This edition of Ego Check was a long time in the making. When I first contacted Monte Cook to request an interview, it was January and he was still the Design Lead for D&D Next. I was eager to speak with him about his Legends & Lore columns for Wizards of the Coast, but the interview was delayed for several reasons including yours truly traveling to Middle Earth for two weeks. I was able to reconnect with Monte Cook in April after his decision to leave the position at Wizards of the Coast. During the past six weeks, Monte has been incredibly gracious with his time to discuss his experiences in the RPG industry, which have spanned four decades.
Below, he talks about how the roleplaying game industry has changed but how the players have remained mostly the same. He describes his personal evolution as a game designer over the years, and details his thoughts on what makes a rule good in addition to the challenges of presenting appropriate rewards and punishments to players within a game. We discuss the costs and benefits of incorporating system mastery as a built-in reward for players, and conclude with a conversation about his current game design project.
I thank Monte for his time and thought-provoking responses, which provided me with quite an education in game design. I wish him the best of luck with his current project, and look forward to seeing a final product of his “old-school, weird-science fantasy” game system!
Thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview. You are most recently known for working on D&D Next for Wizards of the Coast. However, you have almost 25 years of experience as a game designer and author. I am certainly curious to learn about your work on specific projects, but first I wonder if you could discuss how functioning as a game designer has changed over the course of four separate decades. Compared to when you started working professionally as a game designer in 1988, what has changed and what has remained the same?
The pleasure’s all mine.
A lot has changed in the last 25 years, both in the industry, and for me personally. I think in the late 80s and early 90s, setting and character background were at the forefront, and rules were on the backburner. To elaborate, game design was about rules design in the late 70s and early 80s. It was about realism, simulation, and complexity. The way to distinguish yourself was through having a more “realistic” system than D&D. Rolemaster, Champions, Chivalry & Sorcery, etc. all offered more complex systems. (I suppose in this period it was also about genre exploration–taking rpgs into non-fantasy realms.) Nowadays, it’s also about rules design, but it’s most often about simplicity, although again this is a reaction to the market leader, D&D. In those middling years, however, the only time people gave any thought to mechanics were simply to make them different. Dice pools and various mechanical structures were all the rage, and they were interesting, although often a bit flawed. The flaws didn’t matter, however, because what people really wanted was characters and setting. Look at Vampire, Ars Magica, Shadowrun, and other games of that era–people wanted interesting stories.
So for me as a designer, my relationship with rules design was a distant one. Even when working on rules-heavy games like Rolemaster and Champions, I was writing characters and settings. When I moved to TSR, I wrote old school dungeon crawl modules like Labyrinth of Madness and wildly fanciful settings and adventures (Planescape, mainly).
In 1997, however, I started working on 3rd Edition D&D with Rich Baker and Skip Williams (and later Jonathan Tweet) and everything changed. For me, it was an awakening of how important rules actually are to help make a fun experience. Since that point, I focused on both setting and character (in products like Ptolus) and also on rules, preferably in ways that blended both (like Arcana Evolved, or my Books of Might series).
Today, I am still interested in both, but my focus on rules is more about how to design them so that they work more intuitively and invisibly. In order for them to do that, though, they need to be more than just simple. They need to be good. Rules need to encourage story in interesting ways. In order to have a beautifully rendered painting, you need to have precisely the right paint, and the right canvas. When everything is working as it should, these things don’t just serve the art, but can actually encourage the artist to try new and interesting techniques.
Some things, of course, haven’t changed, or haven’t changed much. It’s still just as hard to make a career in tabletop game design. In some ways, perhaps harder. In others, simpler. The advent of desktop publishing, followed then by the rise of the ebook, has lowered the bar for entry drastically. While today the market is more willing to look for a designer’s name than it was 25 years ago, it’s probably harder to stand out in the crowd of designers and would-be designers. I make a very comfortable living, and there are others out there doing well too. I think that we’re not very typical, however. There’s still a lot of designers out there working for a couple of cents a word, or putting out ebooks that sell in the dozens of copies, and basically doing this as a hobby. Twenty-five years ago, those same people would be writing Dragon Magazine articles, I suppose.
There is a great deal of interesting thoughts there, but the thing that jumped out to me the most is your personal relationship to rules and how that relationship has evolved over the decades. When you started as a designer, it seems your focus was first on establishing the setting and character background while the importance of rules was secondary. Then in the late 1990’s, you began to appreciate rules and how they influence story and decisions made by the gamemaster and players. Now you emphasize designing not only simple rules, but good rules.
Could you explain what makes a rule good, and provide an example of rules that encourage or preclude a gamemaster’s or player’s ability to experiment with new techniques?
It’s a complex issue. Some people think rules are good when they’re simple. Others, when they are “realistic.” For me, it’s two factors: rules need to be intuitive and encouraging of play.
The first is simpler to talk about, but harder to design. In short, rules need to work the way you think they should work. That is not to say that they’re unnecessary. Sometimes the way you think something should work would never occur to you unless someone explained it to you that way. Which sounds contradictory. But think of all the times you didn’t understand something in life, then someone explained it to you, and you thought, “oh, right. That makes sense.” When you read intuitive rules, you should think, “that makes sense.” As a very simplistic example, think of the rules change in 3E that is usually credited as being the best one by gamers across the board: that when you roll a d20, you’re always looking for high numbers. Prior to 3E, sometimes low numbers were good, and sometimes high numbers were, based on what kind of action you took. Players were always asking, “am I looking for a 20 here or not?” Standardizing the procedure was intuitive.
To be clear, that doesn’t make 2E bad and 3E good. Non-intuitive rules aren’t bad. But intuitive rules are better. (Sometimes, in order for a game to work the way you want, you have to have some non-intuitive rules. Consider, for a moment, how 3E retained the idea that caster level doesn’t equal spell level. You have to be 5th level to cast 3rd level spells. What? But yeah, attempts to fix that have always proven to be difficult or worse.) Was Gary wrong for having AC go down as it got better? Of course not. Is it better to have it go up instead? Most people think so.Designing intuitive rules requires a lot of playtesting, and a deep understanding of how the game is played. Which means it’s really hard to do in the early stages of a game’s design. For a complex game, you might have to go through a lot of iterations before you get there. It’s no wonder that a game like Magic: The Gathering has had so many editions.
It’s easier to create rules that encourage play (if you recognize that it is important), but it’s harder to explain what that means. Or rather, it’s one of those concepts that sounds easier to understand than it actually is. Because it sounds simple enough: make rules that encourage people to play the game the way that is most fun. If you want combat to happen a lot, you’ve got to design combat mechanics that are robust (or it will get boring) and still quick (because it’s going to happen a lot). If you want characters to fly spaceships, make the skill (or whatever) for doing so easily understood and obtained. But it’s far more complex than that. Insidious really, because sometimes intuition gets in the way. For example, take the old “system shock” rule from earlier versions of D&D. Seems like a fine rule at first blush. You have a roll that you have to make if you survive major transformations or, most importantly, if you successfully come back if someone tries to raise you after you died. Seems good because it controls the revolving resurrection door. It explains why the ultra rich and powerful in the world still fear death. Eventually you fail that roll.
But let’s think about that for a moment. This is a rule that determines whether or not a player (not a character) gets to do what he wants–namely, play the character that he wants to play. That’s not like a rule that determines whether a character hits a foe or casts a spell on either one or two targets. This is different. Let me give you an analogy. Let’s say you’re a parent, and you don’t want your kid to go into the front room with its new, white carpet with shoes on. What do you do? You tell him that. Or you forbid him from going into the room at all. You don’t institute a policy that there’s a 78% chance that if he goes into the room (shoes or no), that he’ll be punished. That’s just frustrating and confusing. Raise dead is like that. You either make it possible under whatever conditions you feel are justified based on how common or rare you want it to be, or you forbid it entirely. Otherwise, what kind of play is the rule really encouraging? It doesn’t keep me from hoping my character will come back. But it might prevent it. It’s just encouraging disappointment. If as a group we just want Bob’s cleric to use his scroll of Raise Dead to get Phil’s wizard back so we can keep playing Ghost Tower of Inverness (that might be why the DM let Bob find the scroll to begin with), that rule can derail the whole session, the whole adventure, or even the whole campaign.
Developing just one rule for a game seems incredibly complicated. And I imagine rules are not universally intuitive – what “makes sense” to me may leave another player confused, and vice versa. It seems impossible to create rules that are intuitive to all. And with social media, it seems that everyone these days is a game designer. I find the amount of discourse and conjecture about rules overwhelming at times.
For example, take almost any rule for a game system and there will be those who strongly voice their opinion supporting or decrying the rule while others offer an opinion somewhere in the middle of the two positions. How do you as a designer reach a consensus on a set of rules that are intuitive to most people in that atmosphere? You referenced extensive playtesting, but how does the ability to communicate immediately with thousands of players through social media about the development of rules help or hinder the process?
It’s not an exact science. Sometimes, you start with your own gamer instincts. Often, my own start with thoughts of what I’d like in a game. That’s why it’s so vital as a designer to play a lot of games, both broadly and deeply. By that I mean sample a lot of different games, but then zero in on the games that really appeal to what you want to work on and play those games a lot. A lot. While sampling is good, you rarely get a good feel for what people who love a specific game want until you play it many times.
Using the Internet as a resource is great. Staying in touch with what people are thinking about games is vital. It’s also dangerous. Because the Internet is a boon to communication, but not necessarily to truth. On a message board discussion, it’s the loudest voices that you hear most, not the smartest ones. (Sometimes they’re the same, often they’re not.) It’s why you don’t really want playtesters to talk to each other while they’re playtesting. Groups A and B might have come up with one result, but then they talk to a guy from Group C who got a different result, and because the guy from C is persuasive (or a bully), you end up getting the Group C’s feedback from all three groups. (I’ve watched this happen.)
As a designer, you have to listen, but you have to do it intelligently.
You spoke earlier about how the industry has changed over your many years of design work. I wonder how you think players have changed over that same period of time?
I’ll get flak for this I’m sure, but I don’t think they have changed. You still have the same kinds of players: those who like to min-max and create optimal characters, and those who want to create compelling stories. Those who want new material constantly, and those who are happy with what they acquired 30 years ago. Those who want to get an insider view into game publishing, and those who never give such things a moment’s thought. And everyone in between. The difference is, I think, that it’s easier for players to communicate. Which means that people can look beyond their own game group. They can see that there are more gamers like them than they thought, but also more unlike them. For example, there’s kind of this idea that in the last five years or so, there’s a resurgence of people who want games more like “old school” D&D. I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s always been a fair number of gamers out there who want that, but they were isolated enough that they assumed that they were alone in their wishes.
At the same time, though, we have the rise of system antagonism. When I got into the industry as a professional, there were many games to choose from, but rarely was their hostility between fans of different games. There was some. You could look at it like D&D players versus non-D&D players, I suppose. Really, really different systems–say, Rolemaster and GURPS–engendered kind of friendly rivalries between player bases. But for the most part, that didn’t happen. You didn’t hate Shadowrun players if you played Vampire. If you played Traveller you didn’t write insulting diatribes about players of d6 Star Wars. And I think that was because most people played a lot of different systems.
What surprises me most about players today is not their different tastes, but their unwillingness to accept that someone else’s tastes are as valid as their own. I blame Internet cranks for that mentality, and I blame game company spokesmen who have encouraged it in the belief that it would help them sell games. It’s the very people who must now solve the problem of a very fractured marketplace who fractured it in the first place.
Okay. End of rant.
You referenced earlier the old “system shock” rule and how it affects the a player’s relationship to their character and the gaming world. Roleplaying games are based on the principles of reinforcement. If a player engages in the game long enough, then his or her character will gain a level. The new level provides rewards such as new abilities and access to better items. The rewards reinforce the player to continue playing the game. The concepts are the same whether it’s Diablo III, Dungeons & Dragons or a rat pressing a bar in a cage. The rat will press that bar because it knows that after a certain number of presses, it’s going to get rewarded with a food pellet – just like a player is rewarded with a new level. This observation isn’t meant to diminish game designers or players in any way, shape or form.
What I find interesting and challenging is placing limits on players (or punishing them) in a paradigm that is driven by reinforcing and rewarding player actions. The rules of a roleplaying game establish the boundaries of what players can and cannot do within the gaming system. The rules describe how a player is either reinforced or punished for his or her specific actions in the game. In terms of designing or running a game (you touched on the later here by discussing Player Empowerment), which set of rules is more important – those that reinforce or those that punish?
The issue of punishment and reward is a difficult one. I don’t really believe in “punishing” players, as such. I know that a lot of people reading this will scoff, because I’m known in some circles as creating really hard adventures that kill characters, and people see that as punishing. But that’s not the intention.
When it comes to punishment and reward, if everyone in the group works to get their Armor Class (or other defense) high except for one guy, so that guy ends up taking more damage than his friends, is the game punishing that guy, or is it rewarding the other players for having high ACs? It’s almost a glass half full/half empty kind of situation.
I do believe that reward built into the game system is important. There are a lot of things that Gary and Dave got right with D&D right out of the gate, and that is one of them. You’re simply more likely to keep playing if there’s always the promise of that next level’s benefits (among other things) just around the corner. There are other rewards a game can offer as well. First and foremost, of course, is fun. Fun is defined differently by different people, and that’s why there are different games. A games reward of fun can come from an entertaining tactical situation, a cool story, or the ability to discover some great new combo for your character build. Not every game offers all of these, nor should they. For 3rd Edition D&D, we decided that “system mastery” would be a built-in reward. This is the idea that people who play the game longer figure out better choices than a brand new player, and so the old veteran around the table feels rewarded. Some people hate the idea of system mastery, though, so it’s not right for every game. However, one could also observe that it’s simply the other people around the table feeling punished–glass half empty.
Trying to avoid punishment–or perceived punishment–can be a dangerous trap for game designers. I’ve seen some guys really go down the wrong path, in my opinion, by trying to take anything that anyone might think of as “unfun” out of the game. This is a trap because it can risk taking all the interesting challenge out of the game as well. You can design a game without any metaphorical sharp corners, but you likely end up with a bland, uninteresting… thing. I’m not even sure what to call it, because if there’s no chance that you can lose, is it really a game? If there’s no chance for failure, does success mean anything? If the challenges can’t really harm you, you lose any feeling of accomplishment in overcoming them. In other words, by trying to avoid punishment, you also lose reward.
That might seem contradictory with what I wrote a minute ago, about not putting in punishment. But there’s a difference between not writing punishment in, and trying really hard to make sure that you write all punishment out. The difference is that the latter is really about “perceived punishment.” To use a concrete example, I’d say that designing a D&D monster that just kills fighters on sight is punishing. But a medusa is not. In the former, for some reason, you’ve decided to punish people who decide to play fighters. The latter, however, is just an encounter with dire consequences. Good tactics can win the day, as can good die rolls. I suppose you could make the argument that it punishes people with terrible save bonuses or defenses who charge at the medusa with eyes wide open, but I’d say it rewards people for smart play. Again, we’re back to the glass half full situation. It’s a fine line, but the difference is that the first (absurd) example gives no at-the-table choice, and doesn’t even give the player a chance to leave things up to fate (the dice).
It seems much of the reward/punishment dynamic drifts back to the preferences of the players engaging in the game. If there is a disconnect within the group of players – or between the players as a whole and the gamemaster – then there is likely going to be players who do not have “fun.” I think a clear objective of any gaming group is to find some “common ground” in terms of the preferences of the players. You recently spoke about the importance of designers listening to players, but on a smaller scale it seems vital for gamemasters to listen to their players to fully understand what motivates them to play to the game. I previously posted an interview for gamemasters to conduct with his or her potential or current players to learn some of this information.
How would you communicate with players in your group to gauge the proper balance of rewards and punishments in the campaign? And how do you cope when players within the same group have very different preferences for the level of challenge or “system mastery” required for gameplay?
Communication between GM and players is key, obviously. Games run so much more smoothly when you play with friends–people who you know and spend time with outside of the game. This way, the GM can talk about things, or even just learn through unrelated interactions, what the players want. Conversely, the players can often know what kind of game a person might run even before the first session begins.
When I am a GM, I try to be as up-front as I can about my preferred play style, and also try to encourage the players to be as open and honest as they can be about what they want. If players want different things from each other, I try to please all of them and make sure that everyone is cool with compromise. In other words, if Bob wants lots of puzzles but Mary wants lots of hack and slash, I not only try to provide them with both but make sure that Mary doesn’t abhor puzzles. In a more involved example, a GM can sometimes combine play experiences. For example, an encounter where Mary has to hold off a bunch of violent enemies to buy Bob the time it takes to solve a puzzle. But the key word there is sometimes.
As for characters with different levels of experience (and thus, depending on the game, different levels of mastery), again, it depends on what the players want. If Bob, the more experienced player, has a “better” character because of that, first of all, I need to learn if the other players care. “Balance,” or rather the strict need for balance, is sometimes an illusion. To put it another way, if everyone’s having a good time, it often simply doesn’t matter. If it does matter to the other players, I will often help those players with tips or advice. Mastery, like balance, is mostly a psychological aspect to the game, rather than a game design aspect. In other words, Bob still feels good about himself as a player for having mastery even if in the end everyone’s character is on par with his because I helped out.
You just referred to mastery as “mostly a psychological aspect to the game, rather than a game design aspect.” But you previously stated:
For 3rd Edition D&D, we decided that ‘system mastery’ would be a built-in reward. This is the idea that people who play the game longer figure out better choices than a brand new player, and so the old veteran around the table feels rewarded.
At least with 3rd Edition D&D, it seems that mastery was more than a psychological aspect of the game.
Any game – video, tabletop or otherwise – has exploits, optimal builds or movesets for characters. Mastery may be a psychological aspect for some players, but you previously mentioned it has been used as a built-in reward for experienced players. I imagine it’s a challenge to create a variety of character-customization paths that are equally effective during gameplay, which would seem to be a positive goal for game design.
It reminds me of a quote from Alice In Wonderland, “At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’” How can you design a game so all character builds can get their prizes?
No, I would say that mastery is entirely a psychological thing. Lots of good game design actually has to do more with psychology than mechanics. You want people to be glad they’re playing your game. You want them to be happy about their choices, particularly when those choices are good for the game. Getting a cool new thing at each level isn’t about game balance, it’s about psychology. You want people to think, “I am glad I kept playing, because now I’ve gained a level and got this cool new ability.” That’s why the whole concept of levels is so brilliant.
System mastery is the same thing. It’s a reward for being really invested in the game, long-term. “I feel smart because I have read the rules twice and have been playing for nine years.” People who are that invested are likely to want to keep playing. And player retention–getting people to continue to play–is as important as getting new players. In fact, it’s a great way to get new players, because existing players teaching new people is the #1 way new players are recruited.
Mastery can be a huge problem for new players if handled poorly. The idea should work this way: the game works fine “out of the box,” but there are rewards for people who really get invested. If the latter gets in the way of the former, the idea of mastery has been probably mishandled. It’s tricky, though, because one helps new player acquisition, and the other helps old player retention. Both are important for a game’s long-term success.
You were working on your own game system before you got involved in Dungeons & Dragons Next. You spoke about the system a bit on a recent Jennisodes podcast and indicated that the flavor and setting was “old-school, weird-science fantasy.” What are the dynamics you find most attractive for game design (and play) in that setting?
I am indeed working on a new game system. It’s basically what I was working on before I went to work for Wizards, and had to put on hold while I did that job. And truthfully, the core germ of the idea is something that I came up with about 20 years ago, so it’s something I’ve been noodling with for a very long time. And it’s still very, very much in the formative stages. I don’t even have a name for it yet.
It’s a simple game, and not very D&D like, really. It embraces the power of the GM, but it also authorizes players to have some control over the narrative, but only in the way a player should. In other words, players don’t overrule the GM, their power is based on their own actions. Basically, the GM says, “the door is locked.” The GM decides how difficult the door is to get through. The players can’t affect that, but they can affect how their characters react to the situation. In effect, they decide–through the use of limited resources that they have to spend–whether they are going to really focus themselves on getting through the door or not.
Picture it this way: in most games, the GM decides how hard a task is, but then the players react to that task the same way they would any similar task. Whether they are jumping over a barrel for fun or jumping over a pit of lava with a dragon hot on their tail, they use the same mechanic for resolving the jump. In a few games, you can use the very rare “hero point” or what have you when it’s really crucial that basically overrides the normal system. But I want to design a game where that idea of player control over how much emphasis they put into things is built right into the core of the game.
It’ll also be a game with really quick character generation options, but also a lot of customization options for people who like that. The way to accomplish that, I think, is to give the player the option to make some big and important choices and have them mean something, rather than making choices which then ultimately derive other aspects of your character. Derived stats are where games get really math-heavy, slow, and complex. It would be nice to step away from that.
And it will be a game that assumes a lot of intelligence and creativity on the GM’s part. Having a living, breathing GM is the #1 strength of a tabletop RPG, and I think that placing too much emphasis on having a game that has a system rather than GM (with the ability to use logic) ends up creating game experiences and game design that I have little interest in. In other words, if your character is on fire, the GM and the players can figure out how to put that fire out using real world sensibilities. Programming it into the game system means that I might as well play a computer game, and limits player creativity.
Story-wise, it will be a post apocalyptic science fantasy setting, where the line between magic and technology blurs to the point where you wonder if it’s even a meaningful distinction. Magic as technology/technology as magic is interesting in a RPG, because you take the “cool” stuff out of the hands of the few and put it into the hands of anyone that wants it, but making it post apocalyptic means that the GM still has control over the flow of it (you can’t run down to the corner store and buy it).
In coming months, obviously, I’ll be publicly talking about this a lot more. I’m a firm believer in people knowing what they’re getting before they buy. And frankly, considering how much work there is to do, it’s likely that it’s an endeavor that won’t even see the light of day until 2013. But I’m really excited about it, and having a lot of fun with it even now.
You mentioned that your goals for the new system are to create more fluidity in the rules to encourage gamemaster and player empowerment. As a contrast, you discussed D&D as a game that has historically been designed to give the vast majority of players relatively the same experience – similar to a boardgame. What do you foresee as potential strengths and weaknesses of designing a game system that promotes such fluidity and independence on the part of the gamemaster and players?
D&D has, at various times, been about delivering similar experiences, certainly with the rise of importance of the RPGA and organized play. If you go from one D&D convention game to another, I think the management over the game–for most of its history–has hoped that those two games would feel similar. That’s not a bad idea, but it’s not the only way to go. If you focus on at-home play rather than organized play, for example, you might lean the other way, and allow people to play the game they want, in isolation from the way another group plays down the street (or across the continent). The latter is my personal preference.
I’d rather design an easily customizable game because I’d rather play one like that. I think I’ve been pretty vocal that as a RPG player, I’d rather a game designer give me a game and let me do with it as I pleased, rather than telling me how to play it “correctly.” If you throw out the idea of a “right” way to play even as a concept, you encourage players to play their way. It’s far truer to the roots of the hobby, and I think it gets people more invested in the game if they can make their own tweaks to it. Most long-term GMs I know like to talk about how they run various games that is different from others or different from the rules as written. And they do so with pride. Some people (including perhaps those same GMs) mistake that as evidence that those games were poorly designed. On the contrary, to develop that kind of investment, I think those games might just be extremely well designed.
It seems like a massive task to design a new game, and you indicated there is much work left for you to complete the project. How do you organize your work on the game? For example, is it more fruitful to jump around to different components (world-building, mechanics, etc.) or focus solely on one aspect of the game for an extended period of time?
I jump around. It’s the nature of the beast. You’re writing about the setting, and it gives you a mechanical idea. You’re writing about equipment, and some part of it suggests a great rule for damaging inanimate objects.
It is a massive task. Particularly if there’s a setting attached. In a way, you’re creating not just a whole world, but even the very laws of physics of that world. But the way I am looking at it now is that what I’m really doing is providing the tools for other people to actually create and flesh out that world in easy and fun ways, and for both GMs and players to understand the fundamentals of the rules so that they can make sense of them as they see fit. There’s a careful balance there–a fine line between empowering the people at the table to have things work they way they should without actually just making them do all the work of making that happen. It’s a thing of beauty if you can pull it off well.
Good luck with making your next project a thing of beauty! And thank you for the time you’ve shared. I look forward to learning how other players and designers feel about the topics we discussed.