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 Tékumel, 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.