Battleground Interview with Bruce Cordell

“From the Dawn of the Far Realms to the Ninth World, A Billion Year Journey for Newest Member of Monte Cook Games”

Interview by Alfred O. Cloutier


Battleground Games: Bruce, I had a raft of questions based on D&D, but now I’m not sure you can answer them.


Bruce R. Cordell: Hi Alfred! Thanks for your interest in what I’m up to. Who am I? Well, I’m Bruce Cordell. a game designer and novel author. I’ve got over 100 products to my name, several of which won awards, and not a few novels, some of which people really enjoyed. Or so they tell me :-).


BG: Regarding your recent signing with Monte Cook Games (MCG), who approached whom? Did you seek the position there, or did Monte come to you? If he came to you, what was his pitch, and how hard did he have to work to get to to sign?


BRC: After I left Wizards, several people approached me with offers of work. MCG’s was the most interesting, and I was happy to come on board and join my friends Monte, Shanna, Charles, and Tammie.


BG: I’m reading the press release at MCG about your joining, and it mentions that you were an “Advanced” Game Designer at Wizards. This sounds very much like you had levels, how many xps did you have at WoTC? Did they carry over to the new company?


BRC: I was a 13th level Master of Winter, of course. Quitting Wizards and then later accepting the MCG offer gave me enough XP to jump out the level system entirely. Now I’m an intrepid dreamer who forges worlds by minds alone (whichs probably makes more sense if you’re familiar with Numenera character creation. The video at offers a nice overview).


BG: I personally love the descriptions of Numenera I’ve read, it points to a place I’ve been looking for creatively for a long time. It is, however, *science* fantasy. Will it do as well as a pure fantasy world might? Is it a risk to take on this genre?


BRC: A risk compared to continue doing the same thing I’d been doing for the last 18 years? No, working with MCG represents the opposite I think. Sometimes you’ve got to shake the dust off and try something new. And truth to tell, science fantasy is something I prefer far more than straight fantasy; I’m more of a science fiction reader than someone who prefers fantasy.


BG: Numenera reminds me superficially of Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun.” Is this an apt comparison? What are the differences? Are there other stories from which Numenera borrows?


BRC: That is an apt comparison. I think that’s a better question for Monte and Shanna, but Numenera also reminds me of books like A World Out of Time by Larry Niven, The Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, and Dust by Elizabeth Bear.


BG: According to the singularitarians, such as Ray Kurzweil, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Verner Vinge, we won’t have a billion years before artificial intelligence becomes super-advanced and changes humanity’s modes of existence forever. How does Numenera address this?


BRC: I imagine a few of the previous civilizations that rose and fell on Earth were forged by AIs, any one of which may have lasted 10 million years or more. But they fell too. Over the deep time of a BILLION years, it’s hard for anything to last. The Ninth World is built on the bones of all those previous worlds.


BG: I am very fascinated by the idea of brainstorming, or idea generation, and I’m guessing that you attend these kinds of sessions regularly, is that true?  What is this process like? Are there “rules” (such as the classic openIDEO brainstorming rules)?


BRC: I’m a fan of brainstorming sessions where someone has already thought about the issue to be discussed, and can guide the direction of new ideas. I’ve been in a few brainstorming meetings with a lot of oars in the water, which just spun the boat in circles. That’s usually the result of meetings with 2 or 3 too many people involved. I’ve also been in probably hundreds of fabulous brainstorming sessions. Most of those either had the ingredient I first named (pre-thought), or just 3 people pitching ideas.


BG: Is there someone you can name, a designer/developer that generates a lot of ideas, or a lot of crazy and cool ideas for the industry, or for a particular game?


BRC: Most of the people I’ve had the pleasure to work with do that every day :-).


BG: I’ve always had this acute awareness–when I’m Game Mastering, and because of the GM screen–that the game could very easily become “non-ruled,” or to put it another way, just completely taken over by the GM’s mind. I’m acutely aware of this when a player at the game store, after the session is over, is taunting the GM with how powerful his character is. I think “doesn’t this player realize the GM has all the power, if he wished to take it?” Is this something you’ve wrestled with as a designer? Is it something that is directly addressed in your design philosophy?


BRC: An aspect of of 3.5/Pathfinder and 4th edition D&D is that they’re designed to be engines so robust that a GM is hardly needed. That has several long term undesirable effects, at least from my perspective: game mechanics become as important as the story, player abilities become overly complex and hard to parse even for long-time players, and the GM feels his or her options are limited. I much prefer a game where the rules are NOT the main course but rather just one INGREDIENT that the GM uses to craft the main course. As you may have noticed, the game system Numenera uses follows my preferred design philosophy 🙂


BG: I wonder if my non-rules awareness actually grew from my eventual mastery of certain game systems. As a Game Master, I felt I had a good answer for most scenarios. With all the playtesting you do, and changes to the play systems you work on, do you find it difficult to achieve this level of mastery?


BRC: As a professional game designer, my full time job is to master different game systems, so not really.


BG: What are you currently reading?


BRC: Elizabeth Bear’s Shoggoth’s In Bloom, Linda Nagata’s Vast, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and Miyazaki’s Nausicaa Valley Of the Wind compiled set.


BG: Stephen King writes–I’m paraphrasing here–that idea generation is fairly random, it is the ability to identify the collision of ideas in one’s mind as a viable story, or seed of a story. Have you had any memorable “collisions” that led to interesting plots, or mechanical ideas?


BRC: I rely on that collision. New ideas only come through synthesis. Your brain only has available to it what it’s previously experienced. It’s putting those things together in new ways that creates new ideas and insights. So it’s important to always be putting more things in your brain if you want to stay creative.


BG: Do you retain the copyright to some of the worlds you’ve created for the D&D multiverse? Will you be able to go back and create an ultimate timeline or story that ties all of the fantastic events and scenarios you’ve created into a unified piece? Will you be able to show that all the D&D universes are just the troubled dream of an Old One?


BRC: Wizards of the Coast owns the copyright for almost all the work I’ve done over the last 18 years, save for a few d20 projects I did. However, I do continue to earn royalties on my nine novels. So, if you’re seeing this, dearest interview reader, go out there and give me some love ;-). I suggest you start with Sword of the Gods!


BG: I’ve read that you were a wrestler in school, and practiced Jeet Kune Do afterward. How does being a martial arts practitioner inform or enrich your writing?


BRC: Depends on the book. In the past, it informed what I wrote a LOT, especially when I wrote the Abolethic Sovereignty novel trilogy, where the main character Raidon Kane was a monk. Honestly though, the biggest issue with a martial artist writing fiction is the tendency to focus too much on the technique and not enough on the story.


BG: In the age of Mixed Martial Arts (UFC/cage-fighting), do you think JKD is a strong martial arts school?


BRC: I practiced Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiujitsu a lot more than JKD, actually. (I have a level 8 certification in Muay Thai, and for a while I was instructing Jiujitsu as the school where I attend. That said, I must admit I’m doing a lot less Muay Thai and all the rest these days, due to time commitments required.)


BG: I personally had the most memorable adventures as a player using the 2nd Edition rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but I really liked DMing 3.5. Which is your favorite iteration of D&D? As a player? as a DM?


BRC: 2nd edition brought me in on the game design side of things, and the wide open rules of that edition allowed me to write some of my most remembered adventures, including Gates of Firestorm Peak and Return to the Tomb of Horrors. That said, 3rd edition was the D&D renaissance, and I also had many successes, like Sunless Citadel, the Expanded Psionics Handbook, and Libris Mortis. For me, 4th edition offered fewer triumphs, though Gamma World was a standout (we used a simplified version of the 4th Edition rules as our basis). As a player, I’ve enjoyed games using 1st (my first edition), 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and Next rulesets almost equally.


BG: What are you most excited about for the next edition of D&D?


BRC: Renewing interest in the tabletop game industry.


BG: What was your role in the creation of the next version of Dungeons & Dragons?


BRC: I was one of the designers.


BG: Whose idea was it to release the playtesting materials for D&D Next? Who wanted the next version of the game to have extensive playtesting by the general public?


BRC: I bet that was Mike Mearls.


BG: Was this choice to release wide-access playtesting a result of some perception of failure in the 4 edition rules, or do you think it was a marketing choice, or some other factor?


BRC: It was done through a legitimate desire to make the best game possible by gathering actual, statistically real data.


BG: I feel the Internet age causes a lot of online heat from vocal minorities for companies like WoTC, who get instant feedback from users of the products, how do you deal with this?


BRC: I stop reading forums that are taken over by toxic loudmouths, which nicely solves that issue. When I worked at Wizards, I advocated that Wizards get rid of its forums and call it a day–obviously I didn’t win the day with that argument, but I still believe it to be the right choice. If toxic people find me on my various social media outlets (g+, Twitter, and FB), I block them, and am never troubled again by that particular foolishness.


BG: Thanks for your time Bruce, and good luck!


BRC: Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk to you and your readers! If people are interested in keeping up with what I’m up to at Monte Cook Games, please follow me at one (or more!) of the following sites.


Bruce Cordell is a game designer at Monte Cook Games, and was a designer and novelist at Wizards of the Coast from 1995 – 2013. He is the author of many novels, adventures, and gaming accessories. He was also a part of the D&D Next design team.

Alfred O. Cloutier has contributed to Dragon Magazine, and has edited for a number of other gaming publishers. He can be found at