Game designers Monte Cook and Shanna Germain have a lot to celebrate this month. Their Ennie award-winning publishing company, Monte Cook Games, is coming off of yet another successful crowdfunding campaign. Old Gods of Appalachia smashed its goals — and Kickstarter’s own tabletop records — garnering more than $2 million in backer support. August 2022 also marks an important milestone: It’s officially been a decade since the two launched their first crowdfunding campaign for Numenera, which is powered by Cook’s own Cypher System.
Cypher is a “rules lite” RPG game engine that emphasizes narrative and ease-of-use. Game masters (GMs) focus less on dice and more on keeping the story moving, and players can dive right in because character creation is as simple as a three-word sentence. Powers and features are drawn from the system’s namesake — think of cyphers as modular, single-use abilities that incentivize discovery, experience, and creativity. In the rich science fantasy setting of Numenera, which takes place after humanity has risen and fallen eight times previously, cyphers motivate both characters and story, challenging players to determine what comes next.
To celebrate, the MCG team has a number of plans in the works for Gen Con and beyond. They’ve compiled and bound some of their favorite adventures, drawn from the many public events that they’ve run at Gen Con over the years, including this year’s batch, into Ten Years of Adventure. The hardback anthology will be available in Indianapolis and at the MCG online storefront for a limited time. MCG has also announced the Cypher System Open License, which will make it much easier for independent creators to design and market games compatible with Cypher.
“There are some great books out there that are meant for fiction writers that are just meant to spark your creativity,” explained creative director, lead designer, and co-founder Monte Cook. “I’ve been wanting to do something similar [for GMs and players] for a really long time.” The book will cover everything from player characters to NPCs to magic items to spells and abilities, along with advice on how to weave (a lot or a little) weird into your game. Details are scant as Cook is still busy writing it, but MCG has shared with Polygon an exclusive first look at the planned cover as well as some of the brilliant art that will adorn its pages. Watch for the launch of the crowdfunding campaign later this month.
From the outset of the first Numenera book, the MCG design team strived to balance an immersive, compelling weirdness while fostering a sense of accessibility through the elegant and easy-to-learn design of the Cypher System and its mechanics. “The idea was to have very straightforward game mechanics for a very weird setting,” Cook said. It’s an approach that’s informed much of the success of the publisher in the years that have followed.
Citing No Thank You, Evil!, the publisher’s kids-and-family-focused game, senior designer and co-founder Germain explains what prioritizing accessibility and inclusivity actually looks like in practice.
“We looked into everything from what fonts are good for someone who’s dyslexic to lowering the hurdles for someone who’s nonverbal, or for a kid who’s on the spectrum, or who has ADHD. How do we make a game so that they can come to the table and feel like they have a way to interact without having to jump through a bunch of hoops?” she said.
From Cypher, which began as a way to stoke the interests of people who saw the rules and number-crunching of many TTRPGs as a barrier to play and story, to the way Invisible Sun addresses the eternal struggle and frustration of scheduling by making player and GM absence a game mechanic, to the thoughtful design of No Thank You, Evil! forming as a response to how parents used Cypher with their kids, it’s evident that the designers at MCG listen to how people use their products and work to eliminate any hurdles they might encounter.
That critical and compassionate ethic permeates through everything MCG does, from the consideration it puts into making sure its art is representative and reflective of their audience to the language the designers use to providing free consent and safety tools for the larger community of TTRPG players.
“The game table is such a great place to try and make the world so much better and so much more empathetic because you have people who are hopefully willing to be vulnerable, tell their stories and become someone else. We really wanted to facilitate that in a safe, supportive, inclusive manner,” Germain explained. Both Germain and Cook agree that the real joy of doing this work has been having people show up to events like Gen Con and hearing that they see themselves in the worlds MCG has created.
Cook says this is especially resonant because he can recall, from his years at TSR and Wizards of the Coast, the subtle and at other times explicit ways that corporate policy dictated just how open and inclusive the creative teams could be. “I’ve been in meetings where people have said, ‘The problem with this product is that it doesn’t have a white male in the cover and there has to be a white male on the cover,’” he recalls. Not wanting to replicate that toxic culture in their own company has been a driving inspiration for both Cook and Germain. “I knew that I wanted to have a company that really focused on the creators and that the creativity wasn’t run by the marketing department,” Cook said. “We also wanted to overcome those game industry assumptions, like that you can’t afford to pay people very well, you can’t give good benefits, or treat our employees well.”
Cook also recalls how Coleman Charlton, Terry Amthor, Kevin Barrett, and Pete Fenlon — key figures at Iron Crown Enterprises, responsible for the Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP) and Rolemaster lines in the 1980s — all helped him get established in the industry, and he is now trying to pay that forward.
“Having been in the industry for a long time, a lot of my thoughts are turning toward helping new creators and young creators in the same way that I was helped,” he says. Aside from attracting established designers and old friends, like Charles Ryan, Tammie Ryan, Bruce Cordell, and Sean Reynolds, MCG has welcomed newer designers to the fold, like Dominique Dickey, who’s known for their work on TRIAL, Tomorrow on Revelation III, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and the latest from Wizards of the Coast, Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel. “Experience by its very nature is something that you can get, but enthusiasm and talent are things that a person can bring to the table,” Cook said.
Dickey started at MCG as an intern in 2019, after being tipped to the opportunity by fellow game designer and creative writer Ajit George (who led production of Dungeons & Dragons’ Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel) whom they met at the Science Fictions & Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Conference. During that initial months-long tenure at the publisher, Dickey wrote Heist on Miracle IV, a science fiction adventure for the Cypher System. “It was a very educational experience for me, but it was also very validating as a designer that I can make something start to finish,” they said.
That hands-on experience of having their own original work published for the first time gave them the confidence to start writing and releasing their own games, because at MCG they had an opportunity to not only write but shadow everyone else at the company at each stage of the production. With a lot more credits under their wing, including credits with Paizo and Wizards of the Coast, Dickey returned to MCG this past May as both a designer and editor.
Aside from the relaxed atmosphere of the company’s culture, Dickey says they really feel like they’re working alongside people who know them and understand how they work. Recently Dickey drafted a new adventure for an as-yet-unannounced project, and looked to their previous writing for MCG as well as Bruce Cordell’s work to inform the style, tone, and pacing. Cook came back with a comment that Dickey says they have now hanging above their desk: “I didn’t hire you so that Dominique Dickey can write MCG products. I want MCG to publish Dominique Dickey products.”
“And that’s the moment where I was like, Oh, I feel very seen and valued here for like the full breadth of what I am able to create.”
Reflecting on the past decade, Germain said: “I’m able to bring all these parts of my personality to bear in building and growing this company and in doing so I think we’ve built a company that invites all of our employees to do the same. They come through the door and we want them as they are. We want their creativity and their experiences and their passions.”