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Interview with Monte Cook

Posted on June 4, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

I started gaming when I was about 10. I heard about it in, of all places, Sunday School. Some people were talking about it and I played with them a little. Eventually, I got some D&D books of my own and started my own group. Besides D&D, we played Villains and Vigilantes, Gamma World, Aftermath, Lords of Creation, and eventually Rolemaster, Call of Cthulhu and other games as well. I come from a game-playing family who loved all kinds of card games, chess, board games like Monopoly, Risk, Payday, and so on.

From an extremely early age, about as soon as I could write, I was designing my own board games–the kind where you roll a die and move that many spaces and then follow the instructions on that space. I must have made hundreds, with little squares drawn all around on pieces of paper. Some were quite involved, if I remember correctly.

What inspires you? How do you keep your ideas fresh?

I suppose I am inspired by the avoidance of boredom. I get bored very easily, and find stale ideas–things that have been done to death–to be particularly boring. I can’t work on things that are just like something that’s already been done. So I suppose if I manage to keep things fresh it’s just a selfish thing to keep myself interested. (I do occasionally hear from people that my stuff is “too weird” or not their cup of tea, and I think that’s why.)

What advice do you have for hopeful authors trying to get into the RPG industry?

I’m asked that question a lot, and my advice always is to try to publish an article in Dragon or Dungeon magazines first. The reason I say that is because it’s a great way to get some experience as well as exposure. Don’t try to start your own company. With the industry the way it is right now, if you have no experience and no credits to your name and you try to start your own company, the public has no reason to trust that your work will be good, because they have nothing to base their opinion on. So go through the normal channels first — it can lead to bigger things later.

What do you feel is the biggest issue facing the gaming community today?

Well, I suppose that depends on where you are in the gaming community. If you’re a gamer, the biggest issues are: where can I find other gamers? which product will make my game more fun? and things like that. Which are the same issues that you faced if you were playing in 1977, 1982, 1991, or whenever else. If you work in the industry and are trying to publish products for gamers, the issues are also pretty much unchanged: how do I develop a product people want and then let them know that they want it? The people and the companies in the industry have changed, but I don’t think the issues have really changed. I suppose for a while the big issue was “RPGs are Satanic” but I think that was always way overblown. While some might consider it to be a big issue, I’ve never been a proponent of the idea that RPGs and hobby games should be mainstream or sold in Walmart. I know others decry computer games as the death of pen-and-paper games, but the statistics just don’t support that conclusion, so I don’t think that’s a real issue, either.

What was your most challenging work in the RPG industry?

3rd Edition D&D, no question. Imagine what would have happened if we had botched it, and created a game no one liked.

What was you most rewarding work in the RPG industry?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ll give you the same answer as the last question. I suppose the biggest personal rewards come from the biggest challenges. I’m really happy with what we did.

What was your inspiration for the Ghostwalk book?

The idea that it’s not fun if your character dies to just sit there while your friends get to keep playing the game. While death in an rpg can be dramatic, or the threat of death can inspire danger, the consequences of death of a character almost always result in a less fun experience. With that idea as a basis, we went into Ghostwalk with the idea of designing a mini-setting for D&D where that problem wasn’t a problem–it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, so to speak. The idea that you can keep playing your character even after he’s dead is still very appealing to me. Overall, I’m a big proponent of the game needing to be fun. That doesn’t sound like a big leap, but surprisingly, it often is. I’m always surprised by game designers who focus so much on things being “realistic” or innovative or simple or any of a number of other sometimes laudable things that they forget about what’s fun. Of course, as a designer, I need to always recognize that different people have different concepts of what constitutes fun.

What can you tell us about the “Shandler Chronicles”?

Back almost two years ago, the editors of Game Trade Magazine approached me about doing some ongoing fiction support for Call of Cthulhu each month (CoC d20 had just come out), and I thought it would be fun. Originally, it was supposed to be tied to whatever product Chaosium had coming out at the time, but that fell by the wayside pretty quickly. It’s epistilary–the whole thing is told in the form of letters, usually from a private eye named Philip Shandler to his friend Thomas. It started out with Philip poking around his alma mater, Miskatonic U., looking for a missing student, but it’s since involved cultists of Nyarlathotep, the Dreamlands, yithians, the Necronomicon, and, most recently, Shub-Niggurath. One of my goals for the series was to make it feel like a Call of Cthulhu game, but not so much that you can actually hear the dice rolling. So we’ve seen Philip’s sanity degrade over time, and we’ve seen him change a lot. The story has been episodic, but there’s clearly some long-term, over-arching themes. It’s still going on, in every issue of Game Trade Magazine.

What are the challenges working with an established setting like Call of Cthulhu?

Similar to designing 3rd Edition D&D, you’re messing around with something that is beloved by many people. D20 CoC was kind of a risk in that way. But the task was to show that d20 could handle something very “un-D&D-like” and I think we pulled it off. As far as something like Shandler goes, working within the confines of the Cthulhu Mythos is like hanging around with old friends. I’ve long been a Mythos fan, and I’ve run a lot of Call of Cthulhu over the years, so coming up with the plots comes very naturally. As I mentioned before, though, I don’t like stale ideas, so I try to give my own spin to things that are very familiar.

What RPGs are you currently playing?

While I just ran a short (traditional) Call of Cthulhu game not too long ago, I play D&D almost exclusively. Not long ago, I was running two different games (set in the same city), but now it’s just the one weekly game. It’s an opportunity to allow d20 material to develop naturally, and playtest things–although first and foremost I do it for fun.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on Beyond Countless Doorways, a planar sourcebook for d20 that is exciting to me because it’s a Planescape reunion project. I’ve got all my old Planescape design team friends–Colin McComb, Wolf Baur, Ray Vallese and Zeb Cook together to work on this book. While it’s not “officially” an actual Planescape product, people who liked that line for its innovation and ideas will like this book as well. Working on it reminds me of what I love most about rpg design–the exciting, imaginative ideas and the challenge of presenting them in a useful and fun way for people’s games.

For more information on Monte Cook, visit www.montecook.com.

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