On Design and Gaming
Brendan Davis (BD): What is your design process? Where do you begin and what sorts of questions do you ask yourself early in the project?
Monte Cook (MC): It depends greatly on the type of project; designing a game, designing an adventure, or writing a short story, etc., are all very different. I suppose, however, that I look at what I can do that's new and different. I'm not interested in rehashing things that have already been done. If I can't bring something new and original to the table, I don't want to work on it. Even if it's a new take on something old, that's better than doing "just another ____ ."
That, of course, requires that I become at least passingly familiar with much of what's been done in that area or is being done. I've always tried to keep my finger on various pulses. If I do it right, then I'm not just giving readers/gamers what they want, but what they're going to want later and perhaps don't even know they want yet. I don't want that to sound condescending, but it's not their job to anticipate needs like that. It's mine.
BD: As you keep up-to-date with the RPG industry, are there any trends that you notice and feel particularly excited about? Is there anything new that you put your own twist on in Numenera?
MC: I like that's there's a trend toward innovation. I think people are eager to see new and interesting stuff in both the mechanics and setting. There are far fewer examples of "just another elf book" or "yet another licensed game."
If Numenera twists a trend, it's on player empowerment. I think a lot of games are putting more power in the players' hands, narratively speaking. I think that's great, but personally, I think too often that empowerment comes at the GM's expense. In other words, games are empowering players by making them kind of "mini-GMs."
Numenera empowers players not by taking power from the GM and giving it to players, but by taking power from the game and giving it to players. In other words, players don't exert influence on the narrative by changing or creating things outside their characters, but by having more power over how their own character performs and what happens to him or her. In Numenera, players can choose to prioritize tasks, to help ensure that they have a much better chance to succeed at the ones they deem the most important.
BD: What is your approach to playtesting?
MC: I recently wrote at length about this, but to sum it up quickly, it's like that old joke about voting: do it early and do it often.
I start playtesting the moment I've got enough of an idea to play something just to see if it's worth pursuing. That's the alpha test. Then I write up something that's vaguely playable and give it to others to test without contact with me. That's the beta test. At the very end, I also like to send a "ready to go to the printer" version off to some brand new testers to see if I've missed anything.
BD: You got your big break in the industry doing work for I.C.E. (makers of Rolemaster) and you went on to help develop one of the most popular editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Rolemaster and D&D are two strikingly different games. Did your experience with the more realistic Rolemaster shape your contributions to 3E? How did the experience shape you as a designer?
MC: I'm not 100% sure the two games are truly all that different, but I see your point.
All of us that worked on 3E credit the games that we worked on and played beforehand with playing a role in 3E. Jonathan, for example, credits Runequest and Over The Edge. For Skip it was Top Secret and Gamma World, I think. All humans are just the sum of their experiences, and so of course lots of things influenced us. It's very difficult, however, to pull apart a game like 3E and say, "this part comes from this game and that part comes from that one." It just doesn't work that way. At no point did one of us say, "I like the way skills work in this game, so let's do them just like that." It's just a lot more complex and nuanced than that.
Of course, the biggest influences on 3rd Edition D&D were all the prior versions of D&D. People forget about that a lot.
In general, though, I owe a lot to my days at Iron Crown for showing me the basics of doing the job the right way: making deadlines, doing quality work, paying attention to what gamers want, and so on. I worked with a lot of great, creative people there.
BD: You designed Call of Cthulhu d20 with John Tynes. I think a lot of people were surprised that the d20 version of Cthulhu was so good (I know I was). From a design standpoint, what had to be done with d20 to make it work for Cthulu?
Less had to be done than you might think. Classic Call of Cthulhu came out in the early days of RPGs, when every game was heavily influenced by D&D. Stats on a basically 3-18 scale, hit points, making an attack roll and then a damage roll, and so on all equate pretty naturally with d20. Sure, the skill system is different, but skills are skills, and if you understand probabilities you can make them work more or less the same.
Classes had to be ditched (more or less), but I kept levels not so much to show progression but to enable GMs to peg different games or campaigns in different ways. Want the classic CoC feel? Use low levels. Want a pulpy, action-oriented game where you don't run from the deep ones, you mow them down with a machine gun? Use mid-levels. Want a Titus Crow style campaign (a la Brian Lumley), play high level. People play Call of Cthulhu in very different ways, and I wanted to use d20 to make that even easier to pull off.
BD: I phrased that question somewhat poorly, and it came off as a backhanded compliment. What I meant to say is people were surprised to see a new version of a game for a different system rival the original in quality (a bit like the Godfather II equaling or exceeding The Godfather).
From beginning to finish it is an excellent book, but for me the Gamemaster and Stories chapters really stand out. Normally sections like this in an RPG book don’t make much of an impression, they tend to be a bunch of advice we’ve already heard. What do you think you did differently here that worked so well?
MC: Get great thinkers like John Tynes, Ken Hite, Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, and others to contribute. Seriously.
(And for what it's worth, if our positions were reversed, in retrospect I probably wouldn't have expected a d20 Call of Cthulhu to be any good either).
BD: You have mentioned the importance of keeping failure as a risk in games (specifically on the topic of eliminating anything deemed “un-fun” in an RPG system). When it comes to mystery adventures this is a recurring issue because so much hinges on the acquisition and analysis of clues. What are your thoughts on this subject in regards to investigative modules? Is there a place for adventures in which the players might fail?
MC: I think the key is to give multiple avenues for success. If the PCs have to find the secret compartment in the study or the adventure is over, that's probably a poorly written adventure.
This is true of any kind of scenario, though. If the PCs can't sometimes sneak or talk their way past the monster, and must fight, that's just a different kind of railroad. I'm reminded of when Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil came out, some people complained that it was too much of a slog with battle after battle. I was initially surprised, because in the playtests, the characters bypassed the vast majority of that through subterfuge, deception, and diplomacy. What Gygax probably would have called "intelligent play."
The problem was that 3E was this new, very tactical system that practically begged you to put miniatures on a battlemat. As soon as you do that, for many players, that means "fight." In that way, I think 3E unintentionally changed the expected way the game was played. In many ways, at least for some people, it was the game system itself that railroaded the way adventures went. And then 3.5 and 4.0 embraced that tendency rather than eschewed it, and the modules all intentionally became just fight after fight (interesting fights, to be sure, but still combat was clearly the only focus).
But I digress.I do think that you can design an adventure that players might not finish. I've done so.
The Labyrinth of Madness was a 2E style adventure a la the Tomb of Horrors that was designed with the idea in mind that very few people would actually get to the end. This was not because the fights are so hard, but because the mystery/puzzle of the whole thing is so difficult. What I did wrong (and what Gary did right with Tomb of Horrors) was that I didn't build in a lot of places where it was easy for a group to just say, "Okay, we're done here." If I was going to do an adventure like that again, that's what I'd do.
BD: What elements of design are most important to you?
MC: Creativity and fun. What those often translate into is, "give the players an experience that they haven't had before" and "do the GM's work for him or her."
If I design an adventure that's just another orc lair that anyone could have come up with, that fulfills the second goal but not the first. If I design something that's a jumble of cool ideas, and that's it, then I've fulfilled the first goal but not the second. If I have to err on one side or the other, however, I'd go with the jumble of cool ideas rather than just another orc lair.
BD: Not everyone is sold on modules, and it seems there was a period of time when they were not as valued as they once were. Personally I really think they add to a game line, but people often point to the shortcomings of the module format (which can pose challenges when in use at the table). In your opinion, what do modules contribute to the hobby?
MC: I'm a huge proponent of pre-made adventures. For one thing, it just shows you via example the kinds of things players can (should?) do in a game.
I also think that just reading adventures written by other people makes us better GMs. You wouldn't, for example, want to read a book written by someone who never reads books, right? GMs (and designers) fall into ruts quite easily, often without knowing it. There's a lot of inspiration to be found in reading modules—and I can't stress this enough—even if you're not going to run them, or run them as written. If even just one encounter, one plot thread, or one NPC inspires you to create some cool adventure of your own that you never would have imagined before you read it, you're better off. I know that's worth my money right there.
BD: What kinds of RPGs do you personally prefer? If some other designer out there were to make a game specifically for Monte Cook, what ingredients would it need to have?
MC: Nowadays, I like games that are streamlined and elegant, with rules that focus on how the game is actually played—in other words, making sure the table's needs are being met. I roll my eyes at mechanics that are new just to be new, but I adore mechanics that are new because someone's figured out how to do something a better way. Ultimately, that's what good RPG design is about today. Not about always doing something new, it's about doing something we've been doing for 30 years in a better way.
The elements it would need to have would be something really imaginative and cool. Orcs and elves have been done. And yes, I'm certain that there are still new and better ways to do them, but you said that someone was going to design a game specifically for me, and in that case, it's going to be something other than Tolkien fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, or Star Wars space opera.
This is not because I don't love those things (I absolutely ADORE them!), but because I already have them. You can buy me the best green sweater in the world for Christmas but if I already have a closet full of fantastic green sweaters, just how excited am I going to be?
BD: You launched the A+ campaign (a one-month commitment to stay positive) back in July. In an interview around that time, you also mentioned the problem of some gamers not accepting the tastes of others as valid.
I can certainly remember gamers being passionate since I started playing in the 80s, but it does seem like gamer’s opinions are a lot more intense and hostile lately. How do we, as a gaming community, preserve constructive debate and discussion as we tone down the rhetoric? Where is the line between constructive and destructive criticism?
MC: Here's my rather harsh viewpoint on this. There has always been a lot of thoughtful discussion about RPGs. It's just that now, with the Internet, that discussion is being done in public rather than in small, self-selective groups. In the 80s and early 90s, these discussions were located in APAs, in game stores, in game company meeting rooms, or around game tables. Those older, closed, venues were self-selective, so people who didn't gel with the others weren't welcomed back in.
In the open arena, for every one person interested in thoughtful discussion, there seems to be at least one person interested simply in putting forth an agenda. In other words, many people just don't understand the difference between examining something critically and tearing it apart. They don't understand the difference between analysis and advocacy. "Discussing rpgs" becomes "proving that the RPG I enjoy is the best."
When I started playing RPGs, and even for the first 10 years of my professional career, sure, there were discussions about whether Traveller was better than MegaTraveller, or whether the Hero System was better than GURPS. There wasn't the idea, though, that if you played one game, people who played other games were playing RPGs wrong.
That kind of strange, defensive way of looking at the hobby is relatively new. Frighteningly, it creates the kind of self-destructive toxicity that may one day destroy tabletop RPGs. If that happens, people will say that computer games finally killed tabletop games, but you, I, and a few others will know that's not true. Tabletop RPGs weren't murdered. They committed suicide.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
This toxic atmosphere among gamers started about 15 years ago, and it's escalated since then. It worsened even more a few years ago, when some professionals in the industry believed that they should get involved in those kinds of discussions. They used this kind of "you're playing games wrong" sort of approach to try to sell their games (or the new edition of their existing game).
I don't know how to push us back from this brink, but I know that a lot of people quietly want to see it happen. They've all but dropped out of the endless edition wars and old school versus storygame labeling nonsense, so you rarely hear from them, but I think there's an eager part of the RPG audience that just wants to get back to having fun the way they want to have fun without worrying about what someone else has to say about their game or play style.
I think that smart publishers will start catering to them more and more. If they don't, those level-headed gamers will eventually get tired and fade away. All we'll be left with are the argumentative assholes, and I don't want to design games for assholes.
BD: Can you talk a bit about the microscope approach?
MC: You can look at any kind of setting material at different magnifications of your "microscope." I can write up an entire kingdom in three paragraphs, mentioning the ruler, the largest cities, maybe some geography or political information, and that's it. That's low magnification. Or I can crank it up, and write about the same kingdom in 3 pages, and in those pages you might learn the previous info, plus the king's sons' names and personalities, lots of history, the main exports, details about the haunted woods in the middle of the kingdom, and so on. Or I can increase the magnification to its highest and write a whole book on that kingdom. You might get all the above and also learn about the king's eldest son's dog, get maps of all the largest cities, and get entire adventures set there.
The level of magnification isn't related to the size of the location. I can write three paragraphs about a kingdom, and then three pages about a tiny village in that kingdom. The point is that different areas need different levels of magnification based on how they will be used. Some GMs don't want a lot of detail, and they want to run with their own stuff just based off a few general ideas. Some want or need a lot more detail due to ability or time. Sometimes, you present certain things with greater magnification because those details are needed. I might design the product in question so that the players aren't expected to get involved with kingdom politics but will start the campaign and spend a lot of game time in that village. Thus, the village gets three pages and the kingdom gets three paragraphs.
The only reason this is important is that it doesn't seem logical at first. Logic might suggest that every location of a particular type or size should get the same treatment, and that larger areas should get more verbiage. This leads us, however, to game products where all the kings and epic-level wizards are statted up, but we get no detail on the stuff that characters (particularly starting characters) spend most of their time dealing with.
BD: Do you have any other world design principles you incorporate into your work?
MC: If it's not necessary to what goes on at the table, it's probably not worth putting in the book. And if it's worth putting it in the book, it needs to be really interesting both at the table AND to read.
Oh, and one more principle: in a world of fiction, it's okay to have one "thing" that needs doing: one dark lord to overcome, one evil artifact to destroy, or whatever. But in an RPG setting, you need many things that need doing, because PCs need to do a lot of different things, and they need the freedom to choose which things to do.
BD: What areas of knowledge are important to world building?
MC: All of them.
Okay, that's kind of a flippant answer, but it's also kinda true. World building is one of those things that kind of forces you to know a little about a lot, or at least where to get the information.
I think, however, that one area is often overlooked: what do the normal people do in a particular place? For traditional fantasy games, that means not only knowing about Medieval-style warfare, politics, etc, but also about daily life. This is so important because a large number of the people that the GM will end up portraying are "common folk."
Even the players need to know what the alternative is to the adventuring life. They need to understand (at least a tiny bit) what the real world is like if for no other reason than to contrast it to a life of monster slaying and dungeon delving.
BD: This seems to be the biggest challenge for many GMs and designers (finding the daily life details). It can be a challenge to research this sort of information and it can be so easy to invent stuff that doesn’t feel grounded in something real. Do you have any tricks or techniques for finding that believable street level view of a setting?
MC: The trick, I think, is to somehow get the point across that your average Joe or Jane in the fantasy world's daily life is pretty different from the players', without making it so different that it's un-relatable. Is it important for someone playing D&D to truly understand feudalism? Is that going to enhance their game experience? Probably not. Is it important for the players to realize that the huge bags of coins they are carrying are likely more than most people will see in a year, or perhaps even their lifetime? Yeah, I think so. That actually gives useful perspective.
The other issue is immersion. I think understanding what life is like in between the dungeon exploration (or the shadow missions for the megacorp, or hunting deep ones, or whatever) helps with immersion, and that's something that a lot of players feel is really rewarding.
There's a great book called Life in a Medieval Village by Francis and Joseph Gies that I really like. They also did Life in a Medieval City and Life in a Medieval Castle. I recommend them to anyone running a traditional fantasy game.
BD: A lot of GMs draw on history, particularly for fantasy settings, but even for science fiction you can see traces of real world history. Are there historical periods or types of history that you find particularly inspiring as a designer?
MC: I have a degree in Ancient History and find Egypt and Greece to be two favorites. I'm also fascinated by Sumeria.
BD: Where does most of your inspiration come from?
MC: I started to type "fiction," and then deleted it, then I started to type "real life" and deleted it. I'm now tempted to say "gaming." I guess I'm influenced by the creations of others, the real world, and by things that come up spontaneously in games. I don't know which one provides the "most" Inspiration.
BD: Ptolus is very large. It is one of the most ambitious world building efforts out there. What did you learn working on Ptolus? Anything you would do differently if you did it again?
MC: Ptolus is where the microscope approach that we discussed comes from. It also really crystalized the kinds of things a GM needs as opposed to the kind of thing that game designers want to write about. You know how the players will often say, "we find someone on the street to tell us what's going on." Ptolus needed sections on "random people in the street" for GMs. It needed something to tell the GM how long it takes to get from Oldtown to Midtown on foot as opposed to in a carriage. It needed a layout that allowed GMs to find out more about a particular name mentioned in one location without flipping through 100 pages of other info. In other words, it needed information that really came up at the table. Ultimately, a game designer is there to fill the needs of the GM and players. I guess I keep coming back to that.
BD: It seems like you relish the research aspect of world design, can you talk about your approach to research?
MC: I am an avid reader, and love having a good excuse for learning new things. I don't know that I do anything different in that regard than anyone else.
BD: There is a lot of advice out there on world building. What advice, if any, do you think people should ignore? What do you find the most useful?
MC: I think it depends on what you're doing it for. If it's just for yourself and/or your home RPG campaign, do whatever you wish. Go nuts. Creation is fun. Sometimes, making stuff up for your homebrew world is an end unto itself. It's a part of the game that the GM can play by himself or herself, and there's nothing wrong with that.
If it's for a work of fiction, you can still have that fun, but make sure that what you put *on the page* is only what the reader absolutely needs. I don't need to know the political history of every village that the main character travels past.
If it's for an RPG, you need to fall somewhere in between. The GM needs to know more than the fiction reader, and truthfully, more than is ever going to likely show up at the game table. However, if it might actually come up at the table, give him or her the information. Different GMs will need different information as their campaigns progress. Arm them both either with the information, or at least with enough of an idea so that they can make it up themselves.
BD: How important is it for the flavor of a setting and the mechanics to support each other?
MC: I think it's vital. That doesn't mean that one set of mechanics can't apply to multiple settings or vice versa. But the designer or the GM has to give a lot of thought to how the two speak to each other.
The example I always pull out is this: in 3E D&D, invisibility is only a 2nd level spell. It's not that rare. The people who live in a world dictated by those rules aren't going to be shocked if a character can be invisible. They're going to have at least heard of such a thing. Conversely, if I'm running a game set in Middle Earth, I shouldn't see a bunch of clerics running around. It's not true to the setting. Those are both obvious, but they illustrate the point that setting and mechanics need to speak to each other and inform each other.
BD: How has your work on Numenera’s Ninth World been different from your previous world building efforts?
MC: Two things come to mind. First, I've never spent so much time trying to really define what is true to a setting and what isn't. It's always been clear in my mind, but trying to convey "that's too fantasy" or "that's too sci-fi" to artists, editors, and readers has been a challenge. But I like a challenge.
Second, it's weird to have a setting that has so little grounding in its own history. That is to say, there is so MUCH history in the Ninth World —a billion years— that the individual details of history have little meaning. The history of the world is strange, mysterious, and unknown in the Ninth World (it's part of the setting's conceit), so it's not like we say, "this ruin is from the time of Emperor Blahblahblah who fought the great wars of Such-n-Such 10,000 years ago." In the Ninth World, it's an ancient ruin filled with mysteries, wonders, and oddities. The historical context carries no import—the weirdness and wonder are what is important.
I guess another way to put it is, in the Ninth World, even though it is filled with mysteries of the lost aeons, it is the present that matters, not the past.