Donna K. Fitch
I am very happy to introduce you to Matt Corley, roleplaying game writer of Lamp’s Light Sanitarium and other gaming books.
Donna: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started in game design? Did you read horror growing up? Who were your favorite authors? Did any glowing meteorites land near your house?
Matt: I’m a pharmacist, single father of two amazing girls, and live in the Midwest. I started freelance writing for Jiu Jitsu magazine about eight years ago and transitioned to writing for roleplaying games two years ago.
I started playing back in the ’80s when my older brother brought home the Dungeons and Dragons red box. I played when I could, read voraciously, but as I got older, I grew away from the game. About four years ago a friend asked if I knew anything about DnD, and that’s all it took to dive back in headfirst.
At the time I was a freelance writer for a national sports magazine, and with a lot of encouragement from my girlfriend submitted a short scenario to Kobold Press for their Web site.
In E-mailing back and forth with them I mentioned that I was updating an adventure from an old book of theirs, Tales of the Old Margreve, for my players and offered to send it them. One thing led to another, and before I knew it my offer turned into a contract to update the entire book and come on board as the Lead Designer for the project. It was an amazing experience, and just shows you never know what will happen if you don’t ask.
That opportunity led to others and now I work regularly for Kobold Press, Petersen Games, publish my own products, and do other projects as they come along. It’s been a wild ride, and after 18 months of working my books are finally coming to press. Lamp’s Light released the first weekend of May, Tales of the Old Margreve will be released in the next few weeks, and by end of summer Ghoul Island from Petersen Games will hit the shelves, too.
I read a lot of fantasy and comics growing up. My dad is a huge horror fan, and occasionally, he’d get me to read them, too. Stephen King, of course, Eyes of the Dragon and the first three Gunslinger books immediately come to mind. He snuck in some August Derleth, which I didn’t realize until recently, too. As I grew older my tastes changed and what I wanted to read did, too. I moved to science fiction (which I still read occasionally), and finally settled on horror, mysteries, and thrillers. Weird and speculative fiction are probably my favorites at the moment.
Some of my current favorites in no particular order are: Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Brett Talley, A. Lee Martinez, Daryl Gregory, Ruthanna Emrys, John Scalzi, Ramsey Campbell, Jeffrey Thomas, and too many more to list.
These days I tend to pick up anything with any weird and/or speculative fiction I can find, especially from smaller presses. There are so many good stories and authors out there now it’s hard to pick. And of course, I’m always reading RPGs, usually DnD, Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green, or Trail of Cthulhu.
No glowing meteorites. At least not that I remember.
Donna: Your RPG module Lamp’s Light Sanitarium begins with a Lovecraft quotation: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” How has Lovecraft influenced your writing?
Matt: His biggest influence on me is probably in the sandbox that he created, and then invited so many others to play in. The mythos world has so many unexplored nooks and crannies that it’s a constant source of inspiration, even without writing something that is “Lovecraftian.” It can be any setting, any era, and the characters can be monstrous or human. There are so many interpretations, and the shifting perspectives in books like the Ballad of Black Tom or Winter Tide adds a fascinating element to traditional Yog-Sothothery.
For Lamp’s Light, I focused on losing control over oneself, your environment, and the actions of others. In a game setting, especially DnD, those are things that you typically have nearly complete control of. Taking that away changes the dynamic a lot, and hopefully challenges the way the players view and enjoy the game.
I also explore the concept of long-term consequences, both physically and mentally, to the decisions that characters make. For Lovecraft, this generally meant going insane, but physical deterioration can be just as unsettling, more so in some cases as your faculties are intact and you know exactly what’s happening.
Donna: Even reading the title alone of your scenario creeped me out. Lamp’s Light Sanitarium is an evocative scenario sure to unnerve players as well as their characters. What inspired you to write on this topic?
Matt: I love Call of Cthulhu, procedurals, and gothic horror. My friends don’t have the time to learn a new game system so I used the rules they knew to introduce those elements in DnD. This led to the creation of the sanity rules.
Sanity rules in hand, I needed an evocative location to introduce them. I had a few characters in mind, a very rough background, and let it develop from there. Danvers State Hospital provided inspiration, but everything really came together when I started to see the art I’d commissioned. The artists and the cartographer gave me everything I needed. I just wrote the words to tell the story they’d already drawn.
Donna: Oh, yes, the artwork is quite evocative. The drawings contribute so much to conveying the feel of the adventure. Lamp’s Light Sanitarium is stuffed full of adventure hooks, eerie locations, and NPCs to meet. Did you playtest the scenario? If so, how did the players react to this rich setting?
Matt: It really depends on the person running the game, and the players’ buy-in. The feedback I’ve gotten so far has been very good, and it’s shocking to many players because of how different it is from their normal game. They aren’t in control any longer, and a few bad decisions (or bad luck) early on affects the game until you retire your character. The other feedback I’ve gotten is that, if you play it like a regular DnD game, it’s lethal. Which I take as a complement.
Donna: This scenario began life as a Kickstarter. I’ve read many horror stories (ahem) about the Kickstarter process. How did it go for you? Any advice for other writers looking to crowdfund their work?
Matt: I wrote a detailed KS update on that very topic! Which you can find here:
Long story, short: it’s not easy, and it’s not likely to make you a lot of money without a significant fan base. Have a business plan, stick to it, and keep the lines of communication open with your backers. Million-dollar campaigns fail all the time; go in with your eyes open, do your research, and don’t get caught up in the excitement and accidentally overextend yourself.
Donna: What would be your dream project, if money and time were unlimited?
Matt: I want to fully develop the Lamp’s Light IP, and create a mythos-inspired world in the Gaslight era using the DnD rules. Lamp’s Light is just the smallest piece of that story.
Donna: Although you discuss this in the introduction to the adventure, what is necessary for horror games to work, from a design perspective? How do you evoke horror in players?
Matt: Everyone must be on the same page. Not every player wants to go through the work of creating a character to then have that character be killed off and/or inexorably changed. Once that’s settled add long-term consequences, physical and mental, and let the dice fall where they may.
Don’t shy away from evocative settings, difficult choices, and shades of grey. Put the players in the situations where they can’t save the day, but maybe they can make it slightly less bad for someone else. It’s okay to take the heroic out of heroic fantasy.
Donna: What is your personal favorite work, of all you’ve designed or published?
Matt: That’s super tough! I’ve learned and grow a lot in each project. The three books I have coming out represent about two years of work and hundreds of thousands of words. I had 100% control and freedom with Lamp’s Light, which makes it the most personal and intimate project I’ve ever done. It’s also the one I keep coming back to, because I know there’s so much more there under the surface.
That said, Tales of the Old Margreve has an adventure that includes my daughters as central figures in the plot. Which is kind of amazing.
And Ghoul Island is an epic story that Sandy Petersen and I put together. They’re all very different, and I’m proud of them all, but I’d have to say Lamp’s Light. For now at least.
Donna: What are you playing right now?
Matt: I’ve been playing DnD every other Sunday for a few years now, and we’re going strong. I also get into online games that I can fit into my schedule, mostly Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green. I hope to get into a Monster of the Week and Fate of Cthulhu game soon. I’d love to play more often but it’s hard with my schedule and workload.
Donna: What’s coming up for you? Do you have another adventure on the horizon?
Matt: Lamp’s Light Sanitarium: a horror sourcebook for 5e just hit DriveThruRPG and can be found here: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/14738/Saturday-Morning-Scenarios It will be available as a PDF and as print-on-demand.
Tales of the Old Margreve from Kobold Press will be released by the end of May.
Ghoul Island, a DnD adventure path taking players from 1st through 15th level, from Petersen Games is in layout for a summer release. I’m also working on Petersen Games’s next two adventure paths: Yig Snake Granddaddy and Dark World.
I just started a speculative fiction horror novella to shop next year.
Last but not least, is Harper’s Tale. On February 2, my daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. She’s doing great now, and Friends of Kids with Cancer is one of the amazing organizations that have and continue to support us in that fight.
Harper’s Tale is an adventure anthology for DnD that is based on an outline Harper and I wrote, and is being brought to life by us and nine other amazing writers. The Kickstarter will be September, and all proceeds will go to Friends of Kids with Cancer.
If anyone wants to keep up with me, the easiest way is on Twitter @matthewdcorley
Thank you so much for the interview, and I hope to chat again!
I appreciate Matt taking the time to answer my questions. Check out his exciting projects and if you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, you owe it to yourself to find a game and experience it for yourself.
Donna K. Fitch, MLS, is a long-time HWA affiliate member, Silver Hammer Award-winner, and HWA Newsletter Web Editor and Designer.