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Interviews: Monte Cook/Malhavoc Press

Interview by Joe G. Kushner

A veteran of Wizards of the Coast, Monte Cook has moved on from his triumphant lead design of D&D 3e's Dungeon Master's Guide to launch a highly successful D20 company, Malhavoc Press. Now part of the Sword & Sorcery distribution network, Malhavoc continues to forge ahead unimpeded. Monte keeps busy on other projects, too, having co-designed Call of Cthulhu D20 and penned a number of acclaimed D&D adventures and supplements both under and separate from the Malhavoc label. Oh, and there's the awards, lots of awards. Joe cowers in the presence of Monte Cook in our interview.

So how has Malhavok Press taken off and what directions do you see it going in the future?

Malhavoc has really gone beyond what we even dared hope, and so fast that we can't even believe it. We put out our first product as a lark, just for fun, to see what would happen. It snowballed from there, and now it's a full time job for both my wife Sue and me.

As we look to the future, we are "gearing up" our production a bit. In 2003, for example, we'll probably release nine new books. To us, that's amazing, and only possible because we've brought on two of the best writers in the business, Bruce Cordell and Sean Reynolds to do some products as well. I don't see us going much beyond that rate, however. Even though we've so far been very successful, and our books have sold remarkably well, I don't have dreams of becoming some big publisher. The point, ultimately, is to have fun and put out cool, high-quality books.

What's it like being the boss now that you have several employees? Do you find yourself stuck doing management work when you'd rather be writing or are the two halves of the equation still on friendly terms and no sacrifices have been made thus far?

Well, to be technical, Malhavoc has no employees. Here's how it works: Sue and I are co-owners. We work with writers, like the aforementioned Bruce and Sean, artists, like Toren Atkinson and Sam Wood, graphic designers, like Peter Whitley, and proofreaders, like Mark Ashton, on a freelance basis. We'll soon be working with a few freelance editors too, to handle the increased workload. Basically, though, I'm the primary writer and Sue is the primary editor. We both handle administrative work, although who am I kidding--Sue really does most of it.

If Malhavoc ever gets to the point where I'm doing primarily management work I'll be likely to quit and do something else. I started Malhavoc so I would have an outlet to write what I wanted and that's still it's primary reason for being. Although we're priviledged to have the work of Sean and Bruce, Malhavoc is still basically my personal imprint.

Are there any publishers you'd like to work with or are you going to be far too busy with Malhavok? Queen of Lies and Beyond the Veil are two great adventurers for example and both by different companies.

Thanks. It would be fun to, say, write a Dragonstar adventure, or work with great people like Chris and Nicole at Green Ronin or the Fiery Dragon crew again (a super bunch of guys), but it's not likely to happen anytime soon. I did a lot of freelance work after I left WotC because I really didn't expect Malhavoc to be a full time gig. It is full time, now, and then some.

That said, I am writing at least one more adventure for the Wizard's website and I am doing an ongoing Dungeoncraft column in Dragon Magazine as well as an ongoing fiction series in Game Trade Magazine.

What's a typical day in the life of Monte in terms of preparing your own role playing campaign?

Busy. Since so much of my campaign turns into game product (Banewarrens, Queen of Lies, Beyond the Veil, Requiem for a God and most of all three of the Books of Eldritch Might--as well as one of the adventures on WotC's website, Black Rain--all have come directly from my current campaign) I can "excuse" the time I devote to the campaign as "work time."

I run two games a week. They're both set in the same campaign setting, and both within one large city (Ptolus), so by this point campaign background is all already done. The city has become, just through necessity, so detailed that if the PCs need to get a certain type of gear, they not only know where to go to get it but they remember the shopkeeper by name (I love that). One character's got a favorite taphouse to spend an evening in because she likes the bard there, while another has finally found a place that sells coffee strong enough for her tastes. The characters are high enough level so that their names and faces mean something to most people they encounter in town. So a lot of the work is done.

Thus when I prepare, it's just the nitty-gritty of the adventure. If it's a location-based encounter, I whip up a map. I put together some NPCs, either using the basics in the DMG, or those generated by Jamis Buck's cool generator. (I've also got to the point where I can eyeball an NPC pretty quickly.) If I need some monsters, I'll jot down notes on a post it note and stick it right in the Monster Manual or whatever book I'm using. Very often though, I'll just create a new monster whole cloth to fit a miniature I have. Miniatures are important to my game, and rather than painting up some cool monster and then using it to represent something I don't have, I'll make up stats appropriate to it. That's a great inspiration, actually.

Miniature painting is another big part of my prep. I love to paint minis, and so I try to always have appropriate, painted miniatures for my games. The only reason that's possible is because: 1. I had a head-start and so already had a bunch of miniatures painted before the game started, and 2. I can sometimes use miniatures in both games without people even realizing.

The real "work" (meaning kind of a drag) portion of the whole experience is updating my notes with what happened in the session and the "on the fly" decisions I made and characters I introduced, so that if they go back to that spot, I'm not at a loss to remember what I put into the game last time.

Your site recently mentioned miniatures. Were you as surprised as I was at the number of new companies after so many just folded and went through a rebirthing process?

Yes and no. That's just a hallmark of the industry. When I started working in it, about 14 years ago, most of the major players in the industry were completely different. FASA, ICE, Mayfair, GDW, and of course TSR were all the big dogs, along with Steve Jackson and Chaosium. Now most of those companies are gone. White Wolf was just a guy with an interesting new idea back then, and there was no WotC--not to mention a WizKids or any of the d20 companies.

So to see similar sorts of things happen with miniatures companies isn't all that strange to me. I love to see new companies popping up. I love the fresh influx of creativity the industry has. I love change.

What's the secret to being a good GM outside of reading and following the advice in rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide? Is it preperation? Internal consistancy? Adaptibility?

I don't think there's just one secret. The ones you mention are all extremely important. I'll particularly stress preparation. There are fiction writers who will tell you that they just make up their story as they go along, sitting in front of the keyboard. I'm sure that's true (in fact, I know it is), and I'm sure you can write a fine story that way, potentially. I'm also sure that the really great works of fiction out there were painstakingly prepared ahead of time with outlines, notes, and numerous re-writes. My point is that while I know from experience that a good DM can run a really fun session "on the fly," the difference between a good campaign and a great one is preparation. If you're a DM and you frequently DM on the fly and have good results, try preparing adventures and story arcs ahead of time, if you can. Your good game will get even better.

Ultimately, if I had to come up with one key to good DMing, it would be to remember that it's all supposed to be fun. While it's the DM's job to create a believable, consistant setting with engaging characters and events, it's probably even more important to remember to steer the game in fun directions. If the PCs want to go in a direction that you're not ready for, let them. If they want to use their abilities in a creative way, let them. Yet, at the same time if you have to jury-rig something to make sure the PCs are adequately challenged, do it. Because it's fun for players to feel that they really do have the freedom to choose and it's fun for them use their powers and their imaginations, and its fun for them to feel challenged. 

If you were still at Wizards of the Coast fulltime and they said, "The Call of Cthulhu idea was great. What setting/game system should we do next?" what would you say?

Good question. I would suggest that they think long and hard about doing something with Planescape. I'm sure it's just because of my intimate involvement with the setting, but I hear requests from players all the time for Planescape 3E. Plus, it would be such a huge diversion from the kind of rules-heavy design that WotC does almost exclusively now. Planescape was a great opportunity to really flex one's imagination and writing skills as a designer. The setting gets kicked around by detractors now and again because of the slang that many of the products used, but I think that's a pretty shallow examination of the product line. If you look at some of those products, you'll find, I think, some of the most imaginative settings, characters and situations in any role playing game, ever. (I'm not trying to blow my own horn here--forget my stuff. Look at the great material by Zeb Cook, Colin McComb and Wolf Baur.)

Other than Planescape, I'd tell them to look at trying to do something really weird and fun like d20 Paranoia. I haven't read it yet, but I'm glad that Jonathan Tweet did a take on Gamma World in Polyhedron (called Omega World). I love post-holocaust gaming, and I'm sure I'll like what he did because we used to have conversations about what was so great about Gamma World. I've also been long disappointed that we're not likely to see a d20 Rifts, mostly because it's practically d20 as it is and I like the mashing of all the genres together occasionally.

Ultimately, though, I'd probably try to convince them to do something completely original rather than redoing something old. 3rd Edition D&D was a bold step for the industry, and we need to keep going forward rather than focusing on updating the past.

At Gen Con I saw the previews for Requiem For A God and some of the other later projects. Requiem is is very different in that's it's an Event based book and to be honest, the only other book I've seen that might compare is Apocalypse boxed set for Role Aids from Mayfair quite a few years back. Why an Event book?

Two reasons:

1. Because it hasn't really been done before.
2. Because lots of DMs run their own, home-brewed games and don't need a campaign setting or an adventure that changes their whole campaign with a storyline that runs roughshod over them. They need some ideas and guidelines for how to introduce an event into their own game at their own speed, using as much or as little of the rules as they want. This is that book. Think of every event book we do as another new, extremely specific section to add to your DMG.

What other event books can we expect to see? Natural Disasters? Invasions? Apocalypses? Birth of a new god? Creation of a new plane? Technology advancement?

Basically, the answer is yes. Those are all ideas we've discussed, and ideally the event book idea will be well-received, giving us the opportunity to do all of them!

How about Ptolus? It's gotten a little more coverage now thanks to the Banewarrens but why not a full sized sourcebook? If it could be divorced from the setting just a tad ala Freeport and made to fit into any setting, I know a lot of poeple have expressed interest in it. Why not a nice hardcover to settle the fans down?

Right now, Freeport (and perhaps Bluffside) are really filling the "I need a fantasy city" niche, and doing it well. If I do a Ptolus sourcebook it won't be for a while and it will be in such a way that it will really offer people something different. On a related note, I will say that next year I'm going to be doing a whole sourcebook on one thing that makes Ptolus unique--chaositech. Is it magic? Is it technology? Is it both? It's chaositech--strange devices powered by chaos itself that produce all manner of unique effects. This will be coupled with a lot of material that I have worked up for chaos magic, chaos cults, and that sort of thing.

Are there any other freelancers you'd like to work with or have work for Malhavok? I know that quite a few people enjoy Mike Mearls for example and some feel that some non-WoTC staff may add more depth and, more importantly, products from Malhavok.

I think Mike's a good designer, too, actually. It's not my goal, however, to get a bunch of designers to work with Malhavoc. Both Sean and Bruce are unique cases because they're not just great designers, but they're also some of my very best friends. (People who scoff at the idea of placing importance in such things in "business matters" are exactly the reason why I run my own company--so that I can keep my priorities straight.)

But never say never. It's possible you might see some different designer's names on a Malhavoc product now and again. Through 2003, though, it will just be me, Bruce and Sean, most likely.

Any chance of seeing any OGL Interlink products from you in the future?

I'm in no way opposed to the idea. In fact, I think it it's cool. The Green Ronin/Paradigm books dealing with dwarves and giants was a great idea. I haven't read the giants book, but Jesse Decker's dwarf book seems top notch (I'm about half way done reading it).

It would have to fit our products (I wouldn't just shoe-horn something in just to do it) and I'd have to have a lot of faith in whomever I was working with.

On a related note, a bunch of us "Sword and Sorcery guys" have discussed doing a joint product of some sort, but again, I would want it to be more than just a gimmick. Once we come up with a good idea, we just might do it.

What is the goal of Malhavok going to be?

The goal is, as it has been from the start, to release quality, imaginative work. I don't like writing bland, "just what you expect" sorts of material, and I don't think most people want to buy it. I want every product to trod new ground. I want every product to be so good that no one's faith in Malhavoc is ever so much as shaken. We take a little longer than some other publishers, and put out fewer products, but it's because we are so painstaking.

You recently mentioned on your forums that there would be a print only product coming out next year. Why did you decide to go that route?

Basically, it's just logistics. It's going to be a really big, hardcover book. I don't think that most of our regular pdf customers are going to want to download something that size, let alone print it if they wanted a hardcopy.

It's also a bit of a test to see what people want and like. If there's a big outcry because it's not pdf, we'll roll with those punches and present it as a download as well (perhaps in chunks rather than as one big thing).

Are there any projects you'd like to tackle but don't feel that the market is quite right for yet? You know, Dark Space d20 or something?

I'm a big fan of releasing products when it is the right time to do so. However, mostly I have the opposite problem--there's a lot of stuff I think the market is ready for right now, but I can't get it all out at once!

Dark Space d20 is a possibility. I have some potential ideas for doing something big with that, but it wouldn't be for a while. Plus, the idea is worth doing really well--and that means lots of development and playtest time.

So how was Gen Con for you? What was it like selling Orc & Pie and making a new mythos for yourself in the proces as the man who made Orc & Pie so famous?

I had a great GenCon, although I was busier than I would normally like to be, what with representing Malhavoc and running a series of workshops for both game designers and fiction writers. The workshops went well, and a lot of people attended, but I also wish I could have been at our booth more. I'm undecided what I'll do next year.

The response to Orc and Pie, I must say, has been really surprising. I thought it would be a little joke that no one would really think was all that funny but instead it's become this whole "thing" unto itself, entered into the Gamer Lexicon. Which is, I'll admit, pretty cool. By the end of GenCon, people wearing the shirts were everywhere, which was great.

How do you feel about Gen Con moving? Is it going to effect your own schedule in any way?

I'll be honest. I like Milwaukee. I lived near there (in Lake Geneva, when I worked for TSR) for a few years and got to know the city really well. I have lots of good GenCon memories tied to the city. However, I am certain that Indianapolis will be really cool as well. And GenCon, I'm sure, will be GenCon. So I'll be there next year, eager for some gaming.

What do you see for the near future for role playing games, d20 publishers and Malhvok in particular?

Well, the ball's still in WotC's court, I think. They're so big (market-share wise) that decisions that they make can make or break the industry. They can't take the OGL away, which is a comfort, but they could still do something really good or really bad that has repurcussions on all of us d20 publishers, and which would ripple out and affect the whole game industry. For example, right now is the perfect time for WotC to release another Dragonlance type setting--something that captures the imagination of gamers and fiction readers and expands the bounds of the whole hobby. (The setting search suggests that this is at least a possibility.) Now is not the time, for example, to release a new edition of the game with a lot of controversial and far-reaching changes that will utterly fragment the audience. I'm sure that the smart folks at WotC realize that, though.

So it's impossible to really predict the future with any degree of accuracy because so a fair bit of it is out of my hands. I hope that a few years from now d20 and Malhavoc are still going strong. I'm having tons of fun and wouldn't mind seeing it continue at all. That's my hope.

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