Thursday, September 17, 2009

Interview: Ed Greenwood (Part I)

As I mentioned in my retrospective yesterday, I've been a fan of Ed Greenwood for a long time, having enjoyed his many articles in the pages of Dragon. It was here that I first heard of the Forgotten Realms, long before anyone at TSR had the bright idea to turn into an official AD&D campaign setting. I was therefore very gratified when Ed agreed to be interviewed here, resulting in what is probably the longest interview I've yet conducted, the first part of which appears below.

Ed has agreed to answer any questions readers might have as a result of something he said in this interview. Feel free to post them in the comments and I'll collect them all at the end of the series and pass them along to him for reply. When he gets round to doing so, I'll make another post or two in which I'll share his answers.

1. How did you become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

From my very earliest memories, the house I grew up in, and those of grandparents and uncles and aunts I visited, were full of books, music, adult converse, and games. From cribbage to chess, various NATO strategy games to euchre to checkers, we played games constantly. Back in DRAGON #218, in the First Quest column, I told the story of how a remarkable young woman named September, who soon died of cancer, introduced my group of school friends to Dungeons & Dragons, then in its fledgling stages (1975, also when I attended my first GenCon, Gencon 8, in Lake Geneva). I started running and playing in campaigns a little later, in 1978 (and my next GenCon was number 13; after that, I missed a few years, then attended GenCon 17 and every one since).

I first started reading DRAGON regularly, devouring its contents each month, with issue 19. An incomplete rule and a mismatch between the number of armies for one kingdom between the counter sheet and the rules in the TSR fantasy boardgame DIVINE RIGHT spurred me to write my first article for DRAGON, a short suggested errata piece for the game, but the editor held onto that piece for a later (issue 34) “theme” issue on the game. In the meantime, I had started creating monsters for the game (I’m still designing them, and did so many that for a time, I was known at TSR as “the Monster Man”), and the monster known as the Curst was my first publication in DRAGON, in issue 30. It was closely followed by the Crawling Claw in 32, and by then I was flooding the magazine with articles, which soon led to my being named Contributing Editor (an unsalaried title) and starting to write not just what struck me as interesting, but assignments from the editors (like the Ecologies articles).

2.. You mentioned Divine Right, does that mean you're a fan of military/political simulation games?

I’m a fan of all sorts of games, military/political simulation and otherwise, from DIPLOMACY to WINTER WAR. I’m not fond of games that take days or weeks to play, or that have rules so complicated that actual lawyers have to spend hours puzzling them out, or games where knowing Arcane Rule 336(b) will result in a guaranteed win for one side, always. I’m also not fond of games that experts can enjoy but a novice feels lost or bullied or unhappy when playing with experts (from contract bridge on up through various board, strategy, and card games - - and yes, I include the later editions of MAGIC: THE GATHERING in this, wherein all the instants and interrupts and mutable lands and all the rest resulted in a game great for tournament enthusiasts but no longer fun for your Mom and Dad to try to learn).

However, give me something NOT entirely governed by the luck of the cards or draw or whatever, and that has a cool terrain board with strategic roads, bridges, or other areas, and I’m in. Everything from MYTHOS (the card game) to BATTLE OF BRITAIN (the West End games one-player game) to AWFUL GREEN THINGS FROM OUTER SPACE or ELEFANT HUNT. What I lack is time and opportunity, not enthusiasm.

3. What do you recall most about the early days of the hobby?

Mimeographed and photocopied “homemade” adventures, APA-zines like ALARUMS & EXCURSIONS, and because I lived in Toronto, the stores Mr. Gameway's Ark and later The Battered Dwarf. More than all of these, however, it was the general sense of community, despite poor communications and lack of money on the part of most local gamers. We drove long distances for get-togethers in strangers’ basements and public libraries we’d never heard of or seen before, just to get together with other gamers. There were no local conventions for roleplaying. Wargames, yes, but roleplaying, no.

4. As I understand it, you first conceived of the fantasy setting that would become the Forgotten Realms when you were still a child. How much of that original creation survived as the Realms was developed in later years?

Yes, I was six when I first thought of the Realms and started writing (short stories) about it. Almost all of my original creation and concepts survived as the Realms was published, although a lot of it still hasn’t seen print (and probably won’t, now, with the “time jump” between the 3e Realms and the 4e Realms), though my Moonshae Isles were replaced by an existing “Celtic/matter of Britain” campaign Doug Niles, a TSR staff designer of the time, had been working on, and there have been many additions (such as Kara-Tur) or recastings of my largely-offstage kingdoms like Unther and Mulhorand to more closely resemble real-world historical (or “Hollywood historical”) settings.

The great majority of the Realms map, cities, countries, and characters you read about are my creations, and a fair amount of them predate the D&D game.

5. Do the Realms have any literary antecedents? That is, are there are any particular books or authors who strongly influenced you in the creation of the setting?

Yes and no. No, no authors strongly influenced me in the creation of the setting. However, the setting was born out of my love of all sorts of fiction, particularly fantasy fiction, that I read voraciously in my youth. Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser tales influenced me in that when reading the new ones as they first appeared in the pages of FANTASTIC, I noticed they were stand-alone episodes but took place in the same setting, and that by reading a bunch of them, one learned more and more about the setting without the stories ever stopping to really turn and impart information about the world. I borrowed that idea in my fledgling Realms stories, which concerned the aging, wheezing, sly old crook of a merchant, Mirt the Moneylender (based on Falstaff, Poul Anderson's Nicholas van Rijn, and Guy Gilpatrick’s Glencannon), traveling along the Sword Coast from port city to port city - - usually a step ahead of creditors and foes who wanted to put swords through him!

However, I drew on everything fictional I loved (Dunsany, Zelazny, and many, many more) to imagine the sort of fantastic world I’d like to visit, and then wrote about it.

6. In those early days, what would you say was the relationship between the D&D rules and the Forgotten Realms? That is, did the nature of the rules dictate how you developed the setting or did you bend the rules where they were incompatible with your own ideas?

I didn’t worry about rules at all; I was concerned about presenting the world (which predated the game, and most of the time was already detailed in, say, a city or the lineage of a ruling family or local legends, before the game rules came along) in full detail, so it could “seem real.” In many instances, describing the world for a TSR printed Realms product pointed out where there were gaps in the game rules (oops, we have nothing to help DMs with, say, poisonous gases blown by winds across a battlefield), but when you see “hard” rules in a Realms game product, they were almost always written by a staff designer from my detailed notes of the situation. I developed the 2nd Edition character stats “shorthand” for the game, purely to save wordcount when co-writing the FR ADVENTURES hardcover, but my “development” of the setting predated the game, so game rules couldn’t dictate it. What DID influence the development of the published Realms was TSR’s wants and needs for specific elements (“We need a pirate ship setting; where in the Realms would we find one? Where would Conan-like barbarians come from? Do you have a larger city we could publish?”) for the unfolding game line. I have designed, including writing rules, for the first three editions of the game, but have always been a freelancer rather than an employee of the game’s publisher.


  1. Interesting read. I remember my original reading of the FR hardback was so different from the next time I saw it ... sometime late in the mid to late late life of 2nd Edition. It went from "hey, kind of interesting" to "ewwww, I hope I can get that stink off me." I wish properties like this and Krynn were author owned instead of by TSR (then) and others (now).

  2. @Rogan. Krynn was author owned, by the corporate author of TSR.

  3. I would LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to know a bit more about the kingdoms and lands beyond the Dales and the North as Greenwood originally conceived them. What were the Moonshae Isles like, or Unther? Even just a few sentences would be really great. The Earth-Analogue nations written by TSR just aren't nearly as satisfying as the ones that Greenwood conceived from whole cloth.

    PS- I really love that Mirt the Moneylender was one of the first FR characters. Mirt played a big-ish role in my last FR campaign, financing expeditions around and beneath Waterdeep.

  4. Wow, I did not expect to see ELEFANT HUNT get mentioned. I've got my girlfriend almost hooked on that game.

  5. Ed's "First Quest" article, if you can dig it up, is a seminal piece on why roleplaying games matter so much to people like us.

  6. Sirlarkins posted Ed's First Quest piece some months ago. Well worth another read even if you've done so before.

  7. In many instances, describing the world for a TSR printed Realms product pointed out where there were gaps in the game rules...

    Very interesting.

    I recall this tension playing 1e AD&D and reading the FR-based fiction. -It seems D&D took a path to reduce this tension, but ended up created the beast that was 3.5. Now in 4e, they seem to be looking to emulate something different entirely.

    IMHO, classes are at the root of this tension.

    Thanks James and Ed!

  8. Great stuff...not surprising to hear Ed's own version of the Realms was subsumed by TSR's need for certain "types" of settings. I would love to see Ed's original version.

  9. I believe Moonshaes were originally based on "Earthsea" as their inspiration.

    I think a lot of this has been talked about on Candlekeep, which is a forum for Forgotten Realms fans.

  10. I would really like if you could ask Ed what his actual-play experiences with D&D were (and are) like--how they were like and/or unlike what TSR was publishing at the time, whether he was always DM, house rules, eccentricities etc.

  11. Thanks for saving me the trouble of linking to my own post, Mike. ;)

    I'll just reiterate a point I made in the First Quest post, which is that in that column Greenwood goes into a fair amount of detail about his literary influences at the time he started gaming. It's quite interesting to see so many authors cited in this blog's Pulp Fantasy Library, for example, get mentioned in Greenwood's piece.

  12. Wow, once again, a wonderful interview, and thank you James and Mr. Greenwood! I would love to know if Mr. Greenwood ever plays fantasy settings besides the Realms, or if he has any particular thoughts on any of the myriad (A)D&D settings, or, in fact, other games. In no way do I mean to imply that the Realms are not sufficient in and of themselves, but I've always wondered about a professional world-creator's views on other worlds. Thank you.

  13. Even if Ed Greenwood had written nothing but his dragon articles, he'd be one of the leading minds in the history of D&D and this was great to read.

    Thanks James.

  14. Neat! I'd be interested in hearing more about the original ideas that got redone by committee later on. I'll have to go read the link too...

  15. I would really like if you could ask Ed what his actual-play experiences with D&D were (and are) like--how they were like and/or unlike what TSR was publishing at the time, whether he was always DM, house rules, eccentricities etc.

    Ed answers some of these questions in forthcoming installments of the interview, which I'll post over the next couple of days.

  16. I would be also interested in what has Ed's non Fantasy Role Playing Game experiences have been. He has been such an inspirational storyteller for me, I was wondering why he never ventured into the realms of CoC or Traveller. For his novels can be dry, at times, but never lacking entertainment. I would also be interested to hear how he comes up with fantastical and magical premises in game.


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