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Stealing Stories For The Devil: An Interview With Charles M. Ryan (Monte Cook Games)

Monte Cook Games has a new Kickstarter for a new zero-prep heist RPG, Stealing Stories For The Devil. MCG COO, Charles M. Ryan, agreed to answer my questions about the project, the free primer, MCG’s goals with the project, and quality of the pitch.

Stealing Stories For The Devil 03.jpg

EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk with me. What’s the pitch for Monte Cook Games’ latest Kickstarter, Stealing Stories For The Devil?
CHARLES M. RYAN (CHARLES)
: Like many of our games that push the envelope, there are several ways you could pitch Stealing Stories for the Devil. It’s a heist game with innovative mechanics to build and play heists that come off beautifully, even though they’re loaded with twists, turns, and the unexpected. It’s 100% zero prep—literally. It has bold new approaches to player agency and narrative control. You play a cool reality-bending master thief from the future who has to save a modern-day reality that’s falling apart. Your reality-bending abilities always work—the mechanical question isn’t whether you succeed, it’s the price you pay. There’s a lot going on with this game; it’s more than just a new setting. But if I had to sum it all up in a single sentence, that might be this: Stealing Stories for the Devil is a fast-paced tabletop roleplaying game by legendary designer Monte Cook, in which you save existence as we know it by bending reality to carry out the perfect heist.

EGG: That’s a great synopsis. Why call it Stealing Stories For The Devil?
CHARLES
: That’s an in-game term for the increase in power the PCs gain when they snap reality back into shape. But of course there’s more to it than that. There’s an arc story within the game that you can choose to run, if you like, and it sort of references that.

EGG: What will the system for the game look like?
CHARLES
: There’s a free 43-page primer you can download here. It gives you a pretty in-depth look at character creation, the core mechanics, lying (changing reality), and how the GM and players build heists and structure the game session. I think that’s really the key thing that makes the system shine: the heist-building process and the story structure, more than what dice you roll when. In one stroke, you develop intricate, complex heist scenarios and eliminate GM prep. It results in heists adventures that really feel like what you’d see in Lupin or Leverage or an Ocean’s movie. The complicated plans, the moments where a given character’s special skills are pivotal, the surprises and the twists when things all go wrong—but then it all comes together again. Stealing Stories makes those sorts of adventures work, but it’s less about “mechanics” in the traditional sense and more about approach, structure, and how the narrative control is shared.

Stealing Stories For The Devil 05.jpg

EGG: Speaking of the primer, Stealing Stories for the Devil FREE PRIMER, how has it been received by fans?
CHARLES
: We’ve had thousands of downloads, and people are pretty excited about it. The primer is really designed to show you how the game works, but it’s not the complete game and wasn’t intended for people to be able to play using just it. That said, we’ve already seen some people playing Stealing Stories online, so that’s really cool.

EGG: That is. In this campaign, you’re offering real value by including an additional new game, Who The Devil Are You? What is that game about?
CHARLES
: Yeah—any great heist has some twists, turns, and moments where they go in an unexpected direction, and this Kickstarter is no different. Don’t blame us: The Devil made us do it. (It’s right there in the Kickstarter title!) Who the Devil Are You? is whole new game, although it’s based very closely on the core concepts that make Stealing Stories work. It takes the structure and adventure-building ideas from Stealing Stories and lets you apply them to any style of adventure in any genre. It’s collaborative, fun, and, like Stealing Stories for the Devil, zero-prep.

EGG: This RPG is not the “standard” game pitch. By that I mean, among other things, most top tier RPGs come with rules and a setting, but your character’s place in that setting and their motivations are not specifically defined by the metaplot. In D&D, you play an adventurer, but what drives them and what they are expected to do are not defined by the game’s pitch. With Vampire: The Masquerade, your character is a bloodsucker and there’s politics, but what’s your character’s place in that world? In Call of Cthulhu, you play an investigator, but why and how are up to you, not the setting. For a game of Cyberpunk or Shadowrun, they’re fantastic settings, but your character has to find the adventures they’ll have. It does not feel like that’s the case with Stealing Stories For The Devil as the pitch implies the character’s reasons and adventures. What motivated MCG to present the plot front and center?
CHARLES
: I’m not sure I agree that it’s such an outlier in this regard. But I will say that Stealing Stories tightly integrates the way it builds adventures, the way it deals with narrative control, and its adventure structure with the characters’ ability to reshape reality. Because that’s not just a typical character ability or spell like you’d find in Numenera or 5e or VtM. It literally hands the power of fiat, normally reserved to the GM, to the player. The player, subject to limits set by the game, sort of becomes the GM for a moment. They get to say what happens; where the story goes. That’s why the PCs’ lies always work—not because their spell is just that powerful, but because when they do that, the player alters the reality of the game in the same way the PC alters reality within the game. Like I said, there are some elegant mechanics that place limits and costs on what the players do, but at the end of the day it’s really a different way of looking at how the players and their characters contribute to the narrative.

Stealing Stories For The Devil 06.jpg

EGG: That’s fair. Let me ask one more about the pitch. It reads like a gameable TV series (I mean that in the best possible why) in which you play a member of a crew of superpowered time travelers in a time anomaly trying to get home. Setting, character motivations, and what they’re doing are all in the pitch, players only need to work out their powers and personalities. As Hollywood picks up RPG properties such as D&D, Pathfinder, Cyberpunk, Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness, and Scion (Onyx Path Publishing) for films, TV, and video games, do you see this type of project, one that’s closer to a fully realized story, as an asset for MCG? Or is your focus purely the game and its players?
CHARLES
: If you know our games, you know we (and by “we,” I particularly mean Monte) have always been focused on how the structure of gameplay creates a great experience for the players, and particularly the GM. We don’t just work on cool settings and elegant mechanics—although I’d say we’re among the best at that, too—but also look to make our games super easy on the GM (Numenera, the Cypher System, and The Darkest House), highly tailored to their audience (No Thank You, Evil!), focused on creating and developing really in-depth characters, parties, and campaigns (Invisible Sun), and stuff like that. That’s really our raison d’être—pushing the boundaries of the game experience, and always making it better. Stealing Stories for the Devil, with its zero-prep design and narrative control innovations, is 100% in this tradition of innovating for the sake of a stronger, better overall experience. Would we say no if someone came along and said “We want to make this the next big show on Netflix” or whatever? That would be awesome. Perhaps Stealing Stories is better positioned for that in some ways than other game brands, our own and others’. But that’s a side effect at best, not a design goal.

EGG: The last time we spoke, it was about The Darkest House. How has that project been received?
CHARLES
: Welp, it’s a strong seller, and it’s sitting on a 4.9/5 rating over at DriveThruRPG. We’ve had a bunch of great reviews, with more coming out still (The Darkest House has only been out for a month or two). A lot of people talking about how, as intended, it doesn’t just freak out the players and deliver a scary adventure—it also makes characters and parties tighter and better defined.

EGG: Beyond this project, what else is coming from MCG?
CHARLES
: Claim the Sky, our much-anticipated supers supplement for the Cypher System, is a fall release. And we have great stuff for Numenera and Ptolus in the pipeline for the next few months too.

EGG: Thanks for talking with me and answering my overlong questions. Where can fans find out more about this project?
CHARLES
: It’s on Kickstarter now!

The Devil Made Us Do It from Monte Cook Games
  • End Date: Fri, August 13 2021 8:00 PM EDT.
  • “Save existence as we know it by bending reality to carry out the perfect heist in this unique zero-prep RPG.”

Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.
 

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry

I find it interesting that there are entire tables of players who all want narrative "GM" control. When my players succeed at something I ask if they want to describe it or if they want me to. Out of 12 players I have one or two who want to do the describing (and yes both are GMs also) otherwise it is always tossed back to me to do the describing. I can't imagine the learning curve on this for many players.

The zero prep is interesting too. World building is something I enjoy so not having that outside the game would be quite different. I'd have to find another hobby I guess to spend my free time on?

I think my brain is not currently wired to run something like this is what I've determined. But I do enjoy thinking about RPGs like this. It is basically the complete opposite of all my RPG experiences but still sounds like a fascinating game.
 


I find it interesting that there are entire tables of players who all want narrative "GM" control. When my players succeed at something I ask if they want to describe it or if they want me to. Out of 12 players I have one or two who want to do the describing (and yes both are GMs also) otherwise it is always tossed back to me to do the describing. I can't imagine the learning curve on this for many players.

The zero prep is interesting too. World building is something I enjoy so not having that outside the game would be quite different. I'd have to find another hobby I guess to spend my free time on?

I think my brain is not currently wired to run something like this is what I've determined. But I do enjoy thinking about RPGs like this. It is basically the complete opposite of all my RPG experiences but still sounds like a fascinating game.
Charles,
This project, the concepts behind it, speak to me and it's on my list to try out. That said, your thoughts are more than fair as there are multiple styles of gaming. My table is about half GM-willing players and half player-players. We bounce around on who does the narration. Generally, if it's a success the player or GM will handle it, if it's a failure, the GM generally describes it.
As to world building, if I could do a zero-prep game, that'd be fill in for when Phil N., whose character is critical, can't join the table at the last minute but we still want to game. That'd keep the long term and short term options open. That's my direction, not saying anyone else should go that route.
But, again, you have 12 players and they're happy to be at your table so my hat is off to you! Keep the dice rolling! :)
 

Charles,
This project, the concepts behind it, speak to me and it's on my list to try out. That said, your thoughts are more than fair as there are multiple styles of gaming. My table is about half GM-willing players and half player-players. We bounce around on who does the narration. Generally, if it's a success the player or GM will handle it, if it's a failure, the GM generally describes it.
As to world building, if I could do a zero-prep game, that'd be fill in for when Phil N., whose character is critical, can't join the table at the last minute but we still want to game. That'd keep the long term and short term options open. That's my direction, not saying anyone else should go that route.
But, again, you have 12 players and they're happy to be at your table so my hat is off to you! Keep the dice rolling! :)

I think if I had the choice to play a zero prep game or a board game, I'd go board game. But running a zero prep game isn't something I've done (unless you count those nights I didn't have everything ready and had to wing it) so I'd want to try it before making assumptions.

And my 12 players don't normally show up all at once (two games). But most just want to game not narrate or create. With a couple of exceptions.

Have you run a zero prep game before? And if so, how did it go?
 

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