Monte Cook has been designing roleplaying games for over 20 years, including Dungeons and Dragons third edition, and games he published through his own company, Arcana Unearthed and Ptolus.
On August 1, he will be releasing the PDF of his new game, Numenera. The print books will follow on August 14. The science fantasy RPG raised over $500,000 on Kickstarter, as well as a whole community of supporters.
In part 2 of our two-part interview with Monte Cook, we discuss his career, what he has learned about self-publishing, and how Kickstarter helped shape Numenera.
MTV Geek: Numenera isn’t your first self-published project. You were working at Wizards of the Coast and helped create Dungeons and Dragons third edition and the related D20 rules. Then you left to form Malhovac.
Monte Cook: D&D third edition came out in 2001. I stayed at Wizards and created a few more things. But there were things that I wanted to do that I was finding that Wizards weren’t interested in going that direction. Wizards, because it was a big company that employees hundreds of people, moved very slowly at the time, from a creative point of view. In 2001, at a planning meeting, you are planning the 2002 and 2003 product schedule. And because they are big they have to be conservative to appeal to the broadest group of players. I wanted to do weirder things. I wanted to be able to come up with an idea and execute it and then see it happen at a much faster time scale.
With self-publishing at the time, there really wasn’t electronic publishing. There were a number of D20 publishers, but they were all going the traditional print route. And frankly, when I was deciding to start out on my own, I had only worked on the creative side. I had never sent a product to a printer, I never knew how to do warehousing, all these kinds of practical things. I was looking for alternatives and a way to self-publish, to create Malhavoc, without having to do that. So almost by accident, or through lack of knowledge maybe, started working with PDFs. Like I said, there really weren’t gaming PDFs at that time, so I really had to kind of figure it all out on my own.
Because it was successful, people who had knowledge of printing and warehousing and all that came to me and wanted to work with me, so I ended up forming a partnership with White Wolf. They had created a studio called Sword and Sorcery, where they were going to do a bunch of D20 stuff. So I partnered with them. That worked out really well for me. That gave me access to artists and cartographers that wanted to work with me. I was very fortunate that those few early attempts that I made at PDFs, built up to a much larger thing. Malhovac was my full time gig from about 2001 to 2006 or 2007. Then I took a break from game design. And now with Numenera, I’m coming back.
Geek: All those years of Malhavoc, from the Arcana Unearthed line to Ptolus, how did that prepare you to create and publish Numenera?
Cook: Arcana Unearthed was D20, but it was it’s own game. I had done a new game with D&D third edition, but with a team, with Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams. Arcana was a monumental effort to bring all that stuff together and make sure all the bases are covered, that you are not doing something silly like forgetting how to figure out how languages work, or something like that. So that was a big milestone in my career. But I was still kind of unsatisfied with it because it was still very much presented like all the other games I have ever seen. And that’s where Ptolus came from.
Ptolus is this big, highly detailed setting. Wanting to make this big tome, I kept thinking, ’How is anyone anybody going to actually be able to use this?’ My partner in Malhovac was my wife at the time, Sue. We looked at all of these travel guides. When you travel, you got all this information you need and you need to access it quick: maps, place to eat, and places to stay. It’s very much like running a game, when you need all this info and you need it fast.
So with Ptolus we tried to chuck the whole way RPG products were being designed, and present it more like a travel guide. That’s why Ptolus has map references on every page, and all of the sidenotes with page references for things in the text, and multiple indexes, all of the stuff to address information management. That’s also the approach I have taken with Numenera.
Geek: What about the logistics side of publishing? What did you learn from the Malhovac days to make Numenera a better product?
Cook: With Malhavoc, I had this huge advantage of being partnered with people that had been doing that for a really long time. I really credit people like Steve Wieck, who was with White Wolf, who really knows his way around publishing, and really taught me a lot about how to do all this stuff. How to get the right quote for printing, managing what the print run is going to be, so you don’t run out of books and then have to have a lag when you reprint. Thinks like that, the nuts and bolts of publishing, I learned through out that process with Malhovac.
So when I wanted to do Numenera last year, I tried to manage all that stuff all myself. What I discovered, even with other people’s help, such as Shanna Germain and other editors such as Ray Valese, it was still way too much. Which is why I brought on Charles Ryan, who is now handling pretty much all of those logistical, technical things. It allows me to focus entirely on the creative side.
There’s also making a beautiful product. Fortunately, again, because of Malhovac, I was already well acquainted with a lot of really talented artists. So when Numenera came around, I knew right away that I wanted Kieran Yanner to be the main concept artist, to develop the look of the game. And I knew for sure that I wanted Jason Engle and Matt Stawicki and all these people to come in and do all this amazing art. Because of Malhavoc, I had all those contacts already made. It would’ve been so difficult to start at zero and make all those connections.
Geek: And how different was it this time around with fans being more involved through the Kickstarter project?
Cook: I have no idea how we could possibly even attempted this without Kickstarter. First and foremost, and I think a lot of people overlook this when it comes to Kickstarter, Kickstarter is kind of like having a focus group. You are putting your idea out there and saying, ’Hey, does anyone want this?’ And if your Kickstarter project fails, it’s not necessarily a sign that you did something wrong, it’s just that you found out that not enough people want that, so try something else. And if your Kickstarter project succeeds, then you know that clearly this is something people really want.
It is a very valuable tool. Yes, it gives you all the money you need to produce the product up front, and that’s wonderful, but it also allows me to go to anyone I am going to work with–artists, printers, anybody–and say, ’Look. I am going to produce this game and right out of the gate, there are 5,000 people willing to shell out all this money a year before the product even comes out. That’s how excited they are.’ And suddenly people are giving you credibility. So that’s an extremely powerful tool and it helps with all of those mundane publishing things.
We had some backer rewards that allowed people to create a character for the Numenera book or one of the adventures. I really like that because it invests people into the setting because they are a part of it. Kickstarter is a really great way for a creator to interact directly with the people who are going to use this product. For example, if I had said we are going to do something particular with the game, people would’ve had the opportunity to say that it wasn’t a good idea and then I could’ve done it differently. It allows this direct interaction that I find really invigorating and exciting. And I think it will make better products.
Geek: There are a lot of big RPG releases this year. How would you like to see Numenera fare?
Cook: It’s unrealisitic and short-sighted to think that it will be the greatest game ever and the biggest seller. D&D is always going to be the big grandfather. And that’s the way it should be. But I would love to see Numenera take it’s place on game shelves of those who are really into roleplaying. There are casual players out there who only own a D&D Player’s Handbook. But then there’s the more hardcore guy. He’s got D&D books, but he’s also got a copy of Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds and GURPS and all of these sort of mainstay games. I would love to see Numenera draw in those people.
We are coming into an end of year here where there are a tons of cool new RPGs coming out. Over the last few years people have said RPGs are dying or no one’s playing them anymore, everyone’s playing board games or computer games. We are seeing a kind of a resurgence of RPGs. We are seeing sales going up, we are seeing companies doing well, all of these new games coming out. I just want Numenera to be a big part of that, right along side the new Shadowrun and 13th Age and a new Call of Cthulhu and a new Star Wars and everything I am excited to see this year.
[Images courtesy of Monte Cook and Numenera.com]