Monte Cook is a legend among roleplaying game designers. Monte has worked on hundreds of roleplaying products. He is probably best known for his work on the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Planescape, Ptolus, and Arcana Evolved. In addition, his own games Numenera, the Cypher Systems, and Invisible Sun, have won numerous awards. In this episode, we’ll discuss Monte’s philosophies on developing roleplaying games, the importance of clear rules and good writing, and what it takes to bring new people into strange and wondrous worlds. Enjoy!

Check out this episode and the previous ones here:

“I don’t even remember not making up games.”

We start by asking Monte about how he got his start in game design, and he tells us he’s been creating games since childhood, starting with war games and moving on to Dungeons & Dragons. As soon as he realizes that people make games for a living, he decides, then and there, that he was going to become a game designer. This kind of passion is something we’ve discussed many times on this podcast. If you’re the kind of person who works on games, whether or not you’re getting paid for it, it’s likely worth pursuing as a career or hobby.

“When it comes to RPGs, it’s really the marriage of really good solid writing, plus game design.”

In this section, Monte describes the importance of having a skilled writer working on a roleplaying game. Often, role-playing games either give too much information or too little information.

“There are people out there who are super creative, they get roleplaying games, and whatever you put in front of them, it will be easy for them. You are not writing for them. They don’t need you.”

Monte describes that one of the significant challenges in developing role-playing games is how to present the information. He passes on a piece of advice about RPG manuals: “They’re the thing you read to learn the RPG and a reference guide. When you first open the books, you read it one way, and then every time you open it after that, you’re reading it differently.” 

We discuss how this is true for any rulebook out there. You have to see your rulebook through the eyes of someone approaching the game for the first time and the 100th time and writing the book for both groups.

“The very heart of the game design is sort of a brief negotiation.”

We speak for a while on streaming roleplaying games and their effect on the industry. From exciting roleplayers with great streams, and sometimes disillusioning new players, they run their first games, and they don’t turn out quite like the streams. Monte describes the development of his recent games, like Cypher System, Numenera, and Invisible Sun, as conversational. Getting the GM’s nose out of a pile of books and onto the players makes for better streaming.

“When it was at its best the experience was literally me and a couple of these other guys sitting in a conference room at the office and just saying, ‘Okay, so today, we’re gonna talk about second-level cleric spells.’ And that was our day.”

In this section, Monte walks us through the process of developing 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons. He discusses the refinement of 2nd edition rules by creating a core mechanic. In this case, taking a modifier from your character sheet and adding it to your die roll. There are some great lessons to hear about recreating a popular property to bring in a larger audience. We go on to discuss the power of empathy in game design, and role-playing. We talk about how playtesting helps you hone in on how to connect with players through your game, and how players connect with each other. He mentions that one of the things that trips up most game designers is lack of playtesting because they need to see the mechanic that’s in their head being used in a group.

“I have subdivided the audience and by definition, I’m not going to appeal to every gamer out there, but I think that is probably a foolish goal anyway.”

Monte Cook is one of the leading names in roleplaying game design, in this section, we dig into what it takes to be successful as an RPG designer. We discuss getting into the industry, designing your game for a particular group of players, and even Kickstarting your game.

“People are good at expressing what doesn’t work, but they’re not great at expressing what does.”

As I’ve said before, the only metric that matters is player experience. Here, we talk about using feedback to improve your games and about understanding what people want, but as a designer giving them what they need. Generally, during playtests, you take advice on what problems exist in a game, but you don’t take the advice on how to fix those problems.

“For every game master, there are four or five players. That’s your RPG audience. People are always marketing to game masters, but they’re the smaller part of your audience.”

Surprise! We’re working on an Ascension RPG. In this final section, I ask Monte Cook for his advice on developing our game. He offers some great wisdom that we’ll be sure to incorporate. My favorite is the quote above about focusing on the players and not the game master. He suggests considering what your game does that D&D is not already doing for players, especially if your game setting is a traditional fantasy world. If you’re creating an RPG we suggest you pay close attention. There’s lots of good stuff here!