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Hard Science Interviews

Interview with Wolfgang Baur and Monte Cook by James Maliszewski

by James Maliszewski

December 24, 1999

Interview with Wolfgang Baur and Monte Cook
by James Maliszewski

Recently, Wizards of the Coast released the second campaign setting for their science fiction roleplaying game Alternity. Entitled DarkMatter, this setting features a near-future world of conspiracy and intrigue, replete with occult and extra-terrestrial menaces. The setting's designers, Wolgang Baur and Monte Cook, were good enough to answer a few questions about the DarkMatter for the benefit of RPGnet's readers.
Let's begin broadly. Why a conspiracy/occult setting for Alternity?

Monte Cook: A setting in which the players can identify with directly is always a very good one, so something that takes place in modern day Earth has a direct appeal, I think. It's something that allows you to directly use knowledge that you really have in the game, whether you're designing an adventure or are playing a character. Plus, the whole genre gives a new spin on character goals. In DarkMatter, you're not after gold or experience points or even defeating evil (necessarily). You're after information, knowledge truth. The rise in interest in conspiracies and the paranormal over the last few years is pretty undeniable. I think it's a role playing setting that people will enjoy. It involves horror, sci fi, mystery, action... there's a lot to it.
Do you think DarkMatter will bring in new players to Alternity, players who mightn't otherwise have given it a chance?

Wolfgang: I've already seen it happen at some of the local game shops. People who like horror or conspiracy-style games didn't pick up Star*Drive, but they have picked up DarkMatter. Not to mention the free game rules given away.
Do you think the conspiracy/occult craze of the 1990's is over? Is that a benefit or a hindrance to your plans for DarkMatter?

Monte: I find it fascinating that conspiracies and the paranormal are inextricably linked in most people's minds. For whatever reason, the same people who read books on the JFK assassination seem just as interested in Bigfoot or UFOs
(myself included). I think its because the "truth" behind conspiracies and the paranormal (assuming there is any) both seem equally denied to us they're both forbidden fruit on the tree of knowledge. That's all a long-winded way of saying that I think delving into the unknown will always be a meaty subject for role playing games and stories of all sorts. Sure, we've seen the X-Files and whatnot come along and capture
the public consciousness, but the "craze" certainly wasn't the beginning of conspiracy theory or a fascination with the paranormal, and if the craze goes away, it won't spell an end for those really interested in this stuff.
One of the things that most pleases me about the DarkMatter setting is that it's purposely open-ended on many points. Are the Rosicrucians in on the Conspiracy? What's up with the Greys? etc. Will this open-endedness make DarkMatter difficult to support?

Monte: Yes and no. Every DarkMatter support product, article or whatever can be thought of as an answer to something--the thing is, the DarkMatter setting book only just begins to pose questions. There's enough material for us to plumb in this setting to fill a library (I know, my own bookcases are bulging with the stuff), so I don't think we need to be afraid to answer some of the questions that we raise. Plus, the thing to keep in mind is that a sourcebook or an adventure might tell you what the Final Church or the sandmen are up to, but it's probably only just one of the things. Once you get into the DarkMatter setting, it quickly becomes clear that all these are huge, sweeping forces at work, and there's plenty of room for individual GMs to come up with plots and conspiracies that won't necessarily conflict with what we have. I guess in short, you can come up with your own answers for your own campaign, and they won't ever be proven wrong.
. Which reminds me: what sort of support can we expect for the setting?

Monte: There's a great adventure just around the corner by Bruce Cordell called the Killing Jar. After that, we've got a fair number of products coming out that include sourcebooks on important groups, equipment guides and plenty of adventures.
Do you intend to continue working on the line? That is, can we expect supplementary DarkMatter material from you?

Wolfgang: Yes, I'll still write for it occasionally, just as I'm writing for Third Edition D&D: I'll submit articles for Dragon magazine and Dungeon. Beyond that, I've written some short fiction for the setting, I contribute to the darkmatter-l mailing list, and I'll write a module if Hasbro/WotC wants one from me.
I found DarkMatter to be a departure from previous WotC products in that it explicitly deals with real-world groups, people, and religions. Did you have any problems or second thoughts about doing this?

Monte: Second thougts? Not one. I think it's the only way to do a book on this subject. The whole point of a setting like DarkMatter is the feeling while you're playing that it could be real. It draws on things you might have heard about once, or things that accually sound plausible... well, some of them, anyway. As a DarkMatter GM, it's fun to play on the paranoia of not just the characters, but of the players. Using real-world groups and people does just that. (It's amazing how little a DarkMatter GM really needs to actually make up for his campaign just surf the web on a few conspiracy or paranormal sites and you'll have enough material for a year's worth of adventures, made all the creepier by the fact that somebody out there actually believes this stuff.)

There was a little hesitation on some people's parts. Some of our bosses were a little leery, but I think that's just because it was all stuff that we were always told we couldn't do. But it's all fiction. No one here at the office actually believes any of this stuff. We're not trying to make a political statement (and even if we were, I don't know what it would be DarkMatter casts a dim light on everything) we're trying to make a fun game. Looked at in that spirit, I don't see how anyone could have a problem with it.

Wolfgang: No real problems except in the proofing department; it's not their job to have fits about this sort of thing, but one person there took it upon herself to attempt to derail some material at the last minute. She's not in the credits, but she's an old-guard Wizards employee who suffered an unfortunate attack of self-censorship when she saw the galleys. For the most part, her efforts were foiled by Hoffmann operatives. Sadly, she's too powerful to simply "disappear."

With that one exception, writing this setting was a huge relief. After years of being told "You can't do that", Jim Butler really pushed the idea of testing the creative limits with this one. I asked him: "Can I write about Satan?" and he said "Yes." I asked "Can I write about cannibal government agents who work against the Catholic Church's secret police?" He turned a little pale and said, "Absolutely." I kept asking about stranger and stranger topics, and the answer was always "Go ahead."

The content was limited far more by what the designers wanted (or didn't want) in the game than by brand managers, marketers, the liberal media, the vast right-wing conspiracy, or any other outside influences.

DarkMatter obviously draws upon a host of media for its inspiration. Do any of these stand out as especially influential on your development of the setting?

Wolfgang: The most important reference and inspirational material came from dozens of sources. For me, the most important are probably Foucault's Pendulum, the Majestic-12 documents, and the Fortean Times. For Monte, I'm sure it's a different list. Other influences ran the gamut from X-Files (duh) to Enemy of the State to Preacher, and from the Illuminatus! trilogy to the Parascope web site. There's a bibliography of the setting in the back of the book.

The whole genre is a sprawling mix of styles; the fun part of designing a game about the paranormal in the real world was trying to make it all work together. While I threw everything into the pot, playtester reactions were crucial to sorting it all out.

Monte: For me, it comes from books and from real world Internet sites. While X-Files and Dark Skies are/were OK, they really aren't good models for a RPG setting. Books by Robert Anton Wilson (Cosmic Trigger), John Keel (Disneyland of the Gods and the Mothman Prophecies) were big influences on me, although a subscription to Fortean Times didn't hurt. On the internet, www.disinfo.com, www.conspire.com and a lot of others were really inspiring.  DarkMatter has a fairly extensive bibliography, which shows the real influences. If someone's looking to get a quick handle on it all , however, I always recommend the Big Book of Conspiracies and the Big Book of the Unknown. They're a great place to start.

Did you encounter any difficulties in adapting the Alternity rules to a near-future setting?

Monte: Actually no. It was so easy it was almost effortless. It may sound like sales copy, but Alternity really works well for the present all the way to the far future.
I'm also pleased to see the FX rules used to such good purpose in DarkMatter. Can we expect to see more of this sort of thing?

Monte: Yes! A whole product devoted to FX is coming out soon, and it'll always be an integral part of DarkMatter.

How do you like being a professional game designer? Is an enjoyable way to make a living?

Monte: I suppose like any job, when deadlines are looming and things go wrong, it's really WORK. But yeah, it's a great job. I regularly play in one if not two games a week I'm a big gaming goob so getting to write games for a living is wonderful. I love it, and I love the people I get to work with. I'm surrounded by creativity, and that (hopefully) fosters my own.

Wolfgang: I liked it enoough that it took seven years before I left to get a "real job." It's enjoyable for a few years, but turning your hobby into your day job does mean that you need to find a new hobby. A lot of the work of game design is more tedious and bureaucratic and arbitrary than people imagine on the outside. Eventually most people move on to other things.

James Maliszewski

What do you think?

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