Back in the Game


One of the great dictums of working in any creative industry is this: Once your hobby becomes your job, it’s time to get another hobby.

No matter how exciting or fun your hobby might be, if you spend all day long working at it, it’s hard to come back to it on your time off and simply find the fun. You see this in tabletop gaming all the time. The people who become professional game designers stop playing games. They’re too busy creating them instead.

This isn’t true of everyone, of course. The RPG R&D team at Wizards of the Coast -publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, the great-granddaddy of roleplaying games of all stripes-famously has lots of different campaigns running at any given time. However, it’s common enough that you’ll often hear designers complaining about the fact that they never get to play anymore.

I’ll admit that I fall into that camp. I haven’t played in a regular campaign of any type of game in many years. As a full-time writer and game designer and a father of five young kids-including a set of quadruplets, (but that’s a whole ‘nother story) I find it hard to scrape together several hours on a regular basis for anything that’s purely for my own fun.

Part of that’s because I don’t look at games as a player, but as a designer. I rarely play a game more than once. I sit down, read the rules, and give it a whirl just to figure out what makes it tick. Once I figure out where the fun is, though, I’m on to the next shiny object.

As a professional, I’m not here to master any single game. I want to learn about them all so I can figure out how to make my next game better.

Still, part of what drives me is how much I love games, and that sprang directly from a misspent youth during which I dedicated thousands of hours to playing games just for fun. I miss those days, much in the way I miss my childhood, but as an adult I’ve found it hard to find my way back to that.

But now I have kids of my own, and like me they love games of all kinds: tabletop games, video games, sports, and more. Still, most of the tabletop games we play are simple things like Uno, Jenga, Go Fish, or Blokus.

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For a good example of a game my seven-year-olds love, check out Le Boomb from Mayfair Games. It’s essentially Hot Potato with a die, nothing fancy at all, but the kids cackle with glee and groan with agony every time we play it.

While we have a ball with such games, they’re not the more sophisticated kinds that I love. The kids were just too young for them-until now.

Marty-my eldest-is now 10 years old, and he’s ready to move up. Earlier this year, he’d been bugging me for months to take him to a tabletop gaming convention like Gen Con or Origins so he could dive into the deep end of hobby games. We had played a bit of Descent, and that got him hooked.

The trouble is that Gen Con and Origins are huge shows, and I have a lot of professional responsibilities at them. However, there are smaller conventions all over the country every weekend. Last March, I broke down and took Marty to one of them: Gary Con.

Gary Con is held to honor the memory of Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and co-founder of its publisher, TSR. Gary died in March of 2008, and after his funeral many of his friends and family gathered in the American Legion Hall in Lake Geneva to play games, swap stories, and generally have the kind of day that Gary would have loved. It went so well that that his children decided to make it an annual event.

I met Gary for the first time at my first game convention, Winter Fantasy, held in that same American Legion Hall back in the winter of 1981-82. I was only 13 years old at the time, and I hadn’t been back there since. When I walked into the building for the wake, though, it seemed like I had never left.

I wanted to share that with Marty, so when the first official (non-wake) Gary Con rolled around, I brought him out for the day. When we arrived, Frank Mentzer was just about to start running a game using the original, white-box D&D rules, taking the players through the first-ever printed D&D adventure module, The Palace of the Vampire Queen, from third-party publisher Wee Warriors.

Frank had been Gary’s right-hand man at TSR for years, and I’d known both him and Gary for decades. I’d freelanced for them when they were running New Infinities, the company Gary founded after leaving TSR in the late ’80s. I knew he was a great Dungeon Master, and I was thrilled to have a chance to play in such a historic game with him.

Since this was Marty’s first time actually playing D&D, we decided to let him play the fighter and to let me coach him as he went. We had an absolute ball. When it was all over, Frank even presented each of the players with an autographed certificate that declared that they were part of the proud, happy few who’d been able to join him in this event over the years.

Marty was hooked.


Ever since then, he’s been badgering me to set up a game for him and his friends. I agreed, but I kept putting him off. We had a busy spring and an even crazier summer. We did get some games in, like the awesome Monsterpocalypse from my friends at Privateer Press, but no D&D-yet.

I promised Marty, though, that we’ll start it up a roleplaying game this fall, just as soon as I finish off my latest novel.

I’ve played dozens of roleplaying games over the years, and we could, of course, pick any of them. Marty started out with the original D&D, though, and so that’s what I’m determined to stick with. We’re going to tackle Fourth Edition, which came out last summer, and see if it’s just as much fun as the original.

I asked around this summer before I hit Gen Con, to see what sorts of things I would need for the campaign. I’ve had the three core rulebooks since they came out: Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. (I used them to write an adventure for Game Trade Magazine called “Inn Peril,” that you can download for free from their site.) But there’s a lot more to the game than that.

The dirty secret of any roleplaying game, of course, is that you don’t need anything other than the core rules to be able to play the game. Everything else is extra bits that you can do without. Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t add things to the game to make playing it easier and to ramp up the fun once you get started. You could blow thousands of dollars on this if you like, but I tend to be a bit more frugal.

I asked some of my friends who design for D&D, and I came up with a few common suggestions. First and foremost, I ponied up for a subscription to Dungeons & Dragons Insider, Wizards’ official online service for the game. It’s chock full of great tools, like the character builder and the monster builder, and it even gives you online access to every bit of rules released for the game.

I also picked up a set of polyhedral dice for Marty. Every gamer needs his own. I have some Gaming Paper the company sent me as samples. I probably should grab some miniatures for the game, although I think I have a few dozen around here somewhere that I can use in a pinch. I picked up Adventurer’s Vault 2, and I’m looking to grab a copy of the original soon.

To top all this off, though, my friends at Alliance Game Distributors sent me the most amazing DM’s screen ever made. It’s a hand-painted miniature castle cast in resin, complete with hollow towers that act as dice rollers for the game.

So, I have an adventure, all the equipment I need, and a few players lined up. All I need now is the time to put it all together and start playing. Although I have to, I cannot wait.

As part of High Adventure, I’m going to try to capture this experience for you: a professional game designer bringing his son into the D&D hobby. I’m sure it’ll have its failures as well as its successes, but I don’t care about any of that, as long as we have some fun along the way.

Matt Forbeck has been writing and designing award-winning games professionally for over 20 years. Visit for details about his current projects.

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