Matt Forbeck Interview – Dangerous Games and Gencon

 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!

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Interview with Pat Kelleher

I’m a big fan of Pat Kelleher and I can’t understand why he doesn’t have more fans. Think Sharpe meets Starship Troopers. I of course am really looking forward to reading The Alleyman and aim to get it in paperback so that I have the set (I don’t do this with many books these days). I was recently on a training course up north and the lovely Pat offered to take me out for a beer. He really is a lovely man and such an interesting person. The next convention you go to buy him a drink and ask him about Alan Moore. Here is a little example of the interesting stuff that comes from the mind of Pat Kelleher. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did.

Q. Who are the biggest influences on your writing, and why?

Start with the tough ones, eh? The boring answer is that I read voraciously and everything gets thrown into the mix. But okay, I’ll play. While I wouldn’t say the following were necessarily influences, I certainly find them to be inspirations. In no particular order, Bernard Cornwell for his ability to place the reader in a historical period and tell a rollicking good yarn without letting the research bog it down. Alan Plater, from whom I learned that character is the bedrock of any story. If you have a good solid character, the reader will follow them anywhere, even if they’re only campaigning for their local Conservation candidate. Then there’s Alan Moore for his ability to deconstruct ideas and put them back together in intriguing ways.

Q. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed your first two novels. The research you’ve done on the First World War period really shows through. What was it like to do so much research on that turbulent time?

On the whole, it was quite humbling. Initially, I was just skimming, looking for interesting and intriguing stuff to fold into the mix, from people like Tesla, who claimed to have picked up radio signals from Mars, to Aleister Crowley who skipped England at the outbreak of the War. Then there was rise of the Labour Movement, Women’s Suffrage and the immigrant Anarchist problems. The Empire itself was failing. It was such a rich background from which to draw characters and then the crucible of war flung all these disparate viewpoints together creating the potential for all sorts of character conflict.

It wasn’t the political history of the War I was interested in, but the day-to-day lives of those who lived through it. These people didn’t see themselves as heroes; they were ordinary men and women who lived through the most abject and terrifying of situations, but found ways and reasons to survive, sometimes at great personal cost.

Q. How would you describe No Man’s World as a planet and more importantly as a place for British soldiers to try and live?

Well, it’s not a holiday destination – unless you want the holiday from hell. No Man’s World is a hell planet where every ecological niche is occupied and fiercely defended, where the cutest critter or the prettiest flower have developed lethal defense strategies and where the British Tommies have no place at all, unless it’s one they carve for themselves. Their very presence has an effect not only on the ecological but the political landscape, too. A few decades earlier and they might not have survived, but the technological advances of industrialized warfare gave them just enough of an advantage to stay alive, no steampunk necessary. With a frontline life expectancy on the Somme of a few weeks for officers and a few months for enlisted men, their prospects on the alien planet are frankly not much better. Death here is just as unexpected, brutal, meaningless and obscene as in France and no character is safe. In fact, No Man’s World is so awful that they actually want to go back to the Somme.

Q. Gender politics is a topic that is being discussed much more roundly recently. How have you addressed female roles in a period and environment that was male dominated?

I’m from the North and the North has always had a tradition of formidable women characters in drama. The nurses in No Man’s World are no exception and take their inspiration from real women, like Elsie Knocker and Marie Chisholm, the Nurses of Pervyse, who operated a First aid station a few hundred yards behind the Belgian front lines, in the cellar of a bombed-out house.  Then there was Pat Beauchamp, a FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry). These women all defied social expectations.

Given such strong roles models and a brilliant editor in Jenni Hill, who put me right if I ever drifted, I’ve striven to make the women of No Man’s World fully rounded characters with solid story arcs. They’re not necessarily beautiful, they don’t have quick-fire wits and they don’t carry weapons. They are, however, as strong as, if not stronger than the men, even the absent Flora, to whom ‘Only’ Atkins writes. No Man’s World is certainly as much their story as it is the Tommies’.

Q. The third book in your No Man’s  World series is out in October. Is there a launch and are you doing any signings?

As luck would have it, yes there is a book launch and signing – at the Fab Café in Manchester on Thursday October 11th.  http://www.nomansworldblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/the-alleyman-book-launch.html

There are no other signing planned at present, although that may change.

Q. What makes the third book different from the first two?

While the first book focused on the Pennine Fusiliers, the second shone a spotlight on the crew of the Mark 1 tank, Ivanhoe. This time out, Lt Tulliver, of the Royal Flying Corps, gets a chance to shine.

At the camp, cracks are starting to show in the military façade that has held them together so far. The Tommies, who have been mostly reactive up to now, are finally in a position to be proactive, though whether the decisions they make are wise is another matter.

And finally, The Alleyman gets round to answering some of those niggling questions about the planet and its mysteries posed in the earlier books.

Q. Desert Island Books. You are stuck on an island and alone for an unknown length of time. What five books would you take and why?

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. Since I was introduced to it by my English Teacher at school, it’s one of the few books I re-read regularly. It’s a surreal comic nightmare of murder, metaphysics and Irish village policemen and introduces the world to the mad scientist, De Selby. You’ll never look at a bicycle in the same light again.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, recommended by the same English teacher as being better than Lord of the Rings, and he was right. Peake’s ability to sketch a character with a few words was as concise as his sparse line drawings. He creates an evocative decaying world that spans the distance between Tolkien and Dickens, yet occupies a place in literature all its own.

Life, A User’s Manual by George Perec. This was the novel that introduced me to the Oulipo school (a group of writers who wrote stories with sets of self imposed restrictions, one of the most famous being Perec’s A Void, a novella without a single letter ‘e’ in it). It took me two years to finish ‘Life’ when I first read it. It tells the tale of every resident and every room in a French apartment block. So, if I’m stuck on a desert island I’ll have plenty of time to reread it, and this time I may understand it.

Illuminatus Trilogy. Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s trilogy was an art school rite of passage that led me to track down a copy of the Principia Discordia (‘a religion disguised as joke disguised as a religion’) in an Occult bookshop off Great Russell street. It also introduced me to the works of Timothy Leary and John Lilly.

The Brentford Trilogy by Robert Rankin. The first Pooley and O’Malley stories and my first introduction to glorious worlds of Robert Rankin. Simply put, these are just great fun with wonderful concepts and a world I enjoy revisiting.

Interview with KT Davies

Karen Davies is the author of The Red Knight (my review) and a thoroughly interesting person to stalk, er follow on twitter. I was looking for an interview with her because I was being nosey. As I couldn’t find one I thought I’d try and get her to answer some of my strange little questions. She agreed, which was nice.

I have to start with the thing I most want to know. There is a follow-up to The Red Knight, right?

Yes, there is! In fact, the follow-up is the story I started to write before TRK, but the flashbacks grew into a novel damn them!

What other goodies do you have coming out soon?

I’ve got a short story, The Last Hunt coming out soon in an anthology called Tales of The Nun and Dragon which is going to be published by Fox Spirit  and a couple of reviews for Geraldine Clark Hellery about all things dragon. Other than that, I have another novel to finish that’s the follow-up to my short story The Deal in Day of Demons,  before I can crack on with TRK part 2.

The Red Knight is your first published novel. How does it feel to be a published novelist?

Really nice, but not much different to being an unpublished novelist in all honesty. I had a glass (four) of fizzy wine with my other ‘arf and then it was business as usual, pretty boring really, aren’t I? I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.

In some ways your writing reminds me of Robin Hobb, which author/s have been a major influence on your writing?

Gosh that is a tricky question. And thank you, she’s one of the best fantasy authors out there IMO, I’m flattered. I did my degree in literature, and so I suppose I’ve been influenced by a really wide range of writers. I also think there’s a diference between who I like to read and who’s influenced my writing, I’m not sure if I even know who’s influenced me. Certainly Gemmell, (Emily) Bronte, Joseph Conrad, Robert Howard, and indeed, Robin Hobb/ Megan Lindholm, inspire me. Oh yeah, and Voltaire, because he had a wicked sense of humour.

Unless the picture on your website are fake you’re most definitely of the female persuasion. Do you feel your journey to publication has been affected by your gender? Do you feel equality in opportunity is close at hand?

That is really me on the website, warts and all. I couldn’t possibly say if my gender has been an issue, how would I know? I think perhaps what I write — how I mess around with stereotypes might have affected my journey to publication, (it’s a bit different) but I try not to speculate, that way lies madness. I don’t think equality in opportunity is close at hand, no. On it’s way perhaps, but not close.

Your website bio is really interesting. Can you tell us about some of your really interesting experiences that have helped inspire your writing?

*quickly checks the bio* I can’t tell you about the really interesting experiences, I might get into trouble:) I think you mean the acting and sword fighting stuff? They’ve given me tools that help me write, but they don’t inspire my writing.
To be honest, I was born into a horribly violent environment that first of all inspired my reading, as a means of escape, and then inspired my writing and art work (I draw and make stuff too) as a means of trying to understand my own experiences, initially at least. Turning everyday reality into fantasy (or SF, I’m not picky) became second nature from a very early age. Everything gets ‘the treatment’ from waiting for a bus to falling down a mountain. I find inspiration everywhere and in just about everything. I accept that I’m an inveterate daydreamer with one foot in the real world ™ and one foot in Fantasy Land. It’s a bit like playing Twister, as my head is (clearly) quite often stuck up my arse ;p

What kind of music do you listen to whilst writing?

I’m a sucker for film soundtracks, but my tastes run from New Model Army to White Zombie. I make playlists as I go when I’m drafting, which utterly ruins certain tracks because whenever I hear them I think of ‘that bit’ in the story. I don’t listen to anything during last edits, because at that point I need to hear the words in my head, if that makes sense?
Within Temptation, Requiem for a Dream OST, Linkin Park; all played a part in setting the mood of certain scenes in The Red Knight. My current work in progress soundtrack is a mix of Pirates of the Carribean OST and some trance orientated banging choons, but that will grow and evolve as the story progresses.

Do you have any signings or appearances conferences planned where people can buy your book?

Nope. That was an easy one, wasn’t it?

You’re going to be stuck on a desert island and can choose five books to take with you. What are they and why?

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, because he writes like Turner paints IMO. Legend by David Gemmell and Lord of the Rings by Tolkien because they are books I can read over and over. Siddartha by Hermann Hesse, again, his prose rocks my world, and last Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. It’s the powerful prose and complicated characters that I love, and I’ll also need a little bit of Yorkshire grimness to keep me cool in the tropical heat.

Matt Forbeck Interview

Did I just type that blog post title? I’m actually shaking with excitement at the moment. As some of you may know I am a huge fan of Matt Forbeck. Not just his novels (Bloodbowl series VERY underrated) but also his gaming work. I spent a lot of time playing and dreaming up adventures for Deadlands Roleplaying for example. I could go on, but Matt’s credits are just a ridiculous catalogue of my teenager years and beyond. I think I’ll stop now before Matt decides to take out a restraining order. That’s enough waffle from me, on to the good stuff.

Tony: Which came first the idea of writing twelve novels in a year or the thought of starting your own Kickstarter project, and how did they come together in to one brilliantly insane idea?

Matt: I’d been thinking about writing a book a month for years, actually. I’m a fast writer, and some quick math told me it was possible, at least theoretically. I couldn’t afford to just take a year off and write a dozen novels though, and I just didn’t see how I could convince a publisher to get behind it. Most publishers balk at signing an author for more then three books at a time, and that’s often spread out over two years or more.

When I heard about Kickstarter, I realized it provided the missing keystone for the plan. If I could get enough people to back the project, then I could afford to write the books. The Kickstarter drives essentially serve as advances for me, based on the number of pre-orders I can line up for the book, topped off with a few premium rewards for my fans who can afford them. And when I’m done, I can publish and sell the books myself.

Tony: You’ve successfully funded two projects and are well on the way to funding the third. How useful have you found them?
What would be your top three tips on creating a Kickstarter project?

Matt: The Kickstarter drives have been fantastic. It’s both thrilling and humbling to see people willing to open their wallets to back the projects, and also to help persuade their friends to jump on board too. They take a lot of time for feeding and watering, but the results are well worth it.

If you plan to create a Kickstarter project, I recommend:

1) Come up with a solid and clear rewards schedule that gives people a clear incentive to back your project. This should usually have about five reward levels at the $100 level or less, plus a few premium ones above that.

2) Show your enthusiasm and love for the project. If you can’t get excited about it, who can?

3) Show people why they should trust you to deliver. If you have a track record, promote that. If you have a killer concept and presentation, promote that. If you have both, all the better.

Tony: Your third project is called Dangerous Games, can you tell us a little bit about the story and how you came up with the ideas?

Matt: Besides being a writer, I’m also a game designer and have won a number of awards for my work. I love gaming conventions, and Gen Con is my absolute favorite. It’s the granddaddy of them all, and it brings together something like 35,000 gamers every summer for, as they say, The Best Four Days in Gaming. This will be my 31st year in a row at the show — I started going as a kid — and my 10th as a guest of honor.

The Dangerous Games trilogy is a trio of thrillers set at Gen Con, in which the heroes are gamers that become embroiled in a plot surrounding the murder of a world-famous game designer. Pundits tell you to write what you know, and I know the gaming industry inside and out. I’ve long been kicking around ideas for how to turn that into a gripping story, and when the chance to tackle it came up, I jumped at it.

This is the perfect kind of story for 12 for ’12 too, something that’s personal and fun, but which would be hard to sell to a traditional publisher. Most of them don’t know much about Gen Con or the gaming industry and wouldn’t see that as a huge selling point for the book, but for the people who have been playing my games and reading my novels, it makes for a wonderful combination.

Tony: You are a full-time writer that works from home. You also have five children. I’ve seen you talk about kids being ill and then moan about only writing 3000 words that day, how on earth do you manage not to be distracted?

Matt: Oh, I’m distracted all the time. I just buckle down hard when I need to and get things done as best I can. I write the most when the kids are in school and then again at night when everyone’s asleep. They’re just too much fun otherwise, even (well maybe especially) when they’re behaving.

It may seem strange that I can be productive while at home with so many kids, but I sometimes don’t know how I’d manage a regular job that didn’t give me the flexibility that being my own boss provides. I’m lucky enough to get to do what I love — entertain people, whether with books or games or comics or toys or whatever — when I can. I hold onto that tight, and if it means I don’t sleep much or have to write insane amounts sometimes, I find that a price well worth paying.

Tony: Which is your favourite of your own books?

I like them all, but I’ll admit I have a persona bias toward Amortals. It was the first original novel I had published, but it happened after I’d already written a dozen or so tie-in novels playing in other people’s worlds. I’d been sitting on the idea for the book for close to 20 years, and I just loved cutting loose on it.

For those that don’t know, Amortals is set in near future in which the powerful, wealthy, or connected can have their brains backed up and restored to a clone body in the event of their demise. The hero is the oldest man in the world, a Secret Service agent who was first killed while saving the President. He wakes up in his ninth body to discover he hasn’t backed himself up for months and that the video of his murder has gone viral. It’s his job to solve his own murder, to figure out who killed him and why.

Tony: A radio show over here does something called Desert Island Discs with famous guests. I’m going to twist that a little and ask you which five books would you want with you on a deserted island and why?

Matt: I’d want a survival manual first, then a thick book with thin pages — like the Oxford English Dictionary — that I could use to start fires. Then I’d want three blank books: one for writing my own stories in, another for game designs, and the last for messages I could drop into the sea to beg for help.

Tony: What can we expect from Matt Forbeck in 2013?

Matt: More books, comics, and games, I hope. I’m writing a Leverage novel at the moment, based upon the TV show in TNT, by John Rogers and Chris Downey. That should be out in 2013, along with the final trilogy of 12 for ’12 books, whatever those may be. Plus, I hope to continue writing Magic: The Gathering comics for IDW.

I’d like to thank Matt for taking this time to answer my questions and to also suggest that you might want to have a look at his latest Kickstarter project. Failing that he has a nice and large back catalogue on Amazon that I can’t recommend enough. There are also some really interesting and sensible article on Matt’s blog that are well worth a read.