In this month's exclusive interview, the designers of the Menace Manualfor thed20 Modern Roleplaying Game describe how to research the CIA, how to make terrorists work in a real-world roleplaying setting, and how comic nerds can become villains.
Wizards of the Coast: How did you even begin to design and develop such an incredible array of creatures, characters, and organizations? Did you just start from scratch, or did you have particular research resources that inspired ideas?
Eric Cagle: I sat in on the initial concept meeting, which included Rich Baker, Christopher Perkins, and Gwendolyn Kestrel. We tried to come up with a wide range of creature types, including "real life" monsters, like the sea serpent and sasquatch as well as some crazy new ones. We heavily looted the Dark*Matter books -- there were some great creatures and organizations that had been sitting dormant since Alternity was shelved and there's a small, but vocal group of fans that wants to see anything Dark*Matter to stay alive. We tried to cater to that.
JD Wiker: It was actually very easy for me. Chris Perkins handed me a list of creatures, characters, and organizations, and said, "Which ones do you want to do?" I grabbed some, then turned to the huge pile of books I had on cryptozoology and conspiracy theories (left over from when I was working on Dark*Matter). What wasn't in there I found easily enough on the Internet.
Matthew Sernett: Collaborating on projects like this makes game design really fun. Christopher Perkins gave us a great base of ideas to start with that gave the book direction and still left a lot of room for creativity. With our chosen assignments and "open slots" in hand it was easy to dive into the necessary research and come up at the keyboard with plenty of ideas.
Wizards: The Menace Manual has some catchy new creatures in it. (The harriken -- the headsnatcher fiend -- is particularly creepy.) What are some of your favorites?
JD: I'm tempted to say the drop bear -- who wouldn't love a killer koala? But the one that always springs to mind is the ghoul. It was just so much fun melding the classic D&D monster with modern pathology.
Matthew: I particularly enjoyed designing the star doppelganger. The assignment was to do something like the creature from John Carpenter's The Thing, and if you've seen that movie, you'll see a lot of similarities. In the movie, the creature did some crazy things, so I had to figure out just what the monster could do in the movie and then design mechanics that made it work. It got a little complicated, but now you can put some PCs in the Arctic and enjoy the movie experience firsthand.
Eric: I love the way the art for the night terror really brings that creature to life. I think I put in my art order "a crazy, scary rabbit clown" -- and I think that the artist nailed it. The doom hag is my interpretation of the Blair Witch, and it's a good antagonist for a Cthulhu-esque horror game. The tumor fiend is just gross (and wonderfully so).
Wizards: The Supporting Characters chapter includes a range of individuals from clergy to contract killers (and that's just a fraction of the entries under "C"!). How did you determine the cut-off point for inclusion? It seems like such a list, in order to be comprehensive, could go on forever.
Eric: A healthy chunk of the supporting characters were originally designed to go into Urban Arcana, but were cut for space issues. This is one of the handiest sections of the book, in my opinion. I know that when I GM a game, they'll [be useful for] those "Oh, crap! The PCs went to the Justice Department -- I need a bureaucrat now!" moments. I could easily see another Menace Manual or "Big Book of Archetypes" down the road.
Wizards: You also have a variety of groups and organizations for GMs to use. Did you playtest many of these while preparing the Menace Manual? Which one is the one to watch out for?
Eric: There wasn't much to really playtest for the groups and organizations, but there was a great deal of research. I lucked out in that the groups that I wrote about didn't exist in [the real world] any way, so I was free to come up with whatever I wanted. Personally, I thought that JD got the bum assignment by having to research the real-life groups, like the CIA and DOD I would have snapped after a week if I had to "boil down" these organizations! I'm personally fond of The Circle A's, a low-level anarchist group, as well as seeing The Hoffman institute making a comeback (the perfect shadowy "Men In Black" group).
Wizards: How do you research something as calculatedly secretive as the CIA in order to have enough material (and the right material) to prepare a roleplaying faction? (The Department of Defense seems a little impenetrable as well!)
JD: It was a combination of Microsoft Encarta and their web pages, actually. But with the CIA and the DOD, you have to read between the lines; they're not maintaining their web presence as a way of pointing out their secrets. That's where Encarta came in handy -- Encarta and the Big Book of Conspiracies.
Wizards: The question you knew you'd be asked: Al-Jambiya, one of the factions described in chapter three, is defined as "a terrorist organization modeled roughly on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, though considerably smaller, and with a more aggressive agenda. It is the intent of al-Jambiya's leaders to torture and murder one U.S. citizen for every Muslim killed or injured by the actions of the United States." Roleplaying games are often cutting edge, so this organization may come as no particular shock to players. But did you have any trepidation in preparing the background and statistics of this particular faction?
JD: In a word, yes. There's so much anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States these days that I knew I was walking a fine line -- which should actually be a very broad line -- between condemning terrorism and stereotyping Muslims. Writing up this group was not easy; I tried several different angles, but eventually I realized that the only way to present this group was as decidedly nontypical Muslims, just as religion-fixated serial killers in the West are decidedly not typical of Christians. The members of al-Jambiya aren't really Muslims at all; they're vicious killers using Islam as an excuse to indulge themselves in their sick crimes.
The thing that really made writing this difficult was knowing that there are some people out there who can't see a difference between the fictional bloodthirsty psychotics in this book and the average Muslim. And, worse yet, that there are people out there who will decide that my assertion that there is a difference makes me "pro-terrorism."
Wizards: Are the Cryptonauts ("once an innocent gathering of computer and comic nerds") based on reality? The line from the Cryptonaut Code, "Hacking should hurt pocketbooks, not people," is particularly amusing.
Matthew: I'm glad folks like the Cryptonauts. I had a lot of fun writing them up. The Cryptonauts filled an open slot for "a real-world or fictional organization." They were inspired by the Lone Gunmen of TheX-Files fame and the movie Sneakers, and of course, the idea was based a little on some of my friends from college who now work in the tech industry. I thought the book could use a light-hearted element, and the Cryptonauts seemed like something fun that a lot of gamers could relate to.
Eric: Exactly. We tried to run the gamut of obviously dangerous groups to much more subtle antagonists, which includes the Cryptonauts and Nova Records. Some of the best villains don't even think they're villains!
Wizards: What just didn't work for this book, no matter how hard you tried to make it fit in?
Matthew: The leaving-in and cutting-out choices are hard to make, and fortunately, we didn't have to make them. I like to tinker with strange new mechanics, and I wrote up a creature that sucks the organs out of a person or animal and then crawls inside to manipulate the body. It was an homage to the classic alien body snatchers and to cow-mutilation conspiracy theories. It didn't make it in the book. I knew the idea was a little off the wall when I submitted it, so although I'm sad to see it cut, I expected some of my stranger ideas wouldn't see the light of day. Pretty much everything else landed in the book whole cloth, though.
Eric: There's only one thing that I can think of that got cut -- a misery/pain fiend. It was pretty icky, so I'm not too surprised that it got axed.
Wizards: Finally, what are each of you working on now?
JD: D20 Future. That, and running The Game Mechanics.
Matthew: I'm still up to my ears in freelance. In addition to the day job as Dragon Magazine Senior Editor, I'm finishing up the book for Green Ronin I was working on while writing for Fiend Folio, I'm contributing to an as yet unannounced book for Wizards, and doing character and backstory design for a computer game. "Honey, where do we keep the midnight oil?"
Eric: And I'm up to my ears as well. I'm contributing to both Wizards and The Game Mechanics, but nothing that I can announce at this time. Figures, eh?