In this series of articles, members of the team here at MCG look back at products we’ve released over the past decade and talk about their personal experiences in their creation, and the influence the titles have had on them as gamers, professionals, and just, well, people. It’s part of our celebration of Monte Cook Games’s first ten years. In this post Designer Sean Reynolds talks about one of his favorites so far: Stay Alive!
As I wrote in the introduction to Stay Alive!, horror is in my blood.1 I like spooky, creepy, scary things—books, TV shows, movies, art, you name it. So in 2019, when each of us on the design team got to pick a genre to write an entire book about, I claimed the horror book.
This was a big deal for me. Not only was it the largest solo project I’d ever done,2 I was also able to write whatever I wanted as long as I thought it was cool and appropriate for the book. I’ve been writing games for 25 years, and being a part of MCG was my first real opportunity to have complete creative control over a really big project.
And it’s some of the very best work I’ve ever done.
Before I was a game designer, I trained to be a high school teacher. I’m good at explaining things (although perhaps too over-inclusive of interesting little details), and I wanted to talk right to the reader, like we were having a conversation. Horror is hard to do well in an RPG—you need to understand your setting, your players, and the player characters. So about half of Stay Alive! is conversational-style advice on how to use a particular element (vampires, werewolves, creepy dolls, and so on) in your game.
And, even more importantly, advice on what not to use in your game. Respecting the difference between “good uncomfortable” (something that makes you squirm in your movie theater seat) and “bad uncomfortable” (something that offends you or makes you feel nauseated) is crucial, because you want everyone in the game to have a good scary time that makes them want to play more instead of a traumatic time that makes them never want to play in your group ever again. Every player gets to decide what scary game elements they consent to and what ones they don’t. I wrote an entire chapter for the book about this.
Monte, in his role as creative director, realized the topic of consent was bigger than just horror games… it was something people needed to talk about for all genres. We spun off most of the consent chapter into its own separate free PDF, Consent in Gaming, and Shanna Germain and I greatly expanded upon it (approximately doubling the size of the original chapter). The existence of this PDF and its checklist of consent topics led to a lot of discussion on social media about the importance of consent at your gaming table.3
My personal philosophy is that people should use their powers and talents to heal, not harm. So I very much appreciate how as an MCG designer I got to write an entire book about how to be scary, and sort-of-accidentally co-wrote an entirely different book about how to make sure you don’t actually harm the people with whom you game.4 Which makes my healer-heart happy.
Be scary, be safe!
A selection of creepy artwork from Stay Alive!
1 If you don’t have this book, check out the free PDF preview on the MCG Shop—the entire introduction is in there.
2 Stay Alive! is 224 pages. Obviously I’ve worked on bigger books (like Numenera Discovery at 416 pages, the Cypher System Rulebook at 448 pages, and the two versions of Ptolus at 672 each), but all of those had at least one other author. Stay Alive! would succeed or fail entirely on what I put into it.
3 I strongly encourage everyone to think about consent and use whatever safety tools work best for your game group (Consent in Gaming discusses a few of them and has links to additional suggestions). And be aware that if a GM, player, or group brags about not using or needing safety tools, that’s a pretty good sign that you don’t want to game with them.
4 Because the people you game with are your friends, and if you’re deliberately trying to hurt a friend, then you’re a bad friend.