Lauren Bilanko Interviews Monte Cook
I have been preparing all week for Monte Cook's visit to Twenty Sided Store this Saturday, May 14, 2016, and I thought I would share with you a couple questions I'd always wanted to ask him.
Lauren Bilanko: Was it a dream of yours to work as an editor for roleplaying games or would you say you were just in the right place at the right time when you landed your first job?
Monte Cook: I’d wanted to write roleplaying games from the age of 14, when it first dawned on me that it was actually someone’s job to do so. This happened when I first saw a D&D module called Dwellers of the Forbidden City by David Cook. The fact that his last name was my last name made me realize, even as a young teen, that there were real people behind these cool products.
LB: You were right in the middle of it all when D&D really influenced a mainstream audience. I feel like that time inspired many young gamers and indie RPG designers? What was going on in the roleplaying community, what was it that really ignited the whole thing?
MC: It was sort of a perfect storm. Geek culture was sort of finally taking over society, and D&D had lost the "stigmas" that it had in the past. Those who were part of the D&D craze of the early 80s now had kids of the right age to maybe introduce. And 2nd Edition had really been fallow for a long time, and D&D fans were eager for something new. So when 3rd Edition came out in 2000, it was absolutely huge. Suddenly, characters in sitcoms were playing D&D, and GE was using D&D to help sell appliances. What a change from the late 80s and the 90s!
LB: You were one of the first to publish games in PDF format, what did you learn from that experience and would you say some of your ideas have now come full circle?
MC: That was back in 2001, and basically, back then I didn’t know how to get my own products printed, warehoused, or sold, and doing so myself electronically seemed like an easier way to do it. Of course, no one was doing that back then, so I sort of inadvertently blazed a trail. I had just finished writing The Book of Eldritch Might and I remember sitting in my living room talking to my friend Bruce, wondering, “Will 20 people buy this? 50?” I had no idea if the format would catch on. Of course, we sold 1,000 in the first few hours of releasing it (and remarkably, still sell a few copies each month 15 years later). It is interesting to see that PDF has now become a standard in the industry and there are multiple whole rpg ebook shops online. What I would have given for that back then!
LB: What led you to creating and ultimately deciding to publish Numenera and the Cypher System?
MC: The ideas for the setting and system were actually things I’d been kicking around for literally 20 years. After leaving my contract position at WotC to lead 5th Edition design, I found myself with a clear schedule for the first time in years, and those ideas came bubbling to the surface again. I guess game design and setting creation is an addiction.
LB: Which came first, your interest in sci-fi fantasy or your interest in roleplaying games? What was your first experience that made you fall in love with both?
MC: Science fiction. I already was a fan, reading Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and even Frank Herbert and then when Star Wars came out I was in for life. For me, discovery of D&D came about a year or so after Star Wars. (Personally, I believe the success of D&D owes a fair bit to Star Wars, even though D&D technically came first. As a kid of 10-11 at the time, I can tell you that Star Wars just sort of primed the whole culture to be not just receptive, but eager for anything to do with imaginative action and otherworldly adventure. Plus, you know, sword fights.)
LB: For somebody who has not yet played Numenera, the Strange or the Cypher System, how would you describe the differences between them?
MC: The Cypher System is the game engine for the other two games. The Cypher System Rulebook is most of the game mechanic stuff taken from the other two with all the setting stuff taken out. It also has guidelines for adapting the rules to any genre—fantasy, sci fi, modern, and even superheroes.
The Strange is a science fiction game that postulates that there are otherworldly realms where all the fiction of Earth is real. So you can travel to Sherlock Holmes’ London, then to a place where plucky rebels try to save the galaxy from an evil empire, and then to a place where Lovecraftian horrors lurk at your doorstep. And your characters adapt to each new world each time, which keeps things interesting!
And of course Numenera came first. It’s a science fantasy game set incredibly far in the future, where technology is so advanced that it seems like magic (and thus it’s a science fiction game that feels like a fantasy game). It's really, really weird, in all the right ways, I think.
LB: For the Game Master, what is the most important thing to keep in mind when running a Cypher System game if they really want to bring out the essence of it all?
MC: Story trumps rules. Period. In fact, the way to really think about it is that ACCORDING TO THE RULES you should ignore or change the rules where you need to in order to keep the story going well. That’s what the GM Intrusion mechanic in the game is all about.
Check out what Monte Says...