An Interview with Ben Monroe of Call of Cthulu, Stormbringer and Nephilim fame

Ben Monroe is a gaming professional who has worked on several products you’re probably familiar with such as Call of Cthulu, Stormbringer 4th Edition, Nephilim and his upcoming game, Something Wicked.  I had a chance to conduct an interview with him, and jumped at the opportunity.

You have an impressive list of authoring and editing credits; One of the Living, several Call of Cthulu products, Nephilim, Conspiracy X 2nd Edition, Stormbringer 4th Edition, among others.  Does any one game in particular stand out as the most fun to work on?

You know, one of the things I’ve really tried to stick to in my games writing, is never working on a game which I don’t enjoy.  I ended up working at Chaosium because as a kid, I was a huge fan of RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and the other BRP games.  I gamed with Sandy Petersen, and when I got out of High School, was offered a job at Chaosium.  It was sort of a dream come true.  I was getting to work on games I absolutely adored.

Being a big fan of zombies, working on All Flesh Must be Eaten was a natural choice.  Indeed, a friend introduced me to George Vasilakos before the game was even printed.  I was familiar with Unisystem from playing Witchcraft, and bugged him to let me write the Zombie Master’s Screen adventure until he relented.

I’m currently working on a book for the HeroQuest game, “Something Wicked”, which is a horror sourcebook.  And I’m having a blast.  HeroQuest is a joy to write for, and play.  Working with Jeff and Rick has so far been an utter pleasure.

I see Nephilim in that list.  I owned that game when it released and I thought it had some very interesting concepts, particularlythe whole “you create each of your past lives” deal, which I had never seen done in an RPG back in 1994.  What was it like to work on that book? Have you played the most recent French edition, which according to my sources uses a completely different system from BRP?

That was a weird project.  I was in college, and working again at Chaosium for the summer.  I ended up helping out on putting Nephilim out, though obviously Sam Shirly and Les Brooks did most of the heavy lifting.  I just filled in the cracks.

One of the biggest problems with the game, I feel, was that it was rushed to press. They’d started working on the translation in winter and it was put out at GenCon that summer.  As such, I don’t think it was given the time to ferment that it really needed.  Sam and Greg had some brilliant ideas for it, and they started appearing in the later sourcebooks.  I would love to see the game get another chance in the US, taking all the material Chaosium produced and putting it into a cohesive whole.

And, no, I’ve never played any of the French versions of the game. The original was heavily BRP-based because the authors were big fans of RuneQuest, and wanted to do their own HeroQuest game.  Greg was saving that for himself, so they took all the system work they’d done, and turned it into Nephilim.

How did you get into the RPG industry and RPGs in general?

As a kid, I was terrible at math, so my mom would get me boardgames to help out.  I was already a big scifi/fantasy nerd.  At some point, I discovered a local games store (Gambit, in Berkeley) and all the cool hobbit miniatures.  I bought and painted a bunch, and eventually the guy at the store (which I later discovered had been Charlie Krank of Chaosium) started telling me all about D&D.  Then it just took persistence in bugging my folks for a copy for Christmas.

As I mentioned earlier, I was a friend of Sandy Petersen’s.  He got me a job at Chaosium doing the warehousing/shipping upon my graduation from High School. After about a year of that, they started giving me some pasteup and layout work to do, which was a blast.  Then I started doing some editorial and writing work.  The rest is history.

Do you have any suggestions for aspiring authors out there, whether they be looking to get into the RPG industry or publish the next great novel?

Write.  Or as my brother (the Archeology Professor) often says: “Don’t get it right, just write.”  Also, if you’re writing for the games industry, remember that you are not writing a story.  You are writing materials people will be using to tell their own stories.  You may hand them a story outline, in the case of an adventure scenario, but they will be supplying the characters to bring it to life.  Your scenario must be clearly written, as it will need to be scanned during play; leave out the flowery stuff unless absolutely necessary.  Save it for your novel.

And if you really have a great idea for a game, adventure, sourcebook, etc. don’t be afraid to send a query to a publisher.  Most of these guys are small shops and rely on freelancers.  Prove you can do it, and do it.

As you’ve probably noticed, .pdfs are pretty popular nowadays.  What are your feelings on buying a .pdf online versus buying a dead tree book at the local FLGS?

I think it all boils down to personal preference. I prefer reading my books in ‘dead tree’ format, but I understand the utility of having them in PDF.  Indeed, many of the games I own, I have in both formats.  Saves my back when I can just bring a core book and my laptop full of sourcebooks to a game.

The main problem I have with PDFs, is that most publishers of them just do an export of their print files to PDF, and sell them that way.  Because of that, they’re putting out material formatted for a specific style of reading, in a way that’s not necessarily helpful to comprehension of the material.  An RPG book in print format is usually formatted in portrait style, with two columns.  Trying to read this onscreen means a lot of scrolling up and down on each page.

Interestingly, I think some of the indie publishers are starting to figure this out.  The smaller format of many indie games is much easier to read on-screen, where it’s practically the same size as in printed form.  Also, I’ve started seeing more indie/small-press games coming out printed in landscape format, which is easy enough to read in print, as well as on-screen.

Any thoughts on the current state of the RPG industry?

We’re in a tough spot right now. Nobody can deny that sales are down, stores are closing, etc.  I understand that the new “Dresden Files” RPG was noted by ICV as being the number 5 selling RPG for the past quarter (Summer 2010).  Fred Hicks had noted on his blog that they’d sold about 3000 copies of the core book and supplement during that time.  Most people may not realize this, but that’s not really great sales.  When I was at Chaosium (c. 1990), 3,000 copies was what we’d expect to sell on an autoshipment of a new Call of Cthulhu supplement.  Frankly, the main problem I see right now is a glut of product, and far too many competing systems. I had lunch at DunDraCon last year with a number of other game designers and that was the one thing I really took away from it: too many systems.  It gets confusing, and fractious when everyone is playing something different.  I honestly think that one of the reasons the early days of the hobby were such a boom time, is because there were really only a handful of games out there, so you could inevitably find someone playing one of the ones you wanted to play.  It was all AD&D, Traveller, Cthulhu, MERP, and a few other weird games that everyone knew of, but nobody really played.

Today, every time I stop by the game store, or talk to my gamer pals, everyone’s talking about a million different systems, trying out this, trying out that.  But there’s not much in the way of commonality.  D&D has always been the lingua franca of the hobby, but even now that’s being split among 4e/3e/Pathfinder and the Old School Rennaissance.  And as a deeper example, in the OSR, you’ve got three or four different versions of the same thing muddying the waters.  Dark Dungeons, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, etc., are all essentially reworking the same material in slightly different ways.  All that does is muddy the waters. And, more than being fractious in the hobby itself, this becomes –very- confusing for new members of the hobby.  They hear about RPGing from their pals, try to figure out where to start… you get the idea.

So, what can you tell us about any projects you might be currently working on, say…Something Wicked, perhaps?  Do you have anything else coming down the pipeline we need to keep an eye out for?

“Something Wicked” is my aforementioned HeroQuest Horror sourcebook.  It’s going to be tremendous; indeed in many ways I see it as my magnum opus.  It’s going to be a long, rolling, rollicking essay on the horror genre, horror gaming, and specifically how to use the tropes and themes of horror fiction through the lens of the HeroQuest RPG.  It will include tons of general material, as well as focusing in on three types of horror specifically: Surival Horror, Personal Horror, and Cosmic Horror.  Each of those will get their own chapter, extra discussion of tropes and themes, and a small sample setting.

I started “Something Wicked” because I love HeroQuest, and love horror, and thought it’d be neat to see how the two fit.  The more I work on it, the more I’m convinced that HeroQuest, tweaked specifically for Horror, could be the greatest RPG for running Horror games we’ve ever seen.

I do have another couple projects on which I’m working for Chaosium, but these are more editorial in nature. And, I can’t mention them yet.

Do you get much of a chance to do any roleplaying yourself?  Do you have a regular group?  And, if so, what games are you playing?

Well, I’ve got two kids, so my gaming time has been limited over the last few years.  That being said, I have been running one shots of HeroQuest occasionally at conventions and for small groups.  I ran a Call of Cthulhu game for a group of guys who’d never played CoC before (indeed half of them had never played an RPG before) and that went over great.  In fact, tonight I’m running a horror western game at a local games store for their new monthly RPG night.  “Black Night in Devil’s Gulch” is the title of the scenario, and it’s going to combine elements of the Sawney Beane ( story with cattle mutilations and surrealistic survival horror elements.  And I’ve been working on a fantasy setting/world which I’ll probably end up using with HeroQuest, and the Mongoose edition of RuneQuest II.

As far as ‘regular’ gaming goes, I’m in a twice-monthly “Labyrinth Lord” campaign which is just a blast.  We’re on a month-long break right now as I’m taking a Technical Communications course in the evenings (which, by the way, is giving me some great ideas about formatting game books, and how to present game information in a much clearer way).  But I’m looking forward to getting back to it in November.

And, being the proud papa I am, I must mention that my five year old is champing at the bit to play.  I’m probably going to set up a special game night for him soon.  A couple of my pals have said they’d love to be there for his first RPG, so this should be fun.

Do you have a favorite type of character you like to play?

I tend to gravitate toward the Ranger/Wilderness Scout type when playing fantasy games.  The few times I’ve played scifi games, I always seem to end up playing the ship’s pilot.  For horror games, the sky’s the limit.  I just always try to play a character with enough curiosity to get himself into trouble.  I hate gamers that show up to a horror game, and try to avoid the monster the whole way through.  What’s the point of playing?  That’s like going to a scary movie and keeping your eyes closed.  If you don’t want to see it, don’t go!

Can you tell us about your favorite character, either a NPC or PC you’ve played or written?

I think my favorite character was probably Rand Ulph Cartor, a pilot-turned-jedi-wannabe in a d6 Star Wars game I played about ten years ago.  I had a ton of fun putting together his backstory, leaving a bunch of hooks open for the GM, and just seeing where it went.  That was a tremendous game.

Since Halloween is coming up, did you ever have anything interesting or spooky happen to you while you were working any of your products?  I imagine the research for the Cthulhu products alone possibly resulted in some SAN loss…

By the end of the project, my coauthors and I were referring to “One of the Living” as “That Fucking Zombie Book”.  Indeed, when it was completed, I bought Brian and David t-shirts which read “I Survived the FZB.”  It was one of those projects where it just seemed cursed.  Every time we picked up some steam, something happened to kill the work.  My grandmother died when I was getting one of the chapters done, and it took months to get back to it.  I brought Brian on, and his father passed away shortly after that.  When I’d finally finished the manuscript, I sent it to a friend to proofread.  I was chatting with him on AIM as I was sending it, and suddenly he logged off with no warning.  I found out later that day that a roofing tar truck had lost its brakes on the hill near his house, sped out of control down the street, and smashed into the house next to his.  To add to this, it flung boiling tar all over the place, destroyed a power transformer, and knocked out power to the whole city, and part of the next one over.  I also discovered that this had happened just as he’d clicked on the file to open it. At that point, I just gave up, sent the manuscript in, and hoped for the best.  There was a ton of other awful things that happened to various members of the team during the writing, but honestly, I’ve forgotten much of it.

How do you feel about writing for existing intellectual property such as Stormbringer or Call of Cthulu versus writing for original intellectual property?  Is one any more difficult or restrictive than the other?

Well, in that case specifically, Michael Moorcock was alive, but had given us pretty much free reign to do whatever we wanted to do.  Of course, Lovecraft was long dead, but during his life had very much encouraged other writers to add to his mythology, and grow it in interesting directions.

So, I’ve been lucky.

But still, the basic idea here is that while I love creating my own settings, it’s also a lot of fun to play in someone else’s sandbox.  I was a fan of Lovecraft and Moorcock before I started playing RPGs, and then obviously a big fan of the games based on their work.  It was really cool when I was able to work in those settings professionally.

Did you ever get to meet Michael Moorcock?

Not personally, but I was around when Greg was hammering out correspondence to him. My understanding is that Mike could be… difficult to work with.

Do you have any cool or interesting stories about the RPG business you’d like to share, a peek behind the curtain so to speak?

I pitched a Vampire RPG to Chaosium back around 1989/1990.  Nobody was very enthused about it, however, and it ended up getting dropped in favor of the Blood Brothers supplements for CoC.  In retrospect, we all agree we should have done it.

I see that you had a short stint with the F/X studio Industrial Light and Magic.  Did that help you with or influence your RPG work in any way?

More specifically, my internship was during my last semester of finishing my degree in Cinema, with an emphasis in Writing and Directing.  I spent four years studying story structure of various types, and it inevitably changed the way I game. Probably because of that, I find myself more drawn to the more story-driven game systems. HeroQuest is my current favorite game, and I’m still a huge fan of BRP.

What is your favorite snack to serve during game nights?

Salt and Vinegar Pringles or Lay’s chips, Diet Coke, Guinness, Bass, and the “Asian Snack Mix” they sell at Costco.

And, lastly, you must pick one to win in a four-way fight:  ninja, pirate, zombie or cyborg.  Which do you choose?

Zombies.  Always gonna go with the zombies.

Again, thanks so much for agreeing to do the interview!

[tags]interview,role playing games,zombies,call of cthulu,chaosium,nephilim,something wicked,heroquest[/tags]

4 thoughts on “An Interview with Ben Monroe of Call of Cthulu, Stormbringer and Nephilim fame

Add yours

  1. Great interview! I am a huge Call of Cthulhu fan so therefore a big fan of Ben’s work. And was Ben connected to that epic film “Montery Jack and the 3D House of Pancakes” or am having a delusional episode?

    – Brian C.


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