing her own game and whether or not she’s planning to take over the world.

Thank you for agreeing to spend some time with me. You’ve been recording the Jennisodes podcast for over two years now with 90 episodes and counting. Before we begin, congratulations on that accomplishment! How did you get started with the podcast in the first place, and how did you decide on the interview-style format for each episode?

Thanks! It has been a busy but very rewarding two years. I started recording Jennisodes after the Trapcast podcast ended in late 2009. Once the show ended I found myself wanting to get back on the airwaves and podcasting again. The Trapcast was a co-hosted show with 4 members and we always had issues scheduling the recording sessions. I decided on doing an interview-style show because it worked with my schedule and I could line up guests weeks in advance. Over the past four years I have learned so much about gaming and the community and I wanted to give something back. I noticed that there wasn’t a podcast that strictly did interviews and this was a way to get more voices heard, from game designers to players and editors.

Each episode of your podcast starts with you saying the following phrase, “Where good things are good. And bad things are less good.” This immediately struck me as unique; it seems quite hopeful and optimistic. What does the phrase mean to you, and why did you chose to include it before each episode?

I wanted to have a tagline for the show that was fun but also optimistic about gaming. Gaming is so much fun and I wanted to concentrate on the positive aspects of it. If something in a game doesn’t work as well as it should it doesn’t mean its bad, it just needs to be fixed! By having a variety of guests on the Jennisodes I hope that listeners can learn something new and ask questions to make their gaming experiences better.

So any problem is just an opportunity for a solution, right? You stated that you want to keep the podcasts fun and optimistic about gaming. What are some of the most positive aspects of gaming for you?

Some of the most positive aspects of gaming that I get to listen to during the interviews is when my guests are really passionate about developing or working on games. It makes me excited to read and play various products and learn more about what people are doing. I enjoy talking about a game in development and the process the designers have taken through coming up with ideas through playtesting. My favorite part is when a listener tells me they learned about a particular game from the show and went out and started playing it. That’s one person who might not have heard about it before and that is truly rewarding.

The most positive aspect of gaming is sharing a couple of hours with new and old friends and coming up with an imaginative story. Jennisodes has given me the opportunity to meet so many amazing gamers and play a variety of games. I like trying a game and seeing how the designer has created a mechanic that solves a problem in a creative way. It is always great to be in the middle of a game and think “WOW. This game is amazing beyond what I thought.”. The only problem is that I don’t have enough time to play every game!

I completely know what you mean about not having enough time to play more games! It seems that you feel rewarded for your efforts when you’ve helped a fellow gamer find something new and interesting to play. It also seems your curiosity and interest level in learning about new products and ideas is the driving force behind Jennisodes. There is an “eagerness” quality you bring to the interviews and it seems to make the subjects of your interviews feel quite comfortable talking about their work. With almost 100 episodes recorded, how do you maintain that level of energy and enthusiasm?

I have found that some gamers have a hard time being comfortable talking about how awesome their work is. Before each interview I email the guest and ask a few questions to figure out the cool things they are doing. From there I create an outline and share it with the guest to make sure we cover everything. When I record the interview I ask five fabulous questions as an ice breaker to help the guest feel relaxed. There are so many people in the industry that I want to talk with and I build my enthusiasm and energy from that. I also try not to get burnt out and organize my weeks and time accordingly. I also think I am naturally enthusiastic about the little things in life and can get excited about a new mechanic or monster!

That is interesting because I think it can be jarring to listen to a gamer that is very confident and assertive in their self-promotion. I had not really thought about it in much detail before, but it almost seems like there is an expectation for geeks to be quiet, remain humble and keep to themselves. Does that ring true to you? And if so, why do you think that is?

Creating a game is a very personal experience and by putting that game out to the community there is a whole array of responses that can come back to the designer. Everyone is aware of trolls, negative comments, and constructive criticism but not everyone can take all that in and keep trying to improve without feeling like they are a failure. How many games have you seen get ripped apart by someone on the internet? It is a scary place and taking that step to publish a game and make it public is a very scary thing.

I think there is a difference between someone who is brash, cocky and conceited and someone who is confident and has the ability to speak about their game or product in a manner that promotes and markets the game. There is a time and a place to be humble about your game but you also have to sell your game. If I don’t hear about your game how am I supposed to play it or even know it exists? Through the Jennisodes I hope I can expose listeners to these games.

You indicated how you get the guest to relax but I wonder how you manage your stress level during the process. What is the most difficult aspect of the interviews and how do you deal with it?

The most difficult aspect of the interviews is listening to everything the other person is saying and coming up with a question to follow up with. I don’t want to miss anything so I keep a note pad next to the computer to scribble down a quick thought. Sometimes a train of thought is finished and I have to go to the next item on the outline. Creating an outline beforehand has really helped keep the interviews on track. While the interviewee is speaking I try to come up with ways to bridge to the next topic or expand on the current one. This helps make the show sound like a conversation. Since the guests are already relaxed it’s a lot of fun to just listen and laugh together and crack some jokes while talking about gaming.

Your interviews are great, and I encourage everyone to subscribe to the podcast. Moving to another topic, I understand that you are creating a game,  Project Ninja Panda Taco. Could you tell me about your personal experience creating the game and the process of working through both positive and negative feedback?

I am! Project Ninja Panda Taco is a collaborative storytelling game where each player attempts to take over the world with their mastermind, prevent their nemesis from succeeding and try to help others with their minion. I came up with the idea about a year ago and just played around with it until a friend told me to just go for it and design the game. I’ve been learning a tremendous amount about game design and listening to the playtesters. Feedback is important, since it allows ideas to be objective and critical while leaving me the ability to discard some faction of them as needed.

Before asking about specifics of the game, where did you come up with such a name?

I wanted to come up with a top-secret name at first with the word Project [blank]. I started to google various words for project ninja, project panda, project taco and they were all taken. I decided to push it all together and call it Project Ninja Panda Taco or NPT for short. Through game design it actually works well with the game because each mastermind has to come up with a three-step project – hence Project Ninja Panda Taco.

What can you tell me about the game itself and how the mechanics work. I’ve been interested in collaborative storytelling and try to facilitate that activity when I DM. How have you incorporated it into Project Ninja Panda Taco?

Project NPT

This game is different in that in has no GM, it’s wholly collaborative as within each turn everyone participates for the same advantage — a mastermind competes for the votes of the minions against his nemesis and they both make creative and persuasive pleas to win. At no time is this a game where someone is always waiting and someone else is doing the bulk of the ruling, the whole experience of NPT is get the entire table involved with telling the story.

Do you have a cool design for the logo yet? I’d love to see what some folks in the online community come up with for Project Ninja Panda Taco! 

I am still in the writing process for Project Ninja Panda Taco and layout and design come next. I’m very excited to get to the next step and am still figuring out what I want the game to look like! The game is very fun so I want the artwork to radiate that.

From the limited number of games I have played, the gameplay you describe immediately reminds me of my experience with Fiasco. How is NPT similar and different?

Fiasco is a great story game and I enjoy it immensely. Both games require the players to work together for the mutual benefit of the story. While Fiasco playsets can center around a particular theme or idea, Project Ninja Panda Taco focuses on being a mastermind and taking over the world. Project Ninja Panda Taco has an element of democracy and uses persuasion and negotiation in a fun and awesome way to win.

What would a typical game of NPT consist of? For example, how is the game set up and how is the action resolved?

Project Ninja Panda Taco can be played with four to six players, dice and a few tokens. Game play begins with a collaborative character creation and then jumps directly into play. Each player gets to play a mastermind and a minion. As the mastermind, the player tries to take over the world with an elaborate plan and convince the minions to help him. Another player’s mastermind acts as the nemesis and tries to foil the plan, while convincing the minions to help her. The minions must choose who to help and the action is resolved with a simple dice roll.

What influenced the decision to base the game around the mastermind concept?

I have always enjoyed watching Pinky and the Brain and joke about getting a minion to do my work. I wanted to take that silly and fun vibe and create a game about taking over the world with masterminds and minions. A good friend told me to just start writing down ideas and actually create a game. Soon after that Project Ninja Panda Taco was born.

I love Pinky and the Brain! That is such a fantastic show. So do you see yourself more as Pinky or more as Brain?

I feel that I’m more like Pinky than Brain. I do enjoy taking over the world and ruling with an iron fist but I’m definitely more goofy and silly. Pinky always had a positive view on the world and never let the tough times get to him. I try to take pointers from Pinky.

I believe Pinky’s charm has certainly rubbed off on you as your interviews on the podcast are always engaging and fun. But your work ethic seems to be inspired by Brain! What are your future plans for Jennisodes and beyond?

My future plans include Season 3 with more interviews from amazing guests. I plan on going to GenCon and other conventions this year. The show kind of evolves as I go. I would love to keep doing the show and as long as I can schedule everything it should work out! Beyond that I just take it one week at a time and keep everything on schedule. 

Thank you for taking the time to sit in the interviewee chair for a change! Any final words for your fans?

Thank you so much for interviewing me. I’d just like to thank my fans for listening and being open to learning about something new. It means the world to me when a fan comments about a new game they are trying because of an interview or reach out to say thank you. I hope to give them more awesome shows in the future!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

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