EN World Interview: Monte Cook and Numenera
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Monte Cook and Shanna Germain attended the first of their Ultimate Retailer Events at Astral Games in Medford, Oregon in which they talked about Numenera and answered audience questions. A video of this event will be up on EN World later this week. They were both kind enough to sit down and talk with us at the event's conclusion.
The story of the Numenera Kickstarter is well known to the gamers who backed the game. To an outsider though, it is a puzzling success story with a seemingly impossible beginning and an equally impossible ending. A confluence of enthusiastic fans, a well respected game designer, promising initial ideas, and an old school design philosophy mixed with modern trends in gaming led to a project that exceeded its initial scope and resulted in a Kickstarter project that not only over-funded to the tune of half a million dollars, but also saw the founding of a new company, licensing deals, and a huge fan base eager for more products.
Monte Cook is a game designer, author of both fiction and non-fiction works as well as comics, and a creator and contributor to many table top game lines. He began his game design career with Iron Crown Enterprises on the Rolemaster RPG, joined TSR when it was still TSR, and made the move to Wizards of the Coast where he and his team designed Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition. Since his time with WotC, he has worked on Monte Cook's World of Darkness, Pathfinder, HeroClix, his own Ptolus setting, and much more. He is a prolific and successful designer with a long line of influence on both gaming and those who play the games.
As a gamer, he has been playing since the late '70s when he was first introduced to D&D in, of all places, his church youth group. In part, these early experiences with D&D are important influences on what he wanted to accomplish when designing Numenera.
“When I designed Numenera,” Monte explains, “that's really what I was trying to capture; how I played D&D back in 1979, where there wasn't a rule for most things, where you were kind of making things up as you went and adjudicating things on the fly.” The Numenera system, which Monte and his writing and editing partner, Shanna Germain, refer to as the Cypher System, is designed at the outset as a rules-light, narrative system.
How narrative? When asked to put it on a continuum with Rolemaster on one end and Fiasco on the other, Monte placed it closer to Fiasco, but not quite as far as games like FFG's Edge of the Empire. “It's nearer Basic D&D,” he said. He is quick to point out that it isn't a d20 System game, though, in spite of using a d20 to determine success and failure. He stresses that the game is not rules heavy and the basic rules can be learned by almost everyone in under ten minutes. It is meant to be story-based game play.
There is a definite trend towards narrative game play going on in RPGs. In the past, most games that came out tended to be very one sided in their storytelling even while pointing out how much of the story is created by the players as their characters interact with the adventures. The current move to more narrative and interactive styles is a response to the gamers needs according to Mr. Cook.
“There are a lot of people who are still absolutely loving 4th Edition and Pathfinder – the very tactical 'here are my suites of powers and I know exactly how all those can work' and the GM is there to kind of facilitate things. I certainly don't prefer them to move away from that. But right now, at this stage of my life, the game I want to play is more story based.” He points out that even the new edition of D&D being play tested is moving more towards a story based mechanic, but is still far removed from what Numenera and other games are trying to do. “I think it is just the industry addressing the needs of the player base,” he says.
Shanna Germain says that, with the advent of Kickstarter, gaming has lost a lot of the former 'gate keepers' of gaming and opened up to a much more responsive model of game production that is tuned in to it's player base and the sorts of games they want to play. “Players of all walks have been playing with what's out there. [If the game they want to play isn't available] then they have been playing games like Pathfinder by their own rules and adjusting things to their own style, by making things up and adjusting it to make it rules-light, and now there are just more options out there. If the market is changing, it's changing because it can and is meeting the variety that has always been there.”
Monte points out that people who have been following his work over the years and starting in 3rd Edition or Pathfinder or 4e, haven't had the experience of playing the games like older gamers who started in the late 70s and early 80s did.
“I kept thinking, as I was writing Numenera, that … all I was doing was writing down what all of us were doing and thinking back in the '70s and early '80s, but that kind of needs to be done now. If you got your start in 3e and with minis and tactical 5-foot steps and so on, you maybe aren't even aware [of what it was like back then]. I found that there were times when I was running games like 3e, when the rules would often be a barrier to telling the kind of stories I would want. So Numenera is kind of a response to that.” Don't think that he is slamming 3e and similar games however. He maintains his love for D&D 3rd Edition and, outside of Numenera, it is the game he is most proud of in his career so far.
Looking to the Future
When it came to creating Numenera and his vision for it, he had several options. He could have produced a simple source book and hung it on another rules system instead of going the route of the complete core book.
“I could have done that,” Monte says, “and it would have come out and been another Malhavoc Press book under the OGL/d20 license and that would have been the safe thing to do and that would have been what the expectations were, but it just really wasn't where my design head was at at the time. I had kind of been away from that kind of table top RPG design for a while. The more I thought about Numenera the more I thought this was really about this weird setting and the cool stories that happen in it. Could you make a d20 Numenera? Sure, and it would work just fine, but it didn't interest me.
“When I look at market trends though, the most that that could have done was become moderately successful. For example, Paizo is doing a great job at supporting Pathfinder and having a lot of success and there are a few people who are out there doing Pathfinder compatible stuff, but it's not upsetting the apple cart. I wanted to see if there was a way to turn the collective heads of table top gamers. In a modest way, we did and the only way to do that is with a new game. That is really a secondary concern though, primarily it just wasn't the kind of game I wanted to work on.”
For creative people, Shanna says, the safe thing isn't always the best route and that for really amazing games you have to stretch yourself creatively. “Do the things you are really passionate about. It's a choice, you can do the things that you kind of love and are good at or you can start something fresh that you are really passionate about and can really stretch your creative muscles on. Working on Numenera really does that.”
The Kickstarter Kick
He chose Kickstarter to finance the game for not only its obvious advantages of largely risk free money and relative popularity as a funding platform, but also as a means of gauging interest in the game and building a fanbase that would exist before the game even came out. In fact, by using Kickstarter, he was not only able to produce the book he wanted, but to expand it beyond his wildest hopes.
“Originally it was going to be a rule book, and a much more modest one at that, but it was Kickstarter that blew it up into a big book and line. If I had sunk however many ten of thousands of dollars into publishing this game, which was not like anything I had published before, and it turned out no one was interested in it, then I'm just out a lot of money. Kickstarter allows me to see if there is any interest in it and, in the case of Numenera, showed me that there was even more interest in it than I had anticipated. It spurred on the development of Monte Cook Games in general and the development of a whole line of games, and paved the way for other games in the future. It shapes our perceptions when we're thinking about the future because we know that, by table top RPG standards, there are a lot of people who are interested in this genre and that type of game.”
Shanna explains that it is a much more interesting and open way of creating something, citing the number of people who were willing to take early versions of the game and teach it to others and provide feedback during the funding process. “They got a really great opportunity to be the heart of making this game happen, not just in backing the game, but also in play test response and feedback. The were a really wonderful group of people who not only wanted to play the game, but wanted to help other people to play it, too.”
Making the Weird Weirder
If there is one overall design philosophy to the Numenera setting itself, it is 'add the weird and make it weirder.' This has helped inform the world of Numenera at virtually every step. Set a billion years in Earth's future, the eight intervening civilizations have made incredible advances in science and technology. Unfortunately, to the denizens of this, the Ninth World, these advances have been all but lost. They find themselves confronted with bits of technology that they do not fully understand and are more likely to explain it away as magic than to comprehend the underlying principles involved. This opens the door to the strange and wonderful as well as to the frightening and dangerous. You are as likely to run across an item that gives you what amounts to a superpower as you are to find one that harms you in ways you can't understand or defend against.
This leads to a full and rich world in which virtually anything can happen or exist. Take modern day science and tech and extrapolate it out to, not only its logical ends, but to it's most fascinating potentials and possibilities and then go a step further. Chances are, whatever you have just come up with, whether it be technical, biological, or mechanical, exists, or can exist, somewhere within the realms of Numenera. Even the purely theoretical has a place and that place is often right next to a chunk of mad science gone wrong.
As the Numenera line develops, there are other opportunities to play in and around the setting. Early in the Kickstarter campaign Monte Cook and company were approached by AEG games with an idea for an expansion to their Thunderstone line of deck building games. You can find Thunderstone: Numenera through your local FLGS, but it doesn't end there. The upcoming spiritual successor to the video game “Planescape Torment”, “Torment: Numenera” is being set in a chunk of the Numenera landscape set aside for its use and is expected out in 2015 – Monte himself is helping to write some of the story for the game. Other projects are in the works with the intent of crossing the Numenera setting into other games and genres and Monte Cook Games is open to further opportunities to carry Numenera in interesting directions.
As for the main game line itself, players can expect a number of supplemental materials over the course of the next year. The current area of Numenera outlined in the Core Book represents an area about the size of the current United States. Future supplements are already planned and in the works for additional areas. The Devils Spine adventure is slated for October, two compendiums and a bestiary among other things are scheduled to come out in 2014 along with several supplemental e-books that tie things together as they go along.
In all, the successful Kickstarter has launched a game line that shows promise and has a degree of longevity built in from the get go. Combined with a designer with clear design goals, a good sense of the market and proven skills, and a loyal and supportive fan base, you can expect to see Numenera on the shelves of your FLGS for years to come. Tie in products will not only keep fans interested, but help to bring new players to the table so that they too can experience what old school gaming used to be like. All in all it sounds like a decent recipe for success.