Looking Back on 30 Years of Great RPG Design

Monte’s birthday is this coming Monday (January 29th), and we’re going to celebrate it with him on Saturday, the 27th. (We’d love for you to join us!) But that’s not all we’re celebrating–2018 also marks Monte’s 30th year as a professional RPG designer. Looking back at his career, it’s not hard to see why he’s one of the most celebrated and influential roleplaying game designers of all time.

Monte started in 1988, with Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE), a Virginia publisher known for its Middle-earth Role Playing and Rolemaster lines. Monte started with ICE as a freelancer, but transitioned to a full-time designer and the line editor for the Hero System game line.

Following that same pattern, Monte began writing freelance for TSR in 1992, and within a couple of years joined the company full-time. His early work for TSR included a variety of products and lines, including D&D adventures and a range of items for TSR’s Marvel game that, when the game line was cancelled, ended up not seeing the light of day.

But it was probably Planescape that really brought Monte to the gaming world’s attention. Monte penned or contributed to dozens of supplements for the radical new D&D setting, including The Planeswalker’s Handbook and the acclaimed mega-adventure Dead Gods. When TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast, Monte moved to the Seattle area and was put on the core design team behind Dungeons & Dragons’s third edition. Drawing on his interests and experience with horror and sci-fi-edged games, going all the way back to ICE’s Dark Space, he went on to be the lead designer on WotC’s Call of Cthulhu d20 and penned other influential D&D products such as Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

Third edition, CoC d20, and the move to WotC were big, challenging projects—and Monte has always had a powerful appetite for innovation. He left his position at WotC a couple of years after the D&D 3E launch, to start a new venture: Publishing his own materials in PDF. This was before the advent of DriveThruRPG or RPGnow.com—before anyone knew that format would become popular. That company—Malhavoc Press—would go on to publish the legendary Ptolus campaign setting: A world for D&D released as a massive 650-page book with another 150 pages of digital extras. Monte’s notable Malhavoc work also included Arcana Unearthed: A Variant Player’s Handbook and the Diamond Throne setting.

In the years between Malhavoc and the formation of Monte Cook Games, Monte contributed to yet another edition of D&D (as an early member of the 5th Edition design team) and wrote numerous works for other companies, including Monte Cook’s World of Darkness and contributions to the HeroClix miniatures game. And then, of course, came Numenera, The Strange, No Thank You, Evil!, and the forthcoming Invisible Sun.

It’s hard to find an area of RPG design and development in which Monte hasn’t innovated. He launched and ran the Dungeon-a-Day website, an early experiment in subscription-based RPG content that ultimately included hundreds of encounters in a vast, 20+ level megadungeon. And MCG fans need little reminder of his effect on RPG crowdfunding—the Numenera campaign set all kinds of records for the time, and, along with Invisible Sun and The Strange, remains far-and-away one of the top campaigns for a new RPG property. It’s also worth noting that Monte has written novels, comics, and even non-fiction.

Shanna, Monte, and Bruce in the MCG Seminar at Dragon Con 2016

Along the way, Monte has worked closely with such industry luminaries as Zeb Cook, Jeff Grubb, Skip Williams, Wolfgang Baur, Lester Smith, Colin McComb, Pete Fenlon, S. Coleman Charlton, and of course MCG’s Bruce R. Cordell. His works have been illustrated by the likes of Tony DiTerlizzi, rk post, and Kieran Yanner. He’s won dozens of Origins Awards and ENnies, and was inducted into the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame in 2015.

At the end of the day, everything above is just a list of events, activities, and publications. What really matters is how Monte has influenced the lives and games of RPG gamers everywhere. If you’ve enjoyed tabletop gaming at any point in the last three decades, the odds are good Monte was a part—large or small—of that enjoyment. Happy birthday, Monte, and we’re all looking forward to many more years of great games!

Monte in his natural habitat: smiling behind a GM screen.


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