Monte Cook helped usher in the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and is the author of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. After working with Wizards of the Coast, Monte started his own successful d20 publishing company, Malhavoc Press, which publishes Arcana Unearthed (and Evolved), Iron Heroes and many other titles. He also has a highly anticipated d20 setting coming out in 2006, Ptolus.
Monte took time out from his busy schedule for an email interview with Treasure Tables, and we had a chance to discuss Ptolus, his approach to GMing and how he publishes books with GMs in mind.
Treasure Tables (TT): Thank you for giving this interview, Monte. I’m a big fan of your work, and I’ve consistently enjoyed the books you’ve published through Malhavoc Press.
Monte Cook (Monte): Thanks. I appreciate that.
TT: One of the things that I enjoy about Malhavoc products is that they tend to be written differently than most gaming books. Specifically, I’m thinking of the way that they’re structured — as a GM, I often find them to be easier to use than similar products from other publishers. Based on your DM Friendly design diary entry, Ptolus looks like it will be a perfect example of this.
How would you characterize your approach to writing — and structuring — your books, and is it accurate to say that you take this approach with GMs in mind?
Monte: Well, I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. I do write from a GM’s point of view. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of writing, and perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that each type of project has its own needs. A RPG adventure is very different from a novel or short story, and for that matter it’s very different even from an RPG sourcebook.
For example, in a novel, you might want to be coy about the antagonist’s plans, and you certainly don’t want to give away the ending. In an RPG adventure, you never want to be coy and you absolutely want to give away the ending. The GM needs to know how it ends to run it properly. He doesn’t want any surprises. The presentation of the information needs to be as clear as possible.
The differences come from the fact that the reader of the RPG adventure isn’t the ultimate end user. An adventure is meant to be played, not read (although it should be fun to read, too, or it won’t get played). Maybe that’s at the heart of my writing approach. I create products to be used. It’s nice to hear from gamers who buy a product and then immediately rave about it, but I’m even more interested in hearing from gamers after they’ve actually used a product. I want to know if it was fun or not, and why.
I’ve had other RPG writers and editors that I’ve worked with tell me that they have appreciated my sense of wanting every product to be fun. It sounds silly, but it’s the kind of thing that can sometimes get lost while you’re worried about realism or game balance. Ultimately, this is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.
Lastly, I’ll just point out that RPG books, unlike almost any other kind of book, have to be both teaching tools and reference works. For example, if you look at a good nonfiction book about a given topic, and an encyclopedia entry about that same topic, you’ll see that they are very different.
The book is meant to be read once, and is meant to convey information to someone who is likely completely ignorant on the topic. The encyclopedia entry is meant to be referred to again and again, and if it’s a long entry it’s meant to be skimmed so you can get at what you want.
But if I’m writing a new magic subsystem in a sourcebook, that section of the book has to teach the reader the system and be there for when he has to reference the rules a thousand times afterward in the middle of a busy a game session. It’s a challenge.
TT: There are lots of setting books out there, particularly for the d20 System. What are you doing to make Ptolus stand out, and why should GMs in search of a good setting consider this one?
Monte: Well, first and foremost, this is a book designed with the DM in mind. Even though it’s a mammoth tome, we’ve done some rather unprecedented things with the way the book is organized.
For example, every time an NPC, location, group, or other important thing is mentioned, we give you the page reference of where you can find more information on that topic in the margin off to the side. It’s got multiple indexes, making it easy to find what you need, fast. And this is just the start. The book uses color in innovative ways to organize the chapters and parts, it comes with a total of seven bookmarks, and more.
But there’s more than just that. Ptolus is an urban setting, and I’ve been running urban-based games for a lot of years now, so I know what DMs need (and don’t need) to run games here. For example, every one of the 11 districts in the city provides not just the locations in that district, but extensive information about the kinds of people and locations found there, making it easy for the DM to add new NPCs or locations, even on the fly.
Plus, Ptolus is just an amazing product. It’s a 672 page hardcover book with a special embossed cover by Todd Lockwood, complete with reinforced binding so it will last forever. It’s jam-packed with amazing color art and maps, it’s got a poster map of the city by Ed Bourelle, an envelope with 24 pages of handouts, a CD-ROM with hundreds of pages of additional content (including the entirety of two of our previous Ptolus-related books, the Banewarrens and Chaositech), bound-in bookmarks, and that’s not even everything.
And lastly, because it’s a cool place with interesting characters and groups, filled with hundreds if not literally thousands of plot ideas. In this setting you’ll find dungeon adventures, urban intrigue, politics, crime, feuding noble families, and more. Plus new monsters, spells, magic items, prestige classes, and whatnot appropriate to the setting.
TT: I’m curious what you’re like as a GM — can you describe 5 things about your approach to GMing that are unusual or unique?
Monte: Hmm. A tough one. I don’t know exactly how unusual these things are, but here’s five in no particular order:
1. I use a white board to keep track of intiative (and since it will hold magnets, I have each PC’s name on a magnet, so I can shuffle them around in initiative order)
2. I’m constantly shifting the way I present environmental information to the players. Sometimes I verbally describe a scene, while other times I draw it on a battlemat (Tact-Tiles, actually), and sometimes I build it with Dwarven Forge. Sometimes we use miniatures for an encounter, sometimes not, as I deem it appropriate and necessary.
3. I keep a list of names that I haven’t used yet, for when the PCs encounter someone or something I wasn’t prepared for (or I wasn’t prepared for it to be so important that it needed a name, like a captured enemy assassin or something). This includes names of evocative places and objects too, so when they encounter the strange old man and they ask what he’s doing here, I can look at the list and say “I’m looking for… the Orb of Seven Nights” or whatever.
4. I try to give every important NPC (and even some not so important) two memorable traits–mental, physical, vocal, or whatever. Like, “shaggy brown hair and a prediliction for sweets,” or “collects old books and has a big nose.” This helps make them memorable for the players.
5. I use music in almost every session to set the mood. I’ve got spooky music, triumphant music, battle music, and so on.
TT: Here on Treasure Tables, I recommended that GMs consider their own GMing faults as a starting point for improving their craft. What do you think of this idea, and what would be on your “naughty list?”
Monte: I think it’s a good idea.
1. I don’t do voices and accents as well as I wish I did, so NPCs could be more readily identifiable just based on my voice.
2. Sometimes when using miniatures, I forget to also provide verbal descriptions of things. It’s just lazy DMing to put down four orc minis on the table and not also describe them and use that description to help set the tone and mood.
3. Sometimes I could be better organized. I sometimes forget little details (like the second poison save, spell durations ending, and so on).
TT: The 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has introduced a lot of new gamers to the hobby over the past several years, and played a role in countless D&D games. If you could rewrite the DMG today, what would you do differently?
Monte: Well, looking back, there are things I’d do differently in all three core books, but in the DMG specifically I’d probably want to include more straight up advice on DMing. Specifically on “winging it,” plotting, worldbuilding, and so on. It’s been nice to have the ability to use the “Dungeoncraft” column in Dragon, and now Dungeon, to talk about some of these things.
There are small things I’d do differently as well. Certain magic item pricing, for example. In fact, I might reexamine how the whole magic item system works as far as generation, pricing, and organization go. While I like the flavor provided by specificity, the system could benefit from easier modularity, so rather than just a ring of protection +2, it was easier to create a belt of protection +2 that also allowed you to cast shield once per day, or whatever.
TT: If you can discuss them, what upcoming projects are on the slate for Malhavoc? Anything of particular interest to GMs?
Monte: Our slate is very full with Ptolus next year, including the follow-up adventure the Night of Dissolution and the Player’s Guide to Ptolus (both of which you get for free if you preorder–in fact, you get 5 copies of the Player’s Guide so all your players can have one). Plus we’ll have more coming out for Arcana Evolved, and Iron Heroes.
TT: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, Monte. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or share with TT readers?
Monte: You can always stop by montecook.com for updates on our products as well as freebies and general articles (from me). We update the site every week and have messageboards with nearly 10,000 members, so it’s very active–and more importantly, very friendly.
TT: Thanks, Monte!
Did you enjoy this interview? Was it useful for you as a GM? As always, feedback, comments and suggestions for future interviews are welcome!