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Interviews: Matt Forbeck

If you've never read any of Matt Forbeck's work, chances are you haven't read many game products. As one of the most prolific game developers and authors in the industry, his writing has extended to nearly every corner of today's tabletop games. These days, Matt runs the Adventure Games Division of Human Head Studios. It was there we cornered him for an interview with Allan Sugarbaker.

How did you first catch the gaming bug?

One of the guys who lived across the street for me got a copy of the old blue-book version of Dungeons & Dragons for Christmas back in 1980. His mother found it on a blue-light special at K-Mart. The summer of 1981, she asked me to play the game with her boys, and it blew my mind. I think we played nearly every day, all summer long.

Sadly, we were playing through the Village of Hommlet, one of the first AD&D modules, but using D&D heroes. We got slaughtered regularly, but we didn't mind. To us, that was half the fun.

How long have you been working in the game industry? Have you always been a designer, or did you assume other roles when called upon?

When I was in high school, I started a fanzine called The Quill and Scroll. It lasted for a whole two issues before I ran out of money, but I had my own booth at Gen Con that following summer (1986, I think). I folded it before I went off to college.

While I college, I worked for Will Niebling & Associates as a sales rep, doing inventory at Greenfield Hobby Distributors and attending conventions for ICE, Grenadier, Mayfair, and Koplow. While hanging out at the shows, I started poking around for work. My first paying gig was writing the rules for the Myth Fortunes boardgame that Will designed with John Danovich.

When I got out of college in 1989, I went to work for Games Workshop as an editor for six months on a student work visa. I came back home to be with my girlfriend, who's now my wife and the mother of our five kids. After that, I went into freelancing full time until I co-founded Pinnacle Entertainment with Shane Hensley in 1996. I left Pinnacle at the start of 2000 and started freelancing again.

Last year, I signed on with Human Head Studios to become the director of their new adventure games division. I love my job, but I still do a bit of freelancing in the evenings, mostly writing novels for Wizards of the Coast.

I've worked as a game designer, editor, developer, fiction writer, playtest coordinator, sales rep, print buyer, art director, marketer, brand manager, graphic designer, consultant, schedule coordinator, contract manager, licensing manager, and even company president, which includes all of the above.

Human Head has been a computer game company until you came aboard. How did you get involved with the company?

A couple years ago, the people at Human Head had the idea that an adventure -- or paper -- game division would be a great way to test out ideas they had for computer games. Publishing a paper game is far less expensive than developing even a small prototype for a computer game, and you get to see how the larger market might react to your concepts. All they needed was someone to start up a division to make that happen.

I saw the job notice on an industry mailing list. I normally don't bother responding to such things, but since Human Head is in Madison, only about 50 miles from where I live, I gave it a shot. The division got delayed a few times, but when Human Head was ready to pull the trigger, I was too, so here I am.

What's next in Human Head's RPG plans?

We just released The Redhurst Academy of Magic, which is doing well. It's a riff on the college of magical knowledge with a D&D beat. You can find out more about it at http://www.humanhead.com/hhgames/RAM/ram.html.

Next up is Dracula's Revenge, the first boardgame in our new Gothica line. After that is Age of Conquest, a strategic-level fantasy boardgame. We have lots of other ideas in the works too, but they're all too young to be brought out into the light yet.

What made you decide to put The Redhurst Academy of Magic in it's format ("widescreen", instead of a standard book's orientation)? It's very cool and different, but I'd imagine there could be resistance from retailers.

We've had few complaints and many more questions like "Why did you do this?" There were two reasons. First, the wider layout gave us the kind of margins we needed for the spy's notes, which really add to the book. Second, we wanted to do anything we could to get people talking about the book, and turning it on its side helps.

How did you coordinate getting all of these great settings into the book? Some of these like Freeport are open, while others like Kalamar are official D&D settings.

I just called up the publishers and asked. I don't think anyone I talked with turned me down, although Wizards didn't get back to me in time to work in one of their settings. I'd written for many of the publishers, so it was easy. It's no coincidence that Redhurst teleports into places from Codex Arcanis, Seven Cities, and Freeport: The City of Adventure, as my name is in each book.

Do you think the market needs another d20 publisher right now? Human Head is kind of late to the party.

True. We don't have any other plans for a d20 book at the moment. We wanted to dip our toe in those waters and announce ourselves to the adventure game market at the same time. Doing a high-quality d20 book fit that bill nicely. We're not ruling out doing more d20 products, but we'll evaluate using the system with each RPG we want to do and only use it if it makes sense.

How do you feel about D&D 3.0 and 3.5? Have they made miniatures too integral to the game?

I love miniatures, so I'm not bothered by that. I think some of the changes were great, while others already have their own errata. Overall, 3.5 is certainly a step forward. Many games have had revised editions put out less than three years after publication, so I'm not too bothered by it. If you have an older set of books, they still work fine too.

Could you tell us more about Gothica: Dracula's Revenge? Sounds like it'll be filled with blood-sucking goodness.

This is a game I developed for Grenadier over 10 years ago. They folded before they could publish it, and the rights reverted back to me. I brought it up at one of our product meetings, and the people here loved it.

It's a tactical combat boardgame pitting Dracula and his minions against Van Helsing and his friends. Thematically, it's a sequel to Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, presuming that Dracula faked his death at the end of the book. Gamewise, it's lightning-fast battles between vampires and hunters in the labyrinths beneath the streets of Victorian London.

I'm still pricing out the pieces of the game, but we expect to have it out in early 2004. Look for some more announcements about it soon.

In the Dracula's Revenge demo I got in at Gen Con, I saw some similarities to Space Hulk. In fact, at one point, I had the misconception that you had designed Space Hulk, a true classic as combat boardgames go. Instead, you collaborated on the supplements, right?

While at Games Workshop, I co-designed both Deathwing and Genestealer. I was young and only credited myself as editor on Deathwing, but the guys persuaded me I deserved the co-design credit on Genestealer too.

Space Hulk is one of my all-time favorite games. Working on the supplements (and a White Dwarf article or two) was an honor and a blast. Richard "Hal" Halliwell designed the original game and worked on the supplements with me and Jervis Johnson. You couldn't ask for better designers for a young rookie to learn from.

How closely does Human Head's adventure game division work with the rest of the company, which develops computer games? Are you largely on your own?

Mostly. I work closely with Tim Gerritsen, the company chair, who manages each of the company's three divisions, and we have an Adventure Games Division board that oversees that division. I can call upon other people in the company as needed for anything from artwork to filing, but I'm essentially a division of one. That could well change in the future as we ramp up our production schedule.

Anything else on the horizon for Human Head? Come on, you can tell us. :-)

We're just now putting the finishing touches on Dead Man's Hand, a first-person western shooter for the X-Box, which should be out within a few months. That's the only computer or video game I can talk about, but I've played a lot of it, and it's a blast.

You've worked all over the industry over the years. Can you give us the laundry list? Which company was the most enjoyable to work with?

According to my records, the list includes:

Acclaim, AEG, Artbox, Atlas Games, Conjure Magazine, Decipher, Dynasty Publications, Eden Studios, Fandom.com, Fantasy Flight, Fast Forward Entertainment, The Gamer Magazine, Games Workshop, Green Ronin, Grenadier Models, Grey Ghost Games, Grey Worlds Magazine, Heartbreaker Hobbies, Image Comics, Iron Crown Enterprises, Jolly Roger, Mayfair Games, Mongoose Publishing, New Infinities, Obsidian Studios, Paradigm Concepts, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Reaper, Steve Jackson Games, Target Games, TSR, Valiant Comics, West End Games, White Wolf, WildStorm Productions, Wizard Press, Wizards of the Coast, and WizKids.

Besides my day job for Human Head Studios, I'm currently working on a chapter of The Authority Roleplaying Game for Guardians Of Order, as well as novels for Wizards of the Coast.

I'm having a blast working for Human Head Studios. The easy answer for favorite company, of course, is Pinnacle, since I was the president there for four years. It's easy to enjoy working someplace when you're in charge.

Another misconception I had was that you worked at Last Unicorn Games, but instead you joined the team at Decipher. What was your role there?

I've known Christian Moore and Owen Seyler there since they published Aria, way back in the day. I joined on with them to work on The Lord of the Rings RPG for Decipher back in 2002. It happened that Steve Long was moving on to the new incarnation of Hero Games, and they needed someone to fill his shoes. Since I've been a Tolkien fan from high school on, I leapt at the chance.

I left that position when I took the job with Human Head. I loved working with the Decipher RPG guys, but the Human Head position was just too good to pass up, Tolkien or no.

What were your points of reference when you were writing Unapproachable East?

Rich Baker, my editor at Wizards on that project, gave me a copy of Spellbound to look at, but he told me I only needed to stick to the spirit of it, not the letter. Other than the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, which was set in stone, that was it.

You manage to be involved in developing numerous game products every year. How is it you keep making so many other writers look bad?

I don't think I do, and that's not my aim. Honestly, my main motivating factor is needed to feed my family. To do that, I have to write and design a lot of games. By itself, each project doesn't pay an amazing amount, but if you treat it like a job and rack up those words, it all adds up.

Is there any advice you'd give aspiring game writers out there?

Network like crazy. If you can get to Origins and Gen Con every year, that's great. Work a booth for someone to get your foot in the door. Otherwise, the internet is your friend.

Once you get a gig, treat it like a job. Games are fun, but creating them is work. Hit your deadlines and behave professionally, and you'll be an established veteran in short order. Good luck!

Okay, I'm gonna hit you with a system or two and see what you most enjoyed contributing to them. Let's start with Deadlands.

My favorite contribution there was the initiative system using the cards, although Shane and I both beat it into what it eventually became. I started with the way cards were used in some historical miniatures systems for initiative, and it morphed into what was published, which worked well.

How 'bout your contributions to Lord of the Rings?

I'm a huge fan of Tolkien's work, and I've gotten to work on two versions of the RPG, both the Decipher one and the second edition of Middle-earth Roleplaying from ICE. My favorite piece is probably the Shire book I wrote as the bonus material for a slipcased special edition of The Lord of the Rings RPG, although it hasn't come out yet.

And finally, your contributions to D&D.

If you stretch that to d20, Redhurst is probably my favorite work there. I also enjoyed creating Depths of Despair for Pinnacle and working on The Unapproachable East for Wizards. Back in the TSR days, my favorite piece was Mind Lords of the Last Sea for the Dark Sun setting. You just can't beat windsurfing druids.

Gotta ask it, and you can be diplomatic or brutally honest, your choice: who do you most enjoy collaborating on a product with?

I don't do much direct collaboration. Mostly I take whatever the developer gives me, and I roll with it. I'd start listing names here, but I'd inevitably slight someone who deserves top billing. The vast majority of my experiences in the gaming industry have been positive, and the bad projects are highlighted all the more by how rare they've been.

What's the strangest project you've worked on?

Good question. I have an unpublished manuscript for a Peter Pan RPG for kids sitting on my hard drive. The Kult CCG, which I edited, was pretty bizarre. The Monster Rancher CCG was the kind of game I never thought I'd find myself working on, but I really enjoyed it. Working on the Mutant Chronicles line was always a blast too. There's nothing like seeing your work translated into Swedish.

If you could change any one thing about the game industry, what would it be?

Buy more of my stuff! Seriously, to quote Peter Adkison, I'd make it "bigger than the movies." I'd love it if as many people would play adventure games as watch films. If I knew how to make that happen, it would already be done.

What's the best part about working in the game industry?

The people! When I go to Gen Con, it's like getting together with 25,000 of my best friends. I also love the challenge of creating elegant games with compelling backgrounds. Even the worst days on the job beat driving pizza.

Thanks for your time, Matt.

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