Friday, September 18, 2009

Interview: Ed Greenwood (Part II)

7. Does that mean then that your own Realms campaign was very "light" on the use of rules of any sort? I ask because I'm fascinated by the different ways gamers incorporate random elements into their games -- things beyond the ability of either the players or referee to anticipate beforehand.

Yes, it was rules-light from the viewpoint of, say, someone who plays D&D tournaments at GenCon, and expects everything to proceed “by the book.” (And I speak as the guy who won the Best Player award in the AD&D Open at GenCon in 1984, which won me a nice trophy that came wrapped in . . . yup, diapers.)

A DM’s job is to entertain their players (because the play sessions are eating time out of their lives), and the DM should tailor style of play and content (HOW the game is played, from casual chatter or football-quarterbacking to ham acting with funny voices and Shakespearean vocabulary or even costumes, and WHAT happens: hack and slash or intrigue and solving mysteries, urban or wilderness, subterranean or undersea, pirates or paladins, etc.).

Well, MY players loved to roleplay (acting), and so do I, so I played the NPCs to the hilt, and prepared for hours beforehand and afterwards, knowing my players wanted to find out which NPC was related to which other NPC, what scandals had gone on in this village thirty years back, and so on and on and on . . . so I gave it to them. They always wanted to TALK to everyone, and there were nights (six or seven hours of play, with a tea-and-chips-and-chip-dip break in the middle) when no player character even drew a weapon; it was ALL intrigue and roleplaying conversations, confrontations, investigations, trade dickering, and so on. Hack and slash seldom interested us (though when battle did come, all the frustrations were let loose!), and as DM I wasn’t trying to “win” any fights against PCs, so I tended to always give them initiative unless they walked into a trap or bowmen with arrows ready at, say, a city gate, but during battle I kept the pace up by demanding swift answers (like a rapid-fire auctioneer) to “What’re you doing this round? Ten-nine-eight-seven-six . . .” and they’d better blurt out something, or I’d move on. So it was almost all acting, and almost no rules. Which was great for newcomers to the game enjoying the play sessions; they were never intimidated by the thick rulebooks. If someone jumped in to defend themselves with a rule, I automatically “gave in,” and so was never seen as an adversarial DM, so we settled into a playing style that suited us. Not for everyone, but it’s what OUR group collectively wanted. Players could always DEMAND we apply rules in a particular combat or encounter or situation, and I would comply, but we tended to find doing so ate up so much time that we could have more fun “ham acting” in, that we kept such occurrences very rare and for very important situations.

8. It's interesting that your home games are so rules light given the number of spells, magic items, monsters, and character classes you've designed over the years. Do you see any contradiction in this?

No. Few “newer” gamers realize how things were in the early D&D hobby; how EVERYONE read DRAGON and memorized or near-memorized every word of most articles therein, plus every word of the published rulebooks.

I wanted to encourage good roleplaying by having players whose characters were faced with a spherical monster with eyestalks NOT say, “well, it’s either a beholder or a gas spore, so . . .” and NOT pick up a horn in a dungeon treasure hoard and say, “Horn of bubbles or Horn of Valhalla?” Or “That enemy wizard just cast a fireball, so he’s gotta be X level or higher! Right, we’ll—“

Likewise, this NPC stranger your character is facing could have all sorts of abilities and powers your PC has never seen before (because, yes, players back then memorized things right down to monk and bard level abilities, too, so they could right away shout “Aha! This guy’s a monk of X level!”).

One of the best ways of doing this was to increase the number of look-alikes and magic item and spell choices so NO ONE could keep track of them all. This dumped players out of min-maxing, using-their-omniscient-rules-knowledge mode back into playing their character in the world, as their characters face the unknown. Makes the game more gripping, forces better roleplaying, and makes it all more fun for those already in the habit of roleplaying.

As I said earlier, I didn’t think doing this was quite “fair” to my players unless my creations (monsters, magic items, or spells) had been published (vetted by other designers AND giving the players a chance of having read them), so I sent them off to DRAGON. I seemed to have a knack for crafting these things, so they wanted more. LOTS more. So I wrote more. :}

It was all great fun, I was having a ball (and so just kept going), and from time to time editors were giving me assignments to write more of this or that (they still are; I just sent off a batch of new monsters yesterday).

As for the home campaign - - well, a DM’s job is to entertain his/her players, and my players loved detail, really immersing themselves in the Realms, and all the plots and subplots adventurers will uncover if they settle into a large town, wayside dale on a major trade route, or city. So that’s what our play sessions were filled with, and why it’s really hard to try to convey the “feel” of the “home” Realms campaign to other gamers - - unless they “sit in” with my original players.

I make no apologies at all for the layer upon layer of exhaustive detailed Realmslore (which I still provide in answer to gamer queries in my thread in the Chamber of Sages at forum.candlekeep.com) that’s built up in over thirty years of play, because that’s what my players wanted. Others can take or leave just as much of it as they want; I’ve always thought that if you’re paying me or any other freelancer for providing something you as DM could do for yourself, given time, that we should give you MORE than you need, so you get your money’s worth and more. If we go too far, ignore what doesn’t suit you - - but we never want to shortchange you.

9. How much of the material you produced in Dragon had its origin in your personal campaign? I ask because, as a younger man, I always appreciated the "lived in" feeling that articles like "Pages from the Mages," "Seven Swords," and "Six Very Special Shields" evoked.

My “home” Realms campaign generated a lot of what became articles, because I had SUPERB roleplayers who always wanted to find out more about the world around their characters (so when playing the characters, they frequently talked to old folks or librarians or sages to find out old lore, and even asked questions like detectives to try to piece together “the truth” when they thought clergies, rulers, or guilds weren’t telling them what was actually happened), and because ethically I felt it was only fair to hit my players with new monsters, spells, magic items, poisons, and so on AFTER I’d published them in DRAGON. For one thing, EVERYONE who played D&D read or tried to read DRAGON in those days (even if only by standing in a hobby shop, paging through issues), so whatever a player could remember of what they’d read helped to simulate what their character “might have heard” in life, and so “felt fairer” to me (and of course the editors had examined my writing and could “fix” anything way out of balance or misworded; I don’t recall them ever doing so, but I felt they had the “stamp of approval.”) The Featured Creature (later Dragon’s Bestiary) columns even carried a little note at the bottom saying the monsters published in them were “as official” as anything in the rulebooks, so I got to contribute to the game!

By the way, the titles of almost all DRAGON articles were chosen by the editors, not article writers.

10 comments:

  1. "I make no apologies at all for the layer upon layer of exhaustive detailed Realmslore ... If we go too far, ignore what doesn’t suit you - - but we never want to shortchange you."

    I personally like this approach. I know some people like to have less detail and come up with their own. Or maybe feel hamstringed by players who know too much of the published material, but I really feel like like I can use what I like and leave the rest in the book.

    I never rely to heavily on all the published stuff. And I'd never say to players "lets do Forgotten Realms". It's more like, "I have an idea for a campaign and it's based on some FR concepts" so it's understood it's not a by-the-book campaign. Plus, I think (hope actually!) they'd expect a variety of influences and not just a single strain.

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  2. Greenwood reminds me of MAR Barker or Tolkien--his world was being detailed lovingly despite it being tied to a game. I don't think any of the other TSR campaign settings, including even Greyhawk and Blackmoor, have that same level of detail.

    I agree with his approach. People forget that if people weren't interested in this, they wouldn't buy the products! And for those comparing Greyhawk to this--in an alternate universe, if Gygax didn't leave I have a feeling we would have had the same level of supplements detailing the world eventually.

    I also think Greenwood is good indirectly because by reading the detail in his campaign world, you get inspirations for your own. If a DM feels constrained by FR lore, maybe take it as inspiration and make your own campaign setting with that detail. Greenwood's articles were the first to get some DMs thinking about the lore behind magic items and the monster ecologies.

    This is why I see the move to 4e's "three books and your done" approach rather horrible. If there are enough hard-core fans and they are giving you significant profit, let the writers write. It sounds like they aren't as interested now in detailing the undetailed areas because of the time-jump and sweeping changes made.

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  3. ...ethically I felt it was only fair to hit my players with new monsters, spells, magic items, poisons, and so on AFTER I’d published them in DRAGON.

    I actually feel bad about saying this, but: isn't the above-quoted comment a little perverse? On the one hand I admire the spirit of sharing and comparing and building up a consistent game universe, but...bah, I don't feel like making fun of the man, it just took me aback.

    The quote does happily remind me, though, of the transparency of some modern fantasy 'simulations.' e.g. D&D 4e includes tables of 'standard progressions' of XP, DC, limited/typical damage, etc., enabling homebrew DMs and players to know what 'level 8' means mechanically. The advantage today, vs the model Greenwood's talking about, is in knowing by how much a given homebrew creation deviates from a 'typical' simulation element.

    (This is treated by many players as a call for consistency, but needn't be; it just lets you know with confidence how dangerous a thing is. That sounds like a huge win for DMs, old- or new-school style.)

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  4. Once again, James, thanks for this series of interviews. Always great stuff from a historical perspective and, in this case, plenty of food for thought for those of us running games. Good stuff.

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  5. Thanks for the great interview thus far, James and Ed! Here's one big Q for Ed:

    ===
    Ed, please talk more about your conception of gates and networks of gates, and their place/importance in the Realms vs. D&D as a whole: the FR strikes me as a Farmer-like/gates-rich environment compared to vanilla D&D of any edition, and I'd like to hear more about what drove that focus on gates, how common they were in actual play in your games, and how your treatment of gates (via "Theory and Use of Gates" in TD37) relates to your conception of planar travel and to the architecture/infrastructure of the planes themselves; not a short topic, but one near and dear to my heart :D

    Thanks!

    Allan.

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  6. I have been lurking her for over a year and just thought I'd finally pipe up as something really caught my eye:

    One of the best ways of doing this was to increase the number of look-alikes and magic item and spell choices so NO ONE could keep track of them all. This dumped players out of min-maxing, using-their-omniscient-rules-knowledge mode back into playing their character in the world, as their characters face the unknown. Makes the game more gripping, forces better roleplaying, and makes it all more fun for those already in the habit of roleplaying.

    I find this comment particularly interesting in relation to 4e as it is often razed for its huge amounts of items, classes and powers and that, because of this, it is all about min/maxing.

    Some food for thought here I think.

    Great blog by the way James. Keep it up.

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  7. I find this comment particularly interesting in relation to 4e as it is often razed for its huge amounts of items, classes and powers and that, because of this, it is all about min/maxing.

    Can't say I've ever encountered that particular beef with D&D IV. As I noted in a recent post, I actually have no problem with lots of "stuff" -- spells, magic items, monsters -- but I do become miffed by a landslide of rules to cover every situation and, to a lesser extent, new character classes and races.

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  8. Dang! I tip my hat to Ed. When I compare his output for Forgotten Realms to my own output for Trollworld, I feel like such a piker. Well done, Ed, and I'm really enjoying your interview.
    --Ken St. Andre

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