Wednesday, January 7, 2009

In Praise of Ed Greenwood

Whereas I think many of the criticisms directed toward Larry Elmore in old school circles are completely justified, I can't say the same for those directed at another favorite grognard whipping boy, Ed Greenwood. Leaving aside the fact that Ed is one of the most charming, affable, and genuinely charismatic people I've ever had the pleasure to meet -- indeed I don't believe I ever really understood what charisma was until I spoke with Ed one-on-one a few years ago -- I think a lot of the venom directed toward him has more to do with the way TSR and Wizards of the Coast have developed and marketed the fabulously old school Forgotten Realms setting over the years than with anything Ed himself has done or written.

The Forgotten Realms an old school setting? And a fabulous one at that? Surely I must be off my rocker, right? Not at all.

People often forget, buried under two decades of Realms products, that the setting was originally a very minimalistic one, with only two areas -- Waterdeep and the Dales -- having any degree of detail. The rest of the Realms was sketchy at best, being primarily a collection of names used as color for the imaginary histories and lore Ed would spin for the benefit of his players. Those two detailed areas, born out of actual play, are quintessentially old school: a fantasy metropolis conveniently located near a sprawling underground labyrinth and a collection of rural communities beset by enemies on all sides. I will grant that Greenwood's Waterdeep is no Lankhmar or even Greyhawk. I dare say it's a distinctively Canadian fantasy city, where the tension comes not from trying to eke out an existence in a thoroughly corrupt environment but from trying to hold back the forces of corruption against all odds. The Dales, on the other hand, are classically old school, being isolated, parochial, and largely dependent on the self-interest of adventurers for their defense.

But what of all the grand plots and uber-NPCs? Surely they aren't old school. Surely not, but then the Realms as originally conceived wasn't so saturated with either of them. Most of the "Realms shattering events" that people now associate with the setting were the inventions of TSR and WotC, more interested in selling New York Times best-selling novels than gaming products. The "Time of Troubles" that ushered in the Second Edition era, for example, while based in part on an idea Greenwood put forward in an early Dragon article, was in most respects antithetical to his take on the setting, given that he conceives of the gods as largely distant, mysterious, and beyond human ken, communicating through dreams, cryptic statements, and enigmatic oracles rather than bestriding the earth like colossi. If one reads Greenwood's Dragon articles from the Golden (and even Silver) Age, you quickly see that his adventures were local affairs, driven by player choice and more in tune with Gygaxian naturalism than the tenets of the Hickman Revolution. (Which isn't to say that Greenwood doesn't have his own distinctive "voice" by any means) The much-reviled uber-NPCs, such as Elminster, are another example of where Greenwood's original approach has been bypassed by a less subtle one designed to build and support a brand rather than a sandbox style campaign setting.

Ed is a natural storyteller, with the uncanny ability to spin an engaging tale without missing a beat. Much like Professor M.A.R. Barker, creator of Empire of the Petal Throne, does with T├ękumel, Greenwood understands the Realms on such an intimate level that he can create new "lore" at the drop of a hat. It's not that he's already worked it all out in advance. Rather, it's that he knows what makes the Realms the Realms and so, when asked to provide information on some obscure person, event, or location, he can do so convincingly. He's frankly a game company's dream come true, particularly when it comes to having to find some way to justify the changes it wants to introduce to sell a new novel series.

I recommend to anyone who doubts Greenwood's old school credentials to read some of his old articles from Dragon. I fell in love with the Realms through those articles and I was ecstatic when TSR published a Forgotten Realms boxed set in 1987, at the tail end of the 1e era. Though the seeds of the setting's eventual bloat were obvious even in that green box, I loved it nonetheless and grow ever more convinced that it was in fact a near-masterpiece of a campaign setting. The success of the Realms novels, starting with The Crystal Shard in 1988, more or less doomed the setting to its current state, but Ed is hardly to blame for that. I dream of a day when he might be able to reclaim the setting and scrape off the carbuncles of brand-building, but, much like imagining a world with a purely Gygaxian World of Greyhawk, it simply isn't to be.

A pity, because it could have been glorious.

44 comments:

  1. Well-said, James! Greenwood penned some of the most-useful and -interesting articles in Dragon's first 100 issues: "Theory and Use of Gates" (TD#37), "Plan Before You Play" (Dr#63), "Law of the Land" (Dr#65), the hells trilogy (Dr#74, 75, 91), and many others. He was also a huge contributor of monsters, magic items, spells, NPC classes, etc.

    Allan.

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  2. Ed Greenwood's "Seven Swords" article in Dragon #74 utterly transformed the way I played D&D. I probably would have dropped the hobby before I got to high school but for the way he made me see the game.

    - Brian

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  3. This is not the first time I've read a grognard defense of Ed Greenwood and "old school" FR. It is the first time I've seen it thoroughly explained, though, so that was quite enlightening. Thank you.

    Nonetheless, I got the 1987 FR boxed set and I was a bit disappointed. The art is 100% post-Dragonlance TSR. And these books already carry stats for dozens of annoying NPCs, including the irksome Elminster. I suppose FR, as a commercial product under the direction of post-Gary, post-Dragonlance TSR, was doomed from the start.

    Now I wish I could look at those Dragon articles, though.

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  4. "The much-reviled uber-NPCs, such as Elminster, are another example of where Greenwood's original approach has been bypassed by a less subtle one designed to build and support a brand rather than a sandbox style campaign setting."

    I agree that the Dales is a fine old-school setting, albeit it seems pretty much the only such in my 1e FR box set (which is grey!).

    But, Elminster - Greenwood himself relates how he GM'd those original Dalelands campaigns. How whenever the PCs got in trouble, stuck in a flooding dungeon room for instance, Elminster would show up to both (1) save their bacon and (2) mock their ineffectiveness.

    That's indefensible. >:)

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  5. Ed Greenwood's "Seven Swords" article in Dragon #74 utterly transformed the way I played D&D.

    It remains one of my favorite Dragon articles of all time.

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  6. I suppose FR, as a commercial product under the direction of post-Gary, post-Dragonlance TSR, was doomed from the start.

    Yes, it was and that's a shame, because the actual content of the original boxed set was perfect for an old school campaign.

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  7. (which is grey!).

    Mine looks green. One of the later revised boxed sets is definitely gray, though.

    That's indefensible. >:)

    As Ed related it to me, it was a little more "nuanced" than that, but I won't argue that having an NPC save the PCs is a good thing in general. On the other hand, many a PC did die in Greenwood's campaigns, so it's not as if he were so soft a touch that he didn't know when to let his players suffer for their incompetence. :)

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  8. A lot of people nowadays seem to forget that Greenwood, along with Roger Moore, came to dominate Dragon Magazine and was a big influence on the game. I consider them along with Gygax to be the "core trinity" that defined D&D for me. I felt no authors compared to them. I felt that if either Greenwood or Moore were the writer of the 2nd Edition AD&D I might have enjoyed it better.

    Gary went on to do other things, and has now passed on. Sadly once Roger became editor of Dragon (instead of "Contributing Editor" which was another way of saying "favored writer"), his gaming output was curbed and he did little towards D&D, and now he left the industry.

    Ed is probably the only person now keeping me connected to D&D. If he was ever "kicked to the curb" by WoTC, there goes any connection to D&D I have left.

    I was so glad Erik Mona got Ed Greenwood to do the introduction to Gygax's second Setne novel.

    To be honest James, I don't think Novels themselves were bad for the game system--even Gary did the Gord books, and brand-building was a necessary thing for getting D&D to the masses.

    The bigger problem was the "metaplot" syndrome. The realms were so big I think a few novels wouldn't have hurt. The good campaign settings have such wide variety in setting and plot points that you can have multiple adventures and the word can fit dozens of different adventurer fellowships. But there was also a tendency to keep changing the campaign setting over time and have adventures that forced a change on people.

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  9. To be honest James, I don't think Novels themselves were bad for the game system--even Gary did the Gord books, and brand-building was a necessary thing for getting D&D to the masses.

    Like many things, if handled properly, I agree. The problem was that, once TSR made bigger money through the novels than through the gaming products, the cart started to drive the horse and the game materials came to be subservient to the plots of the novels. This could have been avoided, but I've rarely seen such a thing happen in the games biz, so my gut feeling is that it's better to avoid it altogether.

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  10. FWIW, my FR box set is also grey/green: you can see scans/printing history at http://home.flash.net/~brenfrow/fr/frbox.htm and http://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/miscpages/fr.html

    Allan.

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  11. I always hated Waterdeep. Even since the original book, it seems like a conscious attempt to frustrate classic S&S-inspired D&D at every possible turn. With so much detail put into powerful do-gooding NPCs and police forces, he basically comes right out an says "Don't you even THINK about misbehaving or trying to alter MY setting."

    What good is a fantasy city that Conan or Fafhrd and the Mouser wouldn't last five minutes in?

    Additionally, Greenwood is the single worst novelist I have ever, ever read. He makes Gygax's Gord books seem like Lord Dunsany.

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  12. Maybe the idea was to discourage players from seeing Waterdeep as an adventure site? You don't have to go into Undermountain, but you've got to leave home and do some exploring!

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  13. I always rather liked FR5 the Savage Frontier by Paul Jaquays. Whilst not by Greenwood, it strikes me as a reasonbly "old school" product for the Forgotten Realms. Not a great surprise, considering the credentials of the author, but a good example of a pre novel product that expanded the campaign setting.

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  14. "Maybe the idea was to discourage players from seeing Waterdeep as an adventure site?"

    That...It one terrible idea.

    Plus Ruins of Undermountain wasn't published until several years later.

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  15. I can see Greenwood's point in having places like Waterdeep. The point of NPCs is to prevent "munchkinism", those players who become so egotistical they want to conquer the world. I liked what Greenwood had stated about "Blackstaff"--he's always 10 levels higher than the highest PC.

    It may seem like S&S, but Gygax in the 1st Edition DMG had a lot to say about preventing this type of abuse, and S1 had a lot of "instant death" scenarios, which also seems against your S&S scheme of making things easy for the players.

    Old School tradition also says players shouldn't become too big for their britches either.

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  16. "I can see Greenwood's point in having places like Waterdeep. The point of NPCs is to prevent "munchkinism", those players who become so egotistical they want to conquer the world."

    Yeah, how dare they? What's the precident for that kind of conduct, anyway?

    http://www.zaldiva.com/images/ACTION%20FIGURES/CONAN/conan_kingconan_pic6.jpg

    Oh...

    "I liked what Greenwood had stated about 'Blackstaff'--he's always 10 levels higher than the highest PC."

    And this is the single most inappropriate piece of advice in any D&D book ever. It's so antithetical to the game that the mind literally boggles.

    "Have fun with the sandbox, guys, but be sure not to tamper with any of the various baroque sandcastles I've already put up in it on my own or so help me God my infinite level wizard NPC will rape your eyesockets so hard."

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  17. "A lot of people nowadays seem to forget that Greenwood, along with Roger Moore, came to dominate Dragon Magazine and was a big influence on the game. I consider them along with Gygax to be the "core trinity" that defined D&D for me. I felt no authors compared to them. I felt that if either Greenwood or Moore were the writer of the 2nd Edition AD&D I might have enjoyed it better."

    You left out Len Lakofka. For actual AD&D game mechanics, he is right there with Gary.

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  19. I must say that as I think back on Greenwood Dragon articles, the primary thing that strikes me is that they were always couched as being narrated by Elminster. Immortal, omniscient, unfailing, untouchable Elminster. I can't think of anything like that that Gygax ever did (either in terms of narrative technique or NPC creation). That seriously stuck out like a sore thumb in Silver-age Dragon.

    I also agree that some of the following statements are some of the worst advice I could imagine for playing D&D.
    - "Blackstaff is always 10 levels higher."
    - "Players shouldn't want to conquer the world." (Hello? Expected domain management at name level?)

    And I'll even call James out on "so it's not as if he were so soft a touch that he didn't know when to let his players suffer for their incompetence." PCs should face the prospect of death from being outwitted, outfought, or even just unlucky dice rolls -- the expectation that death/suffering follows only from outrageously "incompetent" actions, constitutes a safety net that really raises my hackles.

    And moreover I think that starts the whole chain-reaction away from old-school gaming -- If PCs live longer (usually anything short of outrageous "incompetence"), then it's worthwhile writing more backstory, it's worth adding longer PC generation mechanics, which makes it more expected that they'll live longer, so we can add more PCGen mechanics, etc.

    I suggest that that's the very pivot that allows the game to turn away from old-school gaming: Having any kind of active safety net in the world outside the PCs.

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  20. "I must say that as I think back on Greenwood Dragon articles, the primary thing that strikes me is that they were always couched as being narrated by Elminster."

    In all fairness, some of his best work was not written in that style. The Hells articles, for example.

    I don't hate everything the man ever did, but then again, I have a lot of nice things to say about Hickman's pre-Dragonlance modules.

    Like Hickman, he just led the way down a very slippery slope, likely with fine intentions.

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  21. I too have high regard for the Hells articles -- but before writing the above I realized that's the *only* article I could recall that wasn't Elminster-narrated.

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  22. Re PCs altering the sandbox - I Think most of us agree Ed's advice is terrible. I think you do need to take some care in making the setting moderately robust (eg don't make the elite palace guard all 1st level, as I once did), but more for consistency and plausibility.

    I've found that avoiding uber NPCs like the plague solves a lot of problems. Conversely, create a Mary Sue like Blackstaff and red-blooded players will do anything to bring him down - which is far more disruptive than letting the PCs replace Blackstaff, Elminster, et al as the new Powers That Be.

    One thing I personally don't like about FR is the hippy free-love, Elminster the sex god thing, but I'm not going to argue that's un-Old School or anything, just my preference.

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  23. BTW the 1st FR novel was Darkwalker on Moonshae, I believe.

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  24. I think Waterdeep was always meant to be the most cosmopolitan and populated area, which is why it had the most NPCs.

    I dislike the terms "Mary Sue" used because it's overrated. If you really get down to it, characters like Superman, Frodo, Conan, Harry Potter, etc., could also be used by that term.

    The "Immortal, omniscient, unfailing, untouchable Elminster." seems to be more of a player myth. I always say Elminster as a high wizard of the caliber of Gandalf, etc., and was more of an archetype the players could become. Clearly nobody really had a problem with the character in Dragon--he was more of a narrative device back then, not always identified.

    I think some critics see this as a "personal failing" or "egotism" from Greenwood, and they take it too personally, like Ed Greenwood is telling you how to play. It shouldn't be taken like that, and people should stop seeing it as a personal attack on players.

    I wonder if people who criticize that NPC note Greenwood stated also criticize Gary's scenarios which have instant death or undefeatable foes in certain areas. "The Stripped Mage" in Yggsburg was exactly like it was in Greyhawk. In D3, if players spend too much time in the tower, they die, they can't hope to defeat the Drow army. Etc.

    Anyway, one other thing about Greenwood I really admired.

    When Greenwood wrote the sourcebook on the Drow, at the list of credits at the beginning, he credited Gary. Now, this was in 1991 or 1992 if I remember correctly, the time when Gary was persona non grata at TSR, Lorraine really was against him and a lot of the people at TSR sort of spread some rumours about him.

    I have a feeling Ed fought tooth and nail to get that thank you to Gary. And I admire him for that.

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  25. I didn't forget Len Lakofka. I felt he and Frank Mentzer are the small two to the big three.

    For me, Len didn't form the trinity because Greenwood and Moore were more prolific. Len had a regular column but it became sporadic at the time I was reading Dragon--I started with 48.

    Len was kind of like the anti-Greenwood, in a way. Greenwood added a lot of fancy spells and powerful items, Len seemed to write articles that worked to limit the PC/NPC powers, as well as dealt with the more mundane.

    I found out from Gary that Len Lakofka left RPGs altogether. He was starting to make a comeback online in the late 1990s, but then after seeing what 3e D&D was like he quit the game altogether and went back to traditional card games (as in Bridge, Poker).

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  26. One more thing (gotta learn to edit better).

    If people want to see what Greenwood is capable of without the "power inflation", I would suggest picking up the city he did for Kingdoms of Kalamar. That shows all the creativity of Ed Greenwood's imagination without the "power bloat" that people might complain about.

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  27. "One more thing (gotta learn to edit better).

    If people want to see what Greenwood is capable of without the "power inflation", I would suggest picking up the city he did for Kingdoms of Kalamar. That shows all the creativity of Ed Greenwood's imagination without the "power bloat" that people might complain about."

    Genavue? I've thought about getting hold of that. Is it easy to use in a more Middle Earth/Dark Ages type milieu?

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  28. "people should stop seeing it as a personal attack on players. "

    I don't see it as a personal attack on players, just an incompatible GMing & world-building style.

    I bought that guide to drow. AIR it opens with Elminster & some drow chick in the hot tub...

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  29. John:
    "I dislike the terms "Mary Sue" used because it's overrated. If you really get down to it, characters like Superman, Frodo, Conan, Harry Potter, etc., could also be used by that term. "

    Conan, certainly - though a very well written Mary Sue.

    I don't know enough about Superman's origins, but it's possible.

    Frodo, clearly not - far too weak & tragic. Tolkien's Mary Sue was Beren, of Beren & Luthien - it says 'Beren' on his gravestone in Oxford, which I once visited, and Luthien on his wife's.

    Harry Potter, a 12 year old boy, was created by a tall blonde adult wicca woman, specifically to appeal to children. He's certainly not JK Rowing's Mary Sue, but is crafted for the readership to identify with.

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  30. I think I had a strong reaction to the OP because I can see that there is clearly something of value in my 1e FR box set, and now and then I go back to it, thinking about running an FR campaign.

    Then the NPCs start to bug me, and it gets worse and worse, until I put the box away again.

    I guess the solution is to treat FR as a resource for building my own worlds. The Dalelands are a potentially great little sandbox, once you remove Elminster. Thay seems cool. The Zhentarim are interesting. And so on.

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  31. There is something I don't understand in some of the comments left here, namely the objection to high-level, "untouchable" non-player characters.

    So what are gods?

    The original write-ups of the gods in Supplement IV were intended to show the limits of munchkinism, rather than provide a new, high-level target. This topic also relates back to what was once referred to as "script-immunity" - some characters/items/things/places were treated as essentially invulnerable. And while there are reasonable objections to the overuse of script immunity, I don't see where its always a bad thing.

    I think I agree with John in his query about various "pre-determined outcomes" in some modules and adventures. If I understand the rationale to objecting to such things and to the idea of "Blackstaff" it is that on some level such things are "unfair" - that everything ought to be open to game-play modification. On a deeper level, that whenever a referee creates a world, there is an implicit bargain that the player-characters should be able to change everything, if they get that powerful. I am fairly sure I don't agree with this idea, at least in the most extreme version. I have no difficulty with the referee saying that there are certain things that are - for all intents and purposes - immutable, and that part of the initial play contract is this is so. The trick, of course, is in not over-doing it - and if that's what people are objecting to, then I think I understand. Of course, this raises the question: so what's "over-doing" it?

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  32. "I dream of a day when he might be able to reclaim the setting and scrape off the carbuncles of brand-building"

    I'm under the impression that's exactly how his "home campaign" works. (No citation, though.)

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  33. "The 'Immortal, omniscient, unfailing, untouchable Elminster.' seems to be more of a player myth... Clearly nobody really had a problem with the character in Dragon--he was more of a narrative device back then, not always identified."

    Personally, I am very specifically saying that I *did* have a problem with the character in Dragon, used as a narrative device.

    I never played FR, but if I extrapolate the character into the setting, I can only assume it gets even worse in that context.

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  34. I read all those articles, and there was never anything in many of those early stories that implied Immortality, omnisicence, unfailing or untouchableness.

    All that we saw was that he was a wise and experienced wizard.

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  35. At the risk of sounding like an apologist, I have to throw my weight in with those who argue that the godlike Elminster is more a product of perception than reality. Those early articles of Greenwood make Elminster out to be no more or less a powerful wizard than, say, Mordenkainen. That Greenwood is regularly able to get him drunk and talking about the lore of the Realms is one of many ways Elminster comes across as fallible and flawed. I find it humorous and charming and another example of the timeworn cliche of how a guy with a little modern know-how can best the poor rubes from the fantasy world.

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  36. "So what are gods?"

    Worthy opponents for very high-level PCs, of course. Why else would they have stats? :)

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  37. Funny, the only thing that occurs to me concerning the OP is that EG really needs to get a decent haircut and learn how trim that beard... It'd go a long way toward debunking the popular gamer stereotypes if so many high profile figures in the industry didn't feed them..

    Trivial and superficial, I know. I love his early Dragon articles too, BTW, not so much the FR.

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  38. More like rude and uncalled for.

    From what I've seen, there are very few geek stereotypes from the developers. So it's actually refreshing to see a few eccentric people.

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  39. Regarding James' article, I've always seen the Realms as a more low-magic old school campaign world. Despite T$R/WOTC's influence the quality of the world shines through--at least in the first boxed set and the early supplements.

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  40. So it's actually refreshing to see a few eccentric people.

    I'm not one ever to criticize my fellow gamers for being eccentric. Glass houses and all that.

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  41. I always wondered if I would have seen the prequel trilogies differently if I didn't have any preconceived notions about the films or the settings, and I was always a little upset that I felt as if I never got an unvarnished gut reaction to these movies.

    Similarly, I wonder if its not possible that people might not have a hard time, if they are strongly influenced by not being a fan of later Realms products, viewing the Old Grey Boxed Set as it was, instead of intrinsically linked to the products that came later.

    Although I have to say that I really, really fell in love with the Realms after Waterdeep and the North came out. Even early on I started feeling like some of the products didn't "feel" right, such as Empires of the Sands.

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  42. T"olkien's Mary Sue was Beren, of Beren & Luthien - it says 'Beren' on his gravestone in Oxford, which I once visited, and Luthien on his wife's."

    Before they were married, Tolkien's wife danced for him in a glade.

    Mr. and Mrs. Tolkien *were* Beren and Luthien.

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  43. Even early on I started feeling like some of the products didn't "feel" right, such as Empires of the Sands.

    Very much agreed. Part of the problem was that, from the start, TSR -- and later WotC -- treated the Realms simply as a generic D&D world into which they could shoehorn anything they needed to promote through their products. That bled a lot of the Greenwoodian flavor out of the Realms. The other issue that very few writers besides Ed really "get" the Realms well enough to write for it. Most writers who produce Realms material come across as, at best, bad Ed impersonators: they can talk like him but they miss the cadences of his voice.

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  44. Re: origins of Harry Potter

    J.K. Rowling is Church of Scotland and a Calvinist, not Wiccan.

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