Game Designer Monte Cook On His New Game ‘Numenera’ [INTERVIEW]

Monte Cook has been a roleplaying game designer for over 20 years and is best known for working on the Planescape setting for Dungeons and Dragons, being one of the designers of Dungeons and Dragons third edition, and a variety of games such as Arcana Unearthed and Ptolus that he self-published through his company Malhovac.

After a hiatus for several years, he has returned to game design. Numenera is an original game and unique setting with the tendency toward the strange. The game will be released as a PDF on August 1, with the printed book to follow on August 14.

In part 1 of our two-part interview with Monte Cook, we discuss the creation of Numenera, the feel of the game, and the power of ideas.

MTV Geek: How would you describe Numenera?

Monte Cook: Numenera is a very far future science fantasy game. It has a really simple, story-based, narrative-heavy rule set. It is designed to allow people to play games kind of the way I like to run games, which is very story focused, very character focused. There’s still plenty of room for fun combat and crazy encounters, because I like that too, but it really empowers people to create a game around their own table that allows them to tell really cool stories and focus on the really imaginative stuff. It is what draws me to RPGs in the first place.

Geek: Your work has been leaning toward the strange side, but it seems like Numenera is even further down the weird spectrum.

Cook: Very much so. The weird is actually a thing we talk about in Numenera. In the Game Mastering section I am constantly encouraging people to inject the Weird into their game. One of the pieces of advice I give to people for Numenera is that if you have two ideas for two different things, make them one thing. I might have an idea for this guy with a device that allows him to float. And I have an idea for this intelligent fish. Why not make that one thing? So you got an intelligent fish that floats around in the air, and he has a breathing apparatus. And all of a sudden you got this weird NPC to talk to. You can make things really weird by combining ideas. In Numenera there are just tons and tons of little germs of ideas.

Geek: This is quite different from the Dungeons and Dragons and the related D20 rules you worked with for the past ten years or so. Why the change?

Cook: On the one hand it is a shift. D&D Third edition and the D20 rules set is very regimented. There are proscribed ways of doing things that are pretty clear. Your character CAN do this, they CAN’T do that. Even to the point of the way the Game Master interacts with the game is very proscribed. For a lot of people that’s the way their minds work–they want clear parameters. But I also recognize that there are gamers who like things to have a little more flexibility. That’s the approach that Numenera has.

I actually like both. I am still playing in a D&D campaign, even while I’m working on and running Numenera games. Yes, they’re very different. They each scratch their own sort of itch. Even when I was doing almost exclusively D&D games, I was still injecting a lot of flexibility and wide open parameters. When you look at the Game Master section of the Numenera book, it’s kind of a how-to guide on how I run games. It’s all of the different little things I like to do and the methods I like to use to create a story with the group at the table. It is a shift. But at the same time, it’s kind of the way I have always been doing it too.

It’s different for both players and game masters. Players are going to find it still very familiar. You are building a character; you are making these choices; and it all comes together, hopefully, to create the character you want to play. I am a big proponent of coming to the table with an idea, ’This is the character I want to play; how does the game allow me to create that.’ Rather than sitting down and looking at the rules and saying, ’Well these three character options sorta go together, so I am going to make the character based around that.’ What I like is for a player to be able to come to the table and say, ’I want to make the guy that utilizes some kind of telekinesis kind of thing, but he is also good with a sword; and he’s really smart.’ I want the game to say, ’Yes! You can do that! And here’s how!’ That is the approach I want to have for the players.

For the Game Master, you aren’t necessarily so bound by hard-and-fast rules. In fact, there is a rule called GM Intrusion. GM Intrusion is when the Game Master decides to make a change in an encounter to make it cooler. At any point, the Game Master can say, ’GM Intrusion! As you are fighting this weird beast, your sword falls out of your hands and goes across the floor. Now what you going to do?’ And a player has to deal with a new circumstance, but on the flip side the player effected gets an Experience Point. (Unlike in D&D, one Experience Point is pretty significant in Numenera.)

The idea there is that you the player are having this experience. It’s going to be one of those things like, ’Remember when you were fighting that horrible monster?! And you dropped the sword?! And you had to do that weird thing?!’ It makes this fight different from the last fight, and different from the one before that. Roleplaying games can start to become a slog, where you are just rolling dice and taking off the same hit points with every single fight. This empowers the Game Master to make everything interesting and unique, but it rewards players for having to deal with new and weird things that keep coming up.

Geek: Who is the audience for Numenera? What kind of gamers will it appeal to?

Cook: I think that there are two disparate groups that are interested in Numenera. One group is people who are relatively new to roleplaying games who would maybe be daunted by something like D20 or 4th edition D&D, a rules-heavy, tactical game like that, who are more intrigued by the imaginative, interactive part of roleplaying games. A lot of people come to me and say, ’I find the idea of the Ninth World and the setting of Numenera to be intriguing, but I never really gotten into RPGs before. Do you think that this game is for me?’ And I said yes. I try to present the game so that would be true.

But the other side of it is that I started playing D&D and roleplaying games really early on, pretty much when they were in their infancy. And I remember playing D&D out of the original booklets. They weren’t very rules heavy, where things were very much based around the more open-ended, you-can-do-whatever-you-want philosophy. I think there are a lot of people like me who remember that, who are going to find Numenera a refreshing break from the more rules-heavy games. There are lots of people who don’t need to be told that because that’s just the way they’ve been running their games anyway, because they started way back when, because that’s just the way games were back then. So I think Numenera will really appeal to them as well. It’s going to feel–I hesitate to use this term because it’s sort of taken on a completely different meaning–in a way it’s kind of old school. I’m really excited about connected with those people as well.

Geek: What two or three things are you most proud of Numenera?

Cook: First and foremost, this actually has very little to do with me and anything I did, the book is just so damn beautiful. It’s just filled with lots of lush, gorgeous art–and that’s thanks to a lot of things. That’s thanks to wonderful artists, wonderful layout artists, and it’s also thanks to Kickstarter support, which allowed me to have a decent art budget.

It’s also just how user-friendly this book it. Numenera is one of the weird games where there are lots of rules material in there, but the rules are fairly light compared to other games. You normally make 3 or 4 really big choices in character creation, but you have a whole lot of options to choose from. I think that’s kind of exciting and allows you to make lots of different kinds of characters. There’s a lot of material there to manage and lots of different choices, so organizing all of that was a challenge. But I think it came out really good.

If I can tell you one more, it’s just going to be the ideas. I am such a fan of RPG books being filled with ideas, the kind of thing where you sit down and start reading it and you are like, ’I don’t have an idea for an adventure; I have an idea for a thousand adventures!’ I like to look at RPG books and be overwhelmed, ’I want to run 15 campaigns!’ That kind of excitement that comes from really cool ideas. I hope people find that with Numenera. That’s certainly the goal.

[Images courtesy of Monte Cook and Numenera.com]

Read Part 2 of our interview with Monte Cook.

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