Monte Cook's fear of boredom led to some of the best written games ever
Monte Cook's fear of boredom led to some of the best written games ever
If you ask an RPG fan of a certain age what the best-written video game of all time is, there's a good chance they'll say 1999's Planescape: Torment. Perhaps the most-acclaimed of the groundbreaking Infinity Engine computer role-playing games (which include classics like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale), it's a dimension-hopping tale that follows a scarred, immortal with amnesia on a mission to confront his destiny. Most would probably point to famed director Chris Avellone and designer Colin McComb for Torment's introspective tone and weighty themes – uncommon in the genre, even today. But such nuance wouldn't be possible in just any setting, and certainly not the shopworn Tolkien-esque world of vanilla Dungeons & Dragons. When McComb finally managed to convince Brian Fargo's inXile Entertainment to produce a spiritual successor to his most beloved work – released last month as Torment: Tides of Numenera – he didn't approach D&D barons Wizards of the Coast to try to wrangle the Planescape license. Instead, he called his friend Monte Cook, one of the minds who helped shape it.
Cook's name might not ring a bell to the average computer gamer; by his own admission, as part of the half-dozen or so Wizards employees who captained the D&D Planescape campaign setting, his role in the original Torment PC game was relatively minor, a matter of a few short meetings and a lone jaunt to Black Isle Studios, who built it. But since then, Cook has made a name for himself as an independent pen-and-paper designer, authoring hits like The Book of Eldritch Might and Ptolus. So when McComb asked him to license his as-yet-unreleased RPG Numenera as the setting for the new Torment – eventually Kickstarted to the tune of just over $400k – Cook jumped at the opportunity.
"It was really early on, actually," says Cook. "Before we even launched the Kickstarter – which ended up going much better than we ever expected, actually – I was trying it out with a couple of friends. In a video game, I suppose you would call it alpha testing." At that, he can't help but laugh a contagious Midwestern laugh. "Well, Colin [McComb] was one of those playtesters. And so six months later, when I knew I was actually making it, he calls me, and says he wants the license. And I'll be honest – he was very convincing."
At a glance, Planescape and Numenera share little more than the pen-and-paper medium. While Planescape revolves around a complex cosmological "multiverse" full of warring factions and interdimensional Lovecraft-style horrors, rooted in Dante's Inferno, and ancient mythology, Numenera is set in a far-future where desperate raiders vie to brazenly repurpose ancient technology to bolster their hardscrabble lives as the world around them withers under the weight of eons. But, as Cook is quick to point out, the similarities lie not in the worlds themselves, but the philosophy that guides them.
"With tabletop world design, you can go two ways," he says. "You can go for something like Forgotten Realms, where you quantify everything, and completely detail the entire history of the world, sometimes month by month. You could become a Forgotten Realms expert, in the same way that somebody might be an ancient Greek expert. But with Numenera and Planescape, there's a lot of unsolved mystery. There's a lot of question marks hanging there.
In Cook's view, RPGs like Numenera and Planescape offer more room for ambiguity, while Forgotten Realms and its imitators are more rigid. Especially in Planescape, he and his peers at Wizards would write distinct views into the fiction, using open-ended phrases like "some people think…" when describing the lay of the land. You could easily take one of those dangling mysteries and construct their whole adventure around it – after all, who else could figure out what caused that mountain to float eighty feet off the ground? "That was the idea behind Planescape, and that's the sensibility I took to Numenera," Cook says.
This sense of the unknown is common in the works that inform Cook's games. And though his reading list might overlap with that of the elder statesmen of the tabletop milieu, like Gary Gygax – familiar titles like The Lord of the Rings, John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost, or Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth, which first popularized the idea of a distant future that looks and feels like the formless past – according to Cook, after 30 years of dwarves and elves, he just can't do it anymore. "If I tried to write something with all that Tolkienist stuff in it after all these years, I'd just get bored," he says, sighing. "And when you've been doing this as long as I have, I know that when I'm bored, the thing I'm making is going to suffer."
That fear of boredom led Cook to make Numenera, which represents perhaps his best work, but also his most controversial. Multiple times during our conversation, he described virtual strangers approaching him at conventions to tell him that, while they love the game's nuts-and-bolts design, they really want him to apply it to something a bit more conventional – perhaps the familiar faux-Britain of Middle-Earth, for example. To Cook, this would be a fundamental betrayal of the works that inspired Numenera, primarily Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series – a favorite of discerning geeks the world over – which Cook describes as a life-changing read.
"I mean, I don't think it's a huge secret that the idea I've been sitting with for a long time – the idea of a fantasy setting that's actually a sci-fi setting, where what seems like magic is actually just technology – is really directly tied to Gene Wolfe's writing. When you read The Book of the New Sun, you realize that when you're reading the book, it's so easy just to glide across the tip of the iceberg, but it goes so much deeper than that. There are whole books that do nothing but dissect the mythology of New Sun. That's what I wanted to bring to the RPG space."
Cook describes two scenes from fiction that burned into his young mind. First, a moment in New Sun where the protagonist reaches down and picks up a handful of dirt, only to realize that the literal ground that he walks on consists of ground glass and silica – tiny remnants of past societies. Second, a drawing by the French artist Moebius – aka Jean Giraud – that depicts weathered cliffs far beneath an intrepid hero, who rides a pterodactyl into the sunset. Upon closer inspection, those cliffs are revealed to be skyscrapers that have eroded to the very brink of recognition.
To Cook, these two images were a thunderstrike – the feeling that you are living among the refuse of the past, and only by sifting through that refuse are you able to create a future for yourself. That's why in the pen-and-paper Numenera, leveling-up your character isn't simply tied to how many monsters you kill (though there are plenty to kill). Instead, you get experience points through simple discovery – an approach echoed by the video game.
"I was part of the team that designed third-edition Dungeons & Dragons," says Cook. "That's a game that's so combat-focused that it's essentially impossible to have fun playing a character that doesn't focus on magic or swordplay. If you have a game where the combat is hyper-detailed, and you have all these ways of tracking damage, and the system for talking your way out is a simple dice roll, well, of course you're going to solve every problem by whacking the bad guy in the head."
In Cook's view, though hefty, combat-oriented systems have their place, pulling back the layers of complexity can solve the problem. "I wanted to make a game where the GM could focus more on the character and story," he says – as opposed to constant stat checks. In a "rules-light" system like Numenera, combat isn't necessarily the most compelling option available to players, which incentivizes them to try more novel approaches, such as stealth, or simply talking their way out.
Cook is loathe to pass judgment on those with different roleplaying preferences than what Numenera allows. And as more traditional fantasy fare continues to make a comeback in the wake of Game of Thrones and similar works, he looks back on the "old-school" days of D&D with a certain fondness – back when you would use a 10-foot pole to check for traps in every nook and crevice. But, in his estimation, this nostalgia is a "quick fix" at best. There's a reason why things have changed since the mid-Seventies. Yet when McComb's team wanted to traditionalize some of the more unfamiliar aspects of Numenera's bold mechanics in order to appeal to the computer gaming audience – including the addition of hit points, an old D&D mainstay – Cook didn't offer any resistance. "I was honestly thrilled that it was as similar as the tabletop system as it was," he says.
Some of Torment: Tides of Numenera's changes might rankle the uninitiated; for example, the game's take on Cook's "Effort" system has no real parallel, at least not in any title of its magnitude. Instead of simply deriving your chances of completing challenges based on their attribute scores, the player "spends" their stats in order to increase their chance of succeeding at a task, which could be picking a lock, deluding a guard, or simply clubbing a giant rat over the head. But though victory is rarely assured in Torment, the consequences for your missteps often result in a far more interesting adventure. While it may lack the succulent vistas or boundless activity logs of its more modern-looking brethren, Tides is a game where you can skip meaningful sequences of combat with a single well-told lie – something that the Bethesdas and BioWares of the world should perhaps take note of.
As for Cook, he plans to leave the coding and scripting to the McCombs of the world – at least for now.
"I think there's a lot more room to do crazy stuff in the physical space," he admits. "It's kind of like independent comics. They have the room to try insane stuff. If they put out a series that doesn't appeal, then oh well. They're out of the cost of the paper they printed it on. With video games, they're just so expensive that risk is difficult to tolerate. You look at the Effort system in Tides – I can't believe this is the first game to try something like that. But I guess you can't go out on a limb when there's millions of dollars on the line. But I think, for me, the pen and paper is just the way to go."