Sean K Reynolds

A Walk Through the Planes – An Interview with Sean K. Reynolds

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A couple months ago, we ran several articles about Monte Cook Games’ trilogy of new RPG books set in D&D‘s Great Wheel cosmology, Path of the Planebreaker. Sean K. Reynolds was one of the designers for this series, and he previously worked as a game designer for TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and Paizo before winding up with his current position. As such, he has a great deal of insight into roleplaying game design and development, both within his work as a contributor to work on D&D‘s other planes of existence, and for many other campaign settings and worlds. We spoke with him about his history in the industry, neglected works in the genre worth checking out, and of course the design process behind Path of the Planebreaker.

Can you tell a bit of your background with RPG’s, even before you started working on them professionally? How did you start playing? Did you stick with it all the way through college and afterwards? 


I’ve been playing RPGs since I was about nine or ten. My local community college had a summer “college for kids” program, and the one summer I attended I had an astronomy class and a D&D class. And right around that time my cousin David and I started playing D&D with the D&D Basic box set (Moldvay edition). I kept playing all through my teens (minus a short gap in junior high school when my original group broke up); when I went off to college, I didn’t have any in-person groups so I started reading the RPG newsgroups and I started playing in some play by email (PBEM) games, and eventually hosted the PBEM FAQ on my FTP site. After college I continued with PBEM stuff because I still had no in-person group (and no free time to play in person, really), but a year later I got a job at TSR, and that was my in-person gaming revival (thanks to Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell, coincidentally enough).

Your first job in the industry, as far as I’m aware, was working for TSR as online coordinator. What did that entail?

Nowadays that job would be “webmaster” plus “community liaison” plus “customer service.” I answered emails to the official TSR email account, managed the TSR section of America Online (when that was still a big thing), dealt with the horrible TSR online copyright policy, hosted some FAQ files (like how to contact the Mail Order Hobby Shop store, subscribe to Dragon Magazine, and so on)) on my personal FTP site (because the owners of TSR didn’t want us to have a website), and helped promote upcoming releases from TSR.

How much interaction did you have with the designers at TSR during that period?

Even though I was in an entirely different department (they were “Creative Services” and I was “Marketing”) and part of the building (they were in “cube land” and I shared a window office in the marketing and sales section of the office, I had a lot of interactions with them. Monte Cook and Colin McComb took me under their wings on my second day at the company (my boss had put in his notice and the managers opted to let him go that day, which meant I suddenly was reporting directly to VP Jim Ward and literally did not know anyone else at the company) and told the other designers and editors that I was a gamer and I’d be interested in playtesting. So I got involved in a bunch of playtests, both in the office and outside. And when a new book or box set would come out, I’d hit up the designers and editors who worked on it to do a live chat on our AOL site or a Q&A for the web. Plus, my computer was the only one in the office that had a modem, so everyone wanted to use my computer to check their email when I was on my lunch break. Also, because I didn’t have deadlines like the rest of the team, I was available at the drop of a hat for miscellaneous things, which meant the on-site artists frequently tapped me to stand in as a model for various pieces of art in our books. So I got to know everyone at the company, and although I was a little starstruck by the big-name designers I’d known from being a teenage gamer, I eventually got over it and we became friends.

Your first releases for TSR came out in 1997. How did you transition from that first role into a designer role? 

I became good friends with editor Cindi Rice, who mainly worked on the Ravenloft line. At the time, TSR owned and ran the Gen Con convention, and the designers and editors threw a private party for game industry people at Gen Con every year. They paid for the party by writing an adventure collection (usually by multiple authors) as freelance, and donating the freelance to fund the party (the management was fine with this arrangement). On this particular year, the adventure collection was Children of the Night: Ghosts, and Cindi offered me one of the spots in it, as a test (it was a short adventure, so if I messed it up it would be relatively easy to fix or replace). [I wrote an article about this on my blog, for people who want more details.]

Apparently it turned out well, and they offered me other small freelance gigs, mainly writing short tie-in adventures meant to be used at game stores to promote the adventure they were tied to, like a githyanki/mind flayer adventure to promote Bruce Cordell’s sourcebook about mind flayers, or a Birthright sourcebook about Vosgaard. By the time we ended up at Wizards of the Coast, I had enough of those under my belt that when they decided to open up a new designer spot, they told me to apply for it, and I did, and I got it!

You were there at Wizards of the Coast during the momentous sea changes of early Third Edition. What was it like there at the time—how was it organized? 

That’s a huge question and could be an entirely separate line of questioning. The short short version is after some behind-closed-doors brainstorming and design by a few key people, they started creating documents to show the rest of the designers and editors to get some early feedback and playtesting. The final setup was Jonathan Tweet being lead designer for the Player’s Handbook, Monte Cook as lead on the DMG, and Skip Williams as lead on the Monster Manual. I got my foot in the door a bit there, too… I provided them an in-depth analysis of the first few levels of 2E spells (pointing out inaccuracies, redundancies, and inclarities) and some of the 2E magic items. Skip ended up having me write the first draft of quite a few MM monsters (brink dog, carrion crawler, gargoyle, medusa, owlbear, and more). And then as the core rules were wrapping up, I got moved from the Greyhawk team to the Forgotten Realms team and we started working on the 3E Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting hardcover, with input from the design team about our new rules and modifications.   

Was there much control exerted from executives about what needed to be produced?

I didn’t have much to do with that aspect of it. I do know that we had an internal server app (called First Class, taking the role that Slack does these days) and there was a big folder/channel just for discussing D&D as a brand, game, and hobby. One executive in particular made a habit of posting outrageous things in there, just to use our reaction as a litmus test for how the fan community would react. For example, he once asked, “What if the Monster Manual only had monsters that we owned, so that it would all be proprietary?” I remember being annoyed and pointed out that not only would this mean the core monster book for the game wouldn’t have orcs, ogres, gryphons, giant spiders, bears, or dinosaurs, it wouldn’t even have dragons.” Fortunately, nobody took these crazy suggestions seriously.

One of your last releases for Wizards of the Coast was the ill-fated Ghostwalk, a wonderful product that seemed buried by the company. Had you already left by the time it was released?

I had just barely left (to go work at Interplay). Yeah, the management decided not to publish it even though the text was finished. Monte was no longer at Wizards but had started his own third-party publishing company (Malhavoc Press), and he offered to buy the rights to publish it. Then, Chris Pramas and Nicole Lindroos (of Green Ronin) heard about it and they offered to buy the rights to publish it. That apparently convinced the management that the manuscript had some value … and they decided they’d cut it into pieces (monsters, magic items, spells, etc.) and insert the pieces into various upcoming books as needed. Then they decided to not do that and would instead release it just to get it out there … right before they released the 3.5 rules, which basically meant that Ghostwalk was out-of-date one month after they published it. I ended up writing a very long 3E to 3.5 conversion doc for it as an official web enhancement. Sheesh!

As far as I’m aware, Ghostwalk was also the first time you collaborated with Monte Cook, who you still work with today. How did that come about?

It’s true, that’s the first book that we both did design work on. The D&D department of Wizards decided they wanted to launch a new setting, and asked people within the company for ideas. They handed Monte and I those ideas and said, “Take anything you want from these suggestions, or do your own thing.” And we decided to do our own thing, which was to create a setting where if your character died, you’d still be able to keep playing, because we all knew that sitting at the table waiting for your dead character to get revived was really unfun. And that’s when we thought up the idea of a weird city over a gate to the afterworld where ghosts weren’t incorporeal, so if your character died your ghost would show up within a few minutes and could wear your gear and you could keep adventuring.

From what’s known online, you were part of 2002’s sadly annual round of Wizards of the Coast layoffs. I think this also might have been the first of these—what was the feeling at the time? 

Sadly, it wasn’t the first round. By this time we had become familiar with the Hasbro financial cycle, and we had been hearing rumors about another wave of them. I was let go on March 14, which was always a little darkly amusing for me because it’s the day before the Ides of March. That batch of layoffs included myself, editor Brian Campbell, and editor John Rateliff.

After that, you worked as a freelancer and for Upper Deck. How did working for Upper Deck compare with your time at TSR/Wizards?

I worked at Interplay for a year and a half before Upper Deck, but that place’s story is a long tale all its own. 🙂 

My time at Upper Deck was weird. Shortly after I started, I had to move to New York City to help my then-girlfriend establish herself in her acting career, so I got UD to switch me from salaried to a remote-work contractor. Creatively, it was fine, I enjoyed the people I worked with. Financially, though, it was a mess, because the owner … let’s just say that he’s dead now and probably won’t sue me if I spill some of the details, but just in case he finds a way to sue me from beyond the grave, I’ll just say that the company had a really bad habit of paying its contractors late, like months late.

But it did mean I got to work on the World of Warcraft card game, Marvel vs DC card game, a Pirates of the Caribbean game, and other kooky things that I never got contributor copies of. :p

Were there any releases from Upper Deck that you were particularly proud of?

It was an entirely different sort of work than game design. I wasn’t a game designer, I was an IP content developer for our licensed games. So the designers would design the games, with stats and such, and I’d take their card list, create or source quotes from the characters (from the videogame, movie, or comic they belong to), and put together art orders for the card sets (which often meant taking screenshots or photographs of movies, videogames, and comics). And I never got copies of the final product so I never really had the satisfaction of looking at the finished game and finding my contributions to it. It was a strange time!

The work I’m most familiar with of yours from this period is Anger of Angels. What was your motivation for working on this product? Did you want to work on any other planar-themed releases

I’ve long had an interest in religious apocrypha and how it can intersect with RPGs, dating all the way back to a weird RPG supplement called Fantasy Wargaming that had stats for Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and various archangels. Likewise, A Dictionary of Angels by Gustav Davidson was an inspiration, full of names and info on angels from Talmud, Kabbalah, medieval occult writers, and other sources. Having done a lot of “monsters as PCs” work for the D&D sourcebook Savage Species, I thought it would be cool to do a writeup on the “real” Heaven and Hell and to present various angel types as playable species for D&D/d20.

When I was at Paizo, I did a whole boatload of “god articles” detailing the various deities of their Golarion setting, including their main planar servants and a little bit on their divine realms. And bits and pieces of other stuff like that (including major development work on the official Pathfinder planes sourcebook). 

In 2008 you began working for Paizo, the industry’s other behemoth. How did this third game company compare with your previous experiences? 


At first, it felt like the first years after Wizards bought TSR: you could tell the owners loved gaming, the people we worked with loved gaming, and although the pay was poor and the working conditions were stressful, we were proud of the work we did. Then, the usual corporate BS started to happen, with lack of promotion opportunities, overworking people, chaotic “bonus” offerings, a toxic online community, and toxic leadership. Which is why I eventually left. [I wrote an article about this on my blog, for people who want more details. {Editor’s note: this is well worth reading if you’re at all interested in what happened at Paizo prior to its staff’s unionization}]

Given that you worked on the first edition of Pathfinder, what was your take on the second edition? Have you played any Pathfinder in a long time?

To clarify: I didn’t write anything for the 1E PF core book, although I have a credit in it (probably because I was the one person at Paizo who actually worked on 3E D&D and could give some insight about why some things in the game worked the way they did). I did write and develop a ton of 1E PF sourcebooks and adventures, though!

When I left Paizo in 2014, 2E PF was on the horizon. We were planning it. It was on the calendar (I still have a photograph of our markerboard plan for its release date and associated books). We were about to start writing it. A year before, I had been pushing to make some incremental changes just to make running, writing, and developing the game easier (like addressing why AC is capitalized but gp isn’t, why we say “bonus on” or “bonus to” and why they don’t have to mean different things, and whether spells/items/feats/classes should be written in second-person or third-person), but the idea was shot down … but a new edition would be a good place to start fresh by getting rid of annoying inconsistencies like this.

But those markerboard dates passed and there was no new edition of Pathfinder. Instead, they released Starfinder, and then like a year (?) later they released PF2. Later I heard about why … and it’s some of the same reasons that made me leave the company.

I’ve only skimmed the PF2 corebook. Honestly, I’ve got “old man eyes” now, and I think the tiny font and tiny graphics (like the icon indicating whether something is one, two, or three actions) is really hard to read, even when I have my reading glasses on. I have noticed that they’ve fixed some of the terminology things I wanted to fix, but other than that I haven’t even tried to parse out the game design decisions. I don’t think I’ve run a PF 1E game since I left Paizo.

What are the releases you worked on for Paizo that you’re proudest of? What made them particularly cool? 

To simplify this question I gotta only include actual design work, not development work, because I did so much dev work in those five years that I can’t keep track of the specifics! (That’s like another sixty books?)

I liked a lot of the stuff that I did for Ultimate Magic. And the original Gods and Magic was fun to do (plus, I got to expand upon that deity material in the various Pathfinder adventure paths, and then update some bits of it when they combined that info into Inner Sea Gods). But I suppose my favorite has to be the Pathfinder Beginner Box. I really like introductory products for games, and the BB let me cut away all of the annoying complicated rules of 3E and PF, focus on presenting the core elements in a way that you could learn to play just by reading it (not requiring a GM or player to teach you), and it has so many useful additional components like the dry-erase map and the character stand-up cardboard minis.

I know that you’ve worked on other releases I’ve missed entirely, such as Five Moons. Are there any you might want to highlight for us, not necessarily planar-related but just because they never received the audience they deserved?

I dunno. I’ve created a lot of quirky little books and PDFs in my day, just stuff that I wanted to write even if it didn’t sell a bunch of copies. The New Argonauts is about adventuring in mythic Greece as scions of the pantheon. Curse of the Moon has my wild takes on variant rules for handling lycanthropes. File Off the Serial Numbers shows a GM how to take existing monster stat blocks and reflavor them as other sorts of characters (like using a basilisk as a mutant lizardfolk or a couatl as an assassin). We’ve already talked about Anger of Angels. Skreyn’s Register is a (Monte-published) book of characters with PC and NPC stats, each with a new feat, magic item or spell. Many of these are available as free PDF downloads, I share the link on my social media about once a month. 

In 2015 you returned to working for Wizards of the Coast, managing their IP lore and continuity. Can you tell us a bit about what that entailed?

Let’s say you’re a videogame company and you have a license from Wizards to make a Forgotten Realms video game. And you decide you want your game to be set in Cormyr. So you ask Wizards, “What info do I need so I can make this game accurate to the Realms lore?” And Wizards says “Read these three novels … and these six sourcebooks, but only these specific chapters … and these two sourcebooks, but know that they’re a hundred years in the past … and these ten monsters from various game editions so you know all the creatures that live in the area … and these three chapters on the Realms in general so you know about the pantheons, international conflicts, slang, and so on.”

Obviously, that much information in such a scattered (and out-of-date) format would be a problem for you to absorb! So they created this position to pull together all the game lore on various topics, and use it to create a lore database, so when you ask that question about Cormyr, Wizards can just press a button, pull all the relevant data from the database, and give it to you as one big searchable PDF.

Putting together that lore was my job.


However, it quickly got derailed because (internally) we realized that there’s a whole lot of D&D lore that we know, but isn’t actually written down anywhere. For example, if you make a D&D adventure or video game with orcs, you need art of orcs. And nine times out of ten, if you ask an artist to draw or paint an orc, they give the orc green skin, because Warhammer orcs have green skin, and Warcraft orcs have green skin, and orcs in Magic: The Gathering have green skin. But orcs in D&D have GREY skin! And there’s a whole bunch of other orc info scattered over a bunch of sources. And likewise for trolls, kobolds, beholders, and other classic D&D monsters. So we instead took a deep dive into locking down this lore (which we had all internalized) into an outsider-useful format, including text and illustrations, and I was one of the people actually writing this stuff (as my direct manager said to me in the early part of this contract employment, “I didn’t know who you were when they put you on my team, but now that I know, and we’re going to make use of your knowledge!”)

Much of this lore info ended up in Volo’s Guide to Monsters

Speaking of Wizards’ IP, they had a lot of radical shifts between Third, Fourth, and Fifth Editions—internally what were the thoughts and feelings about this? Much of it was retconned back with Fifth Edition, can you tell us anything about the decisions behind the scenes regarding these changes?

I wasn’t at Wizards for the 4E or 5E design process. I do remember seeing the changes they were gonna make (from the various playtest releases) but I rarely had any inside information as to the why of it. In the year that I was back at Wizards in the 5E era I did get the opportunity to hear directly from the designers about various 5E goals and decisions, and that made me confident enough to do some design for 5E, both as an in-house person (while still nominally being “the lore database guy”) as well as for Monte Cook Games on Arcana of the Ancients, Planebreaker, and Ptolus.

Did you ever deal with Planescape IP during your time there? Was this kept track of? Was anyone ever interested in licensing it out that you were aware of?

The last few PS books were released while I was at TSR, but they were finished before I got into doing actual design. I loved the look of them, and the wild take on the planes, and I enjoy Tony DiTerlizzi’s art (and I know him a little bit because of TSR, much less so than Monte and Colin do). And I’m on the cover of Dead Gods. 😀

I believe that Hasbro licensed out the rights to all D&D settings to a video game company around the year 2000. I’m not aware of any serious plans to make a PS video game since Planescape: Torment … it’s definitely an “out there” sort of concept, heavily associated with D&D, so there are some conceptual hoops you need to get the audience to jump through in order to be ready for a PS video game. There is its “spiritual successor,” Torment: Tides of Numenera, but obviously that’s not a true D&D-planar or Planescape videogame.

How long were at Wizards for this second stint, and were you working on IP management for this whole period? 

My contract was for one year; the IP management aspect was more in the first third of that and the rest was mostly about design. They might have extended it, but they had a reorg partway through that year and they didn’t include an option for that in the budget. But, fortunately for me, Monte had an interesting offer for me…

How did you end up at Monte Cook Games? Had you kept in touch with Monte and Bruce during the intervening decades?

I definitely kept in touch with Monte since we left Wizards, and Bruce to a lesser extent (mostly because I was living car-free in the heart of Seattle and he was far enough away that it was difficult to meet up with him). For example, Monte had Thanksgiving with me after he moved away from Milwaukee, his Geek Seekers show (about the supernatural) was filmed in my haunted apartment building, and I was a playtester on the original Numenera and also its developer.

A couple of months before my Wizards contract was ending, Monte let me know that his company (Monte Cook Games) was going to hire someone to manage their social media and online community (which it turns out I was quite qualified for), and that if I was interested I should apply. So I did, and went through the normal interview process. On my last day at Wizards, the D&D team took me out for a goodbye lunch, I took a bus home, and found a job offer from MCG. So I was only unemployed for about ninety minutes. 🙂

For our audience here, what are the most interesting releases you’ve worked on at MCG and why might people want to check them out? What are some highlights of your time there?

  • Stay Alive!, a book about horror, with tons of useful info even if you don’t play the Cypher System
  • Claim the Sky, a sourcebook about superheroes, with tons of useful info even if you don’t play the Cypher System
  • Consent in Gaming, a controversial (?) book that explains how to approach or avoid difficult topics in your games
  • Voices of the Datasphere, basically TRON in the Numenera setting, letting you upload yourself into that world’s internet and doing really wild things and explore bizarre places
  • The Weird, thousands of ideas (characters, creatures, items, spells, adventures, locations, and more) to make your game more interesting and get you out of a rut
  • Ptolus, probably the definitive fantasy-campaign-set-in-a-city D&D experience, I was a player in the original 3E campaign, and a designer on the 5E and Cypher System versions
  • Revising the Numenera books (into Numenera Discovery and Numenera Destiny … if you’re not sure you can handle the weirdness of Numenera, check out the free game quickstart and adventure I wrote called Ashes of the Sea, it’s free on and

When was Path of the Planebreaker first proposed? Were there any other, competing planar ideas that were rejected?


As I recall, our “convert Numenera to a D&D 5E setting” Arcana of the Ancients books did well for us (over $500k on Kickstarter), so we decided we should do another 5E Kickstarter. We brainstormed a bit, and Bruce’s idea about the rogue moon crashing through the planes won because it tied it all together—many of our other ideas were to do our own takes on D&D-ish planes, as well as weirder planes that don’t fit the standard D&D cosmology, but without a unifying concept, they’d just be a roster of planes. Bruce’s Planebreaker moon meant the book could have a cohesive connection if the GM wanted something more than just “here are a bunch of planes you can add to your campaign.”

From Bruce first proposing the idea, what were the next steps in its development? Once work began in earnest on the released books, how was the work divided? 

Bruce is our only full-time designer (I’m our primary developer, Shanna has also done project management and managing editing, Monte has creative director duties, and Dominique does editing), so he often gets first crack at the next multi-author project. I was finishing up development on something at the time, so he got a little lead time to start working on Planebreaker and getting the central concepts and text done (what the PB is, rules for it, describing the city, and so on). We knew we were going to have separate 5E and CS versions of these books, and we started working on the 5E version first. Bruce created an outline, allocated space for the stuff he wanted to work on, then Monte and I decided how we’d split the rest of the pages. 

What sort of feedback did the three of you designers make through the creation process? Can you tell us about any big changes made along the way?

We had some discussions about some general concepts for the new planes (so we wouldn’t end up with more than one wintry hell-dimension, more than one version of a mirror dimension, and so on), and then wrote our separate parts. Bruce, Monte, and I have been working together long enough and closely enough that we have a good sense of each others’ interests and styles, so once we have the broad strokes laid out we know we can write comfortably in our own zones without having a negative impact on each others’ work.

And of course, once the 5E version was edited, we took those files and converted it all to the Cypher System, which had its own hurdles and opportunities…

Some of the art for these books is absolutely stunning. How much collaboration is there between MCG’s designers and the artists? What sort of directions are you giving them? Are you able to pick out any of the artists yourself, knowing that they’d be a great fit for certain drawings?

When we turn over a manuscript, we also turn over what we call an “art order,” which is an informational document explaining the gist of the book, with individual entries for each piece of art we’d like to see in the book—character art, creature art, scene art, object art, and so on. We try to be descriptive (usually in two or three sentences) but also give the artist enough leeway to add their own creativity. Our art director, Bear Weiter, handles the actual communication with the artists, he has a working relationship with them, and he knows stuff like “so-and-so works better if they have specific references, so-and-so is better at creature art where they can go wild with ideas, and so-and-so is really good at outdoor landscapes but needs to be provided a lot of details.” The artist does a sketch and sends it to Bear, Bear puts together a short PDF with his comments for us, we give feedback, he passes that feedback to the artist, repeat until we get final art.

The designers (and everyone else at MCG) often post links to interesting artists (we have a Slack channel specifically for this) and if Bear will reach out to see if they’re available. Sometimes they’re not available, but we can at least say “This work inspires what I want to do with this book.”

What was the feeling at MCG with writing work set within the D&D Great Wheel again? Were there any limitations that this placed on the product that changed what you wanted to include?

We were excited about it. We are all fans of planar stuff, and hadn’t worked on anything like that in quite a while. And whether it was creating a new layer of Hell or the Abyss (or a new region on one of its planes, if the GM preferred that), a remote plane with bizarre restrictions or circumstances, or a bunch of unique demiplanes, it was going to be fun. It was a project allowing us to create new planar things, add some obvious connections to existing planar lore, and give enough hints and hooks about other ways to connect them that the GM could discover and build upon. The cool thing about writing planes is that the cosmology is infinite, we’d always have room to push the boundaries, try something different, and see if that inspired us to push the boundaries again in stranger ways and directions.. 

My hope is that due to Wizards’ Planescape release, there has been some additional interest in these books as well, since in many ways they continue the spirit of the original series better than the official works do. Are there any plans for future Planebreaker or other planar works from MCG?

Nothing quite like Planebreaker is in the works right now, although we never fully close the door on stuff we’ve already published—we are always opening to revisiting them if we think people want it and if we have cool ideas to add to them.

Likewise, are there any other big things coming down the pipeline for you that you’d like to share with our audience? 

Soon we’ll have the Cypher System Starter Set, designed by me, which is everything you need to get started with the Cypher System. It has premade characters, rules for advancing your character, how to play the game, creature and NPC stats, two complete adventures in the box, and a third adventure you can download for free. Rust and Redemption is our upcoming post-apocalyptic book, and Bruce and Dominique made really cool stuff for it. I just got back some edits on It’s Only Magic, our sourcebook for playing modern fantasy like Supernatural, Dresden Files, The Magicians, and so on. We’ve been playtesting The Magnus Archives RPG and that’s turning out really creepy and fun. And we’re gonna have another crowdfunding campaign (called Knights of Dust and Neon), probably in February, to create three new big books, which I can’t quite talk about yet!

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