Bruce Cordell: Psionics, Tentacles, D&D, and NUMENERA!
  • Bruce Cordell: Psionics, Tentacles, D&D, and NUMENERA!


    Bruce Cordell has worked for TSR - and then WotC - on Dungeons & Dragons for nearly 20 years. Now he's got a new project: he's a lead designer at Monte Cook Games, working with his childhood friend on the brand new NUMENERA RPG. Bruce spared some time to sit down with me and answer a few questions about his career, and about his new role on NUMENERA.

    Let's go back a few years. Your background is in biology and biopharmaceuticals. How does one transition from that to writing adventures and sourcebooks for Dungeons & Dragons?

    BRC: It’s not such a crazy transition, when you consider that one of my earliest passions was D&D. Not long after I started playing, I met this kid named Monte Cook who loved the game as much as me. We played D&D together as kids all through the final year of junior high and throughout high school.

    Fast-forward to me and my first job out of college: A technician charged with providing a research lab a huge variety of complex biomolecules. To synthesize RNA and similar molecules in the early to mid ‘90s, a lot of computer horsepower was required. Which meant my synthesis room had access to the fledgeling internet in spades. And as I discovered when the synthesis machines were idle, that was the era of MUDs and MUSHes. These text-based multi-user games totally sucked me in, so much so that I learned to code them.

    Which was why TSR eventually hired me, to write a D&D branded MUD. Unfortunately, the powers-that-were changed their mind right as I showed up in Lake Geneva, WI.

    Your resume while at TSR and WotC is impressive. Out of your many, many credits for AD&D and D&D, what product would you say you're most proud of, and why?

    BRC: Ouch, you know how to stump a guy don’t you Russ? The Gates of Firestorm Peak certainly ranks up there because it was my first D&D product. The thick green Gamma World box set that came out a year or two also ranks high because not only was it my last official D&D product (not counting my contributions on the yet-to-be-released D&D Next game), it was also an awesome game with compelling character creation rules. In the past, I’ve answered this question with the book Libris Mortis, because it is full of original undead monsters that I had a frickin’ wonderful time conceiving. (As a matter of fact, I’m getting that same feeling now working on the Numenera Bestiary.)

    One of the first – if not the first – projects you worked on was The Gates of Firestorm Peak in 1996, an adventure which featured the madness of the Far Realm (a theme which recurs frequently in your work). What are your recollections of that adventure? Was it your idea, or were you assigned it? Was the idea of the Far Realm a challenging one for D&D at the time?

    BRC: When TSR decided to put me into print, they already had a product that wanted a designer: a deluxe adventure tied to the Players Options D&D rules. They even had a title picked out: Gates of Firestorm Peak. But that’s all. So I went to work. Gates … gates … gates… Dimensional gates? Hrm, where would such gates go? How about a gate to outside time and space, that’d be weird. What would be outside time and space? Obviously a realm far, far beyond anything we could conceive or understand. You get the idea.

    Your work often includes themes of a psionic or tentacular nature, from various D&D products including the Psionics Handbook, to third party products for Malhavoc Press – is this a theme which particularly interests you?


    BRC: Perhaps so. Or perhaps it’s just fallout from my penchant for creating story threads that link many of my otherwise unconnected works. Which means that because my first product introduced the Far Realm, threads connecting to it tended to be tentacular and psionic in nature.

    So, still on psionics. Is (or are) psionics, in your mind, a form of magic, or something entirely different? I ask because of a discussion I saw recently about divine and arcane magic, and why they both, while different to each other and with entirely different sources of power and methodology, were called “magic” but psionics were not called “psionic magic”. What are your thoughts on that nomenclature?


    BRC: Anything that changes the world in a way that can’t be understood is a kind of magic, yeah? But just between you and me, I believe that wizardry, divine works, and psionic effects all get to their ends differently. Wizards tease out supernatural effects from the workings of the cosmos through trial and effort (or studying the trial and efforts of others), clerics channel divine will of gods, and psions alter reality through a sort of quantum collapse of probabilities. Yeah, it’s all semantics and nomenclature, but when someone says magic to me, don’t think psion or cleric. I think wizard.

    You've worked on a few editions of D&D. Which edition is the one you keep going back to in your own games, and why? What would you say are the strengths of each edition?

    BRC: It’s ALL D&D, and the thread that unites all the editions is that when you’re roleplaying with your friends, you can forget the world for a time, and exchange it for one of pure imagination. But of course I spent that last couple years working on D&D Next, which as you know pulls from every edition. If I was playing something other than Numenera right now, that’d be the one I’d pick up first.

    You occasionally mention your involvement in martial arts; have you ever been tempted to draw on that experience in your game design? I notice you've never worked on Oriental Adventures – would that – or a similar project be a temptation? What about a “realistic” martial arts combat system?

    BRC: I’ve drawn on martial arts a LOT in my novels, especially in the trilogy Plague of Spells, City of Torment, and Spinner of Lies, which features Raidon Kane the monk as a main character. What I learned during that period is that it’s very easy to go way too far explaining details of particular wrist, hand, hip, and body movements during a fight. So much that it bogs down the actual fiction.

    The same can also be true in writing game mechanics. I did write a version of the monk for D&D Next, which did slightly touch on real world techniques. But I do mean slightly.

    Are you aware that, according to our survey back in June, in which over 500 people voted, you're the author of the second best 3.x D&D module of all time in THE SUNLESS CITADEL? Is that a piece of work you're particularly proud of? Do you have any notable memories of designing it?

    BRC: Wow, I wasn’t aware! Thank you everyone! And yes, Sunless Citadel is something I’m proud of. I remember spending days just coming up with the name for that one. The name then became instrumental in seeding the rest of the adventure, though of course I knew that it had to kick off a story thread that would get us all the way to the end of the first adventure path. Which I did by conceiving of Ashardalon, though the hint was very small in Sunless Citadel.

    It's not the first time you've worked for Monte Cook. You wrote some psionic-based products (such as If Thoughts Could Kill, Hyperconscious) for his Malhavoc Press. You were still at WotC at the time and – indeed – had worked on the Psionics Handbook for D&D 3.5. Would it be fair to say that the environment at the company at the time was more permissive towards external freelance work?

    BRC: It would be fair to say that. (And yep, I loved those books; and don’t forget When the Sky Falls!)



    You joined TSR in 1995, and worked on D&D through the WotC years; indeed you relocated twice, to Wisconsin and then Seattle, until, after nearly 20 years, you left to join Monte Cook Games. You've known Monte for a long time – your Wikipedia page refers to your playing D&D with him back as far as high school. How does it feel to make such a big change, moving from the company you've known for years to a startup? Is there any fear, risk, or new challenges facing you?

    BRC: A risk compared to continue doing the same thing I’d been doing for the last couple decades? No, working with MCG represents the opposite I think. Sometimes you’ve got to shake the dust off and try something new. And as you say, Monte is one of my best and oldest friends. We’re going to do great things together.

    D&D NEXT was – is – an enormous undertaking. It must have been exciting working on something that will be a defining part of the D&D brand for the foreseeable future. Was it hard leaving that behind?

    BRC: Leaving Wizards isn’t something you do on a lark, you’re quite right. It was hard, but it was time (my farewell can be found here: http://bit.ly/farewell_wizards)

    It was announced at Gen Con that you were joining Monte Cook Games. Which surprised absolutely … well, nobody! The announcement was made at the NUMENERA launch event. What sort of reception did that get? How did that feel?


    BRC: It felt GRAND! And still does. At the event, I sat quietly in the front row until Monte made the announcement. Then I stood, ripped off the shirt I’d been wearing, revealing a MCG branded t-shirt to all and sundry, and to great acclaim. Yeah, it was brilliant.

    It must feel very different working with a small team like the NUMENERA team as opposed to the relatively huge number of people who work on Dungeons & Dragons. What aspects of the smaller team experience would you say attracted you the most?

    BRC: One of the things I loved about TSR and then Wizards when 3rd edition was first rolled out was how the company appreciated author’s voice and expertise. That’s the same sort experience that most attracts and thrills me now that I’m with MCG.

    Monte Cook games is gathering quite the team – you, Charles Ryan, Tammie Ryan, Shanna Germain, and – of course – Monte Cook. What strengths, in your mind, does each team member bring to NUMENERA?

    BRC: The crazy thing about the team is that every one of them excels in several areas at once! Business acumen, creativity, editorial savvy, an eye for what’s cool--they’ve all got it.

    As an accomplished RPG designer, you no doubt had multiple options available to you – and presumably more became apparent after you decided to leave WotC. What was it about NUMENERA in particular which attracted you? Was it a project you'd discussed with Monte before?

    BRC: My plan was to focus on writing fiction for a year, but you’re right, lots of people contacted me when I made my announcement about leaving Wizards. One of those was Monte. How could I say no to working on game set a BILLION years in the future? Moreover, how could I say no to working on other, completely new projects of my own conception?

    Compared to D&D, NUMENERA is very rules-light. Is that change a challenge for you? Does it require a different approach to game design?

    BRC: The opposite. I’m very happy in story based mechanics. The great thing about the cypher system Numenera uses is that it actually provides a mechanical basis for story events that GMs in other systems do anyway: The GM Intrusion. Getting the hang of doing GM intrusions that aren’t merely railroading players, but which actually set up new story opportunities, is something that does take a bit of thought to pull off.

    Your first job for NUMENERA is the Bestiary. What are you hoping to bring to that project in particular?


    BRC: I’m writing about half the Bestiary. What’s exciting me most about the Bestiary is that I can create something completely new with each creature. Something terrifying, or cool, or weird in all the right ways. And hopefully, all those in different proportions for each creature.

    If you were to describe yourself as a NUMENERA character, what would you call yourself?

    BRC: On my MCG business card it says, “I’m an intrepid dreamer who creates worlds by mind alone.”

    What's the wierdest thing you've seen in NUMENERA so far?

    BRC: Another stumper! Well, here’ just one: the Mesomeme (Numenera corebook page 246), a creature that lures new victims using the puppeted heads of earlier victims to sing, talk, and babble.

    NUMENERA has gotten off to a fantastic start. The buzz at Gen Con and online were both fantastic, which must be very gratifying. Are you guys planning on concentrating on NUMENERA, or have you thoughts of other, unconnected projects?

    BRC: The line is strong and we’ve got a product line stretching into the future, including The Devil’s Spine adventure, the aforementioned Bestiary coming out early next year, Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera, and The Ninth World Guidebook.

    That said, my arrival at MCG has allowed us to explore even more possibilities, both within the Ninth World and beyond it, and we’ve developed some ideas for something brand new.

    NUMENERA was made possible because of Kickstarter, something we've all been hearing an awful lot about over the last couple of years. What are your thoughts on the Kickstarter phenomenon? What opportunities and disadvantages does the crowdfunding trend have? Do you see it further affecting the traditional model of RPG production in coming years?

    BRC: A Kickstarter campaign is like putting together a huge focus group. So even if one fails to fund, you’ve gained valuable insight: the idea might not be worth pursuing. But if it succeeds, or succeeds wildly, then you know it’s something people really want.

    D&D 3E was released under a largely open license in the form of the OGL; and several products you have worked on outside of WotC have been released under that same license. D&D 4E had a more restrictive license, and NUMENERA currently has a community use policy. What are your thoughts on open gaming, third party markets, and fan-created content? Are they advantageous to the core company, or do they benefit third parties more?

    BRC: 3E was a fabulous evolution of the rules. But it owed some of its success to the open license; that strategy was the best way for a brand with such universal recognition to float back to the top of the heap after a slow stagnation. And it worked! When done correctly for the situation and brand, I’m all for fan-created content.

    And that's all we have time for! Thanks so much to Bruce for spending the time to answer my questions!

    BRC: Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk to you and EN World! If people are interested in keeping up with what I’m up to at Monte Cook Games, please follow me at one (or more!) of the following sites.

    Bruce Cordell is a game designer at Monte Cook Games, and was a designer and novelist at Wizards of the Coast from 1995 – 2013. He is the author of many novels, adventures, and gaming accessories. He was also a part of the D&D Next design team.
    Comments 8 Comments
    1. Dakion's Avatar
      Dakion -
      I got Bruce's first business card
    1. Matt James's Avatar
      Matt James -
      I consider Bruce one of the more influential people in my own career. He's a great writer, game designer, and an outstanding friend. I couldn't be more happy with him and think he'll find great success with Monte.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      BRC: Anything that changes the world in a way that can’t be understood is a kind of magic, yeah? But just between you and me, I believe that wizardry, divine works, and psionic effects all get to their ends differently. Wizards tease out supernatural effects from the workings of the cosmos through trial and effort (or studying the trial and efforts of others), clerics channel divine will of gods, and psions alter reality through a sort of quantum collapse of probabilities. Yeah, it’s all semantics and nomenclature, but when someone says magic to me, don’t think psion or cleric. I think wizard.
      I agree with 2/3rds of this- I always think of Psions as unlocking the power of the mind...an expanded version of ki.
    1. Campbell's Avatar
      Campbell -
      After seeing the example creatures Bruce posted about on his blog, I am excited about his role in Numenera's development. I think his background in science and design experience fits Numenera like a glove. I'm really looking forward to the Bestiary.
    1. Scrivener of Doom's Avatar
      Scrivener of Doom -
      I think Numenera will suit him perfectly. He'll do well at MCG.

      (And, Bruce, Gates was superb but The Shattered Circle wasn't far behind! )
    1. Zaukrie's Avatar
      Zaukrie -
      Gates of Firestorm peaks has been used in bits and pieces in several of my campaigns. Thanks for all of your work. When the Sky Falls is a great, great product also.
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Quote Originally Posted by Scrivener of Doom View Post
      (And, Bruce, Gates was superb but The Shattered Circle wasn't far behind! )
      Yeah, I'll second that.

      Good interview.
    1. Mark Hope's Avatar
      Mark Hope -
      Quote Originally Posted by Zaukrie View Post
      When the Sky Falls is a great, great product also.
      It really is. My current campaign was inspired for the most part by that book. Malhavoc's "event" books are all great .
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