How to Play is both the book that Matt Forbeck was born to write and also the culmination of a long and varied career. I’ve always wanted to visit Gencon but never have. I am however lucky enough to live out my Gencon fantasies vicariously and ask Matt some strange questions about it. That’s quite enough of my waffling. Hopefully you’ll enjoy Matt’s insightful and interesting answers as much as I did.
Q. You’ve been a regular at Gencon for a long while. Can you explain what Gencon is and what makes it so magical in your opinion?
It’s the largest gathering of tabletop gamers in the Western Hemisphere. In all the world, only the Spiele show in Essen, Germany, beats it, but that’s focused mainly on European-style board games. Gen Con began in the basement of the house of Gary Gygax, who went on to co-found TSR and publish Dungeons & Dragons, the first-ever roleplaying game, which he co-designed with Dave Arneson.
Today, Gen Con is where more than 40,000 hardcore alpha gamers converge in Indianapolis in the middle of August, to play games together and celebrate their hobby. I’ve been going to the show since I was a kid. This summer marks my 32nd Gen Con in a row and my 11th as a guest of honor.
It’s my favorite event of the year. It’s like Christmas and a class reunion with your best friends ever all rolled up into one. There’s so much geeky goodness rolling around the place that it recharges my creative batteries for another year every tim I go.
Q. Meeting which of your own gaming heroes has left you the most lost for words at Gencon?
I suppose I could say Gary Gygax, but I’d already met him twice before my first Gen Con. Honestly, Gen Con’s such a collegial place and game designers are generally so friendly that it’s rare to be that awed.
During my first Gen Con, though, I ran around and had everyone I could find named in my Dungeon Master’s Guide to autograph the book. One of those guys was Steve Perrin, who designed RuneQuest, one of D&D’s great competitors at the time. I had no idea about any of that, just that Gary had mentioned Steve’s name in the book. When I asked Steve to sign it, he gaped at me in horror. “You want me to sign a D&D book?”
To his credit, he did. He also wrote, “To Matt, always roll LOW!”
Q. What are your best and worst memories of Gencon?
Other than Steve giving me a hard time? Ha! I don’t have too many bad memories about Gen Con. There was the time when the gaming company I co-founded (Pinnacle Entertainment Group) was about to open its first show without any product because the truck with our books on it was still waiting in line to get into the building. I grabbed a few guys and led them out to find the truck, and I persuaded the driver to open his doors so we could grab enough boxes to make it through the first hour of the show. It was close, but we made it with minutes to spare.
For best memories, there are so many it’s hard to count. I’ve made so many great friends there, played so many wonderful games, debuted so many new games of my own. Still, I think my 33rd birthday, which fell on a Gen Con Saturday, was a highlight. My wife and I threw a party for me at Turner Hall in Milwaukee (where the show used to be) that packed in hundreds of people.
At the party, James Wallis gave Peter Adkison the first ever Diana Jones Award, and Tracy Hickman even showed up to claim his gaming hall of fame award, which he’d missed at Origins. The party was such a success that we turned it into an annual event for the Diana Jones Award, and we run it every Wednesday night before Gen Con officially starts.
Q. Participation games are mentioned at one point in your book (I mentioned it at last), what is your favourite and how did it work?
My favorite, if I can stretch the definition a bit, is True Dungeon. This is a live-action version of Dungeons & Dragons played in custom-built chambers inside a massive hall in the convention center. I’ve played it a couple of times during VIP events with other game designers, and we had an absolute ball. The last time, I brought my eldest son Marty along with me, and our party included Monte Cook, Mike Selinker, and Colin McComb, among many other brilliant people. The dragon at the end handed our heads to us, but we still loved every bit of it.
Q. In How to Play you name-drop a LOT of famous people in the gaming industry. At least some you know for real, but are there any there that were put in as wishful thinking on your part?
I know just about every one of the real people I put into the books. The only exception is Felicia Day, who has a cameo in the third book, which isn’t out yet. I’ve never met her, but I’ve had several near misses, as we have lots of mutual friends. She’s been to Gen Con before, too, but our paths just never crossed.
As for the rest, I’m happy to count most if not all of them as good friends. Again, that’s one of the reasons I love Gen Con so much. It’s a chance to get together with all my pals again for four or five days of fun.
Q. Author often include parts of themselves in to their stories. Was it strange to include you as a whole and named person in the story?
Yeah, it was really odd, and I honestly fought against it at first. The trouble is that I’m a big part of some of the things I wanted to show in the book. I still host the Diana Jones Award party every year, for instance, and showing that without me being anywhere near it would have felt, um, dishonest.
So I buckled down and put myself into the book. However, I asked Ken Hite if he’d mind if I used him as the hero’s mentor/friend throughout the tale, and he happily agreed. That meant I got to write Ken Hite dialog for three books, which — if you know Ken or his work — is just as much fun as you might guess. It’s hard to fake being as smart and erudite as Ken, but I had plenty of time to polish it up.
Q. Who is your gaming industry hero and why?
I have a lot of them. Jordan Weisman for all his successes. Greg Stafford for his pure dedication to his art. The top one, though, is probably Peter Adkison.
I met Peter after he founded Wizards of the Coast but before he published Magic: The Gathering. I watched him ride that rocket of a game and show courage, cleverness, and dedication every step of the way. He brought that company up from nothing, bought TSR up at bankruptcy — saving both Gen Con and D&D — and then sold it to Hasbro for somewhere around $450 million.
And then, when he could have just retired to an island somewhere with his well-earned share of that, he stuck around. He even wound up buying Gen Con from Hasbro a few years later, and I’ve told this to people many times. He’s the perfect fit. It’s like Santa owning Christmas. It’s just the right thing.
Q. Aside from the setting what do you think will draw readers in to the story of How to Play?
I think the intrigue of the murder mystery the story features is fun and involving enough for anyone, no matter if they give a damn about games or note. The characters are also interesting and sharp, and the development of the hero — Liam Parker — from aspiring game designer to industry insider in the space of the three books makes for good fun.
Q. Since the release of the book has anybody from the gaming industry asked you if they can be in the next books?
Ha! I think I covered a LOT of people in the first book. I had a few people tell me they’d love to be added in, but I do have one criterion. They have to have been to Gen Con in the past few years. For that reason, I had to pass over good pals like John Kovalic, Jason Blair, and Aaron Rosenberg, who haven’t been to the show for a long while. I had to explain to them, “It’s not a historical novel.”
Q. I like to end an interview with a Desert Island Discs type question. This time it is gaming related. You are stuck on an island with only one game (physical only as computer games would be cheating) and five famous people to play it with. Which game would you choose and who would you be playing it with?
Hm. I suppose it’s cheating to say I’d want to play The Worst Case Survival Game with five soldiers from SEAL Team Six?
In that case, I’d go with Fiasco, which is a great indie storytelling game with a lot of replay value in it. I’ll stick to famous folks I know are gamers, so Billy Campbell, Vin Diesel, Robin Williams, Stephen Colbert, and Wil Wheaton. If I had to go with designers I know and who have been to Gen Con in recent history, in the spirit ofDangerous Games, I might try Robin Laws, Ken Hite, Will Hindmarch, Wil Wheaton, and Peter Adkison instead.
Hey, I maybe need to figure out a way to make that happen!