Monday, August 22, 2011

Interview: Author, Publisher, and Game Designer Monte Cook

Author, Publisher, Game Designer - Monte Cook

You don’t have to be a “gamer” to be a fan of Monte Cook’s work, although, if you are, he certainly needs no introduction from me. For those of you who aren’t gamers, however, a brief history of Monte Cook might be in order.

Monte has been authoring and editing books and game systems professionally for more than 20 years, and has compiled an impressive resume of published works. He got his start writing, editing, and designing for Rolemaster and Champions back in 1988. From there, he took those key roles to TSR (now Wizards of the Coast), which led to one of his greatest contributions to role-players abroad - the complete redesign of Dungeons & Dragons that gave us 3rd Edition D&D.

As part of that redesign, Monte Cook wrote the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, which ushered in a new age in the role-playing that has had a long lasting and positive effect on gamers around the world. 3rd Edition introduced us to a much more streamlined and manageable set of role-plying rules – the D20 System. This open-licensened system crashed open the doors for both new players and new game designers alike.

Monte now owns and operates his own publishing company, Malhavoc Press, with his wife Sue. Under the Malhavoc Press banner they have produced several impressive titles including: The Book of Eldritch Might, Arcana Unearthed, and the campaign setting, Ptolus.

Being a fan of his work, and a geek in general, I contacted Monte to see if he would allow me the opportunity to pick his brain on publishing in the field of role-playing games. I’ve often thought it would be an amazing experience to be able to design and write fiction for role-playing games, and what better person to ask than Monte Cook? I was both honored and excited when Monte graciously said, “Yes... thanks for thinking of me.” 

DP: Monte, you’ve been writing fiction for a very long time, specifically, in the fantasy and science fiction genres. Was this something you've always dreamed of doing, or did it just sort of happen?

Monte Cook: I can't remember not wanting to be a writer and I can't remember not loving fantasy and science fiction. I'm doing what I always wanted to do.

DPYou've created characters, adventures, developed worlds, and helped design the game mechanics for two of the most iconic game systems in the history of role-playing games: Rolemaster and Dungeons & Dragons. How does it feel to know that you’ve played a pivotal role in the entertainment of millions of gamers around the world?

Monte Cook: At the risk of coming across a little sappy, it's wonderful knowing that I've been a part of all that fun. I mean, there are worse ways to spend your life than spreading fun and imagination around the planet.

DP: Some of my personal favorite materials you’ve written were, Elminster's Ecologies, Labyrinth of Madness, and A Hero’s Tale. You’ve also written, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, a sequel adventure to the legendary AD&D adventure series, The Temple of Elemental Evil (T1-4), written by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer. What was it like to be given the opportunity to follow in the shoes of role-playing Godfather Gary Gygax? Did you ever get a chance to work with him directly?

Monte Cook: Gary's work meant so much to me, and shaped my life so strongly, that following in those footsteps, even a little bit, is a responsibility I take very seriously. 

I never really got to work with him directly, though. The closest was some feedback he gave me on the 3E DMG, which I wrote. I also gave him a preview copy of my book, Arcana Unearthed, which he read and commented upon. Much to my delight, he seemed to like both. I always found him to be nothing but pleasant. Truly a gentleman and a scholar.

DP: You’ve collaborated with some amazing artists over the years: Brom, Todd Lockwood, and Sam Wood (some of my personal favorites), just to name a few. For someone who is trying to go the self-publishing route, what’s the general process for contracting artists for your written works? What about writers getting published with a traditional publisher, does the author have any input or say as to whom does the artwork or the art design itself?

Monte Cook: Big publisher or small (or self-), you just have to contact the artist you like and find out what their rates are. Most have different rates based on image size and color versus black and white art.

How much input the writer has with the art depends entirely on the publisher. It's the norm, usually, that the writer has little or no input, sadly. I suspect that if even if you aren't given the opportunity to have a say, it's something you could push for, however. With some publishers, the writer is actually expected to come up with art descriptions and give feedback on sketches. So it really varies.

DP: In 2006, you released a massive tome called Ptolus , a 672 page campaign setting  source-book for a world in which you created. Is it fair to say that Ptolus is a collective collaboration of your life’s work as a DM from your personal campaigns you ran at home? Could you give a few examples of characters that are in the book that you’ve personally used to terrorize your players with?

Monte Cook: In a way, every book I work on is a culmination of my life's experiences as a DM. But yes, Ptolus grew out of my own home campaign that I played twice a week for about ten years. A lot of 3rd edition was play-tested in Ptolus.

Although just about all of the characters in the book actually saw time at the table, one memorable villain was a dark elf named Shilukar. He was a "always two steps ahead" kind of villain, never much of a threat in combat, but simply really crafty--like Lex Luthor when written well.

Ptolus is still available as a pdf and now, after years of being out of print, back as a print product (a 2 volume set) from

DP: In your career as a writer and game developer, you’ve worked directly for publishing companies, and now you own and operate your own publishing company, Malhavoc Press. Could you describe, from a writer’s point of view, some of the key differences between the two experiences?

Monte Cook: Control and responsibility. As a self-publisher, a writer can control any and every aspect of their book, from the art to the graphics to the content. But with that also comes the responsibility. If one of those things goes wrong, it's the self-publisher/writer's fault. Further, the self-publisher has no one else to help sell, market, and warehouse his books the way a writer at a larger publisher does. It's a trade-off.

DP: Monte, you are very busy writing these days. You write reoccurring articles for various publications (both for print and web), you have a published journal you consistently update, you’re continually working on various new writing projects, and somehow you even graciously make time to fill out interview questions from your rabid fans. What is a typical day of writing for Monte Cook?

Monte Cook: I get up late by most people's standards, usually about 9 or 10. Mornings are for email and paperwork (contracts, etc.) as well as social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. I usually work through the afternoon, take a break in the early evening, and then do another few hours of work late at night. The late night stint is my most productive and creative, so if I can, I divide up the work so that in the afternoon I'm revising, making corrections, and that kind of thing, while the late night work is for whatever main project I'm doing. Also, if I have a blog post or an article to write, that happens in the morning or afternoon, usually.

DP: For writers trying to break into the gaming industry, would you recommend self publishing (e-books) versus trying to push their works through traditional publishing avenues?

Monte Cook: It used to be that I would encourage people to always start by going through the traditional avenues. Usually something short, like an article for a magazine. Magazines are good because they're usually writer directed in that the writer submits an idea to the editor, rather than the editor handing out specific assignments.

Nowadays, however, it's a toss-up. Self-publishing is a much more viable thing than it was even just a few years ago. I will say, however, that if you've got a few credits on your resume from traditional publishing, you'll have a lot more people paying attention when you self-publish, and that's the real trick to self-publishing--getting noticed among the crowd.

DP: If there was just one bit of wisdom you could impart to aspiring authors what would it be?

Monte Cook: Make your deadlines. You would be surprised (and perhaps dismayed) how important this is, to the point where I can say that there are a lot of excellent, creative writers out there who don't get work because they can't make a deadline, and there are a lot of mediocre writers out there making a decent living and getting a lot of work simply because they never miss one.

DP: If you could step into the shoes of any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Monte Cook: Cliche as it might be, I guess I'd go with Luke Skywalker, simply because there's no character that I've wanted to be longer. Sure, he gets his hand cut off and the love of his life turns out to be his sister, but who hasn't ever sat around in their mundane life and wished that someone would show up and tell them that they actually are an important part of a much larger, much more exciting world, with the potential of having great powers and skills?  Plus, I really want a lightsaber.

I want to thank Monte Cook again for taking the time to respond to my questions. Monte, my friend, YOU are a gentleman and scholar yourself. I encourage you to check out his work, especially the new stuff he has brewing over at Malhavoc Press.

Michael A. Walker
Defying Procrastination 

If you had a chance to ask Monte Cook a question, what would it be? Have you ever written or designed a game system? I want to hear about it.

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